A Rare Benedictine (Cadfael Series)

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Rare Benedictine (Cadfael Series)
Ellis Peters, 1988 (Kindle version 2014)

Premise: Collects three short stories from across the series' timeline, including the account of when Cadfael joins the monastery.

I love Cadfael, and when I recently needed a quick comfort read, I knew this wouldn't disappoint. However, if you're looking for a dramatic turn of events to drive Cadfael the crusader to the Benedictine order, you won't find it here.

The first story, "A Light on the Road to Woodstock," is the account in question. Given the character as revealed throughout the series, it would be surprising if Cadfael had some supernatural or esoteric revelation.

In the introduction to this volume, in fact, the author describes the decision as analogous to the way some people (more common in certain times and cultures) simply find they have reached another phase in life and choose to renounce the world in some way.

As it is, it's a lovely story in which the Welsh man-at-arms (described as blunt, insubordinate, and an utterly reliable man of his word) accompanies an English nobleman home after fighting in Normandy under Henry I. Said noble faces a land dispute with the Shrewsbury Abbey. While Cadfael will, of course, protect the noble's safety to the best of his ability as he has been asked, his private judgment as to the rightness and fairness of the actors in the disagreement will hold great import by the end.

The second story in the volume, "The Price of Light," is a Christmas tale that I read previously in The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. I liked it then; I like it now.

The third, "Eye Witness," is basically a shortened version of a Cadfael novel. It has all the red herrings, dramatic reveals, and unique characters, plus a bit more of a final punchline.

This volume is short, and it felt even shorter because I had already read the second story. The publisher even padded the end of the Kindle file (from 63% on!) with a good portion of the beginning of A Morbid Taste for Bones.

I still enjoyed what there was here, but I wish there had been a bit more material.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Price of Salt

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Price of Salt
Patricia Highsmith (released under the name Claire Morgan), 1952 (e-version 2011)

Premise: Therese is unsatisfied with her life, her retail job, her boyfriend. One day, she meets a beautiful stranger, and her life is changed.

I watched and enjoyed Carol for Mainlining Christmas, but I was curious about the source material. When I had an opportunity to pick it up cheap on Kindle, I took it.

I think from the descriptions, I was expecting something that felt more dated, or that had more of the conventions of pulp. I found nothing of the sort.

This book could have been written yesterday. At least in style, it could have.

Of course, today it's harder to imagine a person like Therese would get to be nineteen with so little interest in sex or men and not really consider an attraction to women as a possible alternative. But that would have been the reality for many women of the time.

This book is a romance with thriller elements and a character study: a gorgeous and nuanced portrayal of a young woman who overthinks things and gets tangled in her own head. I knew the basics of the plot, but reading the book was still compelling, thanks to the lush descriptions and Therese's complex and conflicted thoughts.

After watching the movie, it was interesting how the book only follows Therese. We only glimpse Carol's motivations and feelings as Therese does.

The aspects of the story which play up the limitations and danger of being a lesbian at that time are vivid but not overpowering. They are simply real and painful, as they were for the author and her contemporaries.

It's a truly lovely book, and I'm glad I read it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Cutting Season

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke, 2012

Premise: Caren grew up at Belle Vie as generations before her did, and now she lives on the plantation with her daughter, managing the historical reenactments and booking weekend weddings. When a woman is found dead on the grounds, she is horrified, but not prepared for the ramifications for her family, past and present.

This is a solid mystery-thriller made special by context. The plot takes place in the present, but Caren's life is intimately affected by her family's history with the land. Her ancestors were slaves and then freedmen working the same land she now manages. One disappeared, possibly murdered, in the same fields where a woman is now found dead.

Caren is the central character by a large margin, but her daughter, her ex-boyfriend and all the actors and staff at the plantation are each interesting and unique. Her past with the facility and the family that owns it both supports her career and traps her in the past. She both loves her home and is troubled by the history.

