Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Things to Eat/Drink While Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about food! Specifically, the food we like to eat or drink while reading. For better or worse, I am not at all precious about my books. This is one of the reasons I usually buy secondhand instead of borrowing from the library! So while I read, I eat...whatever I want to.

Water: Let's start with the most boring basic thing! But honestly I drink a ton of water, well over 100 oz per day, so I'm pretty much always drinking it, including when I'm reading.

Coffee: I am a caffeine junkie, so I have coffee twice per day. I'm not usually reading first thing in the morning when I drink it, but my afternoon coffee pairs well with reading: I get through some pages while I wait for it to cool and then consume both book and mug contents at the same time.

Kombucha: I've only recently started drinking this stuff, but it has done a lot to help regulate my digestive system after I had my gallbladder removed. Tea people, this is as close as I get to your favorite!

Beer: I'm not trying to get tipsy while I read (I need to be able to remember it later for blogging purposes!), but on a warm summer afternoon nursing a sour while I get my lit on is lovely.

Popsicles: This is why I'm a bad book owner, because these things definitely melt and drip and then I have purple spots on pages but hey, this is also why I just own my books.

String Cheese: One of my all-time favorite snacks!

Pretzels: Also a fave snack, though I have to be careful with these because I always want to get up to get more and that interrupts my reading flow.

White Rice: I am a weirdo, because I will eat this in sufficient quantities that I'm not even looking for anything else to make a meal. Just plain. Delicious!

Apples: I had to have one healthy thing in here, right? I do love apples.

Pasta: Definitely not an ideal thing to eat while reading because it's high in staining potential, but as long as I know that the red spot in my books is sauce and not blood, it's all good.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Book 198: Rebecca

"Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there."

Dates read: December 24-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

We've all felt like an imposter at some point, right? Like, I don't think "imposter syndrome" is even a thing, I think it's so commonplace as to be just a part of the human experience. It's an ugly, scary feeling, to be so full of doubt about yourself. It feels especially endemic in that late teens-early 20s time of life, when everyone even five years older seems impossibly glamorous and adult and you still feel like a kid. You just were a kid, after all, and now you're expected to set your own alarm and remember to take your vitamins and schedule your own haircuts. "Adult" feels so far away even though you're already there.

I've never read a book that feels as steeped in that feeling of being an imposter as Daphne DuMarier's Rebecca. Our heroine is a never-named middle-class young English woman, in her early 20s, who's earning her living as a traveling companion to an crude older woman. On a stop in Monaco, she meets Maxim deWinter, who her employer is all too happy to repeat gossip about and try to kiss up to: he's the owner of the famous and magnificent country estate of Manderly, and his beautiful, stylish wife Rebecca recently died tragically. The young lady and Maxim have a whirlwind courtship, and before she knows it, she's married and honeymooned and off to her new home and new life as the mistress of a great house.

But when they get to Manderly, things go quickly south. Being middle-class, she's barely been in a place like this, and hasn't the slightest idea how to make it her own. Her husband is suddenly distant and moody. Her only real friend is the spaniel dog that she takes her walks with. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, all but openly sneers at her and constantly reminds her that she's not anything like the charming and passionate Rebecca. And it's not just Mrs. Danvers...even the locals she goes to visit tell her over and over again how exciting things were when Rebecca was around, how beautiful she was, how delightful. The shy, quiet second Mrs. deWinter begins to despair of ever being good enough for the role she's been handed, and is talked into putting on a costume ball (like the ones Rebecca used to have!) that changes everything.

If you've ever heard about super fast marriages Back In The Day and wondered if people even really knew each other when they go married, Rebecca answers that question with a resounding no. A major part of the drama comes from the fact that the young wife can't understand why Maxim married her and is afraid to share her fears and feelings of inadequacy because, well, she barely knows him. She tortures herself by imagining that he's constantly comparing her to Rebecca, and she's sure she comes up short. She can't even hide from the imposter syndrome that's consuming her...the very place she lives reminds her of the ways in which she feels inadequate. This book is often billed as a gothic romance, and while the former is accurate, the latter isn't really, in my opinion: there's a marriage at the center of it, but not really a romance per se.

Instead, I'd call this a psychological suspense novel. We know from the beginning that the deWinters no longer live at Manderly, that something bad happened there. How exactly this happens unwinds over the course of the book, with the inner lives of the characters and their relationships with each other being driving the action. And the story is well-told and well-paced, but it's still a classic rather than a modern-day thriller, so while it's certainly gripping it's not really a page-turner that'll keep you up all night. And for me, that's preferable anyways. I really enjoyed reading it and plan to add more duMaurier to my list of books to read. I'd recommend Rebecca to just about anybody, it's a tightly crafted and engaging story that'll appeal to anyone who's ever felt like they were playacting at being a grown-up.

