Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
I am going to miss Jane and Vincent. Of Noble Family is the married couple’s fifth and final adventure in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist History series set in an alternate Regency Britain enhanced by glamour, the loveliest system of magic I’ve encountered. But while their glamoured displays are often breathtaking, Jane and Vincent have taken ether-based illusions far beyond the ubiquitous drawing room decorations created by accomplished young women. In previous books they’ve found practical, if hair-raising, applications for glamour in the war against Napoleon, the Luddite riots, and an escapade involving pirates on the Mediterranean. For this last story the couple will be off to the Caribbean.
When the book opens, Jane and Vincent have been resting after their harrowing exploits on the Italian Island of Murano and enjoying the company of Jane’s family, especially her sister Melody’s new baby boy, who is already showing a precocious ability to see inside glamoured images. But things don’t stay relaxing for long. Vincent receives a letter from his brother Richard that turns their world upside down.
The first shocking piece of news is that Vincent’s father has died of a stroke at the family estate on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Lord Verbury fled to the island in an earlier book to avoid being imprisoned for treason. Since Vincent was badly abused by his father while growing up, the death wasn’t as upsetting to him as it might be, but the bad news didn’t end there. Upon their father’s death, Vincent’s oldest brother Garland inherited the title Lord Verbury, bought himself a new barouche-landau, and then died when the vehicle overturned on the badly maintained road leading to Lyme Regis. Vincent’s middle brother, Richard, was severely injured in the accident, losing one of his feet. In his letter Richard asks Vincent for a very large favor.
Apparently their father’s most recent will is in Antigua, and it will only be released to one of the sons. Richard’s injuries make it impossible for him to travel right now, so he’s asking Vincent to make the journey and straighten out any problems on the estate that need attention. Jane is completely against it. Why should Vincent go? She’s seen how poisonous anything to do with his father is for Vincent, and Vincent has already disassociated himself from his family by changing his last name.
But Richard has always been kind to Vincent and was just as badly treated by their father himself. Plus, being professional glamourists Jane and Vincent have no possibility of work in Britain for the time being anyway. Beloved Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, recently died in childbirth so the country is in mourning for a year and all glamour has been stripped from homes and public places. For these reasons, Vincent decides to help Richard by traveling to Antigua, and Jane of course goes with him, but nothing turns out as they expected. The boat journey across the Atlantic is much more difficult than any water trip they’ve made before, and once they reach the island they discover they’ve been lied to as shocking family secrets begin to come to light.
Of Noble Family is a heart-racingly superb conclusion to the series and includes all the charms I’ve come to expect from Kowal. I love that the books don't shy away from charged historical issues--here Jane and Vincent are confronting slavery, and grappling with their own prejudices and well-meaning but sometimes short sighted feelings about it--and I love that the stories aren’t set only generally during the Regency period--all the stories take place at specific times, this one during the mourning period for Princess Charlotte.
It continues to be a pleasure to see what happens after an Austen-like happy ending marriage. Jane and Vincent have a strong relationship but it’s not effortlessly wonderful and they have to work at it. Also, Of Noble Family is a richer story than it might have been in other hands because Jane and Vincent aren’t its only heroes. The slave characters practice their own forms of glamour, and act with agency, resource, and intelligence.
My only complaint is the one you’d expect--I wish there was going to be another book. But Kowal wraps everything up in a moving and satisfying way, and there is at least one more thing to look forward to. Kowal always narrates the audio versions of her books, but since Of Noble Family has characters with Caribbean accents this time she has the help of two other readers. I’ve listened to a sample and it’s wonderful, especially Prentice Onayemi’s deep, Mr. Darcy-like interpretation of Vincent’s voice. I’m going to enjoy revisiting the story in audio form.
I read an advanced review copy of this book provided to me at no cost by the publisher. Review opinions are mine. Originally posted on the Austenprose website.
The hardships of living in a once modern country that no longer has enough reliable electricity to cool its citizen’s home refrigerators or run the now defunct factories where they used to work are more than I could have imagined and heart-rending, but there is at least one advantage. When the sun sets the country goes completely dark, it’s a blank spot on nighttime satellite photos and the starry sky must be amazing to see, which provides cover to young teenage lovers who otherwise would be prevented from meeting by their scared conservative families, their class conscious society, and their frighteningly punitive government.
North Korea is one of the most culturally isolated nations on the planet, which makes this poignant and descriptive book about the personal lives and families of six former residents of Chonhjin, a city in a northern outpost of the country far from what any foreigner would see, a testament to Barbara Demick’s patience, perseverance, and humanity. While working as a journalist in South Korea Demick was able to meet and spend considerable time with of many former residents of that region--her reasoning was that she would be able to verify facts more easily if she talked to people who were all connected to one place--and she’s created a surprisingly complete and moving picture of their lives.
