6.29.2014

Villette, by Charlotte Brontë

Villette
Charlotte Brontë's 1853 novel, Villette, is impossible to read as pure fiction. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily Brontë traveled to Brussels, to teach English and music at a boarding school. Charlotte returned a year later. While she was there, she had the misfortune to fall in love with a married man (see below). Many of the events in the school portrayed in Villette have the ring of bitter experience about them, much as the events of her sister Anne's novel Agnes Grey do. Of course, Charlotte adds her own Gothic touches (because I'm pretty sure she couldn't resist). Villette is not her best work. It's a muddle. But I think it's a muddle because there is so much of her own life in it, and who can be objective about one's own life?

Lucy Snowe has nearly always had to fend for herself. Her family were not rich, and they suffer an unexplained tragedy that leaves Lucy to pursue employment. She worked as a caretaker for a cranky old woman. The old lady stiffed Lucy in the end, so Lucy fled to Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour (based on Brussels, Belgium). She initially finds work as a nanny to Mme. Beck. Beck eventually presses her into service as an English teacher. Beck likes to spy on her employees. Lucy knows full well, but doesn't object. Her place at Mme. Beck's school is comfortable enough. She succeeds with her students and Beck can find no fault with her. Mme. Beck's cousin, M. Emmanuel, finds plenty of faults with Lucy. They spar regularly.

Constantin Héger, the probable
model for M. Emmanuel
Villette is a meandering tale. The book is filled with Lucy's observations of the people living around her. Ginevra Fanshawe, one of her students, is a flighty girl who loves to manipulate her suitors into giving her gifts. Paulina Home is an old acquaintance and is almost the complete opposite of Ginevra. Both are courted by Dr. Graham Bretton before Graham and Paulina find real love and Ginevra runs off with a French comte. Meanwhile, everyone—except M. Emmanuel—overlook Lucy. They ask her advice all the time about their relationships, callously ignoring her own unattached status and lack of prospects. Lucy manages to soldier on, for the most part. But M. Emmanuel keeps finding ways to get under her skin. They find they have many things in common, but Emmanuel seems to be trying to improve her by teaching her mathematics or commenting on her dress. At one point, he chillingly says, "You want so much checking, regulating, and keeping down" (Chapter XXXI).

The relationship between M. Emmanuel and Lucy is somewhat akin to the relationship between Mr Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre. Emmanuel teases and prods and goads Lucy and she seems to enjoy it (for the most part) and provokes him to get more of his incandescent reactions. Emmanuel is harsher than Rochester, and takes the game a lot farther than the master of Thornfield does. The game is much more unsettling here, and I have to wonder what happened between Charlotte and M. Héger before she had to return to England. It's impossible not to read autobiography into the relationships in Brontë's novels.

It took me a very long time to get through Villette. Unless you're prepared to watch your main character sit on the sidelines (and suffer through an unhappy ending) and narrate the activities of the cast, you're going to get board. You're going to want to yell at Lucy to stop putting up with Mme. Beck and Ginevra's behavior. You're going to want to take Lucy aside and tell her that she's better than M. Emmanuel's emotional games. She's a singularly frustrating character. As I read Villette, I got some of the same feeling that I got reading Agnes Grey: a Brontë is working through her feelings and troubled life in fiction.

The Anatomy of Dreams, by Chloe Krug Benjamin

The Anatomy of Dreams
We spend a lot of time thinking about sleep, mostly about how none of us get enough of it. We rarely think about what happens between the time we drift off and when the alarm rudely snatches us into the waking world. Some lucky (or unlucky) people can remember their dreams. Chloe Krug Benjamin's The Anatomy of Dreams will leave you thinking about what happens during those hours for a long time.

At a boarding school in northern California, Sylvie Patterson and Gabe Lennox meet and fall in love. They understand each other in a way that no one else does. This being fiction, nothing is perfect. Sylvie wakes up to find Gabe gone. He's doing some mysterious work for Mr. Keller, the psychology teacher. Then, in senior year, he disappears with no explanation. Sylvie is heartbroken, but she manages to get on with her life. She attends Berkeley, studies psychology and videography, meets another boy. Then Gabe comes back.

Gabe kept working for Mr. Keller. The two of them are studying lucid dreaming and how it can be used to help people overcome night terrors, somnabulism, and other sleep disorders. Gabe talks Sylvie into joining their small research group and for a few relatively happy years, she and Gabe travel across the country with Keller. Over time, Sylvie becomes disillusioned with the work. Keller has strange ideas about how far they can take lucid dreaming. One of their patients, who displayed a potential for violence while sleeping, commits a dreadful crime. Sylvie wonders about the ethics of what Keller is doing. And then, Sylvie discovers the biggest betrayal of all.

The Anatomy of Dreams may disappoint some readers. Benjamin's tale seems like it's going to go strange and interesting places at several points only to pull back from turning into science fiction or fantasy. The book is thoroughly grounded in our reality. But as a tale about how our sleeping selves can live a life of their own without our waking self's awareness, The Anatomy of Dreams is a very intriguing story.

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 16 September 2014.

Unlucky streak

Three of the last four books I've started to read were let downs. One of them was so bad that I couldn't get past the third chapter. It's so discouraging to fall into a streak of bad reads, especially after reading so many good books over the past two years.

"Uggggghhhhhh."

Usually when this happens, I go back to a palate cleanser book. An old favorite gets the bad taste out of my head. This time I had the second book in Laini Taylor's trilogy, Days of Blood and Starlight to read. Even though the series strongly reminds me of Saga, it's still so much better than the other books I've been reading.

