TBR Challenge AND Big Fat Book: The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

  • The Bronze Horseman by Paullina SimonsTitle:  The Bronze Horseman
  • Series: The Bronze Horseman, #1
  • Author: Paullina Simons
  • Published:  2001
  • Source: Purchased
  • Format: Ebook and audio (narrated by James Langton)
  • Length: ELEVENTY HUNDRED THOUSAND PAGES (or, possibly, 811, or 912, or 696, depending on edition); FOUR HUNDRED HOURS AND SEVENTEEN MINUTES in audio (or, possibly, 30:43)
  • Tropes: Angst. Angst. More angst. Angst-o-rama. Did I mention the angst?
  • Quick blurb: Russian WWII misery porn, in the picturesque setting of the Siege of Leningrad
  • Quick review: If you like great historical world-building overshadowed by angsty navel-gazing, interspersed with lengthy periods of passive-aggressive arguments and intermittent moments of wanting to punch people, you will love this book.
  • Grade: C-

Considering that I used the word “angst” at least 15 times up there (I like hyperbole), I looked up synonyms to keep you from mentally throwing things at me. I found a really good one. Are you ready for this? It’s German, which for the purposes of this review, is close enough to Russian.

weltschmerz [velt-shmerts]

noun, German

1.  sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.

Origin: literally, world-pain

bugs_dead

Yes, I know What’s Opera, Doc? is based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Wagner was German and not Russian, but it’s still funny.

After finally finishing this book, I felt ALL THE WELTSCHMERZ EVER on my shoulders. And it wasn’t even from holding a 1,358-page hardcover.

The ebook is on sale for $1.99, which is a total bargain at 0.218¢ per page. I bought it at that price in 2012. It glowered at me from the bottom of my TBR, where I kept it to prevent it squashing all the joie de vivre (I’m getting fancy here, eh?) from Minerva (my Kindle).

A few months ago, I started reading it. I made it through Book One, Part Two, Chapter Five. If you haven’t read this, you’ll think I’m exaggerating, but I am totally not (this time). The table of contents is three pages long. Two “books.” Four “parts.” Chapter titles include “Impaled in Space” and “Beset and Besieged” and “Desolate Waves” and “Worn Out with Terror and Misgiving” and “In the Moonlight’s Pallid Glamour.”

But it wasn’t the Wagnerian Gloom and Doom that did me in. I had to put it on hiatus due to the overwhelming urge to punch the so-called “hero” in the nads and push the so-called “heroine” down a well.

A brief recap of the first third of the book:

  • They meet-cute over an ice cream cone. Total insta-lust.
  • She invites him home and finds out he’s boinking her sister.
  • She weeps a lot.
  • He stalks her all over town while continuing to boink her sister.
  • She runs away to find her missing brother and and he gets several men under his command killed trying to find her.
  • He’s still boinking her sister.

Alexander is boinking Tatiana’s sister for a Noble Cause. By “noble” I mean “selfish and cowardly.” It’s the entire premise of the book.

(Now would be a good time to note the subtitle of this novel is “A Love Story.” This is not a romance.)

After a few months letting it fester in my brain, I saw it on Audible, so I sacrificed a credit. And thereby, sacrificed my sappy HEA-loving soul.

*moment of silence*

Sorry, just getting into the spirit of melodrama here.

I started the audiobook from the beginning. Narrator James Langton is brilliant. I was able to push past the New Adult Whinginess (totally a word) and focus on the author’s historical world-building and backstory-building and scene-setting. The opening scenes in Tatiana’s family’s cramped, dreary flat in the middle of Leningrad are amazing. It’s damp and claustrophobic and mundane. In just a few short pages, we’re introduced to all the characters and family history that turned Tatiana in a Mary Sue.

Alexander, on the other hand, is mysterious and enigmatic. We only gradually learn his backstory in bits and pieces that keep adding to the “he can’t really be that much of an asshole, can he?” wishful thinking. His off-screen history is completely intriguing and believable, and it leads him to making a gut-wrenching choice that sets up the major conflict in the book.

