The Collegia Magica by Carol Berg — This was my second time through these books, and I find them a very interesting experience. The world the author has created is solidly conceived, makes sense, and fascinates. The characters she populates it with are excellent, with complex, believable, engaging natures reflective of the realities of humanity. Their relationships are realistic and wonderful to read about, sometimes driving the story every bit as much as the physical events. So far, so awesome.

However. We have a prose problem. While she certainly does have moments of well composed, fluid writing, what Ms. Berg presents far more frequently (or at least very much more jarringly) is moments where she’s seemingly attempted to affect an old-fashioned sound by using terms and turns of phrase awkwardly and sometimes simply incorrectly. It’s extremely frustrating, because it’s even more jarring in juxtaposition with the excellent elements I mentioned above. It makes the reading of these books a bizarre and disagreeably polarized experience.

Next, while the first two books have a tight-knit story with some real edge-of-your-seat moments and a brilliant resolution to a well set-up situation, the third book feels somewhat out of place.Yes, it carries the threads that have been introduced to their natural conclusion, but some of the aspects of its main plot feel like afterthoughts rather than a necessary end to a well rounded trilogy. In places it seems to be tying up loose ends rather than reaching the main point of the series. I don’t dislike it, but it’s not exactly my favorite either.

That said, the relationship between Dante and Anne is so moving and intricate, so compelling and enjoyable to read about, that I would endure much more awful prose and slightly imbalanced overall book design to go through it again and again. Very, very satisfying.

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard — I mostly read this because of Amelia. I knew a lot of her adventures, especially the Lost Oasis books, were satirizing King Solomon’s Mines, but upon reading the latter I realized that they weren’t satirizing King Solomon’s Mines quite so much as they were King Solomon’s Mines. Every time something new happened that was later pretty directly copy-pasted into The Last Camel Died at Noon or Guardian of the Horizon, I laughed even louder.

The big surprise in this book, though, was how much I enjoyed it. I expected a relic interesting only from a historic, influential point of view; I was braced for sexism and particularly racism; I expected the usual absurdity of storytelling and science of the era. And I got all of that… in an astonishingly fun and engaging story.

The author’s style was somewhat snarky, with nearly everything cleverly worded enough that I was able to get through the book without being forced to put it down at, for example, that dreadful elephant-hunt scene. And the adventure itself was not so unbelievable as to render it unexciting. I particularly liked the bit at the end when they were trapped in the mines and trying so desperately to find another way out.

There really wasn’t much in the way of characterization, though this detracted very little from a story of this type. And the motivation of seeking riches simply to… become rich… is not a very compelling or likable one in characters whose lack of manifest personality has given you no reason to interest yourself in their success or failure; but the swashbuckling physical events rather made up for all that. It’s easy to see why this book is such a classic and has so much significance as a literary influence. Like Shakespeare, really, except that I think I liked this book better than most Shakespeare plays.

The Magic of Oz by L. Frank Baum — It says something for how interesting this book was that, writing this AEL a few months after I read it, I can’t remember one damn thing about it. There, I’ve just looked it up on Wikipedia. I still remember almost none of this one. Not interesting.

The Haunting of Hill House — Yes, this is a live-action show but, yes, I watched it all the way through. My adoration for haunted house stories (and the good reviews I’d read of this one) overcame my strong preference for animation.

I loved this series. I love that it was creepy and full of delightful haunted house imagery but that I never had to turn on all the downstairs lights before using the bathroom at night after watching it. I don’t mind being scared at the time while watching a horror or suspense show, but it really annoys me when I’m scared afterwards. And I love creepy imagery that isn’t downright scary to me but I can see why it scares the characters in the show. And some of the grotesquery in this series absolutely tickled me.

Of course one of the things I loved most about it was that it was psychological trouble foremost and horror monster shenanigans second. Everyone knows how I feel about dramatic character interaction, and this was just chock-full of it. The idea of dealing with the post-haunted-house PTSD and the family dynamics those events led to, in addition to and in fact more primarily than the events in the haunted house itself, is absolutely brilliant. And jumping back and forth between the two time frames in order to allow information and comprehension to trickle gradually out to the viewer as well as the characters involved was the perfect setup.

I love seeing a broken family come back together, seeing people face their poor decisions and work to improve lives that have been screwed up largely through no fault of their own. I love the excellent lesbian representation, the happy ending many of the characters got, even the weird and ambiguous happy ending the dead characters did. And of course I loved every creepy moment inside Hill House itself.

