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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children, #2)Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book so much, I went back to reread Every Heart a Doorway so I could meet Jack and Jill again, and better understand their choices in the context of where they'd come from. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel that gives a lot of strong hints about who they become in Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. I suggest reading them in order of publication.

Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott are twins born to parents who had no business having children. The chaos of childhood and figuring out who you are in the world has no place in Serena and Chester Wolcott's well-ordered life. They initially foist the children off on their grandmother, but, on the girls' fifth birthday, the parents send the grandmother away without even giving her a chance to say goodbye. Jillian, the more rough-and-tumble of the two, is assigned the role of tomboy, while Jacqueline is dressed up in frilly, pretty dresses and admonished to keep herself clean.

Then, when the girls are twelve, they open a trunk their grandmother left behind to find not dress-up clothes, but a stairway going down into unknown depths. From there, they wind up on the Moors, where they're free to choose their own paths for the first time in their lives. Jill (which her parents always balked at calling her) chooses to become the coddled pet of a vampire, who dresses her up in pretty clothes and keeps her well-fed on an iron-rich diet. Jack chooses to apprentice to a mad scientist, where she eschews skirts and learns how to keep immaculately clean without running water, among other useful skills.

Jack and Jill each find love, out there on the Moors, but it's their love for each other that ties this story together. The book captures the double-edged nature of sibling love well. The girls know each other so well, which means they know exactly how to hurt one another.

This is a well-crafted tale, dark and poetic and utterly tragic. It's a novella, but there's a lot in there. I read most of it waiting in a hot car with the windows cracked. It was startling, emerging from that dark, cool world into the blazing heat, sticky and dying of thirst.

Be sure you want to know what made the twins who they are in Every Heart a Doorway. Be sure you want to go into the Moors with them. Be sure you want to know the consequences of the first choices Jack and Jill make.

Be sure.

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Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final GirlsFinal Girls by Riley Sager
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, which comes with the expectation that I'll review the book. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

I'm usually wary of debut novels. There's something of the unpolished about them, some unrealized potential. I should've read more closely. This is the writer's first book under this name. He honed his craft on his murder mystery series set closer to home.

The Final Girl is a horror movie trope, where the good girl who kept away from the sex and drugs that got her friends killed becomes the last one left, and has to confront the killer to make it out alive. Quincy Carpenter has lived through that reality, emerging as the sole survivor in a stabbing spree at Pine Cottage deep in the woods of Pennsylvania. She's blocked out the memory of that horrific time, from the moment where she watched her best friend bleed out to her timely rescue. People have tried to help her remember, but it's stayed locked away for ten years.

Then Lisa Milner, another Final Girl who survived a similar horror, turns up dead, her wrists slashed in her bathtub. Soon after, Samantha Boyd, the most reclusive of the Final Girls, shows up at Quincy's Manhattan apartment. As relieved as Quincy is to have a friend she shares a big part of herself with, she quickly finds plenty of reasons to question Sam's motives in tracking her down. Sam wants Quincy to remember Pine Cottage, but why?

I had an inkling of where the book was going within the first few pages, but I managed to discard my theories and just go along for the ride. Two women bonding over similar trauma might not sound like a fun read, but the plotting and tension kept me flipping pages. I was delighted to be right, in the end, but I'd nearly forgotten my initial suspicion by then.

There's a lot to this book: trauma, survivor's guilt, mental illness, trust, sensationalism, resilience, strength, anger, growth through pain, friendship, denial, labels, and survival. The book sidesteps easy answers, handling the complexity of Quincy's perspective with nuance. Quincy is a multilayered, flawed character. She works so hard at being the person she believes she is that the real Quincy can only come out in exaggerated bursts. She makes her life even harder than it has to be, but you can see exactly why she does, because she isn't even equipped to imagine the alternatives. I would've hated her as a person, but, as a character, she's perfect.