One year ago, I was reading: The Silence of the Girls (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls

Three years ago, I was reading: Smoke

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR I’m Worried Won't Live Up To The Hype

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books on our TBR that we're avoiding reading. The way I read (on more-or-less a schedule system) means that I actually don't avoid reading anything...if it's up next, it's up next. That being said, there are books that I'm a little worried to read, because the hype has been huge and it's so hard for a book to live up to it.

My Brilliant Friend: This is the first in a series that got such glowing praise from people I look to for recommendations that I went and bought all four of them. So I better like the first one...

Throne of Glass: I'm not super into YA series, but Sarah Maas's devoted fanbase has convinced me this is one that will get and keep my attention.

Cinder: Same kind of deal here, and I've always liked stories based on folklore/fairy tales, so this one especially seems like something I'd enjoy but my expectations have been set really high!

The Golem and the Jinni: The second of three here in the "based on folklore" realm. As soon as you say you like this kind of thing, this is a story that pops up as a recommendation immediately. I can only hope it's as great as everyone says!

Uprooted: Besides all the good things I've read about it, this book just seems so up my alley as a reader that I'll be crushed if it's not amazing.

Fangirl: I wasn't especially into the one Rainbow Rowell I've already read (Landline), but I've heard over and over that her books that are more YA-targeted are her best ones. This is supposed to be wonderful, so hopefully the hype is real.

The Stand: This book is looooong but so many people love it. Since I never put a book down, it better be amazing or I'm going to be mad I spent so long on it.

Bad Feminist: I love Roxane Gay's social media presence, and I enjoyed her novel An Untamed State, but this essay collection got such amazing reviews that it's got me thinking it's her best work so I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Parable of the Sower: I've heard amazing things about Octavia Butler, and I'm really looking forward to reading her work, so if it's not great I'll be super bummed.

Pachinko: I don't think I've heard more than one or two people say it didn't work for them, and heaps and heaps of praise otherwise. Basically everyone can't be wrong, right?

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Book 197: The Power

"Women and men who were willing to sell him food or fuel for his little camping stove became fewer and farther between. He started to develop a sense for those who might be friendly. Older men, sitting outside a house playing cards—they'd have something for him, might even find him a bed for the night. Young men tended to be too frightened. There was no point talking to women at all; even meeting their eyes felt too dangerous."

Dates read: December 19-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

About a year and a half ago, I was out walking the dog on a Friday around 8 P.M. I noticed someone get dropped off by a car a couple blocks down, who then started walking towards me. I registered this as odd, since most people get dropped off in front of their house or reasonably close to it. I kept walking the dog down the road, and looked back to notice the person (almost certainly a man, by build) continuing to walk towards me. Now I was really unsettled. I pulled my headphones out and began to hurry the dog up. I rounded a corner, and about halfway down the block he started to resist and pull back, and since it was a well-lit section of sidewalk I let him sniff. I looked back the way I'd come and the guy was standing there on the corner, standing partially obscured by a light pole. I practically dragged the dog the rest of the way down the block until I got to a busy road. The guy never re-appeared, but I was afraid.

As a small woman, I can't remember the last time I was out in public without at least some baseline level of apprehension for my safety. I'm not walking around constantly terrified by any means, but I am just always aware that there's the possibility that I could be anything from verbally harassed to followed to grabbed. Most of my female friends feel the same way. It's just what it means to be a woman in the world. Naomi Alderman's The Power, though, imagines a different world entirely. It begins in the world as it exists, but there's a sudden change: women have developed an organ that generates electricity inside them, electricity they can shoot out through their hands. In a matter of weeks, the world goes from one in which men are the most powerful, physically and otherwise, to one where that balance isn't the same anymore. The Power changes everything.

Alderman explores this new world through four people: Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss, whose Power is exceptionally strong; Allie, an abused teenage foster child who turns the voice she hears in her head into a new religious movement; Margot, an ambitious politician; and Tunde, the only man, a Nigerian journalist chronicling the changes in the world since the Power emerged. There's chaos, initially. No one knows what to do, what it all means. But things change quickly, all the way from men needing to learn how to protect themselves against violent women, to women dominating the military, to women toppling oppressive regimes. Eventually the storylines all converge in a fictional Eastern bloc country, now ruled by a woman as a dictator, that's the center of a proxy war between the powers-that-be in the old world against those of the new.

This is a fascinating idea to consider, how the world would change if something like what Alderman describes happens. And I think the failure of the book (as you can see from my rating, I didn't think it was especially good) comes from trying to capture too much. Roxy and Allie's perspectives dominate the book, and while I understand why Alderman included Tunde, to give an idea of what it would be like to come of age as a man in the world as we know it and live through the way it changes, I think Margot's storyline was weak and could have been cut to develop Tunde better. There's some good characterization going on with Roxy and Allie (particularly the former), but it's inconsistent, and it seems almost like Alderman was so excited to really dig into what she thought might happen in her new world that she didn't really think about the people who would be living in it beyond broad strokes.

