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February 2018 Book Reviews – The Lakota Way (#nonfiction), The Empty Room (#alcoholism), Before We Were Yours (#historic), The Gravity Between Us (#newadult), The Nonborn King (#fantasy)

April 11, 2018 3 comments
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Some breakfast reading at my in-laws’ in Michigan. For more shots check out my bookstagram

Hello my lovely readers! I’m a bit behind in my book reviews (as usual) because life just keeps happening. But I’ve still been finding time to read (obviously). Looking back on it, I’m kind of amazed I got so much reading done in February seeing as I had the flu and also took a trip to Michigan to see my in-laws and had a very busy work month. (When I’m busy at work I often find myself too brain tired to do much reading). But obviously I did get a lot of reading done! Let’s take a look at what I read.

The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living by Joseph M. Marshall III was a gift from my husband when we were first dating. I had been trying to read it mindfully and slowly a chapter at a time but clearly I kept forgetting about it instead. This happens to me when I read digital books sometimes. So I decided this month to just pick it up and finish it off. The author of this nonfiction is a member of the Lakota nation, and here he shares the wisdom of his people for us all to benefit from. I am honored and humbled by the fact that he chooses to do so when so much was wrested away from the Lakota by colonization. Reading this book was like sitting down with a wise older uncle who tells stories that may seem disconnected at first but ultimately all revolve around a theme (like love). The stories are also connected with the history of the Lakota people (before and during colonization). I found the entire collection to be moving, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Native Peoples of the Americas.
(4 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(Source: gift)

Next, I tore through my first 5 star read of the year – The Empty Room by Lauren B. Davis. This is a fictional telling of one day in the life of a woman with alcoholism. Davis is in recovery herself, and her first-hand experience is obvious here. I tore through this in just one day. It’s the most realistic depiction of alcoholism in women I’ve seen. Gritty and dark yet compassionate and hopeful.

She was always 5 minutes away from being the person she wanted to be.
(location 14%)

Alcohol, the man said, had first given him wings then taken away the sky.
(location 55%)

Just writing about it now makes me want to pick it up and read it again. If you’ve ever struggled with alcohol yourself or struggled to understand someone who does, give this read a chance.
(5 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(Source: Amazon)

Throughout the month I was working on my audiobook – Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. I call this a historic fiction but really it’s one of those dual setting books with a narrator both in the present and in the past. If you’ve been on book blogs at all in the past year you’ve heard of it. This book looks at a dark history of adoption in the United States, with children being snatched from their families under the guise of the law in the name of eugenics (in this case, the idea that beautiful children are better raised by the rich). I very much appreciate the importance of this history being presented and how well-researched it is, but I must admit that both of the main characters rubbed me the wrong way, which wasn’t something I was able to get past.
(3 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(Source: Audible)

Next I picked up The Gravity Between Us by Kristen Zimmer. This book was at the disadvantage of being my first read after having my soul touched by The Empty Room. I often find that after a read that touching I struggle to enjoy my next read, so keep that in mind when considering my thoughts. This new adult romance looks at two best friends who fall in love with each other but struggle to admit it to each other. Complicating factors include they’re both women, in their late teens, and have just moved to LA. Oh and one is a break-out movie star. It’s a great premise but the execution didn’t work for me. Alternating chapters between the two main character’s perspectives took a lot of the tension out and sometimes left me confused about who was feeling what and who was talking. I also felt like both Kendall and Payton really mistreated their friends around them (a straight guy and a bisexual gal who help them keep the relationship under wraps) and while people make mistakes they never really apologize for this or make up for it to them.
(3 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(Source: Amazon)

Finally I wrapped up the month by finishing my print read of the month: The Nonborn King by Julian May. This is the last in a fantasy trilogy with four disparate plots that ultimately come together in the end of course. I wasn’t into half of them, so that made it a bit of a slog. I also had read the previous two books in audiobook format with multiple narrators, and I wonder how much of my feeling of this being a slog was that it wasn’t being performed at me. I hadn’t realized how much the performance enhanced the books. I still very much enjoy the world of The Pliocene Exile but the direction it went here was puzzling.
(3 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(Source: PaperBackSwap I think?)