If you like your thrillers raw and bloody and heavy on the psychological, I strongly recommend you give this book a try. I was thoroughly engrossed by Final Girls, and fully invested in Quincy's story. I'm interested to see what else the pseudonymous Riley Sager comes out with, and I may even give Todd Ritter's mysteries a chance.

Maybe I'll skip the first one.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: Here, the World Entire by Anwen Hayward

Here, The World EntireHere, The World Entire by Anwen Kya Hayward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written by someone I follow on Tumblr. She had hilarious stories about her cat on her blog, interspersed with Greek mythology. She actually posted a shorter version of this story before she turned it into a novella. So, I was very interested in reading the expanded version.

Here, The World Entire is a retelling of the Perseus myth, the part where he's tasked with retrieving Medusa's head. It's told from Medusa's perspective. Maybe that's been done before, but I've never come across it. I sincerely doubt it was so artfully done.

Medusa had a life before she became the snake-headed woman of legend, so ugly she turned men to stone. At least, in many versions of the myth, she does. This story goes with that interpretation, of the woman sworn to Athena, then betrayed by her goddess because Poseidon takes an interest in her.

And then it goes deeper. It posits that Medusa's exile is self-inflicted, because she can't stand turning people to stone. She warns people away, begs them not to look at her, and is heartbroken when they succumb to her curse. This Medusa is no monster, bent on revenge against all men for what one god did to her. She's a human, cursed by the goddess who was supposed to protect her.

The story gets into a lot of what mythology won't tell you. Myths don't depict the human view toward the gods, that they didn't worship them as all-knowing, benevolent entities. The Greek gods were viewed with dread, too, and derision. They were just as flawed as the people who worshiped them. They were just as subject to whims, or prejudices. We want to see Athena nowadays as a feminist icon, but, in the world that built her up, they assumed she hated women as much as they did. Medusa understands that, in this novella, but not until it's too late.

As much as I have a soft spot for mythology retellings, this one is beautifully done. It adds a lot to the Medusa myth, without taking away from what's already out there. I highly recommend it.

Unfortunately, you will not find this book at most retailers. You'll need to order it online if you want to read it. You really should.

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Review: Magic for Nothing (InCryptid #6) by Seanan McGuire

Magic for Nothing (InCryptid, #6)Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who's talked to me about books for more than 30 seconds knows I adore Seanan McGuire's books. I fell behind with this one, though. It's been out for over 2 1/2 months, but I'm just getting to my review? Past Me is so disappointed in Present Me.

This book introduces the perspective of Antimony ("Annie") Price, the youngest of the three siblings, and the one kept closest to home. She's both been protected against and held back from the spotlight all her life, because her siblings were allowed to pursue her passions, and one more Price out there in the world is too much for her parents' blood pressure. She has her interests outside the family profession, of course: TV and comic books and roller derby are her lifeblood, with a particular affinity for the X-Men.

Of course, this wouldn't be a book if she got to go on this way forever. Because of events in previous installments, Antimony has to infiltrate the English chapter of the Covenant of St. George, the people her family has been hiding from for centuries. The ones who want to exterminate all cryptids, believing them to be evil and against the natural order. And, just when she's starting to settle into that role, the Covenant decides to test her cover story by sending her into an American carnival to root out the cryptid or cryptids responsible for the disappearance of three teenagers in the carnival's proximity.

Of the three siblings, Antimony quickly became my favorite perspective character. She's snarky, well aware of her limitations, and she balances out the sense of awe with which people treat her older sister and brother. She reminds the reader that the Price family is still human, still vulnerable, and still a pain in her ass. For all her flippancy, Antimony is well aware of the danger she's walking into, and the stakes if she fails.

Antimony is also given the hardest task of any of her siblings. She isn't just getting to the bottom of a cryptid mystery; no, she's also balancing two levels of secret ID, trying not to piss off the grandmother of the (cryptid) boy she likes, trying to spy on the Covenant, and trying to protect her new friends from that very same Covenant. And she's working with far fewer resources, because reaching out to the family could expose them all.

