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No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal. A literary fiction novel alternating between the viewpoints of Harit, a shy Indian immigrant who is isolated from everyone around him, making do by working in a department store and going home to his mother, who is in such a pit of grief that she hasn't spoken a word in years; Ranjana, a much more successful Indian immigrant, both financially and socially, who nonetheless feels a bit unfulfilled and so has begun to secretly write vampire romances; and Prashant, Ranjana's son who is enjoying his first semester at Yale by chasing after various girls. Minor characters occasionally step in to take over the narration for a chapter or two, such as Teddy, Harit's flamboyantly gay middle-aged co-worker, or Harit's mother, but the main focus is on the three above.

In many ways, this is a very typical novel for its genre: lonely people bumbling through their lives, trying to understand who they are and how to interact with the culture around them. It's improved by its touches of levity and brightness, including an almost unrealistically happy ending, but it's hard not to be pleased to see these characters succeed. I absolutely adore Ranjana's vampire obsession, which feels so bizarre surrounded by the very serious-minded literary quality of the rest of the book. Though I do have to protest that Satyal does not seem to have done his research. He says, Anne Rice had as many orgasms in her books as commas, but come on, Anne Rice almost never writes explicit sex scenes. Clearly it should be Laurell K. Hamilton had as many orgasms in her books as commas, and I know he's heard of Hamilton since he name-dropped her in an earlier scene. We also get an excerpt of Ranjana's novel-in-progress at one point, and it's much more Dracula or even Nosferatu than anything from the modern paranormal romance genre. But I forgive these mistakes because awkward moms writing vampire romance is beautiful and should be in more novels about the Immigrant Experience.

Overall it's not a particularly outstanding or memorable example of what it's doing, but it's just odd enough to be worth reading, and your time will be pleasantly spent.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Hoodoo Harry by Joe Lansdale. A novella in the long-running Hap & Leonard series, mystery/thriller books about a pair of mismatched best friends (one a white straight ex-hippie, one a black gay conservative) in rural East Texas. In this adventure, Hap and Leonard are driving home from a fishing trip when their truck is rammed by a bookmobile driven by a terrified 12-year-old boy. Unfortunately the kid does not survive the crash, and an investigation turns up signs of torture on his body as well as the fact that he'd been missing for a week. Even stranger, the bookmobile itself had disappeared more than 15 years ago, along with the woman who drove it. From that point the adventure takes off, with an investigation, more bodies, fistfights, secret hidden rooms, and an all-out gun battle.

This is a quick read (only 76 pages) and could easily be enjoyed without knowledge of the rest of the series, though it's dark enough (as you could probably guess, when a young child dies on page one) that I'm not sure many would want to. It's funny, it's exciting, it's tense, it's basically everything Joe Lansdale always does well, just in a smaller package than usual.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History by Eric Foner. A collection of essays previously published in The Nation about the connection between American history and contemporary issues. Foner is a well-regarded historian; though I know him best for Gateway to Freedom, his book on the Underground Railroad, he's studied and written on multiple periods and topics.

The oldest in this collection is from 1977, written for the 50th anniversary of the case and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Foner describes the ways the men have been used as a symbol and example for multiple agendas, and how most such portrayals ignore the reality of them as individuals. It's still an interesting and useful article today. The most recent is from January of this year, 2017, and recounts Foner's experiences teaching a college course called “The Radical Tradition in America". He's taught it since the 70s, and students have understandably changed over time, from those who were trying to maintain hope during the Reagan 80s, to those energized by Obama's 2008 victory, to the last batch, influenced by Bernie Sanders's campaign. Some of the essays do feel a bit dated, such as the one from 2001 on the Patriot Act. It's still an awful law, don't get me wrong! It's just that nothing Foner says here is likely to be news to the reader.

My favorite essay was the one on Lincoln's changing views on slavery and racial equality ("Our Lincoln", 2009). Foner portrays him as ultimately a centrist, slow to change his opinion but equally capable of correcting past mistakes. It's a nice change from the black-and-white view of history (and modern people) that can sometimes take over our thinking.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Ah, this book is fantastic! :D I mean, it's Rushdie, who's surprised, but I do think this is by far the book of his I've loved the most.

The Golden family – Nero, the patriarch, and his three adult sons, Petronius (aka Petya), Lucius Apuleius (aka Apu), and Dionysus (aka D) – are newcomers to The Gardens, a small self-contained neighborhood in New York City, like a child's dreamy ideal of pre-hipster Greenwich Village. Their names, by the way, are all fake; the family is fleeing undisclosed trauma in an unnamed country (it's obviously India, but you have to get fairly deep into the book for that to be made explicit). Each adjusts, or doesn't, to their new life in America with varying degrees of success. Petya attempts to move past his severe autism and alcoholism, Apu makes a name as a celebrity artist, and D struggles to figure out his (or her) gender identity. Nero joins the construction industry, blasts his name across buildings, and acquires a Slavic trophy wife, but it's not quite fair to call him a Trump analogue; for one thing, Nero's far too smart and self-aware, not to mention capable of regret. In fact Trump himself is occasionally mentioned in the background, though he's always referred to as 'The Joker':
To step outside that enchanted—and now tragic—cocoon was to discover that America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; D.C., Suchitra said, was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen—it was not an age of heroes—but his archrival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!

All of this is narrated by René, a young man also living in the safety of The Gardens, a filmmaker with dreams of making a documentary about the Goldens, or perhaps just a movie starring a fictionalized version of them. René openly admits that he will combine characters or change backstories to fit his idea of how the story should go, which means it's always open to interpretation how much of what he's telling us is the truth.

It's a book that is bursting at the seams with stuff of all sorts: Greek myth, Roman history, Russian folklore, American politics, philosophy and melodrama, an enormous number of characters each of whom gets their own backstory, motivation, and secret thoughts, subplots and sub-subplots, dramatic revelations from the past that reappear unexpectedly, murders and fires, equal allusions Kipling and to mafia movies and the I ching, and even a secret baby. The writing is gorgeous, of course, and there's plenty to make you think, but what I was most surprised about was simply how compelling it was. I never wanted to put this book down, because I was so thrillingly engaged to find out what happened next. Just a really, really amazing book. I already want to reread it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Okay, I'm all caught up with my Netgalley reviewing at least. Now I just need to write about the nine other books I've finished...
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A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. A murder mystery with a noir-ish feel, set in 1919 Calcutta. Our main character and narrator is Sam Wyndham, ex-Scotland Yard detective and WWI veteran, newly recruited to boost the investigative skills of the police in Calcutta. On Sam's arrival, he is greeted with the body of a white man dressed in black tie, found in an alley in a "native" neighborhood behind a brothel. This at first seems to be a simple case of robbery or scandalous sex gone wrong, but expands to become a conspiracy involving the highest political and economic levels of the British Raj.

The depiction of historical Calcutta is detailed and fascinating, but Sam himself is, alas, less interesting. He's a mystery hero cliche in several ways: the dead wife, the addiction (morphine this time instead of the usual alcoholism, at least), the attempt at hard-boiled writing:
I coughed as the stench clawed at my throat. In a few hours the smell would be unbearable; strong enough to turn the stomach of a Calcutta fishmonger. I pulled out a packet of Capstans, tapped out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled, letting the sweet smoke purge my lungs. Death smells worse in the tropics. Most things do.
[...]
Still, I’d seen worse.
Finally there was the note. A bloodstained scrap of paper, balled up and forced into his mouth like a cork in a bottle. That was an interesting touch, and a new one to me. When you think you’ve seen it all, it’s nice to find that a killer can still surprise you.


It's not bad, it's just a pallid imitation of much better writers. Though to be fair to Mukherjee, there were occasional passages that made me laugh:
Four storeys high and about two hundred yards long, with massive plinths and huge columns topped off with statues of the gods. Not Indian gods, of course. These ones were Greek, or possibly Roman. I never could tell the difference.
That was the thing about Calcutta. Everything we’d built here was in the classical style. And everything was larger than necessary. Our offices, mansions and monuments all shouted, Look at our works! Truly we are the inheritors of Rome.
It was the architecture of domination.
It all seemed faintly absurd. The Palladian buildings with their columns and pediments, the toga-clad statues of Englishmen long deceased, and the Latin inscriptions on everything from palaces to public lavatories. Looking at it all, a stranger could be forgiven for thinking that Calcutta had been colonised by Italians rather than Englishmen.


Sam's character is thin and inconsistent. He's sometimes on the side of the Indians, sometimes on the side of the British. Such flip-flopping could be an astute characterization of a basically decent man reluctant to lose his own privilege, but that's not the case here; it's just messy. He knows way too much about Indian culture, languages, and history for a dude who supposedly arrived in the country days ago. His treatment of the one important female character is sexist and leering (though I am fairly certain that's from Sam's view and not Mukherjee's, but either way it makes me reluctant to spend more time with the character).

The mystery is well-done and several secondary characters are appealing, but ultimately I didn't enjoy it enough to continue with the series.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


I Love My Bread Machine: More Than 100 Recipes for Delicious Home Baking by Anne Sheasby. When I was growing up, my mom went through a phase of obsessing over her bread machine, making all kinds of standard and unusual breads in those funny rectangular loaves. They might look a little weird, but there's nothing like the smell of baking bread. I've fallen out of the habit in recent years and haven't used a bread machine in ages, but when I saw this book, I figured it would be a good way to start again.

There are indeed all sorts of tempting recipes in this book, from the sweet (Golden Gingerbread, Lemon Blueberry Loaf) to the savory (Pesto Whirl Bread, Greek Black Olive Bread), traditional (English Muffins, Sesame Bagels) to new (Garlic Bubble Ring, Orange and Cinnamon Brioche). There's even a whole chapter on gluten-free breads!

Unfortunately I have a major complaint. A large number of the recipes (I'd guess over 50%) use the bread machine to knead the dough, but then require you to do the actual baking in a normal oven. They sometimes ask you to do additional steps as well: mixing, shaping, coating, drizzling, brushing with egg, and even more kneading. What's the point of using a bread machine at all if you're still doing three-fourths of the work the old-fashioned way? You may as well just skip the machine step and use a traditional bread cookbook.

On the other hand, Garlic and Coriander Naan does sound delicious. Maybe this book will tempt me out of my laziness over baking after all.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
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Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey. The first in the long-running Serge Storms series, which has such neon-bright covers and memorable titles ("Nuclear Jellyfish", "Gator A-Go-Go", and "Atomic Lobster", for a few examples) that I've been meaning to check them out for ages. I was stymied by wanting – reasonably! – to start with the first book, but had some difficult finding it; it was published in 1999, which is practically historic by now.

But I have finally managed to find and read it and so I can say: it's pretty much the same as Carl Hiaasen. Which isn't a criticism – I like Hiaasen! Sure, there are some differences: Dorsey's cast is a motley crew of amusing sociopaths, while Hiaasen usually throws in at least one good guy who vaguely resembles a real human to root for; Dorsey's plotting is somehow even looser and more of a string of random scenes than Hiaasen's; the violence is even more over-the-top, cartoonish, and slapsticky. But honestly, if someone had switched the authors' names on the cover, I wouldn't have noticed.

The plot is hard to summarize, since it's a collection of disjointed threads that only come together at the end in surprising ways. We have: Sean and Dave, two normal guys on a fishing trip; George Veale, sleazy dentist who has just embezzled $5 million; Mo Grenadine, a radio talk show host propelled into politics by appealing to the lowest, most racist, homophobic denominator; the most incompetent cocaine cartel in the world; a trio of wannabe Hell's Angels who, after getting kicked out of every motorcycle gang, become the resident guardians of a trailer park retirement home; a deadly pesticide; a fetishest obsessed with Barbie dolls; and an insurance company that manages to be evil even by the low, low standards of insurance companies. But the main characters, such as they are, are the trio of Serge, Coleman, and Sharon. Serge, who gives his name to the whole series, is a sociopath with an obsession with Florida history and trivia. His sidekick Coleman is dumb, good-natured, and usually too drunk or high to object to anything, and Sharon, the beautiful violent coke-fiend, joins the others for the sake of the money and drugs they accidentally accumulate on their way across Florida.