That being said, it's an effective exploration of the way that power corrupts. At first, many women lash out at men in revenge for the ways they themselves have been hurt, which is an understandable reaction. The reader expects it to settle down after a while, after some wrongs have been righted, but it doesn't. Women begin to objectify the men around them, use their superior position to commit emotional and physical violence against them. While it's easy, living in the world we do live in, to imagine that women would wield large-scale power more effectively and humanely than men have and do, Alderman punches through that fantasy by remembering that women are, after all, human, and human beings do not have a great track record when it comes to the way we mistreat each other when given the opportunity to do so. I do think that as a novel, there are significant weaknesses, but as a piece to engage with intellectually, there's a lot to think and talk about here.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about venturing outside our literary comfort zones to discover that sometimes, the kinds of things we think we don't read turn out to be pretty delightful after all! I struggled with this subject, because while I think my reading comfort zone is mostly "highbrow" contemporary fiction, I do tend to read pretty broadly across styles. But here are ten that I put together that I was maybe not super comfortable with the idea of before I started that I actually had a good time with!

The Rosie Project (romance): I usually feel like love stories are mostly interesting to the people inside them, and feel too manipulated by romances to get into them. But even though I could see the strings being pulled on my heart as I read this, I didn't care. It was a treat!

The Hate U Give (young adult): I know plenty of adults read and enjoy YA, but I generally find it too straightforward to really engage me. This story about a black teenager who watches her friend get murdered by a cop, though, really grabbed me.

Battleborn (short stories): I am by and large not into short stories (I read way more of them for my book club than I would ever pick up on my own). I like sinking into a full-length narrative! And maybe it's because I live in Nevada, but this collection set in and around the Silver State are truly excellent.

The Nazi Officer's Wife (WWII memoir): I'll be honest, I tend to steer away from World War II memoirs, finding them emotionally taxing but often treading very similar territory to work already available. This one, though, had a perspective that was new to me and was very well-told.

The Lords of Discipline (military fiction): War stories are a big snore for me. This book is set in a military academy, but it's a beautifully rendered coming-of-age story that I'm so glad I took a chance on, because I love it.

The Girl With All The Gifts (horror): Usually telling me something has zombies in it is a ticket to a quick "no thanks". I heard this recommended so often that I decided to pick it up, and really enjoyed the tale it told about the relationship between a zombified girl and her teacher.

The Sky Is Yours (science fiction): This book is bananas. There are dragons, there's genetic engineering, there's all kinds of bizarre stuff. On paper, it seemed like something that would not at all do it for me but I couldn't put it down.

The Bear and the Nightingale (fantasy): I'm actually fairly amenable to fantasy if it's done well, and this whole series was a magical romp through Russian folklore.  

In The Woods (mystery): I love books that are character-focused, and most mysteries are plot-focused, so that tends to leave me out of them. I appreciated that some things were left unresolved, but I mostly really enjoyed reading about the people.

Lincoln in the Bardo (experimental fiction): This is written like a play rather than a novel, and initially I found it off-putting but once I got past about halfway through, I was suddenly all in and wound up loving it.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: August 2019

August always has that feeling of being The End of Summer. In Michigan, we always started school after Labor Day, which meant that the end of August was (basically) the end of our break. I actually liked going back to school because I was a nerd, but that feeling of August being the last hurrah has never quite left me.

In Books...
  • Money Rock: Journalist Pam Kelley tells the story of the titular North Carolina drug dealer...and through it, the story of Charlotte, drug policy, housing policy, and the consequences of incarceration. Smart, insightful, and very accessible.  
  • Marie Antoinette: There's a reason this is subtitled "The Journey", because Antonia Fraser skillfully traces the path the young Austrian archduchess took to become at first one of the most fashionable women of her time and eventually the subject of hatred so violent it culminated in her execution. The depth of research on display, without forgetting storytelling, is very impressive.
  • Calypso: I always enjoy David Sedaris's work. This collection was generally less funny and more poignant than I typically expect, but as with any essay collection, there were ups and downs. 
  • Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: You Must Remember This is one of my favorite podcasts, so when host Karina Longworth mentioned this book as a source for her excellent episode on Lena Horne, I was curious. It paid off! This book is as much about the social environment of Black Hollywood back in the day as it is about the movies, and it's a fascinating look at a time and place that still has relevance to the way our own world works.
  • Gilead: This is one of those books that makes me glad I don't DNF books, because it took until about 1/3-1/4 of the way into this for it to really grab me. But once it did, I was hooked. I was worried that this story of a minister looking back on his life would be a little more religious than I was comfortable with, but it was as much philosophical as anything and the beauty of Marilynn Robinson's language kept me rapt. 
  • The Forgotten Sister: My second straight month with an Austen retelling! This one is more traditional, focusing on the life of the middle Bennett sister, Mary. Sandwiched between two pairs of tightly bonded siblings, Mary often comes off as a bit of a prig in Pride & Prejudice. While Jennifer Paynter's tale doesn't erase those schoolmarmish tendencies, she gives context for why Mary turned out that way...and gives her a compelling love story of her own.
  • Death Prefers Blondes: It's been described as a heist movie meets RuPaul's Drag Race, and that's not inaccurate! Teenage heiress Margo Manning steals fantastic treasures along with her best friends...four drag queens. But when she experiences a personal tragedy, it's no longer for fun and profit, it's for revenge. It's silly, light, and enjoyable, perfect for a vacation or the beach, but don't expect anything special.

