Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In Turkey I Am Beautiful-Brendan Shanahan

In Turkey I Am Beautiful-Brendan Shanahan

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 356
gender: M
nationality: Australia
year: 2014
travel memoir

Shanahan describes himself as a queer giant in a paranoid land.



Shanahan is not a first time traveler to Turkey nor is he 'finding himself' or any of the other narratives you often find in travelogues to obscure Eastern areas (in fact, I'd say Shanahan stays exactly himself), instead he is a travel-savvy man who tries his hardest to meet locals and makes friends with them. He doesn't present a sunny Turkey here and focuses on the often melancholy or paranoid but ultimately very warm aspects of Turkish culture which is so close to my own experiences (especially the conspiracy theories!!) that I immediately liked reading this book ten times more. He spends his time either in Istanbul working in a carpet shop or visiting the dangerous, untouristed Eastern reaches of the country where I'd never venture but find interesting nevertheless. He describes his travels with great humor, a crude buffoon with a good heart type of humor and thus will entertain you as he trods on many people's toes. He clearly delights in idiosyncrasies, finds something interesting/to enjoy everywhere he goes, and this makes this book sound like he's sitting there, telling you his stories over a drink. Maybe you won't choose to travel along with him and maybe you shouldn't meet some of his friends but for your drink together, this was fun while informative.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Slavery's Exiles-Sylviane Diouf

Slavery's Exiles: The Story of American Maroons- Sylviane A. Diouf

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 403
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2014
non fiction, history

An academic text about American Maroons-runaway slaves who made communities near the plantations from which they ran away.


I have to confess, I had no idea what maroonage was before I read this book. Since I went to school in the North, according to my textbooks when slaves ran away they either did the underground railroad (and thus our triumph as Northerners), were killed (often by dogs specially trained to hunt them), went to Canada (against all odds), or were punished and taken back to their plantations (most common, those owners were ruthless). No one really told us about maroonage or the survival of former slaves in anarchic self-made communities in the wilderness, the forests and swamps. Diouf fills in any hole left by my education (and I presume yours too)-she goes into great detail defining maroonage, the types of maroonage and how the communities were formed and sustained. Obviously records are difficult to obtain but Diouf draws together seemingly any kind of record to pay justice to the variety of the ways that human beings can survive. Diouf suffers a bit in places with too much detail making the narrative hard to hold in your mind amidst the dense writing which can make this hard going in places but with a dearth of other books on maroonage, Diouf has done something really good here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Price of Paradise-David Dante Troutt

Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America-David Dante Troutt


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 275
gender: M
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2014
non fiction, urban studies

An exploration of suburbia and the middle class and how they underpin the poverty and inequality of American society.


Troutt focuses upon Detroit and the NJ suburban sprawl and as such I continually thought back to NJ and confirmed his statistics with my own anecdotal experience so I found this to be an utterly fascinating book (and retained mostly information about NJ-sorry Detroiters, I'm biased towards the Oranges). Troutt takes the debate of poverty back down to the middle scale view, he's focusing upon county distribution of resources and how those patterns transfer to the broader regions/urban centers (spoiler alert: it all follows similar patterns). He dedicates each chapter to a common argument that props up the middle class who live in mostly white suburbs and dismantles them-one chapter for instance is on the myth that the middle class got to be middle class without any help from the government, the usual argument against the welfare state, while another examines how politicians can manipulate federal money at the county level to make the poorer towns poorer while making the richer ones richer, i.e. the argument that people in Africa are doing worse than those at home argument. The picture is bleak and Troutt makes it clear that this model is completely unsustainable, not just in terms of human suffering but also as a resource to keep the rich so rich. And yet if you are interested in community models of planning and governance, Troutt has some excellent suggestions to round off the book. A well argued book that treats inequality intersectionally discussing class, race and history as well as the future on manageable scales of analysis. I really enjoyed his point about the interdependency of our lives.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hanns and Rudolf-Thomas Harding

Hanns and Rudolf- Thomas Harding

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 368
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non fiction, biography

The true story of the German Jew turned English Nazi Hunter, Hanns Alexander, and his hunt for Rudolph Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz.


Packed with constant references to primary sources, this is an exhaustively researched telling of Hoss's rise to Kommandant and Alexander's somewhat surprising role as a Nazi hunter. Both men change dramatically throughout the book. Hoss starts out as a farmer and his dedication to efficiency and reputation morphs him into the ruthless planner of Auschwitz and its extermination programme and then finally into a man escaping. Hanns changes from a fearful refugee who strives for assimilation into a hunter using all his resources into the aftermath of facing the face of Nazi atrocities in the face. Both men are steadfastly true to themselves and the primary sources make this a very engrossing read-almost like a spy thriller but true. I can't say that the prose was the best but Harding balances fact and storytelling with a good pace as well as presenting both the good and bad sides of both men (which made Hoss's actions all the more worse).

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Little Life-Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life- Hanya Yanagihara


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 720
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2015
novel

A biography of a very traumatized man and the people who love him as the adult.


Well, at first, you hear from the viewpoints of the three main friends of Jude, his college roommates (in a tiny room) and it establishes the lines and loyalties. The well-off versus the poorer, the race lines, and the future careers they will follow. Then you hear from Jude, who you quickly realize is a very damaged individual. That's what this book is, the life of Jude, a shockingly damaged individual as the scars of a very abusive childhood linger on into deepest adulthood. Here are some trigger warnings: pedophilia, trafficking, self-cutting, eating disorder because Jude is fundamentally convinced that he is unlovable-his body a minefield of scars and disabled legs and his mind a minefield of memories and self-destructive defense strategies. This is a very intense world view and Yanagihara shys away from nothing. Yet she also inhabits his world with such good people who genuinely care for him and so there are so many more tragedies here. Your heart is not breaking just for Jude, but also for his friends, his adoptive parents, his lover who are watching this strong character destroy himself with isolation. The novel is so well crafted that I can't really point to just one thing that Yanagihara is doing to wreak havoc on your emotional state-the pacing is well done, the situations realistic, the triumphs are triumphs and the drawbacks are wearying. The prose morphs along the way as the characters mature and grow older and wiser. Masterful novel.
My only critique is just how Yanagihara tries to make it a bit of a timeless story (and it is) by stripping out the usual markers of time (she sets NYC as the setting quite well) but despite that, it feels like a novel about people in the 1980s-90s based on the trajectory of their lives which yes, includes rags to riches and a geography of NYC that real estate prices would block modern individuals from following a similar trajectory. Also, too many artists with European residencies and the like.There's also a little bit of a sense of unreality at just how much abuse Yanagihara throws at Jude while making him super successful in all other aspects of his adulthood which sometimes felt a bit gratuitous.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

This Life-Karel Schoeman

This Life-Karel Schoeman

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 210
gender: M
nationality: South Africa
year: 1993
novel in translation

On her deathbed, she talks about her life.