I enjoyed the book, but it's not exactly something I'd recommend to others unless you have a very particular taste. If jokes about the crazy exploits of 'Florida man', the weirder and more explicit the better, tickle your sense of humor, than this may be the book for you. Otherwise look for your mindless beach read elsewhere.


Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley. A new biography of Jane Austen, structured around the various houses she lived in. It's a neat approach to organizing a life-story, though ultimately I don't think it influenced the text as much as I'd expected it to.

This is the first Austen biography I've read, so I can't say how it compares to others. It didn't include anything I was particularly shocked to learn, but then she didn't really have a life full of surprises, did she? Worsley describes herself as writing against the Austen family's early portrayal of Jane as a modest, virtuous aunt; she heavily emphasizes Jane's anger and sarcasm in her surviving letters, her ambition in seeing her books published and being paid for them, and the existence of her brother George, who was sent away to live with caregivers due to his epilepsy and whose existence was hidden by the family. It's an easy, enjoyable read, even if there doesn't seem to be much new or different here. Worsley does expect her audience to be very familiar with Austen's books, frequently dropping in allusions to characters or plots, but on the other hand, that's probably a fair assumption of the self-selecting audience of an Austen biography.

I liked it, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's a biography out there that does the job better.

I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
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(Three guesses what I've been preparing to teach a class on)

So, yes, there is indeed an effort on to bring the Woolly Mammoth back from extinction, either through cloning (led by teams from Japan and South Korea) or through editing the genomes of modern-day Asian Elephants (led by a team from Harvard, with celeb-scientist George Church at the helm). Working on another aspect of the project, Sergey Zimov, assisted by his son Nikita, have already established a nature reserve in remote northeastern Siberia to provide a habitat for the potential mammoths – and of course they have named it Pleistocene Park, because there is no way to talk about this topic without a million references to Jurassic Park. The Zimovs have also provided the impetus for this project by arguing that mammoths would churn the soil and trample the snow as they grazed, thus exposing the permafrost to the freezing temperatures of the air in a Siberian winter, and thereby slowing down global warming.


Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich. Mezrich's book gives the bare basics of the science and ethics of de-extinction, but he is way, way more interested in the personalities surrounding the technology. Did you need two chapters on George Church's troubled childhood relationship with a stepbrother? Now you have them! How about one where his mom takes him to the 1964 World's Fair and he's inspired to become a scientist? There's that too! In addition to chapters on Nikita Zimov's romantic relationship with his wife, and what Stewart Brand's (one of the founders of Revive & Restore, a non-profit funding de-extinction research) vacation house looks like, and so on. Even when Mezrich does deign to write about actual science, he's focused on the drama and setbacks (a car crash while transporting elk cross-country!) and not so much on explaining what's happening (we never do learn how those elk adapt once they reach their destination).

I was particularly annoyed by two speculative chapters set "Four years from today..." when Mezrich just goes off into flights of fancy, describing what it might be like to have woolly mammoths in what is supposedly a non-fiction book. These chapters are not set apart from the rest of the text, and so I spent several pages really confused by what was happening and how it could be possible. (And by the way, four years is a crazy timetable that is in no way realistic for what he describes.) There's also at least one chapter that I'm pretty sure was supposed to be set today (or, well, in 2016 or whenever Mezrich did his research), but that I've been able to find no confirmation of anywhere outside this book itself. So was it just more speculation? Or an important advance that has been covered by no newspaper anywhere? I don't know, and this is why I'm annoyed.

This book only came out this month (July 2017), and so while I was grateful for the up-to-date developments it included, it could have been much better written.


How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction by Beth Shapiro. (2015) Shapiro is herself a scientist, one who specializes in recovering and reading Ancient DNA, and it really shows in this book. She understands the science of cloning, sequencing genomes, editing DNA, epigenetic influence on gene expression, and more, and explains it all in a clear and comprehensible way.

She's also the most cynical by far of any of the de-extinction authors I've read; she's skeptical not just of if it's really possible to bring back woolly mammoths, but also if it's a good idea in the first place. She goes deep into many of the arguments against de-extinction and admits that she agrees with many of them. She takes the stance that de-extinction doesn't really "count" unless we can progress all the way to releasing a viable population of the species into the wild, and therefore attention deserves to go to species that will most have a beneficial effect of their ecosystems.

Despite this somewhat negative view, Shapiro is actually involved in a de-extinction project herself (Revive & Restore's effort to de-extinct the passenger pigeon), and I feel like the practicality this gives her infuses the whole book. She's spent years grappling with the questions of how to do this and why, and there's a solidness, a down-to-earthness, to her answers that other authors just don't have. Highly recommended if you really want to know the ins and outs of the science behind de-extinction.


Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction by Helen Pilcher. (2016) The easiest read of the recent de-extinction books, and probably the one I'd recommend for someone with only a casual interest in the topic. Each chapter covers a specific de-extinction project, from the likely to the implausible: dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, passenger pigeons, dodos, tasmanian tigers, Neanderthals, and, of course, Elvis. This organization means that she doesn't get particularly deep into any one project, but on the other hand, breadth can be equally impressive. Pilcher doesn't skimp on explaining the science and ethical quandaries of de-extinction, but the overall tone of the book is definitely "OMG, listen to this neat fact I just found!" Which isn't a criticism; I have very much enjoyed my share of neat fact collections. (Such as: the origin of the word "Dodo" is possibly from the Dutch for "Fat-Ass". There, isn't your life improved by knowing that?)

I particularly enjoyed how Pilcher emphasizes that the technology used for de-extinction isn't limited to incredible feats of seeing Ice Age megafauna roam the earth once more. Current conservation projects, such as those for black-footed ferrets and the Northern white rhino (two species that are technically not yet extinct, but it's probably only a matter of time) could and are using the same methods to protect their dwindling populations. It's a way of bringing all the speculation and scientific advances back down to earth and showing their real, current effects.
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The Gunslinger by Stephen King. No bonus points for guessing that I read this to be beforehand with the upcoming movie – though I've since heard that The Gunslinger (film) is not actually based on The Gunslinger (novel), but rather is sort of a sequel to the entire Dark Tower series. And I don't think I'm going to manage to get through another seven King books in less than a month, so I suppose the whole effort was a bit pointless. But I'd been meaning to read the book for years, so maybe not so pointless after all.

Anyway.


The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed, goes the famous opening line, and that's a fair description of the book itself. Characters are few, and those that are present are sparse to the point of one-dimensionality, frequently given epithets rather than names. The setting is a Dark Western Fantasy in a "world that has moved on" – there was once electricity and cities and advanced medicine, but all that's left now are border towns and overgrown ruins and strange cargo cult religions built around the single still-functioning gasoline pump and stories half-remembered from before. It's one of those books where figuring out what the hell is happening and why is the main driver of tension; the reader doesn't learn why the gunslinger is chasing the man in black until the last few pages, and even then there are unanswered questions. Worldbuilding and backstory are mostly conveyed in little hints around the edges of the story, which is pared down to the equivalent of a colorless pencil sketch.

(Note: There exists both an original text (published in 1982) and a "revised and expanded" version (published in 2003); I read the original, since there doesn't seem to be a consensus opinion on which version is better.)

At its best moments, the one-note quality of the writing works like a shotgun blast to convey a specific feeling or setting: the endless dehydrating trek across a flat white desert, the eternity spent in a empty lightless tunnel crossing beneath a mountain. But on the other hand there is whatever the fuck is going on with the book's treatment of female sexuality, which is so bizarre and off putting that I'm not even sure how to describe it. Every female character is horny and obsessed with sleeping with the gunslinger, which he reluctantly deigns to allow. The one exception is his long-lost mother, whose hinted-at adultery leads to a hinted-at downfall of a kingdom, in a Queen Guinevere sort of way.

And then there's the woman who gets shot in the vagina. Which, just... what.

It's weird and episodic and doesn't work terribly well as an individual book rather than the start of a series, but on the whole I think I'm glad I read it. Besides, I hear the subsequent books improve, so I'll have to keep reading.
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What did you just finish?
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. A fantasy novel, though one that starts out in perfectly non-magical 1850s England and only gradually introduces its fantastical elements. Merrick Tremayne is a former employee of the East India Company, now back home and facing a life of boredom and genteel poverty due to a leg injury that never quite healed and which makes it difficult for him to walk. His old friend Clem convinces him to make one last trip, to Peru, where they will attempt to smuggle out a Cinchona tree – the world's only source of quinine and therefore its only treatment for malaria. England has tired of paying Peru's monopoly for quinine and wants to set up its own cinchona plantations, but Peru is perfectly happy to kill to protect its only source of wealth. Clem and Merrick pick up the novel's third main character shortly after arriving in Peru: Raphael, a local man with a mysterious past who serves as their guide and/or potential spy to prevent any cinchona smuggling.

There are wonderful things about this book. Pulley creates several absolutely magical set pieces, including the "Bedlam Stacks" of the title: a village built on a series towering obsidian columns above a river, where the bedrock is glass and anything going in or out has to be hauled up by a series of pulleys and levers. I do admire her imagination, and the novel's take on the rapicious greed of 19th century capitalism, from the East India Company to the Opium Wars to England's realpolitik threatening of Peru, is all great.

Unfortunately I didn't love the book. The middle section is extremely slow, to the point where I almost put down the book several times because nothing was happening and I was getting bored. In addition, Merrick (who is the narrator) persists on insisting nothing magical is going on long long past the point of reason. And I suppose that's realistic enough, but a fantasy novel where the characters refuse to notice anything fantastic is happening is kind of missing the point of the genre. Besides, any time the reader figures out a plot development hundreds of pages before the narrator, it's a problem. It's just annoying to wait for the characters to catch up to what you've already realized. Anyway. My final problem with The Bedlam Stacks is that the central love story didn't work for me. I really wanted it to! I loved the idea of it! But Merrick spends 3/4ths of the book needlessly suspicious and afraid of the other character (who is of course harmless, another time the narrator took forever to catch on to what was incredibly obvious, at least to this reader), and then abruptly switches to making a lifelong commitment, with seemingly no transition from one state to the other. I just wanted to dwell on growing love and trust, but it happened so quickly I missed it.

On the whole I liked it more than I didn't, but oh! It was so close to being something I might love, and didn't quite make it there.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Revolution by Piet Hein Wokke. A novel about Middle Eastern history from the 1930s to 50s, set in a fictional country. The point of view shifts between Jalal, Oxford-educated prince and later king of this country, married to a French feminist; Abdullah, a street urchin of the capital city who grows to become a palace clerk through a fortunate scholarship; and Khalid, a boy from a small town who becomes a fast-rising leader in the army. The book describes the political clashes as the country grows and attempts to modernize, such as between more conservative and more progressive factions of Islam or between the powerful old families of the country who want to keep their influence and Jalal's attempts to move towards democracy and egalitarianism. This was all fairly well done – enough so that I wondered why Wokke even set the book in a fictional country. If you've got a fictional setting, go ahead and do something interesting with it! But if you're going to stick so close to history, why not go ahead and set it in an actual country, and the reader can learn a few names and dates as they read? I never did figure this choice out, though I suspect the planned sequel might develop more in an interesting direction.

But I won't be reading that sequel, mainly because of the writing style. Revolution is written in extremely simple English, enough so that I spent a significant portion of it assuming that it was a middle-grade novel, not even up to including the complex sentences of YA. Though if nothing else, the extremely graphic scaphism scene definitely suggested it was not meant for children (by the way, if you don't know that word, don't google it! I'm trying to spare you nightmares. It's a form of torture). In the afterword the author says he learned English while writing this book, so I assume that explains the style.