The problem with one of the books I read, The Denouncer, was that the book couldn't seem to decide who it was about. The problem with the other, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I think, was that the author was too interested in being clever to fulfill the promise of the premise. I needed something to restore my faith in fiction after reading those two back to back. Ugh.

6.28.2014

The Denouncer, by Paul M. Levitt

The Denouncer
Paul M. Levitt's The Denouncer is a muddle of accusations and plots and betrayals and—above all—fear. It begins with a shocking double murder. Sasha Parsky sees his parents being bundled into an OGPU van after being denounced as kulaks and snaps. He kills the pair of them with a scythe, hides the bodies, and runs back to his college. He sends his parents north. He never sees them again.

The local OGPU commander, Major Filatov, has a pretty good idea what Sasha did, but can't prove it. Still, he can make Sasha do whatever he wants. He sends him to an academy, as the new director, to spy on the staff and the former director. Avram Brodsky, the former head man, spent a year in a Kolyma gulag for unorthodox ideas. Filatov believes he can't be trusted. Sasha refuses to play the Soviet game. He won't denounce anyone. So, he gives Filatov just enough information to keep the government from crashing down on everyone like a ton of iron bricks.

Meanwhile, conspiracies seem to blossom around Sasha. There's a plot to assassinate a corrupt OPGU chief in Ryazan. There's a plot to oust Sasha from the school. One of the teachers is creating seditious photo compositions. A villager is manufacturing forged documents. And there's Sasha in the middle, refusing to denounce anyone.

This all sounds very exciting. I was thrilled to get a copy. Unfortunately, the execution left me frustrated and—frankly—bored. Levitt tells you everyone's feelings and motivations. Nothing is left up for you to interpret. My brain had nothing to do while I was reading except taking in bald facts. Because there are so many secrets and characters, there's nothing to focus on. Sasha is in the middle because he knows all these people, but he's only a protagonist by default. Plus, the first time we meet him, he kills two people. He spends the rest of the time being a mild-mannered academic.

The only part of The Denouncer I liked was the ending. Filatov gathered everyone together at a dinner with a representative from the Moscow office. Like a stock detective, he reveals everyone's secrets. The scene works well, even with its overtones of the Last Supper. Of course, since this is 1936 Soviet Russia, the good are punished and the wicked are usually promoted. No one gets their just desserts.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 7 August 2014.

6.27.2014

Reading on the Road

Across from the Flamingo
I've been home for about an hour after traveling to Las Vegas for work. (No, really.) Because the trip was for work, I spent a lot of time not doing the tourist things. I spent a lot of time walking in the bits of shade I could find and hopping into the air conditioning when the heat got to be too much—which happened a lot. The experience got me to thinking about how much time I steal on my trips (work and vacations) looking for times and places to read.

Plane travel is awful. Even getting on the place is awful. But once I'm in my seat, I can pull out a book or my iPad and forget that I'm squeezed into a flying metal tube overstuffed with other people. When I'm being driven back and forth and hither and yon in a strange city*, I can read my way into something much more interesting and make the time go a little faster. I've done this—read while traveling—for as long as I can remember. Years ago, on a family trip when I was a teen, I read The Stand on the way from Wisconsin back to western Washington. I loved to read the scenes set on the Great Plains as I was driving across them myself. I've never had quite the same synchronicity since then.

At Caesar's Palace
Of course, you get a lot of very strange looks when you're curled up in an out of the way corner, reading, in a casino on the Las Vegas Strip. This weekend, it's not all that weird considering that it's the site of this year's American Library Association Annual Conference. Swarms** of librarians were descending as I made my way out of town.

I did wander around a little, and hiked about a third of the strip yesterday morning before the temperature started to climb. It was a surreal experience to find myself in Venice, then ancient Rome, and then Paris, all within a couple of blocks. It was like wandering a movie lot or Jasper Fforde's Well of Lost Plots. No wonder Vegas does so well. It's basically fiction come to life.

Ah, it's good to be home, where the only surrealness is between a pair of book covers where it belongs.

__________

* The driver of the airport shuttle bus today drove like he was handling the thing like it was the Knight Bus.

** I'm not sure what the real collective noun for librarians is. I really wish it was an index of librarians or a bibliography of librarians.

6.26.2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Privacy is an illusion these days. None of us reads the terms and conditions when we sign up for stuff, let alone when they're updated. Our data—even data we don't know we're creating—floats around in the digital ether. Theoretically, laws protect us and our data from being used for nefarious purposes. In David Shafer's science fiction thriller, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a cabal of companies and intelligence workers have joined together to corner the market on the world's data, intending to lease access or monetize it however they can.

Leila Majnoun first runs up against the Committee in Myanmar. She works for a company to distribute humanitarian aid and maybe set up a scholarship for women to attend nursing school in the States. (The heads of the company mostly just tank each other's projects.) One day, while she's up country fighting with the local representatives of the junta to get her medical supplies, she overhears a conversation by a pair of American contractors that she wasn't supposed to hear. The next thing she knows, her work gets even more difficult and her father is charged with possession of child pornography. Meanwhile, Leo Crane, the bipolar scion of a game-making dynasty starts to go off the rails and write about the many conspiracies he sees online. His college friend, Mark, has found success after writing a management philosophy book. He knows he's a fraud, but he desperately hopes no one finds out.

The three characters don't meet until almost halfway through the book, after they receive job offers and threats from the Committee and their opposition, Dear Diary. The Diarists have interesting technology, but they're running out of time to make their stand against the Committee. They've collectively decided that Leila, Leo, and Mark are their last, best hope. The book ends with a cliffhanger. We'll have to wait to see if Dear Diary succeed in their quest.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has received high praise from critics. It is funny, in a snarky kind of way. Shafer has dead-on observation about a lot of our technology dependent society. The problem I had is that there are a lot of ideas that aren't developed in this book. I would have loved to know more about the Dear Diary organization and their plant-based technology. The plot takes so long to develop that, when I got to the end, I felt cheated.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 5 August 2014.

