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Review: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub

laura lamont's life in picturesBlonde little Elsa Emerson loves the stage. Born in 1920, she’s just in time for the delight of the silver screen and the glamour of acting. She grows up around and on her father’s stage, playing small roles, and loving and being loved by her two sisters, especially beautiful Hildy. When tragedy strikes her family, Elsa decides that she should live her life on a bigger stage, and when Gordon-from-Florida Pitts comes to her small town in Michigan, Elsa heads straight for Hollywood. There, she’s christened Laura Lamont by the most famous producer in town, transforming from blonde and wholesome country girl to glamorous screen star.

The early days of Hollywood have always held a strange fascination for me. Modern celebrities don’t interest me at all, but the first years of films have passed into the realm of history, and the fact that we can still see all of these people on screen today makes their lives all the more interesting. Laura Lamont is, of course, fictional, but she’s been written in such a way that she could have been many famous actresses from our time. Her transformation from “ordinary” girl to superstar is actually quite remarkable; with the change of name, hairstyle, and diet, Elsa becomes Laura in a way that she hadn’t precisely anticipated, and the consequences of that are profound.

What I most liked about this, I think, was the way that Laura’s life was so far from perfect. The contrast between her public and her private lives was absolutely immense. Even when she grows older, the reaction that she gets from people who loved her old films is notable compared to her actual life outside them; it shows how little we really know about celebrities when they keep their personal lives quiet, and how eternal they seem to us when, in reality, they are flawed and age just as the rest of us do. We don’t really spend all that much time experiencing a “glamorous” lifestyle through Laura’s eyes; the book really focuses on her actual life behind the screen and her family, both at home in Michigan and in Hollywood.

Straub is naturally influenced by what happened in real-life Hollywood; I’ve even seen various guesses of who Laura herself is inspired by. Some of her silver screen friends are somewhat obvious, but I didn’t spend much time trying to pin who was inspired by who. For those who know more about Hollywood history than I do, there is undoubtedly quite a bit to spot here in terms of influences, but it’s not critical to liking the book, at least it wasn’t for me.

A thoroughly enjoyable read, although sometimes unsettling thanks to the ups and downs of Elsa / Laura’s life, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a good choice for anyone who enjoys thinking about the early days of Hollywood or is at all interested in the lives of celebrities behind the scenes.

I received this book for free for review.

Review: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation, David Bellos

is that a fish in your earTranslating, often assumed to be a fairly standard process, is in reality anything but. Text is one language is not directly transferable to another language. Just try translating an idiom from one language to another; finding a needle in a haystack or having your mouth water is not something that can be directly translated. And what is translation, anyway? To what extent do you change the text to make it fit in, and to what extent do you change it further to give a text an “atmosphere”? In this book, David Bellos, a translator himself, deconstructs the process and examines why we do what we do when we convert something from one language into another.

My interest in this particular topic has been prompted by the fact that the company I work for in real life specializes in multilingual and multinational search. We have a translation agency in our company, and I’ve personally been involved in many projects where translation is involved and is really important to the project in question. Plus, with such an international workforce, it’s fun to get into debates about how different languages are and how it’s much more difficult to translate between some than others. We always focus on local and local knowledge as much as we possibly can, but there has to be the ability to translate somewhere, and that’s why I was quite curious about the actual process – plus, an ongoing interest in linguistics that I’ve abandoned since university is always a factor.

That said, I’d expected something a lot lighter than this book actually was. Bellos is an academic and his book reads like one that was written by an academic. Some parts are fascinating and full of facts, while others are a bit dry. He has one particular chapter that’s about meaning and how it’s expressed, which isn’t a light read for anyone. It’s all fascinating, in my view at least, but it took me longer and more brain power to get through than your average non-fiction read.

I did feel as I was reading that I was really learning something, though; I don’t speak anything but English fluently, so a lot of the book was new to me since I don’t know what goes through a translator’s head. I loved particular little tidbits which really made me feel I was genuinely learning, such as:

For the ancient Greeks, the sound of the foreign was the unarticulated, open-mouthed blabber of va-va-va-, which is why they called all non-Greek-speakers varvaros, that is to say, barbarians, “blah-blah-ers”.

I already knew about what he says directly after – that the Russian word for German means, basically, deaf – but that about the origin of the word “barbarian” just made me smile.

Bellos wraps up the book with more thoughts on meaning, and how we can express meaning without language at all. It’s a thoughtful look back at the whole book and the way people actually understand each other. I really liked Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, but I don’t think it’s for everyone; if you do enjoy languages and translation, though, it’s certainly a book that you should try.