Ok, I get it. The almost-never-named narrator lived a life in which she was a passive vessel and she did nothing. Are you ready for 200 something odd pages of her talking to herself on her deathbed? She's not telling her story, her life, to an audience; she has no idea how to talk to people and as such I found it interminable. She didn't really do anything with her life, her sole piece of autonomy was to not marry (but also, she lived in a way as to never be noticed so...how intentional was it is hard to say). Like that was the whole point of everything she did, to not be noticed. She wasn't a bad person, she was just background, which is sad and lonely and god I wanted to provoke her to do something other than cringe and run away. I mean, not a single woman in this novel is happy-most of the others are slavishly attending to males whether husbands, fathers, or sons-but at least there was happiness in some moments for them unlike our narrator whose only joy seemed muted. Her narrative is disjointed and ever so slow-such slow pacing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Black Eyed Susans-Julia Heaberlin

Black Eyed Susans-Julia Heaberlin

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 354
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
novel

Decades after she was left to die as the sole surviving victim of a serial killer, Tessa is forced to confront her past and consider that she may have sent the wrong man to prison.

I've read a lot of serial killer fiction as well as the true crime biographies of many serial killers (yes, I was an angry morbid adolescent) and so nowadays most of the genre really feels dull to me, the same tropes run out and stretched over and over. Not this one. This is serial killer done right. The usual gimmicks are missing and instead of an unconvincing viewpoint from the killer's head, you get an accessible human protagonist (the only surviving victim of the killer) instead. She misses some truly obvious things but for the most part, I found myself rooting for her. She was realistic you know, and complexly developed with recognizable defense strategies. There are also no real red herrings, no extraneous characters, and no unnecessary information given to you as part of a misguided attempt keep the reader guessing like in many serial killer books (and also, it's not too minimalistic like many others). It does finish itself up quite quickly with a resolution that moves at like twice the speed as the rest of the book and the switching between timelines can be a bit abrupt but overall engrossing nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rendezvous in Venice-Philippe Beaussant

Rendezvous in Venice-Philippe Beaussant

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 128
gender: M
nationality: France
year: 2003
novel(la) in translation

Pierre learns, to his utter shock, that his uncle, with whom he'd had an emotionless, art historical mentorship relationship, had a love affair.


Okay, let me take this off my chest. The hero worship was THE WORST. Charles is such a pompous ass and his nephew struck me as an emotionally stunted groupie. I don't know if I'm just more realistic but I never assume that the people I know don't have private passions so Pierre's shock that his uncle had a lover was just baffling to me. Like, why would I care baffling. There was so much melancholy that I spent the entire novel kind of vacillating between feeling the chill of a lack of emotion and being annoyed by the frequent invitations to the self-pity party. It's not even like the love story was a great romance, in fact, in keeping with my estimation of the male narrators in the story, I thought they acted like pompous asses while 'in love'. (I'd argue against calling it love in a way because the set up...really wasn't convincing in the least.) The publisher's blurb makes this seem like it's going to be a much more cheery and eventful story than it was. Instead you get a lot of detailed art history (many with which I disagree but that's besides the point) and shallow, superficial characterization with a prose and plot approach that left me really cold and dissatisfied.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

How I Killed My Best Friend-Amanda Michalpoulou

How I Killed My Best Friend-Amanda Michalpoulou

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 258
gender: F
nationality: Greece
year: 2003
novel in translation

Maria and Anna are both outsiders in their school and become best friends. This is the story of how that ended up so dysfunctional. Note: no actual murder.

This is a bit of an intense book. Set at a time when many Greek families were returning to Greece to reaffirm a monoculture, these two girls, one from Africa and the other from France, are drawn to each other while young. Then with the sinister pull of puberty, their friendship morphs and twists into a dysfunctional and abusive relationship. Many girls have found themselves in such friendships at one point (at a different intensity-my experiences were certainly mild) and Michalpoulou really captures the interdependence of destruction. They are set against the environment of ideology and political clashes-a hard to express environment for me though I trip over it on a daily basis-which is specifically Greek which lends a lot of authenticity and depth to already well-developed characters. Well written with good pacing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Riccarton Junction-W. Scott Beavan

Riccarton Junction- W. Scott Beavan

the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 244
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

Kikarin is upset about moving to the middle of nowhere Scotland but thankfully she has a project about a disappeared town to occupy her mind.


This may have been the worst book I've read this year. I'm not even sure where I can start to describe how and why I hated this so much.

Okay, my main problem was just how creepy and voyeuristic the book was. While the main character, Kikarin, is talking and swearing that she is a feminist and an intellectual and such, the prose is so entirely male gaze I wanted to vomit. There is a weird obsession with how she looks, how good she looks, how her legs in her skirt are looking, and how everyone just looks at her wanting sex. EURGH! I felt like I was inside the head of a man who would defund planned parenthood while saying that he has no problem with a woman having sex. I mean, great, thanks for saying that but let's have your actions support your talk and honestly, even at puberty not EVERY single interaction has something to do with sex! And don't get me started on how insisting that your main character is sexy BUT YOUNG is a creepy thing to repeat over and over.

Next main problem was the prose. I have edited documents written by people whose fifth language is English whose prose flows better than this does. Stilted, short sentences without any segues or flow are the rule of the game here. We are treated to the tritest, minute and mundane details in excess. She wore this BRAND NAME green shirt, and these BRAND NAME trousers, and went downstairs. She put on this BRAND NAME jacket. I wanted to shout SHUT UP. Whole scenes occurred where I could not perceive why they were included. They gave me no background as to why I should like her (except that maybe it's just that she's pretty) or care about her project (oh! I forgot, she's pretty AND smart so automatically I care about her project). Every step is accounted for it would feel and yet. YET. things would happen and you'd be blindsided by them. No build up, no increase of tension so when things happened, it was like a sucker punch. Suddenly something weird was happening and characters ceased moving at the pace of treacle. They were, also, about as short as a sucker punch  because the 'climax' would happen, you'd blink and you were back in the world of Kikarin talking about how she opened the window and then did some dishes using some dish soap. 'Traumatic thing happened' Kikarin would say and you'd be like, huh? I was there and didn't see it?

Truly awful reading experience. Should have spent more time editing and shorn off some of those 'subplots' that were underdeveloped and just confusing.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Tightrope-Simon Mawer

Tightrope-Simon Mawer

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel (sequel)

Marion Sutro is now no longer a spy. She's a normal person. Well, not really. Here she tells her story of her civilian life during the Cold War. Simultaneously Sam tells us about this heroine he knew all his life, named Marion Sutro.

A very entertaining read-Mawer tends to write historical fiction about women undercover in WWII that ends up almost light hearted (I felt the same way after finishing The Girl who Fell from the Sky). It's hard to describe but while the reading experience is enjoyable, it's not because it's particularly revelatory. Perhaps, there's just something very familiar about the story-the difficulty of a spy to adjust back into civilian life? That's not to say that Mawer skimps on his research because he has not met a detail he does not include. This can mean that sometimes there's too much detail and the middle did seem to drag on a bit as I was absorbing all that detail about the development of atomic weapons but Mawer does write strong female leads who belong to the period he is writing in. So Marion is progressive and unlike most other women for her period (as the narrator, Sam points out regularly through juxtaposition) but she is never anachronistic which is a very difficult balance that Mawer strikes well. To be honest, I was sort of annoyed by Sam and his hero(ine) worship at first but as the book progressed he won me over and redeemed himself as Mawer shifts through events as felt by Marion and witnessed from the outside to produce what is in the end an intriguing biography of an interesting woman who moves from youthful optimism to something more adult while refusing to directly fit in.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Seed Collectors-Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collections-Scarlett Thomas

the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

There is a seed pod left behind to each of Oleander's heirs. It may belong to the species that killed their mothers and each heir has a different life and reaction to their shared pasts.

The last Thomas I read I sort of enjoyed but hated the ending. I figured I'd give her another try as she has quite a following and boy do I regret it.
I hated pretty much every character in the novel. I know it's not really a requirement to like characters in literature and I have loved reading some truly terrible people but these characters are not people-they're stereotypes. Instead of actually developing characters and having them develop as the time goes on in the novel, Thomas instead takes archetypes and one dimensional cardboard cut outs and then pretends they are interacting with each other instead of being pieces of cardboard thinking solely of cardboard. I mean, really, one of the female characters worries she is fat and so we're treated to pages and pages that are just pure calorie counting and the typical hypocrisies of the dieting. YAWN.
And then there is the plot. The interminable, slow plot where everyone is basically an asshole to each other and the 'secrets' are well known to everyone involved. Now, I have known families like this-the open secrets, the visible money, the ennui of the upper class pretending they are not rich and the cultural appropriation and so I know this is not Thomas's invention but goodness, it did not make for good reading. Everything was just so...dull? done a bazillion times before? The professor justifying his obsession with a student, the lovers who cannot be together. And the brand names. Really. Now Atwood too does brand names but at least she makes them up while after page of page of Thomas's writing, I was worried that this was not a novel but rather a collection of dull paid-for advertising writing bits thrown together.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How We Learn-Benedict Carey

How We Learn:the surprising truth of when and how it happens-Benedict Carey

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 272
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non-fiction

Science reporter Benedict Carey gathers together multiple threads of current learning research to cover all of the bases.


Accessibly and clearly written. Whenever Carey quotes from dense text, he then proceeds to explain it in a different way and that makes all the difference between this being a dry primer to learning research to what is what actually an engaging primer. Now, I am the sort of person who has always been the type of student Carey describes with jealousy (I never study and retain what I read without much fuss in addition to being a good test-taker) so much of the results really don't surprise me unlike what the subtitle promises. Much of what Carey suggests to optimize your learning, I do instinctively but nevertheless I enjoyed it and that is down to Carey's clarity of writing. This is the type of book that you can read easily and it bleeds into your ideas about how to train that new person at work whose learning style is not your own. To the subtitle's promise, it does clearly demonstrate why you should not study in large long blocks in quiet environments (the students who live in the library who I've always sworn were doing it wrong were indeed doing it wrong *cue superiority complex*) and concisely summarizes the really confusing recent sleep research (something I've struggled to get a real handle on beyond the vague stages theory).
Seriously, are you a teacher, liable to be responsible for training someone at a job or simply someone who wants to optimize your non-fiction reading? Take a look at this.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Landfalls-Naomi J. Williams

Landfalls-Naomi J. Williams
the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 351
gender: F
nationality: Japan
year: 2015
novel

A fictionalized account of the failed French scientific journey that meant to challenge Cook's expedition.


When you hear that this is the story of a failed sailing journey you think you know what to expect. Sailors, scholars, and officers setting off in optimism, not knowing, as you do, that they are sailing to their death with all the melodrama you can handle.

This is not one of those novels. No, what Williams does is much more subtle. She doesn't focus on the overall tragedy, she instead takes you on a journey via numerous narrators who all experience their own tragedies. These tragedies are big and small, personal and collective. Instead of an account of desperation, Williams is writing a series of stories about missed connections. From the beginning story of the expedition engineer picking up equipment to the final story about a ship checking the maps made, you get the sense of things that could have been gained but were lost. Friendships and partnerships that could have been and aren't, friendships that must end because duty decrees it, partnerships that fail to support those in it, and friends who support each other despite their disagreements but are rent asunder. As such, this book worms its way inside in a way that a more typical historical fiction writing style simply would not. The voices of the narrators are different and the people they encounter are varied and unpredictable but this is a story of trying to make connections even with those with whom you cannot communicate and as such it becomes timeless. Yes, there is a lot of French pride and superiority and a strong colonialist bent to the mission but still, the struggle to connect could be in any setting.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Lost Art of Sinking-Naomi Booth

Lost Art of Sinking-Naomi Booth
the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 137
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novella

A girl romanticizes the perfect arch of her back during a faint and seeks the perfect audience for her greatest arched back.


I liked the way Booth writes. It is like a gently burbling brook, a languid prose perfectly suited for the subject matter of fainting. Nothing is really jarring and it just laps at your toes.
I hated just about everything else. I spent the entire reading of this thankfully short book (137pg) railing against the utterly weak and pointless life of Esther. She does things that are inexplicable but not in an interesting way and is so totally unaware of a 'secret' that is so obvious from the start that really just beggared belief. I hated her mother's character-the sheer vanity really removed any sympathy from my reading and therefore Esther was just more pathetic seeming. I mean, the blurb talks about obsession but really this book was about surrendering and passively floating through life like it doesn't exist. Her actions are empty, her relationships superficial and I really wanted to beat her up. I kept hoping the pace would pick up and then /something/ would happen but thankfully the book ended instead.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Star Side of Bird Hill-Naomi Jackson

The Star Side of Bird Hill-Naomi Jackson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 304
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2015
novel

2 sisters find themselves under the care of their grandmother, an obeah, in Barbados following their mother's mental illness in Brooklyn.


An absolutely lovely coming of age tale. Jackson deftly moves back and forth from Barbados and Brooklyn weaving in the two worlds and the two sisters, of vastly different age experiences, together with prose that is strong and lyrical. I use lyrical because there is such a flow to the narrative that is sometimes interrupted by the dialogue-much like an internal narrative is jolted by reality and the conversations it cannot control. Well done. Both girls are strong characters-Dionne who took care of her sister while trying desperately to fit in and Phaedra who embraced her own difference and watches to see how to handle things. Hyacinth, the grandmother, has reactions to the actions of her charges that seem so natural and that is due to the strength of Jackson's prose. This novel lingers. I also definitely enjoyed this because it's not often a perspective we find in literature-poor West Indian that does not dwell on the poverty or the history but rather captures a more contemporary, 'insiders' viewpoint. Jackson avoids archetypes-Hyacinth is going through issues of her own, Dionne makes you want to shake her to her senses-and shines an unflinching light on their lives.
But also, Phaedra. I fell in love with that girl.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth-Barbara Neely

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth-Barbara Neely

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 232
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 1995
novel

Blanche White is a domestic worker who is dedicated to providing her children the best education possible which means going to an exclusive school. When they are invited to the exclusive resort, long the bastion for the rich black community. Blanche is an outsider, both in race (her skin is darker than anyone else there) and class and yet gets embroiled in the solving of the two mysterious deaths that have occurred.

Well Blanche, I would like to hang out with you (though part of me fears I'd be too light for you). Though this is a mystery story, the mystery plays a background role to what Neely is actually interested in exploring which is race and class relations. Blanche experiences her race in way that makes it at the forefront of her life. She confronts it from white people as well as from the talented tenth (as Du Bois defined the leadership of black people-later this term has been conflated with those that can pass more easily i.e. have lighter skin) and then the kicker, her children who she watches learning the shame of dark skin. That this book was written in the 1990s and is still highly relevant today is an indictment of American society really. I'd say that Neely is perhaps too fervent and direct about her true objective in writing (seriously, there is a mystery story somewhere in here but you'd easily forget that) but I was fascinated since I genuinely liked Blanche.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Swell-Ioanna Karystiani

Swell-Ioanna Karystiani

the facts
satisfaction: down/side
pages: 272
gender: F
nationality: Greece
year: 2010
novel in translation

Mistos Avgustìs is a revered sea captain who has not been back home in decades, not even to know his son. This is the story of his last journey where he confronts a major storm and the trepidation of returning to land.

Had I not been stuck on a plane, I would not made it even halfway through this. Karystiani just writes on and on in this manner that feels so self-consciously pretty. There's a sort of detachment to her prose that keeps the reader a further distance from the plot. I couldn't really tell my traveling companions what the book was about while I was reading. I was just overwhelmed by how bored I was. I think that this detachment was intentional because the main character, Mitsos the sea captain, was so self-isolating. By the time the novel finished off and we learn the defining aspect of Mitsos's life, I summoned some admiration but I'd been so at arms length that it didn't really make a difference.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Sex and the Founding Fathers-Thomas A. Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past- Thomas A. Foster

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 232
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non fiction, history

An academic text examining the ways that the American public redefines the Founding Fathers to be in accord with the morals and ideas of the time.


So, you're a typical student in the USA, what do you learn about the Founding Fathers? Oh, they were impeachable men-good in every way and by the way, you should trust politicians, they know better. You hit middle school and there's schoolkid giggling over Jefferson's potential mistress but you know what, Washington remains impeccable and Adams was silly in love and by the time you hit high school, you don't even care anymore because you've heard it all before (or at least, that's my story). This is a book about why that is true. Foster exposes all the fiction in the narratives we're taught because let's face it, the Founding Fathers were actual human beings who wrote things and lived full lives. But now, centuries after their victories, they had to be rewritten, never doubted and this is what Foster is really considering. To be proper heroes, they have to be purely masculine ideals so Washington becomes muscular (instead of "awkwardly put together") while also skirting around the American tendency to prudishness (unless it happened in France, like in the case of Franklin who had a lot of sex for a 70-80 year old, but you know, the French). If you want to actually know about the sex lives of the Founding Fathers, you're welcome to try to read between the lines of their correspondence and come to your own conclusions (inevitably colored by your own perceptions) just like every previous biographer has done as Foster points out in each chapter dedicated to an individual Founding Father including one you may not remember (Morris).

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dumb House-John Burnside

Dumb House-John Burnside

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 198
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1990
novel

Luke is obsessed with the question of whether language is innate or learned and doesn't flinch from repeating Akbar's experiment.


Okay so I was expecting something like Burnside's fellow countryman, Iain Banks (whose Wasp Factory cast a pall over the sunny picnic I read it at). Something well written but ultimately a bit too unnerving and twisted. Burnside's prose however, is just amazing. He takes what is a truly twisted character-a man who is conducting science experiments to see if children develop language even if they are not exposed to language-and with his prose makes it all somehow dreamy. I was riveted, I could barely take my attention away which was amazing considering I read this on Scotsrail. I need to read more Burnside as this is one of my favorite of the year. Morbid, twisted, like a train wreck with a main narrator who is utterly impenetrable and unlikeable yet clothed in just the pitch perfect, focused prose. I'm reminded of the morality explorations of  the movie, Saló and Robbe-Grillet's A Sentimental Novel but while those literally made me feel a bit ill and unwilling to think about them, Burnside made me think about it all.

I actually carried the physical copy of this book through a trip where I slept in 6 different beds/couches back home in order to reread it soon. On the same trip, I read and discarded 8 other books. If that doesn't tell you how much I loved this, I don't know what will.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Bones of You-Debbie Howells

The Bones of You-Debbie Howells

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 320
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

The daughter of a friend disappears and is found dead. This is the story of Kate's determination to be a good friend and to know.


A bit derivative to be honest with far too much reliance on stereotypical tropes. The idyllic town where you learn that you don't truly know what is happening behind the neighbor's doors and the disembodied voice of the dead teenager interspersed with real events are tropes that have become overdone and therefore too obvious. Syrupy prose with an astonishingly naive narrator, it was a bit too heavy handed with the foreshadowing. I don't know, I could see what was coming from like a mile off and so much of the journey was like a soap opera with such over dramatics. Yet, I found it charming in its own way anyway. Maybe it was the horses, though idealized, they provided a steady antidote to the over dramatics of the rest of the novel.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Around the World in 50 Years-Albert Podell

Around the World in 50 Years-Albert Podell


the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 368
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non fiction, travel memoir

Podell has traveled to every country on earth (yes, even Angola, Somalia, and those tiny Pacific islands), survived, and this is his book about it.


Well this was interesting but not particularly evocative? I mean to say that Podell has gone to every country on earth including ones that no longer exist and others that are active war zones. Not every country nor trip is described in this book (thank goodness, that'd be like 3000 pages) so obviously, the book covers the less visited countries (mostly Africa). Unfortunately, Podell primarily describes them as charmless choosing instead to tell us about his sexual escapades-particularly his interest in 20-somethings (even when 60+) which I definitely did not appreciate. Otherwise, it felt very realistic, like me telling stories about places I've been-some good compelling stories, a bit of local flavor, a hefty dose of bad luck, horrible airport stories etc. However, I like my travel writing to be a bit more evocative of local environments so it would have gotten hard to keep myself going had Podell not written thematically. I think the problem is that Podell had too much to talk about so we only got the most vibrant memories which psychology tells us are rarely the best ones. Had this been solely about Africa or the Pacific Rim, I probably would have been more charmed but unfortunately, this might have been too ambitious to fit into one book.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Monster-C.J. Skuse

Monster-C.J. Skuse

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel, YA

Around Bathory boarding house roams the Bathory Beast and this Christmas, Nash has to deal with the beast (who may be responsible for deaths), a missing brother, responsibility of fellow students, and losing out on Head Girl.

So at its heart it was rather transparent. We have the somewhat neurotic over achiever who, for personal growth, must fail at her task coupled with some external pressure. The rival, the rebel, the weird and creepy one, and the one who needs protection. We have the love interest, the danger interest, and of course, the red herring. Isolation and the removal of parents is the final piece of the typical YA set up. Yet Skuse sold me this novel. I ended it feeling somewhat charmed, like I'd spent some time in surprisingly pleasant company. I could have been rolling my eyes throughout but I ended up on the pleased side of the balance. The love interest handling is cringe worthy and the boarding school interactions were full of stereotypical slut shaming and catty drama but Nash, the main character, does act with sense otherwise. It's never a horror story per say but rather stays in the thriller category with many ironic nods to the horror genre. I enjoyed how Skuse takes you through the various monsters in plain sight-the mythical and real.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Cutting Season-Attica Locke

The Cutting Season-Attica Locke

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: USA (WoC)
year: 2012
novel

A body is found in the fields next to a former plantation, now tourist attraction, overseen by a daughter of the owners' cook and descendant of a slave who had worked the plantation fields.

Locke writes really well exploring the disquiet of modern African American identity. Her main character, Caren, is an excellent device for exploring race relations-the daughter of the cook now public manager of a plantation set open to the public. The threads of history stretch back to the Civil War. I don't actually know if I'm primed by fiction to constantly see the South of the US as haunted by the Civil War or whether it truly is but Locke offers an intriguing multi-dimensional character for the reader. The tensions on the plantation, both historical and between the current management vs actors in a tourist show, echo the tensions in the community at large (the small farmer vs the corporation, local vs immigrant) and of course, race is present throughout. There are a lot of parallelisms running throughout the novel-the undocumented victim, the slaves, the class difference between owner and worker-and sometimes Locke does lose the plot a little. The mystery is well set up and the prose is articulate and careful.
There was something though, that somewhat fell flat. I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. I don't know what to blame really, I can only talk about a few bits and bobs that stick out. One is that Caren is the protagonist and is inadvertently tied up into the murder mystery but is never interested in investigating or finding out the truth. Instead, like in her own life, she lets herself be buffeted by the dangers and uncertainties while flailing in panic. She is almost numb except when she makes mindbogglingly bad choices and since we spend so much time in her head, following her, the slow pace lets you fully become irked by her.
I will definitely be trying Locke again, just you wait.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Age of Misrule-Mark Chadbourn

Age of Misrule-Mark Chadbourn (World's End, Darkest Hour, Always Forever)

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 1613
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2000-2002
novel, fantasy series

The world of the Celtic mythologies and Arthurian legends return to our modern day England. Dreadful creatures called Formorii, shape shifting nausea inducing hive mind warriers, want to wipe out the world while the Celtic gods may not be gods and they have their own agendas. Five ordinary people are told they are the Brothers and Sisters of the Dragon by a sixth human who was born in medieval Scotland and oh, yes, they have to save the world while acquiring many powers innate in them.

I  read all three books of this series in the same physical edition and it took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that it was published in three parts, not as the 1000+pg beast I held in my hand so I am reviewing them all together.

Well. I have so many feelings about this trilogy that I'm not entirely sure where to start. I did really enjoy it, finished it in tears, but you know, there were so many flaws.

I so enjoyed the myths and fairytales as allegories-the connections made are delightful-in a world where they held the germs of the truth needed to navigate this new England as the fairies and dragons emerge into the real world once again and our technology disappears slowly. I thought the end of the world was handled really realistically which is something strange to be writing about a fantasy/science fiction series. It really was though-the secrecy, the generosity, the uncertainty, the living in the moment-all rang true. The fantasy battle scenes drove me crazy though-I'm actually not into big massive fantasy battles though so this is possibly just a personal pet peeve but when the swords do the fighting for you without any actual hard work I get cranky.
I loved the characters though. They were all flawed in just the right ways and sound bewildered, just like my friends and I do when we talk about how we're adults(o.O)...except that of course, the 5 in this book are finding out they're Brothers and Sisters of the Dragon and therefore the heroes of the land. But somehow, they traverse huge tracts of land in what seems like too little time while also doing really hard stuff. Chadbourn gives them a few days of recovery time here and there but seriously, sometimes it seemed like they'd driven and fought their way from the Highlands to the Peaks in less than the time it took me to take a train from Glasgow to Sheffield this summer-no technological failures along the way. Still, the bond they form (along with their guide-the 6th main character) is unmistakably real even as they become superhuman.
I'm a sucker for maritime fantasy books so when this showed up in the final book (?), I was delighted and rewarded. But then Chadbourn adds in these totally annoying and completely unnecessary hints that maybe this is all in Church's head and I grimaced so hard my friend asked if I was ok. I hesitate to recommend this series whole heartedly.

I enjoyed it despite the flaws but I also couldn't take it too seriously...

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The White Nile Diaries-John Hopkins

The White Nile Diaries-John Hopkins

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 256
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2015
non fiction, memoir

The diaries of an affluent white man in the 1960s traveling along the Nile with his friend and his love, a motorcycle.


Maybe I didn't really have enough context going into this book because I thought it was going to be like a travelogue-like a travel story with introspection and adventure. I mean, let's not get me wrong, there was loads of adventure but it was told in short staccato, brusque entries. I think I liked the book mainly because it was structured the way I structure my own travel 'writing'. I write down, daily, the basics of what I've done, where I've been, and sometimes I go into more detail. It works well for me because I can picture, from the sketchy details, the outlines of what I've done. Hopkins is more wordy than me but it felt the same? So there's a sort of intimacy which I was not expected. Also, much shorter than you'd expect and definitely worshipful of their motorcycle which admittedly did really well on quite an epic journey. Yes, staccato and intimate is how I'd describe this book....In addition, Hopkins is traveling during a period when many of these countries are actually still under colonial rule with tensions between whites and blacks uncomfortable. He interacts primarily with the white people, the army, and settlers, but is respectful of the blacks. He rarely succumbs to the poor black folks or savages talk that pervades much of the writing from this time and is instead a fair observer of his surroundings.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Alex Crow-Andrew Smith

The Alex Crow-Andrew Smith

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 304
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2015
novel

No summary possible for this novel.



Certainly weird and absurd-I loved it. The open ended ending was such a good choice and before that. Oh boy, there are the resurrected extinct animals with death wishes playing a small role (enough to give you an idea of the type of person their creator is) and a melting man who is going distinctly insane while being yelled at by Stalin and having his life narrated. The main protagonists are stuck at a summer camp wholly unsuited for them-the camp is meant for weaning technologically obsessed boys off technology-being paranoidly studied by a psychologist who makes her baseline of normality the abnormal boys and thus finds the 'normal' boys baffling. Oh, and Ariel, the survivor stuck in the middle of all of this.  That's really not all-there are a whole lot more subplots here. There are a lot of sharp corners and menacing people in this novel, lots of things briefly explained and left to fester, which was perfect for me. It's difficult to tell you what was going on but there was a lot and most of it was wickedly funny and surreal. Whirlwind too-when this finished, I felt like it was my first breath in awhile. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Lies We Tell Ourselves-Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves- Robin Talley

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 354
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel

Sarah was one of the first integrationists in a high school in Virginia where she becomes friends with a  bigoted white girl who ends up redeeming herself.

This is not the usual standpoint from which we hear this sort of story and I particularly enjoyed how intersectional this made the book.  Usually YA is rather one dimensional but by integrating multiple identities along with the school, Talley makes the story much more compelling to people who like their stories complicated, like me.  I enjoyed the multiple points of view which served to highlight the humanity of the characters.  Since we know how history played out, the book wisely focuses on character study. This was easy to read, prose wise, but the issues Talley focuses on are never simplified, and instead the intricacies of the pressures of gender, race, and sexuality are explored in a way that feels real.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Mira Corpora-Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora-Jeff Jackson
the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 182
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013
novel
An unusual take on the coming-of-age novel featuring feral children and an underground music scene.
Let me start by just noting that I had no real idea what I was reading sometimes. How did I get here? I asked myself. I was reminded at times of my reaction the first time I watched Jarman's Jubilee-there's the same scorched earth at the point of earthquake policy between the two. It's difficult to get a good grasp on what is going on because everything is changing so quickly and no one has all the information or facts anyway. A very riotous bildungstrom bound up in the chaos of its punkrock sensibility. It's quite brilliant really-one of the most interesting novels I've read in awhile-a visceral attempt to capture the dark and dirty business of understanding what cannot be understood (why am /I/ here?) and Jackson's prose propels you through the strange surreal scenes into the final scenes. I don't know, I saw much of my own teenage years and those of my peers in here and it evoked all those memories of all the dark basement shows I've ever been to so I guess it spoke to me in ways I didn't particularly want to revisit?

It's a hard read to recommend! But I do anyway?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Suffer the Children-Craig DiLouie

Suffer the Children-Craig DiLouie
the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 352
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel
A sudden disease (Herod's Syndrome) strikes down all the children. When they return to life, they demand blood.
I'm not the sort who is all idealistic about children and I've been known to regard them with difficult-to-disguise mild horror so I guess if I said how horrifying the children in this novel are, you'd not really be able to conceive of how utterly creepy DiLouie makes them. But that's the main image I retain of the novel. DiLouie's prose conveying the switch between the child a parent recognizes and the monsters demanding blood. This horror story begins early-the victims you feel most keenly for are what changes as the novel progresses. There's never any sense that it will get better (after all, the children died first) and so you know that this novel will not have a happy ending but you can't stop reading through all the attempts to understand and deal with this catastrophe unfold. That is, if you make it past the character introductions. Multiple points of view to really drive home what is to be lost makes for a slow start in a world that is our own (thus the world-building could have been shorter) but DiLouie handles the switches of points of view well without relying on events to remind you of the perspective (i.e. the prose and events work together to tell you whose point of view you're experiencing).

This is true apocalyptic. There is no ability to plan for it and there is no escaping it (those fantasies argued over after horror movies-"those characters were idiots, we'd survive by....") and represents a unique premise on both the global and personal level. I just didn't expect that ending to hit me so hard! Especially when I spent much of the first part of the book either a bit bored (slow pacing) or scoffing at the implausibility ("yeah, because a parasite would work that fast" goes my disbelief/sarcastic voices)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Station Eleven-Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven-Emily St. John Mandel
the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 333
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2014
novel
So an airborne disease has hit the world and a group of travelers become stranded at an airport in Canada. The world comes to an end but they are still alive, making a new world order for themselves without forgetting the old.

Most apocalyptic fiction has a massive, usually explosive or excessively communicated, event that triggers the apocalypse. Mandel avoids this for a much more realistic (at least for this regular transatlantic traveler) apocalypse. There's no gore, no high paced, but instead the apocalypse is rendered slowly and through the interactions of what are actually strangers who, by chance, get thrown together in a situation where it's safer to stay put...at an airport. There's some wry humor poked at travel which I particularly enjoyed, having spent endless hours in airports. Then the novel gets really beautiful, demonstrating that the world is small no matter what happens and so everything and everyone is connected. As the novel progresses, the apocalypse becomes myth, our world survives in dribs and drabs of misinformation and distant memory. My side arrow comes from a bit of a twee quality that creeps in sometimes-perhaps it was the flashbacks to our world which were somewhat unnecessary or perhaps Mandel sometimes verged upon the over-melancholic. This is off-set by the way Mandel has the plane that landed and kept quarantine haunt my mind. 
Ignore the instinctual resistance to the hype machine and read it anyway because this is a lovely book.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Butcher-Jennifer Hillier

Butcher-Jennifer Hillier
the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 352
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2014
novel
Thirty years after his triumphal capture of a serial killer, Edward Shank, turns his house over to his grandson. However, his son finds a crate with some unexpected contents. His girlfriend meanwhile is writing about serial killers.

This was certainly entertaining. Hillier handles the suspense well-she builds up and then releases the tensions elegantly. Except, to me, she do so too quickly. You learn several crucial things early. Like in the first three chapters and so the book is more about when/how the characters will confront each other about what they learned. I don't know, while I enjoyed the story itself and worried about some of the characters, it was all a little... You know like when you were in high school and you chose the book to write an essay about so you liked it but upon the close reading and your teacher's insistence on "teasing out all the symbolism" you start to be more ambivalent about the whole thing even as you are full of enough information to write an A+ paper. Yeah, that's a bit how I ended this reading experience. I knew my "topic sentence" too early and then had to slog through a lot of information to make sure it was supported.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

White Tiger on Snow Mountain-David Gordon

White Tiger on Snow Mountain-David Gordon
the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 304
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
short stories
How do you do a synopsis of a short story collection?
Gordon's stories are primarily a mix of awkward, wit, and cleverness. Also, lots of eroticism so if you're the sort who blushes...probably best not to read them in public. There's something for all sorts of readers in here to be honest-the hyperrealists, the drug-addled, the fantasists, romantics...etc. Most of the narrators seem to have a bit of Gordon in them, different aspects of writers; and writers probably would appreciate most the hard truths mixed in with the wit and irony. Really, throughout the stories-the good and the average-it's Gordon's humor that charms the reader throughout.

I've put his novels on my TBR list based on the strength of his short stories...which is quite a compliment from me. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Only in Spain-Nellie Bennett

Only in Spain-Nellie Bennett
the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 293
gender: F
nationality: Australia
year: 2014
non fiction. Memoir.
Nellie escapes her superficial shopgirl life in Australia for a life dancing flamenco in Spain.
Maybe it's because I am Spanish and danced flamenco for most of my life but. but.

In the end, I could not stand this memoir. Maybe I just found it naive. There are so many stereotypes and archetypes in here that I found myself wondering when Bennett was going to leave her own head. Ok, so the flamenco teacher in Sevilla is dark eyed and kisses her. The 'gypsys' in Madrid are dangerous but alluring (please see the entire canon of English folk songs about this very topic). The Latin American housemates are always having fun. No, no, no I shall not go on (I could). There is so much on the struggles of Bennett's life (and I can empathize, teaching English to survive is...no, it's never fun) but she also is on a quest for what she thinks flamenco and flamenco dancing should be. I'm more astounded that she found that idea in person but then, she probably interpreted much of the events according to this vision, this narrative she constructed about what the flamenco life is. And this, I think, is what I cannot forgive her. This is not a personal attack, I doubt that in real life this was what she and her life was like but this was clearly a narrative that was constructed out of that reality. A narrative that conforms to all the stereotypes and archetypes that foreigners ascribe to flamenco. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Warden-Anthony Trollope

The Warden-Anthony Trollope
the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 336
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1855
novel
A novel of manners in which a warden gets pushed from his post by slanderous anti-clerical actions and no one ends up all that happy.
This was definitely a I'm-too-stubborn-to-stop-reading novel. Trollope is a classic author, amongst the favorites of many of my favorite British writers but good lord, why on earth was I reading this? I despise novels of manners and I am not a fan of clerical intrigues. My favorite stories involving priests are usually supernatural (exorcism? darker un-Rome-approved orders? count me in!) or black & white films of priests doubting their faith (Diary of a Country Priest) or going on absurdly long treks (Andrei Rublev).
This is not one of those clerical stories. This is a prim and proper Church of England story with the daughter sacrificing it all for her father. Sigh. Her father meanwhile is suffering pangs because he thought he was a good enough man (non-spoiler alert: he is) and now he simply wishes to give in to save his honor. Oh I'm sorry, his church's honor.
Sigh.
I think I just sighed throughout. It's not that the story was badly managed. I was just so. bored. The prose didn't instill in me any sense of caring about the characters-they were just boring. By the end, it was like I was listening to one of those people who thinks everyone is good at heart, no matter what, which is actually something that irritates me. (caveat: I don't mean to say that everyone is evil at heart-that is just as irritating. I merely hold that everyone holds both tendencies at once and it's usually self-interest that wins.)