6.22.2014

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier
Ford Madox Ford's 1915 novella The Good Soldier famously begins with the line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard" (Part I, Chapter I*). It is a truly tragic tale. All the characters are caught between their own personality flaws and the expectations society holds for what are considered "good people." Good people just don't have affairs or get divorced or blackmail each other. But real people fall in love with people they're not supposed to. Real people want revenge. Above all, people (at least the people in this novella) want others to think well of them.

John Dowell, a well-to-do Philadelphian is our narrator for the duration of The Good Soldier. As he tells the story, imagining that he is talking to a "silent listener," wanders around and around a period of nine years. The Dowells, John and Florence, meet the Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora, in the early 1900s at a health spa at Nauheim. They did not meet by chance. Leonora arranged their meeting at lunch after an ugly scene with her husband's mistress. As Dowell continues to tell the story, we learn that Edward has a predilection for melancholy women. He likes to be a caretaker. Unfortunately, he's so bad with money that Leonora has taken control of the finances. We learn that she has also been assisting her husband in his infidelities, believing that he'll come back to her once he gets tired of other women. It might have worked, Dowell later reflects, if it hadn't been for Florence.

When Dowell first introduces his wife to us, he paints her as an invalid who suffers from a hereditary heart condition. He cares for her for twelve years, fending off overly exciting conversation and preventing her from doing anything too strenuous. Florence, however, is far from the sickly creature Dowell paints in those opening chapters. Like the Ashburnhams, the Dowells married for mercenary reasons. Florence is a flirt. Almost as soon as she meets Edward, she sets out to have an affair with him.

Of course, The Good Soldier being a tragedy, nothing ends well. There are suicides. One character goes mad. Another suffers a nervous breakdown. Dowell himself seems to weather the storms, but then, he's telling story and isn't telling us the whole truth. Some readers don't enjoy the unreliable narrator; I do. I love reading the words of lying narrators because I enjoy teasing out what really happened versus what the narrator wants you to think. You get two stories for the price of one. Plus, if an author is really good, I get to see the whole story turned on its head.

The Good Soldier is not a book that you can just dive into. It's told in modernist style. The first chapters in particular are almost a pure stream of consciousness from John Dowell. As Dowell explains at the beginning of Part IV:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair—a long, sad affair—one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.
Stream of conscious narration is not for every read. I usually avoid it like a cliché. Unless you enjoy the company of the character doing the narrating, listening to their every thought can be a chore. What redeemed the narrative style for me was the fact that Dowell lies to his listener for most of the book. As he circles back around to the key events in the story, he reveals a little be more about what happened right before the event. Your opinion of characters will change as Dowell changes his story. The character you thought might have been a hero becomes a villain and vice versa. In the end, there are no innocent people in The Good Soldier.

___________

* All quotes are from the Project Gutenberg edition. This edition is not paginated, so I've given approximate locations of the quoted material.

6.21.2014

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, has been sitting on my bedside table for weeks now. I've been carrying it with me when I traveled, as back up for when my iPad ran out of juice. Did you know books can guilt trip you if you ignore them long enough? Library books are especially good at guilt because there's a chance someone else is waiting to read the book after you. I didn't actually start reading it until midnight last night. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is another one of the many young adult/new adult books that I've been hearing about so much that I put it on my mental "read this just to find out what the fuss was about" shelf. Unlike many of the other books that have been on this shelf (*cough* Twilight *cough*), this one did not disappoint. In fact, as soon as I finished the book, I hopped on to Amazon to buy the full trilogy for my kindle. So, now I know what I'm going to do with my weekend. How about you?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Karou lives a double life. In Prague, she's an eccentric art student who periodically disappears on mysterious errands that she refuses to talk about. Elsewhere, she runs errands for her chimaera foster family. Their magic takes her around the world, collecting teeth from hunters and traders. Her family would be described by almost anyone else as monsters. They have animal heads or limbs. They refuse to tell her what all the teeth are for, and they won't let her use the other door in the shop she grew up in. They won't answer any of her questions. Karou is seventeen years old and growing frustrated at their distance. She doesn't realize that her foster family have been keeping her safe from a war that's been raging on their world for a thousand years.

As Daughter of Smoke and Bone opens, a new front is opening in the war between the seraphim and the chimaera. Seraphs are closing the portals between our world and their world. Karou is stranded on our side by a seraph named Akiva. They fight in Marrakech and nearly kill one another. Strangely, they feel a connection that doesn't have anything to do with being foes.

It's clear that this book is meant to set the stage for the other two books in the trilogy. Unlike many other trilogy writers, however, Taylor has a gift for not drowning the narrative and plot with exposition. Characters don't just suddenly spill their guts to Karou. She has to fight for most of her knowledge about magic and wishes and the war.

As I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I was strongly reminded of Brian Vaughn's Saga—down to the wings and the horns some of the characters sport. They both have a grit to them. They don't pretty things up or skirt the edges of violence or sex. They both revolve around a seemingly endless war that the combatants don't remember the beginning of. And both series feature two lovers who are determined to stop the fighting. I haven't read the other two books in the series, so I don't know if they grow more or less similar. I don't care all that much, because I'm enjoying the hell out of both series.