The main characters as individuals are compelling. Alexander is physically brave, earning numerous medals and promotions, but he’s morally (ethically? ) a coward. He has his reasons, but it takes a looooong time for all those little reveals to accumulate into sympathy for him.

I don’t want to feel sympathy for a hero. I want him to be heroic.

Tatiana is a Mary Sue, but she’s been conditioned for it from birth. She’s a Martyr with a Capital M. The word “no” never ever crosses her lips. And yet she’s physically courageous in a very TSTL kind of way that endangers everyone around her – which makes her both selfless and self-centered.

I love strong and vulnerable heroines. Tatiana’s strengths and vulnerabilities were the exact opposite of what I wanted to root for.

Separately, they’re fascinating. Together, they’re painful. As in stomach-cramping, fist-clenching “OH FOR FUCK SAKE” unpleasant.

As the book progressed, my frustration grew exponentially. The world-building was completely lost in the grim and plodding pacing. Fragments of drama and action were buried amongst endless repetitive pages of mental lusting and self-doubt and over-thinking and obliviousness.

The middle third of the book is awful. Tatiana has survived and escaped to a rural village. Alexander has tracked her down and married her. This should be the good bits, right? The life-affirming stuff? Nope. When they’re not fucking on every available surface, they’re having lengthy, extended, interminable, overlong, tiresome, needlessly drawn-out passive-aggressive arguments. Did I mention that the arguments are laborious and tedious? And that they’re both still wildly immature and annoying?

I should probably bump up the grade. I obviously have Very Feely Feelings about this book.

I stuck it out and finished the damn thing. And holy hell, when Simons decides to pick up the pace, she doesn’t fool around. The real drama and action I was craving erupted in the last quarter. At one point I literally said “HOLY FUCK!” out loud and scared my dog. (If you’ve read it, it’s the scene with Alexander and Dmitri in the hospital and you know exactly which one I mean.)

bugs_dead_elmer

This is Tatiana [NO SPOILERS] Alexander from the [NO SPOILERS] and begging that one really interesting character who should have his own book to [NO SPOILERS].

This is so weird to say, but when the war engulfs their lives, Tatiana and Alexander are much better characters and much better people. When they’re fighting external forces separately instead of their own ridiculous obsessive love, the story — and the romance — comes alive.

So. In conclusion, I’m not sorry I read it. I keep thinking about it, and my memories are vivid and visceral. I’m wondering if my frustrations would have been minimized if I had stuck with the ebook and skimmed through the drama-llama dreck. I have the second book on hold at the library (because of that utterly crushing cliffhanger) — in paper, so I can fast-forward.

Big Fat Book: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

  • Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor - 1st ed, Macmillian, 1944Title: Forever Amber
  • Author: Kathleen Winsor
  • Published: Macmillan, January 1944
  • Source: Purchased (in hardcover, paperback and digital)
  • Length: 976
  • Tropes: Everything you could possibly think of
  • Quick blurb: And you thought Scarlett O’Hara was bad….
  • Quick review: The ultimate anti-heroine in all her gaudy, garish glory.
  • Grade: A

“Madame,” he said finally, “your future is of singular interest. You were born with Venus in separating square aspect to Mars in the Fifth House.” Amber solemnly absorbed that, too impressed at first even to wonder what it meant. Then, as she was about to ask, he continued, having reached his conclusions as much by looking at her as at his charts: “Hence you are inclined, madame, to over-ardent affections and to rash impulsive attractions to the opposite sex. This can cause you serious trouble, madame. You are also too much inclined to indulge yourself in pleasure — and hence must suffer the attendant difficulties.”

Forever Amber is…”a bawdy bestseller”…”a torrid potboiler”…”a bawdy, lusty costume epic”…”a crude and superficial glorification of a courtesan”…”a big, fat tombstone of a bestseller”…”a naughty literary relic”…”a preposterously long and sumptuously naughty book”…”a love story of immense driving force and a magnificent, all-inclusive picture of an era”…”swoony with ill-defined sex”…”a glamorization of immorality and licentiousness”…”a colorful picture of Restoration England in all its immoral finery”…”Moll Flanders with, as it were, knobs on”…”a splendidly evocative guide to the events and mores of the time.”

Also:

…”the story of a slut’s progress.”