One of the things accomplished in this book is to give the Covenant a human face. We meet the person running the Great Britain arm, and the next generation, sort of the Price sibling analogues. While it's harder to relish the idea of the Prices crushing an organization made up of thinking, feeling people, it also underscores their commitment to stop any sentient being from harming others. They've been shown, so far, to give all sorts of creatures the chance to show themselves capable of living peacefully. I wonder if the Covenant merits the same treatment. And if anyone in the Covenant is worthy of that chance.

In the end, everything wraps up in a satisfying yet intriguing way, which is how a volume in a series with more to come should end. There's a lot more for Antimony and the rest of her family to take care of before their story is done.

As always, looking forward to the next installment.

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's SorryMy Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a delightful surprise. My sister sent it to me on audio, because she thought I'd like it. She knows my reading tastes well, apparently.

Elsa is seven years old, going on 8. Her best friend (and only friend) is her grandmother, 77 and going on 78. The book opens with Elsa and her grandmother at the police station, after the grandmother distracts Elsa from having been bullied at school by breaking into the monkey enclosure at the zoo and throwing clods of dirt (declaring they're monkey poo) at the security guard.

Not your ordinary grandmother, in other words.

Elsa and her grandmother share a series of fairy tales about The Land of Almost-Awake, and the Kingdom of Miamus within that land. In Miamus, Elsa and her grandmother are knights, and, though granny's adventures are behind her, she fills Elsa's ears with all her tales, and spurs her on her own adventures.

But the grandmother hasn't told Elsa she's dying of cancer. Elsa only finds out just before her granny succumbs. But then, a quest arrives from the grandmother, asking Elsa to deliver a letter telling someone she's sorry. Delivering the letter successfully continues the quest.

The characterization in this book is beautiful. Everyone is filtered through Elsa's perspective, and yet we see the whole picture of everyone. There are villains in the story, but they're still people, human and flawed and loved by someone. Those Elsa cares about, she's always finding a reason to love them, or at least admire them.

Despite the protagonist's age, this is not a YA or kids' book. People swear, and there are concepts such as war, substance abuse, tragedy, grief, and domestic abuse, which could be difficult for young readers to parse. Elsa is precocious, reads about anything she doesn't know about on Wikipedia, and has no tolerance for being talked down to. Her grandmother's fairy tales help her grasp some of the concepts in the book, but her exposure is often frightening or upsetting to her.

And yet, despite the dark themes within this book, the overwhelming feeling when it ends is warm and fuzzy. Elsa insists throughout the story that it has to have a happy ending, and, despite nothing turning out the way she expects, she gets her way, in that.

If you're prone to emotional responses to books, this one is apt to make you burst into tears, probably at several points in the narrative. But I can almost guarantee it will also have you laughing. And you'll almost certainly see stories, or grandmothers, or falling asleep, a little differently.

Give this a read. You'll be glad you did.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Joan Walker. She did a lovely job, both keeping up the fairy-tale kind of tone throughout, and pronouncing a lot of difficult vocabulary created for this book. She had a lot of distinct voices for different characters, and I was never confused who Elsa was talking to in any given moment. Not once did her narration pull me out of the story; it enhanced it, if anything.

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Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect some knowledge of WWII would've served me well, going in to this book. I know the basics, but a greater knowledge would've supplied a lot of context this book lacked. Larson writes with the assumption a person reading his book has already done a lot of reading about pre-WWII. Whereas, I tend to read "human interest" nonfiction for an entry point into history with which I'm unfamiliar.

In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the Dodd family, from the unlikely selection of William Dodd, history professor, as ambassador to Nazi Germany, to the directions their lives take after he leaves the post. The Dodds start out feeling favorably toward Germany, and William Dodd attributes "the Jewish problem" as being just as much Jewish people's fault as it is the Nazis'. The events that change their minds don't affect them directly, but they still realize a lot sooner than the US government, who's privy to all the same knowledge the Dodds are, with the barrier of an entire ocean between them and the conflict.

