February books

February turned out to be a lot busier than anticipated, primarily due to a teaching position I was offered at the university that was very, very last-minute. But yay, I managed to squeeze in four books during my (sometimes sleepy) bedtime reading!

4. Alexander Pushkin – The Queen of Spades and Other Stories (trans. Rosemary Edmonds; Penguin) (8 Feb)
5. Joanna Briscoe – You (17 Feb)
6. Jennifer E. Smith – The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (22 Feb)
7. Vladimir Nabokov – Despair (28 Feb)

4. Alexander Pushkin – The Queen of Spades and Other Stories (trans. Rosemary Edmonds; Penguin) (8 Feb)

04-queen of spadesBlurb: The Queen of Spades, one of Pushkin’s most popular and chilling short stories, tells of an inveterate card player who develops a dangerous obsession with the secret of an old lady’s luck, which he believes will bring him the wealth he craves. The Negro of Peter the Great, a story based on the life of Pushkin’s own great-grandfather, is a vivid depiction—and criticism—of both French and Russian society, while Dubrovsky is the Byronic tale of a dispossessed young office. The Captain’s Daughter tells of a young man sent to military service—based on the actual events of the rebellion against Catherine II, it demonstrates Pushkin’s unparalleled skill in blending fiction and history. Together these four stories display the versatility and innovation that earned Pushkin his reputation as a master of prose and established him as a towering figure in Russian literature.

Rosemary Edmond’s translation is accompanied by an introduction examining Pushkin’s simplicity of style and the powerful influence he exerted on his country’s literature.

Overall thoughts: I read “The Queen of Spades” about a decade ago, and though I enjoyed it back then, I definitely appreciated it a lot more this time round. Pushkin’s writing has such a wonderful economy and clarity, and his pacing and characters are just spot on. Of the four short stories, my favourite was “The Captain’s Daughter”, which is just so well-told, and made me want more more more. I think Pushkin had intended it to be a longer work, but alas, it is now up to fanfiction writers… (Now there’s an idea!)

And of course, as with every other time I finish reading a translation of Russian writings, I find myself really wanting to learn the language—especially so I can fully appreciate Pushkin’s poetry! In any case, although some of the stories are incomplete, I’d highly recommend this collection to anyone interested in short stories, Russian literature, or who’s just looking to expand their reading horizons.

For those who like numbers: 4.7/5


5. Joanna Briscoe – You (17 Feb)

This is a book I picked specifically for the “Y” in the title—apart from that, I went in knowing nothing about the author/genre/etc! And it’s a library book, so yayayayay for funfunfun libraries!

05-youBlurb: Cecilia is obsessively in love with his teacher, the older, married Mr Dahl. She plots and speculates, yet she never guesses that what she dreams of could actually happen. Is it her imagination, or is the high-minded Mr Dahl responding to her?

Cecilia’s mother Dora wants the good life. She and her husband moved to Dartmoor so their children could run wild, free to make their own choices and mistakes. But Dora discovers that there is more to the countryside idyll, and indeed to her own marriage, than she assumed, when she finds herself fascinated by the very last, the very worst person she could fall for: the elegant and dangerous Elisabeth Dahl.

Now, after twenty years, Cecilia is coming home, to face Dora, and to face her past. But the excitement and pain she had thought were buried cannot be buried. Be careful what you wish for.

Plot: Generally speaking, I wasn’t a fan of the plot—I found most of it quite predictable and contrived. There was a bit of a nice twist near the end, and the ending itself left me a little ambivalent: on the one hand, I wanted to know more (which is always a good sign), but on the other hand, I had lost interest overall and was just glad that it had finished the way it did (not such a good sign).

Characters: I really enjoyed seventeen-year-old Cecilia, but I’m afraid that was it—I didn’t care much about any of the other characters. As a bit of a literature fangirl myself, I understand how James Dahl can be quite enthralling, but his character here just wasn’t appealing.

Themes: One thing I did enjoy about the book is its attempt to address thematic concerns of youth, innocence, and education. I wouldn’t say they were all dealt with spectacularly well, but I appreciated the effort.

