Eager reader of history, mystery, biography, YA, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, paranormal, and etc. My reviews are usually positive--there are too many books I adore to finish those I don't.
I read this engrossing, unsettling short story as the first step of my holiday refresher re-read of the rich, complex, mind-bending, Ancillary Justice in preparation for the joyful tackling of its sequel Ancillary Sword.
I found the story on Tor.com, it doesn't seem to be available on Amazon or anywhere else. Link
When Sophia Al-Maria’s father was a boy his family still lived a traditional Bedouin lifestyle, traveling around the deserts of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and sleeping in tents under skies dark enough to be filled with stars. After being forced by boundary-loving authorities to settle in a gender-segregated family compound her father’s wanderlust remained, which is how he ended up in Seattle unable to speak English but still managing to meet and marry an American girl, giving Al-Maria the dual or maybe triple or even quadruple cultural heritage that makes this memoir so mind expandingly and eye openingly interesting.
Al-Maria spent part of her childhood in her grandmother’s small, isolated house in rural Washington state, where the protective paranoia of her mother made Al-Maria feel more trapped than when she stayed in her father’s crowded multi-generational and now stationery home in Qatar. Even though while in Qatar there were substantial cultural and religious restrictions on her ability to move around freely and meet with whomever she wanted, being part of a larger family crowd felt liberating.
While she lived in Qatar Al-Maria spent her time getting to know her substantial Bedouin family, attending an international school mainly for foreigners, brawling with her male cousins in the wrong side of their gender divided home because she couldn’t stand that being older meant she was no longer able to play Mortal Kombat with them (well, this happened just once), assisting her uncle’s carefully choreographed subterfuge as he sneak-courted a non-Bedouin girl unacceptable to their family (which helped her figure out how to spend forbidden time with her boyfriend when she fell in love), and attending rowdy, sexually charged all female parties that seemed to be part of the insular culture of women. Al-Maria also got to experience a little of her traditional Bedouin heritage when the whole family would take off to camp in the desert.
Several of Al-Maria’s perspectives and insights on hot topics like burka wearing are not what I’ve encountered anywhere else, and she experienced class divides I knew nothing about. The book presents a fascinating almost disorienting set of interrelated worlds and Al-Maria’s vivid energetic writing sweeps the story along, allowing me the deep pleasure of being able to visualize that wide, star-rich desert sky but leaving me hanging a little at the end wondering what she did next. I’m hoping for a follow up book.
Many thanks to Zanna on GoodReads for bringing the book to my attention. Her review: Link
At least in the US and just in time for the holidays, Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen is free on Audible--and the sample sounds great.
Miss Manners sets things straight lest you look too far down your nose at what were called ‘women’s pages’. By her account there was a lot of intrepid and groundbreaking reportage, and the women who worked as journalists took full advantage of condescending sexist attitudes when interviewing anyone ignorant enough to doubt that an offhand remark to a young female reporter about, say, a new bombing campaign in North Vietnam (as President Johnson casually mentioned to a young Miss Manners at a White House Party she was covering), would end up in the paper.
Before Dreaming Spies I had only read the first book of the Russell/Holmes stories, and while I normally don’t read series books out of sequence I was thoroughly captivated by this well developed and deeply involving travelogue adventure set mainly on a cruising steamer ship and in Japan. Consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his much younger wife Mary Russell--a serious but intrepid bluestocking--are a surprising but well matched couple. Since both are reflexively inquisitive, highly intelligent, and decidedly independent they make good investigative and life partners, though if romantic passion led to their marriage that’s no longer evident this far along in the series.
Dreaming Spies immerses Russell, Holmes, and the reader in the country and culture of early twentieth century Japan and involves ninjas, blackmail, the international travel set, the Japanese heir to the throne, the deceptively demure daughter of a Japanese acrobat, and Holmes and Russell posing as both religious pilgrims and high society aristocrats. With intriguing characters, a fascinating setting, a complex mystery, and haikus scattered throughout the text, Dreaming Spies is kind of book you savor rather than rush through until its final section. The action ramps up when the story returns to Oxford and I raced through those last pages. You can enjoy Dreaming Spies even if you haven’t read all the preceding stories, but I will definitely be going back to read the earlier books in the series.
I read an advanced review copy of Dreaming Spies supplied by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.
What bibliophile could resist The Weird Sisters, a story about three book-loving but otherwise very different sisters all named for characters from Shakespeare? I’ve succumbed to its charms twice, reading the book in 2011 and listening to the audio version in 2014.