It looks like the month started strong then went mediocre. Since I got the flu at the end of the month, I wonder how much of that vibe was just a bad flu mood? Hard to say! Regardless, I know I’ll be readingThe Empty Room again.

My total for the month of February 2018:

  • 5 books
    • 4 fiction; 1 nonfiction
    • 4 female authors; 1 male author
    • 3 ebooks; 1 print book; 1 audiobook

Book Review: Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown (Series, #1)

December 16, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown (Series, #1)Summary:
Twenty-one-year-old front girl Emmylou knows that getting her band noticed in the ‘90s indie rock scene will be no easy task. She definitely knows better than to break the number one rule of the band: Don’t sleep with your bandmates! But after she ends up having the best sex of her life with her guitarist, Travis, she finds following that rule is a lot harder than it sounds.

When the band gets the gig of their dreams, making it big seems just within reach. But Emmy’s inability to keep her hands off Travis threatens everything they’ve worked for. Can Emmy find a way to break the rules and not blow the chance of a lifetime?

Review:
It took me a moment to get past the fact that 90s now count as historic fiction. *pours one out for the 90s* But then again Fresh Off the Boat is set entirely in the 90s, much like That  70s Show, so it appears the time has come. I was not a “new adult” (refers to those post high school but pre having your shit together) in the 90s (I was solidly a kid coveting a tamagotchi) but I vaguely knew about all the fads the older kids were into like….flannel and grunge. This book oozes that, and the characters get to have the problems that arise from not having a cell phone or YouTube to promo your band. That was fun.

For those who don’t know, New Adult means to expect more sex. And oh man. The sex scenes in this book. There are a lot of them. They are explicit. I like that sort of thing, and even though I rolled my eyes occasionally at some of their more interesting bedroom pursuits (like “tattooing” with permanent marker), I still thought they were hot, well-written, within character, and, most importantly, made sense within the plot.

What I think could make people love or hate this book is the main character, Emmy. She narrates it in the first person and she is, well, she’s a 21-year-old. She makes problems where there shouldn’t be any problems. She gets all up in her head. She thinks in black and white. She is, basically, young and acts and talks like a young person. Yeah, sometimes it’s infuriating to see her fucking her own life up, but that’s realistic, especially for a character who’s supposed to be a passionate artistic type in a band. I was able to appreciate her for who she is and have faith that she’d grow and get past her issues, but I do think that not everyone would be able to see past that and enjoy it in the same way.

The series will follow other people involved in the indie rock scene, and so we’ve already met them in this book as secondary characters. I’m excited to see what hot shenanigans they get up to and hear a new voice’s take on everything going on for the various bands.

Recommended to those who want to take a visit to the 90s through the eyes of a passionate new adult.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Nonfiction November: Fiction and Nonfiction Book Pairings

November 10, 2015 11 comments

I was looking forward to this week’s theme of Nonfiction November the most, because one of my favorite parts of being a librarian is “reader’s advisory.”  Reader’s advisory is when you chat to a person about what they enjoy reading, what they’re interested in, what they’re looking for, and recommend a few books to them as books they might enjoy reading.  (I don’t get to do this a ton as an academic medical librarian, but it does still come up sometimes).  I view this as a book blogger version of that.

For this, I thought I would select out a few of my favorite fiction books and seek out nonfiction books that would pair well with them.  If you read and enjoyed the fiction, consider checking out the nonfiction.  Of course it will also work the other way around!  If you’ve read the nonfiction book and enjoyed it, consider checking out the fiction.

First Pairing: Sled Dogs

Wolf howling at moon.The Call of the Wild
by:

Jack London
Fiction
Blurb:
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush.  Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.

covergoldrushGold Rush Dogs
By:
Jane G. Haigh
Nonfiction
Blurb:
Dog lovers and history buffs will delight in this collection celebrating the beloved canines that offered companionship, protection, and hard work to their masters in the Far North.
Why pair it?
Buck, the main character (and dog) in The Call of the Wild is trained to be a sled dog for the gold rush (not the Iditarod).  This nonfiction book is about the gold rush dogs.

