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2017-09-20 08:21 pm

Reading Wednesday

The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. A novel about Jack, a man determined to visit 100 countries before his 35th birthday, all so he can join the Traveler’s Century Club.

Ugh, this book. It’s glaringly self-published, which I do not inherently object to – I'm all for self-publishing! But hire an editor, dude. It’s not typos or grammar mistakes that give it away (the book’s actually remarkably free of those)(which I suppose is damning with faint praise, but I am totally here to damn this book), but a constant stream of contradictions and just... well, odd choices. The one that leapt out to me most strikingly was when the narrator, in describing the Traveler’s Club, sticks the URL right in the middle of the text:
One down and two to go. Now all I had to do was to get to Kilrush and then to Fulgary and I could join the Travelers’ Century Club. See www.travelerscenturyclub.org for further details.

This would maybe even have been not so weird if it had come in the introduction, the first time the reader is told about this goal, or in the endnotes. But no, none of the above. This quote instead comes from the end of chapter ten, when the Traveler’s Club has been mentioned multiple times without needing an URL.

It’s minor, I know, but similar minor annoyances pop up constantly throughout the text. Jack only needs to visit three more countries, so he heads to the (fictional) islands of Placentia, Kilrush and Fulgary. The fact that these are separate countries is the entire point of the book. And yet the flights between them are repeatedly described as "domestic". In addition, it’s implied Placentia and Fulgaryy are still considered UK territories. Granted, other people probably aren’t as fascinated by the debate over what “counts” as a country as much as I happen to be (I blame this game, on which I spend way too much of my free time), but when it’s the central premise of your story, it needs at least a little consideration.

I could forgive all of the above if Jack was a character I enjoyed spending time with. Instead he’s a complete and total asshole. He condescends and mistreats service employees, he shallowly judges fellow tourists, he rates all women by their attractiveness and sulks when they don’t want to sleep with him. Every time he interacted with any other living creature I wanted to punch him.
For example, discussing his job as a stockbroker: Getting a job in the City is like getting a girl. The less interest and enthusiasm you show, the better chance you have.
Describing his ex-wife: I was still paying for my ex-wife’s house. She had taken me for a mug, then a Merc, then a million. I did quite well out of the divorce settlement; I kept most of the back garden and some of the roof tiles. I wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t come home to find somebody else’s kippers under the grill. I should have twigged when he helped move her stuff out when she ‘just needed some space’. […] And if I said no to her demands, I would get a call saying my daughter was ill or had been invited to a toddler’s party on the day I was supposed to visit. Her other trick was to pretend I had got the dates or the times wrong. It was easier just to give up. People only change in books or in films, not in real life. I stopped seeing my daughter as regularly when my folks told me she had started to call Graham ‘Daddy’.*
Interacting with a flight attendant: ‘Could I please have one of those bottles of fizzy mineral water?’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir, we are not allowed to give them out.’ She bent down so close to my face I was worried she was going to kiss me.
‘I don’t want to bother you all the time, asking you for water. Can you leave me the bottle; I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.’
‘I am afraid we can’t do that, sir.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘It’s against regulations. I am sorry, sir.’
‘But your in-flight magazine says quite clearly on page twenty-eight, that passengers should make sure they remain hydrated.’
‘I know, sir. I am sorry but they are the regulations.’
‘I am only asking for a bottle of fizzy water. I have spent thousands of pounds flying Business Class with you. I’m thirsty,’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir. It’s the rules.’
‘The rules… what airline has rules to prevent passengers from drinking water? Why advertise what a great service you provide, if you won’t give water to a thirsty passenger? What’s the point of pouring an eggcup-sized measure of water if I can jug down full glasses of wine? You do this because, as you know, the less weight you carry the less fuel you need, which means lower fuel costs and better profit.’ And with this, the hostess began to take away my empties.


I could have given you more egregious examples, but I chose these because they all occur before page 35. (And the text of the book doesn’t start until page 8!) Now you too have a sense of the density of Jack’s dickishness.

Though I've got to mention one more: at the end of the book, it’s revealed that Jack’s dead girlfriend who disappeared forever, possibly murdered, cheated on him shortly before her death. When Jack finds out this information, he explicitly decides not to go to the police with it, because, hey, it helped him get over her. Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!
I felt better about not being with her but I also wish I hadn’t wasted so much time thinking about her. I still didn’t know how Kay died but I suspect Naz may have had something to do with it. With forearms like Naz, it wouldn’t have been difficult to squeeze the life out of her. But I didn’t actually know what had happened to her. And for the first time, I wasn’t particularly bothered either. Should I go to the police? And tell them what exactly? I decided, rightly or wrongly, to move on.