I purchased this book.

Review: City of Ghosts, Stacia Kane

city of ghostsChess Putnam is a wreck in almost any way she can think of. She’s driven away her closest friend by sleeping with another man and she’s a drug addict that can barely function without a few pills. The only positive thing in her life, really, is her job as a Church witch and her faith in the Church’s ability to debunk ghosts. Even that faith is about to be thrown into question, though, as Chess begins working with a girl called Lauren, the daughter of the Grand Elder, a Church cop. Chess feels that there is something wrong about Lauren; her spells are wrong, her magic is wrong, but with the promise of a hefty check in the bank and little reason to pursue other paths in life, she goes along with it, only to find that the Church is not nearly so powerful as she’d thought.

I’ve more or less stopped reviewing most of the urban fantasy that I read on my blog because I tend to read books in a series very often and very quickly, and once I get to the middle of a series, it gets harder to keep track of spoilers and find something unique to say about each installment. But everyone, I loved this book in a way that makes me want to write about it, so here I go giving it a try once again. I don’t love it in the way that I love, say, The Remains of the Day or Among Others, but this was such an incredible, addictive, heart-pounding read that it satisfied every little desire I had for an urban fantasy book.

I really like the darkness that this series brings along with it. Chess’s city, especially Downside, is not a nice place to live. It reminds me of a Gotham city, except even more corrupt; the people she cares about are all generally drug pushers or addicts, except for those in the church, and her own life is an example of how a person gets so addicted to drugs that they can rarely care about anything else. But Chess does care about something else, and that something else is actually a person called Terrible. You see, in the last two books, we’ve been watching the relationship between Chess and Terrible develop, in a heart-melting, exciting way, until he saw something that turned him away from her completely.

The agony that’s resulted from this for Chess is incredibly intense – it took losing him to realize how much she really cared about him, and watching their relationship move on from this was honestly so emotional that I couldn’t believe I was feeling quite that much about these two people who are so incredibly broken. Terrible is a guy that scares the people of Downside as Bump’s chief enforcer; he is the guy who forces money out of people if they don’t pay up for their drugs. He’s so far from the charming rogues that grace some of my favorite historical romance novels that I doubt he’d recognize a suit if he saw one. But based on these books, I completely fell in love with his character, and with Chess and him together. Yes, she screwed up, but this relationship is simply addiction of the strongest kind. For them, and for me, the reader.

The story itself is good too, of course; the mystery around what’s happening with Lauren and Chess’s investigation is well worth following. But as always for me with a series, it’s the relationships that characters build that keep me going, and this series has completely, already, hooked me in. Very, very highly recommended.

I purchased this book.

Review: Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

CryoburnMiles Vorkosigan, one of the Barrayaran Emperor’s right-hand men, has been sent to investigate rumors of bribery and corruption on a world which focuses heavily on the cryogenics industry before those industries get involved on Barrayar. On Kibou-daini, almost everyone gets frozen either before or very immediately after their deaths, which has led to a huge bureaucracy built up around the industries that supply this freezing technology. Miles, a man whose life was saved by cryo technology, isn’t going to fault them for wanting to avoid death, but what he does find is a cold, corrupt industry that fails to look after those who have entrusted their lives to the future.

Like many others have said before me, Cryoburn isn’t really a novel that stands up the same as the other Vorkosigan novels do. While Miles is still the main character, he is no longer growing and changing; he’s the same disarmingly clever and ingenuous man as always, but he’s now completely matured and committed to the world as he knows it. Not many of the series’s other recurring characters appear in this book; Ekaterin features in just one scene and we don’t even get to visit Miles’s children. The only one with Miles is Armsman Roic, although a few familiar faces appear in the latter half of the book. The stakes aren’t quite as high here either; sure, things are  messed up on Kibou-daini and for many of the people Miles meets, but he himself is out of danger and off investigating fairly quickly.

For what it was, though, I quite enjoyed it. I liked meeting the side characters and seeing Miles through a different set of eyes yet again, especially those of the children. Jin with his menagerie was a charming character, although I didn’t really understand why he was so adamant about running away from his aunt, especially if she let him keep his animals outside. Even the other Barrayarans on the planet with Miles were entertaining, and I liked what Bujold did with those stories too. It was a book that I enjoyed reading, but it wasn’t a book that would have made me fall in love with the series as I have over the past year and a half.