Second Pairing: Women in Ancient Japanese Court Life

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture.Fudoki
By:
Kij Johnson
Fiction
Blurb:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

coverdiaryDiary of Lady Murasaki
By:
Murasaki Shikibu
Nonfiction
Blurb:
The Diary recorded by Lady Murasaki (c. 973 c. 1020), author of The Tale of Genji, is an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi. Told in a series of vignettes, it offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts, with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers, and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga. The Diary is also a work of great subtlety and intense personal reflection, as Murasaki makes penetrating insights into human psychology her pragmatic observations always balanced by an exquisite and pensive melancholy.
Why pair it?
Fudoki features tales being told by an aging empress that illuminate women’s lives in ancient Japan.  This nonfiction period piece is a diary by a real woman with an insider’s view of the same court life.  Although not written by an empress, she was an empress’s companion.

Third Pairing: We’re Living in the Future the 1800s Scifi Imagined

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By:
H.G. Wells
Fiction
Blurb:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.

cover_inthebeginningIn the Beginning…Was the Command Line
By:
Neal Stephenson
Nonfiction
Blurb:
This is “the Word” — one man’s word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the “one man” is Neal Stephenson, “the hacker Hemingway” (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson’s In the Beginning… was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.
Why this pairing?
Wells and Stephenson are both considered masters of the scifi genre.  In this nonfiction piece, Stephenson explicitly draws comparisons between modern culture and the one envisioned by Wells in The Time Machine.

Fourth Pairing: Scandinavia Is Perfect….Or Is It?!

Silhouette of a person standing in a white hall.The Unit
By:
Ninni Holmqvist
Fiction
Blurb:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.

fixedcoverThe Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
By:
Michael Booth
Nonfiction
Blurb:
The whole world wants to learn the secrets of Nordic exceptionalism: why are the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite having the highest taxes? If the Finns really have the best education system, how come they still think all Swedish men are gay? Are the Icelanders really feral? How are the Norwegians spending their fantastical oil wealth? And why do all of them hate the Swedes?
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.
In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.
They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian.
Why this pairing?
The Unit is a unique dystopia in that it is set in Sweden and takes various aspects of Swedish culture to their dystopic extremes.  Since Scandinavia often comes across as idealistic, it was interesting to see a dystopia set there.  This nonfiction work takes a long tough look at Scandinavia and exposes the minuses (in addition to the pluses) of living there. 

That’s it for my pairings! I hope you all enjoyed them.  I know that I certainly found a few new books for my wishlist!

Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love by Christine Frost

October 19, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula's Lost Love by Christine FrostSummary:
Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince, inspired the story of Dracula with his bloodthirsty, iron-handed ruling.  This, though, is the story of his long-time consort, Ecaterina Floari, mother one of his sons and a daughter.  She loves him deeply but is haunted by his ruling style, as well as spirits in a helmet he brings into their home from one of his battles.

Review:
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale years ago but it took a while for my mood to be just right to read it.  It is a historic piece set in 1400s with splashes of the fantastic, and I tended to be in the mood for one or the other but not both.  Finally in the heat of the summer, I was ready for a dark historic fantasy that would take me away to heavy gowns and ancient rulers.  I was surprised by the level of historic research and detail in the book, as well as the tie-in to the Dracula story, making it a marriage of two genres.

This is a long book with a lot of rich setting detail.  That doesn’t tend to be my style but it works with the feel the book is going for, and many readers will enjoy the pace at which the book moves.  The dark fantasy elements take time to set up, but when they get into motion they really add to the story.  The story strikes a nice balance of Ecaterina working with the culture of her time-period and being bothered by certain things Vlad does.  For instance, it bothers her that he has mistresses, but she comes to accept it as is expected of her in the time-period.  This trajectory acknowledges the feelings the modern reader may have about the situation but also lets the character be true to her time-period.