Ughhhhh, this book, y’all. This book. I got it for free and that was still too much money.

* The daughter never gets a name, appears on screen, or is even mentioned beyond one more passing notice that she exists. I’m definitely convinced Jack is a worthwhile father.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
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2017-09-13 07:37 pm

Book-blogging: De-Extinction Edition 2.0

Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things by M.R. O’Connor. Despite the name, this book actually has very little on de-extinction – about half a chapter near the end, mostly on Revive & Restore's Passenger Pigeon project. Instead O'Connor writes about various conservation projects of extremely endangered (but not yet quite extinct!) species, including the Florida puma, the Kihansi spray toad, the Hawaiian crow, and the Northern White Rhino among others. We're talking severely endangered; the rhino was down to four living individuals at the time of this book's writing, and I believe it’s only three now.

O'Connor discusses the various methods taken to try and preserve these rare species – introducing members of a closely related subspecies to boost genetic diversity, capturing wild individuals to set up captive breeding programs, freezing DNA for future scientific endeavours – as well as how these approaches have succeeded and how they've failed. This leads into the other topic that forms the basis of the book: the philosophy and ethics of conservation. Does it matter if the Florida puma goes extinct if the Texas puma is still doing fine? How do we deal with a captive breeding program that leads a species to develop new traits that won't be useful in the wild? If evolution is constantly ongoing, and a species will change to match its environment, then even improving an environment means humans are influencing a species’s evolutionary path – is that choosing their future for them? If saving nature fundamentally requires meddling with nature, what does it mean to say wilderness is separate from humanity? And how does one define what counts as a 'species' anyway?

These are all pretty fascinating questions (to me, at least), and O'Connor really gave me some new ideas for musing on.. It's very much a book of science, but I also appreciated that for all the nitty-gritty details of cutting-edge research she never lost sight of the poetic, spiritual dimension to humanity's attitude toward nature.

It wasn't what I thought it would be when I checked this out of the library, but I'm very glad I read it.


Once & Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals by Sharon Levy. This is by far the best book I’ve found on woolly mammoths – what they looked like, what they ate, how they behaved, and so. For as much as they appear in pop culture, for as much as other books reference them, there is a surprising dearth of books just about them.

But Once & Future Giants isn’t limited to woolly mammoths. It covers multiple types of Pleistocene megafauna (the technical term for all those big species that went extinct at the end of the Ice Age – saber toothed tigers, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, mastodons, etc). There’s even a quite cool chapter on the megafauna of Australia; I’m certainly fascinated to know that there was once a ten foot tall carnivorous kangaroo and a marsupial lion. Levy also drops cool factoids about how we can still see traces of megafauna today, from the avocado (what else could eat such a giant pit?) to the plight of the California Condor, a huge bird evolved to subsist on megafauna carcasses but now trapped along the coast where it makes do with the remains of similarly-large marine mammals.

Another major focus is the ongoing debate among archaeologists and paleontologists as to why all these megafauna went extinct simultaneously. It basically boils down to two camps: humans hunted them into oblivion (the Overkill Hypothesis), or climate change did them in (the rise in temperatures at the end of the Ice Age causing steppes to transform into forests). Levy goes over the latest evidence for both sides of the debate, but never quite choses one for herself. Which I sympathize with, because there really is convincing and contradictory evidence from both sides, but also because “it was the combined effects” does seem like an obvious solution to the debate.

Late in the book, Levy applies these lessons to modern conservation issues. I was particularly fascinated by her account of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, a local environment from which they had been extinct for nearly a century. Rewilding, as it's called, was controversial with local ranchers, hunters, and even some scientists believing wolves would be dangerous and have a detrimental effect on the park. They've have been intensively studied ever since, to guard against unforeseen consequences, and the research has had some amazing finds. The wolves have not just decreased the elk population size, which anyone could have guessed, but led to growth in the songbird population, to changes in tree species, and even altered the courses of Yellowstone’s rivers. It's an incredible account of how the presence (or absence) of a single species can spiral out and out.

Overall a great book that covers an impressive array of research.
brigdh: (Default)
2017-09-09 07:32 pm

Some brief NetGalley reviews

Niki Jabbour's Veggie Garden Remix by Niki Jabbour. A how-to book for gardeners that encourages people to chose a more diverse range of vegetables. Jabbour opens with a sweet story describing how she herself began to explore beyond 'traditional' veggies: she planted a snake gourd, believing it to be inedible but useful for decorating once dried. Instead her mother-in-law recognized the small, young version of the gourd as a vegetable she hadn't eaten since her childhood in Lebanon, and promptly cooked a long-lost stew.