Part of what makes the book so interesting is how varied the six people Demick profiles are. Some lived on the fringes of North Korean society even before the famine and infrastructure breakdown, others were formerly loyal party members only gradually disillusioned by the dysfunction and corruption of their government, and two were teenage lovers who could only meet in darkness.
The North Korean government does not come off well in this book, but neither do the Allied powers who made such a mess of Korea after WWII and then followed it up with the devastating Korean War. Dystopian fiction pales next to the gripping real stories told in Nothing to Envy, but since the people Demick talked with were resourceful during their almost unimaginable difficulties and have all escaped to make new lives in South Korea the book isn’t flatly bleak.
I really enjoyed this, but couldn't begin to explain it. It's sort of like an appealing but absurd poem with religious and philosophical undertones.
I could not resist the narrative voice of this earthy, augury filled, family rich story set in the First Nations Haisla community of western Canada. Nineteen year old Lisamarie is generally fearless and never takes guff from anyone--she’ll launch herself at a gang of bullies without hesitation and her uncle affectionately calls her monster--but the nighttime visits she receives from a small, wild, red haired man terrify her because they always precede a death or tragedy. It’s a visionary “gift” she discovers runs in her family, though no one talks much about anymore so she’s mostly on her own with it.
When her younger brother Jimmy is lost at sea Lisamarie embarks on a solo speedboat trip up the Pacific coast driven by guilt, fear and grief, determined to find him or his body. Her vivid memories and visions along the way take the story all the way back to her early childhood and into the land of the dead.
The ending? It’s somewhat hallucinatory, not something I could confidently articulate, but I was swept along anyway. With writing that’s beautiful and raw, this book is a colorful, sometimes dizzying odyssey, filled with ghosts, poverty, kinship ties, Haisla culture, Sasquatch monkey men, and the grit and wonder of the natural world.
Many thanks to BrokenTune who brought this book to my attention. Her review is here.
2014’s Station Eleven captivated me with its story of life after a pandemic flu caused the collapse of society, and The Lola Quartet, an earlier novel by the same author, shares many of Station Eleven’s story elements, including a life during crisis theme, though here the disasters are on a smaller scale.
Gavin is unsettled by the news that he may have fathered a daughter by a troubled high school girlfriend who disappeared--so unsettled he makes mistakes that sabotage his NYC career as a reporter, though print journalism is in its death throes anyway and his paper shut down not long after he was fired. He moves back to Florida because an economic crash similar to (or the same as) the one of 2007-2008 has created a job opportunity for him with his sister, whose work involves foreclosing on homes--she has to use a punching bag to work off the stress. In his free time Gavin uses his investigative skills to try to find his old girlfriend and his daughter.
It’s a fraught enterprise, and he’s warned off it at every turn, but locating his missing daughter is not something Gavin can let go of. In the process he reconnects with the other members of his high school jazz quartet--his girlfriend’s half-sister was the drummer--but everyone’s life has changed drastically since the almost magical evening of their final concert outdoors on the back of a truck, and no one seems able or willing to help him.
As in Station Eleven there are several third person narrators, the writing is beautiful and evocative, and the story is riveting, moving, and complex. Both novels unfold while shifting back and forth in time, revealing information slowly--a technique that irritates me in some books, but author Emily St. John Mandel makes it feel artful. Though The Lola Quartet doesn’t involve the almost total disintegration of civilization, strangely it’s a darker, less hopeful tale than Station Eleven, with moral dilemmas and needless but inevitable tragedy giving it an uncompromising, maybe noirish feel.
Resourceful, optimistic, determined, and unflappable, Miss Marjorie Marjoribanks would make a delightful, though perhaps slightly controlling, companion. While staying dutifully--albeit perhaps a bit technically--inside the closely circumscribed boundaries of what is correct and proper behavior for a young Victorian woman, Miss Marjoribanks is able to manage just about every aspect of life in her little town, including politics, even though she can’t, of course, actually vote.
After finishing school and taking a brief tour of the continent, Miss Marjoribanks comes back home to “be a comfort” to her dear papa, a modest and selfless goal she mentions frequently at the most strategic times. Her mother had died a few years back and while her father, the town doctor, finds his life quite complete, Miss Marjoribanks is determined to make it better. She also has a quite a few other things in mind to improve the social life of the town as well, including holding lively and soon beloved Thursday evening gatherings in her father’s drawing room, which she had specially painted in a shade to flatter her complexion (she thinks of everything!).