On a minor note, there is a lot of anti-semitism in the dialogue. Which I suppose is realistic enough for the characters, particularly since the majority of it comes from Khalid's drill sergeant, but it did get uncomfortable to read after a while.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Copenhagen Affair by Amulya Malladi. A literary fiction novel. Sanya, Indian-American, is the perfect wife, businesswoman, and mother – until her nervous breakdown leaves her unable to work or maintain her relationships. She and her husband Harry move for a year to Copenhagen, partly for Harry's job (his company is in the late stages of acquiring an IT company based there) but mostly in the hope that a change of scene will make Sanya feel better. She soon meets handsome, mysterious Anders Ravn, the owner of the company Harry is buying, and begins to fall in love with him, even contemplating leaving Harry or having an affair. Matters are further complicated when it begins to seem that Ravn may be involved in a white-collar crime with the potential to affect Harry's company, and Sanya has to decide what she wants and who she is.

It's a fun little book, if a bit slight. Sanya's depression never felt entirely realistic to me. It's mostly an excuse for How Stella Got Her Groove Back-esque reinvention (there's even a makeover scene complete with new hairdo, pedicure, and Brazilian wax), with a few textbook-perfect symptoms. There's never a sense of the actual lived experience of clinical depression or anxiety. But that's all right, because the main goal of the book is to make you want to visit Copenhagen, and in that it succeeds 100%. The restaurants, the cafes, the stores, tourist trips to hippie neighborhoods to buy pot, name-brand clothes and internationally-recognized interior designers, the boat trips to summer houses in Sweden... it's like a glossy tourism ad in novel form. And hey, sometimes that's what you want! :D It's certainly what I was happy to spend a few days reading.

Though now I really really want to go to Copenhagen.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. It's surprisingly fun so far! Which is not necessarily an adjective I associate with Rushdie, but it seems to fit in this case.
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What did you just finish?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. A nonfiction book about Sabella Nitti, a woman who was found guilty of murdering her husband in 1923 Chicago – making her the first woman to be given a death sentence by an American court. (Note: not really. Plenty of women had hung or burned or otherwise received capital punishment before Nitti, but a lack of historical awareness meant that the lawyers, judges, and general public at the time reacted as though this was a new development, and chose to be proud of it or appalled by it as their personal politics dictated.) She is probably best-remembered these days as the inspiration for the Hungarian-speaking woman in the musical Chicago; here she is protesting her innocence during the Cell Block Tango.

Nitti was an Italian immigrant, illiterate, a farm wife, ugly (at least according to the reporters covering the case), and spoke no English or mainstream Italian, but only a fairly rare dialect called Barese. In addition, she was saddled with a defense lawyer who seemed to be actively losing the ability to maintain a train of thought – his behavior during the trial was remarkably unhelpful to her cause, and he would later spend years in a mental asylum. These factors almost guaranteed she would receive a guilty verdict despite the fact that it was never even clear if her husband was actually dead (it seems likelier he just decided to abandon the family), much less that she was the one who killed him. The local sheriff and one of Nitti's own sons seem to have been the prime movers in pinning the crime on her, despite the lack of evidence.

The depiction of the prejudices and passions of 1920s Chicago was where the book really shone. Women had newly gained the vote, and many saw the potential death sentence of a woman as connected to that – with power comes responsibility. Others argued that women were inherently deserving of mercy: "She is a mother and a mother has never been hanged in the history of this country. I do not believe the honorable court here will permit a mother to hang.” And then, of course, there was the issue of looks, of proper decorum – the pretty, fashionable yet obviously guilty women judged innocent by their all-male juries, and Nitti condemned to hang.

The first 2/3rds or so of the book, when Lucchesi is guiding the reader through Nitti's life before her husband's disappearance and the subsequent trial, are pretty great. Unfortunately the last third loses the thread. Lucchesi detours into describing the backstories of various prisoners Nitti would have met or other contemporary court cases in Chicago; none of it seems to have much to do with Nitti, who disappears from the page for chapters at a time. Some of these would become the inspiration for other characters in Chicago, but since Lucchesi won't mention the musical until the epilogue, the reader is left to make the connection on their own or be confused. (Overall I found the book's lack of direct acknowledgement of Chicago odd – it's so obviously hanging there, waiting for the reader to notice it, and yet Lucchesi treats it like a devil who will bring bad luck if its name is invoked. Not to mention the missed marketing opportunity.) Others, like the two chapters spent on the Leopold and Loeb case, just seem to have interested Lucchesi and were vaguely connected, so she threw them in as a afterthought.

It's a good example of historical crime writing, even if it needed a better structural editor.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD EVERYONE READ IT IMMEDIATELY. A novel set in 1746 New York City, the book opens with the arrival in town of Richard Smith, fresh from London and bearing a bill for a thousand pounds. All of the novel's action is compacted within the next 60 days, as various New Yorkers wait to receive word from England proving Smith is who he says he is and if he really is owed such a fabulous sum; in the meantime they (and the reader) are left to figure out the mysterious Smith: a conman who should be thrown in the city's freezing jail? a wealthy aristocrat who your daughters should be encouraged to woo? a French spy, come to exploit the division between the city's new-born political parties? an actor, a Catholic, a gay man, a libertine, or possibly even a Turkish magician? Through it all Smith delights in giving no answers, reveling in the New World as a place to remake himself. I generally am suspicious of books that deliberately hide information from the reader, but it's done so well here and leads to such a delightful revelation that I think it was the perfect choice.

Spufford's style is a moderate pastiche of 18th century novels; here are the opening lines as an example:
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.

However, it's 18th century language hiding a 21st century attitude; this is a novel deeply aware of gender and racial divisions, for all that they're mostly hidden behind humor and a page-turning sense of suspense. It's a New York City shaped and haunted by the ghosts of the slave revolt of 1741, and its shadow lies over every page, thought it's only ever directly addressed in one on-page conversation (though goddamn, it's a conversation with resonance). Smith meets and begins to court Tabitha Lovell, who is described as a "shrew" by her family and the rest of this small-town New York. Her portrayal though, is much more complex than that stereotype, and it's never quite clear how much she is an intelligent woman brutally confined by social strictures or how much she suffers from an unnamed mental illness.

And yet it's fun book, an exciting book! There are glorious set-pieces here: Smith racing over the rooftops of winter New York, outpacing a mob howling for his blood; a duel fought outside the walls of the city that turns in a split second from humor to horror; a play acted on the closest thing New York has to a stage; a card game with too much money invested. The writing is alternatively beautiful and hilarious, and I'm just completely in love with all of it.

I really can't recommend this book enough. I came into it not expecting much, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: No change: 18


What are you currently reading?
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. A new book by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a book which approximately one million people have recommended to me and yet I still haven't gotten around to reading. But, uh... I've got this one! :D
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What did you just finish?
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. A really fascinating account of the recent history of these two countries and how their politics have lately turned to authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism. This is self-evidently relevant to those of us under Trump or May as well; I've been making comparisons between Modi and Trump ever since the latter became a political candidate, and Peer clearly agrees with me.

The book is divided into two sections, the first on India and its current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014; the second on Turkey and its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and then, when he could no longer extend his term there, switched to president in 2014, rewriting the laws to make that position more political, powerful, and active. Each chapter is a bit of a self-contained essay, with topics ranging from the broad (the history of the BJP, Modi's political party) to the individual (the suicide of a Dalit PhD student after being ignored and disadvantaged by his school). I'm more familiar with India's current political scene than with Turkey's, but even the stuff I already knew came with very recent updates or insightful analogies. Overall the chapters convey a well-researched, thoughtful, and thorough picture of each country's politics.

If world politics remotely interest you, I highly recommend this book – though to be honest, it is quite depressing. I put off reading it myself for months because I needed more lighthearted material, but I'm glad I finally got to it. I only wish I could have read this before the July 2016 coup in Turkey. Of course it wasn't out yet, and though given its so-recent occurrence Peer is only able to address the topic briefly in his afterword, but I feel like I now understand much more of the dynamics and players involved.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes. A nonfiction book that describes itself as "a passionate, wide-ranging, and fascinating natural history of the tree in American cities over the course of the past two centuries". I'm about to take issue with that blurb, but I did enjoy reading it.

My main complaint about this book is that it's not particularly focused on urban forests. Out of 21 chapters, one is about the canker than killed off the American Chestnut, four are on Dutch Elm Disease, one on the Emerald Ash Borer (a bug that attacks ash trees), and two on Asian Long-Horned Beetles (which kill several types of trees, but are particularly fond of maples). These are all interesting stories, and Elms and Ash and Maples do sometimes live in cities, but cities are very much not the focus of these sagas of disease and resistance. Another chapter is on the discovery of the Dawn Redwood, a "living fossil" from the Cretaceous, whose only connection to the idea of "urban forests" seems to be that the discoverers were paid by Harvard University, which is in Boston, which is a city. There are also chapters on the (surprisingly contentious!) history of Arbor Day, Thomas Jefferson's tree collection, and the founding of America's various great arboretums (tree museums) including the New York Botanical Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Morton Arboretum. All of which doesn't leave a lot of room for my poor street trees. "Historical Tree Diseases of the US" would have been a much more accurate title, but I suppose someone along the way decided that wouldn't sell as well.

I feel a bit churlish complaining so much though, because in the end the book is a fun read. Despite my proposed serious-sounding title, Jonnes is very much writing in the vibe of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson: she tells interesting stories in a familiar, entertaining way, and if they're a bit random and hang together more by virtue of their "cool to know" quality than their deep thematic connection, that's okay. The main point is to have fun. For instance, a chapter on how DC got its cherry trees is quite disconnected from the rest of the book, but is nonetheless a great story. I was most interested in the last few chapters, which finally got into the topic of actual urban forests, because that was what had attracted me in the first place, but they all were surprisingly engaging. I also have to be very grateful to Jonnes for introducing me to the NYC Street Tree Map, which actually allows you to zoom down onto any block in the city, click on a tree, and find out facts about what species it is, how big it is, how many pounds of air pollution it removes each year, and so on. I've had a lot of fun identifying the trees outside of my apartment.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: 18, still.


What are you currently reading?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. Non-fiction about the first woman to receive the death sentence in Chicago, for murdering her husband – which, Lucchesi argues, she probably didn't do, but being an "ugly", illiterate, Italian immigrant disposed the jury against her. Really fascinating!
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What did you just finish?
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey. A sort-of travel book by an American woman who speaks Russian. In 1995 she spent several months traveling across Russia as part of one of the very first real-time updating travel blogs; she did the same journey in 2005, then for the Washington Post; and now she's done it again in 2015, this time as the basis for this book. Each time she meets the same people (well, mostly: some have died, moved away, or simply don't want to talk to her again) and tries to assess how their lives have changed over the last ten or twenty years. I call it a "sort-of" travel book because it's not meant to be a guide for tourists or to convey the physical experience of her journey. Rather it's an attempt to explain the culture and people of Russia to her audience of Westerners, since they believe – as least according to several of her encounters – that Russia is full of "bears in the streets".

Dickey visits a wide variety of people: lighthouse keepers in Vladivostok, a rabbi in Birobidzhan (capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region), farmers in Buryatia who trace their history back to Genghis Khan, scientists studying Lake Baikal, a gay man in Novosibirsk, an excessively wealthy family in Chelyabinsk near the Ural mountains, the mother of a soldier in Kazan, a rap star in Moscow, and a 98-year-old woman in St Petersburg, old enough to remember the last tsar, among others. The selection is a bit random, but they all end up having interesting stories or perspectives, and Dickey's writing is warm, funny, and friendly. A recurring theme is Dickey worrying about telling these off-and-on friends of hers about her life: back in America, she's married to another woman. However, each time she ends up coming out, she finds acceptance and nonchalance.