The book is organized by chapters comparing each exotic to a more standard example. Enjoy growing tomatoes? Why not try a Cape gooseberry! Tired of snap beans? What about growing your own chickpeas or edamame! A fan of cucumbers? What about the cucamelon! Each plant or varietal gets its own section with lots of photos and Jabbour's tips from her own experience growing them.

My one complaint about the book is that Jabbour doesn't list preferred Garden Zones for any of the featured plants. She does give 'days to maturity', which is helpful, but I've got to assume climate also make a difference when choosing what to grow. But other than that it's a fun, useful book for anyone who likes trying new things.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Slow Cook Modern: 200 Recipes for the Way We Eat Today by Liana Krissoff. I love using my slow-cooker and am therefore always looking for new recipes to try out, but most slow-cooker cookbooks repeat the same relatively small set of dishes. There's only so many pot roast or barbeque chicken recipes any one person needs.

But Slow Cooker Modern is here to the rescue! It has a diverse range of new recipes! It even has a whole chapter of vegetarian recipes! I am so happy. I get that slow-cooking lends itself to breaking down tough cuts of meat, but it's great to have a cookbook with vegetarian recipes beyond the standard chili. Here we have: eggplant tian (a ratatouille type dish), hearty sweet potato and chickpea stew with sweet spices, smoky collards and black-eyed peas, three variations of dal (though one has quinoa in it which, come on, at that point it's not dal), and creamy giant limas with sun-dried tomatoes, to name just a few.

And then, of course, there's all the other chapters. A brief selection of some of the recipes I'm most excited to try: chicken saag, whole grain congee with crisp panko chicken, romanian-style chicken and noodles, feta moussaka, Scotch broth (a lamb and barley stew), and braised pork belly sandwiches. There are also recipes for accompaniments to the main dishes, everything from corn muffins to collard slaw.

I like the layout of the book too. Krissoff is writing for people who spend most of the day out of the house at work, so each recipe takes 8 hours in the slow-cooker. She divides each recipe into steps for "morning" and "evening", and is clearly working to make each one as simple as possible while still delivering big flavor. As a lazy, lazy cook, I approve.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
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2017-09-08 04:36 pm

Book-blogging

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows. The sequel to the portal fantasy I read last month. Most of the plot here is fallout from the climax of that book: Saffron has returned back to Earth from the fantasy world of Kena, but can she re-adjust to a 'normal' life? And if not, what choices will she make? Yena's adopted sister died in the final battle, but can Yena reclaim religious rights for her sister's funeral and learn more about her mysterious heritage? The evil king has been overthrown, but escaped – where is he and what caused his actions? What's up with the mysterious magic artifact he left behind in the castle?

Sadly, I didn't like this book nearly as much as its predecessor. The biggest problem is simply a shift in the use of characters; whereas the first book divided its pages fairly evenly among a vast cast, A Tyranny of Queens is hugely dominated by Saffron and Yena. And I'm sorry to say it, but they're the most boring characters in this series. Both are an example of the 'normal teen girl dealing with events outside her experience' archetype, which is a fine enough archetype as far as it goes, but not one that's particularly exciting unless you give her some sort of distinctive personality trait, anything other than 'determined', 'hard-working', 'smart'. Buffy wanted to date boys and wear cute clothes; Katniss wanted to be left alone and was unexpectedly ruthless; Saffron wants... ?

The characters who did grab my attention in An Accident of Stars are pushed mostly off-screen here. Yasha, the grumpy, staff-wielding elderly matriarch who was revealed late in the first book to be an exiled queen, gets something like ten lines of dialogue in this entire book. Viya, the young, spoiled but trying hard to improve noblewoman who is named co-ruler of Kena at the end of the first book, and thus should be navigating the delicate balance of maintaining equality of power while still learning to handle so much responsibility, gets literally two scenes out of three hundred pages. And so on through a whole list of really cool characters. Instead we get multiple chapters of Saffron arguing with her guidance counselor, then her parents, then her social worker over whether she should apologize to one of her high school teachers over a minor incident caused by a bully. Exciting fantasy!

