Christmas Special: Season of Wonder

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

Season of Wonder

Various Authors, 2012, edited by Paula Guran

I'm always looking for fantasy and sci-fi Christmas content, so I'm stupefied that this short story collection escaped my notice until now.  

To be clear, I almost didn't read it this year either - my local library doesn't have it, and I am reluctant to pay money for any book with Orson Scott Card's name prominently on the cover, just on principle. The rest of the book is pretty good, though.

Like other holiday short story collections I've reviewed, the introductions range from boring to misleading to outright undermining my enjoyment of the stories, so I tried to skip them when I could. 

Reactions to individual stories follow. My favorites are starred.

The Best Christmas Ever by James Patrick Kelly

This atmospheric/bleak dystopian story is fine, if a bit heavy to open with. The last humans are being cared for by some sort of artificial being which is never actually explained. The nature of the technology isn't the point, but the vagueness still bothered me.

Go Toward the Light by Harlan Ellison

This one's okay. It's a science-fictional explanation for long-burning Hanukkah oil involving time travel. 

If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear by Ken Scholes

Why is this a genre story? It was an okay, if meandering, story about a woman in a mining town on the edge of a war, but the fantasy elements were too confusing, felt purposeless, and didn't enhance the story.

*Pal o’ Mine by Charles de Lint

A poignant little piece of magical realism about a person who lost a friend. Very much in this author's style. 

*The Nutcracker Coup by Janet Kagan

One of the best by a lot. This is a sci-fi tale about diplomats on an alien world sharing holiday traditions and the unintended consequences thereof. It was a ton of fun, a lot of content well packed into a short form without feeling rushed or underexplained. 

How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen by Gene Wolfe 

I could barely follow this horror/ghost story, and I don't know what the point was. 

Dulce Domum by Ellen Kushner

I'm not sure I liked this, but I think it's well done. Creepy surreal combination of sex and death and references to children's literature. 

Julian: A Christmas Story by Robert Charles Wilson

My enjoyment of this story suffered significantly from the timing. First, because it's set in a future after the fall of our civilization. I had to stop reading a few times because of elements that were probably intended when written to be troubling... but not horrifying and nightmare-inducing. Second, because I just re-read Spin by this author, and the stories have the exact same core: a normal/good narrator caught in the orbit of (perceived) greatness. The ending of it was pretty good when I finally got there.

Loop by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A not-bad spin on Christmas Carol and time travel, but not exceptional. One of those stories that's better on reflection than while you're reading.

The Christmas Witch by M. Rickert

This story follows a young girl who moves to a spooky town where the children secretly collect bones and the adults could be witches. It's extremely evocative, but I'm left not quite knowing the point. 

Wise Men by Orson Scott Card

This trying-too-hard story about alien Wise Men told from a demon's perspective might almost be decent if it wasn't so weirdly Mormon.

*The Night Things Changed by Dana Cameron

This is a super cute paranormal story about a werewolf and vampire who fight evil; surprisingly wholesome for the subgenre.

*Home for Christmas by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Oh, I really liked this bit of magical realism. It follows an ambiguously gendered person who can talk to inanimate things and an unexpected holiday friendship. Lovely character work, subtle and poignant.

A Christmas Story by Sarban

This story is the oldest in the collection, but feels like a pastiche of even older works. It's a bit roundabout, a tale within a tale about a pair of lost Russians coming upon a mysterious animal in the frozen north. 

A Woman’s Best Friend by Robert Reed

This story that mashes up It's a Wonderful Life with quantum multiple worlds has a better sci-fi angel twist than others I've seen. However, the cute gimmick gets old fast. I had to double-check the date on this one (2008, so semi-recent) because there were some asides in the middle that felt modern but the ending felt unpleasantly and strangely dated when the mysterious woman who's been talking to the main character and explaining everything decides to randomly have sex with him. 

*Christmas at Hostage Canyon by James Stoddard

I like this one that follows a young boy who witnesses something creepy stalking the edge of his family's vacation and (spoiler) features Santa as humanity's defender against the fae. 

The Winter Solstice by Von Jocks

This one is about a Wiccan who stumbles into a scary situation involving Solstice magic. Well done, although the ending is a bit lackluster.

*Newsletter by Connie Willis

This was the best story in the collection of Willis' fiction that I read a few years back, and it's still a lot of fun. Pod people attack for the holidays. 


Overall: Nothing terrible, a few really good stories. That's not bad for a collection. 

Christmas Special: A Kiss for Midwinter

Monday, December 14, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

A Kiss for Midwinter

Courtney Milan, 2012

To start, a heads-up: this romance novella contains discussion of statutory rape, miscarriage, senility, compulsive behavior, and historically accurate levels of sexism and bad healthcare.

Sound Christmassy yet? 

You might not think so, but in fact, the Christmas setting isn't just for contrast with the stress the characters are under. It underlines the Dickensian time and tone of the setting - the poverty and strife the characters witness. Also, there are a few humorous asides where the hero looks askance at the "newfangled" tradition of decorating a tree, of all things. 

Jonas is a young doctor fresh from school, full of new ideas but also deeply cynical about the world. He is in love with Lydia. However, Lydia is afraid that Jonas will reveal her dark secret: she was briefly pregnant as a teenager. 

I really liked how complex each of their flaws were - nothing obvious or easy to move past. She covers her feelings with cheer and surface camaraderie but has never dealt with the trauma in her past. Because of this, she isn't close with many people, and she deeply distrusts her own feelings of attraction. Jonas, meanwhile, is blunt and pragmatic and uses sardonic dark humor to say honest or emotional things without truly appearing vulnerable. 

I wanted to love this book, (I've loved the other books by this author I've read this year. 2020 has driven me to become more of a romance reader) but I only liked it. 

My main problem can be traced back to: in an early chapter from Lydia's point of view, she is convinced Jonas is cruelly mocking her. It was so well done that I was convinced he was a jerk as well, and that took me a while to untangle. (He doesn't actually mean anything bad by the things he says because he doesn't ascribe to society's assumptions about most things, but she doesn't know that yet).

Once they both had more time to establish their characters, I went back and understood the scene a bit more, but it still means that the story isn't a slam-dunk for me. 

I did really enjoy Jonas's commentary about the bad, sometimes dangerous, medicine being practiced by many older doctors, and his attempts to be better, even when that meant saying things that were socially unpalatable or doing things that other people found foolish. Lydia's unwillingness to listen to her own instincts because she had been gullible and taken advantage of in the past was very believable and very sad. The descriptions of her earlier tragic Christmas will definitely stay with me. 

Overall this is a great book, but it took time to grow on me. 

Christmas Special: Tudor Christmas Tidings

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

Tudor Christmas Tidings

Blythe Gifford, Jenni Fletcher, Amanda McCabe, 2020

This is a new book, but I did not get a copy through NetGalley for review, because Harlequin's standards for reviewers are apparently higher than this website. 

Three holiday-themed historical romance novellas. I decided to give this a try when I saw it was available through my local library. I've been more interested in romance this year than previously, but my time could probably have been better spent. 