If you're looking for a book about the social lives of the major players of the Third Reich, you're in luck. This goes into great detail regarding the parties, who's invited to whose, who's in favor on a particular month in 1933 or '34, and who Martha Dodd is dating (that list is almost as long as the guest lists for exclusive parties the Dodds attend). Martha's sex life, in fact, is a greater plot point than the attacks on US citizens visiting Germany who fail to deliver the Hitler salute appropriately.

What I was looking for in this book was how a country goes from a democracy to a fascist dictatorship. That's in there, too. The book covers the time period when President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler as Chancellor, dies, and Hitler seizes power. The book also shows how history led up to that point, when normally, a better-balanced successor might have been appointed. It shows how Hitler not only disposed of his political enemies, but how he did it in a way that both silenced any opposition, and won his country's approval. The propaganda machine was already in full swing, at that point, and Hitler and his people knew how to use it.

Though Hitler is a major influence in this narrative, his path intersects with the Dodds' very little. He meets Martha Dodd once, and strikes her as charming and charismatic, but a bit shy. William Dodd also finds him charismatic on their first meeting, but finds a later encounter, where Hitler rants about the abhorrence of Jewish people, rather unsettling.

There's another subplot in this book about Martha's being seduced over to the Communist cause by Russian spies. So much of that narrative is speculative, though, as there's very little official documentation. It explains her disaffection with Nazi Germany, but otherwise doesn't add much, except to explain why she behaves as she does after leaving Germany. I could've done without that section entirely.

Overall, this was an interesting perspective on the Third Reich, pre-WWII. I found the narrative thread lacking, but the tidbits of historical perspective were fascinating. The story made clear that any ambassador would've been over his head, in William Dodd's shoes, but he was uniquely unqualified for the role. I wouldn't recommend this if you don't already have some knowledge about the time period and the people it discusses in great depth, but, if you're looking to round out your WWII history with something lighter, this is just the thing.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reread this book for my book club, as it was this month's very apt pick. I first read it when I was a freshman in high school, so I remembered only the most distinct images and themes. It was a pleasure to reread as an adult.

On a dark night in October, at precisely 3 AM, the carnival comes to Green Town, Illinois. Two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, watch its magical arrival, but find the next day that it looks as ordinary as any traveling show, but for the mirror maze. The boys return at night to find it's as sinister as they remember, to Will's horror and Jim's delight. They enlist Will's father, Charles Halloway, to help them escape its clutches. Halloway has to confront his own mortality, which, at 54, he feels nipping at his heels.

It's a quick read. The mystery draws you in swiftly, and the chapters are short. It's easy to keep turning pages, thinking, one more chapter, until there's nothing left. The language can get bogged down in places, but it still rolls along at a nice clip. Bradbury needn't have waxed so poetic about libraries and their contents, for instance, but that might be my favorite passage in the whole book.

Though the story is told mostly from the boys' perspective, Halloway is the true hero of the story. He's the one who finds the antidote to the fear the carnival sows, who gives Will the answer for saving his friend. The fears the carnival inspires are most horrific to Halloway, who has to overcome the most to confront them.

The book will resonate most with older readers, but can still be enjoyed by younger ones as a chilling tale. There's a lot of depth and subtlety that would be lost on too young a reader, and it may be too scary for some.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was adapted into a movie by Disney, back in their creepy as heck phase in the 80's, between The Watcher in the Woods and Return to Oz. I'll have to rewatch it, to see if it holds up half as well as the book to my childhood experience.

I'll just make sure I watch it during the day, in case it does.

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Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I was convinced I'd read years ago. The way people spoke of it, it sounded like my school couldn't possibly have overlooked assigning it. But the plot points people spoke of sparked no memory whatever, so I had to read it for myself.

There are two versions of this story: a shorter version written for magazine publication, and this longer edition. I may have read the short story, which would explain my certainty I'd read this. I still didn't remember the plot.