6.20.2014

Silent Witnesses, by Nigel McCrery

Silent Witnesses
Continuing my odd streak of reading nonfiction books, I finished Nigel McCrery's Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science this evening. As I read it, mostly while waiting at the mechanic's garage waiting, I paused to contemplate my fingerprints (to see if I have arch, whorl, or loop prints*) or looked at the mechanics' hands to wonder what chemicals and substances they might transfer. (I got more than a few weird looks of my own.) Silent Witnesses is a solid introduction to forensics, with many interesting nuggets of criminal history. It is not a guide to committing the perfect crime**.

McCrery divides his book into seven sections: identity, ballistics, blood, trace evidence, body, poison, and DNA. As advertised in the subtitle, most of the chapters contain short histories of cases and scientific discovery. McCrery tracked down the first time fingerprinting solved a case or Alphonse Bertillon's system found a thief and murder, or when blood evidence exonerated a suspect or convicted another. McCrery covers crimes from the 1700s right up to the present. There are few pictures, and none of bloody crime scenes, so the book is fairly safe for any reader (though some of the crimes described are very grim).

widespread fingerprinting to
prevent payroll fraud.
Time and again, as scientists discovered how to reliably use fingerprints or identify poisons, they faced resistance from police, the judicial system, and juries. We now take such forensic techniques for granted. In fact, we are so exposed to a glamorized version of forensics from shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones and others, that psychologists have identified the CSI Effect. To look back at the early days of forensic science is a little frustrating, because you want to yell at people with objections for being small-minded obstructionists. McCrery does a great job of warding off too much frustration by pointing out the flaws in the early science. He recounts cases in which innocent people were imprisoned, and even executed, because of faulty or bad science.

If you're a fan of modern mysteries (or CSI) there's not much here, science-wise, that you won't know. The history is revelatory. I enjoyed reading about cases and experiments very much. McCrery does have a few writerly tics that the editor should have caught. He frequently writes, "as we have seen" or "as I have shown" and refers to many cases as famous or infamous. Still, this is a pretty good read, especially since a history of forensic science (and its attendant chemistry, geology, physics, etc.) could have been ('scuze the pun) deadly.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 September 2014.

__________

* Mostly loops and arches.
** Not that I was looking for a manual. Honest.

Why I review; Or, Will blog for books (within reason)

At the end of May, Michele Jacobsen over at A Reader's Respite wrote about Crown Publishing's new program, Blogging for Books. Jacobsen was rightfully annoyed by Crown's criteria for participation: high Klout score, reviewing every book received instead of only those books actually read, etc. The two advanced reader copy sites I get books from, NetGalley and Edelweiss, don't have these requirements. They give books to librarians, book bloggers, and other book industry professionals. With NetGalley, you do have to maintain a certain percentage of received books to reviewed books, but it's pretty generous. The ratio means that you can still read for fun and not force yourself to finish things you're not enjoying*. Kim Ukura at Sophisticated Dorkiness wrote a follow up post that had me thinking about my reviewing practices. After finishing it, I almost felt like I needed to write my own manifesto that I could point to if anyone questioned my ethics and book reviewing principles.

We book bloggers, for the most part, are enthusiastic amateurs. The fact that publishers will give me access to free advanced reader copies of books is an unlooked for—but much appreciated—perk. When I review a book I got for free, I add a note to the bottom that I received it in exchange for a fair review. (Sometimes I write honest review, just to mix things up.) Ukura objects to this language because it reinforced the idea that we bloggers are getting "paid" in books for our reviews. I don't see it that way. When I signed up with NetGalley and Edelweiss, it was with the understanding that I would review most of the books I received. (Otherwise, I would consider it mooching.) I also looked for any language in the user agreements about where I was to post my reviews. I'm okay with posting here and reposting to my social media outlets, not on commercial sites. Further, if anything in those user agreements restricted what I could write in a review, I would drop them in a hot minute.

And now, for my manifesto (read, review policy):
  1. I only ask for books I think I will enjoy. I don't request books just for the hell of it.
  2. I only review books that I finish. If I don't finish, I send a message via NetGalley or Edelweiss to tell the publisher why I didn't finish it.
  3. I am honest in my reviews. If I didn't like a book—and finished it—I will say why. If I finish a book, it's usually because I found something worthwhile there. I put warnings in my review about who will and won't like the book. I try not to hate-read/review too many books. But I'm not wedded to the idea of always being positive. This is part of being honest. If I don't like a book, I'll say why. 
  4. I don't keep copies of the ebooks I receive. I delete them. If I really, honestly like a book, I buy a copy for myself. Sometimes, I even order a copy for my library—which is the whole point of the program. I consider my reviews to be a "signal boost" for books. (The kind of books I like to read usually need all the publicity they can get. I read weird books.)
Is there something I'm missing? I understand why Crown would want to limit their book giveaways to people who will actually review them. Bloggers and other reviewers should take care to only request books they'll actually read. What bothers me is the Klout score (which is inaccurately constructed anyway) and the language that requires you to repost your review on a commercial site. The second requirement has since been removed. There's so much noise on commercial sites that it's hard to spot real, honest reviews anyway. (I also want my words here on my site, not repurposed or reused by a vendor.)

I do understand Ukura and Jacobsen's point that all these requirements do change amateur reviewing from something that we do for the joy of it. Ukura wrote a great piece at BookRiot about the growing expectations publishers have for readers. The requirements make reading and reviewing more of a job. When I started this blog, I started it because I had no one to talk to about all the books I read except the Internet. Now, I see my primary mission here at Summer Reading Project to share good books with readers and let them know about books they should maybe avoid. I automate reposting as much as I can, via IFTTT, so that it's not a chore and I can get back to reading.


__________

* Although, I've read a few books that I loved to hate. I finished them so that I could write a blistering review.

