Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book 195: The Girl In The Tower



"A woman married. Or she became a nun. Or she died. That was what being a woman meant. What, then, was she?"

Dates read: December 11-15, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Sometimes I find myself longingly wondering what life would be like as a man, even just for a while. I'd be able to walk the dog when it's dark without feeling apprehensive. No one would question my ambition. No one would assume that I'm my boss's side piece (this was an actual thing that happened at my lawyer job, not this one thank goodness). I wouldn't have to worry about crossing my legs at the ankle instead of the knee. No one would shout out commentary about my appearance at me. Must be nice!

And I live in a time that's among the freest and safest for women there's ever been! It's no wonder that Vasya, heroine of Katherine Arden's The Girl in the Tower, finds herself forced into disguise as a man in order to move freely and safely through her medieval Russian world. The book picks up more or less right where The Bear and the Nightingale left off...Vasya has fled the rural village she grew up in after her father was killed and she herself was labeled a witch. Knowing full well what that means for her life expectancy, she sets out to explore the world, ignoring the advice of frost demon Morozko who warns her that the world is not kind to young women alone. She discovers very quickly that he is correct, and presents herself thereafter as a boy...it helps that her nickname, Vasya, like many Russian nicknames, is gender neutral and could therefore stand for Vasily as well as Vasilisa.

In pursuit of a mysterious group of bandits that has been stealing children, Vasya finds herself unexpectedly reunited with her brother Sasha and the Crown Prince of Moscow to whom he is sworn in service, Dmitrii. When she gets back to Moscow with them, she's also reconnected with her older sister Olga, now the wife of an important nobleman, and meets Olga's daughter, Marya, who seems to share Vasya's unusual ability of seeing things beyond the ordinary. Vasya's trying to keep her masculine identity intact until she can get on her way while also enjoying the ability to express her naturally bold personality...and then, of course, disaster strikes and the family finds themselves fighting supernatural forces to stay alive.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite reads of 2017, and this sequel (the second in a trilogy) did not disappoint. I will say that I'd recommend reading it shortly after the first book, or while it's still relatively fresh in your mind...there's very little of the kind of "catching the reader up" exposition that many sequels have, and I wish I'd known that going in because I'd read the first nearly a year prior so the details were a little fuzzy. But the magic is still there! Arden's prose and storytelling remain deft, she expands further into the realm of Slavic folklore, and I love how she grows the seeds of romance she planted in The Bear and The Nightingale between Vasya and Morozko. I found myself rooting for them even though Arden never lets you forget the inherent power imbalance between an immortal creature and a teenage girl. It's refreshing to see a romantic plotline with a young woman who won't apologize for her desire to finish becoming herself.

While there are many books I read that I enjoy, it's pretty rare that something really grabs me and keeps me up late at night and makes me want to buy extra copies to give to people and force them to read it (honestly, I have a really hard time recommending books to people in real life because so much about whether a person will enjoy a book depends on taste). This series makes it into that group, for me. They're just flat-out great storytelling. I can't wait to get my hands on the final book in the trilogy, and I'd highly recommend the Winternight books to all readers!

One year ago, I was reading: Life After Life (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Stoner

Three years ago, I was reading: The Last One

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Tropes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about tropes: the cliches we all know because we've consumed media ever. While usually talking about tropes means talking about the ones you hate, I love this take on it...our favorite ones! I'll be using as reference (and linking to) the truly delightful TV Tropes for my list.



Anyone Can Die: I love the idea that there's no one wearing plot armor in a life-or-death situation and that main characters can, in fact, bite it. It ups the ante!

The Beautiful Elite: Though not all royalty is beautiful, after all, my fondness for books about kings and queens can be traced to my fondness for this trope. I do also really get into Gilded Age stuff.

Big, Screwed-Up Family: Families are among the few interpersonal relationships we don't get to chose, and those dynamics can be fascinating.

Broken Bird: I try really hard to be optimistic but deep down I know I'm a cynic. Which is probably why stories about people who have become cynical because the world failed them appeal to me...they confirm my own cynicism.

Does Not Like Shoes: I hate shoes and am barefoot as often as I can get away with, so this is just the thing where you like to see yourself reflected in your reading material.

For Want Of A Nail: The idea that the tiniest decision can have life-altering consequences down the road is one that always gets my attention and interest.

Four Temperament Ensemble: There's a reason that the down-to-earth one, the flighty one, the big personality, and the one with all the feelings is a mix we see over and over again...there's so much natural tension that can arise between these personality types that it's narratively rich and I'm here for it!