The past and the present are connected in a poetic and tragic way in this book, although I could have used even more. Caren understands the ways that her ancestors who cut sugarcane are connected to the Latino migrants doing the same job today.

It's an engaging story with strong characterization and a vibrant setting.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Ancillary Mercy

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ancillary Mercy
Ann Leckie, 2015

Premise: Sequel to Ancillary Sword. Breq has taken on responsibility for more than just her crew, but she doesn't have the standing to solve all the problems on Athoek Station. A stranger who doesn't appear to have a past and a representative from an alien power complicate matters as the empire's civil war grows.

I love this series. I might go back and read the whole thing back-to-back-to-back soon and see how the experience differs.

As it was, it had been long enough that it took me a few chapters to remember what the heck was going on and who the various characters were. The series continued to deal with issues of identity and self-determination in the ways that only science fiction can.

Once I was back on track, I flew through this book. I loved that although a potentially galaxy-changing war could appear on their doorstep any day, the characters still had to deal with obstinate bureaucracy, diplomacy, fallout from the previous books, and, in some cases, interpersonal emotional issues.

Seivarden's emotional arc got quite a lot of page time, and I found it extremely satisfying. Breq even got an extremely affecting passage where you realize that while she doesn't acknowledge many emotions in her first-person narration, that doesn't mean that she doesn't care.

The ending was wonderful, perfectly tense and sharp at some times and drawn out and understated at others. For me, the satisfying quality of it partially comes from the fact that I would never have thought of the resolution, but all the necessary pieces had been established beforehand and it fit perfectly with all the ongoing themes.

5 Stars - A three-book masterpiece

Two Tales of the Woods

Monday, March 20, 2017

Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, Suzanne Roberts, 2012
Girl in the Woods: A Memoir, Aspen Matis, 2015

A few years back, I read an intriguing excerpt from a book that was just then coming out, a memoir about a woman hiking alone. I picked it up from the New York Public Library, almost on a whim, and adored it.

That book was Wild by Cheryl Strayed and at this point, I've read it twice and seen the movie. It lead me to occasionally seek out other memoirs on similar themes, although until now, I haven't written about any of them here.

Neither of these books was as brilliant as Wild, but they were both good. Both have themes of female empowerment and the grounded, centered feeling that can come from self-reliance in the wilderness.

Almost Somewhere is the simpler and less emotionally impactful of the two. It is based on the diary and memory of the author, who hiked the John Muir Trail with two friends after college. The three young women begin the journey not quite at odds, but not as equals. After they shed some male hangers-on, the author describes her personal journey - she begins to realize how much useless energy she was spending competing with other women and seeking male attention.

Girl in the Woods is a much more personal and emotional story. The author was raped in college and treated callously by the officials who should have protected her. This leads her to other self-destructive behaviors and finally, she drops out of school. She hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail alone to reconnect with her body and her self - to overcome a lifetime of extremely dysfunctional behavior from her parents and heal her spirit. She is ill-prepared and faces starvation and injury, but finds the wholeness and self-forgiveness she needs.

Both authors were inspired heavily by the writing of John Muir and his descriptions of the Pacific wilderness. Both authors also address to some extent the unfairness of loving Muir's vision while being a woman - that although going alone into the wilderness to be one with the world is something both greatly desire, they each have to reconcile that with the danger posed, not by the wilderness, but by men.

Roberts talks about feeling most in danger on the edge of civilization and feeling a sense of relief after returning to the trail after being near towns and roads. Matis recounts sexual rumors spread about her by male hikers and the lies and half-truths she told about why she was hiking. She eventually finds one long-term relationship while on the trail.

A lot of the last part of her story concerns this relationship, but then it's left in a vague place, which is narratively unsatisfying. I was curious enough to google the author, and I found out that her marriage fell apart between when she sold the premise of the book to her publisher and when it was finished. I'm impressed that she was able to convey the beginning of this relationship so beautifully, given that fact, but it did mean that aspects of the ending felt a little odd.