Miss Marjoribanks decides she’ll continue on this course for 10 years, long enough to make up for papa having had the expense of redecorating the drawing room, before she thinks about getting married. But even Miss Marjoribanks can’t anticipate everything that will happen.
Some readers and reviewers have remarked that Marjorie Marjoribanks is like Jane Austen’s Emma but less irritating, and I concur completely with that sentiment. It’s a long book, and it did drag a little in the middle for me, but the story has a wonderful ending and it’s filled with a variety of spirited, humorous, mostly lovable characters.
My pleasure in this book was greatly enhanced by dialogue with reading partners--Miss Marjoribanks was an April buddy read with the Dead Writers Society on GoodReads and the Reading the Victorian Book Club on BookLikes.
This entertaining, often enthralling, mix of history, humor, travelogue, family memoir, and no holds barred social commentary reminds me of my favorite Bill Bryson books--especially A Walk in the Woods about Bryson’s (mis)adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail. When Rinker Buck discovered that large stretches of the Oregon Trail still exist, he had romantic visions of a back to basics journey across the western half of the continent and began obsessively and meticulously preparing for a mule-drawn covered wagon trip along the old pioneer route. Since he was divorced and his daughters were grown, why not? Rinker planned to go solo, but even replica wagons have breakdowns, so fortunately for both him and his readers Rinker’s handy, force of nature brother insisted on coming along too--a brusque, big-hearted, syntax challenged, mechanically gifted giant of a man who has some resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hagrid.
Rinker blends the fascinating if fraught history of the mass migration westward into the story of his own journey. Pioneer journals were his guides, and the sections devoted to their lively accounts of trail travel were some of my favorite parts of the book. Rinker also writes movingly about his father, an adventurous, family-centered man who inspired his trip. I found the chapter about the surprising (to me) importance role of mules in 18th and 19th century America--starting with George Washington as a savvy land speculating donkey importer and mule broker--utterly captivating, and it’s a good example of the atypical historical perspectives and insights that make this book so riveting.
But The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is as much about the modern day West and its people as it is about the past, and as an Easterner I learned a lot--Rinker, his brother, and their mule team often spent their nights in open publicly maintained corrals where teenagers gather to hang out and practice rodeo skills, not something we encounter here in the Boston to Washington megalopolis. The writing about the actual trip is detailed but evocative, so I felt like I was watching the scenery and riding along in the covered wagon myself. I wasn’t quite so interested in the wagon maintenance aspects of their journey, but I’m sure those sections will delight some readers.
This memoir has a personal, almost conversational tone, but what a moving, heartbreaking, inspiring, fascinating story she has to tell. Eunsun Kim spent her early years happily enough in North Korea, and that was interesting in itself to read about, but then famine drove her family across the border into China and set them on a decade long journey--even taking them into Mongolia--before she, her sister, and her mother were able to finally settle in South Korea.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom paints a vivid picture of living on the edge in North Korea and then China. It's an intimate story about a part of the world that's hard to get information about, and that alone would draw me to the book. I read it in one sitting because it's not long and is incredibly gripping.
As a far too provincial American I know a lot more about select favorite periods in European history than I do about the continent today, but this informative, fascinating, and engaging book went a long way toward bringing me up to date. Indian journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar attended university in England, married a man from Spain, and has lived in and written about the changing world of China, making her perspectives on European economics, politics, and daily life particularly insightful and often eye opening and counterintuitive, at least to me. For instance, worries about contaminated milk and other such concerns aside, Aiyar and her husband generally found shopping much easier in communist China, where eager store owners will reopen their shops for a late customer, than they did in capitalist Belgium, where store schedules cater to employees who don’t want to work evenings or weekends rather than to customer convenience or any business bottom line.
New Old World combines detailed factual reportage of the people, places, and policies of Europe with Aiyar’s personal experiences of living in the capital of the European Union with her young family, which presents a fuller picture than either angle alone would do. Because of her background in China and India, Aiyar also writes fluently about Europe relative to those two rapidly emerging nations. Topics she addresses include the state of the EU, climate change politics, demographic shifts in industry, cultural legacies, immigration, Islam, the euro crisis and the regional squabbles it created, the lingering effects of colonialism, and the very strange political situation in Belgium and how that affected the party she gave in her mixed language Brussels neighborhood. Based on how much I enjoyed New Old World I purchased Aiyar’s earlier book on China, where she lived for seven plus years before Belgium. Aiyar has now moved with her husband and children to Jakarta--I can’t wait to read what she has to say about Indonesia.
