Book 112: The Moonlight Palace

"I let the words settle there between us a moment, in true Singapore style. Perhaps I hoped if I let them rest long enough, they would simply disappear. They might vanish into the night without a trace." 

Dates read: December 21-25, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Families. We can't chose them, they're just given to us, the good and the bad. While some people have genuinely toxic and damaging relatives, most of us just have members of our families that we like a little less than some others. But one of the beautiful things about families, I think, is the way that at the end of the day, despite all the baggage and hang-ups they can bring, is that when push comes to shove, they can really band together and fight as a team. Knowing that my family has my back has always been a great source of comfort for me, personally.

Agnes Hussein, the protagonist of Liz Rosenberg's The Moonlight Palace, has a non-traditional family, but a loving one all the same. Her parents and brother all died in a flu epidemic, so she lives with her uncle and grandparents in a ramshackle palace in 1920s Singapore. You see, Agnes is the youngest descendant of the former sultan of Singapore, who gave control of the country over to the British and received a tenuously-legal grant of residency in a former royal palace, Kampong Glam, in return. The family is allowed to stay as long as a male of the royal line still lives there, which has created some problems. For one, Agnes's Uncle Chachi, no spring chicken, is the last remaining male of the line and Agnes is only a teenager, so she's not going to be having a baby anytime soon. Second, the family has virtually no income remaining but consider themselves too genteel to work, so the palace is deteriorating around them because they can't afford repairs.

They take on boarders to make ends meet, and their cozy, if perilously held together, little world begins to fall apart when one of those boarders, a young Muslim from Malaysia, is caught trying to carry out a bombing. One of the others, a shy Chinese math student, is caught up along with him and in order to protect him, Agnes induces her grandfather to make a bargain with the charming young British policeman who is investigating the crime. Although the cop and Agnes begin to see each other and she falls hard for him, he's more than she initially thinks he is.

There's more than happens after that, of course, but that should be enough to give you a general idea. The real strength of this book, to me, was the warmth of the family relationships that Rosenberg created. Agnes might have lost her parents, but she didn't lose out on the experience of family love. Their desire to protect her from the worst of the realities they faced, and her desire to help them as much as she could, felt true and sure. On the other hand, for a fairly slim volume, there were probably too many plots going on that were underdeveloped...there are side plots with several different love interests for Agnes, as well as the jobs she takes and the people she works with, that are only ever background noise. A more focused plot might have made for a more successful book, because while this was a pleasant enough read and got me interested enough in the time and place (I don't read a ton of books set in Asia) that I went looking for more information, it's not really more than just average. It's under 200 pages, so if you're interested in a relatively untaxing reading experience to introduce you to a setting you don't usually read about, it's enjoyable enough. But it's not so meritorious that I feel like recommending it without qualification.

Tell me, blog friends...which family member are you closest to?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Resolutions for 2018

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're setting some resolutions for the year ahead. There are always ways to learn and grow and be better in the months ahead, although I admit I always have a hard time setting book-type resolutions because I largely read in acquisitional order so I actually have a fairly good idea of what I'll be reading for the next year already. But here are the ones I've made and will almost certainly break sooner rather than later.

1. Be more selective with the ARCs I reach out for. I like to look at Netgalley and Edelweiss regularly, but idly browsing and thinking "oooo that looks interesting" hasn't worked out super well either from a getting-reviews-done standpoint or enjoying-what-I'm-reading one either. I want to be much more deliberate and request no more than one or two per month that I have good reason to believe will be worth my time.

2. Read more than last year. In 2016, I read 102 books. Last year, it was 85. And it wasn't because I was picking up bigger ones! My page count was definitely down, too. I'm not entirely sure why that was, to be honest...I didn't feel like I was reading much less. But I'd like to read more this year, even if it's just one more book.

3. Be less embarrassed about promoting this blog on my personal social media. I have a blog-specific Facebook and Twitter, and I almost NEVER cross-post on my regular, personal accounts. I'm happy to try to get the rest of the internet to read my stuff, but I'm shy about what my friends might think...which seems silly, not that I think about it. No need to do it for EVERY post, but I should do it more.

4. Be more selective about the books I buy. Y'all, I am drowning in books. And while I don't think that's a bad way to go, I really need to slow down the number of books coming in. I'm drastically cutting back my hard copy purchasing for this year.

5. Really figure out my reliable sources for recommendations. For the past two years, I've run an average of my rating of all the books I've read in a year, and both times, it's come out just north of a 6/10. Which isn't bad, per se, but I'd like to drive that closer to 7. Which means I need to figure out who is pointing me to books I love, and who is pointing me to books that are just okay, and read more recommendations from the former than the latter.

