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.
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.
Oh, how odious! The pompously verbose but good-hearted author George Knox has hired a loathsome new secretary who seems determined to manipulate him into marriage. This causes no end of trouble, irritating his good friend and fellow author Laura Morland. The lovely but quite happily widowed Mrs. Morland tries to set things right, but she’s often distracted by her energetic train-obsessed youngest son or her lovestruck publisher or the tribulations and/or celebrations of one of her fellow residents of High Rising.
Mrs. Morland thinks of herself as an author of good “bad” books--lively, highly popular but lowbrow stories set in the fashion world. Along with Laura Morland, who returns in several of Thirkell’s later books, other characters in High Rising include rambunctious children, loyal but opinionated servants, devoted secretaries who nevertheless have their own agendas, an unflappable schoolmaster's wife, an infatuated doctor, and several hopeful but undeclared lovers both young and old.
High Rising is the first of Angela Thirkell’s witty and entertaining Barsetshire novels, which borrow their fictional setting in the English countryside from Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. Thrikell’s books are loosely connected stories with overlapping characters, most of them written at about the time they take place--in this case High Rising was set and written between the two world wars.
Thirkell may have seen herself as something of a Mrs. Morland. After leaving two husbands behind, Thirkell supported herself and her sons by writing a book a year, successful books that she felt compared unfavorably to her beloved Proust, Austen and Dickens and that she didn’t expect (or want) her cultured, well-educated friends to read. I, however, find her books great fun. No one can write diverting “lowbrow” literature like a classics-steeped highbrow author (see also Dorothy Sayers.)
Before she wrote Seraphina and the just released Shadow Scale, Rachel Hartman created comics set in the same rich and wonderfully elaborate world of humans and dragons. Amy Unbounded is a collection of stories 7 through 12 from that series, bound together to be like a graphic novel. Set some years before the events of Seraphina, these stories feature spunky 10-year-old Amy, a Goreddi combination of Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy, as well as earlier versions of several of the characters (Dame Okra among them!) from the Seraphina duology.
Graphic novels and comics are not normally my thing, but it was great fun discovering all the connections to Seraphina. It’s a much lighter, slighter and of course shorter story than what’s in the Seraphina books.
Amy Unbounded is out of print and not an easy book to get your hands on if your library doesn’t have it. Amazon and other online sites sell copies for $30+. Fortunately for me my sister snatched one up when the price was lower.
Since I love the extensive world Hartman has created I was absolutely thrilled to learn she will not be leaving it behind now that the Seraphina series is complete. Hartman is planning another duology based in the same setting--Hooray!
I loved the setting of this book--an embattled kingdom inspired by imperial Russia with the noteworthy addition of magic--as much as I enjoyed its story. While Alina Starkov is serving as an apprentice map maker in the army a deadly battlefield encounter on the monster-filled Shadow Fold forces out her dormant magical powers and brings her to the attention of the Tsar. Almost immediately Alina finds herself propelled into the opulent, demanding world of the Grisha, magicians trained from an early age to serve their country.
Alina is used to hard work, but in contrast to most Grisha she grew up an orphan peasant girl, living dormitory style with other war-stranded children on the estate of a charitable duke. Since her schooling in magic is starting much later than her Grisha peers, Alina has trouble fitting into their elite and cliquish group. Other issues include the corruption and incompetence of the royal family, the impassible zone of magic-made monsters that bisects and divides the country, the difficulty of knowing who to trust or believe, and the fact that Alina is expected to help save her country with a flashy magical power she can’t control. Plus there are boy problems, but these are at least as poignant as they are predictable.
Alina is a great POV character, contemplative but not a pushover, willing to jump into hopeless danger to try to save a friend, and full of slightly barbed but disarmingly candid comebacks. I wanted to read myself into a well imagined alternate domain, and Leigh Bardugo’s world conjuring skills were everything I hoped for. Between this book and Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale I’ve discovered I love a story with maps. Shadow and Bone is the first of a trilogy and (Oh happy day!) all three books are already published so there need be no waiting if you get caught up. Plus the covers are wonderful.
Rain: A Natural History weaves together planetary science, geology, early earth history, meteorology, human history, cultural studies, travel stories, and even poetry into an entertaining and fascinating account of rain and our relationship to it. The book is beautifully written--vivid, sometimes humorous, and almost poetic without being flowery. It’s easy to fall under its spell. I especially enjoyed all the history and the sections on how depictions or evocations of rain rain have enhanced various works of literature, music, painting, and movies.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.