Created as a radio series in 1982, this humor filled, fast paced, outer space, sci-fi adventure really jazzed up my daily commute. Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe is hired to find out who’s been manipulating the media on the 6-mooned planet Summa Nulla (crossroads of the galaxy, highpoint of nothing), and she’s just the dame for the job. Savvy, tough, and with a well developed sense of irony, none of the weird planetary inhabitants faze her--not the mustachioed informant with tentacle appendages who wants to shake “hands”, not the pun-loving mole creatures who excavate ancient underground cities that keep caving in whenever she’s around, and not the sexy android who sicced slimey genetically engineered assassins on her. Actually Angel Lips (the sexy android) and the slime assassins do exasperate Ruby, but Ruby handles them all with her usual sharp witted determination.
There’s about three hours of audio story with very cool high-tech sound effects, stunning other-world “visuals”, occasional musical interludes by the Android Sisters, and witty repartee worthy of a movie comedy from the 1930’s-40’s. It’s broken up into 3 or 4 minute sections and there’s sometimes a little repetition of plot points since it was originally broadcast in a serial format, but if you also have to keep your mind on something else--like driving--that’s actually an advantage. The Adventures of Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe and its nine or so sequels(!) are available on the ZBS website and Audible.
This dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley utterly enthralled me. Both were talented, groundbreaking, independent thinking women, they each had drama and difficulties in their lives worthy of a Brontë novel, and between them they knew intimately some of the most interesting people involved with Romantic literature and radical political thought from the French Revolution through to the mid-Victorian years.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born into a poor family with a very difficult, sometimes violent father, but Wollstonecraft was at least as spirited as he was and she struggled to surmount the boundaries gender and poverty put on her life in every way she could, eventually becoming a leading progressive thinker and the author of several influential books, including A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She loved passionately but refused the traditional roles women were expected to embrace at the time, so she married the political philosopher William Godwin late in life and only reluctantly. Wollstonecraft died days after giving birth to the daughter named for her, so it was through her extensive writings that Mary Godwin Shelley came to esteem, cherish, and love her mother.
While still a teenager Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, a social commentary many consider the first science fiction novel, while holed up in Switzerland with a crowd that included Lord Byron. Like her parents she rejected social conventions about love, life, and marriage and at sixteen she scandalized her more staid contemporaries by running away with the already married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, though that particular rebellion she came to regret because it hurt so many people. Mary longed for and looked up to her mother, using her mother’s writings as guideposts for her own life, and that reverence was shared by her husband, her stepsister, Lord Byron, and many of Mary’s other peers.
Romantic Outlaws is written in a back and forth chronology, with chapters about the two women alternating, so the section about Wollstonecraft’s early life is followed by one about her daughter at a similar age. I thought this might be confusing, especially since they’re both named Mary, but their circumstances were different enough that it was usually simple to keep track of who I was reading about, and structuring the book that way makes it easy to compare the lives of the women, which adds even more interest to their stories.
The book is well researched and documented with notes, but far from being a dry recitation of facts I found it quite compelling. Many of the chapters even end in what might almost be called cliffhangers, a technique that definitely kept me highly engaged.
Before reading this biography both Marys were more symbols to me than women with families, lovers, personal trials and private doubts, but Charlotte Gordon illuminates the hearts and minds of her subjects and succeeds at bringing the two women and the era they lived in to life. William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron are among the people who are also well rendered, and many other fascinating people spend time on the book’s pages, including Coleridge, Keats, and John and Abigail Adams.
Saying it’s engrossing is almost an understatement--I don’t remember ever finding a biography so hard to put down. I read an advanced review ebook copy of this book supplied by the publisher through NetGalley, but I’ve already preordered my own copy hardback edition of Romantic Outlaws.
I found this book about the history, evolution, and religious background of American liberal thought quite interesting--interesting enough that I kept bringing up things I read in conversation--but The Religion of Democracy is also very challenging. The reading was difficult enough that there was no sitting down and breezing through a chapter, and I regularly had to go over sentences two or three times to get their meaning. While I don’t think the material necessitated hard to parse writing, the insights the book offers made the extra effort well worth it. My copy of the book practically flutters, it has so many post-flags marking passages I wanted to be able to find again easily.
Each of the seven chapters focuses on one person, stretching in time from John Adams to Jane Addams and including William Channing, William James, and an aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson among the seven, but unlike traditional biographies their lives are used to illuminate the philosophical, political, and religious controversies of their day, in which they all played some kind of active roll. I found this construction very helpful, and having “characters” to trace the arc of liberal thought made the demanding material much more engaging. A “slow and steady” read for me, but being interested in American history, political philosophy, and trends in religious belief I enjoyed the book immensely.