The author toes a finely-held line of showing Vlad’s cruelty but also keeping him human and not demonizing him.  He was a cruel ruler but he wasn’t a monster.  Similarly, although Ecaterina loves him she is still disturbed by his actions when ruling.  This lends both characters depth they would not have if Ecaterina’s love was blind or Vlad was monstrous.

In spite of appreciating the historic fiction plot covering many decades, I did sometimes feel that the plot meandered a bit too much.  I also felt that sometimes the book told too much instead of showing.  Similarly, there were a few too many typos and grammatical errors for a book that is in its final version.  It was not enough to make me stop reading but it was enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

I appreciated how much of the book is from women’s perspectives.  Not just Ecaterina’s but her mother’s, servants, and other consorts and even a spy are featured.  The female cast is strong, and that would be easy for a less thoughtful writer to pass over in favor of showcasing the men history chose to record more thoroughly.

Overall, readers seeking to learn something about the 1400s in Romania will be pleased by how much they will learn reading this book.  Those who come to it due to the Dracula connection will enjoy the fantastical elements toward the end in particular.  Recommended to readers of historic fiction and fantasy who do not mind a long book with a slow burn.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: Thieves’ Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)

September 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)Summary:
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion.  Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good.  He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring.  The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.

Review:
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much.  (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy.  It is awesome).  This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.

Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first.  Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way.  It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders.  I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew.  I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t.  This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.

Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot.  I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship.  Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other.  Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do.  Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize.  It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.

All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook.  I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect.  The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed.  I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things.  It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.

The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating.  This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series.  I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.

Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series.  Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere.  But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Thieftaker, review

Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

Old photographs of two women in suits against a background of a steamer ship.Summary:
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days.  So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world.  When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her.  Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction.  Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first).  The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities.  Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to.  Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner.  Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British.  She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan.  One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?

Review:
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution).  I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy.  Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.

Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world.  He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves.  For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:

One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)

While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting.  Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities.  Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages.  The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.

The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)

Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism.  Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in.  Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.

From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world.  He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey.  For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage.  During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context.  It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.

After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths.  This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like.  Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives.  This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast.  They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.

What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman.  Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that.  I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them.  But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.

Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time.  The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner.  Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail.  However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction.  Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history.  Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

A bowl of fruit on a black background. A purple stripe across the bottom contains the book's title written in white.Summary:
It’s the 1960s in Canada, and Marian McAlpin is working writing and analyzing surveys for a marketing research firm.  She has a feminist roommate she doesn’t quite understand, and hangs out with the three office virgins for lunch.  Her boyfriend is comfortable and familiar. When he proposes to her, the office virgins think she’s hit the jackpot, her roommate questions why she’s following the norm, and her married and very pregnant friend seems hesitant about her fiancee.  None of this really bothers Marian, though.  What does bother her is that, ever since her engagement, there are more and more things she simply can’t eat.  First meat then eggs then even vegetables! She thinks of herself causing them suffering, and she just can’t stomach them.  What will happen to her if there’s eventually nothing left for her to eat?

Review:
I’m a fan of a few Margaret Atwood books, and the concept of this book intrigued me.  Since I run the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, I was also wondering if this might actually be a new take on anorexia.  Unfortunately, Marian is not really anorexic, it’s more of an elaborate, overdone metaphor.  Perhaps the plot is simply dated, but the interesting concept, when fleshed-out, comes out rather ho-hum.

The novel is divided into three parts, with Marian using first-person narration for the first and third parts, with third person narration taking over for the second.  This is meant to demonstrate how Marian is losing herself and not feeling her own identity.  It’s an interesting writing device, and one of the things I enjoyed more in the book.  It certainly is jarring to suddenly go from first to third person when talking about the main character, and it sets the tone quite well.