The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day

Earlier today, I tweeted that I'm still not sure whether or not I liked The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day. I finished it last night. I'm still puzzled by my reaction to it. Hopefully I come to a conclusion by the end of this review.

The Black Hour
I read recently that the United States has seen an average of one school shooting per week since the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2014. Since the first instances of school gun violence, we seem stymied by how to deal with and prevent them. Gun rights advocates proclaim their Second Amendment Rights. Gun control advocates use statistics from other developed countries to counter their opponents' arguments. Even more difficult than the debate over guns is learning what causes people to murder their fellow students or strangers. Bullying is often held up as a root cause. Mental illness is another. Sometimes, as in Rader-Day's The Black Hour, there is no apparent cause.

Ten months before the book opens, Dr. Amelia Emmet was shot by a student who then turned the gun on himself. She nearly died of her injuries. While she was in an out of consciousness, speculation ran wild about why Leonard Lehane shot Dr. Emmet. Was she sleeping with him? Did she fail him? There must have been a reason. We can't handle random violence. The world only makes sense to use when we can say, "Ah, so-and-so deserved it! Bad things don't just happen to good people." Amelia cannot remember this student and record show that Lehane never enrolled in any of her classes. When Amelia returns to teach, people still eye her askance and speculate about her and don't know what to say to her. The fact that she now walks with a cane and still needs strong pain medication doesn't help. Little things trigger memories of the attack and, before long, Amelia starts to wonder if it was a mistake to come back.

Half of The Black Hour is narrated by Dr. Emmet. The other half is narrated by her graduate assistant, Nathaniel Barber. Nathaniel is fascinated by historical mass shootings. He hangs a picture of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre crime scene on his bulletin board until his roommate makes him take it down. Nathanial came to Rothbert University specifically to study Dr. Emmet's case, but he's so socially awkward that he never quite asks permission before he starts to question students and staff who knew Lehane. Amelia is, instead, pressured by a local reporter who wants to write about the real story to make his name in his dying business. Amelia resists their prodding, but she questions and digs, too. She can't go on without knowing why.

As the trio investigate, they uncover a crime that goes beyond what Leonard Lehane tried to do ten months before. And this is the part I'm not sure I liked. The Black Hour begins as a sensitive but disturbing meditation on victim psychology and senseless violence. At the end, it has become a life-and-death thriller. I was left wondering what happened to the deft writing of the opening chapters as Rader-Day started channeling her inner mystery potboiler novelist. That said, I fully realize that part of my problem is the fact that I had very different expectations of this book. This is not the writer's fault (although I did question whether some people in the book started acting out of character). If I had gone in expecting a thriller, I would probably rate this book above average without any qualms.

What bothers me most about the thriller ending is much like what bothered me about Hannibal Rising. By identifying motives and psychological factors, you reduce the book from its universal theme. Hannibal Rising changed Hannibal Lector from an almost supernatural figure to just another sociopathic serial killer. The Black Hour's ending changed the story from being applicable to almost any shooting into another criminal conspiracy. I was left mourning the book that could have been.

Of course, this is my fault entirely. It's the fault of my expectations. Rader-Day is a solid writer. I loved the character she created in the prickly, wounded Dr. Amelia Emmet. Rader-Day absolutely nailed the gossiping and rumor mongering that follows an apparently inexplicable crime. The Black Hour is a great thriller.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 8 July 2014.

6.17.2014

The Buried Life, by Carrie Patel

The Buried Life
The city of Ricoletta is built mostly underground. Few dare to venture above ground, even though whatever disaster drove people into their caves has passed. The city streets (tunnels) are safe, patrolled regularly by the city guard. The city council makes sure the trains run on time and that the food arrives as scheduled. The status quo is shockingly disturbed one morning when a historian is murdered in what is supposed to be the safest place in Ricoletta. Carrie Patel's The Buried Life begins as a murder mystery, but becomes something much larger.

Liesl Malone is a detective with the Municipal Police. After a sleepless night, she is summoned to the Vineyard district to examine a murder scene. Nothing adds up and Malone suspects conspiracy as soon as the city council starts to meddle in her investigation. Few people are willing to speak to her. One of her few sources of real information is Jane Lin, a specialty laundress to the wealthy. Jane is lucky (or unlucky) in her ability to be at the right place at the right time. She overhears key details. She even stumbles onto a body at one point.

Both women pursue the investigation into the murders. Malone has to toe the line, for the most part, but she bends that line as much as possible to dig deeper. Jane befriends fixer Roman Arnault and lets her curiosity run wild. Both are warned away. Both ignore all warnings. The stakes rise. By the end of the book, it's clear that Ricoletta will never be the same.

I wish that Patel had devoted more time to the setting. Information is strictly controlled in Ricoletta, so her characters don't know their history. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of details for us, the readers, to piece together the strange underground city. After reading about Derinkuyu, Turkey in Unruly Places, I was keen to see how a fictional underground city would function. Living in caves and tunnels doesn't seem to have changed the culture very much. Even their food is much like our own. I have to wonder why Patel bothered to bury Ricoletta at all.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 29 July 2014.

6.12.2014

Reflections on reading non-fiction

I feel smarter already.
Reading non-fiction is out of character ('scuze the pun) for me. I read reviews for non-fiction every week, listing likely titles for my library as soon as the new budget year rolls around. The only non-fiction authors I read regularly are Mary Roach and Ben Macintyre, who tend to write about weird things. Macintyre in particular has a way of relating actual history as though it came straight from the mind of a thriller writer.