The Just City opens with Apollo deeply perplexed. Why wouldn’t Daphne dally with him? He’s a god! Why would she rather be turned into a tree by Artemis? Athena tries to explain that humans care about making their own choices, but that doesn’t make sense to Apollo’s god-brain way of thinking and he really wants to understand, so when Athena suggests he temporarily take on mortal form and join her philosophical experiment to create the Just City described in Plato’s Republic, Apollo is all in.
It’s a huge project, but fortunately being outside temporal constraints herself Athena has the ability to time travel people and supplies around. After choosing the isolated, ancient island of Atlantis as the setting, Athena retrieves advanced robots from our distant future to act as laborers, brings in thousands of 10-year-olds purchased in bygone Mediterranean slave markets to be educated as per Plato, and whisks away hundreds of idealistic adults (some of them actual historical figures) from just about every human epoch to become instructors and administrators.
The story is told through first person narratives of three characters who, like everyone in the Just City, are working at becoming their ideal selves. Apollo has incarnated as an unnaturally gifted but socially clueless former slave boy seeking to understand the ways of humans. Helping him with that is Simmea, another of the city’s 10,000 children. She started out life sometime between 500 and 1000 AD on her family’s farm in North Africa, but after being captured and then sold into slavery Simmea relishes the unexpected, goddess given opportunity to cultivate her mind, strengthen her body, and create art. The third narrator, Maia was living in Victorian times deeply frustrated by the many restrictions placed on women when she prayed to Athena and was transported through time and space to Atlantis. Now she’s one of the adults teaching the Just City’s children and helping to make decisions about how to bring Plato’s vision to light.
There are problems to work out in the Just City--Plato has some awkward ideas about procreation for instance and sometimes instructors from vastly different historical eras have trouble coming to consensus--but everything is going along fairly smoothly. Then five years into the project Athena imports Socrates to teach the children philosophy, and true to form he starts stirring up trouble by questioning everything, from the Just City’s underlying principles to the treatment of the robots. Socrates quickly became one of my favorite characters--who else would try to turn robots into lovers of wisdom?
It sounds wacky and there is humor, but for me the story was completely gripping. The characters have strong but sometimes clashing emotional investments in Athena’s project and I was completely fascinated by all the machinations that went into their joint attempt to create Plato’s Just City.
I read Plato’s Republic in college, but that was decades ago and I don’t think having studied it is a prerequisite for enjoying this book if it sounds interesting to you. Most of what you need to know is in the story, and you can read a quick summary of The Republic on the internet if you want more. This is my first Jo Walton book, but I will definitely be reading others. She won Hugo and Nebula awards in 2012 for Among Others, so that may be next.
I've been on a bit of a reviewing slump (lazy) but not a reading slump (phew!)
Here are the 15 books I finished in March:
Early Warning the second book in a family saga trilogy by Jane Smiley
High Rising a between the wars novel in Angela Thirkell's witty Barsetshire series
The Semi-Attached Couple an Austen-like Victorian novel by Emily Eden
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History and two graphic novel/comic books from author Rachel Hartman set in the same alternate world as her Seraphina books, Amy Unbounded and Amy Unbounded Story One, which also had Galaxion--a very cool space comic on the flip side.
Two fun steampunks by Gail Carriger--the latest in her Etiquette and Espionage series Waitcoats and Weaponry and Prudence Carriger's brand new series with the children from her Parasol Protectorate books all grown up.
"I am disturbed by the number of children and adults who have never experienced the joys of reading a book just for pleasure. Therefore, I write the kinds of books for children and teenagers that I liked to read at their age, books meant purely to entertain, to divert, to amuse." Ellen Conford
Victorian author Emily Eden admired Jane Austen--and it shows in her astute and witty prose which delighted this Janite--but she begins her book where Jane’s stories end, with a wedding. Lovely Helen has all the ingredients for 19th century happiness. She’s beloved by her large well-off family and she’s about to marry wealthy Lord Teviot, who charmed her when they danced together. But being good Victorians they haven’t actually spent much time alone, and when she is whisked away after the ceremony she suddenly realises she doesn’t know or understand Teviot very well and she’s decidedly homesick, damaging her relationship with her proper but ardent new husband. Among other things the story becomes a post-wedding courtship with lots of twists and turns, ups and downs.
Like Austen’s novels The Semi-attached Couple is filled with amusing characters and there are at least three romances that develop during the course of the plot. It took me a little while to get all the names and characters straight--there is a Lord Beaufort and a Colonel Beaufort for instance--but somewhere along the way this book became one I couldn’t put down. First I simply found it divertingly funny, with characters to laugh at and enjoy loving or hating, but as the story went on it also became exciting, then moving, until finally at the end it was deeply satisfying.