Husband-Wife Book Club Reads “A Tale of Two Cities”

As part of our New Year’s Resolutions, Jason and I decided to start a husband-wife book club. Here are our reviews about the second book on our list: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This time again the book was the wife’s pick.

What the wife says:

I’ve had a mixed bag of experiences with reading Charles Dickens over the years. I read Great Expectations as a teen and enjoyed it, although I found the language rather dense at times, and sometimes hard to follow. Funnily enough, I can’t remember anything about reading Hard Times as a university student (although not for a class), except that I enjoyed it. Oliver Twist, however, was another story. Hated the book, but loved the musical. Go figure.

However, I figured A Tale of Two Cities would be a sure success. Unlike Oliver Twist, it was written towards the end of Dickens’ career. And it’s about the French Revolution, so it’s bound to be exciting. And everyone goes around quoting “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the beginning of the first sentence of the novel.

Well, I have to say “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” accurately expresses my experience of reading A Tale of Two Cities. Except, I’d reverse the sentence to read “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.”

First, the worst of times:

The beginning is so slow. There are chapters with no characters whatsoever where Dickens writes in pure historical metaphor, quoting past events in flowery language, with subtle allusions to changes in legislation, or minor murders, or what-have-you. Without the trusty notes at the back of the book, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what the hell was going on.

When characters are introduced, the scenes jump around so frequently it is hard to keep track of them all. Sometimes we are following a touching father-daughter reunion. Other times we are listening in on the banter between a drunk and a banker. Other times we are in a wine shop in Paris, trying to grasp at some subversive activity. And through it all, I often thought, “So what?”

The transition between the scenes was jarring and the hints at intrigue that were probably supposed to propel the reader through the several hundred pages, such as “Why was the father imprisoned before the book started?” or “What is Mr. Darnay’s true identity?” or “How will this family be connected to the French Revolution?” really didn’t get resolved until the third act. Which means as a reader you have to wade through dense, archaic, indirect prose and choppy scenes for approximately 500 pages.

I am a very fast reader. This book took me over two weeks to finish. This is saying something. I considered abandoning it many times.

Sometimes, I’d be thinking along the lines, “Wow. They got married. That was quick. I never realised there was any love there because instead of following their love story we were stuck following that banker for a million years.”

Or later, I’d think, “Seriously? Sidney Carton? Wow. He came out of nowhere.”

Or “When will this revolution just start already and turn from knitting needles to knives?”

In fact, I mostly read this novel to prove I could. However, it wasn’t all bad. There was some humour in a particular graveyard scene. And sometimes how Dickens conveys the mood and atmosphere is brilliantly cinematic.

Still. Around 500 pages of introductory material. That. Is. A. Lot.

It almost drove me to make shoes.

The best of times:

Finally, in the third act, the pacing improves drastically. I read the third act in one night. It was just over 250 pages. And Dickens does actually tie all the characters together in the final plot points. He definitely pulled a fast one on me. There were twists I didn’t see coming.

The mob mentality, the moral discussions, the character development in several key characters, as well as the parallelism with the beginning and the end showed why Dickens is considered a master.

Even though his characters achieve such lofty ideals their actions become implausible, as a reader you are left wishing that humans did act that way and wondering if they ever will.

So… if you can endure 500 pages of introduction for this small but stirring conclusion, A Tale of Two Cities might be worth the endurance. If not, well, there are classics that are much easier to read.

What the husband says:

I’ve always had mixed experiences with classic novels. Either I enjoy them and manage to finish them like them like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights, or I lose interest and leave them unfinished, like War and Peace.

A Tale of Two Cities falls into the latter category. Emily actually read it but alas, I do not have her patience. She told me it got interesting by Part 3!

I can say that my first encounter with this book was probably about twenty years ago, when I was just a kid. Back then, I thought the opening paragraph about the best of times and the worst of times was pretty cool and I memorized that paragraph. When I tried to read it a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t get past the first couple of pages and went back to reading about public-key cryptography.

 

“Warcross” by Marie Lu

“Warcross” has been showing up a lot in my Twitter feed, so when I saw it on the shelf at my local library, I was super excited. And when I entered the futurist world of Emika Chen, well, I was hooked. I didn’t put this thing down for two days, reading long into the night.

Emika Chen is a pretty badass bounty hunter, and the opening sequence in the first chapter is to die for. I learned a lot about good writing by reading the beginning. Not only do we sympathise with Emika as a struggling teen whose just trying to pay her bills, we also are faced with very high stakes. If Emika doesn’t turn in this criminal to the police for the reward, she will be evicted from her apartment by the end of the week. And of course, the action scene where she chases around the criminal around New York City on an electric skateboard is super exciting. By the end of the first chapter, I was committed to the story.

Then, the story gets more involved when Emika tunes into the opening game of the Warcross Championships. Still desperate for cash, she decides to hack into the opening game, but a glitch pushes her into the action and she is viewed by everyone–the competitors, the audience–everyone.

After her failed stunt and sudden fame, it isn’t surprising that the game’s creator, the super rich and famous Hideo Tanaka wants to meet Emika. Hideo flies Emika to Tokyo and makes her a deal. Emika isn’t the game’s only security problem. And Hideo thinks with her help, he can finally get this other security problem under control.