Some Luck opens during the flapper era jazz age, but the young Langdon family spends their time in the farm fields of Iowa, not the speakeasies of Chicago or salons of Paris. The first of Jane Smiley’s family saga trilogy, there’s one chapter for each year from 1920 to 1953, taking the story through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, WWII, and the early days of the Cold War.
In the beginning there’s only Rosanna and Walter, a young married couple who’ve just purchased a farm by taking on substantial debt. Soon children start coming along and as the story goes on through the years readers watch them grow up and make new lives, often far away from their Iowa roots.
Smiley’s writing style is subtle, recounting sometimes quotidian events through the limited third person perspectives of almost all of her many characters, often starting from when they were very young children with limited verbal skills. Much of the story is not high drama, but somehow most of it is compelling anyway and I was completely drawn into the lives of the Langdons. Watching the children grow to adults was fascinating, and Smiley held my interest by making sometimes surprising but ultimately plausible choices for her characters.
With its logic-driven shape-shifting dragons, arcane saint-filled religion, and music permeated, culturally rich, Medieval-like setting, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is easily of my favorite books of all time. I love its sequel, Shadow Scale, almost as much.
The world building continues to be among the most wonderful I’ve encountered. In Shadow Scale, Seraphina is on a quest to collect other half human/half dragons like herself, which takes her away from her homeland of Goredd and into the surrounding countryside. She travels around three human kingdoms, Ninys, Samsam and Porphyry, each with its own history, culture, landscapes, politics, traditions, and relationship with the dragons, and all so vividly imagined that I feel I’ve walked through those lands myself. Seraphina also spends time in Tanamoot, the mountainous home range of dragons, where the immense ash-scented reptiles soar through the skies and lumber on land in their natural forms.
A lot of things introduced in the first book are explained further in Shadow Scale. During her journey around the kingdoms Seraphina discovers more about the origin of the saint based religion that all the humans have some connection to, though it’s interpreted with interesting differences in the various lands she visits. She also learns more about the many forms and unique abilities of her fellow half dragons, and each of the curious beings in her mental garden plays some role in the story.
Shadow Scale opens with a Prelude you can skip if you’ve recently read Seraphina. It goes over information from the first book that readers might have forgotten, but because it’s written as if it’s by someone living far in the future, long after the events of both books, there were a few bits of implied information about how Shadow Scale ends that I would have prefered not to know, though they weren’t major spoilers.
My only complaint about Shadow Scale is I wish there was more. The resolution of the triangulated relationship between Glisselda, Kiggs, and Seraphina is bold but rushed over right at the end and not completely satisfying. I also felt that with a little more time some of the individual powers of half dragons could have been put to more use--I had hoped the soul or mind animated mechanicals shy Blanche surrounds herself with could have played more of a role in the plot. And at the end of the story I was left wanting to know more about what happens with the people and dragons back in Goredd after the resolution of the conflict, since we hadn’t spent much time there or with any of them.
Basically I love the series so much I greedily want another book. It seems almost wasteful to have imagined such a graphic dimensional world only to abandon it, but I believe the series is a duology that concludes with Shadow Scale. Perhaps Hartman wants to leave her readers with things to think about or envision for themselves, which isn’t a bad thing. Both Seraphina and Shadow Scale are so rich and immersive I know I’ll be re-reading them again and again.
Though I've already ordered my own hardback copy, I read an advanced review ebook copy of Shadow Scale from the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.
It was a bitterly cold and snowy February here in Maryland--not as bad as Boston, but still enough to drive us all indoors. I coped with it as best I could by reading 12 books. The 10 above were new-to-me and the 2 below were re-reads--Seraphina I listened to as an audiobook.
I tried again to read a graphic novel, Aya, which only confirmed it's not a format I enjoy much--no fault of the author or illustrator.
The standouts for me are The Fires of Autumn, a gorgeous book by Irène Némirovsky, Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston's lyrical and moving memoir, How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis's thoughtful and enthusiastic book about how reading novels has changed her life, and Some Luck, the first of Jane Smiley's family saga trilogy, which spreads out considerably from its opening on the farm fields of Iowa.