It’s impossible to read this book and not feel the 1960s in it.  Marian is in a culture where women work but only until marriage, where women attending college is still seen as a waste by some, and where there is a small counter-cultural movement that seems odd to the mainstream characters and feels a bit like a caricature to the modern reader.  However, the fact that Marian feels so trapped in her engagement, which could certainly still be the case in the 1960s, doesn’t ring as true, given the people surrounding Marian.  Her roommate is counter-cultural, her three office friends claim to want a man but clearly aren’t afraid of aging alone and won’t settle.  Her married friend shares household and child rearing with her husband, at least 50/50.  It’s hard to empathize with Marian, when it seems that her trap is all of her own making in her own mind.  She kind of careens around like aimless, violent, driftwood, refusing to take any agency for herself, her situation, or how she lets her fiancee treat her.  It’s all puzzling and difficult to relate to.

The Marian-cannot-eat-plot is definitely not developed as anorexia.  Marian at first stops eating certain meats because she empathizes with the animals the meat came from.  As a vegetarian, I had trouble seeing this as a real problem and fully understood where Marian was coming from.  Eventually, she starts to perceive herself as causing pain when eating a dead plant, bread, etc… The book presents both empathizing with animals and plants as equally pathologic, which is certainly not true.  Marian’s affliction actually reminded me a bit of orthorexia nervosa (becoming unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating, source) but the book itself presents eliminating any food from your diet as pathologic.  Either Marian eats like everyone else or she is going off the deep-end.  There is no moderate in-between.

What the Marian-cannot-eat-plot is actually used for is as a metaphor for how Marian’s fiancee (or her relationship with him) is supposedly consuming her.  The more entwined with her fiancee she becomes in society’s eyes, the closer the wedding comes, the less Marian is able to consume, because she herself is being consumed.  This would be quite eloquent if Marian’s fiancee or her relationship with him was actually harmful or consuming, but it certainly does not come across that way in what we see of it in the book.

Marian presents herself to her boyfriend then fiancee as a mainstream person, and he treats her that way.  He does one thing that’s kind of off-the-rocker (crashes his car into a hedge) but so does she on the same night (runs away in the middle of dinner, across people’s backyards, for no apparent reason and hides under a bed while having drinks with three other people at a friend’s house).  The only thing that he does that could possibly be read as a bit cruel is when she dresses up for a party he states that he wishes she would dress that way more often.  It’s not a partner’s place to tell the other how they should dress, but it’s also ok to express when you like something your partner is wearing.  Personally I thought the fiancee really meant the latter but just struggled with appropriately expressing it, and Marian herself never expresses any wants or desires directly to him on how they interact, what they wear, what they eat, how they decorate, etc…, so how could he possibly know?  In addition to never expressing herself to her fiancee, Marian also cheats on him, so how exactly the fiancee ends up the one being demonized in the conclusion of the book is a bit beyond me.  He’s bad because he wanted to marry her? Okay…… The whole thing reads as a bit heavy-handed second-wave feminism to me, honestly.  Marriage seems to be presented in the book as something that consumes women, no matter if they choose it or are forced into it by society.  It is not presented as a valid choice if a woman is able, within her society and culture, to make her own choices.

In spite of these plot and character issues, the book is still an engaging read with an interesting writing style.  I was caught up in the story, even if I didn’t really like the ideas within it.

Overall, this is a well-written book with some interesting narrative voice choices that did not age well.  It is definitely a work of the 1960s with some second-wave feminism ideas that might not sit well with modern readers.  Recommended to those interested in in a literary take on second-wave feminism’s perception of marriage.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron

April 19, 2014 1 comment

A pencil drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting in front of a bookcase.Summary:
Professor Jacob Wentworth is the last of his kind, the only humanities professor at the university.  With his retirement at the end of the year, the humanities department will officially be closed.  But when the university’s star genius student, Bryce, takes a liking for Jacob and what he can teach him, Jacob stays on indefinitely.  Jacob has refused to ever use the Interface directly.  He won’t put in the contacts or earbuds that open up a whole virtual world.  He doesn’t want to give the Company that much control over his life.  In spite of his tutelage, years later Bryce is working on improving the Interface, making it into a brain implant instead of contacts.  But Bryce’s connection with Jacob has done something to him, and he finds himself distracted by building a time machine and not wanting to help the Company anymore.  Together they decide to bring Abraham Lincoln to the present, replacing him with a double just moments before his death.  Maybe it will take a man out of time to save the future.