6. Set aside at least 30 minutes each day for reading. I usually get here in fits and starts, but I'd like at least one half hour every day in which I just read straight through. Reading in bits sometimes diminishes my enjoyment because I don't get as into it.

7. Do more re-reading via audio. I read so many new (to me) books that I don't have a lot of time left for re-reading, and I love to revisit books. So I've started getting back into my old favorites on audio and it's wonderful and I want to do it more.

8. Recommend books to my friends and family consistently. I read many books that are wonderful and that my loved ones would also enjoy, and I should more consistently point them towards those books. So I want to proactively reach out to each person I love that enjoys reading with an unsolicited book rec at least once this year!

9. Visit a bookstore in every city I visit. I don't travel a TON, but I find that books make wonderful souvenirs so I want to find a book to leave with in every city I see.

10. Be more thoughtful in my reviews. I feel like I've let myself get a little lazy with my reviews, resting more on a plot summary than I'd really like. When I read a review, I like a little grounding in the plot, but then I really want to know what the reader thought about the book...what worked, what didn't, whether it's worth spending my time to read, etc. I've been making a conscious effort for the past few weeks, as I write, to focus more on a reaction and less on a plot summary, because even though reviews are my least-viewed posts, I want them to be something I'm proud of.

Book 111: The Red Queen

"A parcel- taken from one place to another, handed from one owner to another, unwrapped and bundled up at will- is all that I am. A vessel, for the bearing of sons, for one nobleman or another: it hardly matters who. Nobody sees me for what I am: a young woman of great family with royal connections, a young woman of exceptional piety who deserves- surely to God!- some recognition."

Dates read: December 15-21, 2016

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes, I think the idea of fate is bonkers. Some other times, I think there's no other reasonable explanation out there. It's hard not to look back at the rocky, circuitous path that brought you to a good place and not succumb to the romantic notion that it was somehow destined to be. It lends a sense of purpose to our struggles. Most importantly, perhaps, it absolves us of the responsibility for poor decision-making. If it wasn't the universe directing me to what was meant to be, then maybe I just picked the wrong thing, and that's much less satisfying.

In The Red Queen, her second entry in The Cousin's War series, Philippa Gregory turns her attention to Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. She begins with Margaret, of the Lancaster family, as a devoutly religious pre-teen. Even at age 10, Margaret prides herself on her "saint's knees", red and painful because she spends so much time praying, and longs to enter a religious order. Her own mother, though, has other plans for her. At the age of just 12, she's married off to Edmund Tudor, who is twice her age, in the hope that she'll bear an heir for the Lancasters.

She does, having baby Henry at just 13, after a long and painful labor that might have compromised her reproductive system, since she never gave birth again. Her husband is already dead in the Wars of the Roses, and she's married again, at 14, to Henry Stafford. Her son, though, remained in the custody of his uncle Jasper. This second marriage lasted until she was nearly 30, when her husband died in further Wars of the Roses skirmishes. She married one last time, to Thomas Stanley, whose significant forces eventually helped turn the tides against the Yorks, leading to Henry VII's ascension to the throne.

For my money, The Red Queen is a much more successful outing than its predecessor, The White Queen, and the difference is based in characterization. While Elizabeth Woodville wasn't given much of a personality, with Gregory relying on vague witchiness to give her some flair, Beaufort has a will like iron. Denied the religious life she craved, she turns that fanatical devotion to ensuring that her son becomes king. She's given the occasional moment of doubt and a thwarted long-distance love affair with her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor to keep her from being entirely one-dimensional, but her determination and unwillingness to compromise on her vision of glory for her only child creates a vivid character that anchors the book. Margaret definitely believes in fate. I was initially a little hesitant about this series given the weakness of The White Queen, but this book, although it's hardly high literature and probably takes significant liberty with the actual record as Gregory tends to do, was an enjoyable read and I'm looking forward to reading the following entries in the series.

Tell me, blog you believe in fate?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Approval Junkie

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Meant To Read In 2017 But Didn't Get To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Every year, I get all big eyed about lots of exciting looking new releases, but I'm largely a backlist reader. The books I've listed here are ones that got published last year that I already own and am really looking forward to getting to soon!

The River of Consciousness: I love Oliver Sacks so much, and I have all of his other books, so I got this back in October and I can't wait to immerse myself in his last work.

Fresh Complaint: My mom got me my best birthday present maybe ever...a signed copy of this book, with a happy birthday note from Jeffrey Eugenides (my favorite author!). I'm almost afraid to read this copy...what if I spill on it?