Christmas at Court by Blythe Gifford

I did not expect this to go into history as fast and hard as it did. The novella provided very little background information about the politics of the time, but the plot hinged on those same politics. Eventually, I was driven, ashamed, to Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge of Richard III and Henry Tudor. 

The main characters in this one (Alice and John) are heirs to important noble houses, and they are semi-secretly betrothed by their parents to seal an alliance between their families in the movement to overthrow Richard III. The story takes place over three successive Christmases as the political situation changes around them. 

Unfortunately, this story was hampered by unconvincing lust-at-first-sight and far too much... how shall I put this... faffing about. Alice and John are in love, now they aren't, now Alice doesn't trust John's family, now John doesn't trust Alice, now they're back to trusting each other, now they aren't. It just felt like running in circles, and I never cared about what was happening. 


Secrets of the Queen's Lady by Jenni Fletcher

This story, set in a time I know a bit better (Henry VIII), had better characters and a more compelling romance. 

Lady Philippa is a recent widow who is struggling to recover from how terrible her marriage was when she reconnects at a Christmas celebration with a younger man she met in passing years before. Her emotional trauma is compelling, and her occasionally dumb decisions (I simply must push this loving man who I desire away for his own good!) are at least understandable given her backstory.

Her suitor Sir Christopher, on the other hand, is a much less complex character. His insistence that his obsession with her dates back to their first brief meeting seems a bit too far fetched. The romance was much less important than Philippa finding her own self and strength.


His Mistletoe Lady by Amanda McCabe

The title for this one is weird. There is mistletoe, but it doesn't play a huge role. 

Catherine's father has been imprisoned for acting against the crown, and Catherine and her mother go to court at Christmas to see what can be done. Catherine is immediately taken with the courtier Diego de Vasquez (just arrived from Spain), and the feeling is mutual. 

Oh, if only her father weren't a traitor, and if only Diego weren't surely mourning the death of his wife! Good news, Catherine, neither of those things are true. Your father is secretly an informant for the crown, and Diego didn't love his dead wife. 

The build on the romance for this one isn't badly done, but I kept rolling my eyes at the fact that literally every apparent problem in the path of the happy couple wasn't actually a problem. In the end, they've foiled a plot and plan to live in Spain (Catherine's mother is Spanish as well). Given that they're Catholic and the ruler they just worked so hard for is Mary I, it's probably just as well for them to get out of Britain before her short reign ends. 


None of these stories were bad, although the first was the most boring. However, none of them were all that great either. This is just another interchangeable bit of romantic fluff to pass the time. 

Christmas Special: The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories

Monday, December 7, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories
Multiple authors, originally printed 1944-1962, editor Craig Yoe, collection released 2018

I stumbled across this ahead of the season this year, and I'm glad I did. Now I can warn you. It's not bad for what it is, but it is not for "children of all ages." 

This book is for:

  • Comic strip historians
  • Adults with a specific interest in vintage/historical comic books
  • Adults with a specific interest in vintage illustration/illustrators
  • Grandparents (really, great-grandparents) looking for a gift that their grandchild will neither like nor understand. 

It's a fairly wide-ranging collection, but none of it is great. A few of the stories are not bad: one about some polar bears who want to help Santa but keep messing up is fine. One about Santa visiting an animal Christmas party where there is a Santa costume contest is pretty cute. Another stars a gnome and the Easter Bunny and they create ice cream snow to save a magic weather machine. It doesn't make much more sense in context, but it's sweet and fun. 

There's a very compressed but adequate adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but there are tons of good adaptations out there. Also an okay illustrated version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

However, a lot of the stories are either extremely surreal, weirdly dated, or both. 

Sometimes the weirdness is at least interesting - I don't think the story of a bunch of elves that look like naked toddlers creating Santa's suit out of a friendly giant's coat is actually good, but it is bizarre enough to be intriguing. More often they are disjointed stories where the story is haphazard or nonexistent and doesn't seem to have a point. 

There's one where the punchline is about army surplus rockets - probably made more sense in 1947. I believe the comic historians when they tell me "Lil' Tomboy" was important at the time, but her whole deal seems like it would need too much explanation for a modern kid to easily enjoy. 

There's one that's almost good about a tiny deer who wants to pull a sleigh, but it's marred by the plot hinging on a toy for a "lame boy" who we never actually see or find out more about. Awkward. 

Most of the stories fall in this mediocre-to-boring middle ground, but a few are just plain bad. There's a parody of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas starring a character called "Atomic Mouse." The writing (and forced rhyming) on that one is painful. There are a couple that follow kids on a "maybe it was a dream" adventures, but they're full of baffling plot twists and dated character tropes and situations. 

There's a surprisingly violent story set in Toyland where the resolution makes no sense. And there's an actual illustrated bit of the Bible at the end, which is mostly hilarious because of all the blond white people. 

Fans of classic cartooning and vintage illustration could probably find a lot to like in the art here - they even maintain original printing and coloring errors. But no one should read this for the writing.

Christmas Special: We Are Santa

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

We Are Santa

Ron Cooper, 2020

New Release! A digital copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review.

Wow. WOW WOW WOW. This might be "just" a coffee table book, but it charmed my socks off. 

The premise is simple. Photographer Ron Cooper recruited fifty professional Santas (talking to and interviewing even more) and took gorgeous photographs of them both in and out of costume. The book includes quotes, profiles of some Santas, and background information. The additional info is enough to establish some context for readers who might not be familiar with the history of Santa's look or the reality of the professional Santa gig, but it's not tedious even for those of us who know this world fairly well already. 

The variety is fantastic. Santas in red but also other colors, in robes and coats and pajamas and kilts and cowboy boots and military camo and a pirate-theme and... Of course, there are lots of lovely fur trimmings, but also Hawaiian shirts, one in a red velvet top hat, and one in a full Bishop of Myra getup.

The focus is the big beautiful photos and the lush costumes and beards galore, but the book is also peppered with personal profiles that provide more depth for some Santas - why or how they started as Santa, favorite memories, and poignant anecdotes. 

There are two black Santas, one Mrs. Claus, at least one Jewish Santa, and two young Santas in the book. I would have liked a little more diversity in those directions if possible, but maybe that's another book.

Overall this is just lovely and joyful, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the holiday aesthetic or in need of a visual hug. Plus, proceeds are going to Children's Hospital of Chicago. 

The only hard thing about reading this book was realizing that in-person Santa visits are not happening for most kids this year. Here at Mainlining Christmas, we hope all Santas are doing okay out there. 

4 Stars

Christmas Special: Ming's Christmas Wishes

Monday, November 30, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

Ming's Christmas Wishes
Susan L. Gong, 2020

New Release! A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review. 

I had to read through this children's book twice to understand it, but it definitely grew on me. 

This short, beautifully illustrated children's book follows a few days in the life of a young Chinese-American girl in the 1930s. Ming wants a Christmas tree (this is related to a larger desire to fit in at school), but her mother won't hear of it. 

The next day, Ming's father takes her to visit some family friends and some places his father took him when he was young. The trip connects her with her heritage, and they even come back with a tree to decorate - not a fir tree to cut down and discard, but a Chinese pine to keep in a pot. 