Flowers for Algernon follows Charlie Gordon, a young man with intellectual disabilities. He has an IQ of 68, and, while he can write and holds down a job, wishes he could be smarter. He is given an opportunity to receive a treatment that will increase his intelligence; they've already had a successful trial on a mouse named Algernon.

The trial works, and Charlie's life begins to change. He earns greater respect from Alice Kinnian, the attractive teacher who recommended him for the trial, but he also starts to scare his co-workers with his newfound intelligence, and he learns they were making fun of him before. Then, the mouse's intelligence begins to decay, and he dies. Charlie experiments to find the cause before the same happens to him.

The book was published in 1966, so, fortunately, many aspects of Charlie's story would've changed in a more modern setting. He wouldn't have risked being locked up in a state institution if not for his job, though homelessness would certainly have been a concern, if he didn't have access to the resources he'd need just to know what's available to help him. One would hope his enrollment at Ms. Kinnian's school might connect him with those resources, but many still fall through the cracks.

I wish I could say that Charlie's co-workers are a relic of an earlier time, but such people are still around. People with disabilities are better integrated into their communities these days, but that doesn't mean that all of the community members are supportive and accepting.

This story is hard to read. Not necessarily because of Charlie's struggles with spelling and grammar, and his later overly intellectual writings, though that doesn't help. Charlie's struggles inspire a lot of empathy, and it's hard not to want things to work out in his favor. The ending leaves some questions as to his eventual fate, but it's clear that he's worse off for having undergone this treatment. As his intelligence declines, he can't simply be proud of all he's accomplished, because now he knows what he's missing. He can never return to his days of blissful innocence.

While the approach taken in this book somewhat romanticizes the notion of simple, innocent people like Charlie, it also highlights how people without disabilities can make the lives of those with different needs easier, or harder. The book isn't perfect, by any means, but I strongly recommend giving it a read.

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Friday, March 4, 2016

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of course we're all familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany's: the sprightly, adorable protagonist, her impish ways, and the cast of characters she draws to her like moths to a guttering flame. The movie is adored, revered, had songs written about how it's one thing a fighting couple can agree on. But if you've only seen the movie without reading the book, you have a very different view of the story.

The Holly Golightly our unnamed narrator follows about is a darker creature than the one portrayed by Audrey Hepburn. She's not mean, precisely, but she has a carefully constructed detachment that amounts to the same thing. The narrator watches her push away those who care about her, and embrace those who see only the persona she projects. The movie Holly seems to charm the money right out of mens' wallets; the one in the book has to work for it. The Holly in the movie projects an aura of cool sophistication, while the narrator of the book sees through his Holly as the young woman playing dress-up, putting on a personality as readily as she wears her expensive dresses.

There are also plenty of parallels; the book and movie aren't totally indistinguishable. Still, with the context "Fred," the unnamed narrator, provides, we're given a very different picture in the character study that is this novella. He sees through a lot of her pretenses, and shows how much he cares by never challenging her illusions.

Unlike in the movie, Fred's love remains platonic. Others have noted that there are clues in the text that he's gay, bolstered by the notion he's an author insert, and that Capote, himself, was openly homosexual. I missed all of the hints within the text, though, and would have to reread to provide any evidence. It's not outside the realm of possibility. But, as the story spends very little effort on fleshing out the narrator, it's easy to overlook.

If you've seen the movie based on this book and think you know the story, I recommend you read the novella. They're two very different creatures. As much as I enjoy every role Audrey Hepburn inhabits, I'd been missing out on this fine prose all along. It's not even very long, so, even if you don't agree that it's a lovely, bittersweet story, you haven't wasted a lot of time on it.

I listened to an audio version of this book, narrated by Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame. Though he's played several gay characters, I felt his narration masked the question of the narrator's sexuality. But he was a treat to listen to for a few hours. He was an excellent choice for this one.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Why I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with AutismThe Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many of the books about children with disabilities are written by the parents or caretakers. It's difficult to find a variation of the theme of "people with disabilities are so inspiring," which is patronizing and unhelpful if you actually want to learn their perspectives. Thus far, my only source of the autistic perspective was Temple Grandin, who grew up in a different time and can tell us all about looking back on her experiences, but not the current experience of growing up in a world that considers autism worse than polio.