Love Dodecahedron: A love triangle can be well-executed enough to get me involved. But when there are several people in a tangle of everyone-loves-someone-else, it really hooks me.

Prophecies Are Always Right: When the seeds of a prophecy are planted and then actually take root, I'm always here to see what it actually looks like when they bear fruit.

Really 700 Years Old: Basically the more into history I get (which is quite a lot, lately), the more I'm super into the idea of a person living through many major world events and the perspective it would give on the way things both change and stay the same.

Where Are They Now? Epilogue: There are some excellent books with ambiguous endings, but I'll admit I love to see things tied up in a bow with a final look at how things ended up.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book 194: The Games



"Payne and his friends had promised an Olympic Games funded entirely by the private sector: a modernized version of Los Angeles 1984, but with turbocharged levels of sponsorship and television money. As with all neoliberal fantasies, the project actually rested on the massive and multifaceted involvement of every level of the American state, the short-circuiting of institutions of democratic control, the use of force, where necessary, and all on terms unambiguously favorable to a tiny slice of private and already-powerful interests."

Dates read: December 4-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I am not an athlete. Grace, balance, poise...these are not qualities I possess. I have exercise-induced asthma, so even going jogging for a couple miles like I do on the weekends when it's a reasonable temperature outside is an endeavor. For the most part, I've made my peace with this. I still try to be active, so I do jog (after I hit my inhaler), and I enjoy forms of dance that are more about rhythm than grace. But every so often, when I watch something like figure skating, I find myself wishing that sports were a thing I was any good at.

I suffer the worst fits of this desire to be sporty once every two years or so, when the Olympics rolls around. It also tends to turn me from someone who likes discussing the gulf between America's promise and America's reality into an intense jingoist whose favorite song is Miley Cyrus's "Party In The USA". So in the run-up to the 2018 Pyeongyang Winter Games, I decided to read David Goldblatt's The Games to get some perspective on the biennial sports fest. This book is a comprehensive overview of the modern Olympics, beginning with the first small-scale variety in 1896 in Athens, going through the lead-up to the grandiose 2016 Rio de Janiero Summer Games.

This book is packed with information, and I learned quite a lot by reading it about how the Olympics have grown and changed from their genesis as the dream of Pierre de Coubertin to display the best in white upper-class male sporting accomplishment to their gradual (and often reluctant) inclusion of women, people of color, and commoners. I was surprised by just how many of things I think of as hallmarks of the Olympics: mascots, the torch-lighting ceremonies, the Winter Games, the offsetting of the schedules between Winter and Summer so there are Olympics every two years, are relatively recent additions. And it's astonishing how low-budget they used to be until very recently, and how the ways that different governments have approached their infrastructure projects have created very disparate outcomes.

While Goldblatt does good work separating the modern Olympics into eras and providing a brief introductory chapter linking the themes that arched across all the Games in a particular era, there wasn't as much narrative flow as I tend to prefer in my nonfiction. It's not that his prose is clunky (indeed, it moves very well considering its fact-intensiveness), it's that he seems to be someone, at least in the way he wrote this book, who can't see the forest for the trees. His research was clearly rigorous, and it sometimes feels like he was so enthusiastic about sharing what he uncovered that he lets himself get bogged down by trying to fit in as much as possible. This made for slow reading, because I had a hard time going more than 15-20 pages before I felt like I needed a mental break, and that's not usually true for me, not even for nonfiction.

But if you're looking for a deep, well-structured resource for the history of the last 100ish years of the Olympics, this is the book for you. If you're looking for more information about the winter Games in particular, though, you might be disappointed...they began later and even today seemed to be popularly considered the lesser of the two, but Goldblatt pays them very short shrift indeed...I'd estimate the percentage of this book that deals with them to be 10% or less. Also, if you're looking for stories about the athletes themselves, by and large this won't be where you'll find it. It's mostly about the structures and logistics and international pressures that have grown and created and challenged the Olympics. If that's what you're into, you'll love it. And while it's a very competent book at what it's trying to do, I don't think I'd recommend it to a wide audience...it's too dense and specialized to have broad appeal.

Tell me, blog friends...are you a Winter Games person or a Summer Games person (or do you not watch?)

One year ago today, I was reading: The Informant (review to come)

Two years ago today, I was reading: Charity Girl

Three years ago today, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Love to Be Besties With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting the characters we'd love to be friends with. I decided to challenge myself a little and not list characters that I've talked about extensively already by choosing only age-appropriate friends...I'm in my 30s, so only adults made my list!



Robin Ellacot (The Cuckoo's Calling): I'm not as gung-ho about the Cormoran Strike novels as I wish I was, but Strike's assistant Robin is a wonderful character. Smart, capable...she seems like the kind of person who would be a very solid friend!

Minerva McGonegall (Harry Potter): Definitely my favorite of the adults in the world of Harry Potter. She's kind of terrifying, but in that way where you hope she decides you're worth befriending.

Sayuri (Memoirs of a Geisha): She spends her life training to be a pleasant companion, so obviously her company would be enjoyable to share.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): We all need a hot mess friend who makes us feel a little better about our own choices.

Mrs. Murray (A Wrinkle in Time): Beautiful, smart, and practical enough to recognize that a dinner made over a bunsen burner means your kids get fed and that's really all that matters. Just like we all need a messy friend, we all need an aspirational one too!

Sookie Stackhouse (Dead Until Dark): She has a bad habit of getting involved in potentially deadly situations, but she also values her relationship with her best friend Tara in a way that makes it clear she's willing to put the work into maintaining her relationships.

Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence): She seems more like she needs a friend than that she would be an especially great one, but she is a good person.

Iris Chase (The Blind Assassin): Another one that could use a friend...between her own family and the one she married into, she definitely needs someone to vent to.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): Being friends with someone who knows how to make delicious food is a solid call.

Selina DeJong (So Big): Her ability to find the beauty in the ordinary and deep inner strength and determination would make her an absolutely fantastic friend to have by your side through thick and thin!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Book 193: The Lady Elizabeth



"She fixed Hertford with a regal glare and was gratified to see him wilt slightly under her gaze. Thus she had seen her father do, and it cheered her a little to know that she had inherited something of his formidable will and presence. This was what it was to be royal, she reflected, this mysterious power that could make others tremble; it was something that might prove useful in the future. But what use was the semblance of power without the substance? For when it came down to it, King’s daughter or no, she was just a helpless young orphan, with no choice but to do as she was told."

Dates read: November 29- December 4, 2017

Rating: 4/10

As blended families become more and more common, I'm often surprised to hear the amount of judgment people have for parents who have children with different partners. In my experience, it's certainly not unusual to know others who, like myself, have a half-sibling, but I still hear snippy comments fairly regularly about women who have children with different dads, or vice versa. Being generally unafraid of confrontation, I almost always let people know that they're talking to someone whose sister is actually her half-sister, and most people walk it back, but it seems like there's often a gut instinct to deride it as "low class", which is just total nonsense.

Indeed, one of the most admired women of all time is a product of such a household. Queen Elizabeth I had not one but TWO half-siblings! Actual royalty has been doing this for hundreds of years, it does not get more upper-crust than that. At least in the Tudors' case, though, it does create some issues, which Alison Weir explores in her novel about the childhood of that monarch, The Lady Elizabeth. It begins with some segments of Elizabeth's early childhood but really takes off shortly before the death of Henry VIII, and while it primarily focuses on the perspective of Elizabeth herself, we also see events through the eyes of her nursemaid, Kat, older half-sister Mary, and stepmother Katherine Parr, ending in Mary's death and Elizabeth's ascension to the throne.

The relationship Weir depicts between Mary and Elizabeth is...complicated. Mary was stripped of her royal title and proclaimed a bastard when Henry divorced Katherine of Aragon to wed Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. Although this devastated both Katherine and Mary, Weir depicts the latter as having made a real effort to be kind and loving to her little half-sister, despite having been made a part of Elizabeth's service when she was born. Elizabeth, too, was made a bastard when her mother was executed, and the book depicts Mary as haunted by the allegations made during Anne's trial that Elizabeth was actually the offspring of one of Anne's alleged lovers. Once their brother Edward dies, there is too much between them, from that history to their differences in religious faith, for them to be close any longer, and it is only Elizabeth's canny walking of a very thin line that keeps her from being disinherited.

I wish the book had focused more on this, and less on the salaciousness of the relationship between Elizabeth and her stepmother's new husband: Thomas Seymour. While it's certainly a significant factor in the period between her father's death and her own inheritance of the throne, and deserved to be explored, it got a little too bodice-ripping for my taste. There's historical record of some of the improprieties that occurred while Elizabeth lived with Katherine and Thomas, but Weir really makes it the centerpiece of the narrative and escalates it as high as she possibly can. We get endless scenes of Elizabeth's growing desire, of Kat's encouragement of the sparks between them, and it's like Weir is going for a kind of Philippa Gregory-esque fun prurience (I'm not trying to mock, I like Gregory's books) but forgot the fun part of it.