That all sounds simple enough, but there's something distinctive about the way this book is written, and it's somewhat unsettling if you're expecting a standard children's story. For one thing, the book is full of unanswered questions. On the first page, Ming is told that she can't sing in the Christmas choir at school. This barely comes up again, and it isn't resolved at the end. Ming's father tells her at one point that her mother's story is a "hard" one, but we never find out what that means. There are lots of aspects of Chinese culture that are alluded to without being completely spelled out.

I can't decide whether this feels more like a flaw in the writing, or like a choice to leave space. Parents could encourage kids to speculate and guess at the details, and it does allow the story to be more open-ended. Ming can't be all "American" and she can't be all Chinese, and stories like hers don't have pat, resolved-in-the-third act endings.

It's still a happy ending, but it's more complicated than I expected. 

I mentioned that the art (by Masahiro Tateishi) is lovely, and the writing is often lovely as well. It's full of poetic little turns of phrase that evoke Chinese or Japanese poetry.

Overall a unique little book, but not for everyone. 

No Rating


A Local Habitation and An Artificial Night (October Daye, Books 2 and 3)

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Local Habitation and An Artificial Night (October Daye, Books 2 and 3)
Seanan McGuire, 2010 (both)

Premise: Follows Rosemary and Rue. Toby handles a dangerous case involving diplomacy and technology, then a more dangerous situation dealing with a children's bogeyman who is all too real. 

Being constantly home and also constantly busy is continuing to affect my reading habits. I want series content (repetitive characters, etc.) in a way I haven't in a long while, so I decided to finally dip back into this one. I really liked the first book, after all, but I just wasn't in the mood for more urban fantasy until recently.

I liked these two books fine, but they didn't strike me as interesting or inventive as the first. For better or worse, there isn't much recap in terms of characters and relationships, so I struggled at first to remember how the vaguely feudal faerie world works and how it interacts with the mortal world.

A Local Habitation is structured more like other urban fantasy. There's a mystery (no communication from her liege's niece, then murders) and Toby is sent to deal with it. There are interesting characters and we learn more about various faerie races and powers. I found it good but not great, though: I didn't connect strongly with anything that was going on. The solution to the mystery wasn't surprising, and I was frustrated with how long it took the characters to recognize that they were being bespelled by another character. To be fair, that meant it was obvious to the reader without being obvious to the first-person narrator.

An Artificial Night has a much more inventive premise. An incredibly powerful and ancient fae has stolen a bunch of children, and Toby risks everything to rescue them before they are turned into his monstrous servants. 

I liked all the individual elements of this - all the spells and descriptions, the characters, the individual scenes are exciting and emotional. However, the plot as a whole felt a bit meandering and redundant. She had to keep returning to this same place via different methods with different goals, and even though the repetition made internal logical sense, even mythical sense, it started to feel tedious to me. Even though the end was good, individual scenes were amazing, and the length of the adventure made sense with the weight of the ending... I just got tired because it felt like the plot had several endings, and then kept going.

I still liked both books, but they didn't make as positive an impression on me as the first did. 

2 and 3 Stars respectively. 

Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant (Discworld)

Monday, November 9, 2020

Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant (Discworld)
Terry Pratchett, 1996, 1999

When I started rereading the Watch books, I honestly forgot how many there were. I had kind of blocked out everything between the first two and Night Watch. (And now I'm realizing I skipped one, which is what I get for trusting the list on the library app.) 

Feet of Clay is overall fine. The mysterious deaths and poisonings lead to more misleading clues and false villains than most Discworld books. The book is really about self-determination, in terms of gender, class, and, most significantly, personhood and free will in the case of the golems that the plot hinges on. I wish I had found the writing as compelling as the ideas. 

It's also notable for the introduction of series regular Cheery. Her growing friendship with Angua is both realistic and super awkward - Cheery is desperate for female friendship as she is starting to experiment with her own gender presentation, but she also has a high level of fantastic racism toward werewolves. The reader, knowing Angua is a werewolf, cringes for Cheery's obliviousness. 

The Fifth Elephant has a more exciting plot, as Vimes is tapped to play diplomat in Uberwald, homeland of all gothic fantasy creatures. There's politics, culture clash, a locked-room mystery and an extended near-death experience. Being Discworld, that last one is humorously literal. 

The subplot going on back in Ankh-Morpork is much less interesting, although I suppose it highlights the theme by being so frustrating. This book is about change - political change, cultural change, how traditions evolve or are used as ugly excuses for terrible acts. How people fight change and (in the case of the Watch without Vimes or Carrot) how groups backslide into old habits or worse in reaction to change. 

One overall note - I was amused how over the early books, Vimes sheds most of the prejudices he starts out with through sheer spite. In other words, he sees people being biogted and awful and says: well, we'll show those jerks. 

I like both these books more on reflection than I did when I started reading them. It's one of the benefits of writing down my impressions - it makes me think harder about what I read. 

Both are fun reads with hidden depths. 3 and 4 stars, respectively. 


Spin

Monday, October 19, 2020

Spin

Robert Charles Wilson, 2005

Hugo Winner - 2006

Premise: Tyler, Jason, and Diane are watching when the stars go out. They grow up in a frightening time when the Earth is subject to mysterious outside forces.

I read this book years ago, and l remember liking it then. I can't remember whether it took me a while to get into it the first time, but this time I was bored and impatient with the first half. (All 2020 book reviews should come with a big notice that the reader's reactions may or may not be typical.)

The story bounces back and forth between Tyler undergoing a mysterious illness and his recounting of his childhood and life up to that point. I was somewhat bored with the beginning: his crush on Diane and the early story while the world was being established. This was partially because I remembered just enough about the final reveals, and without the mystery, the book held little tension. Additionally, I was turned off by Diane herself and thus the narrator's obsession with her was worthy only of eye-rolling.

However, once the plot picked up in the second half, I did enjoy it again.

The sci-fi elements are interesting and well-handled: time bubbles, terraforming, von Neumann probes, biological reprogramming. The human story is about living under a believable threat of doomsday and how that affects people. Tyler, Jason, and Diane are kids when a probable deadline for the planet's destruction is discovered. Tyler tries to help individual people (studying medicine), Jason tries to use science and politics to save the world, and Diane joins a fringe religious cult, although her initial impetus has to do with making the world better as well. Jason and Diane's parents represent more internally focused reactions: the quest for personal power and the quest for personal oblivion. Pretty dark stuff.

By the end, the world and many of the characters have been transformed, and the ending is fundamentally hopeful, I'd say. (Despite governmental and other forces seeking to keep people from discovering or taking advantage of certain technology or opportunities.)

I'm not thrilled with the only major female character spending the book fundamentally weak and foolish until she's rescued by the hero (and then functional and effective but offscreen). But Tyler himself is a wobbling insecure mess, and all the characters have enough nuance that it's not a fatal flaw for the story.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Crazy Rich Asians

Monday, October 12, 2020

Crazy Rich Asians
Kevin Kwan, 2013

Premise: Romance meets riches in Singapore as a wedding brings relationships under tension in a sprawling wealthy clan.