My review from 2011:
I loved this satisfying, hopeful, intelligent book from start to finish. It’s a sort of belated coming of age story about three twentysomething, verging on thirtysomething, sisters who grew up in the small college town where their father is employed as a Shakespeare scholar. Their mother has just been diagnosed with cancer and they are all back home to help.
Each sister is named for a heroine from Shakespeare and the title, The Weird Sisters, comes of course from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. When Macbeth was written the word “weird” meant something closer to fate, and the book’s story contains a mixture of determinism, because each sister is influenced by being born with a particular birth order into a household consumed with Shakespeare, and free will, since each sister immediately sets out to carve her own life.
When I read in reviews that The Weird Sisters has a first person plural narrator, a "we" that includes all three sisters, I pictured a homogenized Greek chorus and was extremely skeptical that the book could delve deeply enough into any of them to be interesting. That turned out to be far from true, and far from being interchangeable these sisters have stark differences that make it hard for them to get along sometimes. Part of why the first person plural works so well though—and it would be worth reading the book for that alone—is that being family the sisters share the same history, have common understandings, and know each other very well.
And they all love reading. When a soon to be dumped New York City boyfriend of Bianca’s asks incredulously how she has time to finish a few hundred books a year, she narrows her eyes and in a speech that will thrill reading addicts tells him she doesn’t waste hours flipping through cable channels complaining that nothing is on, doesn’t fritter away her Sundays on pre-game, in-game and post-game TV, and doesn’t hang out every night drinking overpriced beer with other hot shot financial workers. Instead, every moment in line, on the train, or eating she--and her sisters--spend reading.
But their differences are as significant as their similarities and all three sisters have big decisions to make. Rosalind, the oldest, has a passion for order, being in charge and staying put, but her fiancé wants the two of them to move to England. Bianca, the middle child, has taken great risks, even breaking laws, because she longs for attention, glamour and the kind of cosmopolitan life that can only be found far from their Ohio hometown, but after being fired from her job she has to rethink everything. Cordelia, the youngest, has been living a sort of always on the road hippie vagabond life, but now she’s pregnant and putting off telling anyone or even thinking much about her situation.
Part of the book’s charm is its beautiful scenes, especially the ones of common childhood memories, like the time all three sisters danced with wild abandon on their porch, and the time they “borrowed” the family car, even though none of them was old enough to drive, because they wanted oversize, late night ice cream cones. I am hoping for another book from Eleanor Brown.
In this book’s context, time travel isn’t yet possible but gallivanting through a multiverse of parallel worlds is, which turns out to be at least as cool. Marguerite Caine’s parents have invented a still nascent and not yet fully tested technology that allows users to jump into the lives of their alternate selves in universes that branched off from our own by taking different directions sometime in the past. Marguerite's focus has been more on art than science, but that changes when her father is murdered by one of the two handsome graduate students who have been helping with her parent’s project. The killer escapes to another dimension before police can get involved and Marguerite impulsively takes off after him, tracking him through several universes with the help of the other handsome graduate student.
The multiverse aspect of the story is phenomenal and the basic storyline--main character jumping in and out of multiple realities, taking up her alternate lives in those worlds while trying to find and kill her father’s murderer--kept me utterly enthralled. The universes Marguerite travels through take her to a grim, gray London with technology far more advanced than our own, a present day but pre-industrial Russia still ruled by resplendent Romanovs, and an Earth where land mass has already been drastically reduced by climate change and the alternate Marguerite lives with her parents in an experimental underwater community.
While the settings are fascinating and well drawn, another major part of the plot is a love triangle romance that weakened the story for me because it felt implausible, forced and awkward. Then again, I’m several decades beyond the YA demographic so it might read differently for someone younger. I enjoyed the other aspects of the story so much that I read it almost straight through, and since A Thousand Pieces of You is the first book of a trilogy I will definitely be checking out the sequels.
With a Mayan prophecy predicting the demise of the world, SOMEONE needs to write an end times book of etiquette so there isn’t panic and bad behavior when civilization collapses, and Tess is determined that the someone will be her. Not that she actually believes the doomsday prophecy, but her wealthy potential employer is almost looking forward its fulfillment, and since Tess’s own life is already pretty much of a disaster she needs the job. Plus she’ll be conferring with a movie star handsome co-worker so it’s all good. Good, that is, until the end-of-life-as-Tess-knows-it prediction starts seeming all too plausible. Heartwarming hilarity ensues. This entertaining romantic thriller is packed with quirky characters and fun galore.
I bought this as an inexpensive Kindle book, and then was able to purchase an even less expensive Audible version which kept me smiling during my commute.