My second problem with the book, unfortunately, is much more fundamental. The plot revolves around discovering that the evil king wasn't really evil after all, but was brainwashed. I'm sure this is an attempt to do an interesting redemption arc, or to look at how even the worst-seeming villains have their reasons, but it didn't work for me at all. It felt like a cop-out to remove blame from the king by passing it on to a historic figure from centuries ago (who never gets an explanation for his evil actions, so Meadows hasn't really complicated the role of villains so much as pushed the question a few steps outside the main narrative). None of the many people who died in the wars he started or were tortured in his pursuit of knowledge get a voice in this second book, so I kept feeling as though the suffering he caused was conveniently being swept under the rug to get readers to feel sorry for him. In addition, for a book that tries so hard to be progressive, ending with 'it's not the king's fault! He was manipulated by a foreign woman who made him fall in love with her!' is, uh... not a great look.

All in all, a disappointing book. But there was enough good about the series that I'll give the author another chance.


The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner. A nonfiction book that makes its way through human history via the medium of literature. Each of sixteen chapters focuses on a particular classic and shows how it both influenced and was influenced by contemporary events, from Homer's Odyssey giving Alexander the Great a hero to model himself after to The Communist Manifesto inspiring revolutions across the world. A subthread is the development of the technologies of literature itself – the inventions of the alphabet, paper, the printing press, ebooks, etc.

It's a pretty neat idea for a book! Unfortunately the execution is terrible. I started off being annoyed that Puchner never seems quite clear on what he means by the term 'literature'. He implies it only includes written works (in the Introduction he says, "It was only when storytelling intersected with writing that literature was born."), and yet many of the pieces he choses to focus on were primarily composed orally (The Odyssey and the Iliad, The Epic of Sunjata, the Popul Vuh, probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, certainly at least parts of One Thousand and One Nights). And yet there's never any discussion of what it means to go from an oral mode to a written one, a topic I was eagerly awaiting to see analyzed. It's just... never addressed beyond a passing mention here and there.

Okay, fine, I thought to myself, Puchner means 'literature' as in 'stories'. But that doesn't work either, since once again many of his choices don't tell any sort of narrative (Saint Paul's letters, Martin Luther's theses, Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac', Confucius's Analects, Mao's 'Little Red Book'). So what does Puchner mean by literature, the central organizing principle of his whole book? God alone knows.

My irritation with the book deepened when I got to Chapter Four, where Puchner claims credit for inventing the concept of the Axial Age: "It was only in the course of trying to understand the story of literature that I noticed a striking pattern in the teaching of the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. Living within a span of a few hundred years but without knowing of one another, these teachers revolutionized the world of ideas. Many of today’s philosophical and religious schools—Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Western philosophy, and Christianity—were shaped by these charismatic teachers. It was almost as if in the five centuries before the Common Era, the world was waiting to be instructed, eager to learn new ways of thinking and being. But why? And what explained the emergence of these teachers?" Sure, dude, sure. You came up with this vastly original idea all on your own. (To be fair, if one choses to read through the endnotes, Puchner does cite Karl Jaspers, though he still insists his own version is ~so different~.)

He then proceeds to get basic information about the Buddha completely wrong. For example:
Some form of writing may have existed in India during the Buddha’s time (the so-called Indus Valley script may not have been a full writing system and remains undeciphered).
This sentence. I can't even. I almost stopped reading the book right here, it's so incredibly incorrect. It's like saying, "Thomas Jefferson may have been literate, but since we find no Latin engravings in his house, we can't be sure." Let me lay out the problems. The Buddha lived around 500BCE; the last known well-accepted use of the Indus script was in 1900BCE. That's a gap of nearly two millennia. The Indus script was used on the western edge of South Asia, in Pakistan and the Indian states of Gujarat and Haryana; the Buddha lived on the eastern edge, in Nepal. At minimum, they're 500 miles apart. There is no chance in hell the Indus script was remotely relevant to writing about the Buddha. And in fact, we don't need to guess at the script of the Buddha's time and place. It's called Brahmi and it's quite well attested – though Puchner doesn't once mention it. He does include a photo of an Indus seal, because why not waste more space on utterly irrelevant information.

Let's quickly go through the problems on the rest of this single page:
What mattered above all were the age-old hymns and stories of the Vedas, which were transmitted orally by specially appointed Brahmans for whom remembering the Vedas was an obligation and a privilege.
Though the Vedas do have an important oral history, they were certainly written down by the time of the Buddha, and possibly as early as 1000BCE.
The oldest Indian epic, the Ramayana, was also orally composed and only later written down, much like Homeric epics.
The Mahabharata is generally considered to be the older of the two epics.