Almost Somewhere: 3 Stars
Girl in the Woods: 4 Stars

Between the World and Me

Monday, March 13, 2017

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015

Premise: This blend of memoir, academic treatise, and cultural theory takes the form of a letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son.

Read this book.

It's not very long, but it might take you a while. If you, like me, stop to savor the language, to let the ideas sink in, to sit with the truths and the history, it might take you a while.

Coates recounts his personal history of striving to understand and survive being black in America: from the fear behind teenage street-corner bluster to his discovery of great voices to follow to learning the breadth of black experience at Howard University to becoming a parent.

Around every corner he finds a new nuance, and every page is full of the kind of wisdom that comes from a combination of alert observation of lived experience and directed, intelligent study.

It's both emotional and academic, unflinching in criticism of the racist systems and attitudes that maintain American society while telling a personal story of searching for truth and meaning.

Read this book.

Read it particularly if you live in America. Read it particularly if you, like me, check the "White" box on the form.

5 Stars - A Goddamn Masterpiece.

If I Was Your Girl

Monday, March 6, 2017

If I Was Your Girl
Meredith Russo, 2016

Premise: Amanda is starting a new school year in a new town. She can't live with her mom safely anymore, not around kids who knew her before. She only hopes that she'll be able to get through high school without her new friends finding out her secret.

This novel got a lot of love last year, and it deserves it. Amanda's story is both a touching, puppy-love, YA romance and a story of depression, attempted self-harm and assault, as well as about the love of both family and found family.

It's compelling and an easy read. I think I flew through it in under a day. Amanda's pain and paranoia, followed by hope and tentative trust only to have the rug cruelly pulled out from under her -- it's easy to be swept up in this tale.

The supporting characters are a wide range of small-town types, very few of whom are who they first appear to be. Everyone has secrets, but not everyone is in danger when their secrets are told.

One of the most important parts of the book, though, is after the end of the story. The author's note is important here, asking us to empathize, but not extrapolate.

In the words of a wise woman I know - When you've met one trans person, you've met one trans person. Amanda's situation is her own, and the author describes the choices she made in telling the story so that her main character would be the most sympathetic to the most readers. She cautions readers not to assume that everyone's story is the same.

Much like the situation for the characters in the story, reading the book is the start of a journey of understanding, not the end.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Cold Eye (The Devil's West, Book 2)

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Cold Eye (The Devil's West, Book 2)
Laura Anne Gilman, 2017

Premise: Sequel to Silver on the Road. Isobel continues to ride the Territory in search of things to make right and in search of knowledge. She needs to know more about her own powers and position if she's to be ready for the coming storm.

It didn't take me long to sink back into this world after my long-preordered copy of this book appeared on my Kindle. I still love Isobel and her teacher Gabriel; I love this version of the West, full of bargains, new customs, and old magic.

My only complaint is that it had some weaknesses common to second installments. The Cold Eye had a central plot, but despite the power and danger of the trapped spirit involved, the book was more about getting our characters to where they would need to be (emotionally and magically) for the next parts of the larger world plot. The larger plot only advanced a little bit.

That said, I still really enjoyed this book. Isobel is growing into the powers of her bargain and finding a few more besides. She's both questioning the devil's power and reaffirming it. Gabriel is just trying to keep her alive long enough to figure it out.

I liked the creepy town they visited where people had cut themselves off from the power of the Territory. The people lived in the mix of stealing, appropriation, and ignorance that will surely characterize more settlements if the Americans come over the border in the next book.

This is another strong installment in this fantasy western, and I have high expectations for book three!

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

In the Country We Love

Monday, February 20, 2017

In the Country We Love
Diane Guerrero with Michelle Burford, 2016

Premise: Actress Diane Guerrero shares her family's experiences with being undocumented in America.

When Diane Guerrero was just fourteen, her parents were deported. She was overlooked by the child welfare system and stayed with friends and neighbors until she finished high school.