I saw the movie adaptation (sort of) last year, and I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. (I saw a version cut for TV while I was in the hospital for the birth of my daughter, so it was, shall we say, a nontraditional movie-watching experience.)

There are some differences between the movie and the book (notably the resolution of the main plot), but having seen the movie really helped me follow the book in this case. I didn’t get sidetracked trying to remember all the side characters because I knew the main players and the major plot beats. 

The result of all that? I really liked the book a lot. 

I liked Rachel and Nick, the main couple, and while I liked their romance, I really liked how the book called Nick out more for being oblivious to his own wealth and how it would affect their relationship. 

I liked Astrid a lot; I found her story compelling and sad. I liked how much time the book could spend elaborating on the larger family and the bizarre quirks of their insular world. 

Overall the book is about how much that kind of money screws up relationships, and you see that play out many times across many couples, as well as friends. Plus it’s fun and funny. I’m probably going to check out the sequel... before the movie comes out. 

4 Stars - A Very Good Book 


The Pursuit Of...

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Pursuit Of...
Courtney Milan, 2018

Premise: At the Battle of Yorktown, a black American soldier comes upon a British officer who doesn’t seem interested in fighting, or at least in winning. It’s the unlikely beginning of a grand romance. 

This... I just... I... How do you type a happy squeeing sound?

I absolutely adored this. I loved both characters, how their differences fit together. I sometimes have trouble believing the attraction between romance protagonists, but this is compelling from the first page. 

It is also hilarious. Laugh-out-loud funny, tense without being stressful, wonderfully sexy, and beautifully written. 

John’s situation as a former slave isn’t softened or glossed over, but neither is it exploited for cheap drama. Henry has his own issues and a very un-British obsession with the Declaration of Independence. This combination means that the book grapples, if gently, with the space between myth and reality when it comes to the founding fathers.

This novella was originally part of a three-novella release all inspired by Hamilton. The only criticism I have is that there are a few bits in the epilogue that tie directly into the other novellas that are a smidge awkward. 

I highly recommend this, both as a sheer delight of a romance and as a temporary respite from the current news, one which hinges on the idea that our American ideals are worth caring about.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book


Men at Arms (Discworld)

Monday, September 28, 2020

Men at Arms (Discworld)
Terry Pratchett, 1993

Premise: Book 2 starring the Night Watch. Vimes is getting married and retiring, the other members of the Night Watch are dealing with nonhuman recruits, and somewhere in the city, a dangerous weapon has been found...

This is more like what I remember. This book is the source of the famous Samuel Vimes “Boots” Theory of Economic Unfairness. A lot of it is about the danger of the one gun that has been invented, and how it is as seductive and deadly as Sauron’s Ring. (Quite literally, as this is a fantasy world, but metaphorically as well - when you can kill so easily, it’s tempting to find a reason...)

The murders that bring the weapon to the attention of the watch really affect the characters (even though there is a literal Assassin's Guild in the city) because of their power and randomness. It’s appropriate that for this book, while there is a villain, several in fact, they aren’t major characters. The villain who sets the plot in motion isn’t the same as the one in the end, and it isn’t about either of them, it’s about the ability to kill. 

This book also deals more explicitly with the fact that Carrot is descended from the ancient kings of Ankh-Morpork and shows that he’s inherited the natural charisma but none of the megalomania. Angua and Detritus are both introduced as members of the Watch, and both have time to shine and show how they will become indispensable. 

Vimes spends much of the book depressed or drunk, but he eventually rallies and ends the book recommitted to fixing the City Watch - tossing out the corrupt and pompous Day Watch and expanding to better serve the various communities that make up the city. Also, there’s a great scene where he has to deal with horrible obnoxious rich people.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (Feminine Pursuits, Book 2)

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (Feminine Pursuits, Book 2)
Olivia Waite, 2020

Premise: Agatha Griffin has been running her printing company alone since the death of her husband, so she knows when to delegate. A swarm of bees in the storage room demands delegation. Penelope Flood is a beekeeping expert and local eccentric, thought to be too kind for her own good and oddly okay with her husband always being gone at sea. Together they’ll dare local politics, potential scandal, and the possibility of love.

I didn’t love this book quite as much as The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, but I did enjoy it a lot. It’s a fantastic balance, combining a gorgeous romance, interesting history, and just enough tension and danger. 

Our heroines first have to admit their attraction for each other through a long and lovely progression of acquaintances to friends to more. Dramatic turns in English politics cause widespread upheaval, including in Penelope’s tiny town, first taking a few tiny steps towards some rights for women, then backsliding under the influence of those who commandeer or create “moral” crusades for their own purposes. 

Agatha and Penelope are both great characters. There is something very special about the way this book shows each character through their own eyes and the other’s. I know that’s common in romance, but often it’s just an excuse for drama and misunderstandings. Here, there’s a discordance that’s kind of beautiful - the differences between how each woman sees herself and how the other sees her. 

The details of the printing business, the beekeeping, etc. are just icing on the cake. 

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Guards! Guards! (Discworld)

Monday, September 14, 2020


Guards! Guards!
Terry Pratchett, 1989

Premise: The introduction of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. The men of the Night Watch (all three of them, plus a new recruit) mostly muddle along unnoticed and unheeded until a dragon unexpectedly appears in the city.

In a search for some reading that would feel worth my time but not take too much brain power, I recently decided to re-read the Discworld books about the Watch. 

This first volume is good, but not as polished as later ones. Some jokes or side comments feel a bit dated. The characters are sort of sketches of who they become later. Carrot in particular is more of a by-the-book simpleton than the straightforward, good-hearted person he is later. Vimes and The Patrician are closer to later portrayals but both lack nuance. 

There’s a strong subplot starring the Librarian. I thought the rest was fine, but I didn’t love it... although then I happened to read a tumblr post which made some excellent observations about the parallels between Sybil and the dragon. Interesting stuff. 

I like this book fine, but I remember liking the later ones much more. 

3 Stars - A Good Book

(And yes, there’s a bit of a weird vibe right now to be consuming any media starring law enforcement, even in a fantasy setting. But the Watch books overall are heavily critical of bias and corruption, and Pratchett, and by extension, Vimes, is thoroughly against anyone who would oppress others or harm the innocent.) 


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Monday, August 31, 2020


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Susanna Clarke, 2004

Hugo Winner - 2005

Premise: In the early 1800s, Englishmen study magic, but don’t have any practical abilities, until Mr. Norrell. He and Mr. Strange seek to bring magic back to England, but they will contend with mundane politicians, fairy lords, and their own rivalry. 

I read this book back when it was new, and I remember liking it, but I remembered nothing about the characters or plot when I picked it up to reread it.

It’s been a couple weeks since that reread as I sit down to write this, and I’m already forgetting it again. 

The style is striking and strong - I like the dry humor of the footnotes and the surreal way that the magic is described. The multiple plots weave delicately in and out of each other.

But the many characters are mostly ciphers, and the major plot element of the two women trapped or tormented by the fairy always feels strangely distant. The situation with Stephen Black is more central, but I wish it had gotten even more focus.

I guess it comes down to the fact that neither Norrell nor Strange are particularly compelling to me, so while I still like the book, it’s just not something that leaves an impression. 