Why I Jump is written by a boy who has autism, and who's able to verbalize many of the frustrations he experiences. Some of the issues are cultural; his Japanese upbringing has less pride of individualism. But many of his experiences are universal. The social subtleties and seeming contradictions would confuse him no matter where he'd grown up.

Because the book was originally written in Japanese, it's difficult to tell if the stilted style is due to translation, or because that's how the author comes across. While many people with autism do avoid contractions, others speak far more smoothly. I've often heard the halting, near-stuttered language in other works translated from Japanese. It's too bad I couldn't read this perspective in its native language.

Much of the book is taken up by a question-and-answer format, which makes it difficult as a narrative. Nonetheless, as an audio book, the listening time passes quickly, with the author never belaboring a point or lecturing the reader. The book wraps up with a story written by the author that gives some insight into how his mind works and what he fantasizes about.

In the end, this book is only one perspective from one boy with autism. He falls short of several stereotypes, and comes across as a whole person the reader can empathize with (and who, the reader will realize, has empathy of his own). It's a start, certainly. I would like to read more like this book, Most especially, I would like to know books like this are being more widely read. An awful lot of the problems described in this book wouldn't be problems with a more understanding populace.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic EuropeMysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It has been SO long since I've reviewed any books. I stalled on this one, so I thought I could start back up here, and chip away at them. And suddenly, I understand why I went on hiatus for so long.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages tells of an era of history shaped by the Catholic Church and its influences. Its premise is how the modern world owes so much of its culture to the Church. While it does put down some compelling evidence, I'm unconvinced that it's as positive as the author seems to think.

Cahill does go into a lot of history that textbooks leave out. He gives the past texture, gives historical figures motives and contributing factors that turns history into an actual story. The narrative is generally entertaining. This is one of those narrative non-fiction books that generally works. It feels factual and real, at the same time as it carries the reader along.

Well. Mostly factual. I'm no religious or historical scholar, but I'm fairly sure he misrepresents the Islam faith and its proponents. Badly. He gives a stereotyped, one-dimensional characterization that falls flat after he fleshes out so many other historical details. I also disagree with his assertion that the Catholic Church led to women's rights, because Virgin Mary. But then, he views female power as only happening within male power structures, rather than being its own entity.

There are also places where the book drags a bit, as Cahill goes into great detail about a person whose significance isn't apparent until the very end of the chapter. I would've had to be an art major, I suspect, to care about the level of detail put into the chapter about Giotto di Bondone, for instance. I would've liked to learn about his influence, rather than the nitpicky details about his life. The same holds true for Peter Abelard, whose love life is discussed in the same level of detail I'd expect from a soap opera.

Overall, this book is a good starting point for people looking for ways to approach the Middle Ages. Like many entertaining non-fiction books, it lacks depth and authority, but gives a reader some good places to start looking for more information. The book's strength is in its readability and in the texture the author gives the distant past. I would recommend this book to anyone studying the period, provided it wasn't their sole reference.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

The MasqueradersThe Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd never read any Georgette Heyer, but I kept running across her name in various contexts. I finally combed through her books at my local library to find one that was unlikely to make me throw it across the room. Turns out I needn't have worried. Heyer wrote her books before modern romance tropes were established. No alpha males here; just fun characters getting up to mischief without ever thinking of anything below the waist.

The Masqueraders tells of a pair of siblings, Prudence and Robin, who are posing as the opposite sex. They're hiding Robin, who backed the wrong cause in a recent conflict. Meanwhile, their father claims to be the rightful heir to a title, while they have to pretend they've never met him before in their lives. Neither believes for a second his claim is true; he's played previous roles too well. But then Robin falls for the petite Letitia, and Prudence for the formidable Lord Anthony Fanshawe. While their roles do let them get closer to the objects of their affections, it makes confessing their feelings a bit more complicated.