This novel is really stunning with its depiction of the future. The virtual reality is flawlessly described. And the description of the Warcross games were believable and pulled upon various video game tropes. I have to admit though, however good these descriptions were, I’d rather play a video game in real time than read a second-hand description in a novel. It’s sort of the difference between watching and playing sports.

Still, the future that Marie Lu creates is pretty credible. Sometimes I read sci fi where the coding, virtual worlds, etc, are all too fantastical and not grounded in probable technology. Not in “Warcross.” This is the real deal.

Also, the characterisation was really good. I loved Emika. I loved Hideo. Their personalities shone in the plot.

In fact, the only true beef I have about “Warcross” is the ending. It made me mad. Without spoiling too much, there are tons of loose ends you have to discover the answers to in the sequel. After such a great ride, the ending felt like a huge letdown. I felt like, “I read 353 pages for this!!!” Which just goes to show how invested I was in the characters and their story, but still.

Cliff hangers. I think they’re for the end of chapters. Not for the end of stories. Grump, grump, grump.

I guess I’ll have to be patient and wait for the sequel to discover what happens next.

Is it worth it to have your computer read your entire novel aloud in a computer voice?

Having your computer read your entire novel aloud in its friendly, robotic computer voice is another one of those editing tips I read online and balked at trying.

Why?

First of all, the computer voice. It’s annoying. And listening to it read more than 65,000 words sounded like some not-yet-described level of writer’s hell. I mean, GPS is one thing. My novel is another.

Second, I thought perhaps the computer voice would kill the flow of my writing if I used it too early in my process. Because it doesn’t sound exactly human. So I read each scene as I wrote it aloud (especially the dialogue) alone in my room like a crazy person. It helped a lot.

Also I tried to have my husband read aloud to me parts of my book as well. He did a fantastic job, and having someone else read parts of the book was especially helpful. He didn’t know where to put inflection as he hadn’t written it, and his reading showed me when things weren’t quite there.

Of course, my husband couldn’t read out loud the entire thing cover to cover for me. That’s a pretty tall request to ask anyone, even your spouse. It takes forever and is pretty tedious for someone who already read the manuscript in all its iterations (even the really rough ones at the beginning; they were really rough, trust me).

Eventually, I didn’t know what else to do with the manuscript. So I put it down and recruited some beta-readers for some feedback.

After some time, I printed the manuscript–the whole thing–and read each sentence as carefully as I could. I wrote notes and implemented the changes.

Then, one of my beta-readers got back to me (Hi mum!). She had a few structural comments, and then she mentioned she had a list of duplicate/misspelled/missing words for me. Would I like this list?

Of course I’d like this list! This list will show me whether my painfully, fine-toothed-comb read through caught the mistakes and was sufficient.

Yep. My read through did not catch the mistakes on her list. My brain, especially, was just too damn good at supplying missing words or omitting duplicates.

I began to get a little scared.

Exactly how many mistakes of this type existed in the document? My beta-reader couldn’t have caught them all. She also is human and her brain must also be great at supplying missing words or omitting duplicates when she reads (Hi mum again!).

So I recruited Alex.

Alex is the name of the voice on my computer who will read any text aloud for me in an American accent. If you use a Mac, you can activate Alex by going to System Preferences, then Accessibility, then speech. You can change it to other accents if you prefer, but Apple doesn’t offer an English Canadian one. Come on Apple! Canadians have accents too.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. Apple speech has come a long way since I used to make the computer read silly messages in Bubbles or Pipe Organ in elementary school.

Alex reads with some inflection, lifting his voice at the end of questions and taking a breath every three sentences or so. Alex doesn’t pause at em-dashes unfortunately. Only about two words in the entire document he pronounced completely wrong. And a few weird slangs and sound effects he spelled out.

It was much less painful than I expected, and in five years I expect Apple speech will be flawless. (Maybe by then they will have a Canadian speaker too?)

Also, he caught a lot of mistakes. Because the computer doesn’t lie. It reads exactly what you wrote. I discovered that instead of “goggles” I wrote “googles,” and instead of “tilted” I wrote “titled.” Thanks Alex. He also revealed all of the missing words and duplicates.

So, yes. I recommend getting your computer to read aloud your entire novel. You’ll be surprised at what it catches, and you’ll be very happy that it did.

Husband-Wife Book Club Reads “My Man Jeeves”


As part of our New Year’s Resolutions, Jason and I decided to start a husband-wife book club. Here are our reviews about the first book on our list: My Man Jeeves by PJ Wodehouse. This time the book was the wife’s pick.

What the wife says:

I chose PJ Wodehouse’s My Man Jeeves because I realised in our entire Husband-Wife Book Club List, we didn’t propose any humour books. This seemed to be a strange omission on our part, so I decided to include one.

