What We’re Reading Wednesday-February 5, 2020

Currently, it is snowing outside my window. As luck would have it, my office is closed which means I get my own snow day! Unfortunately, I’m also sick with a terrible cold so I don’t feel like doing much of anything. However, I want to get back to posting twice a week on this blog. I discovered this cool reading meme from Allison at Mount to Be Read. What We’re Reading Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words, and I thought it would be a fun way to keep up my motivation. I probably won’t participate weekly, but maybe once or twice per month. It’s quite simple. Just answer these three questions:

What are you currently reading?

I actually have three books going on at once because I’m weird like that. I’m nearly done with the beautiful On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If you haven’t heard of this one, you should immediately run out and buy it, or check it out from your local library like I did. Written in the form of a letter to his mother who cannot read, it is a poignant examination of race, class and trauma.

I also just started Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. This one is a reread, but it will be my first time reviewing it on this blog. My goal this year is to finish rereading all of Austen’s novels, a goal I began in 2019.

I’m also slowly working through the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I plan on taking my time through the rest of it as the writing is gorgeous but dense. At some point, I plan to check out the BBC adaption from a few years back.

What did you recently finish reading?

This year is off to a great start, as I’ve loved all four books I’ve read so far. Stephen King’s The Institute was a fantastic sci-fi thriller, perfect for fans of Stranger Things. A Robot in the Gardenby Deborah Install was a fun and endearing work about a friendship between a man and a loveable little robotThe Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern was a glorious fantasy epic nearly a decade in the making. I loved it and plan to reread The Night Circus in the near future. Last but certainly not least, I just finished Titus Groan for Classics Club. Larger than life characters inside an ancient rambling castle was so much fun. The writing was so brilliant that I can’t wait to finish Gormenghast. 

What do you think you’ll read next?

So many options! I’m thinking All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I would love to read something to honor Black History Month, so I’m considering Jazz by Toni Morrison. I also have Stephen King’s The Outsider on deck because I can’t get enough King.

What books have you read so far this year? Comment below!

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4. ‘Titus Groan’ by Mervyn Peake

When one considers the greatest fantasy trilogy of the twentieth-century, most readers would probably name that little series by Tolkien (you know that one with all the hobbits). Meanwhile, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy often is grossly underappreciated. Based on my experience with the first in the series, Titus Groan, I would like to argue that this gothic masterpiece is a much more accomplished and thought-provoking work than The Lord of the Rings. Larger than life Dickinsion characters inhabiting an ancient crumbling castle make this work unlike anything that has ever been created.

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One of the reasons why this book is so often overlooked is that it often defies conventional storytelling. Gormenghast castle, the setting of this epic, is an ancient castle the size of a city with darkness and intrigue to be found in every corner. It is also ruled by traditions and celebrations that sometimes lack any sense of reason or sanity. The birth of Titus Groan as the heir of Gormenghast is the event that begins this trilogy. The first book follows Titus through the first two years of his life. In fact, the infant hardly appears in the novel at all. The lack of a central protagonist makes this work more of an ensemble piece. Let me tell you that every character in this book is insane! Rules of sense need not apply here.

“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”

The pacing of the novel is incredibly slow, particularly in the first half. In this case, I think it’s justified as Peake takes his time introducing us to each of the main players in this tale. There is so much atmosphere to take in that this is definitely a work that should be enjoyed slowly like a fine wine. Each chapter offers a peak into a new part of the castle, focusing on a specific character. At times, it feels like this novel is more a series of character sketches devoid of any central plot. There is so much richness to every character’s mannerisms and dialogue. Whether it’s Lady Gormenghast – the best crazy cat lady ever – or her passionate daughter Fuchsia-you often feel as though you are in a large mental hospital. Even the resident physician, Doctor Prunesquallor, appears to be a little off his rocker.

However, my favorite character would have to be the cunning Steerpike. A poor kitchen boy when we are introduced to him, he immediately becomes one of the greatest antagonists every created on paper. His Machivellian dismantling of Castle Gormenghast and his rise to power is rather impressive to witness. He could easily teach Shakespeare’s greatest villian Iago a thing or two about being a master manipulator. It was a delight to see his interactions between him and the other characters, particularly with the passionate and fierce Fuchsia.

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Steerpike and Fuchsia are easily the most overlooked couple in fiction. From the 2000 BBC adaptation.

The language is so breathtaking! Mervyn Peake’s writing is just so beautiful. His long descriptive sentences are just a delight to read. His language creates so many vivid images and truly brings every corner of Castle Gormenghast to life. This novel is a work that deserves to be read at a slow pace just to take in every single detail.