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Pride and Prejudice

Monday, August 24, 2020

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen, 1813

I first read Pride and Prejudice back in high school, and I remember enjoying it very much. I thought about rereading it a few years ago when I tried reading and was utterly bored by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A few months ago, I was reminded of my plan to reread it by a bunch of memes about life in lockdown being like living in an Austen novel (limited contact with those outside the household, courting through letters, etc.) 

Seeking something engaging but light, I picked this book up again. And it was... fine, I guess.

I was still largely charmed by the style of the prose, but I had forgotten the entire plot. I can't recall what I thought of it back in high school, but on this read-through, I couldn't get past how petty the characters are. I'm not talking about the initial misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Darcy, I'm talking about the "funny" way Elizabeth and her father look down on everyone, especially her mother and younger sisters.

Not to mention the whole plot around Lydia. The narrative does eventually take pains to make it seem like she is obnoxious enough to deserve her fate, but I can not accept a strained, loveless marriage as just punishment for being an impulsive, boy-crazy teenager. 

This last critique is probably due to being used to more modern, or at least more overt, portrayals of emotion, but I found it downright bizarre that the actual love confession scene between Darcy and Elizabeth was barely on the page. Instead, it is led up to and then described somewhat obliquely. 

Overall I found this reread somewhat disappointing.

2 Stars, an Okay Book.

Tipping the Velvet

Monday, August 3, 2020

Tipping the Velvet
Sarah Waters, 1998

Premise:
Nan works in her family’s restaurant and assumes she’ll have an average small-town life until her crush on another girl eventually brings her into an entirely new world.

Even though I loved Fingersmith, it took me a while to track down this, possibly the author’s most well-known work.

The story follows the romantic and sexual misadventures of a young Englishwoman in the 1890s. Nan first falls in love with Kitty, a male impersonator, and due to that relationship moves to the city to pursue a glamorous and dangerous life in the performing arts. Once in London, her later escapades push her physical and mental limits until she finally figures out what she wants from life and love.

For some reason, I thought this would be a romance, but while it’s romantic in sections (and full of sex scenes), I definitely classify this as a melodrama. Nan’s story is full of dramatic turns and heightened emotion, explicit sexual situations as well as sweet friendships. Even though it has a happy ending, it’s not really about Nan getting together with the right person; it’s about her finding herself. Without that, she can’t build a solid relationship.

The many LGBT characters deal with a lot of prejudice and hatred, but they continue to build communities and relationships anyway. The characters are complex and compelling, and the style is fantastically readable while evoking novels written in the 1800s.

It is a bit long, but an entertaining read throughout.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Paladin of Souls

Monday, June 22, 2020

Paladin of Souls

Lois McMaster Bujold, 2003

Hugo Winner - 2004

Premise: Ista’s children are grown, and the kingdom of Chalion is relatively safe (after the events of the previous book). Why does she feel so dissatisfied?

I know I read this book before, both it and The Curse of Chalion, but I have little memory of either book.

I didn’t feel at a disadvantage, though; I definitely picked up everything I needed to know along the way and none of the exposition felt overbearing. This was a fascinating book to come back to essentially cold. I loved it.

I loved Ista. I loved that she’s a grown woman, with mature attitudes, but not immune to a bit of romance. I loved her attitude toward everyone’s expectations for her and the way she slowly forges her own path.

There were moments where Ista reminded me strongly of Cordelia from the Vorkosigan series, but the world can only be better for more wise, strong, practical middle-aged women in its genre fiction.

The world and the relationship between the gods, demons, and humans is relatively unique and clear without needing tons of explanation. There’s a glossary in the back of the book, but I never needed to consult it - the terms are always clear from context.

I definitely want to revisit the other Chalion books at some point. This was simply a fantastic read start to end: a compelling and comforting tale spun by a master.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Aimee Bender, 2010

Premise:
When Rose is 9, she develops an ability to sense emotions through food. The first and most lasting effect is that she discovers how thoroughly unhappy her mother is.

About two-thirds of the way through this novel I was thinking, yeah, I should give literary fiction a chance more often. Then I finished the novel.

The ending isn't bad, per se. It's just not much of an ending in my opinion. It kind of ties up the plot, sort of. But it's just not satisfying.

I found this frustrating because I was enjoying the book. It straddles that line between literary fiction and magical realism. I would call it fantasy but those who sell books and look down on genres wouldn't.

Rose struggles with her relationships with her family throughout, partially through her talent and partially not. It's a book about a group of people who are technically a family, but they are each traveling in their very separate lives. The descriptions of emotion are very realistic, and the whole book is just so sad.

Again, it's very well done, but I'm left not necessarily the better for having read it.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure

Monday, June 1, 2020

Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure

Courtney Milan, 2019

Premise: Violetta is just trying to make ends meet, but wealthy widow Bertrice Martin sees in her an opportunity to teach her Terrible Nephew that he won't inherit her money without a fight. Neither of them expect to find someone to love.

I almost decided not to review this novella at all after reading KJ Charles's brilliant description on Goodreads.
A thoroughly enjoyable light-hearted frothy romance which is also a howl of pure screaming rage. We don't get enough of those.

That says almost everything, but I will add a few things for my own records.

I loved this. I loved the description of the beauty of the older characters. I loved Bertrice's confidence and the vulnerability under it. I loved Violetta's ethical struggles and her practicality.

Maybe some of the commentary is somewhat on-the-nose but that doesn't make it less powerful. The tension is more than plausible and the end supremely satisfying.

All that and a sweet romance from a master of the style. What's not to love?

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Six of Crows

Monday, May 25, 2020

Six of Crows
Leigh Bardugo, 2015

Premise: A mysterious drug that affects people with special abilities could change the world. Young thief and gangster Kaz Brekker takes on an impossible task to change his life and the lives of his crew.

I don't remember why this book was on my library hold list, but it had been there for a while. It's ... good, maybe? Although I was unsatisfied by the end.

Overall, the book has a brisk pace; the world is interesting. The individual characters are mostly neat. The fantasy element of people born with control over matter or weather or the human form is intriguing, if not that special. Their status as a persecuted and enslaved minority made for some uncomfortable passages, particularly around one of the core character relationships.

The book tried to explain the obvious romance growing between Nina (one of the powered people) and Matthias (a soldier trained to believe it was right to commit atrocities and genocide against said powered people), but his redemption came far too late for me. I thought there were also some other character choices that seemed based on where the characters would be at the end of the book or in the next book and not where they were right now.

The plot concerns a caper. It tried to include several unexpected reversals and twists but I thought most of the reveals were poorly handled.

But it was fine. Rather standard modern fantasy, really: grim urban fantasy world, minor LGBT characters, one badass chick and one femme fatale. I don't know. I enjoyed it fine for most of the time.

However.

It ends in a serious cliffhanger, and I just don't have the patience for those right now.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics
Olivia Waite, 2019

Premise: Lucy Muchelney goes to London out of the desire to work in the science she loves, but also to forget her lover's decision to leave her to get married. She doesn't expect to find the solution to both problems in the person of Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth.