Review:
When this book was submitted to me during my annual review copy open submissions, I was immediately intrigued by the combination of a dystopian future with time-travel and history.  Cameron’s story didn’t disappoint.  The book gives a unique flair to the concept of fighting an overpowering dystopian government with the addition of time-travel and a historical figure that makes it engaging and highly readable.

The futuristic setting is both well-imagined and evoked in a non-intrusive, showing not telling way.  It is easy to relate to Jacob immediately on his walk to work, and the futuristic elements are introduced gradually.  It helps that Jacob is a bit of a luddite, as it gives him a bit of an outsider’s perspective to describe things to the reader.  The futuristic tech described in the book is well-imagined.  High tech contact lenses are definitely the wave of the future, and jumping from that to a neural interface makes total sense.  Cameron also takes into account other elements of the future beyond the science, such as climate, politics, and trends.    It’s a fun world to visit in spite of it being a dystopia.

Jacob and Bryce start out a bit two-dimensional but grow to be three-dimensional over the course of the story.  The addition of the female biologist who assists them manages to add both diversity and a romance, which is nice.  She also much more quickly takes on a three-dimensional quality.  Having her and the romance around really kick the whole story up a notch.  Abraham Lincoln was probably the most difficult character to handle, since he is obviously based on a real person.  He is presented respectfully, yet still as a flawed human being.  When he speaks, his words are accessible yet sound just different enough to provide the reader with the consistent cue that he is a man out of time.

The plot mostly works well, moving in a logical, well thought-out manner.  The end has a bit of a deus ex machina that is rather disappointing.

*spoiler*
A main character is saved from death via time travel, thus making all of the main character “good guys” survive the battle with the Company.  Stories about battles of one ideal against another are generally better if at least some casualties are had.  I do not count a minor secondary character who dies, since that is akin to killing off a red shirt in Star Trek.
*end spoiler*

Some readers may be bothered by the level of anti-tech found in the book.  The Interface isn’t just bad because the new neural version will give the Company control over people.  It also is bad because it supposedly inhibits the development of the users’ brains, rendering them to an elementary level of intelligence.  The book also strongly argues the idea that friends in virtual reality aren’t real friends, and that old tech, such as print books, are better.  Even television is lauded as better than any virtual reality activity.  I’m fine with not agreeing 100% with the protagonists in a story.  It’s not necessary for me to enjoy it, and I appreciate seeing their perspective and the freedom fight that follows.  However, this perspective may bother some readers, so they should be aware it exists within the story.

Overall, this is a well-written, original take on the idea of fighting a dystopian future with an advisor ripped out of time.  The book is weakened a bit by a deus ex machina ending.  Some readers may not like or enjoy the anti-tech position of the protagonists.  It is still a fun frolic through a richly imagined possible future.  Recommended to fans of dystopian scifi and US History.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

January 17, 2013 2 comments

Black adn white photo of a young woman above the skyline of Peking.Summary:
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war.  In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching.  In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits.  Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator.  They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.

Review:
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.

My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French.  In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives.  It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime.  I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.

So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others?  Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age.  She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays.  Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels.  Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries.  This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation.  Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team.  In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women.  Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well.  Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.

French unfurls the story well.  He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well.  A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel.  I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were.  I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class.  In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important.  It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:

Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)

I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking.  It took a bit to truly get into the story.  A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice.  At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl.  But that’s not the story at all.  The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people.  It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.

Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism.  It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Across the Table / Dancing on Sunday Afternoons by Linda Cardillo (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image of a restaurant.Summary:
This book actually consists of two different books packaged together into one. They are both standalones, not in a series together.