I was so happy though that Trollope's style is more for the simplistic side of the period or else I never would have made it even halfway through.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gutenberg's Apprentice-Alix Christie

Gutenberg’s Apprentice-Alix Christie
the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 416
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel
A novelization of Gutenberg's workshop which places an emphasis on the complexity of Gutenberg rather than as an idealist, loner genius figure he is usually depicted as.

Gutenberg's printing press and the accompanying movable type are what we are told, over and over again, what makes modern books feasible. With good reason. As someone who has used the modern versions of the lead type presses and has a book making hobby, naturally I was drawn to this novel which did prove to give more dimension to the invention of the printing press than the lone genius narrative that so often dominates American historical narratives. There is minute attention given to the historical context. You do learn about the politics, the climate, and the apprentice system etc. Perhaps there was too much detail? I never would have guessed I'd fault a book for too much detail given to my favorite aspects of print making but here I am. It was just that it often felt like there was far too much attention given to what the characters did (a lot of arguments and bickering. loads!) and not enough to the inner life of them. Oh, they were excited that it was successful but that was qualified with almost whole chapters of complaining about each others' attitudes. Now, I work in a lab so I understand, the thrill of the hunt is usually bogged down by the daily grind at the side of people you're not sure you like but there is almost no introspection afforded here except towards the hypocrisy of Gutenberg. What a bunch of gossips!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Fair Fight-Anna Freeman

Fair Fight-Anna Freeman
the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 448
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel
A daughter of a prostitute finds out that she is an excellent boxer and the way she makes her way through the world.
My goodness, what a fiesty book. It starts a little slow but more than rewards persistence. I guess I was primed to enjoy this from the start when we met Ruth. A strong girl who ends up in the men's world of pugilism. Ohhhh. And she's not perfect (far from!) with strengths and weaknesses that fully flesh her out as a figure. Joining Ruth in the cast of characters stuck in the underworld is Ruth's sister who is pushed into prostitution. Then there are the aristocrats-the men in power and Charlotte, the woman under their thumbs. Seriously, the characterization is superb especially the women. You get two women narrators here who are real-not one dimensional or relying on tired tropes (not even Austen is over-evoked). No one is black and white or perfect though every reader will surely have a favorite. The setting is Victorian Bristol with just enough detail to make sure you understand why the world is set up as such.

As much as I adored the (female) characters, Freeman's real coup is the story telling. The pacing is well-suited for this plot which doesn't just tell a historical fiction story but tells a realistically gritty one without dwelling on the dirt. It's about how nothing will help you along but people will continue on nevertheless. Then there are the heavy themes of addiction and dependency. There is a depth here lacking from many other historical fiction novels. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Inca's Death Cave-Bradford G. Wheler

Inca’s Death Cave-Bradford G. Wheler
the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 394
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel
A professor jumps at the chance to investigate an Incan mystery.
Ok, so as you may have surmised from my previous reviews, I am an archaeologist. My 'guilty pleasure' is reading novels incorporating archaeology and then scoffing at the lazy archaeology wherein. This is not one of those. The archaeology in this novel is like... dream archaeology. Archaeology without a budget. An archaeologist with so many resources at his fingertips AND the ability to take advantage of them. There's probably no academic for whom this is not a treasured dream but archaeologists in my experience suffer an inordinate number of obstacles. So, that is what this novel feels like in the end-an academic's fantasy with a bit more adventure than reality would allow but also a better budget.

The archaeology is fantastic. I have no quibble with the techniques or archaeological story. It's the characters and how unbelievably perfect they were. The professor is always quick witted. The billionaire is just...unbelievable. His grad student is of course beautiful AND quick witted. The team bickers but works to absurd deadlines by selflessly redirecting their research. So much fantasy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club-Genevieve Valentine

Girls at the Kingfisher Club-Genevieve Valentine
the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 277
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel
A retelling of the twelve dancing princesses fairy tale set in 1920s Manhattan.

Other than the high number of girls, this novel has no real feel of the fairy tale it comes from. By setting the readers' focus on the girls themselves, Valentine manages to make this story of 'deception' into a wholly different tale and I always welcome more feminist interpretations! With more than twelve major characters, it is actually very impressive that Valentine still packed in some individualized characterization which combined with the prose style made suspension of belief very easy. As a dancer myself, I loved the central role of dancing as an activity that frees the dancer and the various frustrations that come from searching for that magical moment. Those frustrations made the historical setting much more real. The 1920s flapper/Prohibition club scenes tend to be written quite romantically and idealistically but Valentine's club scene is much more timeless. Perhaps what the novel suffers from is its own easy readability. I actually reread this one-a rare departure from my usual habits-but there is something a bit ephemeral about it in the end.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The True Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters-Michelle Louric

True Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters-Michelle Louric
the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 466
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel
Seven sisters escape their poverty through the stage-specifically their long locks of hair.

What a surprise. I didn't really expect to enjoy this as much as I did. I mean, the oldest sister, Darcy, is one of the meanest and most horrible characters I've read in awhile who was not a murderer. The story is the eroticism of long hair (note that I wear my hair long-to my waist-and thus am tired of the eroticism of hair) and the exploitation of young uneducated. And I still enjoyed it? Maybe it was Manticory-the main narrator- and her charm and her own arc of overcoming the obstacles. This story is finely crafted with a turn of phrase that is occasionally outright arresting. Wrapped up in this fine language is a rural Irishness, the mix of the bawdy, crushing poverty, and repressive Catholicism which is a bit like presenting chicken as pheasant but Louric pulls it off.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Miniaturist-Jessie Burton

Miniaturist-Jessie Burton
the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 400
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel
Nella Oortman arrives in 17th century Amsterdam as the wife of a local merchant, Brandt. But nothing is as she expects-the household is an opaque monolith of secrets and the city is more hospitable. But things change when the miniaturist gets involved.

I was pretty primed to like this. I love it when material culture reveals secrets and mysterious craftsmen. Amsterdam is its own character here, an oppressively hypocritical one, for whom one must be perfect on the surface. This is something Nella doesn't understand-she is driven by curiosity, by her idealism to know more. It's hard not to like such spirit even if sometimes it's a little anachronistic. Then the miniaturist comes in. The works are described delightfully and the whole mystery of why the Brandt household, all of its components, are the way they are unfolds in such a well-paced engaging way that this ended up a delight as a journey. The ending is bit...it's hard to describe without giving it away. It's too pat? too anticlimatic? Neither is a good descriptor but both come close.