About halfway through reading this book, I thought, I feel pandered to... and it feels really good. This book was a frothy delight with a powerful heart.

I adored both Lucy and Catherine. Their concerns and attitudes felt both right for their time and inescapably modern. Lucy had been assisting her astronomer father for years, but when he dies, at first she doesn't realize she's lost the only person who believes she can be a scientist. Catherine accompanied her late husband on several research trips, which gives her a somewhat jaded view of scientific pursuits, especially as conducted by "great" men. She has serious skills in embroidery and fabric design, but has never been allowed to think of herself as an artist.

Add to all this Lucy dealing with the emotional fallout after being left by her first lover and Catherine trying to reconcile her fear of remarriage or commitment with her desire for love, and neither the romantic nor the scientific plotline lack depth. It's inspired by the actual women who have always, always worked in the arts and sciences despite disapproval and obstacles, and also stands in its own right as a paean to women (and other marginalized populations) supporting each other.

Just a joy to read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A Bittersweet Garden

Monday, May 11, 2020

A Bittersweet Garden
Caren J. Werlinger, 2019

Premise: Spending the summer connecting with her roots in Ireland is already an adventure for librarian Nora before falling in love... and discovering her rental cottage is haunted.

I've been on a bit of a romance kick. Relatively fluffy and light happy-ever-afters are just what my brain needs right now. This one combines just enough paranormal and historical touches with a lovely sweet story of a young woman who comes seeking to know more about her family history and ends up falling in love with both the place and one particular Irish girl.

Said paranormal element involves an unsolved mystery from the past and a ghost with unfinished business. It isn't the distant past, just a few generations back. There are a few chapters about those characters that give a fuller picture of what life was like during the potato famine.

This is a very women-centric book, which shouldn't be surprising. Nora and her sweetheart Briana are the main characters, but there's also a wise woman with supernatural abilities as well as many supporting female friends and relations.

I really enjoyed both the modern romance and the family drama that played into the ghost story. I thought the elements blended well, and the book was an easy read.

3 Stars - A Good Book

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You

Monday, May 4, 2020

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place
Janelle Shane, 2019

Premise: A romp through the foibles of modern AI.

I heard about this book on a podcast and was extremely intrigued. However, I didn't end up getting much more out of reading the whole thing than I did from hearing the initial interview. I am probably an outlier, however, as I read about AI constantly for my job.

This is an extremely accessible explanation of how modern machine learning algorithms work and why we are very far away from anything resembling an actual "intelligent" system in the science-fictional sense. I would have personally preferred something a bit more either in-depth or wide-ranging, but I definitely understand why this book is structured as it is.

It is a lot of fun to read. The examples are funny, there are little humorous cartoons that emphasize some concepts, and the writing is friendly and clear.

Most of the things I learned from the book were very specific interesting quirks. For example, AI researchers have a lot of trouble training an AI system to beat the second level of the original Super Mario Brothers because of one spot where the player needs to move left instead of right. The book is full of fun little factoids like that.

So it's a good, solid read, but not quite what I had wanted.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Lightning-Struck Heart

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Lightning-Struck Heart
T. J. Klune, 2015

Premise: A magician's apprentice balances his growing power with his ridiculously huge crush on the captain of the guard.

I read this book on a friend's recommendation, and if I hadn't, I might have quit halfway through the first chapter. As it was I did finish reading the book, and I did somewhat enjoy it by the end, but it's really not my thing overall.

Mostly, the humor is really not my style. I hesitate to call it unrealistic because it is the way that, in my experience, some flamboyant gay men speak to each other. Specifically, the dialogue is often almost entirely composed of superficially cruel teasing, sexual innuendo, and extremely graphic sexual humor. I found this especially distracting because it wasn't just a characteristic of the main character and his friends, but nearly all characters at one time (or at most times) spoke this way. This included the main character's parents, politicians, villains, and the king. This meant that most of the characters sounded much the same.

It also took a long time for the main romantic plot to grow on me. The book spends a lot of time assuming that you will accept that the main character deserves the love interest because he is attracted to him. It later becomes clear that they are attracted to each other, but it takes a long time for anything more to grow there. Also everyone, and I mean everyone, is attracted to the main character for no discernible reason. And comments on it. At length.

The plot doesn't go anywhere unexpected, but if you're mentally categorizing this as a romance, that could be fine. But it kept bothering me to think of it as a romance, and it took me a while to figure out why. It's because we never get the love interest's point of view. This is also why the central romance felt so one-sided and unapproachable to me.

The book is meant to be a somewhat farcical romp, but the fact that I didn't enjoy the humor meant that my brain was constantly considering questions and plot holes. Questions like why in a country that completely accepts homosexuality and gay marriage would you still have a hereditary monarchy, especially where the heir to the throne must marry but does not apparently need to produce children?

There are some poignant scenes and some character growth by the end of the book - enough to keep me reading to the end. However, I doubt I'm going to read anything more by this author. It's not necessarily badly written (although I would argue that the dialogue sameness is an issue); it's just really not my taste.

2 Stars - an Okay Book

Baby Books: Surprise Stars

Monday, April 20, 2020

I registered a few mild complaints last week (don't misunderstand, I still like all those books), but I also wanted to give a shout out to some other board books that I think are especially impressive in unexpected ways.


I Love My Bunny

The story of this book is very simple - Anna and her toy bunny have a tea party. However, the interactive bits on each page are very effective. The fluffy bunny tail was an obvious source of fascination, and a flap that's easy for my little one to work meant that this book became an early favorite. There's a scratch-and-sniff panel that hasn't come up yet, but the sparkles on another page and the soft blanket on the last page are also lots of fun.

(Side note: This is part of a series, but I was less impressed with I Love My Puppy, the other one I tried.)


Usborne Very First 1 2 3

I know, it's a counting book (up to five), like a hundred other counting books. That's what I thought at first, too. On second look, though, each page not only contains the labeled item, but a bunch of others to notice and count. For example, the page for "2" says "two cars." But the picture also shows two houses, two trees, two bunnies, two butterflies... The page for "4" doesn't have as much detail as the others, but the variety in the illustrations makes this more fun to read and explore than other counting books I've seen, and I anticipate it will give the book a longer useful life.


Home for a Bunny

While not anywhere near as popular as Goodnight Moon, this book is also by Margaret Wise Brown, so you'd think I wouldn't be surprised at its quality. (Also, I apparently had this book as a child, but I have no memory of this.) But the first few times I flipped through it, it seemed just fine. Cute, fine, nothing special. However, for my little one, this book has the perfect balance. Not too long, not too short. The text has rhythm, but also story. There's an opportunity for some special voices, but they blend in easily. The illustrations are detailed, but clear enough that each element stands out.


Starlight Sailor

I picked this book up for two reasons: rhyming couplets and pretty art. When I brought it home, my husband was skeptical at first, because reading the text to yourself as an adult highlights some weird choices and inconsistencies. However, once you start to read it aloud everything falls into place. It's like a dream - lush, detailed illustrations and lilting text that flows like the waves in the pictures. I freely admit the text is a bit odd in spots, but the pictures have so many subtle details to spark interest and imagination that I'm still finding new things to look at after many readings.