I might have appreciated this story more if I'd known more about the political rumblings filling out the background of this story. Heyer seems to assume we all know what the Jacobite Rising is, and why it would be terrible to be found out as a Jacobite after the dust settles. It never takes the time to explain, which is just as well. There's plenty of plot to fill these pages.

Unfortunately, some of the pages are filled with characters explaining things to one another the reader already knows. More than once, a scene we just witnessed is related to a character who wasn't there. While it may be revealing in what the speaker leaves out or how it's presented, it makes the story tedious in places.

The strength of the story lies in its characters. Prudence and Robin and their father are all rogues to their core, and it's impossible not to root for them. Prudence lives up to her name, though her loyalty to her brother holds her to her role. As little respect as the siblings have for their father, it's impossible not to like him. There's something utterly charming in his boldness.

The love interests, too, make for interesting reading. Letitia has a thirst for adventure one can see Robin is more than qualified to fulfill, and Fanshawe shows hidden depths in every page he inhabits. They're both well-matched to our heroes.

The dialogue took me some time to adjust to, but, once I did, I found it light and bantering and witty. Heyer preserves many of the Regency speech patterns and expressions, but it turns out they're not that much different from modern speech. It gives her more room to let her characters show off some wordplay.

This was a refreshing change of pace in my search for a romance novel I wouldn't hate. It turns out that all I had to do was go to a time pre-dating modern romance. All the tropes I hate can't be there if the author didn't know she was supposed to be writing them. This also works as a suggestion for romance readers who skip over the sex scenes; the romance is all above the belt.

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Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd read this book years ago. Then it was picked as the October read for my book club, and I leapt at the chance for a reread. This is a delightfully creepy read.

Coraline has just moved to an old house, divided up into apartments, where she feels ignored by her parents and generally bored out of her skull. While exploring, she discovers a door that only opens onto a brick wall. But that night, when she visits it after everyone's asleep, she discovers that it's a portal to a world with a doting mother, a fun father, and a brightly-colored bedroom with toys that can move by themselves. She soon learns the important lesson about things that seem too good to be true. She has to call on all her wits, bravery, and resources to rescue her parents from the malevolent spirit who's created Coraline's ideal world.

Even before Coraline learns of the price of staying in the other mother's realm, there are plenty of hints that not all is as it seems. The trained mice her upstairs neighbor is building a circus for send along a message to beware, and the dotty old ladies downstairs read her tea leaves and find a dire warning. Nonetheless, it's easy to see why Coraline is able to ignore these signs. The other mother really does her homework in researching how to make Coraline's new life perfect.

One of the ghost children the other mother has captured before calls the other mother "the Beldam," which brings to mind Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The story isn't exactly a parallel of the poem, but it certainly seems to be the same creature. One doesn't need a familiarity with the poem, though, to follow Coraline's story, or why she needs to stop the Beldam, or why the story's so sinister and creepy. There are plenty of frightening elements, and the creature shows her colors before long.

My favorite aspect of this story is Coraline's continued resourcefulness. She outsmarts the Beldam not with an easy solution, but by thinking on her feet. She does luck into some of the elements she needs to solve the puzzle, but the resolution is all her. And the final nail in the coffin, which the movie version was quick to do away with, requires a great force of will and bravery to go through with. Coraline is an admirable heroine.

While Coraline seems to be about 8 years old in the book (and perhaps 12 or 13 in the movie), I would recommend any parents of children that young screen this before sharing it with your children. It has some frightening imagery that may stay with a small child. I would've been all right, reading this at 7 or 8, but I don't represent all children, ever. The book is aimed for a younger audience, but it can easily be enjoyed by their parents. Or, in my case, aunt.