Now Jason and I tend to have similar senses of humour. Trying to describe our shared sense of humour is like trying to describe the punchline of a joke. I will say, however, that we can be quite silly, sarcastic, and enjoy good wordplay. We don’t tend to laugh at that random humour that appears in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Now sometimes Jason’s and my humour diverges. I find that Bloggess post about the giant metal chicken hilarious. And I think any sort of musical humour is great from Weird Al’s Ebay song, to that glorious scene in Back to the Future involving Marty, a tape-player, a space suit, and Marty’s dad.

Jason does not find these things particularly funny.

The big question I had when we were reading My Man Jeeves was: Will Jason find this humour funny or not?

So did he? I’ll let him tell you himself. Stay tuned to hear Jason’s opinion in his own words in his section of the post.

My Man Jeeves is a compilation of eight short stories. Of these, only four involve the boring aristocrat, Wooster, and his clever manservant, the unstoppable Jeeves. These stories were very funny and British.

I don’t want to spoil the stories, but let’s just say when I talked about them with Jason, I was laughing so hard. I particularly enjoyed the story about the girl trying to impress her boyfriend’s ornithologist dad. Jeeves’ solutions to his employer’s problems are unexpected and quirky and usually quite funny too. Usually.

At least, I thought so. What did Jason think? Stay tuned.

Also, I tried to give these Wooster-Jeeves stories a modern interpretation and see if they worked with any homoerotic undertones. When I took arts classes at McGill University, this was all the rage. Superficially, it seems to work since Jeeves does get rather stressed about Wooster’s appearance and fashion sense. On a deeper level, however, it seems to be clear that there isn’t anything going on there. The romance between Wooster and Jeeves is dead, folks.

However, this doesn’t matter in the slightest. These stories don’t require any deeper social commentary. Their purpose really is to amuse.

Now the other four stories in the compilation did not involve Jeeves. Cry. Instead, they described another bloke, Reggie. These stories had predictable plots and weren’t as funny. They relied overused comedy tropes, such as the fat kid who eats too many sweets. Also, the women in these stories really grated on my nerves.

My conclusion: Read the stories featuring Jeeves, skip the rest.

What the husband says:

My Man Jeeves reminds me of Sherlock Holmes with crime replaced by annoying relatives and Sherlock Holmes replaced by Mr. Wooster’s butler, Jeeves.

Emily kept asking whether I found this book funny. Mostly, I didn’t. I did find it amusing in return for his solutions, Jeeves pressures his master not to make supposedly poor wardrobe choices. Amusing isn’t hilarious, however. Jeeves solutions also don’t involve much ingenuity, so when I didn’t find them funny, there was little else in the story to keep me entertained.

The worst stories were those not about Jeeves and Wooster. Although these other stories are told in the style of the rest of the book replete with British slang, I found myself struggling to get through them because the dynamic between Wooster and Jeeves is absent and not replaced by anything comparable.

While I did enjoy parts of the Jeeves stories, and while I’m glad that I finally learned where that now defunct ‘Ask Jeeves’ search engine came from, I won’t be reading any more of them. My suggestion is just to read the first story in the book, and if you find it funny, keep reading. Or keep reading if it’s part of the book club, and hope it’s the last humour book on the list.

Introducing Husband-Wife Book Club!

My husband, Jason, and I were trying to think of a project we could do in the New Year.

Last year, he tried to teach me how to code in Python and I tried to teach him French (we’d each learn a new language, you see), but it turned out to be a bit more involved than we expected. We needed something that didn’t require us both to do copious amounts of homework and teaching preparation. Mainly because I have no motivation to do my homework since Jason will always love me regardless.

Jason had a brainwave. We’re always reading. We should start the Husband-Wife Book Club!

The structure of our Husband-Wife Book Club is as follows:

1) We will read 10 books in 2018. One book a month for 10 months along with a 2 month break, since this year at some point, we will move.

2) All of these 10 books, neither of us has ever read before.

3) Jason will pick 5 books. I will pick 5 books. These books can be anything that is intended to be read cover to cover (i.e. no reference books for identifying Australian reptiles, but a nonfiction book such as a biography or a true story about a parrot is okay). They can be fiction or nonfiction, in any genre. Also, both Jason and I have to agree that we should read the book. Both Jason and I have the power to veto a proposed novel.

In this choosing process, Jason exercised his power of veto quite liberally. I learned that Jason prefers not to read works written in epic verse. Or ancient works translated from Latin about Roman society. Or an entire three hundred page book of fairy tales. The latter, admittedly, was an epic fail. As much as I like fairy tales, even I cannot read three hundred pages of them.

4) Each month, we will review the chosen books on my blog.

So, which books did we pick? (The pink is my choice, the blue Jason’s, hooray for traditional genre roles!)

1) My Man Jeeves by PJ Wodehouse

2) Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (sci fi)

3) Paradise Lost by John Milton (The only epic poem permitted!)

4) The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

5) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

6) A Graveyard for Lunatics (Another Tale of Two Cities) by Ray Bradbury

7) A novel that the wife still has to choose. (Why haven’t I done this yet? What’s wrong with me? I don’t know!)

8) Arslan by MJ Engh (More sci fi)

9) All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (This is me, of course I want to read Stiefvater!)

10) A Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

You can read along with us if you like! You don’t have to be a husband or wife or married to us to join! 😀