Another aspect of this novel that I loved was Peake’s originality in naming these characters. In this case, every name fits its owner so perfectly. There’s Flay – scrawny, creaky, and sickly – or Swelter – obese, sweaty. Doctor Prunesquallor is referred in the novel as both “prune” and “squallor” if that tells you anything about him. Peake easily rivals Dickens when it comes to his gift for naming. The names fit the personalities, or perhaps the characters were formed out of their names. Either way, it is impossible to forget any of these characters. Since Titus Groan is a character-driven book, it often seems that a central plot is missing. While subtle, there is a plot that becomes more prominent particularly in the second half of the book.

My apologies if this particular review seems to lack focus. It may be lack of sleep or the fact that it’s difficult for me to put down all of the thoughts and feelings this book evoked in me. I plan to start on the second book of the trilogy quite soon, and I plan to take my time soaking in all the deliscious details. Titus Groan is proof that you don’t need actual magic to have a truly glorious work of fantasy literature.

“In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.”

This book counts for the following challenges: as a classic by a new to me author for the Reading Classic Books Challenge, as a classic with a person’s name in the title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my spin book for Classics Club.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

3. ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morgenstern

A long time ago, in a world before this book blog existed, I read Erin Morgenstern’s extraordinary first book The Night Circus. Although I don’t recall a lot about that particular reading year, I do remember that it was one of my all-time favorite books. As I patiently waited for her next book, I read all of her Flax-Golden Tales from her blog. Sadly, it would be another eight years before another release. Fortunately, good things come to those who wait. The Starless Sea is a wonderfully complex novel, full of magic and gorgeously created characters. In fact, I just finished it and want to read it again for all the little moments I missed on the first reading.MORGENSTERN

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student studying the narrative power of video games when he disovers a mysterious book in the college library. It is filled with tales of storytelling pirates, hidden keys, and lost loves. When he reads a story from his own childhood, Zachary goes on a journey to discover the origins of his mystery book. Instead, he finds a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of our world. Zachary learns that this curious place is more than just a library-it is a place that exists out of time and space, a world that is composed entirely of stories, a city that many have vowed to protect at any cost. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired immortal, and Dorian, a handsome man with mysterious alliances, Zachary travels through dark tunnels, crowded ballrooms, and more stories than he can ever imagine.

“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”

The Starless Sea is such an enchanting work. The prose is breathtaking and I love the nonlinear storytelling. This work can’t be considered a fantasy novel because it truly is multiple short stories that come together to perfection. It is the ultimate love letter to the power of myths and legends. One quality of Erin Morgenstern’s writing that I really enjoy is how she transports you somewhere through using all the senses. She evokes not just sight and sound, but smell, taste, and touch in her writing.

The characters of this novel are so captivating. I really love Zachary because he reminds me so much of myself. Like me, he used reading as his escape, choosing to spend more time in fictional worlds than having actual adventures of his own. His growth and development in the book speaks out about the importance of going out and having epic adventures of our own. There are so many other great and colorful characters to be found in The Starless Sea, from the enigmatic Dorian to the star-crossed lovers of Simon Eleanor. The pacing is perfect. Watching all the separate threads come together was so much fun. Moments of the book made me laugh, others made me cry, while most of it just made me want to dream of faraway magical places.

One last point I wanted to make was I appreciated the fact that the main character was gay. The Starless Sea has so many great love stories, but I found it refreshing that the protagonist fell in love with another male. I thought the development in the relationship between Zachary and Dorian worked well and perfectly complimented the story without distracting from any of the intriguing plot.

The Starless Sea was easily my most anticipated book of the year. It never disappointed me. Morgenstern’s writing is exquisite, and here she has crafted a complex labyrinth of a novel with interlocking stories all working together. Those looking for a simple and straightforward narrative may want to pass on this one. However, I was captivated all the way to the end. This book has all the power of discovering your first kiss, the excitement of watching snow fall, or seeing the stars for the first time. While I know everyone won’t share in my passion for this book, I found it to be perfection. In my eyes, Morgenstern is a fantasy writer in the leagues of Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. I sincerely hope I don’t have to wait another eight years for her next novel.

“Everyone wants the stars. Everyone wishes to grasp that which exists out of reach. To hold the extraordinary in their hands and keep the remarkable in their pockets.”

I completed this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

2. ‘A Robot in the Garden’ by Deborah Install

I decided that my next book should be something light and funny. While perusing my local library, I stumbled across this book (among several others of course). The back cover blurb sold me on it immediately. Who can resist a book about a friendly robot that teaches us what it means to be a good human being? Well, I couldn’t say no!