That said, then the ending happened, and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I know the next book in the series features Ivan, not Miles, but seriously, after that? I had to take a break from reading to recover for a while. It totally wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t had the accumulated feelings from the entire series, I think; each of the little snippets was heart-breaking in its own way. Another reminder that this is a series which belongs all together, and it’s not worth reading from it without starting at the beginning.

As with all the Vorkosigan books, this series is highly recommended. Start with Cordelia’s Honor or Young Miles!

Review: The Book of Madness and Cures, Regina O'Malveny

the book of madness and curesDottoressa Gabriella Mondini’s father left ten years ago in search of more exotic cures for his book of medicine. Since then, Gabriella, who he trained as a doctor himself, has seen to her round of patients and rattled around in her house with only her mother for company. Her father’s letters have become increasingly vague, without locations, and she’s begun to worry that he’ll never return. When she’s informed that she is no longer allowed to practice medicine in her home city of Venice, Gabriella feels her ties to her home fall away, and sets off on a journey in search of her lost father and the secrets he’d discovered.

From the very start of this book, Gabriella is in opposition against everyone around her, and she spends quite a large portion of the book fighting against expectations or, when she’s not able to safely, hiding from those who would do her harm. She spends parts of the book dressed as a boy, or pretending she isn’t actually a doctor, but mostly she is proud of and enjoys her calling, so she shares it with those around her.

This does, however, make for a book that feels kind of exhausting as you’re reading it. Gabriella’s journey takes her from Venice up to Edinburgh and down to Northern Africa; it feels as though she travels forever and that things never get easier. And, every time I thought they just might, she decides to keep moving on and ignore the fact that happiness might be around the corner. I could understand that she hadn’t found her father yet, but she sacrifices a considerable amount in the pursuit of him.

It’s because her search isn’t really about finding her father; it’s about finding who she actually is on her own, without him. Just being a doctor in her native Venice isn’t enough, not when she’s just resting on her father’s laurels, and she somehow believes that in finding him, she’ll settle a part of her heart that’s been lost since he left. It’s a very readable journey, but in all honesty, I did actually find it exhausting and frustrating as she turns down several opportunities to find that something.

Otherwise, I enjoyed this book; it portrays a huge swathe of Europe through a foreigner’s eyes. It’s a relatively easy read, yet remains heartfelt throughout the novel as Gabriella sorts through all of her feelings about the world around her and the people who inhabit that world.

The Book of Madness and Cures is a solid read, though not without its flaws; I’d probably only recommend it to someone else who already enjoys historical fiction or a book about a woman who seeks to discover herself.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free from the publisher.

TSS: November 2012 Reading Wrap-Up

It’s well and truly winter now in my particular corner of the world; we’ve had a few frosty mornings and surely it won’t be long before the first flurries fall. We’ve actually had part of a sunny week after what has felt like a year of rain in York. We’re still recovering from the latest flood, actually. I think the river has flooded four times, at least, to the extent that it’s impossible to walk alongside it into town. I’ve never been so happy to live far enough away that we’re not particularly affected.

November has been a slow, slow month for me on the reading front. I only read two books in the first ten days of the month, and then two more in the second ten days. It’s not been the slowest month of the year, that was February, but it was going to be for a while there.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that this has been my slowest reading year since I started blogging, though. I’m only predicted to finish 134 books, and my standing goal since I started has been 200. Last year I managed 197. Close enough, I think. According to my spreadsheet, I started falling behind in February, and I never caught up, not even once. I somehow doubt this trend is going to reverse in 2013, but we’ll see!

So, what did I read in November?

Fiction

  • Pandora’s Star, Peter F. Hamilton
  • The Stockholm OctavoKaren Engelmann
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Cathrynne M. Valente
  • The Book of Madness and Cures, Regina O’Melveny
  • Turn Coat, Jim Butcher

Non-fiction

  • The Magnificent Medills, Megan McKinney
  • Winter King, Thomas Penn
  • Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos

Favorite of the Month

Typically, I haven’t managed to review either of my favorite books of the month yet, but I will in December. I appreciated them both, but for very different reasons.

I want to catch up on everything outstanding this year in December; make sure I’ve either reviewed or decided firmly never to review everything I’ve read in 2012 and start with a clean slate in January. I desperately need one of those. I’m reading the right amount now to actually review at a good pace, if I can only get past all those pesky books I didn’t review in the last few months.

I’d also like to put together my holiday gift guide for 2012, which is the top historical fiction and history books I’d recommend this year. I’ll be doing that next weekend, for those among you who haven’t already thought about what to buy your loved ones!

What’s ahead for you in December?