In Life...
  • Girls trip to the Bay: This year, I got to pick the location, and I chose to beat the heat of northern Nevada by heading over the hill to San Francisco. We got to do some things that I'd never done before (like the Alcatraz tour!), and just hang out in a super-cool city. I love getting to spend time with my best friends and had a blast!

One Thing:

If you've never heard the phrase "Imma let you finish...", you probably have very little interaction with anyone hip to pop culture. It's taken on a life of its own, surpassing the moment at MTV's Video Music Awards a decade ago that launched it into the world. But the impact of that actual moment has spiraled beyond what anyone might have expected, and this deep dive about it at The Washington Post is fantastic.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book 196: The Lady of the Rivers

"Through the night we hear the clatter of hooves down the village street, and occasional shouts. The girl, the woman, and I cower like frightened children together: this is what it is like to live in a country at war. There is nothing of the grace of the joust or even the inspiration of great principles—it is about being a poor woman hearing a detachment of horse thunder down your street and praying they do not stop to hammer on your frail door."

Dates read: December 15-19, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When people talk about the history of marriage (a subject I find really interesting), they tend to talk about how the idea of marrying for love is relatively recent. Which is mostly true! Most marriages until just the last couple of generations were at least partially arranged by family. This has some advantages (like fostering stronger social connections within communities), as well as some obvious disadvantages (like getting stuck with someone you might not necessarily even like, much less love, for the rest of your life). But the idea that love matches never happened isn't exactly true, either.

There were two love matches, in fact, that were influential in the English Wars of the Roses. In one, Queen Catherine, widow of King Henry V, married a Welsh commoner and her grandson from that union became King Henry VII. In the other, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who had been married to King Henry V's brother briefly before his death, secretly married one of the knights of her deceased husband's household, Richard Woodville. This productive marriage (they had 14 children, including future Queen Consort Elizabeth) is explored in Philippa Gregory's third novel in her Cousin's War series, The Lady of the Rivers. As is relatively common with Gregory's historical fiction, this book isn't the first in the series, but does take place first in the timeline, so while it explores much of Jacquetta's life, it ends where the first book written (The White Queen) begins.

Gregory begins Jacquetta's story with a meeting between our heroine and Joan of Arc as pre-teens, while Joan is being held by Jacquetta's uncle. This is used to establish the plot device of Jacquetta's family's claim to be descended from water goddess Melusina, and set up Jacquetta's interest in fortune-telling, primarily through tarot cards. When Jacquetta grows up, she's married off to much-older John, the Duke of Bedford and brother to the King of England. Gregory paints this marriage as never consummated...the Duke is mostly interested in using Jacquetta to further his interest in alchemy and believes she must remain virginal to do so. They never develop much of a relationship, but she does develop a big old crush on her husband's chamberlain, a handsome young knight called Richard Woodville. When John dies, she and Richard wed...in secret, at first, because technically Jacquetta needs the Crown's permission to remarry and knows they'll never allow the match.

From there, Jacquetta and John join the English Court, under the rule of Henry VI and his high-spirited French bride, Margaret of Anjou. Jacquetta becomes Margaret's maid of honor and closest friend, and is by her side through most of the events of the early period of the Wars of the Roses...at least, when she's not having children, because she's basically constantly pregnant. She tries to protect the Lancastrian Royal Couple from themselves (pious, timid Henry lets powerful-minded nobles run him roughshod and drain the royal treasury, and his lack of marital attentions to his lively wife leads to an affair), only to mostly be unsuccessful. When her husband is captured in battle with the Yorks and has to swear to set down arms against them to be freed, Jacquetta is relieved to leave Court behind and settle down to life as country gentry...until, of course, her oldest daughter Elizabeth comes to the door hand-in-hand with Yorkist King Edward.

Since this book provides much of the backstory for The White Queen, I was afraid it would be just as immersed in the kind of silly mysticalism that's all over the previous book and made it so hard for me to enjoy it. Happily, though, there's much less of that in here, and it's integrated into the plot in a way that feels organic. My biggest issue with The Lady of the Rivers is that Jacquetta herself is a fairly passive character who mostly reacts to the events around her. Margaret of Anjou is the one who drives them, and I kind of wish she'd been the protagonist instead, because she seemed BONKERS in a delightfully dramatic kind of way.

Look, I like Philippa Gregory's books. I don't think they're super high quality, but they're enjoyable to read and as much as I like to be pretentious about my taste in novels, sometimes something that's fun and easy doesn't have to be more than that. But if you've read her work before, you know what you're getting into: high drama and questionable historical sourcing. Sometimes they're a little better, sometimes they're a little worse. This falls on the mid-point for me...it's fine. It's not amazing, it's not terrible. I liked reading it and I'd read it again if I do a read-through of the whole Plantagenet-Tudor cycle like I'm planning on one day. I'd recommend it if you like Gregory's work, but if historical fiction is not your thing, it's not unmissable by any means.

One year ago, I was reading: Paint It Black (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking

Three years ago, I was reading: Inamorata

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Don't Own Yet But Would Like To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is books we don't own that we would like to. I am a dedicated secondhand book shopper so I actually own most of the books I would like to own, but I found an angle on this one! The ten below books are ones I've listened to and enjoyed so much on audio that I'd like to have a hard copy!

The Lady in Gold: This was so good! It's about how the Klimt painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" came to be painted, how its connection with its Jewish subject was erased by the Nazis, and the story of how members of the Bloch-Bauer family survived the war and were able to eventually reclaim the painting.

Marie Therese, Child of Terror: The only child of Marie Antoinette to survive to adulthood and the only member of her family to survive the Revolution, Marie Therese lived through some very interesting times.

China Road: A reporter who has covered China for several years takes a ride along a major road before leaving the country for his next assignment, relating stories about both the history of the country and its present in a way that feels fresh and held my interest.

The Gulag Archipelago (Volume 1): I've gotten very into Russian history lately, and the gulag system of Stalinist times a fascinating piece of the story. I've only listened to the first volume of the three, but it's very good and I'm looking forward to getting to the next two.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: I knew virtually nothing about Carthage beforehand except that it was one of Rome's great enemies, and I learned some new stuff listening to this book. Honestly, though, this was a hard one to keep track of via audio, so I'd like to go over the material again on the page.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: I'm not super inclined towards personal essays, but this collection from Ann Patchett really grabbed me in a way I wasn't expecting. It's excellent.

Being Mortal: This book, about meaning and dignity as the end of life approaches, really made me re-evaluate the premium our culture places on the extension of life, even at the expense of purpose and the desire of the person themselves.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: We've obviously all heard of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, but I learned so much about the history of the Bay Area that gave a lot of context for that event in a way that was really engaging.

The Future is History: This was honestly not as good as Masha Gessen's book about Putin, but gave a broader look how authoritarianism has reclaimed Russia.

Nixonland: A not insubstantial amount of the way politics has changed (for the worse) in America over the past several decades can be traced back to the presidency of Nixon. This look at the man, why he was the way he was, and the effects he had on the way the country operates is something I'd like to revisit in print.

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: July 2019

After a pretty chill June, we made our first big trip in a while this month! It had been over two years since I last visited my beloved home state of Michigan, and a week there was exactly what I needed after an intense winter and spring.

In Books...
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: I'd never read Japan's master of magical realism before, and while I definitely wouldn't say that I "got" this book about an ordinary man drawn into a shadowy world when first his cat and then his wife disappear, I found it compelling and interesting and I enjoyed reading it.
  • Washington Black: This made the Booker Prize shortlist last year and I'd seen positive reviews floating around the internet, but the descriptions I'd seen of it as an adventure story kept it off my list...until it was chosen for my book club. I liked it more than I'd expected, finding the self-development of the titular Wash compelling, but I thought it had pacing issues and it never really clicked for me.
  • Polite Society: I do quite enjoy Jane Austen's Emma, so when I read that this book was a modern twist on it, set in India, I thought that sounded intriguing. I'm always prepared for this kind of book to be disappointing, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it! It's darker than Austen's work, and adding in the viewpoints of other characters made it more complex.  
  • Nickel and Dimed: One of those books I can't believe I've never read! As it's been over 20 years since its publication, a lot of the material from the undercover look at living on poverty wages has become a well-known part of popular discourse and has lost the power to shock. But it's still interesting and worth reading.
  • The Man in the High Castle: I'll admit that reading this in a disjointed way, on vacation, might not have shown it to its best effect. But it seemed more like Philip K Dick was conducting a thought experiment about what the world might have looked like if the Axis Powers had won the day than writing an actual novel. Flat characters, often silly plotting but interesting enough on the thought experiment side to have merit. 
  • How to be Good: Nick Hornby turns his trademark humor and insight on a marriage in crisis. Katie and David feel relatable (both have moments of sympathy and moments of being profoundly irritating, like most people), and Hornby's prose always shines, but it felt like the plot kind of got away from him. 
  • Sashenka: Simon Sebag Montefiore primarily authors nonfiction books about Russian history, but this was his first novel. That inexperience with fiction shows in often clunky writing even as he weaves an interesting story about a woman (the titular Alexandra, called Sashenka) living during the Russian Revolution and then the Stalin era, and then another young woman living in the modern day who tries to track down what happened to her.

In Life...
  • A week in Michigan: I should have known when I found out we were headed home during Art Fair that it was going to be a hot and muggy time! We spent a couple days out at my mom's getting in some quality lake time, and then into Ann Arbor to visit with my sister and brother-in-law in their newly purchased home (which was lovely)! I scored some Art Fair finds and luckily our only experience of power loss was a very brief one.

One Thing:

A New York indie bookstore takes user submissions of their favorite books and roasts them in this delightful Twitter thread. My own submission (The Virgin Suicides) did get an enjoyable quip back!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Retellings/Folklore-Inspired Tales

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so I decided to highlight one of my favorite subgenres...retellings! There is so much potential in taking a look at stories we already know and changing the perspective on them.

Wicked: Gregory Maguire has made a career of retellings, but his first was this take on the Wicked Witch that is so much deeper and richer than the musical (which is also fantastic in its own way). 

The Bear and the Nightingale: There's a kind of vague Cinderella aspect to this, but the real treat is the Russian folklore, alongside an incredible heroine and a wonderful story that continues over two sequels.

Polite Society: I just recently read this take on Emma, transported to modern day India, and found it really enjoyable, striking a great balance between the broad strokes of the original while still telling its own story.

Ella Enchanted: Teenage me loved this YA spin on Cinderella where she's cursed to always be obedient.

The Song of Achilles: I did not especially enjoy reading The Iliad. But I did enjoy reading this take on it that posits Achilles and Patroclus as a long-term, committed couple.

Boy, Snow, Bird: I did not love one of the concluding "twists" of this book, inspired by Snow White, but until then had found it complicated and rich and interesting.

The Red Tent: Dinah, only daughter of the biblical Jacob, is barely a footnote in the Bible, but this book takes her portrayal there and fleshes it out with life and love and sorrow and joy.

Lamb: This is another retelling of a Bible story, but takes on a much more prominent character...Jesus himself, given a dumbass best friend called Biff, who narrates the "real" story of the Son of God. 

Bridget Jones's Diary: It's a pretty loose take on Pride and Prejudice, but I love this book. So few "funny" books actually work for me and it's hilarious.

The King Must Die: I super loved Greek mythology growing up, and the religious aspects of this retelling of the story of Theseus made for a fascinating read.

American Gods: Neil Gaiman's vivid imagination brings together the spirits of mythological tradition from all over the world to face off with "the new gods" to which society has dedicated itself (media, technology, etc).

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Book 191: In The Woods

"I am not good at noticing when I'm happy, except in retrospect. My gift, or fatal flaw, is for nostalgia. I have sometimes been accused of demanding perfection, of rejecting heart's desires as soon as I get close enough that the mysterious impressionistic gloss disperses into plain solid dots, but the truth is less simplistic than that. I know very well that perfection is made up of frayed, off-struck mundanities. I suppose you could say my real weakness is a kind of long-sightedness: usually it is only at a distance, and much too late, that I can see the pattern."

Dates read: November 22-26, 2017

Rating: 8/10

I feel like my childhood wasn't that long ago, but it also feels like the world is so different than it was then that I can't imagine my own future hypothetical children having the same kind of experience. There weren't cell phones yet, so when we went outside to play there wasn't any real way to get ahold of us. I grew up on a bay on an inland lake, so the neighbor's houses where we went to play were usually within sight distance, but it's not like my mom just sat there and stared out the window until we came home. There was a freedom, an untethered-ness, that I just don't know would even be possible for a kid today. That doesn't mean that it's worse now, it just means it's different.