And, my favorite:

…”Opium on a gigantic scale.”

Every one of those descriptions is accurate. Set in Restoration England, Amber St. Clare’s story begins in 1660 with our 16-year-old heroine throwing herself at a Returning Cavalier, and ends (heh) 10 years later with our heroine throwing herself at the Jilting Cavalier.
In between, our heroine…

…Runs off to London with Cavalier. Gets pregnant. Gets scammed into marriage with a fortune hunter. Gets thrown into Newgate for debt. Escapes with infamous highwayman. Becomes con artist. Escapes a con-gone-wrong, winds up with impoverished second-son aristo, charms her way onto the stage. Sleeps with the king. Steals rival’s protector, then goads him into a fatal duel with the Returning Cavalier.

At this point, we’re only a third of the way through the book.

…Duel makes her more popular, sleeps with the king again, gets preggo again, gets abortion. Goes to Tunbridge Wells to recuperate and seduces filthy rich aging widower with 14 children. Resumes affair with Returning Cavalier (again), gets pregnant (again), finds out Cavalier also got 16-year-old stepdaughter pregnant. Husband dies, cavalier returns (again).

…THE PLAGUE. (this deserves a paragraph by itself)

Halfway done. Hang in there with me.

…Cavalier still refuses to marry her, she marries Evil Earl in revenge to gain title and access to Court. Evil Earl drags her off to the country, where she seduces his son in revenge. Evil Earl discovers them, poisons his own son.

…GREAT FIRE OF LONDON.

We’re now at page 666. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

…Finagles a post in queen’s bedchamber, sleeps her way through the courtiers. Gets pregnant by the king; he makes her marry a nobody. Various intrigues with courtiers. King makes her a duchess. Builds ridiculous mansion. Goes ballistic when Jilting Cavalier returns with new wife. Dresses as half-naked Venus at ball for spite. Fakes duel letter from cuckolded husband. Affair with Cavalier resumes (AGAIN), more hissy fits. Confronts Cavalier’s wife; he (finally!) throws her out.

And then…

…BEST UNRESOLVED CLIFFHANGER EVER.

I’m not kidding.  This was a one-hit wonder of a book, and a much-discussed sequel never appeared, so poor Amber is left perpetually chasing after her One True Love.

IT’S GLORIOUS.

It’s a swashbuckling melodrama stuffed with fashion and poverty porn. It’s a sex-positive feminist manifesto.  It’s a full-blown and blowsy historical soap opera that unapologetically dismantles every “heroine” trope while coating it all in the glossy-yet-sleazy veneer of Restoration England.

Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp can just take a seat. The gleefully amoral Amber St. Clare is the ultimate antiheroine.

This book is EPIC…. All I will say is that after finishing this book, I called my mother in a rage, and she said, “For lord’s sake, read Kathleen Woodiwiss and call me in the morning.”

~ Maria (Maya) Rodale, “Romance Novels 101: The Infamous Book List That Changed My Life,” Huffington Post, May 27, 2015

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The (Belated) 1Q2015 Big Fat Book Review: Middlemarch by George Eliot

NOTE: I’m reading a BIG FAT BOOK each quarter in 2015. I kinda sorta forgot to write a review of my first one because I was still wallowing in it weeks afterward.

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If you don’t like MIDDLEMARCH, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

Middlemarch - Original Serial CoverAlso, you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, WRONGITY WRONG. Everyone who knows anything about books agrees that MIDDLEMARCH is brilliant.

I am capitalizing and bolding MIDDLEMARCH to make sure it gets your attention so you will remember to READ THIS FREE BOOK THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Did I mention that MIDDLEMARCH is brilliant?

Yes, it’s eleventy thousand pages long. Yes, it’s 35+ hours on audio. Get over it. Suck it up and read it, buttercup.

My Bullet List of Reasons Why Everyone Should Read MIDDLEMARCH:

  • Because it’s BLOODY BRILLIANT.
  • Because the audio narration by Juliet Stevenson is BLOODY BRILLIANT.

So, that’s my belated, yet dramatic and insightful, 1Q2015 Big Fat Book Review of MIDDLEMARCH. You’re welcome. Continue reading