I was happy to have the excuse to reread this book. It's delightfully written, and deliciously creepy. Coraline is a fun companion, and her adventure ends all too soon. Probably not in her opinion, but one can't help but miss her once the book is closed.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and HemlockFire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the tenth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I always enjoy Diana Wynne Jones' writing, but, for some reason, I've been putting off reading more of her books. Can't imagine why.

Fire and Hemlock is a modern retelling of the Tam Lin tale, with some Thomas the Rhymer tossed in. Polly takes the role of Janet, who rescues Tam Lin with her love. Which, considering Polly is at least 15 years younger than Tom Lynn, and starts off a child, has some discomfiting implications. Polly starts off the story with no memory of Tom, but suddenly recovers them just in time to confront the powerful family who has Tom under its thrall.

The story is confusing in places. Part of it is because Polly doesn't understand, so, as the perspective character, she can't fill us in. But there are several aspects still left unexplained at the end of the story. The main points are covered, but why Laurel needs Tom, and later Tom's nephew, the charming Leslie, is never fully explained. Only those with a familiarity with the original tale will understand Laurel and Morton Leroy's ties to Faerie.

That does lead to far fewer info dumps, but it also makes things confusing in places. And some of the plot points seemed unnecessary. Like, if Tom's ability created the hardware store and the people populating it, why are they related to him? That whole plot point seemed needlessly complex.

I did think Nina's role was an interesting one, but that she was underused. There aren't a lot of overweight girls depicted as strong and desirable. That Polly wishes she could be more like her in the beginning is refreshing, though their later falling-outs were disappointing. I would've liked for Polly to have someone she could rely on, so she didn't have to bellybutton-gaze to reach all of her conclusions. I'm not sure why the story required that she was all alone in the world, except for Tom.

Despite my nitpicks, I did enjoy this story. Unlike many updates to classic tales, this didn't feel like it was shoehorning characters' actions to fit the plot. I understood Polly's motivations, and Tom's choices are understandable in retrospect. I liked it better than Pamela Dean's version. Though, that may have as much to do with the lack of enthusiastic recommendation as it does to the quality of Diana Wynne Jones's writing.

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Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who could resist an audio of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, read by the actor who plays Ichabod Crane on the TV series? I certainly couldn't, especially because Audible was giving it away for free.

I thought I'd already read this story, but it turns out I've seen so many adaptations, I thought I had. There's no substitute for the real thing, it turns out.

Ichabod Crane is a poor schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, obsessed with ghost stories. He relies on the good people of the village to satisfy his enormous appetite for good food, and thinks he's hit the jackpot when he catches the eye of Katrina van Tassel, eligible daughter of the wealthiest family in the area. Then one night, he goes to a party at her house, and Brom Bones, his romantic rival, is there. Katrina rebuffs Ichabod, and then that night, he encounters the Headless Horseman who's rumored to haunt the woods near where he's buried. Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

Interestingly, it's not a ghost story. There's a strong implication it was Brom Bones who took the guise of the Horseman to scare Ichabod off. There's also an implication that Katrina only pretended to be interested in him to provoke his rival to compete for her. And Ichabod's interest in Katrina, pretty as she is, is fueled by greed. All of which certainly turns all of the pop culture tropes about the story on its head.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a spooky story, but, more, it's a commentary on a time and place that don't exist anymore, and a study in human nature. Had Ichabod any reason to think he stood a chance with Katrina, had his belief in ghosts been any less, had his rival been less determined to scare Ichabod off, this story might have ended differently. Interestingly, the most straightforward interpretation of the story puts the blame on Katrina's shoulders for the cruelty of Brom Bones's prank, and scaring Ichabod half to death.

If you've never read this story, you could do a lot worse than to pick it up for yourself. Especially if you have an Audible account, and can listen to a fictional Ichabod telling it for free.

As I said, I listened to the audio, narrated by Tom Mison. He does a lovely job with the reading. I detected no problems with pronunciation, and there are none of the volume issues I run into with a lot of audio books. If you like the Sleepy Hollow TV series, there's a really good chance you'll enjoy this production.

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