Baby Books: Objections and Quibbles

Monday, April 13, 2020

Some quick thoughts, because I haven't been reading too many full-length adult novels recently. I have been reading many, many board books.

Most of these are fine. Some of them are great. However, I do have a handful of small criticisms I would like to lodge.

 

Never Touch a Dragon

This book is a hit with my nine-month-old. The bright colors and especially the textures on the cover and on every page make it excellent baby bait. I have two small criticisms though. The fonts are so whimsical that I think it'll be hard for her to read as she gets older. And the first page.

The first page is different from every other page in that the part of the dragon described in the poem on this page is not the part with the texture, plus the poem on this page does not rhyme properly. Disappointing.


Dear Zoo

Lift-the-flap books are very popular with my little one so you'd think this would be a hit. However, these particular flaps are a little hard for her at this age.

In this book, the zoo sends the reader a series of inappropriate pets that they return for various stated reasons. This is where my actual criticism comes in, as one page says the snake is "too scary."

This is clear anti-snake propaganda, and I feel the need to mention the fact that snakes aren't actually scary every time we read this.


Disney Baby: Peek-A-Boo Winnie the Pooh

The "Disney baby" art style is a little bit disconcerting, but the flaps in this book are very sturdy and easy for her to work with. The simple sequence follows the various Hundred Acre Wood pals finding each other in sundry hiding places.

However, on one page the reveal is that Tigger is "bouncing behind the tent." That is clearly not a tent, that is clearly Eeyore's house. Who writes these books?

Hominids

Monday, March 9, 2020

Hominids
Robert J Sawyer, 2002

Hugo Winner - 2003

Premise: In two universes, an experiment, and then a neanderthal falls through an unexpected rift into a world of homo sapiens. (Content warning: rape)

There's a lot to be intrigued by in the premise of this book. The different structure of neanderthal society is interesting at first, and it's well presented, slowly cluing in the reader without infodumps. At least, it is at first.

But then it devolves into a series of clunky, boring conversations about systems of morality, in which the humans are left feeling self-conscious about how terrible their world is. Even though the story set on the other world (much more interesting) starts to hint at the ugliness of their system by the end, the imbalance is striking.

By the time it got to fully explaining the neanderthal world, which seems awkwardly similar to modern China (secular, communist, heavy surveillance state, repressive reproductive control) but adding (possibly enforced?) ubiquitous bisexuality and definitely enforced eugenics, the book had lost me. (Weird choice there. This society was presented as positive in most ways - they don't drive creatures to extinction, little crime, etc.)

The book had lost me early on, in fact, because just a few chapters in, the main human character is introduced and immediately subjected to a graphic, brutal rape. A stranger-in-the-bushes rape, even, just to be as repulsively cliche as possible.

Why? Why would massive trauma possibly be a good way to introduce this character? I kept reading only because of my read-the-Hugos project, but the few chapters before were intriguing enough that I thought maybe it would be justified by the end. Nope.

I mean, it could have been handled much worse, the author says all the "right" things, but it's like a pamphlet about dealing with rape (shame and struggle, trying to reject self-blame, etc.), not like a real character with real feelings. And by the ending... It seems that the structural plot reasons for the attack are 1) to give the woman a reason to accept the neanderthal's argument that his surveillance state is worth it and 2) to give her a reason not to hop directly into bed with him in the few days the story takes place.

Which. Really. They're not even... Arrrgh!

That's not even mentioning the completely ridiculous stuff around quantum mechanics and connecting conscious choice (only for humans/neanderthals. No animals make choices, apparently) to multiple world theory. Admittedly, I was skimming by that point, but I'm not about to go back and spend time investigating in more depth.

I didn't have any problem with the religion-bashing, but Wikipedia tells me that at some point in the series it's revealed that the neanderthals physically can't have religion because of their brain structure? Reeeaaalllyyy. All their societal stuff seems based strictly on their physicality to an absurd degree.

In the end, I'm going to say this book held some interest for me at the very start, but squandered it quickly and never recovered.

1 Star - didn't like it much.

Index of Hugo Award Winners

American Gods

Monday, February 24, 2020

American Gods
Neil Gaiman, 2001, revised 2011

Hugo Winner - 2002

Premise: Shadow is out of prison, but the life he thought he was returning to is gone. In its place, he is swept up into a shadowy world of arcane plots and gods living among mortals.

So I re-read American Gods, and it was... fine? I guess?

I first read this book either in college or shortly thereafter, and I remember liking it, but nothing else about it. I remember at the time I was reading quickly without thinking about it, so some of the character identities may have come as a surprise. But I don't know that there are many people in 2020 who can see a mention of "Low Key Lyesmith" in the first chapter and not know what they're in for.

This was the tenth-anniversary edition, which is apparently a bit longer than the original. I'm not sure that's a good thing, it definitely dragged at points. Shadow floats along, witnessing but only occasionally being affected by the bizarre things happening around him.

The world is intriguing, and a lot of the side characters are interesting, but the plot just falls flat for me. I like the little side stories about how various gods came to America. I mostly like the dream-like style, it works for the subject matter. But sometimes the whole thing just got too pretentious, Shadow is boring, and the story and world would probably be more interesting in a visual medium.

That transfer to visual and more exploration of the new gods (which the book is sorely missing) are apparently what worked so well about the television adaptation, but I haven't seen any of that.

This joins Green Mars, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, The Diamond Age, and others on a list of Hugo winners where I would guess the award was given primarily for the inventive setting rather than the story set there.

2 Stars - Fantastic Premise, But Just an Okay Book

Index of Hugo Award Winners

Two Girls Down

Monday, February 10, 2020

Two Girls Down
Louisa Luna, 2018

Premise: When two young sisters vanish from a parking lot, a private investigator and a retired cop might be the best hope of finding them. (Content warning: graphic violence, discussion of sexual assault and murder, including of children)

I borrowed this book from the library on a whim, based on an article that recommended it for fans of the show Broadchurch. Although l can see some superficial similarities and I think the book is well written, reading it mostly affirmed my previous belief that I don't really like thrillers.

I was pretty bored by the first main character. A single dad and former cop forced to retire under complex circumstances, he's warm and practical, pretty uncomplicated and predictable. Alice Vega the PI is much more interesting.

She's distant and analytical except when she's itching for a fight. She's good at manipulation and focused on results. It was only when l was writing this review that I realized she sounds a bit like some versions of Holmes, but she didn't feel very similar while reading. In any case, she was intriguing, and I enjoyed reading from her unique perspective.

The book as a whole though... not my cup of tea. I actually found it bizarre how (mostly) okay I was watching the first two seasons of Broadchurch (which deal with investigating child deaths) while on maternity leave, but this book, in which (spoiler) the titular kids are both found alive, was too upsetting. The descriptions of violence (toward Alice, mostly) were so tactile and the villains so deeply revolting and horrid that the pleasure I got from Alice as a character was overshadowed by the end. I also wasn't into the implied possibility of a future romance between the two main characters.

I did find the book compelling and a fast, gripping read. But the largest takeaway for me was a reminder to stay out of this subgenre!