Despite my disillusionment at this point, I continued on with the book. And to be fair, I noticed many fewer mistakes! Though possibly because I know much less about Renaissance Germany or Soviet Russia than I do about Indian history. I did hit several problems again in the chapter on the Popul Vuh, the Mayan epic. To begin with, the chapter opens with a long dramatic scene recreating the Spanish conquistadores' capture of Atahualpa, the Incan emperor. Incan. Who lived in Peru, in South America. The Classic Mayan culture was based in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize – North America and a bit of Central America. This time Puchner is literally on the wrong continent.

Once he finally makes his way up to the Mayan homeland, he focuses his narration on Diego de Landa, a Spanish priest who did indeed write an important ethnography of the Mayans of the 1500s. The Classic Mayan Era was over by 950CE, introducing a discrepancy Puchner does not deign to acknowledge. Even aside from that small problem, Puchner describes Landa's writings multiple times as "an account [...] that has remained the primary source of information on Maya culture." This entirely ignores not only the Popul Vuh itself; but the multiple other Mayan codices that survived Spanish colonialism; the many Mayan writings carved on their pyramids, palaces, and stele, and painted on their pottery; their murals of war, sport, and history; the enormous archaeological record of their cities, technology, and diet; and, oh yeah, the fact that Mayan people are still around today.

Oh, my bad – Puchner does remember the Mayans still exist. Here's what he has to say about them:
"My journey began in the Lacandon jungle. A bus dropped me at the border of the Maya territory, where a beat-up truck picked me up at the side of the road. The village of several dozen huts was located in a clearing in the jungle. Everyone but me was dressed in what looked like long white nightgowns. Men and women both wore their black hair shoulder length (I thought of the shipwrecked sailor who had gone native), and most of them walked around barefoot, sometimes donning rubber boots."
That's it. That's literally the only mention of the modern Mayan people. (Puchner's in the area to learn about the Zapatista uprising, to which he devotes the rest of the chapter.) I'm so glad he spent ages detailing that and de Landa's biography instead of devoting any space at all to the contemporary persistence of Mayan beliefs, language, or rituals.

When I first read its blurb, I looked forward to the rest of The Written World. Unfortunately it's the closest I've come to hurling a book at the wall in a long, long time.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
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2017-09-01 04:16 pm

Countdown: three reviews left to write

The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I didn't get it. I'm embarrassed to admit that, but it's honestly my main reaction to this book. I want to say that it's a tired retread of better jokes, an attempt at satire that has no idea of what it's trying to say, but hell, it won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, so there must be something here. But whatever it is, I didn't get it.

The plot is generally described this way: in Dickens, a neighborhood in modern-day LA, an unnamed black man (we only ever learn his nicknames, Sellout and/or Bonbon) enslaves his neighbor, an elderly black man named Hominy, and re-institutes segregation in the local buses and school. The rest of Dickens alternatively ignores or supports him, but he is eventually caught by an outsider and the ensuing civil rights case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court.

That's what everyone is talking about, but it's a summary that doesn't remotely capture the experience of reading the book. The issue of slavery doesn't even come up until well after the first hundred pages, and segregation until significantly after that. Even once these issues make it onto the page, our narrator doesn't have much motivation or reason for them; Hominy insists that he wants to be a slave and browbeats the narrator into accepting it, although they both continue to live normal lives barely different from before. What does happen instead of pointed racial satire is the narrator's fairly mundane life: he pines for his childhood crush, now married to a famous rapper/actor; he remembers his childhood, home-schooled by a strict and eccentric father; he surfs; he works as a farmer, investing too much in organic fertilizer and giving away satsuma oranges to neighborhood kids; he tries to take his psychologist father's place in talking would-be suicides down off of ledges. It's not a driving plot by any means, but rather meanders from one tangent to another. Each slightly disjointed scene feels like one piece of the kaleidoscope of our narrator's identity, so that by the end you have a whole picture but the process of getting there was chaotic and confusing.

Which is not to say there's no humor. My favorite scene was when a black intellectual rewrites Huckleberry Finn:
‘One night, not long ago,’ Foy said, ‘I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the book is fraught with the “n-word”. And although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready eight- and ten-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend Huckleberry Finn on its own merits. That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant “n-word” occurs, I replaced it with “warrior ” and the word “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer”.’
‘That’s right!’ shouted the crowd.
‘I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book
The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.’ Then Foy held up the copy of his revamped volume for examination. My eyesight isn't the best, but I could've sworn the cover featured Huckleberry Finn piloting the raft down the mighty Mississippi, while Captain African-American Jim stood at the helm, hands on narrow hips, sporting a cheesy goatee and a tartan Burberry sport coat exactly like the one Foy happened to be wearing.