The Tiger's Daughter: I heard such good things about this female-led fantasy debut based in East Asia that I grabbed a copy and haven't gotten a chance to get to it yet.

Hunger: I've actually still not read any of her other books, but Roxane Gay's internet writing is so good that I got my hands on her memoir dealing with her body.

You Play The Girl: I'm a sucker for pop culture writing about women, and this essay collection got good reviews!

The Marsh King's Daughter: This is set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a weird and wonderful place that I hold dear to my heart, so I had to get it.

Prince Charles: I am Royal Family obsessed, and I genuinely think Charles has led a really interesting, odd life so I am definitely down to read about it.

American War: This book, set slightly in the future about a second Civil War in the US, seems to hit a lot of my interest buttons (I love alternate history/speculative fiction style books), but I just didn't get around to it.

Word By Word: WORDS! I love words (obviously, I read a lot of them). This book about dictionaries seems fascinating.

Scoring The Screen: I love to turn to my husband when we're watching a movie or TV show and point out how the music is trying to make the audience feel, which I'm sure is his favorite part of watching movies with me, so this book about musical scores, a Christmas gift from my mom, is right in my wheelhouse!

Book 110: The Wonder

"A fast didn't go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again."

Dates read: December 9-15, 2016

Rating: 3/10

What makes something a miracle? It's that we can't explain it, right? To someone living in the Middle Ages, air travel would seem like a miracle. People climbing into a metal tube and traveling thousands of miles in a matter of hours would have been well beyond their capacity to understand. Even simple penicillin would seem like a miracle to people who regularly died from basic infections. So when we hear about events that defy explanation in the modern world, I usually think our science just isn't advanced enough to understand it yet.

But I know from growing up Catholic that in religious communities, miracles are a very big deal, sent from God. There need to be documented miracles before a person can be canonized as a saint. That tension, between science and faith, is a very salient one and it is exactly this that drives a lot of the action in Emma Donoghue's The Wonder. Florence Nightingale-trained English nurse Lib Wright is sent out to a village in rural Ireland to help determine what is going on with 11 year-old Anna O'Donnell. The claim is that the child hasn't taken any earthly nourishment since her birthday...four months prior. Lib and another nurse, a nun, are engaged by a council of local citizens to monitor little Anna in shifts, to watch her for two straight weeks to see if her claims are true or if she has, in fact, been eating somehow.

Lib, coming from a more scientific perspective, is sure that the child has been consuming food. She's suspicious of her fellow nurse and the entire O'Donnell family because of their Catholicism, which she believes blinds them to the reality that bodies need food to continue functioning. She institutes strict control over Anna's routine immediately, stopping a flow of visitors that have come to see the little miracle girl. But over the first week, she softens toward the girl herself even as she continues to try to figure out how she's eating. Anna is a sweet, obedient, faithful child, still mourning the recent loss of an older brother, her only sibling. She finds herself wondering if it might somehow be real, if maybe Anna is surviving off of what she says she is: manna from heaven. But Anna starts to take a turn for the worse, and Lib has to figure out what's going on and if she can somehow be saved.

This book was such a disappointment. It indulged in what is one of my least favorite plot create tension and an atmosphere of suspense, it backloads all the payoff into the end of the book. So, basically, it crawls along with about 25% for about 75% of the book, and then stuffs the last 25% of the book with 75% of the plot. I've never enjoyed consuming books or movies that do this, I think it's a sign of lazy storytelling (which is probably why I don't read a lot of mysteries or thrillers, because it's much more common in those genres). In this case, some of that stuff did need to be left until the end, but there were some revelations about Lib's personal life that could have provided some badly-needed character development up front without compromising the reveals toward the end. And that's not the only example of lazy writing: when a sparkly-eyed, charming reporter shows up at the same rooming house Lib is staying at, it would take an idiot to not recognize that he's going to be a love interest, which is of course exactly what happens. And though good quality prose could have done a lot to make the story flow more smoothly, Donoghue's writing is utilitarian at best.

The Wonder actually reminded me a lot of book I read several months ago: Yesternight. Both concern a woman in a medical/scientific professional world that's not really comfortable with a female presence. Both concern that woman examining a young female child who claims an extraordinary power. Both women are regarded suspiciously by that girl's family, worried about what the examination of the child might mean. Both women are struggling with significant difficulty in their personal lives that can't help but bleed over into their relationship with the girl in question. But while Yesternight was a fast-paced, twisty-turny delight until the total ruiner of the ending, The Wonder isn't ever really enjoyable to read. I found it a boring slog and would not recommend it.