My one critique of the book is that I wanted more about politics. Well, look at the news any day for the last year; of course I did. I know the American perspective, but I would have liked to hear something about the "average Russian" (as much as such a thing exists) view. But she actively avoids discussing anything remotely political; the few times someone else brings it up, she changes the topic as soon as possible. And I understand wanting to avoid fights! Whether out of fear because she's alone, respect because she's a guest, or just kindness because no one likes hurt feelings, it is completely relatable to focus on what you have in common instead of on disagreements. And yet I was just so curious and over and over again Dickey refuses to go there. Besides all of that, her trip was in 2015 – it's not her fault, but in some ways that already seems so outdated in terms of American/Russian politics.

Ah, well. It's still a very enjoyable book, if a bit shallower than I wanted it to be.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

House of Names by Colm Toibin. A retelling of the Greek myth of the House of Atreus: Agamemnon, heading off to fight the Trojan War, sacrifices his daughter to gain the favor of the gods. His wife Clytemnestra is understandably not happy about this, and upon Agamemnon's (eventual) return home, she murders him with the assistance of her new lover. However their other children, Orestes and Electra, decide to get revenge for their father, and Clytemnestra is murdered in her turn.

Toibin deviates little from this traditional plot; what value his retelling does have is supposedly in the language and psychological realism of the characters. Unfortunately neither worked for me. The writing is distancing, meandering, and flatly reactive. Orestes and Electra in particular are oddly passive; they spend most of the book having no idea of the politics or history around them, and their attempts to gain power or knowledge are halfhearted at best. Orestes explicitly prefers the life of an unknown farmer to that of the son of a king. Most of the actual action is kept offstage, and we're left with endless pages of characters remembering what happened, or planning for what will happen next, but never actually doing anything. It ends up feeling fanficcy – which is not a criticism I normally apply to retellings! But this really does read like a long series of cut scenes: we already know the plot, so here's some prettily written navel-gazing to fill the inbetweens. It's hard to imagine how anyone could take a story with such powerful themes of revenge and justice and guilt and familial entanglements and turn it into something boring and apathetic, but Toibin managed it. It's Greek myth with all the characters turned into phlegmatic Hamlets – not a great idea.

I love retellings, but they need to add something to the original: perhaps give it a new twist, or simply be a very well-done version of a favorite story. House of Names doesn't qualify. Your time would be better spent with any of the ancient Greek versions.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: Still at 18. I've been focusing on getting my Netgalley percentage back up, since I suspect a book I really really want will be appearing soon. (Barbara Hambly has mentioned working on the copy edits for Ben January #14, so can't be long now.)


What are you currently reading?
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. Nonfiction which is sadly quite relevant to American politics as well.
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What did you just finish?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. Dunant's second novel about the Borgias, a sequel to Blood & Beauty.

Well, at least I liked this book better than the first one. It benefits from several structural choices, the most important of which is that it only covers about two years compared to Blood & Beauty's decade-plus timeline. It's still hard to give a description of the plot, since like much of actual history, it's a bit random and episodic, without the nice arc of fiction. The Borgias continue to gather power in Renaissance Italy, before finally meeting their downfall.

Lucrezia once more is the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, and she is served well both by the fact that she's primarily seen from her own viewpoint and that she's dealing with a comparatively small-scale plot: the relationship with her new husband, her third, and finding her place within his court. Cesare, in contrast, is conquering half of Italy (including numerous city-states whose names I did not even attempt to keep track of), outmaneuvering a rebellion among his followers (in which at least one particular city-state switches hands at least four times), ingratiating himself to the French king before switching sides to ally with the Spanish, and fighting with his father; it's so much plot that the cumulative effect is deafening. Cesare doesn't get his own POV in this novel, but is seen only through outsiders: primarily one of his generals, his doctor, and the Florentine ambassador, Niccolo Machiavelli. (Machiavelli actually gets an oddly large amount of page time in this novel given his relatively small overlap with the Borgias, but I understand Dunant's impulse to include him. Who wouldn't want to include Machiavelli?) All of these outside POVs only succeed in distancing the reader from Cesare, but on the other hand, he spends at least half the book going insane from late-stage syphilis, so I'm not sure his own POV would have been an improvement. Rodrigo Borgia aka Alexander VI is relegated to the role of a side character, appearing only to react to Cesare or Lucrezia's actions. Nonetheless the book ends abruptly with his death; this is fairly historically accurate – the Borgia family pretty much crashed and burned immediately without his assistance – but it reads like Dunant forgot to finish the story.

As a minor note, I found the descriptions of Catrinella, Lucrezia's servant (or slave? I wasn't entirely clear on what category she'd fit into, though to be fair in the 1490s there probably wasn't a well-defined distinction between the two) off-putting. She's the only black character in the novel, and there are a lot of words spent dwelling on how dark her skin is and how bright her teeth are against it. On the other hand, at least Catrinella is slightly more three-dimensional than most of the hundreds of background characters, so it could be worse.

Overall the two books remain not terrible, but not nearly as wonderful as they could have been. I'd recommend Dunant's other historical fiction instead.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Murder on Black Swan Lane by Andrea Penrose. A murder mystery set in Regency London, the first in a new series. The notorious Earl of Wrexford has been engaged in a long-running, very public argument with Reverend Josiah Holworthy, mostly conducted in letters published in various newspapers, over the role of science and religion. So when Holworthy is found murdered, Wrexford is the obvious first suspect – particularly since it turns out that the murder was committed by throwing acid in Holworthy's face, and chemistry in Wrexford's particular interest. To prove his innocence, Wrexford sets out to find the real murderer, which leads him to A.J. Quill, a satirical cartoonist who seems to know every secret in London. Quill is actually Charlotte Sloane, a hard-working widow using her husband's penname to preserve the last vestiges of her respectability. When her husband's death also seems to be connected to the conspiracy surrounding Holworthy, they become equally passionately committed to solving the mystery.

This is a fun premise, and I admittedly was very interested in a book about the scientific circle of Regency London, but it didn't live up to my expectations. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly; it's just that everything here is such a cliche. We have the adorable street urchins with Cockney accents, the feisty heroine who nonetheless is impressed by the hero's power and honor, the grumpy Scottish doctor, devious French spies (even when their motivation is explicitly to support France's revolutionary society over Britain's classist aristocratic system, the French are always devious in a novel about how sexy and awesome the Regency was) and, of course, Wrexford himself: the hero who's just so smart that all of society bores him and so of course he's a jerk with a reputation for cynicism and 'biting wit'.

The writing itself isn't much better. Charlotte and Wrexford supposedly represent a clash of passion vs logic, but since Wrexford loses his temper and Charlotte hides her emotions just as often as the opposite, we're told this by the narrative rather than it arising naturally from the characters. For example:
“Mrs. Sloane?” Shadows tangled with the strands of black hair curling, making his face as shapeless as his rag market hat. “No protest? No demand to charge in where angels fear to tread?”
Charlotte wished she could see his expression. There was an undertone to his question that she couldn’t quite identify. “I know you think me ruled by impulse rather than logic—”
“Intuition, not impulse,” he corrected. “Which I’ve learned to respect. If you have an objection, I am willing to listen.”
“And I, sir, have learned to respect the way you use reason to attack a problem.”

So subtle! So natural! So not how human beings speak!

The writing in scenes between Charlotte and Wrexford often descends to trashy romance level (note: good romance writing also exists! But it generally avoids tired cliches like this), despite it not actually being a romance. Though I wouldn't be surprised if the series goes there in the future. More examples, from their first meeting:
A gentleman, not a ruffian from the stews.
She jerked her gaze upward.
Well-tailored wool, burnished ebony buttons. Shoulder capes that accentuated the breadth of his shoulders.
She took an involuntary step back.
He pulled off his hat and slapped it against his thigh, sending more drops of water flying through the air. Wind-whipped hair, dark as coal, tangled around his face. At first, all Charlotte could make out was a prominent nose, long and with an arrogant flare to its tip. But as he took another stride closer, the rest of his features snapped into sharper focus. A sensuous mouth, high cheekbones, green eyes, darkened with an undertone of gunmetal grey.
[...]
For a big man, he moved with feral quickness. A blur of wolf black, leaving the sensation of predatory muscle and primitive power pricking against her skin.
[...]
The earl’s face might well have been carved of granite. Not a muscle twitched. Shadows danced, dark on dark, through his long, curling hair. He appeared implacable, impervious to any appeal for mercy.
Charlotte knew she should have been repelled, but something about the hard-edged planes and sculpted contours of his features held her in thrall. There was a cold beauty to him, and she felt her fingers itch to take up her paintbrush and capture that chilling aura of a man in supreme command of his emotions.


And so on and so forth. Alas, I can't even say that I got much out of the scientific side of the book, since the mystery ultimately turns out to revolve around alchemy – also interesting, to be fair, but not what I came here for.

It's not a bad book, but with a thousand other mystery series out there, this one just isn't captivating enough to be worth more of my time.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Still at 18

What are you currently reading?
Bears in the Street by by Lisa Dickey. A nonfiction travel book by Russia that I'm very interested in.
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What did you just finish?
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A novel about women boxers in late 1700s Bristol. Or so the blurb promises – in the end there was disappointingly little about boxing women, though I still really enjoyed the read.

The book alternates between three narrators. First we have Ruth, the younger, uglier daughter of a brothel madam. She's still a child when Mr Dryer, one of the gentlemen patrons of the brothel, witnesses her fighting with her sister and decides to train her up as a boxer; apparently women boxers were a relatively common thing at the time, though more often as a gimmick than as genuine fighters. One of her fans, a boy her age named Tom, eventually falls in love with her and marries her. All goes well until Mr Dryer decides that Tom has even more boxing potential than Ruth, and switches his attention to him instead, abandoning Ruth in the process.

The next narrator is George, a friend of Mr Dryer. George is extremely handsome, but shallow and fairly dumb, and is in a complicated sexual/romantic/possessive/fucked up relationship with a rich lord named Perry which began when they were childhood roommates at boarding school. Perry seems to regard the two of them as being in love; George treats it more as a handy way to relieve physical urges. However, life goes well enough for the two of them – at least until George decides that the way to solve the problem of their social status is for him to marry Perry's sister Charlotte, and Perry is consumed by jealous rage.

The last narrator is Charlotte herself, an extremely repressed, timid, and probably clinically depressed young woman who is handed off to marry Mr Dryer as a way for her brother to get rid of her. She eventually witnesses Ruth boxing and becomes friends with her, and models herself on Ruth's confidence as a way of reclaiming her life.

And then a bunch more stuff happens, but I don't want to spoil the plot too much. It's a very entertaining book, with lots of rich sensory detail to the writing and a fascinating investigation into the role of gender and class in the setting. The narrators are all complex and likeable, and I very much enjoyed spending time with each of them.

My main complaints are structural. While George was a fun character and I can't say that I wish he wasn't a narrator, I'm not really sure what his sections added to the overall book. Ruth and Charlotte's stories dovetail nicely together, and then George is just sort of over in the corner, doing his own thing. Plus, as I said above, there's not actually all that much about women boxing; most of what there is happens in backstory, while the main plot of the book is actually about Tom's boxing career.

But nonetheless it was a book that was very much right up my alley, and I totally hope Freeman goes on to write more.


City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translation by Nora Seligman Favorov. Written in Russian in the 1860s and just now translated into English for the first time, this novel is a light satire to accompany the serious philosophy of contemporaries like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.

The plot: Nastasya Ivanovna is a member of the rural lower gentry, a widow living contentedly with her teenage daughter Olenka. Their summer is interrupted when a distant relative, Anna Ilinishna, comes to live with them, and a rich neighbor, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, decides to move into their bathhouse. Anna Ilinishna has spent most of her life living with various princesses in Moscow, and is widely renowned for her religious faith and ability to call down miracles with her prayers. She spends her time in their house sulking and trying to convince witnesses that she's being horrendously mistreated. Ovcharov is an intellectual writer who usually spends his summers travelling to various fashionable European resorts and is only in the countryside because he's decided he needs to drink fresh whey daily for his health. He's convinced that his presence is the philosophical, urbane, and enlightened light come to change everyone's lives: from his serfs to Nastasya Ivanovna to Olenka, who he is of course sure is in love with him and his cutting-edge clothes. In reality Olenka thinks he's a boring old man with weird habits, but Ovcharov is spectacularly bad at realizing this. He also tends to conveniently change his political theories to go along with whoever is flattering him at that moment.

It's a very fun book, and is a completely charming antidote to classic Russian literature (at least of the sort that gets read in the US). My one complaint is that the ending felt very abrupt, but when your only problem is that you wanted to spend more time with the characters, you know it's a good book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: 18

What are you currently reading?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. Yes, I know: why am I reading the sequel to Borgia book when I didn't like the first one? Because sometimes I request things off of Netgalley before I really think it through. :(
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What did you just finish?
The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. In 1895 in rural Ireland, a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband. She had been sick with bronchitis for the previous week, and her family had apparently become convinced that the "real" Bridget had been stolen away by fairies, leaving a sickly changeling in her wake. In fact, the night before her death, her husband was assisted by her father, her aunt, and various cousins of hers to perform a magical ritual/exorcism that verged on torture. But the question of how much any of them really believed in fairies remains open. Was her murder simply domestic violence that used the legends as a cover-up? Was it an unfortunate accident? Something in-between?

All of this gains resonance from the fact that the story of Bridget's death hit newspapers at the same time as Parliament was debating Irish Home Rule and Oscar Wilde was undergoing trial for homosexuality. The idea of Irish peasants (not that any of the people involved truly qualified as such... ) blindly following fairy legend to the point of murdering a pretty young woman provided ammunition for all sorts of political goals.

This true event makes for an absolutely fabulous story. Unfortunately Bourke is not the person to tell it. She frequently jumps around in time, making it hard to understand the chronological order of events. She positions Michael Kennedy as the protagonist, though God alone knows why – he's one of Bridget's cousins, but wasn't even there on the day she was killed, doesn't give particularly elaborate or compelling testimony in the trial afterward, and has nothing to distinguish him from the rest of the family. She makes the thesis of her book the idea that Bridget was killed out of jealousy, but doesn't even try to show that this jealousy actually existed; she simply treats it as a foregone conclusion. And, I mean, Bridget was better-educated and wealthier than the rest of her family! I am willing to believe this was an important factor in her death! I am totally the choir, and yet Bourke wouldn't preach a single piece of evidence to me.

Ugh, I have such mixed feelings about this book. There's a lot of interesting details in it, from the history of fairy legends to the contemporary Romantic tradition of writing poems and collecting folklore, to the case itself, but it's all so muddled and incompetently done. There's a kernel of good here, but it's coated by a lot of poor writing.


Marriage by Susan Ferrier. Ferrier – at least according the back of the paperback I read – is considered the "Scottish Jane Austen". And based on this book, I have to agree. We've got romance among the lower gentry, country folk coming to the city (in this case Bath), and, most prominent of all, lots of wry observations about other people's foibles. It's not exactly like Austen (among other things, there's a fairly heavy Christian tone to the narrative, though it never gets so moralizing as to ruin the fun for me), but it's close enough that if you like the one, you'll probably like the other.

So, the plot! Juliana is the daughter of an earl and is engaged to a (old, annoying, but rich) Duke. However, she is in love with a handsome soldier boy, Henry, so they elope. Henry is promptly fired from his position and Juliana disinherited by her father for such behavior, so they are forced to go live with Henry's family in rural Scotland. Since they're both shallow, spoiled, dumb young things, this is basically a fate worse than death, especially given Henry's collection of meddling spinster aunts. Juliana may have promised that she was willing to live in a desert to be with Henry, but it turns out that was because she didn't know what a desert is. Eventually Juliana gives birth to twin girls; she and Henry keep one, and the other is given to Henry's childless sister-in-law, a woman who stands out by being the only person with any sense and good-heartedness in the whole book.

All of this takes up the first third or so of the book. Afterwards we have a timeskip of sixteen years, allowing the twins to grow up. Juliana has managed to make it back into society, where she is a center of fashion. She's raised "her" twin, Adelaide, to be charming and to value marrying rich above all else – she doesn't want to see her daughter repeating her own mistake! The other twin, Mary, is well-read, charitable, humble, and has all the generic goody-two-shoes traits you might imagine, though she's a little too genuinely nice for me to ever resent her for this. The plot begins when Mary is sent off to Bath to meet her mother and sister for the first time in her life. People fall in love, marriages are made (not necessarily the same as the ones in love), and a multitude of ridiculous secondary characters march in and out of the narrative. My personal favorite was Doctor Redgill, a man so obsessed with food that he considers the only 'good marriage' to be one that comes with a French cook.

It was a fun book, but I have to complain about the edition I read (which I picked up for free from a box on the street, so I suppose I can't really grumble too much): Oxford University's "World's Classic" edition from 1986. It's stuffed full of footnotes: do you need what "backgammon" is explained to you? how about the phrase "you shouldn't game" (as in gamble)? And of course it is vitally important that a common phrase like 'it's an ill wind that blows no good' should come with a citation for its earliest appearance in print. On the other hand, an entire paragraph in French doesn't need a translation, silly! Doesn't everyone speak French? The editors are absolutely desperate to find allusions to other pieces of literature; I'm sure not every single time a character is described as "pale" it's a quote from Bryon. I literally can't imagine who these footnotes are intended for, and yet someone spent so much time assembling them, coming up with 4-5 per page. It's... funny? sad? irritating? Well, it's certainly memorable.

I enjoyed the book, though I might recommend acquiring a different edition.


Mount TBR update: Jumping up by 2 to hit 17!

What are you currently reading?
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A novel set in late 1700s Bristol about a female boxer. It's so much fun!
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After feeling sick for a while lately, I saw on doctor on Friday and discovered I have bronchitis! Which means this week has mostly been an excuse to sit still and read light-hearted things.

What did you just finish?
The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A light but charming novel about a middle-class Indian family who abruptly become fabulously wealthy when the father sells a website he developed. Mr and Mrs Jha – middle-aged, comfortable, traditional – decide to move from their old family apartment in East Delhi to a brand-new mansion in Gurgaon; the American equivalent might be a couple selling their Queens apartment to set up in a McMansion in Silicon Valley. This, of course, leads to cultural clashes both funny and sad, from broken ties with old friends to an ever-escalating game of financial one-upmanship with the new neighbors. Meanwhile, their son Rupak is attempting to acquire a MBA from an American university. "From Cornell", the elder Jhas like to say at first, when they're showing off their upward mobility; "from the nearby Ithaca College", they say later, when it becomes clear that having a failure of a son is even more of an indication of wealth – after all, only the really rich can support useless offspring! Rupak himself strives to chose between two romantic possibilities: the white Elizabeth (Rupak assumes his parents would never approve of him dating an American, while Mr Jha secretly longs for a white daughter-in-law to humblebrag about) or the Indian Serena (who, despite being the niece of a family friend and fellow Delhite, culturally comes from ivory-tower artists who are possibly even more foreign than the Americans).

None of the characters are particularly three-dimensional, but then, it's not really that sort of book; it's more interested in recognizing certain real-life types of people and having a gentle laugh at them than exploring the deep personal ramifications of sudden wealth. It's also an excellent book for Westerners despite being set almost entirely in India. Basu has a subtle but deft hand at explaining various cultural allusions without exoticifying them. For example, at one point Serena sends a joking text to Rupak:
Have you seen all the places in Collegetown charging $5 or more for turmeric milk? Good old haldi doodh that our mothers make every day. Forget banking, that should be your next big business idea—something from our childhood at marked-up prices. I’m thinking Maggi Ramen. Wait, that might actually be a good idea.
Look at that! Providing a translation and context for "haldi doodh" in very naturalistic-sounding dialogue, adding "Ramen" to the brand-name "Maggi" so that it becomes something recognizable even to someone who's never been to India, and all without alienating a reader who's already familiar with both. It's such a minor thing to point out, but I noticed Basu doing this work in several places, and I'm very impressed at how she manages to speak to two audiences at once.

Anyway! It's fun, it's breezy, and it's not too serious: I recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. A romance novel set during the American Civil War. Elle Burns, a black woman with photographic memory, works as a spy for the Loyal League, a (fictional? I think?) network of black men and women working to end slavery. Her first independent mission requires her to travel to Richmond in the opening days of the war, where she goes undercover as a slave in the house of a Confederate senator. She soon meets Malcolm McCall, a confederate soldier who is strangely kind to her – and who turns out to be a spy himself, employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency to gather information for Lincoln. Their immediate attraction to one another is constantly hampered by distrust, the need to maintain their cover stories (which includes Malcolm's flirting with the senator's daughter), rumors of the Confederacy developing a new superweapon, and general social stigma (even without the complications of spies and war, an interracial relationship in the 1860s isn't exactly easy or welcome). There are kidnappings and burning buildings and gunshot wounds and dramatic escapes to add adventure to the love story, but ultimately it is very much a love story.

This was a great book, but unfortunately it wasn't quite as great as I had wanted it to be. I can't quite put my finger on why – maybe I needed slightly fuller characterizations? a longer timespan for the relationship to develop? richer dialogue? maybe my expectations were just too high? – and I absolutely don't want to discourage anyone from reading it. It's great! It's just not, you know, the GREATEST. Although bonus points for including a slightly fictionalized version of the story of Robert Smalls!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt. A historical romance, set in England in the mid-1700s. Phoebe is the younger brother of a Duke (himself the star of the Regency Batman! romance I read last year) and has slowly been going blind for the last decade. In response, her brother hires a bodyguard, Captain James Trevillion, to follow her around everywhere and keep her from danger. Although since her brother hardly ever lets her leave the house and even then only to specific, sheltered events it seems a bit like overkill, but then overprotective older brothers: what are they for other than giving heroines a reason to rebel? Unfortunately for Phoebe, her brother seems to be proven correct when a gang of men attempt to kidnap her for mysterious reasons.

Phoebe's need for independence and James's need to protect her provide a nice set of conflicts for them to resolve as they slowly start to see one another as friends (and more!) rather than obstacles. Phoebe's youth, status, and cheeriness are contrasted with James's age, cynicism, and working-class-ish origins, so that even once they finally admit their feelings they can't immediately hop into marriage. They have nice chemistry, but my favorite part of the book was Phoebe herself. Here's a scene I feel captures her character very well (she and James are pretending to be married for the purpose of traveling together):
“And, just for you, I’ve ordered a mild ale instead of wine,” he said.
“Have you?”
“Much against my better judgment. It’s a common drink, my la—ahem, wife, and I cannot think it’ll be pleasing to your palate. Although,” he added under his breath, “considering where we are, the beer is probably better here than the wine.”
She brightened at the prospect of a new experience. “Then I must taste it at once.”
“It’s right here.” He took her hand and placed it on a pewter tankard.
“To your health, husband,” she said solemnly and took a sip.
Or rather tried to, for her nose seemed to be buried in foam. She inhaled in surprise—not the best thing to do—coughed, and then sneezed.
“I do beg your pardon,” Captain Trevillion said, and she couldn’t help noticing that his voice was oddly muffled.
Phoebe sneezed again—rather violently—dabbed at her eyes and nose with her handkerchief, regained her breath, and immediately demanded, “Are you laughing at me?”
“Never my… wife. Never,” he assured her, his voice shaking.
He was. He was most certainly laughing.
She sat up straight, threw her shoulders back, and brought the tankard to her mouth again. This time she kept her nose out of the way and delicately sipped through the foam. The beer was… well, sour. And oddly prickly on her tongue. She held it in her mouth for a moment, thinking, and then swallowed.
“Well?”
She held up a finger and took another sip. Sour. Yeast. Something earthy. And those funny little prickles. She swallowed and took another sip. Did she like the aroma? She’d smelled it all her life—most of the people of London drank beer—it was the common man’s water. That sour tang, so warm and strong.
She plunked down her tankard. “I think… I think I shall have to experience it more.”
“Why?” he asked. “If you don’t like it, then drink wine.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”
“Nor did you seem overcome with your enjoyment of it,” he pointed out drily.
“It’s… different—very different—from anything I’ve ever tasted before,” she said, her finger tracing the cool metal of the tankard. “I’d like to try it again.”
“If you wish to do so, then I’ll certainly obtain you beer at our meals while we travel, but I don’t understand. Why force yourself to drink what you don’t like?”
“But I’m not forcing myself,” she returned, tracing the edge of the tankard, feeling the bubbles pop against her fingertip. “Don’t you see? I want to explore different things—food, places, people. If, after several tastings, I find I cannot stomach the beer, then I shall give it up. Often something tasted for the first time seems foreign to us—strange and off-putting. It’s only after repeated tries that one realizes that this new thing, this once-strange thing, is quite familiar now. Familiar and beloved.” Phoebe inhaled, her breath coming too quickly with the force of her argument. “To only try but once and declare a thing lacking… why, that’s quite cowardly.”


Of course I love a character who is devoted to tasting new things! The scene also shows how Phoebe's blindness is handled narratively, which I was very curious about before reading. Would Hoyt pull out some weird stylistic device to get around describing things visually? No – as here, there's usually so much dialogue that the lack of visuals hardly makes a difference. Overall I think the issue of Phoebe's disability was very well-handled; it's easy to sympathize with her desire for autonomy, and yet she's very much not defined by her blindness. One could write the exact same book starring a sighted character without needing to change one detail of the plot – overprotected younger sisters are not exactly a rare character type. The blindness feels simply like a realistically-presented detail.

The multiple kidnapping attempts and their ultimate resolution are a bit silly, but eh, it's a historical romance; I don't need the plot to be all that serious. I had fun and enjoyed the characters, which is all I ask, and this is an excellent example of the genre.


Mount TBR update: Still at 15!

What are you currently reading?
The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. Nonfiction about a murder in 1890s Ireland.
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What did you just finish?
Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. A novel about the Borgias by one of my favorite historical fiction writers. Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.

A typical Dunant novel has a sort of overwrought, melodramatic glory: feelings (usually of women) are lovingly dwelt on, events matter less than their emotional consequences, and there's only a few important characters, so each one's subtle graduations of personality can be depicted in detail. Blood & Beauty is the opposite of that in nearly every way. It's told in third person omniscient with such an enormous cast of characters that three of them are murdered over the course of the book without any meaningful reduction in the overall numbers. The narrative attention is so widely divided that there isn't even really a protagonist to point to; Lucrezia, the daughter of the Borgia family, eventually emerges as a center of reader sympathy, but it takes nearly three hundred pages to get that point. Before then, she's only yet one more in a cast of thousands. It's hard to feel much of a connection to any of the characters when each individual gets so little time spent on them – don't get attached, because you might not see them again for ten chapters. Not to mention the vast number of people means most of them never get a particularly deep depiction, because there's just not enough page time for everyone to get an arc and a personality.

In addition to having too many characters, there's too many plot events. Which I know sounds like a weird thing to say! But when your novel involves four wars, two secret babies, six dramatic political marriages, at least two outbreaks of two different plagues, an uncounted number of murders (some of which need to be investigated and revenged), not to mention all the international alliances and political maneuvering, there's just too much going on. When you can't even bother to name all the people being illegally appointed to the College of Cardinals, it's probably a sign that the reader isn't going to care about each one either. Nothing has enough page-time to emotionally impact the reader; it's all just there and gone, immediately displaced by the next big event. Sure, stuff happens – but it all happens so briefly!

Finally, there's no arc to the book. It opens with Rodrigo Borgia becoming Pope Alexander VI and ends with Lucrezia heading off to marry Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. In between the family struggles to acquire more power and mostly succeeds. But there's no particular sense of completion – the family certainly isn't done acquiring power at the end, and though the narrative attempts to give Lucrezia's marriage the dramatic weight of a climax, this is hampered by the fact that a) Lucrezia only emerges as important in the second half of the book, and b) this is her third marriage and not self-evidently more important than the previous two. A summary would sound like "this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end." There's no growth, no downfall, no change, no new lesson learned – nothing special to set apart these two points as the beginning and end. (And yes, I know there's a sequel out now, but the first book in a series still needs an arc of its own.) It reads like history textbook with slightly more flowery descriptions of the art and clothes.

But despite all of that, it's absolutely not a book that I could call boring. Dunant has an unfair advantage: all anyone needs to do is set down a basic description of the Borgias' activities and they've got a page-turner. The outline is compelling enough that things like 'craft' or 'characterization' can fall by the wayside without impacting the overall fun. Still, I couldn't help thinking about how much better the book could have been. When you've got such fantastic raw material to work with, why settle for good enough?


Mount TBR update: 15!

What are you currently reading?
The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A fairly cute novel about a middle-aged, middle-class couple from Delhi who suddenly come into millions of dollars of money, and how they adjust.
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What did you just finish?
Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale. The twelfth book in the thriller/mystery/action series Hap & Leonard, this one picks up immediately where the previous one left off – which is good, since that previous one ended on a hell of a cliffhanger, with Hap seemingly in the middle of dying. Well, he's all better now and while I didn't particularly expect the series to kill off its narrator and co-protagonist, I really could have used some more resolution to that particular plot development.

Ah, well. I don't read these books for their subtle plotting, I read them because the banter between Hap and Leonard never fails to make me laugh. For example:
"You do look cool in that fedora.” [Hap said to Leonard]
“Like I value your opinion.”
“But you do.”
“Do not.”
“Do.”
“So you like it?” he said.
“Stylish, brother. You found something that works for you. I know how hard that must be for you.”
“You’re still searching, though,” Leonard said. “Your daughter doing okay?”
“Yep.”
“That’s working out?”
“Except she and Brett [Hap's girlfriend] have the colds from hell. I think it might be flu. Brett actually asked that I stay at the office tonight. They are seriously infectious. And I don’t want that shit they got.”
“But you don’t mind sharing their germs with me?”
“I don’t have a single symptom,” I said. “And I’m keeping it that way. I’m actually kind of enjoying being on my own at the office. Well, there’s Buffy [the dog]. It’s nice for a change of pace. Me and Buffy can play checkers until late at night. She hasn’t quite got chess down yet.”
“You can stay at my place, asshole.”
“I’m fine at the office. John and you might get back together, and I’d rather not hear you fucking behind the wall. I can’t enjoy that. I keep thinking something is in the wrong hole.”
“Long as I’ve known you, you are still bothered by it?”
“Not the gay, just the act. I don’t want to hear it going on.”
“That’s the same.”
“How do you feel about heterosexuality?”
“Nothing against it, but it makes me kind of go eeew.”
“Now you get it.”
“I’m going to tell Brett you referred to her equipment as a hole.”
“I was just speaking in a general way.”
“Uh-huh.”
“Please don’t,” I said.
“I’ll consider on it,” he said.


In this book, they investigate the murder of Jamar, a young man supposedly beaten to death in a drug deal gone wrong, but whose mother swears that something more is going on. The plot expands to include a conspiracy of crooked cops, the sexual harassment of Jamar's sister, an illegal boxing ring, an abandoned sawmill, a bunch of incompetent hitmen, Leonard's new boyfriend, a sleazy lawyer, and a deliciously creepy explanation for the phrase 'rusty puppy'. There's a slender feel to all of it, like much of it is only there to provide a setup for the fanservice-y climax wherein Hap and Leonard are forced to publically fight each other to the death. But since I quite enjoy a bit of well-done fanservice, that's not really a criticism.

Speaking of, I also loved the new character of an eight-year-old girl who becomes involved in the mystery (warning for various language issues):
The little girl came over. “You think you’re bad, don’t you?” She said this to Leonard.
“Baby girl, I don’t think, I know I’m bad.”
“Them boys hold grudges,” she said.
“Do they now? Well, that’s going to worry me for days. Who the hell are you? ”
“Reba. I was named after a white lady that sings.”
“Yeah?” Leonard said.
“Mama liked that cracker shit. I don’t. I like me some real music. I mainly go by Little Woman.”
“You just made that up,” Leonard said.
“Startin’ now, then.”
“I like Reba,” Leonard said. “I mean the singer, if that’s who you’re talking about. You I don’t like at all, you little snot-nosed pile of rat shit.”
“Leonard,” I said. “Kid.”
“This ain’t no kid. That there is a fucking four-hundred-year-old midget vampire.”
“Fuck you,” Reba said.
“Fuck you too,” Leonard said.
“You ain’t black at all?”
“What the fuck color am I? This look like shoe polish to you?”
“Uncle Tom is your color.”
“Yeah, well, you want to stay in the goddamn projects and wear your own shower cap and house shoes and whine about the Man keeping you down, you go on and do it. Me, I spit in the Man’s fucking face, tell him it’s face wash, and he’s got to like it.”
“I hope you get et up by a tiger,” she said, walking away.
“Not likely,” Leonard said.
“Leonard, really? You’re going to pick a fight with a kid?”
“She started it. Ancient midget-ass motherfucking vampire.” He yelled out to her then. “I hope your fucking tricycle has a flat.”
She kept walking away, and without looking back, she stuck her hand up in a fist, extended her middle finger.


I suspect (and sincerely hope) that she will become a recurring character, which makes me very happy. Though really I want Leonard to adopt her so they become a mean angry kick-ass family of crime solvers.

It's not a deep book, but sometimes deep is not what I want. For funny, light-hearted entertainment, you could hardly do better.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid. A hard book to review, mainly because it doesn't really have a plot and barely has characters and it isn't even entirely clear as to which genre it belongs – memoir or novel – though the one thing it is closer to than anything else is poetry.

Let me demonstrate with the opening paragraph:
And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, but Mr. Potter did not note this, so accustomed was he to this, the sun in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky; if the sun had not been in its usual place, that would have made a great big change in Mr. Potter's day, it would have meant rain, however briefly such a thing, rain, might fall, but it would have changed Mr. Potter's day, so used was he to the sun in its usual place, way up above and in the middle of the sky. Mr. Potter breathed in his normal way, his heart was beating in its normal way, up and down underneath the covering of his black skin, up and down underneath his white knitted cotton vest next to his very black skin, up and down underneath his plainly woven white cotton shirt that was on top of the knitted cotton vest which lay next to his skin; so his heart breathed in its normal way. And he put on his trousers and in the pocket of his trousers he placed a white handkerchief; and all this was as normal as the way his heart beat; all this, his putting on his clothes in just that way, as normal as the way his heart beat, the heart beating normally and the clothes reassuring to Mr. Potter and to things beyond Mr. Potter, things that did not know they needed such reassurance.

The entire book goes on this way, full of repetitions and a focus on oddly specific little details while the larger picture is left vague, only gestured at rather than depicted. Certain phrases occur over and over again throughout the book until they take on the feeling of a chorus or chant: a line drawn through him; Mr. Potter was my father, my father's name was Mr. Potter; Mr. Potter was born in nineteen hundred and twenty-two and he died in nineteen hundred and ninety-two; Mr. Potter could not read and Mr. Potter could not write. The story, such as it is, is about Roderick Potter, a poor chauffeur on Antigua: his parents (his father who never acknowledged him and his mother who committed suicide when he was young), the man who owns the car Mr. Potter drives (from Lebanon, with his own tragic history of exile), one of his customers (Dr. Weizenger, about whose past we never learn more than that he is fleeing Prague in the 1940s, but really, what more is there to say than that? – to say someone is fleeing Prague in the 1940s is to say exactly what they're fleeing from), Mr. Potter's own many illegitimate children, one of whom grows up to be a writer and becomes the narrator of this book. More than a story, it's a lyrical observation of colonialism, racism, poverty, sexism and broken families, tragedies carried down the generations, all the general global and individual ills of every life, and the ability – or the lack of it – to recognize and articulate such problems. And, most of all, whose voice will be heard doing so.

I think I liked it, overall, though it's a weird book to grapple with. It's a very good example of a very particular thing, but if a 150 page prose poem about the narrator's unknown harsh-but-suffering father doesn't sound appealing, I don't think the actual experience of Mr. Potter will change your mind.


Mount TBR update: 14!

What are you currently reading?
Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. A novel about the Borgias from my favorite melodramatic historical fiction author!
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What did you just finish?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (I read the Tenth Anniversary edition, but didn't notice any important differences between that and the original). I've read this book before, but it's probably been a decade or more, and so reading it now was as much an experience of rediscovery as it was of straightforward narrative. There were certain scenes and images and even lines that have remained burned in my memory after all this time, some of them important to the plot and others mysteriously random (a car sitting on the ice of a lake and holding secrets within, Wednesday's con with the broken ATM, Shadow's cellmate, No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies., an indentured servant's belief in brownies and redcaps, a body hung on a tree for nine days), and other things just as prominent that I'd forgotten entirely (Laura's ghost, Shadow's love of coin tricks, the Men in Black, the Buffalo man), as well as a few that I remembered but which didn't actually happen (a scene with Jesus that I suppose must have actually been part of some fanfic I read).

To be honest, I didn't expect to like this book, or at least not as much as I liked it back when I first read it. In the years since some of the shine has fallen off Gaiman for me, and I haven't liked much of his new work, and so I suppose I projected that backwards and assumed I'd outgrown him.

Such was not the case.

Or, well, there are several plot twists that work better on first acquaintance when they can be genuinely shocking, and I do think the climax doesn't quite hold up to all of the preceding tension and anticipation, but none of that matters, not really. The book sucked me from the opening page and I could barely put it down until I was done. The prose is surprisingly stark, Hemingway-esque – so few adjectives and descriptions, and that's normally not a style I even like, but here it's magically compelling, always making me want just a little more, just a few more pages.

I guess I should actually summarize the plot, huh? Though I sort of assume everyone already knows it. Shadow, a big tough-looking late-20s man with a secret nerdy thoughtful soul, has spent three years in prison for a dumb small-time robbery that went wrong. He's released three days early when news reaches him that his beloved wife has died in a car accident. Grieving, lost, not exactly suicidal but not exactly enjoying life either, Shadow has nowhere to go (it's hard to get a job with violence crime on your record) when he accepts an offer to be the bodyguard/driver to Mr Wednesday, a man who quickly turns out to a conman and then turns out to actually be Odin, as in the Norse God. He tells Shadow that every immigrant to America ever brought the literal incarnations of their beliefs along with them, but as those beliefs are forgotten the Old Gods are losing their power and then their lives. Wednesday is traveling the country trying to organize the Old Gods to declare war on the New Gods (Technology, Media, etc) who are benefitting from a current glut of belief. Shadow, inevitably, is drawn into the conflict, though the real heart of the book is more his need to start living again than all of this metaphysical drama. The modern-day plot is intercut with small asides illustrating the lives of various immigrant believers; my favorite was always and still is the story of twins taken from Africa and sold as slaves:
There was a girl, and her uncle sold her. Put like that it seems so simple.

No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes- forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'll mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child's swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies' own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.

And the simple truth is this: There was a girl, and her uncle sold her.


It's not a needlessly dark book – there are funny moments, silly moments, clever moments – but it's a book that is fundamentally shaped around the concept and power of belief, of blood, and of human sacrifice, that last one to an extent that I think I never before noticed. It's a book for winter, when the light is fading and there's only one thing that will bring it back. It's a 500-page version of "Those Who Walk Away From Omelas".

And I love it, even if I'm having trouble articulating why.

I also couldn't help but wonder what the TV adaptation will look like. Even aside from the difficulties in translating any written work into an audio-visual medium, this one has a vital plot twist that turns on two words that are spelled differently but which sound the same when spoken out-loud, as well as a main character who is resolutely, defiantly taciturn, the vast majority of his personality hidden beneath the surface like the metaphorical 9/10ths of an iceberg. It's gonna be a challenge.


Mount TBR update: 13, go me! I have to celebrate these little victories.

What are you currently reading?
Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale, the latest in the Hap & Leonard series, under the theory that I needed something light and amusing after this week. I'm not sure everyone regards murder-mystery thrillers as "light and amusing", but I can – in the right circumstances, at least.
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What did you just finish?
Color of Love by Anita Stansfield. A Victorian romance starring Amala, an Indian woman adopted by a white family and raised in England, and Henry, a white Englishman recently returned from India. I can't figure out how to talk about this book without spoilers, so if you really want to be surprised, skip the rest of the review. Otherwise I'm going to talk about everything right up until the very end.

Despite their instant attraction and obvious suitability for one another, Amala refuses to marry Henry because she's unwilling to deal with the difficulties of an interracial marriage in their stuffy country town. She vows instead to be a stylish independent single woman like her aunt the world traveler, and insists that Henry move on and forget their relationship. Which he does – by marrying her (white, adopted) sister. Amala is at first dismayed, but the years pass and she settles happily into traveling around Europe and doing good. And then her sister develops cancer and calls her home. The sister has one last wish before she dies: for Amala and Henry to promise that they'll marry one another. It turns out that despite their efforts to keep their former relationship a secret, the sister has known all along and doesn't hold it against them. She dies, and Amala and Henry go through a lengthy grieving period, their healing impeded by their resentment against the sister for forcing the promise out of them. They only are able to move out of the mourning period when they finally acknowledge how angry they are at her. Amala realizes that her exposure to the greater world, as well as the inclusion of more Indian people in her life (via the presence of Henry's servants), has changed her attitude toward interracial marriages and she's now willing to marry Henry. Henry, though, now has to get over the fact that Amala broke his heart years ago when they first courted. But, of course, he eventually comes to see that he's still in to her, and they marry and live happily ever after.

Whew.

I have such mixed feelings about this book! On the one hand, Stansfield does a better job of handling the racism of the period than I honestly expected. She's fantastic at depicting how Amala's isolation from any other people of color has had lasting, detrimental effects on her self-image, confidence, and personality, even when no one is actively being mean to her. Stansfield also is sensitive to how privilege has blinded Amala's white family and Henry, leaving them unaware of much of what she deals with and prone to making mistakes despite having the very best of intentions.

On the other hand, HENRY MARRIES AMALA'S SISTER WTF. And yet again Stansfield is so careful and gentle that it never comes off as the sister being fridged for the sake of advancing their relationship! In fact, the section of the sister's illness is probably longer and written with more detail than any other part of the book. There's even a gruesomely long death-scene, with last words and tears and medicine side-effects and doctor intervention and sleeplessness and a fucking death rattle for god's sake, that was almost certainly more realism than I have ever needed for a romance novel's angst. Not to mention the year of grief that comes afterward. I can't deny that this plot point was handled as well as possible, but I also can't get over the fact that this plot point exists in the first place.

Now, all of this attention to detail and thoughtfulness might lead you to assume that at least the craft of writing is well done – pretty sentences, gorgeous descriptions, and so. Sadly this is not the case. In fact Stansfield has an odd habit of skipping entirely over things that really need to be on the page; everyone knows 'show don't tell', but this is the worst case of it I've ever seen. For example, this is the first conversation Henry and Amala ever share, immediately after meeting one another:
She was glad when he began to talk about the things he’d loved about living in India, as opposed to asking her questions about her own memories. He also talked of the things he’d hated—most specifically the heat and the bugs. She enjoyed listening to every word that came out of his mouth, until the sense of how much time had passed shocked her to her feet.
No actual lines of dialogue from the conversation that will prove pivotal to drawing them together! We don't actually get to see these characters fall in love, how they talk to one another, what attracts them! This is basic Romance Novel 101, people: show how the love happens!

For another example:
Finally, Amala found the courage to break the wax seal and unfold the letter. She had to move closer to the light in order to more clearly see what was written. At a quick glance she was able to see that the letter began with My Dearest Amala, and that it ended some pages later with, All the love my heart possesses, Henry. The problem was that in between was such a beautifully detailed expression of his devotion that Amala kept having to dab at her eyes to keep her vision from blurring so that she could continue reading. When they had spoken in the garden, she had told him plainly and clearly where she had to stand on the matter of their attraction to one another, but she was now reading a genuine and sincere rebuttal to her every argument. It became evident through his words that he knew a great deal more about the issues of prejudice behind her motives than she’d given him credit for. He declared his firm belief that no matter what governments or society might try to dictate in this world, God surely saw all of His children equally, and that in God’s eyes, surely they could find a way to be right with this.
Amala was completely taken off guard by how much her resolve had melted by the time she finished reading the letter, and after she’d read it through a second time, she was filled with doubt and confusion over matters that had previously seemed completely clear.

One might assume that with such a plot-important and emotional letter, we'd get to read it ourselves, right? No. Those two phrases up there are literally all the reader gets to see of the letter. Similar problems happen throughout the book, though they're more common in the early pages.

I suppose with a novel that covers as many years and has as many plot twists as this one, it's got to be forgiven for skimming over some of the details. But then again, it's the details that I most wanted to read!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual – And the Modern World Began by Joan DeJean. The premise of this book is that during a single century (1670-1765) in France, many of the things we consider basic to life were invented or came into use: cotton clothing, clothing designs with the emphasis placed on comfort as opposed to imposing court dress, sofas, armchairs, bedrooms and bathrooms as separate rooms instead of one corner of a grand hall, flush toilets and running water, large paned windows to let in light, nightstands and writing desks, hardwood floors, and more. Part of this was a reaction to the grand magnificence of Versailles – after a day in a boned bodice that wouldn't let you sit down, surrounded by strict rules of etiquette, who wouldn't want to relax in cozy privacy? Another part was simply a consequence of the historic moment: increased trade with India, a newly rich merchant class eager to commission their own architect-designed houses, increased technology in various crafts, Enlightenment philosophers coming up with new ideas for improving "the art of living". It's a fascinating argument, to show how all these disparate things are linked, and DeJean makes her case very well, though I don't know enough about it to say if she missed anything obvious.

DeJean has a entertaining, breezy style that makes the book more fun to read than you might suspect. For example:
From the start (and the stories about [the Marquise de Pompadour] started right away), her biographers agreed that she set her cap for the king, having been encouraged to believe since childhood that she was somehow destined to become his mistress. (Her will contains a curious, and curiously touching, bequest of six hundred livres to "Madame Lebon for having foretold when she was nine years old that she would one day become the king's mistress").
Describing newly curved seating:
And for "those who write" and therefore "spend long periods" leaning forward, [Roubo, a furniture designer] shows how the seat's curves could be adapted to this particular distribution of body weight and thereby help writers "resist fatigue". (I only wish someone would think like this today.)
Describing an early toilet:
Since it was not hooked up to waste piping, it's hard to imagine how well it performed its function. (In the fixtures he created for Pompadour, Migeon did at least use a wood then new to France, mahogany, because of its odor-resistant properties.)