Now that's pretty great. But very little of the novel is this funny; not because it fails at it but because it simply isn't trying to be. There are scenes that burst over into outright tragedy, like the death of the narrator's father, but those too are rare. Mostly the tone is one of elegy: Hominy mourning the loss of his career as a child star, Dickens itself no longer legally recognized and without a clear identity, the narrator uncertain of who he is and who he wants to be.

I think writing this review has convinced that the book is better than I thought when I first finished it. Possibly because I was trying so hard to get the joke, to understand the satire, and now I think satire just isn't the right mode to approach it. A reread thinking about questions of identity and loneliness would probably make me like it much more.


The Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells. The last (sob!) of the Books of the Raksura. This one picks up directly from the end of the previous book, meaning we're well-supplied with a large cast of characters, multiple plot threads already in motion, lots of adventure culminating in pretty much saving the whole world, and plenty of battles, rescues, sacrifices, new alliances, separations, and reunions.

It's a bit hard to summarize the plot, since so much of it is about resolving situations set up in previous books. And not just in the first half of this duology, but all the way back to the first book of the series: here we get to finally see Pearl take a more active and less fraught role in leading Indigo Court, Jade once again reassess how to treat Moon not as an ideal consort but as an individual with a specific history, Frost takes the first steps in learning how to be a sister queen.

Ultimately the series is old-school pulp fantasy – and I absolutely mean that as a compliment – given a modern twist by Wells's take on gender roles, sexuality, and ethics. Fun tropes, well-executed, with relatable characters who provide sparkling dialogue – what more could anyone want?


An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows. A portal fantasy! I haven't read one of these in ages.

Saffron, a modern-day Australian teen girl, accidentally falls through a portal into the land of Kena, where she is almost immediately caught up in coup to overthrow the current ruler. This turns out to involve a potentially costly alliance with the neighboring but very different country of Veksh. Unfortunately, Saffron hasn't spent more than a few hours in Kena before she has her head shaved and two fingers cut off, which complicates her ability to return to Earth with a plausible story of where she's been. Other important characters include Gwen, another woman from Earth who long ago made the choice to stay in Kena; Zech, a spunky orphan girl with a secret heritage; and my personal favorite, Viya, a spoiled noble girl who escapes a political marriage to Kena's ruler and slowly comes to realize that the power she wants means she has to take responsibility as well.

Honestly, all of this is fairly standard stuff for a doorstopper fantasy novel, but at least it populates its pages with a refreshing diversity. Gwen, for example, is a middle-aged black explicitly aromantic woman; not exactly your typical hero. Saffron's eventual love interest is a transwoman. The characterizations are engaging and, if not particularly original, lots of fun (honestly, Saffron proves to be the least interesting of the lot, but 'normal teen' just doesn't hold a candle to 'disabled and depressed former queen' or 'elderly matriarch with a sharp tongue who wields a fighting staff') and the worldbuilding is entertaining. I particularly liked Kena's system of complicated polygamous marriages, with the ruler obliged to have at least four spouses, some of whom have their own spouses.

It's not a book that I would recommend to someone who's not already a fan of the genre, but I enjoyed it enough that I'll definitely be reading the sequel.


The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe Lansdale. #3 in the Hap & Leonard series, mystery/thriller books about mismatched best friends (Hap is a white ex-hippie ladies man; Leonard a black gay conservative) in impoverished East Texas. (By the way, these reviews must be confusing given that I am simultaneously reading the new books in this series as they come out and going back to read the early ones that I never got around to before. Sorry about that!) In this book, they go in search of Florida Grange, Hap's ex, a lawyer and wannabe journalist. The last anyone heard of her, she was staying in nearby Grovetown to investigate the mysterious death of a black man in the county jail. Hap and Leonard head over to try and pick up her trail – was she murdered? is she even missing, or has she just decided to move on? (You can really tell that this story is set in the days before cellphones and email addresses became so ubiquitous.)

They don't find Florida, but they do discover that Grovetown is in a “time warp”: ruled by the KKK
with 'No Colored' signs still up on the laundromat and a diner that refuses to serve Leonard, not to mention a history of racially motivated rapes and murders, though of course no one has ever been charged with the crimes. After Hap and Leonard barely escape one visit to Grovetown with their lives, they have to face the decision of continuing to search for Florida versus staying safe. Or, to put it another way, facing up to their own morality and (metaphorical) impotence versus doing the right thing, even if it seems likely that whatever happened to Florida, she's long past helping.

And all of that is before the hurricane hits, flooding Grovetown. (I should note I actually read the book a week or two ago; this plot point has developed unfortunate bad timing since.)