There are the bones of a really fascinating, moving story here, but that isn't quite what this book ended up as.

There were parts I really liked. I found her parents' lives interesting. It was moving how hard they tried to become American citizens, although all the while the knowledge of their status stole some of the joy from their lives.

I was moved by her feeling pulled between two worlds, especially after her parents were deported. She is an American citizen, and America was her only home, and her parents both knew that and were happy for her and at the same time wanted her with them in Columbia.

All of the chapters about those topics were solid.

Diane Guerrero is a successful breakout star on Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, two shows I have not seen (although the former is on my list). So I don't know whether the chapters about her working toward her acting career are more satisfying for her fans. I personally found them thin. I have known a lot of hard-working actors. She might be extraordinarily talented, but she is also extraordinarily lucky. Her family situation honestly didn't seem to slow her down much, and her only roadblocks seemed to be of her own making.

I don't know, I though much of the book was good, but by the end, I didn't understand much more than I had before (either intellectually or emotionally) about being an immigrant. It was longer than it needed to be and oddly flat in affect in parts. Possibly a better read for her fans.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Becky Chambers, 2014

Premise: Rosemary joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a long haul tunneling ship, just before their biggest job.

I have been hearing good things about this book since it came out, but I still enjoyed it far more than I anticipated! It's a delightful character-driven sci-fi story that's more about people and relationships than about action or adventure. It's like the talking, feeling parts of Star Trek, only with more realistic characters and more interesting questions about sapience and alien cultures.

All of the species on board Wayfarer are interesting, and any could probably sustain a novel on their own. Although Rosemary is initially presented as the newcomer, and therefore serves partially as the audience stand-in (the person everything can be explained to), she has her own past and secrets and character arc to handle.

The book is a true ensemble piece - no one character is really the 'main' character. There is an arc for each person (though some are small) and each made me want more about the characters without actually leaving me feeling unsatisfied.

There is a touch of romance, and it's well handled and lovely. There is a lot of weighty matter (free will, fate, genetic destiny, non-mammalian cultures) that is best handled in a light, often comedic work such as this one.

I'm a little sad that the sequel apparently follows a character I'm not as intrigued by (although I absolutely understand it if she's many people's favorite). Even so, I'll probably check it out; I'd love to return to this world and learn more.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Winning Marriage

Monday, February 6, 2017

Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits - and Won
Marc Solomon, 2014, afterword 2015

Premise: The behind-the-scenes details of the fight for marriage equality from one of the key players.

Author Marc Solomon was the executive director for MassEquality from 2006 to 2009, and he then became the campaign director for the nationwide group Freedom to Marry. In short, he is uniquely qualified to tell this story.

The details in this book were fascinating; everything from the personal stories that touched the hearts of Massachusetts legislators to the internal politicking in New York to the testing that went into campaign ads and PR spending. It also includes some moments that were both big picture and largely unseen by the general public - when, how and why advocates decided to make marriage the key of the argument (rather than civil unions) as well as when, how, and why they decided to push President Obama on the issue.

I read this book partially because I wanted to read about a win for the good guys. For me, it's so hard to think back now and remember a time when marriage equality didn't seem inevitable, even if the timeline was in doubt. (Not that I'm not worried about horrible people trying to roll it back today, I just think that they are unlikely to succeed at this point; the momentum of this campaign has carried us really far.) The accounts in this book reminded me of both the (completely nonsensical) pushback and how hard so many people worked for this goal.

I do highly recommend it for a taste of how complicated the reality of national and state politics gets. This type of nuance and strategy is hard to understand without an insider tour like this one, and this is an interesting picture of one way a social movement can fight and win.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Bear and the Nightingale

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden, 2017

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: A minor noble in medieval Russia loves his wife for all her strangeness. Their daughter Vasya will inherit her mother's gifts and defend her home as best she can from the darkness of both men and spirit.