No Rating - Can't be fair. 1-2 for my own enjoyment, maybe 4 for actual quality?

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North

Monday, February 3, 2020

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North
Blair Braverman, 2016

Premise: A memoir about survival, independence, and dogsledding. Content warnings for sexual assault, rape, and animal injury and death (sheep).

Blair Braverman was always drawn north. Always drawn to snow and ice, to the aurora and the darkness of the Arctic latitudes. This is her story.

I had a little trouble following the narrative at first, but I think that's more a function of my scattered reading time and attention than a problem with the book. It flips back and forth between the "present" - an extended summer visit to a rural town in Norway - and all the adventures that lead up to it.

Blair's determination leads her to take on great things, but it also causes her to not seek help: first when she's subject to unwanted attention while an exchange student and later in a toxic relationship. Ultimately, the book is about how she is able to balance her desire for independence and a physically demanding life with building good and loving relationships.

The description is extremely vivid and it never shies away from portraying the unsavory or the gruesome, almost to a fault. She also spends a lot of time on everything that surrounds her, often only implying her own perspective. I think both these choices are fair and interesting, but it did mean the book didn't resonate with me personally as much as other memoirs. I think it's extremely well-written, but it didn't completely land for me.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Brother Cadfael's Penance (Brother Cadfael, Book Twenty)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Brother Cadfael's Penance (Brother Cadfael, Book Twenty)
Ellis Peters, 1994

Premise: News comes to Shrewsbury that brings Cadfael to a crisis with his vocation.

I put off reading this one for a while because it's the last one. This series has been reliably enjoyable throughout, but the personal nature of the plot elevates this one to greatness.

Many of the books are about love, some about duty or society. As I expected, this one is about parents.

It's about Philip FitzRobert, who publicly breaks with his father when he switches his loyalty. It's about a mysterious murder in a city at truce that turns on a secret relationship. It features more directly than any other in the series the Empress Maud, daughter of the late king.

Most of all, it hinges on the most emotional recurring plot point of the series: Cadfael's son, Olivier.

Cadfael is faced with a hard choice between his oaths as a Benedictine and a quest to find Olivier, taken captive after a battle. He finds that it is no choice at all, although he fears what will come of it.

For many of these books, the Anarchy is background or only tangentially affects the plot. It is interesting to see the major players close up in this one.

Like most, it's full of excitement and heart, but the emotion runs high in this one. I loved it. I loved seeing all Cadfael's goodness and bravery laid out for a personal cause. It's a delightful capstone for the series.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time

Monday, January 13, 2020

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time
Laura Vanderkam, 2015

Premise: Insights into how real women in high-profile, high-powered jobs balance their lives.

I took a long break in the middle of reading this book. A two-month-long break, in fact, that covered multiple illnesses and holidays. I had gone so long that I almost didn't go back to it. I had forgotten what I was reading, and I thought I had gotten what I was going to get out of the book - a way of charting time to think about it more clearly.

But I decided to jump back in and give it another chance, and I ended up devouring the rest in two days.

So, yeah, I'm glad I went back to it.

This book (and, apparently, much of this author's work) strikes an interesting and inspirational balance. Yes, it's about time management. But it's not about how to multitask more efficiently or get up earlier - although those topics are touched on. It's about recognizing that your time is yours, and you probably have the time to build a great life.

The book is based on 1,001 days' worth of time logs completed by working mothers earning over six figures. The logs provide the data foundation, and interviews provide the nuanced pictures. The women in this book are busy, but when they actually wrote down what they did every day for a week, many realized that they were making time for family and for themselves, more than they realized.

The author calls the logs the Mosaic Project to illustrate the principle that your time is made up of all these different pieces, work and family and personal time, client meetings and sleepovers and lazy weekend breakfasts. How you assemble them creates each day or week or year. A lot of the book is about busting open myths and assumptions about how busy/tired/etc. people are. These assumptions become self-fulfilling when we buy into them too far.

On a personal note, I paid particular attention to a short section about being aware of patterns when kids are very small that can cause parents to set habits around leisure and housework such that they don't recognize opportunities to adjust as the kids grow.

The message of the book is that you have the time, even if it doesn't look like what you expect, or it's not in the perfect shape you want. I found the stories full of encouragement to use the time you have - not by applying organizational gimmicks, but by realistically keeping an eye on your priorities.

The book says that sure, you physically can't be a superstar at a high-profile job AND a full-time parent AND a world-class romantic partner AND maintain a spotless home AND have time for yourself. But would you really want to try? Because if "all" is defined as a happy, loving family, satisfying and remunerative work, and time for personal growth? You can have it all. The stories in this book are living proof.

I really liked it, and I'll definitely bookmark this author for the next time I need some encouragement.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Monday, January 6, 2020

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J. K. Rowling, 2000

Hugo Winner - 2001

Premise: ... It's Harry Potter.

Throughout this project to read all the Hugo-winning novels (moving into its ninth year!) I have tried to read and review these books with care. I try to explain when I hit a book that I don't like but I can understand its importance. I try to bear in mind the books' historical and cultural context; in fact, understanding each book's context is a lot of the pleasure in this quest to read them all. At the same time, I try to take each book as a unique work of literature and evaluate what I see as its merits and flaws for today's reader.

I was stumped by this book.

Harry Potter is too ubiquitous. I know too much about the characters, the world, fan commentary, meta analysis, etc. to be able to read it with anything resembling an open mind.

And I don't even seek out Harry Potter content. I just hang out on the geeky parts of the internet.

Although maybe I would have been skeptical about this book no matter what. After all, I've never actually liked Harry Potter that much. I quit the first book partway through and didn't go back until after the first few movies came out. I used to say that I thought people should just watch the movies until at least book 4. I liked book 5 when I read it, but then (in my opinion) book 6 was all setup and book 7 was a tedious slog. (Something the movies, unfortunately, re-created faithfully.) I deeply appreciate the way the series made reading cool, but I have never really enjoyed it.

I hoped that maybe rereading one would change my mind, but I spent the first three-quarters of this book frustrated and bored. Some random thoughts:

  • How would it have been different if the Dursleys were more than feeble caricatures and fat jokes?
  • There's got to be a better balance between writing realistic child characters and writing absolute morons who insist on creating problems for themselves.
  • Oh, all that business with Hermione and the house elves is so, so much worse than I remembered.
  • Also, she lies to a teacher so she'll be magically made more attractive. (Realistic behavior? Possibly. Kind to young readers? No.)
  • It's so dumb that the tournament is stretched out over a whole year but only takes like a few days total.
  • I just don't empathize with or enjoy reading characters being low-key terrible to each other/idiots because they're young.


So at this point, I'm just speeding through, and thinking why the heck did this win the Hugo?

Oh right, the ending.

The whole book turns on a freaking dime and the stakes shoot through the roof.

Now, the book nearly derails it all with several long villain monologues that belabor every last detail in ludicrous depth. But at the end, you're still left with a world that is fundamentally bleaker, a glimpse of what the adults are working on behind the scenes, and a bunch of teenagers who were just told they better grow up in a hurry if they want to survive. And that's really impressive for where this series started out.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Index of Hugo Award Winners