I really enjoyed this book; I think it might even be my favorite of the series. The focus on confronting such overt, virulent racism gives it a darkness and weight greater than the previous books. There's still funny moments and the usual fast-paced, crackling dialogue, but overall it's a far more serious story. Seeing Hap and Leonard admit their own vulnerabilities makes them more than improbably-effective action heroes; they're characters I can love.
brigdh: (Default)
2017-09-01 04:16 pm
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Countdown: seven reviews left to write

A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee. A YA novel starring Monty, eldest son of an Earl in mid-1700s England, his childhood neighbor/best friend Percy, and his sister Felicity. The three of them are just about to begin a Grand Tour of Europe, their last summer of freedom and fun before Monty has to buckle down and behave like a noble heir, Percy starts law school, and Felicity is shipped off to a finishing school.

Unfortunately none of them are particularly looking forward to their futures. Monty is very cheerfully bisexual, and has engaged in romps, gambling, drinking, and drugs to the point of being kicked out of Eton. Percy is mixed-race (the son of a plantation owner, though raised by his aunt and uncle, minor gentry) and though he's tolerated, his existence isn't always well-regarded in their circles. Felicity is pissed off about being doomed to learn embroidery and manners instead of going to medical school to become a doctor.

Oh, and Monty is desperately in love with Percy, but is afraid to tell him and lose his friendship. This is just the beginning – as the book gets going, there are also revelations about epilepsy, child abuse, insane asylums, and more.

It's not all serious, though. In fact, most of the book is light-hearted fun: there are encounters with highwaymen, battles with pirates, parties at Versailles, Carnevale in Venice, villas on Greek islands, operas, fortune tellers, hostage exchanges, escaping thieves, and basically every adventure one could imagine in 18th century Europe. There's even a plot about alchemists and an elixir of immortality which, to tell the truth, felt a bit out of place in the otherwise historically-based book. And, of course, there is lots and lots of pining as Monty and Percy engage in the most excellent sort of romantic-comedy suspense, yearning and avoiding telling the truth about their feelings. A++, that bit.

My main complaint with the book is that Lee tries very earnestly to handle appropriately the issues of social justice she includes (racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia), but every one of the ensuing conversations feels very 2017-approved, with every term the correct vocabulary, every checkbox checked, every privilege painstakingly unpacked. Not that such views couldn't – didn't! – exist in the past, but the way Lee portrays them doesn't seem to relate to the characters or setting at all. They don't arise out of the environment of the book, but are dropped in wholesale from an outside perspective that wants to be sure we know the right way to think. And then there's the moment where one character tells another about how the Japanese mend broken pottery with gold seams, see, so that the broken places end up more beautiful than the whole, and it's meant to be a profound moment but it's just so embarrassingly like this person in the 1700s is reading off a tumblr post.

But nonetheless it's a funny, sweet book, if not quite as good as I expected when I heard "Gay Roadtrip through 18th Century Europe". What it reminds me most of all is reading an AU from a fandom you don't know. Maybe the characterization and setting isn't always that great but you don't care because it's not your fandom. It has the tropes you love and you can't wait to see the couple get together at the end, so you stay up late reading it on your phone. A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is that experience in original fiction.


Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. The sequel to Too Like the Lightning which I absolutely LOVED. However I really should not have waited seven months to read this one, because I'd forgotten some of the characters and plots and this is a series jam-packed with multitudes of characters and plots, and you better have every miniscule bit of such details ready at your fingertips to have a chance of following the action.

To briefly summarize the plot (a task that's probably impossible, but I'll try to hit the main points) in the 25th century the world has more or less become a Utopia. Nations have been abolished, religion banished to the private sphere, and gendered distinctions made it illegal; to all outward appearances, it is a world with no reason to go to war. Unfortunately it turns out that all of this has been made possible through carefully targeted assassinations, picking off key individuals to guide the world away from war, riots, major economic downturns, etc. Not many – about nine a year, on average, for the last two hundred years. This information sets off a flurry of activity as the characters take sides, variously trying to figure out the conspiracy behind it, hide the perpetrators, uncover proof, keep the public from finding out, and broadcast the secret to as many people as possible. When several world leaders turn out to be involved, chaos breaks out worldwide. It's not just drama, though; behind the action scenes is the frequently repeated question of if it was such a bad plan after all. Is it worth losing a few lives to prevent the millions of deaths that would happen in war?