I was very hopeful about this book, the descriptions and tag lines were all very intriguing. In the end, I liked it, but it wasn't as special or unique as I might have wished.

The writing style and use of Russian folklore and culture were well done; I felt that I could see the creatures and the places. However, the plot meanders for a while setting up all the pieces before getting to the meat. All of the setup - Vasya's parents, politics that affect their family, her birth and early childhood - just isn't that compelling to me.

Vasya is a wild child with an affinity for spirits and the land. Her main adversary is the changing culture, as personified by a devout stepmother and a zealous young priest who seeks to dominate her village and exterminate the old customs. While this is easy to sympathize with, and I enjoyed the story, I did feel like I've read and seen very similar dynamics many times.

The sequences in the last third or so I felt were the strongest. Vasya finally comes into her own and the climactic action was fairly satisfying.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Monday, January 23, 2017

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Rebecca Solnit, 2004, 2015

Premise: A case for hope despite adversity, describing several progressive movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

I thought at times while reading it that this was an odd book to read now, even though it was lauded and spread around in the immediate wake of the 2016 election. Somewhat ironically and somewhat logically, I found the chapters about principles and ideas more solid than the chapters which detailed the events that ostensibly supported those principles.

Although additional material was added in 2014 and 2015, the book was originally written during the second Bush administration and is often focused on news that was current at that time. I am either not fully familiar with or not fully convinced by the results of some of the movements and protests that she cites as evidence. This means that her argument -- said movements created more change than is immediately apparent -- doesn't fully land for me.

I don't actually think she's wrong -- I do think that we fail to see the subtle progress and pressure that leads up to victories, I'm just not sold on all her choices for supporting evidence. I might be if I had more background or did more research on some of them, and I do completely understand how it would land for others.

I did really like a lot of the writing, particularly about avoiding a kind of navel-gazing despair that many liberals are prone to. Some of her proposals have satisfying poetry and grace -- combine determination with joy, seek a mindset where you can celebrate and fight at the same time.

3 Stars - A Good Book with Some Awesome Passages

Love Is Love

Monday, January 16, 2017

Love Is Love
Hundreds of creators organized by Marc Andreyko, published by IDW, 2016

Premise: This comic anthology was created in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Proceeds benefit the victims, survivors, and their families.

It's not easy to review any anthology, and this is an extreme example. Every piece is only one or two pages, and they range from straight art pieces, to evocative art and poetry, to stylized or indy comic style pieces, to classic modern superhero mini-stories.

Common themes include resilience, grief, and, of course, love. There are little stories about children coming out to parents, about the place clubs have in LGBT culture, about the shock and anguish as the reports came out, about how hate is passed on and how it is overcome.

Not every piece hit home for me, some were more esoteric or I'm not sure I understood. It is an overall a very emotional book to read, though.

Some of the most powerful pieces (no surprise) were personal perspectives from creators who are themselves LGBT, although there is an enormous variety of fascinating micro-stories here.

I found the ones that used licensed superhero characters (both characters who identify as gay or lesbian and others) to be a mixed bag. Some worked for me, some felt a bit half-hearted or obvious.

Overall this book succeeded before anyone read it: despite landing in stores in the last week of 2016, it was the best-selling graphic novel in December. I had to try a couple stores to find a copy, and as of writing, it's out-of-stock on Amazon.com.

I'm thrilled that it's been a best-seller, but the lasting value is the honest grief, love, and hope on every page.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Genevieve Valentine, 2014

Premise: Jo and her eleven sisters lead a quiet, cloistered life in the upper stories of their father’s townhouse. Except that every chance they get, the girls are sneaking out to dance.

This is a fantastic retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, set in the 1920’s. It makes a lot of sense to set it then: The father is of an older generation, embarrassed by having no sons, and tries to keep the girls hidden to keep them “pure.” The girls are drawn to the combined secrecy and freedom of the underground network of speakeasies and dance halls.