Given than I read primarily fiction, I'm not familiar with the conventions of non-fiction. I understand genres and characters. I expect certain things from what I read—not necessarily a happy ending, but at least a climax and a denouement. The structure of non-fiction books often strikes me as clumsy. They often read like someone stretched an essay out to 300 pages, so the introduction and conclusion sprawl over several pages.

That said, I always feel smarter after finishing a work of non-fiction. Like A.J. Jacobs in The Know-It-All, I feel almost uncontrollable urges to share the trivia I've learned—especially after reading linguistics texts. My family give me about five pieces of trivia before they cut me off. (And I apologize to my Facebook friends for the flood of facts when I feel the need to share.) This probably means that I should read more non-fiction. I love getting the chance to play student. The problem is that, unless the writer is very lively and skillful, non-fiction is a chore to go through.

6.10.2014

Unruly Places, by Alastair Bonnett

Unruly Places
Years ago, I read a strange travel memoir by Daniel Kalder, Lost Cosmonaut, which sparked a love in me for travelogues of places most people don't visit. When I saw Alastair Bonnett's Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, I jumped at the chance to review it. Over the course of this philosophical meditation of place and our relationships with it, Bonnett takes us to pirate towns, floating man-made islands, massive avant-garde art projects, dead cities, Siberian utopias, and other geographical oddities.

Unruly Places is a book for deep thinkers. As Bonnett travels the world, he ponders what spaces mean and represent for us. A fox den he finds in his native Newcastle leads him to ponder how we share our space with indigenous wildlife. The Nowhere Festival in the Spanish desert makes him wonder about places that only exist for a brief time before disappearing entirely. Bonnett does write about how many of the places featured in this book came to be, but the focus, for the most part, is not on history. (After a while, I started to skim the philosophical maunderings because I wanted more of the history.)

Derinkuyu
My favorite parts of Unruly Places have to do with historical locations. Bonnett laments over lost Old Mecca. I had no idea that so much of Islam's most holy city had been replaced in the last few decades. In writing about Old Mecca, Bonnett meditates on our veneration of old places. Another place Bonnett writes about, Derinkuyu, is such a fascinating historical oddity that I've just put it on my bucket list. Derinkuyu, in Turkey's Cappadocia region, is a medieval underground city. Another of my favorite places was the twinned cities of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog on the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. The map at the Baarles looks like someone nudged the elbow of the cartographer because they each have enclaves in the other country, due to their tangled medieval history and property rights.

I detected a lot of melancholy in Unruly Places because so many of them are dead, dying, and disappearing due to disaster, economics, politics, or climate change. Many of the places can't be visited—Wittenoom, Western Australia; Hobyo, Somalia; Pripyat, Ukraine—because they're just too dangerous. By writing Unruly Places, Bonnett preserves something of them and takes us along for the ride. This book will force you to think about place in a way you've never thought about it before.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 8 July 2014.

6.08.2014

In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food
"Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much" (p. 1*). This is Michael Pollan's philosophy of food and eating. In the opening chapter of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and his other works, Pollan realizes that it's more than a little absurd that he writes entire books when his argument can be summarized so concisely. And yet, in America, the instruction to "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much" needs to be said because our way of eating is not healthy.

In Defense of Food is a quick takedown of the food industrial complex, nutritionism, and how we got to where where we are. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, nutrition scientists began to study how food works. They began to isolate nutrients and vitamins, etc. and linked them to benefits and illnesses. They changed the way we think about food. Now, we think about food as fuel, for the most part. If we find the right things to eat, we can become healthier. And yet, we seem to grow sicker and fatter as we eat supposedly healthy foods: low-fat, high-fiber, packed with anti-oxidants.

Food and eating are more complex than science can account for. As currently practiced, science isolates variables. It tries to find correlations between A and B. But vitamins, nutrients, minerals, amino acids, etc. are more effective when they're delivered by whole foods. When we eat more slowly, as the French and Italians do, we don't need to eat as much to feel full. When we eat more varieties of food, as Australian aborigines do, we get more of the micronutrients we need to be healthy.

Pollan puts a lot of stock in traditional foodways and his argument is very appealing. In the last third of the book, Pollan explains how we can eat better. By eating food, Pollan means that we need to avoid processed food because it's just not healthy for us. Pollan steers us towards plants because they contain more of the micronutrients we need, especially the leafy green ones. When Pollan advises us to not eat too much, he offers ways to change our habits so that we can not only be more healthy, but enjoy food more.

In Defense of Food relies on common sense arguments to make its points, for the most part. He cites anthropological, medical, and other scientific papers when he needs to and shows the flaws in the nutritionist science literature. (At one point, Pollan cites a study that shows that industry-funded studies often conclude than an industry's product is healthy—or at least not harmful.)

Pollan urges us to look back to how our ancestors ate and what they ate. It's a tempting argument. But it's a hard path to follow because so many things are stacked against us. Organic food is hard to come by and very expensive. Growing your own is nearly impossible for urban-dwellers. Pollan acknowledges that this will be hard for poorer people, but then goes back to his thesis. Not that there are a lot of options for people who can't afford to buy the expensive whole foods that we should be eating. Systemic change, after all, is the hardest kind of change to effect.

It's a little unusual for me to read nonfiction, especially something related to health. I'm reading this book because it's the monthly selection for a book group that's invited me to join. We're not meeting until Friday, so I don't know what the discussion will bring up.

__________

* From the 2008 Penguin Press hardcover edition.

6.07.2014

Autodidacts among us

There has been a flood of reading memoirs being published. There was Rachel Mead's My Life in Middlemarch. There's Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously. Phyllis Rose just published The Shelf. The list goes on and on. Even though I am a devoted reader, and I love books set in bookstores (I loved Tom Rachman's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry), but I can't think of anything more dull than reading about other people reading.