It's a surprisingly quick, easy read, with lots of illustrations and a really intriguing central premise. I recommend it if you have the least interest in the origins of mundane things.


The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch. YES I GOT TO READ THE NEW RIVERS OF LONDON NOVELLA EARLY! :D :D :D

In this fairly short and light story, ghosts are harassing morning commuters on the Tube, and Peter has been deputized to put a stop to it. Abigail is a major character, with Jaget and Toby playing important supporting roles along with Nightingale and Molly. Pretty much no one else appears, unfortunately, though that's what happens when you only have 144 pages to fill. I was so glad to see more of Abigail, who is totally my favorite part of this novella, and I love how her role is developing: her Latin (now better than Peter's), her odd relationship with foxes, her pseudo-job as the Folly's intern, and of course the question looming ever closer: how to (or if to) teach her magic. A subplot about a new river is adorable, and I can't wait to see where it goes in the future.

The writing is, as always, funny and clever and full of odd little facts about architecture and history, with a few moments of surprising emotion. I absolutely love the way the mystery developed – which is why I'm trying not to spoil it here – but my one complaint with the book is that I wish there'd been just a little bit more resolution at the end. I wanted that last thread tied up, even if it is probably more realistic to leave a few dangling.

And again: only 144 pages.

Overall it's a charming and memorable story, even if it doesn't advance the series's overall plot arc any. Highly recommended, though I'm sure all the Rivers of London fans plan to read it already. :D I'm not sure how well it would work as an introduction to the series – on the one hand, there is that fairly small cast, but on the other there's plenty of unexplained backstory and worldbuilding. It could go either way, I suppose. But if you're not familiar with Rivers of London, get on that!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: With The Age of Comfort, 12!

What are you currently reading?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I've read this before, though probably not in the last decade, which is why I wanted to reread it before the TV adaptation starts at the end of the month. (Although I don't have Starz, so I'll have to figure out some other way to watch it.) Also this is the "director's cut" ten-year-anniversary edition, slightly longer than the original. I'll be interested to see what's different, though honestly I'm not sure I remember it well enough to notice a new scene or two.
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What did you just finish?
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours by Noga Arikha. A nonfiction popular history of the humors – as in blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, or sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. (BTW, I personally am a phlegmatic and I cannot deny this clear truth, but I do wish I didn't have to be the grossest and most boring of the types.) I expected this to be an entertaining retelling of weird medical history, a bit like the Sawbones podcast, but despite being sold as a 'popular' history, it's far more academic and serious than I anticipated. It's also not particularly about medicine as an everyday practice, but rather about the abstract philosophies of the various ways history has conceived of the human body. Arikha simply assumes that the reader already knows the background of what the humors are and what they mean, and leaps deeper into arguments about the consequences of Descartes's theory of mind-body duality or NeoPlatonism's melding of Greek and Christian cosmologies. Which are interesting ideas also, of course, but not really what I expected to get out of this book. It was a read that took a lot of effort to muddle through when that wasn't particularly what I wanted to do this week. But that's on me more than on the book, which probably only needs better PR.


Mount TBR update: 11!

What are you currently reading?
Color of Love by Anita Stansfield. A Victorian romance where the Hero has just married the Heroine's sister (????), a development about which I am feeling very uncertain. But I've still got over a hundred pages left, so let's see how this turns out.


A note on whatever's going on with the new LJ TOS: I haven't had time to really look into the situation and make a decision on what my response will be, but for right now I think I will probably keep crossposting to both DW and LJ. However, I think I will be switching my reading to my DW friends' list instead of the LJ one. If you plan to only post to LJ and/or I don't already have you friended on DW, please let me know so I won't lose track of you!
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What did you just finish?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. I am a huge fan of Horwitz (who is primarily a journalist rather than a historian), so of course when I realized that he had a book criticizing the primacy of Plymouth Rock in the narrative of American origins I had to read it. I reliably go on rants about how the Pilgrims didn't earn their mythologized status of the "first" immigrants, and adding in a favorite author just sweetened the deal.

Horwitz starts the book by realizing that he knows very little about the history of European exploration in the New World pre-Plymouth Rock, and sets out to correct that lack with a mix of historical research and traveling around to visit modern people at once-important locations. It's a book that's really as much about how historical myths are created, sustained, and reacted to as it is about straight history, which gives it an interesting twist.

Horwitz starts out with the Viking exploration of Newfoundland, skips ahead to Columbus in the Caribbean, and then details the stories of various conquistadores: Cabeza de Vaca (abandoned in Florida, eventually walked all the way around the Gulf and south to Mexico City), Coronado (came north from Mexico, made it all the way to Kansas), Ponce de Leon (who was not searching for a Fountain of Youth!), de Soto (landed in Florida, rampaged all throughout the SouthEast). There's also chapters on the lost colony of Roanoke (not so lost), the founding of Jamestown with its famous inhabitants John Smith and Pocahontas, the French Huguenots in Florida who were shortly afterward attacked by the Spanish who subsequently founded St Augustine and, of course, the Pilgrims themselves.

Horwitz makes a great effort to speak to descendant communities or local historians where he can, but it's often difficult to include non-European perspectives due to the massive dislocation and cultural loss in Native American groups in the last few centuries. Still, the chapters on the Zuni (in New Mexico) and the Powhatan (in Virginia) were fascinating. My favorite part of the whole book may have been a hilarious section where Horwitz hangs around in the Dominican Republic, fighting against bureaucracy and disinterested locals in an attempt to get a glimpse at what are (supposedly) Christopher Columbus's bones.

Ultimately Horwitz concludes that it's not so surprising Americans have chosen the Pilgrims to focus on for our national origin myth – it's tidy, it's happy, it promotes the 'right' sort of values – and I wish he had been a little more critical of that. But overall it's a fun book, a great combination of interesting history and funny modern anecdotes.


The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us by Richard O. Prum. A common problem for evolutionary theorists is explaining animal traits such as the peacock's tail: it's huge, extravagant, a target to predators, prone to getting caught in branches, and in plenty of other ways seems to be detrimental to the peacock's survival. So why did it evolve? The standard explanation is that it functions as a "costly signal" – that is, the bigger the tail, the more likely the peacock is to have good genes to survive such a handicap, and the more likely female peacocks are to choose it as a mate, since they want those good genes for their offspring.

Prum argues that this explanation doesn't work. He says instead that there's no need to bring natural selection into the picture at all. If a big tail seems "beautiful" to potential mates, that is enough for it to evolve: females will choose big-tailed males so that their sons will also have big-tails, who will then also be preferentially chosen by the next generation of females, and on and on it goes, tails forever getting bigger even if it's actually detrimental to the good of the overall species. Prum calls this "aesthetic selection" or "sexual selection" and argues that it's an important force in understanding evolution. It can function against natural selection, and recognizing the conflict between these two impulses is the only way to understand the diversity of modern biology. Prum is primarily a bird scientist, so the first half of the book consists of examples from his own research, from the amazing tails of Great Argus pheasant, to manakin courtship dances, to the elaborate and colorful structures built by bowerbirds. He even discusses the origin of feathers in dinosaurs, and what colors they might have been! In the final chapters, Prum speculates on how aesthetic selection might also have influenced human evolution regarding everything from our body shape to female orgasms to the existence of same-sex desires.

Overall it's an interesting and insightful argument, and Prum makes his case very well. The one thing I would critique is that I don't think he did a good job of proving that aesthetic preferences are themselves heritable, or how they would originally spread within a population. It's also a book that requires the reader to have a fairly well-informed background in evolutionary theory, which I'm not entirely sure matches the fact that it's being sold as popular science. But maybe I'm underestimating the average person's level of knowledge! At any rate, I'm glad I read it, even if it required more thought than I expected.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: A Voyage Long and Strange takes me up to 10!

What are you currently reading?
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours by Nog Arikha. Non-fiction books are hard to blurb, since they have all the information right there in the title.
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What did you just finish?
A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. People have been telling me to check out Meredith Duran's writing for years, but I only just now got around to it. Apologies, everyone I ignored: she is indeed awesome.

This book is a Victorian romance starring Jane – incredibly wealthy heiress and shy wallflower – and Crispin – corrupt politician who will do anything for power, including bribe Jane to spy on her uncle. Jane may be rich, but she has no access to her own money until she marries. Her uncle, her guardian, deliberately makes that impossible by keeping her in the country and not allowing her to meet any eligible men, all so he can continue to embezzle her money. Therefore Crispin's bribe is not cash, but an introduction to a priest willing to forge marriage papers. Shortly afterward Crispin is attacked by thieves and suffers a severe head injury, sending him into a coma he is not expected to survive. Jane seizes the moment and has marriage papers forged in his name – after all, once he dies she will be an independant widow, and that's exactly what she wants.

Unfortunately Crispin recovers, but without his memories. He assumes his marriage to Jane is a love-match, and she doesn't have the courage to tell him otherwise. Particularly once it becomes clear that amnesia!Crispin is kinder, more idealistic, and more honest than the cruel man she knew. Will they fall in love?????

To tell the truth, I'm not usually a fan of the amnesia trope, but this book used it so well that I may have to start seeking out more. I loved the constant testing between Jane and Crispin as each strove to figure out what the other knew/didn't know, and an unexpected twist late in the book just heightened the tension. All the secrets and lies and confusion made for fantastic suspense. The emotional arc of the relationship started with 'well, let's just have sex without making a commitment' and turned into 'oh no I have caught the feelings', which IS my favorite trope. I also liked the vague hints of liberal politics; it's not a major theme of the book, but background mentions of women's colleges and laws to protect prisoners are just the sort of things that are changing the historical romance genre for the better, in my opinion.

Highly recommended, and I absolutely will keep an eye out for more by Duran.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown. A microhistory of the Lewis Chessman, a set of ivory carvings from the 1100s which are probably the most famous chess set in the world, appearing in everything from the Harry Potter movies to declarations of Scottish independance. The main mystery behind them is their origin: discovered on a beach in northern Scotland in the 1830s, no one is exactly sure where they came from or who made them. The two main contenders for the title are Norway (the traditional explanation, supported by most scholars) or Iceland (a newer theory, but the one championed in this book).

Brown uses the chessmen to tell a wider story about the Viking Age, walrus hunting, art styles in everything from churches to books, women's roles in the 12th century, the place of artisans in kings' courts, the history and development of chess, power struggles between the Church and royalty, the Icelandic sagas, the size of horses, the equipment of knights, and much more. Despite the extremely broad nature of the book, there's somewhat of a focus on Bishop Pall, a rich and powerful bishop in Iceland in the late 1100s, who may have commissioned an ivory carver named Margaret the Adroit to make the chess sets.

My main criticism is that the book's organization is entirely opaque, jumping from subject to subject and time period to time period frequently and without any reason I could discern. It became particularly difficult to follow during a chapter on the frequent civil wars in Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries, where every other important figure seemed to be named either Harald or Olaf. Keeping them straight – not to mention their tangled networks of alliances, betrayals, family lines, connections in the church, ambassadors to other countries, retainers, and so on – was a task I just gave up on after a few pages.

But despite that, it's a fun book, breezily readable, full of interesting tidbits and factoids of the sort that are fun to read aloud to anyone willing to listen. And now I want a reproduction Lewis chess set of my own! :D

I read this for a project I'm working on (which it ultimately did not help much, alas). If anyone knows of any archaeology microhistories written for a popular audience, I'd love some recs!


Mount TBR update: I'm not sure if I should count Ivory Vikings or not. On the one hand, it is a physical book now off of my shelves! On the other hand, I bought it last week. I think I'll keep my count steady at 9.

What are you currently reading?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. A book about the colonization of America before the Pilgrims, a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm always ready to rant about the primacy of Plymouth Rock in our national origin myth despite it not reflecting history.

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