I really appreciated how much effort went into giving each girl agency and at least a little character. Jo, the eldest, is the main character, as she looks out for the others, and is the main interface with their father. And I’ll admit that the author, faced with eleven other young women to sketch out, does end up with two sets of twins that made me think of the way many of the dwarves of The Hobbit are only somewhat distinct.

But in the end, except for two girls whose primary characteristic is that they embrace the idea of being identical twins, each girl has some uniqueness, and I was able to picture the whole sequined mass of them.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and the production was very nice - sneaking in music where appropriate. The reader did a great job distinguishing between the girls as well.

There is a primary romantic plot for Jo (and some romantic subplots for a few of the other older girls), but her focus is always the welfare of her sisters, sometimes to her own detriment. I really liked how, late in the book, Jo has trouble adjusting to being able to want something for herself as the younger girls become more self-sufficient.

The dancing is wonderfully present and vibrantly alive. It’s the most important thing to these girls who have little other joy, and their passion for dancing is wonderfully described.

The girls have much more agency, and the suitors more worth, than the original fairy tale, but that is no surprise. This was a delightful and moving story.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Year of DNF... and a New Challenge

Monday, January 2, 2017

Well, it's 2017.

In 2016 I took on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, and I posted 22 reviews out of 24 challenges. The only two I missed were reading a book out loud and a book about religion. There were probably several books I read last year that qualify as being "about" religion, but I didn't finish the one I intended to read for the purpose of the challenge.

That leads me to the trend of this year - Did Not Finish

I gave out a LOT of four- and five-star reviews this year, at least partially because this was the year that I stopped reading a lot of books halfway through. This used to be fairly unusual for me. I used to care a lot more about finishing any book I started. Especially for the purpose of review, I'll sometimes finish a book I don't like so I'll be able to articulate why I don't like it.

But this year, between completing a certificate program in editing, starting a new editing job with a 45-60 minute commute and then BUYING A HOUSE to shorten said commute, I did not have time or energy for books that weren't working for me.

Here are some of the books I didn't finish in 2016, in rough chronological order of when I stopped reading them. Some I might go back to, some I won't.
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith
    • Surprisingly dull. This just made me want to read actual Pride and Prejudice.
  • The Sleeping Life, Andrea K. Host
    • I love this author, so I'm sure I'll get back to this, but I had no memory of the previous book in the series and couldn't get any traction.
  • For the King's Favor, Elizabeth Chadwick
    • Wanted to like this, but it was just a series of happenings, not a story. I got over halfway through before finally putting it down.
  • Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas
    • I planned to read this for the religion challenge, but it was dry and incredibly long. I only got a tiny bit into it before moving on.
  • Stealing Buddha's Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen
    • I started this, intending to read it for the food memoir challenge, but the first chapter didn't grab me and before I read more, it had to go back to the library.
  • The Outlander, Gil Adamson
    • I heard good things about this, and parts of the style were neat, but I realized I was making excuses not to read more and gave myself permission to stop.
  • Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday, Gerry Bowler
    • The beginning about early Christmas history was great, but as it moved into more modern history, the dry academic tone started to just sound smug and horrible. Gave up.
  • The Winter Queen, Elizabeth Chadwick
    • I liked the first one in this series, but the second one is meandering.

As for the year ahead, I am not doing the Read Harder Challenge again. It was a good start, but I need a more focused task. As many others have, I've been collecting a list for my own 2017 challenge, inspired by current events.

I plan to read between 12 and 24 books on:

  • Taking action for social justice 
  • Racism (nonfiction, fiction, memoir)
  • Sexism/misogyny (nonfiction, fiction, memoir)
  • Feminist/women's history
  • Fascism and authoritarianism in history and fiction
  • Immigrant perspectives and other marginalized voices
  • Understanding social conservatism (academically, I mean)

I'm calling it - Reading With Purpose. I'm going to read lots of fluff and fun as well to stay sane, but I can't pretend that there isn't a lot to learn.