As I've read all of the reviews for these books, I got to thinking about autodidacts I've met. You don't meet many of them anymore, but I always end up having the same mental debate. What should one read? Should one even think there's a canonical list of books for everyone? When someone asks me which books they need to read, the books they've "missed out on," I have to point them to Harold Bloom's list or something similar—because I am a good librarian.

Aside from that whole philosophical argument, I find that I admire their dedication to reading a full canon. Reading Bloom's list will take years. And at the end of it, you can call yourself an educated person the way few people these days are. Lately, I can hardly manage to read my one classic a month, since I got stuck on Villette. (I really should just move on to something else so that I can keep my New Year's resolution.)

I'm fairly sure, however, that I won't be able to read anyone's memoir about reading. That's one level of abstraction too many.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
I shouldn't have liked Tom Rachman's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It's literary fiction. There isn't much plot to summarize. I've spent years ragging on literary fiction to anyone willing to talk books with me. (Because literary fiction tends to be very, very dull, for the most part.) But I picked up this book because it begins in a bookstore. I'm a sucker for bookstore settings.

Tooly Zylberberg's strange story is told in three sections. In 2011, we meet her at World's End Bookstore in Caergenog, Wales. Rachman then takes us back to 1988 and 1999 to meet Tooly at nine and twenty. Tooly Zylberberg has had an unusual childhood. For the first ten years of her life, Tooly grew up in various foreign postings with her father, Paul. Paul worked to update databases at US embassies. For reasons explained later in the book, they can't return to the States. In 1999, Tooly is in New York living with Humphrey, a Russian dissident who spends his hours playing chess and ping pong and reading. As the book rolls on, Tooly (and us) learn more about her past. The people who cared for her lied to her.

Tooly had three fathers and one mother. Her mother, Sarah, is very self-centered and neglectful. Paul kidnapped Tooly to protect her from her mother. Sarah found Paul and Tooly in Bangkok and spirited Tooly away. The reunion doesn't last long. Sarah disappears almost immediately and leaves Tooly with Venn (a conartist) and Humphrey (the dissident and autodidact). Over the next decade, Venn, Sarah, Humphrey, and Tooly criss-cross the globe. Venn teaches her how to talk her way into peoples houses. Humphrey teaches her about the Great Thinkers. Sarah teaches her how to manage peoples' moods. By the time she's 20, in 1999, Tooly has become a strange loner. She drifts through life, but it doesn't bother her much.

At 31, Tooly received a Facebook message from an old boyfriend, telling her that Humphrey is in decline. His condition is shocking. He has forgotten so much that it spurs her to reconnect with Venn, Sarah, and even Paul, to find out what really happened when she was younger.

And that's the plot. Tooly embarks on a quest of self-discovery. What I loved about this book was the graceful way Rachman reveals a lifetime of truths. I adored the idiosyncratic Humphrey, especially his comments on books, like this one:
"Books," he said, "are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rules of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet." (From the advanced reader Kindle edition.)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has beautiful, unique characters. Even the villains are fascinating. I shouldn't have enjoyed this book, but I did. It's a weird, eccentric book. It's about people and their baggage—and their books. It shows how we are shaped by the people who raised us, for good or ill.

The official review part of this post is over, but I wanted to share one more quote:
People kept their books, [Tooly] thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contain the past—the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one's intellect, whether the work itself has been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 10 June 2014. 

6.05.2014

The Bone Church, by Victoria Dougherty

The Bone Church
Pace is important to me as a reader, especially in historical fiction. It's tempting, after all the research an author has done, to include all the trivia. The trivia blogs the story down. Characters get lost while the author explains their context. That said, it's strange to encounter a book like Victoria Dougherty's The Bone Church, which has almost the opposite problem. Her characters race through mid-1940s Czechoslovakia and 1956 Communist Czechoslovakia so quickly that there's almost no exposition. Only the briefest of hints let you know when and where you are.

The book begins with a few chapters set in 1956 before flashing back to 1943. In 1956, a cardinal and a priest are trying to get the wife of a Czech dissident and her son out of Prague. The woman has been persecuted because of her husband's activities, even though she's guilty of nothing herself. The priest, Felix, soon reveals that he had a past with the woman, Magdalena. Then we're back in 1943. Magdalena and her mother, both Jewish, have been hiding with Felix Andel and his father. They've been lucky so far, but things start to go wrong. One day, Felix returns to his home to find his father confronting a man in his study. The man fatally shoots Felix's father. Felix swears revenge, but first, he has to find a safe place for himself and Magdalena.

The plot speeds up even more. Magdalena and Felix first try to go to Bratislava. They run into incredible bad luck almost immediately and are arrested by the Gestapo and shipped to Auschwitz. They escape and find their way back to Czechoslovakia. A gypsy, Jura Srut, helps them hide in Prague. They manage to survive, but Felix and Srut are drawn into a scheme by Resistance leader and sculptor, Justus Svoboda. Svoboda has a plan to assassinate Joseph Goebbels and needs Felix to get him into the right place at the right time. Svoboda makes promises to find hiding places for Magdalena and Srut's family, but he's clearly more interested in his own scheme than helping anyone out.

Characters are running almost from page one in The Bone Church. In 1956, they're running to save Magdalena and her son and avoid old enemies from the past. In 1943 and 1944, they're running from German police and collaborators. Svoboda has Felix and Srut running to put his plan into play. Any historical details are included almost accidentally. If you're not familiar with wartime Prague, you'll probably be running to Wikipedia to catch up on the relevant history and geography. If you want more thriller than historical fiction, The Bone Church, certainly fits the bill.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. 