Seven Surrenders is all about the philosophical dilemma. In addition to the one above, we get multiple debates over the riddle, 'would you destroy this world to save a better one?', and 'If God has revealed proof of His existence, why did He chose you above every human who's ever prayed to believe? And, more importantly, why now?' There is speculation about the power of gender, of sexual attraction, of the effect of raising children as experiments, of the role of Providence in life, of what it would mean for two Gods to meet, of how one conducts a war when there are no living veterans to teach the next generation. But there's plenty of action too – the book includes revelations of secret parentage, long-lost loves, a revenge story worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo, bombs, murders, resurrections, suicide attempts, cute kids, so many disguises, sword fights, gun battles, horse chases, and more.

Ultimately I didn't like it as much as Too Like the Lightning. It just didn't feel as deep or as grand, possibly because so much stuff was happening that none of it got enough exploration. One of the most best character arcs (Bridger's) happened mostly offstage, and many of the other characters were too busy reacting to the constantly changing political winds to have a real arc. I still recommend it, because it's just so different from everything else and I have to support an author who mashes up transportation science with Diderot's philosophy. But if you read it, definitely don't wait months between books.


The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry. A murder mystery, the first in a series set in Victorian London. Charlotte is the middle daughter of a middle-class family, believed by all to be firmly unmarriageable but happy enough with her staid life. The book opens with the murder of a young well-off woman, then Charlotte's maid is also murdered, as are several others. There is no apparent connection between the victims except that they're all young woman, all live nearby, and all were strangled. Inspector Thomas Pitt is assigned the case, and he begins to spend a great deal of time talking to Charlotte – first just to interview her regarding the murders, but then for her own sake. But will Charlotte's family allow her to marry a... policeman???

There are several interesting things about the book. Set very specifically in 1881 (which is to say, before Jack the Ripper) the very idea of a serial killer – as opposed to a thief who murders for money – is new and shocking to most of the characters. So is the concept that such a criminal could appear "normal", that rather than being a dirty, lower-class raving lunatic, it could be a respected neighbor or even a member of their own family. These are such self-evident ideas to modern people (and most characters in mystery books) that seeing Charlotte and the others wrestle with them, discuss their ramifications, and feel guilty for suspecting their husbands and fathers was pretty fascinating. I also liked that the family was so solidly middle-class. Historical fiction has a habit of gravitating toward extremes: everyone is either upper aristocracy or enduring the most grueling poverty. A family of boring bank clerks actually made for a refreshing change.

Unfortunately those are the only good things I have to say about the book. The middle 2/3rds of the story drags along interminably, as nothing happens except for characters having the same few discussions over and over again. Charlotte suspects her father! First she must have a conversation about it with her mother. Then her younger sister. Then her older sister. Then her mother and the older sister talk. Then the older sister talks about it to her husband. Then...

Well, you get the idea. And it's not as though each new character was bringing a fresh perspective and insight to the issue! No, we just get the same few protests and agreements recycled over and over in slightly different wordings. It's such an awful slog that I nearly abandoned the book. However, I stuck it out to the end, only to be rewarded with the reveal of the killer (warning for spoilers, I guess): a lesbian who has been driven mad by repressing her sexuality! You know, I don't think I've ever actually encountered this awful cliche in the wild before. It would almost be exciting, if it wasn't so offensive. Though there's not a lot of time to be offended, because the reveal, motivation, attack on Charlotte, rescue, and arrest all happen in the last two pages (literally) so none of it is exactly dwelt on.

It's probably all for the best that I disliked this book. It's the first in a 32-book series, and now I don't feel any desire to read the rest.
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2017-08-23 03:46 pm

Catching up with the book-blogging, part infinity argh

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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2017-08-07 08:20 pm

Catching up with the book-blogging, part two

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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2017-07-31 05:13 pm

Catching up with book-blogging, part one

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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2017-07-28 04:16 pm

Book-blogging: De-Extinction Edition

(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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2017-07-14 04:55 pm
Entry tags:

Not even a reading wednesday, I am so far behind and will continue to be for a few more weeks

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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2017-07-04 09:36 pm
Entry tags:

Reading on Whatever Goddamn Day I Have Time for It

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.
brigdh: (Default)
2017-06-24 04:37 pm

Reading Not-Wednesday

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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2017-06-14 12:59 pm

Reading Wednesday

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!
brigdh: (Default)
2017-06-07 02:30 pm

Reading Wednesday

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.
brigdh: (Default)
2017-05-31 03:44 pm

On time! Reading Wednesday

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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2017-05-27 05:47 pm

Slightly less late Reading Wednesday

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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2017-05-22 04:53 pm

Another late Reading Wednesday

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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2017-05-11 04:21 pm

Reading Wed – Thursday

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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2017-05-03 07:31 pm

Reading Wednesday

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.