Language: When I first started reading this book, I was a little struck by how much I enjoyed Briscoe’s style and voice—the prose flowed rather nicely and was suitably poetic. But as I continued reading and found there wasn’t much to offer in an interesting plot or characters, I found my attention wavering, and eventually got to the point where the language actually irked me more than it kept me going. Ultimately, I found the way Briscoe told her story and the contents of the story itself just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Overall: I thought this novel had such potential, but the execution fell quite flat for the most part—a real shame, seeing as I had enjoyed the first chapter or two.

For those who like numbers: 2.5/5


6. Jennifer E. Smith – The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (22 Feb)

I remember receiving this recommendation from a YA reader a few years back, and though I purchased it out of curiosity, I’d only just gotten around to reading it. (Yes, this book hoard-and-delay is a prevalent theme in my life.)

06-statisticalBlurb: Today should be one of the worst days of seventeen-year-old Hadley Sullivan’s life. Having missed her flight, she’s stuck at JFK airport and late to her father’s second wedding, which is taking place in London and involves a soon-to-be stepmother Hadley’s never even met. Then she meets the perfect boy in the airport’s cramped waiting area. His name is Olivier, he’s British, and he’s sitting in her row.

A long night on the plane passes in the blink of an eye, and Hadley and Oliver lose track of each other in the airport chaos upon arrival. Can fate intervene to bring them together once more?

Set over a twenty-four-hour period, this is a cinematic novel about family connections, second chances, and first loves.

Plot: For a fast-paced YA novel, I thought the plot was quite sound, moving quickly enough to maintain attention. However, I would’ve personally preferred something a little more drawn-out, especially during the in-flight scenes. I’ve had my fair share of long-haul flights (my Belfast-Sydney journeys takes at least 30 hours, and that’s if I’m very lucky with connections and so on), and from that perspective, I wasn’t a fan of the pacing. However, I have no qualms about the events that occur after Hadley gets off the plane, and all the lovely plot bits that follow.

Characters: I didn’t have any strong feelings for the two main characters, but I can objectively appreciate their appeal. Some YA characters can really get on my nerves, but I was mostly okay with these two—though Hadley was pushing it at times. I was actually fonder of the parental figures than of the teenagers!

Themes: I absolutely loved how the book deals with the different ideas of family and parenting—I see what Hadley’s coming from, but I also enjoyed seeing her opinions change as she comes to realise life and relationships are a lot more complicated.

Language: I didn’t find anything noteworthy about Smith’s writing, but it was pretty readable and worked well within the book.

Overall: This was such an easy book to read, and I gobbled it up in no time. Although I wasn’t really affected by the central romantic plot, I did find the novel quite enjoyable, and can definitely see its appeal to YA readers. If you’re a fan of the genre, the book might be worth checking out.

For those who like numbers: 3.7/5


7. Vladimir Nabokov – Despair (28 Feb)

07-despairBlurb: Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965—thirty years after its original publication—Despair is a wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder.

Plot: I don’t want to say anything that might give away the plot, but goodness me, the overall book was at times challenging, fascinating, puzzling, frustrating, and downright hilarious. And oh, how the events unfold!

Characters: Hermann is kinda despicable, but that’s okay because Nabokov is a genius who makes you feel all sorts of things—pity, disgust, outrage, resignation, amusement—whenever his protagonist says or does…well, anything.

Themes: Seriously, I’m not even going to try. But let’s just say the book is more about duplicity and the French “des pair” than despair. (And it’s all so gloriously handled!)

Language: I’m always at a loss for words when it comes to Nabokov’s prose, because it is just…so damn good. Some people might find his writing pretentious or way too self-reflexive, but I’m an absolute sucker for that stuff. Also, I adore Nabokov’s unparalleled skill in creating and sustaining unreliable narrators. This guy is basically my foremost enabler for literary geekery and fangirling.

Overall: As much as I enjoyed the book and the different kinds of emotions and reactions Nabokov evoked, I can’t say that I loved it—possibly because it doesn’t live up to the way I feel about Lolita, which is just a masterpiece. Despair is certainly a very clever piece of writing, but I don’t see myself going back to it in the future, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not yet encountered Nabokov.

For those who like numbers: 4/5

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