6.03.2014

The Flavia de Luce series, by Alan Bradley

Book one in the series.
I took a break from some of the heavy reading I've been doing lately to read the highly entertaining Flavia de Luce series, by Alan Bradley. Flavia is an eleven year old chemistry genius who lives with her father and two older sisters in the rundown de Luce mansion, Buckshaw. Ten years before the first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Harriet de Luce—her mother—went missing in Tibet. Flavia has grown up mostly alone. Her father has retreated into his grief and his stamp collection. Her oldest sister, Ophelia, and older sister, Daphne, torment her and try to make her think she was adopted. Flavia usually gets her own back, but putting urushiol in Ophelia's lipstick or sulfur gas in her chocolates.

Flavia also has a knack for finding dead bodies and an insatiable curiosity about poisons and decomposition. In the first book, she stumbles across an old colleague of her father's dead in the garden. In the second book, a puppeteer is electrocuted during a performance in front of the entire village. In the third, a gypsy is attacked a poacher killed. In the fourth, an actress meets her end inside Buckshaw itself. In the fifth book, Flavia finds the former church organist in the crypt of St. Tancred's. even in the sixth book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, when the focus of the book moves away from solving mysteries to the growth of the character, a man is pushed under a train.

Of course, Flavia doesn't investigate alone. The local constabulary have jurisdiction. Inspector Hewitt is far from incompetent. Flavia, however, has a keenly deductive mind, has a talent for questioning people without letting them know they're being questioned, and is almost always in the right spot at the right time to discover the key piece of evidence. What made me fall in love with the character is her lively wit and disregard for the rules. I don't entirely buy her as an eleven year old, but I buy her as a unique character.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the last book, is a departure from the rest of the series. The first five books follow the pattern of an English country mystery. A body is discovered. Flavia and the police race each other to a solution, irritating each other along the way. In the last book, the mystery of the man under the train plays a distant second to the mystery of what happened to Harriet in Tibet. There were clues scattered through the other books that members of the de Luce family have served king and country in various secret capacities that none of them can talk about because of the Official Secrets Act. The tone is very different, darker, than the rest of the books. But I enjoyed all of them.

6.01.2014

I like it, but I don't approve

A little over a year ago, when I found the bookish corner of tumblr (my people!), Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was enjoying a wave of popular reblogging. (Those of you familiar with tumblr will recognize this. Books, TV shows, and movies will pop up all over your feed as fandoms wax and wane.) I asked one of the fans how they could be so open about showing their love of Lolita. The book has a reputation. Even people who haven't read it know about it. They know what it's about. The answers that came back were all about the masterful writing and the premise as literary transgression, meant to provoke discussion.

At the time, I didn't know of any books that I would recommend that contained anything like the incendiary Lolita. And then I read The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara. And today, I finished Katherine Grant's Sedition. I honestly enjoyed both books. They turned the tables on expectations. They asked important questions. They were beautifully written. But they both have content that I am not comfortable. In fact, I hugely disapprove of some of the things that happen in these books.

But I still recommend them, because these troublesome passages are necessary to the story. They help us understand the characters and their motivation. I recommend them because the rest of the books' content is mindblowing.

Writing this post reminds me of a post I read last fall on BookRiot by Amanda Nelson, "Let's Talk About Racism in the Classics." Nelson loves Gone With the Wind but the racism depicted is, admittedly, stomach curdling. But we still read it, because there's enough there that's worthwhile to encourage readers through the hard parts. Books like Gone With the Wind, The People in the Trees, Sedition, and Lolita put us in the dicey position of liking things we can't approve of.

Sedition, by Katherine Grant

Sedition
Historical fiction exists to answer the question, "What was life like when...?" Katherine Grant's Sedition takes us to 1794, to a time when daughters lives were ruled by their fathers until they were ruled by their husbands—at least until the daughters in this book turn the tables on everyone.

Four fathers meet in their usual coffeehouse to discuss their next venture: seeing their daughters married to men with titles. The only direction for these nouveau riche tradesmen is up, and the daughters are their ticket. Unfortunately, most of the girls are not very attractive and have few accomplishments with which to snare a husband in the competitive market of Georgian England. Mr. Drigg has an idea. The five girls will learn to play the new pianoforte. They will be so dazzling that cash-poor, land-rich fathers will rope their sons into marriage with their girls before anyone knows what's happened. The fathers spring into action. They buy a prized pianoforte and hire a piano teacher. Mr. Drigg, unfortunately, steps into a family feud and ends up angering the pianomaker so much that the pianomaker hatches his own scheme. Cantabile volunteers to find a piano teacher. He calls in an old acquaintance, M. Belladroit, and offers him extra money on top of his salary to seduce and ruin the five daughters.

Within the first few chapters, Sedition reads like the inverse of a romance novel (though much better written). You feel bad for the girls, because none of this is their fault. You might cheer when Alathea finds love and a musical partnership with Annie, Cantabile's daughter. But, you'll cheer harder when Alathea learns about all the plots in motion around her and the other prospective brides and puts her own plan into play.

This is not an easy book to read. I should warn people now. There's a lot of sex in this book and some of it will make readers of any tolerance uncomfortable. There are times when Grant channels Jonathan Swift in describing sweat and harelips and pocks and hair and blemishes. There is no romance in Sedition (except between Alathea and Annie). To me, this lack of romance made the book more real for me. I felt like I was reading about real, imperfect people.

The ending of Sedition is brilliant and heartbreaking. I don't want to say too much, for fear of ruining it, though. Everything in Sedition leads up to a planned concert in December of 1794, after nearly a year of piano lessons and practice. Everyone's plans will come to fruition (or fail to do so) at the concert. The choreography of the climax is stunning.