My reading theme in November 2014 was about Victorian England – and I chose three books to read for the duration of the month: The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y. S. Lee, about secret (fictional) female detective Agency with a level-headed half-Chinese, half-Irish heroine who struggles to come to terms with her self-identity that seems to contain opposing qualities; Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger, which chronicles Sophronia’s further adventures away from her spy-training finishing school, with Steampunk and supernatural elements thrown in (best enjoyed if you have already read Parasol Protectorate series, but not a strict requirement); The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, a collection of serials about the “Pickwickians” Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Tupman, Mr. Winkle and their friends. Also his first book to be published.
I was full of anticipation for November to start – I was sure it would be a blast, especially because I’d enjoyed the prequels to both The Traitor in the Tunnel and Waistcoats & Weaponry A LOT. So I was fairly confident that two out of three at least I would love. I’d picked The Pickwick Papers mainly to motivate myself towards The Classics Club Challenge and because most of the reviews I’d read said that it was really fun.
Before I say anything about the books themselves, let me make myself clear that I am really, really glad that I tried out the monthly reading theme. It pushed me past my usual reading habits (easy, short books because university works claim most of my brain’s capacity) and out of my reading comfort zone. Well, I’m sure I would have read W & W anyway no matter what, but who knows for how many more months Traitor would have sat on my shelf if I had not ordered myself to pick up the book? I’d read its prequel, The Body at the Tower, 11 months ago. Especially reading The Pickwick Papers was difficult, mainly because I was trying to read a 700+ page classic in one month.
Let’s break it down now.
The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y. S. Lee – Out of the three books that are published so far (the fourth and final one comes out next year), Mary Quinn undergoes most tumulus emotional journey in this book. We have already seen her struggle with her mixed heritage (it was not a good time to be a foreigner in mid-19th century England), her past and her feelings for a certain gentleman. In this book, the stakes are higher than ever, and her rational, cool-headed side is at war with another side that is emotional and yearns for something that is deeper than reason or passion. Mary’s personal developments were realistically and heart-wrenchingly portrayed. The romantic subplot takes rather a back-seat in Traitor, but I didn’t mind that as much. What I did mind was the end – regarding the future of the Agency. It made me angry and sad that something that represents the struggle against gender inequality (in a subtle, inside-out way) is to be quarreled over like two kids over a toy. It saddens me to see these two amazing women fail to compromise and build a stronger front by uniting. This, coupled with the rather boring plot regarding the Buckingham Palace, dampened my enthusiasm for the book. All in all I gave The Traitor in the Tunnel 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger – I liked having Sophronia behaving like a normal person for a change. I love her intelligencer side, I really do, but seeing her undecided on romantic fronts and being confused by physical and emotional attraction was pretty cool to watch as well. Dimity is as loyal as ever and it’s so easy to love her. Agatha has a rather small role in Waistcoats, and Sidheag is worried about the uprising and its outcome in the werewolf world. Pillover has some hilarious moments, Soap is thinking of his future, Felix is… Felix.
That being said, the story itself was pretty much a long, long journey. Not much school stuff except for the beginning chapters (a heads-up: A year has passed since the events of Courtsies & Conspiracies.). People who have read the Parasol Protectorate books know about the Kingair uprising already, and I think the author spent just the right amount of attention on it – not too much, lest it be a recap, and not too little, lest it confuse the new readers. (I’m still wondering how Sidheag couldn’t have recognized Vieve in Changeless?! Or at least the name Lefoux??!) But as a whole I feel like the book could have accomplished more than tying up Sidheag’s future and giving us hints about Sophronia’s. But maybe this is a prelude of sorts to Manners & Mutiny, like laying down groundwork for a big whoa! Nonetheless, Waistcoats was a huge let-down and part of it is because I had such high hopes. I gave the book 2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens – I did not finish this book. I suppose I will finish it someday, but that day wasn’t in November 2014. However, I did manage to read 40% of the book, so I will talk about those 40%. In the beginning of the month I found my self-imposed challenge reasonable and engaging. My plan was to read two chapters every day, which is manageable. Then I was away on a weekend and had to catch up four or six chapters. I never did catch up and around 4th week of the month, I gave up trying. Instead, I read other books that I was itching to.
I don’t know what it is about Dickens, but I find his books rather boring in the middle part. Maybe it’s because it was written as a serial and Dickens had to worry only about the next chapter instead of the big picture. I also find his characters unbearably dull. For Pickwick, good humor saves everything. Snodgrass is a bit mysterious yet, but Winkle and Tupman will do anything Mr. Pickwick suggests. These four gentlemen do have good intentions even if they never reflect on their privileged position as both gentry and male. This is what makes them boring for me, I suppose. A study of villain character, while never preferable in real life because it does not need any more malevolence, would have offered more perspectives and interesting pages than these four fat gentlemen traipsing around the country. That being said, I must say that I do really appreciate those short “sketches”, or manuscripts, as they are called in the book. In them, Dickens explores his sensationalist side of story-telling. Most of them are rather fantastic, but they deal with the “uglier” human qualities – hatred, envy, madness. I especially enjoyed the madman’s tale. I could feel its manic energy across the page, time and world.
Another complaint against Dickens are his female characters – so insipid, so flat, so boring! They are even less dynamic than the male characters. All of them are either flutter-y and blush-y or cheating and manipulative. Ugh. I will definitely have to try out other Victorian male writers to see whether the problem was universal or only Dickens’.