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Even though tough as nails Brigid Quinn is retirement age now and starting to have a few health issues, she still remembers enough of her FBI martial arts training to take down a much bigger, younger, stronger man in a hand to hand scuffle so this is no cozy mystery. Brigid did a lot of undercover work when she was an FBI agent which isn’t conducive to forming close personal relationships, but she’s slowly getting the knack for human connection and in this second book of the series she’s added a best female friend and a teenage niece to the husband and dogs she acquired late in her life.
Then as soon as Brigid is asked to investigate the drowning death of a boy from her church one of her dogs gets poisoned and her health problems start to escalate, filling her with suspicions and making her doubt everything about the new life she’s built for herself. The story gives interesting insights into Brigid’s relationship with her family, and while the plot is slightly more disturbing than I prefer because I lean towards the cozy side of the genre, I love having an older main character who’s sharp, tenacious and capable.
This entertaining novel featuring the ghost of witty Dorothy Parker is, of course, full of tart-tongued repartee, but along with the humor is a surprisingly moving story of friendship and family. Though no longer among the living, Dorothy Parker is still hanging around the Algonquin Hotel in corporeal form as long as mysteriously powerful guest book she signed years ago is open, but she’s lonely because most of her friends from back in the day have moved on--even Groucho Marx and Lillian Hellman chose to “go to the light” rather than spend eternity trading quips and downing cocktails in the hotel’s bar.
Fortunately Parker may have found the perfect afterlife companion in Ted Shriver, a brilliant but jaded author recluse who had his novel writing career cut short by accusations of plagiarism. He’s dying, but if Parker can just get him to sign that magic guestbook he’ll have the ability to stick around once he’s passed on. Unfortunately he’s just as obstinately unyielding as Parker and he won’t do it.
Enter Norah Wolfe, a determined television producer and long time fan of Shriver’s writing. She hopes to save her about-to-be-cancelled talk show by booking Shriver as a guest so he can finally explain the plagiarism charge, but of course he won’t do that either. Parker and Norah form an uneasy alliance, embarking on a hijinks filled quest of discovery in order to convince Shriver to change his mind about both of their projects.
This is the second book in Ellen Meister’s exceedingly fun series starring Dorothy Parker’s clever, opinionated ghost--I’m looking forward to the third one.
I’ve had a tempestuous relationship with this series by Lev Grossman. The first book I started out liking--I loved the idea of a secret college for magicians in upstate New York--but in the end I rated The Magicians only 2 out of 5 stars, a bit harsh in retrospect because I read it straight through and I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy. My complaint was that the plot wandered as aimlessly as its snooty-smart, ennui-filled, self-involved teenage main character Quentin, who irritated me.
I wouldn’t have even tried the sequel, The Magician King, except I was intrigued when I heard Grossman mention in an interview that he was only planning one chapter for Julia’s part of the story--as Quentin’s early crush she was a minor but significant character in the first book--but instead of playing a similarly small role in the second she ended up taking over half of the book. Julia was tested for but not invited to attend the formal college of magic Quentin went to, and in the second book we learn how she ends up sort of jumping off the grid and teaching herself spell casting in the gritty underworld of safe-house magicians. Her hardscrabble back-story captivated me so completely I just skimmed through the chapters that didn’t involve her. When I recently listened to audiobook versions of the first two books in preparation for reading the third there were whole sections of The Magician King I didn’t remember.
I enjoyed both earlier books a lot the second time through, even many of the parts I disliked the first time, and the third book is an awesome conclusion that had hooked me from its opening chapter to its final pages. Quentin is thirty now, and has had his impossible childhood dream of living in the Narnia-like land of Fillory come true, and then fall apart. He’s trying to live like an adult and make amends for some of his past actions, which involves him in a hair-raisingly dangerous team-work heist of magical objects. But it’s Janet who really got to me this time. She had been little more than a self-proclaimed bitch in the first two books, but a chapter in Magician’s Land about a solo adventure she had is so mesmerizingly moving that as soon as I finished it I went back and read it through again--something I’ve never done before.
There’s plenty of gripping high-stakes action throughout this series, but there’s also a kind of thoughtful introspection. Grossman considers what it might really be like, both the difficulties and the beauties, if we had magic, here, in our modern but imperfect world. What if its difficulty meant only geeky nerds were smart and obsessed enough to learn it, so magical powers necessarily mixed with angsty adolescent gawk? And how would those social misfits handle the potential emptiness of purpose that could come if it was possible for them to do or have just about anything? What forms might religion or gods take in such a world, and what roles might they play?
I think when I read the earlier books the first time I was looking for something cozier--to the extent that the Harry Potter series is cozy--but now I love how Grossman explores the psychic innards of his characters while giving them plenty of room to grow, and I’m highly impressed with his storytelling skills, his world building, and his ability to develop and run multiple interesting plot arcs and see them all through to a fitting and satisfying conclusion. I think this is the final book in the series, but I’m really hoping there will be more.
The Magicians--originally read 2009, reread 2014
The Magician King--originally read 2011, reread 2014
The Magician’s Land--read 2014
After having The Orchard on my ereader for several years I began it almost on a whim. The memoir was supposed to be my back-up book, always there in my purse for emergency reading needs, but once I started in on it I found it hard to do anything else.
Theresa Weir came from a very broken home. First her father abandoned the family, and then her mother drove off or disposed of her and her siblings one by one. Weir was barely twenty-one and living and working in her uncle’s seedy country bar when she met Adrian, a young apple farmer who loved to draw. After a brief but passionate courtship of just a few months they married, against the wishes of both their families and hardly knowing what they were getting into.
Though the locals claimed Adrian’s family orchard was cursed Weir thought she’d be leading a strange-to-her but idealized farm life, but while she loved her husband it didn’t quite turn out that way. Her in-laws’ obsession with the family legacy of growing perfect unblemished apples made them harsh and controlling, Adrian labored from dawn until dusk, and the heavy scent of pesticides was always in the air.
Weir was used to difficulty and hard work, so though they barely knew each other when they married she and Adrian made a loving life together, but there’s a lot of heartbreak in their story. It’s a compelling cautionary tale, and this memoir of farm life and family is both beautifully written and deeply moving.
The van Gogh Starry Night plate is especcially emotive.
From the website: "In this fun series of photos titled Thanksgiving Special, San Francisco-based artist Hannah Rothstein imagines Thanksgiving dinners as plated by famous artists throughout history. Gravy, corn, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and even the plate itself is used as a medium for edible artworks in the style of Jackson Pollock, Cindy Sherman, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh. To see all 10 artworks head over to Rothstein’s website. Prints of the artistic plates are available, and Rothstein is donating 10% of the profits to the SF-Marin Food Bank. (via Coudal, Quipsologies)"
There are plenty of books about vampires, fae, witches, and werewolves but not so many about trolls, which is part of why I love Amanda Hocking’s novels. Frostfire is the first entry in Hocking’s second series set in her troll-verse, a world exactly like our own but with the addition of human-resembling trolls who love nature, live in elaborate out of the way communities, and acquire wealth by placing some of their children in human families as changelings.
Bryn Aven is a Tracker with the dual job of safely returning changelings to her troll village compound once they are teenagers old enough to inherit from their human foster families, and then helping those new residents adjust to troll society which they grew up knowing nothing about. But while Bryn is determined to protect those in her charge and do a good job for king and community so she can become a member of the elite royal guard, she still has issues with the whole fraught, sordid, heartbreaking practice of changelings. Her decision to follow the rules, seek respect, and prove herself worthy in spite of those reservations is in part because she’s an outsider, looked down upon by some because her parents come from two very different troll tribes giving her a “mixed blood” appearance.
Then two new circumstances further confuse things and make it harder for Bryn to decide and do what’s right: She begins to have feelings for her very off-limits boss, and a former Tracker Bryn once admired and then had reason to hate inexplicably starts kidnapping changelings, thwarting the system and threatening their way of life.
Amanda Hocking doesn’t write gorgeous prose, but I can’t resist her thoughtfully moving stories, her spirited but conflicted characters, and her detailed inventive settings. She’s created a fascinating and personality-filled troll coterie which includes several tribes with distinctive cultures and diverging backstories. Frostfire ends abruptly--it’s not even so much that there’s a cliffhanger, the story just stops to be continued in books two and three. Fortunately all three books will be released in 2015.
I read an advance review copy of Frostfire. Review opinions are mine.
Covers for books 2 and 3:
Well documented with footnotes and a bibliography, Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte still manages to be accessible and highly engaging. Any biography of Josephine will necessarily include Napoleon, and theirs is an eye-popping story of poverty, passion, politics, ego, ostentation, and power.
A naive immigrant from the Caribbean when she landed in France, Josephine became in turn a spurned wife, a notorious high society vamp, a hero of the French Revolution, the bride of a little known Corsican military man, and a shopaholic empress who nevertheless acted as a humanizing force on her increasingly self-obsessed husband. Though he came to power in the wake of the Revolution, Napoleon’s thirst for pomp, acclaim, territory, and wealth drove him to out-Bourbon Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This is a fascinating, instructive history with all the natural appeal gossip.