After all, there are always bad things that can happen when kids are playing outside. In Tana French's In The Woods, our protagonist, Adam Robert Ryan, is playing with his two best friends in their Dublin suburb when something goes wrong. The children vanish. After a few hours of searching, Adam is found, but the other two are gone. And Adam is covered in blood and has been rendered completely mute by whatever it was he'd experienced. He recovers after a few weeks in the hospital, but has no memory of what might have transpired that day. He's pulled out of his old school and put in a boarding school in England, where he starts going by his middle name and grows up more or less like any other kid. He goes back to Ireland, becomes a cop, and manages to work his way into his dream job working on a murder unit in Dublin, where's he's partnered with Cassie Maddox, the only other person as young as he is. Although they're not dating, they have become intensely emotionally intertwined.

For the first time since he left it as a child, Ryan is pulled back to his hometown when a teenage girl is found murdered on an archaeological dig site. As he and Maddox try to figure out why someone might have killed the aspiring ballerina, he can't help but also start to try to dig around inside his own past for any clues it may offer. They chase down leads and become even closer as the stress mounts, creating a combustible situation as Ryan becomes less and less able to separate the crime at hand from whatever might have happened to him that long-ago summer day.

I very much enjoyed this book...while mystery doesn't tend to be my genre of choice (I find it too often dependent on hiding information from the reader and/or ridiculous plotting to build suspense), French also creates excellent, compelling characters and allows their development to be just as crucial to the story as the twists and turns of the investigation. I was emotionally invested in both Ryan and Maddox and wanted to know more about them and the ways their personal lives impacted their police work. And I thought the central mystery was also very well-done and nicely walked the line between dropping clues that fed into the ending without just spelling it out and laying it out there on a plate for you. Then again, "figuring it out" too early doesn't usually detract from my ability to enjoy the work...I've long maintained that if your story doesn't work unless the reader is surprised, it's not a good story, it's just a good twist.

And while the central mystery is wrapped up, I will warn you away from this book if you hate books that have significant ambiguity to the ending: Ryan is never quite able to piece together what happened that day in the woods. I personally didn't mind it and thought French did a good job with keeping that part of the story relevant even if it never came together, if only for the way it impacted Ryan and his mental/emotional state. This is the first in a series, and I've actually heard quite often that it's the weakest of them, so if this is as bad as it gets (and I thought it was really good), I'm excited to read the rest of them. I'd recommend it to everyone, even if you don't usually like mysteries.

One year ago, I was reading: The Pleasing Hour (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Station Eleven

Three years ago, I was reading: Behave

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Settings I’d Like to See More Of

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about settings we don't see enough of in our reading. Often, not seeing settings you like means that you should broaden your reading outlook, because there are books written about any kind of people living in any kind of place if you're willing to search. But these settings (both literal places and kind of general milieus) are ones that I don't encounter as much and would like to read more from!

South America: Unless it's non-fiction about the Colombian drug trade, I've hardly read anything set in South America. Brazil alone is the fifth most populous country in the world, and I'd love more opportunities to look at what life feels like there or elsewhere in South America.

Eastern Europe: There are lots of books (both fiction and non) about the Holocaust, but relatively few about life before it, or even after it. What is the modern experience or even just pre-WWII experience of Poland, or the Balkans, or Slovakia?

New Zealand: There's Australian-set literature out there that's not hard to find, but I don't think the Kiwis have gotten as much press as their much larger neighbors, even after Lord of the Rings!

Southeast Asia: Vietnam has obviously loomed large in America's cultural imagination for quite a while now, but what about Laos? Burma? The non-Bangkok areas of Thailand?

Northern Africa: Egypt tends to dominate here, but the rest of Northern Africa seems to get forgotten. I don't know that I've ever read anything set in Tunisia or Libya or even seen anything set there while browsing at a bookshop.

Medium-sized cities: I feel like small towns where everyone knows everyone make for ample writing fodder, as do exciting big cities, but what about places that are neither small enough where you see your neighbors every time you go grocery shopping or big enough to let you start over with new friends if something goes wrong?

The Dark Ages: It's not as dynamic (or well-documented) of a time as the Renaissance, but people still lived back then and I'm curious about what it might have been like.

Minor wars: The World Wars, Vietnam, the Civil War, the Napoleonic wars...these conflicts are at least in the background of many great books. But regional wars can have just as much of an impact on the people caught up on them, and give some context to under-reported incidents.

Non-Christian religious social groups: There have been some great books set inside convents and abbeys...now what about a lamasery? Or a madrasa or yeshiva?

Olympic sports: There are books with characters who play the major sports, and plenty of books about ballet, but what about bobsledders? Javelin throwers? Those worlds are surely fascinating in their own right!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book 190: The House of Mirth

"She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life."