I think the overall point got a little muddled by the end, with aspects of the story not coming together as well as I could have wished. The eldest sister’s big secret in particular seemed out of place. Parts of the series were a bit of a mess, really, which I find is often the case in creepy stories, particularly if they involve a haunted place: writers get so caught up in evoking mysterious imagery that they sometimes lose track of what fits and what doesn’t. However, in general I enjoyed this so much that that’s really a minor complaint.

Sofia the First – It’s hard to express how passionately obsessed I’ve become with this show since I started watching in November or so. I had previously watched one episode in a hotel room some years back, and gotten a description of it from my sister, and had long been mildly interested in watching more. I had no idea of the raging frenzy that would be unleashed in my heart once I started it for real.

Sofia is the sweetest little big-headed bean I’ve ever met, and her gentleness and kindness and determined acceptance and forgiveness of others makes me cry in every single episode. I adore nearly all the characters, really, with their complexities and developing relationships and over-the-top characteristics only when needed for humor. I adore the cameos by other Disney princesses and princess-like characters. I love the music; the songs are definitely hit-or-miss, but some of them are remarkably good, I love the general showtunesy sound, and I’m always impressed with series that put in the effort to write a new song for every single episode. The animation is better than decent and the voice acting is AMAZING.

And while I enjoy this solely as a well constructed piece of art, I also feel that as a story for young children, it couldn’t be much better. Of course there’s the occasional misstep where the wrong message gets sent, but in general the morals are solid. Sometimes they even deeply impress me by teaching a lesson on a topic not usually tackled by would-be-edifying children’s media. Decent representation, too, though we could definitely do with more main characters of color.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that I’m fangirling all over this little kids’ show and actively working on fanfiction even though I haven’t watched all the episodes yet. Amber & Sophia for the win.

The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian — This book, like the Oz book previously mentioned, didn’t stick specifically in my memory. In this case, however, that’s because books in the series flow into each other without much in the way of beginning, middle, or end. It’s all part of that slice-of-lifeiness I’ve mentioned before as so charming about the series.

In this one, I was super afraid that Brigid was going to turn out to have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and I was ready to weep for Stephen and his ongoing list of conditions with little to no diagnosis or treatment available in his time period. But just some delayed development? That’s nothing. I mean, obviously it’s something, but it’s something that can be dealt with.

Also in this one, I was extremely happy to see him work against the slave trade, and appreciated the improvement to Jack’s character that came with his new understanding of that fight. I pitied him his shocking experience when he encountered slavers close up for the first time, but thought it was an important lesson for him to learn. Overall, yet another excellent installment in this remarkable series.

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley — I read this book several times as a young teenager, and always enjoyed it back then, but this was my first time through it as an adult. And the thing that strikes me most about it is how different it is from Robin McKinley’s usual fare: there is no surrealism anywhere in this book, and I’m so used to bracing myself against it in her novels that it’s almost as jarring to encounter its lack as it is tedious to put up with its presence elsewhere.

Anyway, while I like this version of the Robin Hood story she’s concocted, I dislike how we pass the first year of the outlaws’ career essentially in montage. Even one or two more events from that year in greater detail would have been welcome. I’m not sure why she made this choice; did she fear the book would be too long? Or perhaps if she had started with the outlaws already established (rather than giving us the beginning of Robin’s exile and then jumping ahead a year), as many versions do, that too would have been better.

Mostly I like Marian. Her situation and her thought processes and her consummate badassedry make her easily the best character in the book (and since we barely get to know many of the other Merry Men, it’s important to have someone we can admire). When John and Cecily are at the archery torment and realize who it is that’s competing, that’s just such a brilliant moment.

So, yeah, I like the book, but I think it’s crippled by the summarizing style of the time between Robin killing the forester and the real adventures beginning a year later.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame — OK, this book. I just can’t quite wrap my head around it. You’ve got your ultra-charming anthropomorphized-animals-doing-polite-society-things sections, you’ve got your Toad-is-a-hilarious-idiot sections, and you’ve got your almost surreal nature-of-the-wild-and-what-is-home? sections, all of them mixed together higgledy-piggledy, and at least 65% of it deathly, deathly boring. Add to that the fact that, no matter how often I reread this, I’m still not sure of the species of every character I encounter (and if some of them are human, as seems to be the case, to what extent are the non-human characters anthropomorphized? and what are the exact social relationships between humans and non-humans?), nor of the age group to which this is supposed to appeal, nor whether I’m supposed to get some kind of deeper meaning out of it… I’m hella confused every time I get back around to this one. Obviously I don’t dislike it enough to have struck it from my reading list, but it’s a close thing…

Misery by Stephen King — I found this book at a garage sale for $0.25 in my mid-to-late teens, and I read it and loved it back then… but this was the first time I have reread it since, so I’d forgotten large chunks of it. I had, however, also remembered a surprising number of parts in a surprising level of detail, which I think is a testament to Stephen King’s ability to impress things indelibly upon his reader’s awareness.

As an interesting psychological adventure story, this is a very fun read. I think what I liked most about it, which is what I’ve tended to like most about everything by Stephen King I’ve experienced so far, is how well the characters are drawn, the ideas presented by their interactions with each other, their choices, and their trains of thought. It’s astonishing to feel sorry for such a horrific person as Annie Wilkes, and I also love that, while pretty thoroughly disliking Paul Sheldon, I’m still so deeply engrossed in his development as a person and invested in his goals of surviving and escaping.

I particularly love the epiphany he has about his own writing and the nature of writing for an audience, going from someone that “wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers” to someone that can recognize that the best-sellers can sometimes be good ones too, can be artistically fulfilling and meaningful. I still don’t like him by the end of the book, but I certainly respect him a little more.

Rereading this book has determined me on checking out some more Stephen King than what little I’ve experienced, and I’ve put a few more of his books onto my wish list.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen — What is there to say about Jane Austen that hasn’t been said half a billion times? Just some random thoughts, I guess.

I’m always struck by how excessively young all the characters are. Without a teenage identity, people in that society went from children to marriageable adults practically overnight, and were expected to think and behave as adults at a time of life when we in our society would never require such maturity of them. Half the characters you meet aren’t even of legal drinking age in the modern U.S.. And yet it isn’t in any way unbelievable when they are so mature, probably because of the same societal expectations, their grooming, and their overnight transition mentioned above.

Of course you’re not surprised, either, when you meet a Lydia Bennett, who’s completely clueless and whose chances of a rational life going forward are entirely lost because she was allowed to pretend to be an adult long, long before she had the capacity for it… but an Elinor Dashwood with her uprightness, correct ways of thinking, and impressive emotional fortitude at 19 is also somehow believable. Another thing that’s never a surprise, though, is when these babies do have problems coping with the issues they face. Of course many people are forced to deal with complicated emotional messes at a variety of ages and levels of maturity, but this was a society that had them specifically lined up for it at ridiculously young ages. Whenever they do make poor choices or have a hard time figuring out how they feel or what to do about it, I can certainly never blame them.

It’s also pretty funny when the characters worry about Elinor being an old maid, losing her bloom, and all that. She’s nineteen, guys XD

Mrs. Jennings is such an interesting character to me too. She’s got a bit of the surprisingly young thing going on, as far as I can tell; though it describes her as if she’s elderly, just looking at the various characters and their histories, I can’t imagine her as any older than about 50. Anyway, she’s so hilariously obnoxious, yet is such a truly loving and devoted friend that she makes for a very interesting combination. Even already knowing what she’s really like, every time I read the book I find myself liking her about twice as much by the end as at the beginning.

A line from A Christmas Carol, 60-some years later than this, yet so consistently applicable to situations in Jane Austen novels: “This is the fair, evenhanded dealing of the world: there is nothing it is so hard on his poverty, and nothing it professes to condemn so severely as the pursuit of wealth.” In the upper class of Jane Austen’s society, I have a tendency to suspend my disapproval of mercenary behavior — at least to a certain extent. There’s a lot of yammering on about marrying for love in any number of works from and concerning the time period, but, while that’s all very well and good, survival is pretty crucial too. And by survival I don’t just mean having food on a regular basis. To fall from a higher level of society to one in which you had to work for your daily bread was to become, at least in the estimation of that higher society if not of yourself, a less worthwhile human being. And as much bullshit as that is, the idea was so deeply ingrained that to be working-class was simply unthinkable to the gentry of the time. And yet the women of that society were given zero options beyond marrying money or being supported by some relative to avoid that unthinkable destiny. I cannot blame any woman of the time for choosing a loveless marriage over the supposed compromise of everything that made her a person of value.

Of course that’s as long as they’re not actively wounding others with their behavior. And that’s where Lucy Steele comes in. Because her upward mobility and the tenacity with which she pursues a wealthy match does not strike me as entirely inappropriate given the setup of the times. But the viciousness with which she treats Elinor in so doing is unforgivable. There’s a part of me that wants to excuse even such behavior as that, given the horrendous side of that society, but women should stick together and support each other, not tear each other down, especially when they’re all so severely oppressed. I’d like to say that even the men, as individuals in a faulty system, should be exempt from vicious treatments in the women’s pursuit of security… but I can’t quite go so far as that. I really don’t want to see anyone treated poorly or disrespectfully, but there are times when oppressed classes are excused certain types of bad behavior because it’s simply their only option.

I’m not even really sure where I was going with this, but I’d like to wind up by saying that Lucy Steele is a remarkably hateful character — one of the worst Jane Austen ever came up with, I think — but in some ways a surprisingly approvable character as well.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — Of course this is one of the best books evar, and I love it and enjoy every moment of it every time I read it, and laugh and cry and all that, but I think people try to make more (or different) of it than it actually is. The race issues in this book are incisive and dreadfully painful, but it’s not a book about racial issues. Yes, that’s a big part of the story, but it’s only one part of a story about a white character learning about life and growing into a good, strong person in a world where she could easily become something so much worse.

A story with a decent number of decently developed Black characters, a story with racial issues as its central and most important ones, a story where Black characters are the focus and don’t have their stories told by others or only told at all for the sake of a white character’s growth, or even a story with an uplifting message about racial issues, this is not. And, yes, it’s a wonderful book that points out many societal evils, comes down hard on the side of decency and humanity, and promotes allyship… but for any of those things I just mentioned as not being characteristic of this book, there are other books that will work better.

When I hear that some school district has decided to stop actively teaching this book because some people find it disturbing, and see a resultant furor about “banned books,” and how dare they suggest To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t the greatest work of anti-racist literature ever published, and “being disturbed is the point,” I get a little annoyed. First of all, maybe stop making this all about white people by assuming they’re the ones disturbed by this. If I were a person of color, and a neighbor or friend or relative of mine were in a position like Tom Robinson’s — as so many Black men are even today — you’d better fucking believe this book would disturb me. I might not be able to get through it. I might hella appreciate a school I attended not requiring it as reading and forcing me to discuss it in class and do projects based on it. Have a little bit of Poe-damned empathy, people.

OK, but enough of that. I still love this book to pieces, regardless of how other people think of it one way or another.

The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O’Brian — This wasn’t my favorite installment in this series, but of course it still had some really good bits. Sophie finding out about (one instance of) Jack’s infidelity, and her subsequent… education… on such matters by her companions was probably the best. I was also very interested in the business with commons; the explanation given about that whole practice has served me well since when such matters were mentioned in passing in other books from the same time period. The question is a fascinating one; what a different world it was.

Have I mentioned how fabulous it’s been to get back around to Jane Austen just near the end of the Aubrey/Maturin series? It’s wonderful to see the same time period through the eyes of a contemporary author as well as a modern genius of research whose favorite writer happened to be that earlier author. It’s like two very interesting sides of the same coin, especially when it comes to naval matters: Austen lived at the time but obviously wasn’t in the navy herself, while O’Brian lived in a different era but was able to meticulously research the navy of that period. It’s absolutely delightful. And speaking of Jane Austen again…

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — As I mentioned above, there’s not a lot to say about her that hasn’t been said by everyone that’s ever lived a billion times. Which is a lot of saying. But one point I did want to make is that I think Darcy, for all his apparent rigidity of character, is influenced by the people around him to act and speak differently. I mean, obviously, who isn’t? but I found it striking this time around because it reminds me of myself. He’s different in different company, and I feel like the Bingley sisters lead him into casually worse behavior than he exhibits in other groups.

I don’t have much else to say about this book right now; if I had any other points to raise that seemed interesting, I’ve forgotten what they were XD But I will mention that I read the “Manga Classics” adaptation not long after I read the book, and it is shriek-with-laughter funny. Certainly not a good adaptation, or anything I would recommend to anyone that doesn’t know the real book well, but worth looking through just for its hilarity if you do.

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