Across the Table
Follow three generations of an Italian-American Boston family, starting with Rose, who marries a navy seaman right before WWII breaks out.  The family ultimately buys a restaurant on Salem Street in the historic North End, and food and the family business both help keep the family together through trials and heart-aches.

Dancing on Sunday Afternoons
Cara goes to care for her grandmother, Giulia, who has fallen and broken her hip on a visit back to the old country of Italy.  While visiting her, Giulia reveals to her the story of her first love who died when Cara’s father was just a baby.

Review:
This book made it onto my tbr pile because I found it on trash day on top of a neighbor’s recycling pile.  It was one of those cases where obviously someone had given up actually packing for their move and was just chucking it all.  The book was in pristine condition, so I yoinked it away (along with two others).  Shocker: when I opened this to read it, I discovered that it’s signed by the author.  I also didn’t realize until I started reading it that there’s actually two totally separate books in it.  The cover only says the first title and mentions a bonus book in rather small type.  So this one was full of surprises!

Across the Table
This story is based on the author’s family history, and you can honestly tell. It’s full of so much heart and reality.  It’s not your typical romance or women’s fiction. The family felt entirely real, and you could understand why they made the choices they did, even if you wouldn’t have done the same thing.  I found Rose by far to be the most interesting, but that’s not really a surprise. I’ve always had a thing for the 1940s, and her life in that decade was simultaneously unique and typical.  She spent a couple of years before the war on a tropical island (whose name I cannot remember, I apologize) with her husband.  It all felt very South Pacific, but she states that spending this time there gave her and her husband a solid base for the rest of their lives together. They had to really depend on each other.  She also said that living there made her question the racism she was raised in and ultimately stop her racist thoughts and actions.  They were never extreme, just that avoidance of people visibly different from you that you sometimes see.  I also loved that the story is based to solidly in Boston. Cardillo obviously grew up here or visited family a lot here, since she understands simple things like how it takes an hour at least to get from the North End to Cambridge, or how different one side of the river is from the other.  The family business and food aspects were also perfectly handled. Just enough to set the atmosphere but not so heavy-handed you wonder if the author forgot about the relationships at the heart of the story.  There’s also a nice touch of an uncle/brother/son who is gay, and his Catholic family’s reaction to this is a positive, refreshing change.  Perhaps even more so since the reader knows the story is based on a real family.  Overall, I absolutely loved this book. It had everything I like in both historic and women’s fiction.
5 out of 5 stars

Dancing on Sunday Afternoons
In contrast, this book was far more tedious and full of cliches and….well basically everything that I don’t like about historic and women’s fiction. Giulia’s immigration story and her family are not particularly easy to empathize with.  Her family is incredibly wealthy in Italy, and everyone worries more about appearances than about actually doing the right thing.  Even Giulia’s rebellion of marrying the man she wants to marry isn’t all that admirable. She only does it ultimately with the family’s blessing, and her reaction when her husband dies is appalling. (This is not a spoiler. You learn in the first chapter that Giulia’s first husband died).  I know that old families really could be like this, but I guess it made less sense being told this way since Giulia was telling the story to her modern granddaughter. I didn’t see any wisdom of age coming through in the telling. I know when my older family members tell me something from their youth, they also discuss what they learned from it. They try to impart some wisdom on me so I don’t make similar mistakes or so that I’m willing to take similar risks.  Giulia’s story just doesn’t feel like an elderly person relating to a young family member. I suppose if you really love historic, clean romance novels, you might enjoy this one more than I did. Personally I need this genre to have something extra to really grab me.
3 out of 5 stars

Overall, then, I must average the two books out.  I loved the first, but felt that I was not the target audience for the second.  It is worth noting that the second was actually Cardillo’s first novel, so her second book was a big improvement.  I’ll be keeping my eye on this author, particularly for more work set in Boston.  As far as recommendations go, I recommend these books to fans of historic fiction with a focus on romance and women’s personal lives.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: recycling bin

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