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“Life takes us in peculiar directions sometimes, and on those occasions, the only thing to do is give it a high five and roll with it.”

Set in a world where robots and androids are commonplace, A Robot in the Garden is the story of a friendship between two very unlikely beings. Ben is a vet school dropout who is still coming to terms with the loss of his parents. His complete lack of motivation is destroying his marriage to his wife Amy. One morning, he discovers a battered robot named “Tang” just sitting in his front garden watching his neighbor’s horses. While his wife wants him to get rid of it, Ben feels bad for the little robot who seems to have a cracked part badly in need of repair. As the two new friends begin an around-the-world journey to find the robot’s owner, Ben begins to discover more about the person he truly wants to be.

You can’t help but fall in love with Tang the robot. He is an endless source of amusement, and there are so many great scenes in this book that had me laughing out loud. I think my favorite chapter was the one set in the cheap hotel where the two friends were being looked at suspiciously, only for Ben to discover that this hotel is where clients come to have romantic rendezvous with their android “companions”, if you know what I mean. Tang also has to have his lower flap taped over because of its tendency to just pop open at inappropriate moments. Although funny and adorable, the little robot can be a constant source of frustration for Ben. Tang is prone to running off and being disobedient, and will throw huge tantrums (affectionately called “Tang-trums” by Ben) when not getting his way. Writer Deborah Install used her young child as inspiration for the character, and it clearly shows as Ben has to learn the joys and pitfalls of fatherhood.

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I want a cute little robot of my own!

In addition to so many hilarious moments (British humor rocks), there are equally so many endearing scenes that will have you hugging the book. Both Tang and Ben grow so much as individuals that you can’t help but be inspired by their journey. A Robot in the Garden is a fantastic debut novel from Deborah Install, and I hope for further adventures from Ben and Tang.

“But of all the complex human emotions he could have settled on, he seemed to understand love.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

1. ‘The Institute’ by Stephen King

I’m beginning a new tradition each year where I review a book given as a gift. This year’s choice is the latest from Stephen King, which was given to me by my best friend Barry for Christmas. King played a formative role during my early reading years, and he is a writer who continues to impress. In fact, I’ve never read a Stephen King book I didn’t like. The Institute was no exception.

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Some readers would likely believe that King has long passed the most memorable phase of his career. While The Institute may fail to reach the heights of novels such as The Shining or Pet Sematary, I would argue that the newest King is an exceptional work from a master that hasn’t lost any of his powers. In fact, I think Stephen King could write a successful book in any genre and is So Much More than a Writer of Penny DreadfulsThe Institute is a remarkable work of science fiction, a genre that isn’t new to King with past contributions of The Running Man and, one of my personal favorites, The Long Walk. In The Institute, children with psychic abilities are kidnapped by government forces and are subjected to horrible tests in order to use those powers for assassinating up-and-coming political figures. If you’re as big a fan of Stranger Things as I am, then you will love this book.

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Super kick-ass psychic powers for the win!

I remember an argument I had with a friend once on how King’s novels can be boring, that he spends numerous chapters on mundane character moments. While some of his works could be shortened, I appreciate the amount of characterization that goes into a Stephen King novel. I develop a real connection with the main characters, which in turn gets me more involved in the story. In particular, I think King writes children characters extremely well. The reason It is such a powerful piece of fiction is because of the development of each of the children in the book. I was rooting for the good guys in this one all the way through, but of course, not everything is so black and white. At the beginning, you grow to hate all the members of the secret government agency. As the story progresses, we get into some deep philosophical issues that perhaps the Institute is saving the world by using the lives of these special children. Do the ends justify the means? Leave it to King to make it slightly more complicated than it seems. In the end, I still couldn’t sympathize with the opposition. I wanted them to burn. King also makes no qualms about voicing his complete hate of the Trump administration. Stephen King is like your dad screaming his political views, the exception being he can hit a wider audience.

King’s tendency to expand character details leads me to another strength of his writing. His villains are always quite menacing. I’ve said before that while King has given us some truly monstrous creations, such as Pennywise the clown and Christine the car, his best monsters are completely human. Personally, I’m more frightened of Annie Wilkes and the mother from Carrie than of the supernatural variety of evil. The Institute is the epitome of human darkness, represented by its leader Mrs. Sigsby. King never shies away from the physical and psychological cruelty in his works, and there are some moments where you truly want to look away.

Overall, I loved The Institute, finding it to be an excellent sci-fi thriller. It was the perfect start to this new year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. King turned up at least one more time in the coming months.

“This life we think we’re living isn’t real. It’s just a shadow play, and I for one will be glad when the lights go out on it. In the dark, all the shadows disappear.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.