Dates read: November 17-22, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

This is going to sound stuck up, but I've been told I'm pretty since I was a little girl. Now that I'm an adult, I don't think I'm devastatingly good-looking, but I'm generally pretty secure that I'm more attractive than not. It's interesting, the way women are trained to think that our looks are one of the most important things about us, but then we're supposed to wait for men to notice and acknowledge it, and we're ridiculed for the things we do to maintain it in the face of time and aging. My husband worries about putting on moisturizer because his skin feels dry and gets flaky in the winter. I worry about putting on all of the steps in my Asian skincare routine so that I combat wrinkles. Don't get me wrong, I love my k-beauty. But I'm aware that social pressure plays a disproportionate role in how I engage with my face, my skin, my body...not just for my own comfort, but for everyone else's too.

And that's in today's world! The farther back you go, the more a woman's looks were central to her prospects in life. When we meet Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, she's 29 and worried that her celebrated loveliness is beginning to fade before she's managed to marry herself off to someone who can support her. Lily was raised in wealth, taught to abhor anything "dingy"...and then her father lost their fortune and died and her mother followed him shortly thereafter, leaving Lily poor and alone. She was begrudgingly picked up by her aunt Julia, who gives her the right address and some pocket money, but not nearly enough to keep herself afloat on the glittering social circuit, where she needs this season's stylish hats and gloves and dresses and is expected to gamble regularly at cards. It seems hopeful, though: she's on her way to her friend Judy's house, where she expects to meet and charm  and become engaged to Percy, a very eligible bachelor.

Instead, she feels no chemistry with Percy and earns the ire of married socialite Bertha when Bertha's ex-paramour Lawrence Selden turns up to see Lily. Bertha splits up the budding romance between Lily and Percy, leaving Lily in a position to have to ask Judy's husband, Gus, to make some investments for her to help keep her afloat. Gus views this as an investment in earning Lily's...favors, and though she manages to keep her head above water and even rise briefly, it all comes crashing down when Bertha invites Lily on a trip to keep her husband George distracted while Bertha carries on with her latest conquest. When George discovers the truth, though, Bertha spreads lies painting Lily as a temptress instead, which begins Lily's descent through the social classes.

This book plays with the same kind of themes Wharton would return to in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, which I read a few years before I read this: the artificiality of the upper-class New York "society" in which Wharton herself was born and raised and the way it constrains and even punishes real feeling primary among them. Lily herself is a great heroine: it's so easy to identify with her simultaneous longing to do the "right" thing and make it easy on herself by just finding someone rich to marry her and keep her in comfort and to be true to herself and wait for the kind of real connection she feels with Lawrence. Even though women are by and large much less dependent on men for material support today, I think there still exists the temptation, especially as one approaches 30, to just settle for someone good enough and check "marriage" off the list of things you constantly get asked about as a woman. And the power of the rumor mill, and its ability to ruin reputations, remains potent.

It's thematically similar enough to The Age of Innocence that comparison is inevitable, and for my money, Innocence is the better-developed and more rewarding work. But Mirth was also written 15 years beforehand, so it's not surprising that it's less mature. It does bring the added context of a female perspective, and it's partly refreshing to see how far we've come and at the same time how many things are still largely the same in terms of the constraints that society as a whole places on women. I will say one of the things that didn't quite work for me was the novel's central romance: it's never really developed, we're just meant to sort of assume that they've fallen for each other. It's necessary to have established for a late character moment to work, but it's done so superfluously that it doesn't quite have the power it could have. All in all, if you like a sharp social critique and old-society novels, or just like Wharton, it's definitely worth reading. Otherwise, pick up The Age of Innocence instead.   

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Moon

Three years ago, I was reading: The Last Picture Show

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Auto-Buy Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about authors who you hear are coming out with a new book and it gets pretty much instantly added to your to-buy list. Not all of these authors are flawless, and they've written some stuff that I didn't care for in most cases, but I'm usually excited enough about how good they have the capacity to be that I'm willing to give them a chance straight away.

Margaret Atwood: I love her ability to build characters while weaving in powerful themes and compelling plots, and her work always gives me something to think about.

Neil Gaiman: His humor and sheer storytelling ability mean I'm always interested in what he writes.

Michael Chabon: He knows how to put together a family epic like no one else.

Kazuo Ishiguro: He's got a way of drawing you into a story and then just amping up the quiet tragedy bit by bit until you're devastated.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Her writing is always elegant without sacrificing the ability to hit an emotional knockout punch.

Alison Weir: I love royal histories, and that's what she does, using facts to create compelling narratives.

John U Bacon: I'm obsessed with Michigan football, and so is he.

Mary Roach: Her books aren't big serious stuff, but they're always interesting and bursting with humor and curiosity.

Lawrence Wright: He takes big, wide-ranging subjects and manages to put them into a narrative that pulls you along and helps you understand without feeling pedantic.

Jeffrey Toobin: When it comes to the legal and political systems, Toobin has the kind of panache and analysis I find super compelling.