All in all, this was a second disappointment for me with Alison Weir and her fiction output. I read Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, several months before I read this and while this one was better, they both fell flat for me. Her nonfiction histories do an admirable job of being informative but feeling light rather than heavy, making the people on the page come alive, but her fiction prose drags. There's just no spark there, and her characters feel boiled down to as few personality traits as possible. While I certainly intend to keep reading her nonfiction, I think this is my last stab at her fiction. I would not recommend this book.

One year ago, I was reading: Less (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: British Covers I Like Better


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is cover redesigns that we love or hate, but the only cover redesigns I can think of besides the classics are movie covers, which I pretty much always hate. So I'm going to turn my eyes across the pond to show you ten lovely covers (for books I love!) that I like much better than the American versions!



 The Bear and the Nightingale

 

Memoirs of a Geisha

 

An American Marriage


A Brave New World

The Kite Runner

 

High Fidelity

Exit West

 

Daisy Jones And The Six

 

White Oleander

 

The Virgin Suicides


Thursday, August 1, 2019

Book 192: The Hate U Give


"WebMD calls it a stage of grief—anger. But I doubt I'll ever get to the other stages. This one slices me into millions of pieces. Every time I'm whole and back to normal, something happens to tear me apart, and I'm forced to start all over again."

Dates read: November 26-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Growing up as a white girl in an overwhelmingly white small town, I was always taught that police were the good guys. The police are there to help you if something bad happens. They are trustworthy. And I continued to, for the most part, believe that through when I graduated from college. Sure, some police were corrupt or abused their power. But there are assholes in every line of work. I don't think I really started to understand how systemically rotten policing can be, even if individual officers are often good people, until I took criminal law in law school and read about the wide variety of misbehavior they perpetrated from a position of trust. I don't think all police are bad, or villains, but I think it's a profession that can be very appealing to exactly the people who shouldn't be in it: the type who want to have the ability to control the lives of others and enact state-sanctioned violence when that control is questioned.

Starr Turner, the teenage heroine of Angie Thomas' debut novel The Hate U Give, has a pretty neutral perspective on cops when the book begins: her beloved uncle Carlos is a police officer, and she's been taught by him and her parents to behave in a threat-neutralizing way if she interacts with them: be polite, follow orders, don't make sudden movements. And she's never had any trouble. But then one night, when she's getting a ride home from a party from her long-time friend Khalil, they're pulled over on a pretext by a white cop, and he's shot to death, right there in front of Starr. It changes everything about her life and how she sees the world.

Starr's already living a fairly unusual life...she lives with her family in the inner city, but goes to a private, overwhelmingly white high school in the suburbs, where she has mostly white friends and dates a white classmate. She's always found herself living half in each world, but what happens that night really blows up her burgeoning racial consciousness. Her relationships with her friends and family shift and change as she tries to navigate the legal system and get justice for Khalil, and she discovers more and more who she is and who she wants to be.

This book had been hyped for months before I got to it...glowing reviews all over the internet, movie rights sold before it was even published. I always try to temper my expectations with any kind of media that's been all the rage, but sometimes it doesn't work. And honestly, I think it contributed towards the way I felt about this book: it's very good, and I probably would have thought it was amazing if it hadn't been sold as life-changing and mind-blowing, but it didn't quite measure up to those enormous accolades for me. There's a compelling story, solid writing with both emotion and humor, and great characterization. But as a reader, there just was never that moment where it really went into hyperdrive and became more than the sum of its parts.

Like I said, though, it does everything it's trying to do very well: Starr practically jumps off the page and feels very real, and her family is also beautifully, warmly drawn. Even though Khalil is barely alive during the novel, the way that Starr thinks about him as she processes what happened to him is touchingly rendered and makes the reader really feel his loss. Thomas also does an excellent job of balancing the heavy topic at the center of her book with lightness...there were parts that literally made me laugh out loud, but she never either undercuts the seriousness of police violence or gets too ponderous. But the characters of Starr's school friends, and especially her boyfriend, seem underdeveloped for the significance that the narrative places on them. And a decision Starr makes near the end of the book seems out of place, in a way that was jarring.

At the end of the day, I'd recommend it to just about everyone, honestly. It's written as YA (and as a primarily non-YA reader, I'd say it doesn't read as typical for the genre but does have some markings of it), so it's appropriate for younger readers, but it didn't feel dumbed-down to me, someone who loves a gigantic tome of literary fiction. Obviously the focus on police violence will be difficult for some, but it's a well-crafted, enjoyable book that will likely inspire you to examine your own pre-existing opinions. I highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: Shantaram (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Three years ago, I was reading: The White Tiger