Tell me, blog you like mystery stories?

One year ago, I was reading: The King Must Die (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Thirst

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read In 2017

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Despite liking to think of myself as well-read (and objectively, I know I am), there are SO many wonderful authors that I have yet to experience. Last year, though, I did manage to check these ones off the list.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah was so wonderful that I got copies of all her previous books to read too!

Colson Whitehead: I didn't think The Underground Railroad quite lived up to my admittedly very high expectations, but I really liked the quality of his writing so I'm definitely planning to read more.

Michael Chabon: I actually read Moonglow for my book club earlier in the year, which I really liked, but then I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a few months later and it totally blew me away.

Liane Moriarty: While I did enjoy Big Little Lies and won't rule out reading more of Moriatry's books, I'm not really chomping at the bit to either. They seem to all be really similar.

Virginia Woolf: I got a lot out of Mrs. Dalloway, but I found Woolf's writing tricky and dense, requiring a lot of attention. It made me a little hesitant to try more of her work unless I'm really feeling like I want intellectual exercise.

Mary Roach: I've got her more-famous Stiff coming up in the next couple months, but my first of hers was actually Spook, which I thought handled a tricky subject with humor and grace.

David Sedaris: I've got most of his other books already because they're super easy to find second-hand and have come so widely recommended, so I'm glad I found Me Talk Pretty One Day very funny indeed.

Tana French: I finally read In The Woods, the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and although mystery is outside of my usual wheelhouse I loved it and can't wait to tackle the rest of them!

Joan Didion: I very much liked her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (which also inspired a good discussion at book club when it was our read last month), and her beautifully sparse prose inspired me to acquire several of her other works.

George Saunders: I've got one of his short story collections banging around here somewhere, but I read (and loved) Lincoln in the Bardo for book club this year first.

A Month In The Life: December 2017

Tomorrow is 2018! And not a moment too soon. This year has had some wonderful parts for me personally, like completing my third session and taking real strides forward professionally, and my trip with my husband to Michigan to see my family and take him to the Upper Peninsula, but it's been exhausting on a lot of other levels. Here's hoping that I can take the lessons from these past 12 months forward and leave the rest of it behind for a fresh beginning in the new year! And, of course, that I read wonderful books :) But before we call it quits on 2017, here is a look back at the last month.

In Books...

  • The Lady Elizabeth: I've loved every one of Alison Weir's histories that I've read, but this is the second of her fiction works to leave me cold. Despite the fact that she's a much better historian, the fiction is just as trashy as Philippa Gregory's, but not as compelling. 
  • The Games: I'm one of those weirdos that likes the Winter Olympics better (mostly because of figure skating), so before Pyeongchang kicks off, I figured I'd read this book about the history of the Games. It's good, but very information-dense...I tend to prefer my non-fiction a little more narrative. 
  • The Girl In The Tower: The first book in this series just made my best books of the year list, so I had high hopes for the second one and they were not disappointed! Vasya's adventures continue, taking her both on the hunts for bandits and into the dangerous world of Moscow high society. The final book is due out next year but I need it NOW!
  • The Lady of the Rivers: Philippa Gregory's books tend to be guilty pleasures for me...I know they're historically dubious and often sensationalistic, but they're easy to read and kind of fun for brain candy. This one is neither especially good or especially bad from her, so it was entertaining enough and not especially memorable. 
  • The Power: This examination of what might happen to our world if women developed abilities that made them the physically dominant (and therefore, more powerful) gender had interesting ideas, but never really developed narrative cohesion.
  • Rebecca: This book inspired a fantastic Hitchcock movie, and might be the best example of imposter syndrome I've ever read. Very good and something I'll definitely read again!

In Life...

  • The holidays continued: I managed to get my presents off and out on time and had a lovely Christmas with my husband and his parents and the dogs. I am very glad that the season of official overeating is over. 
  • The Broke and the Bookish Secret Santa: I did this for the first time last year, and had such fun with it that I was really looking forward to it this year! It's so fun to try to find fun things for your new internet friend...and get your own presents in return! Many thanks to Lois at You, Me, and A Cup of Tea for the books and pug goodies! 

One Thing:

Thankfully my own experience with this kind of thing in Carson City has been minimal, but this piece from the New York Times on the rampant sexual harassment of female lobbyists, usually by male lawmakers, in state legislatures rings true to a lot of things I've heard through the grapevine. I'm glad that the national climate is turning towards actual consequences for men who exploit their positions of power to prey on women.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: