Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Comfort, or No Apocalypses for a While

I think there are two reactions, bookwise, to the current political situation.  Some people are stepping up in their reading--reading about politics, social justice, and activism.  Aarti's been posting some amazing, thoughtful reviews this week.

I, on the other hand, am going the other way.  I am avoiding the real world in my reading life--which meant actually dropping a couple of books I was in the middle of, because they were too much about oppressive regimes or fear-mongering charmers who turn the world against your heroes.

Instead, I'm thinking comfort reads.  I was already reading Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, but it's been my go-to this week, because the whole story is so immediate and intimate.  Sue may be a thief, but she's plucky and smart, and reading the book, you could believe that there were only two houses in the world--the little pawn shop and the great dank manor.  I also love an imposter story, and a thief pretending to be a lady's maid seems like the best thing ever. Mike and I have tickets to see the show at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in a few weeks, so this is kind of perfect to read right now.

I have also turned aggressively in a nunward direction.  In following Jenny's recommendation of the book The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio, I wound up in the nun aisle of the library, which of course means I walked away with more than I bargained for.  So I just finished a book called New Habits: Today's Women Who Choose to Become Nuns, by Isobel Losada.  The book was published in 1999, so most of the women were interviewed when I was in college, and there have been a lot of changes in the Catholic church since then.  This book very much made me want to find an even more recent book on a similar subject.

I'm also thinking of rereading Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs, one of my longstanding comfort reads.  I think watching people be heroic in World War II--especially in a world of clear good guys and bad guys (without ignoring that the good guys were no always as good as you wish they were) might be right up my alley right now.

And finally, I'm avidly reading a Buffy fanfic that is so good I can't even tell you.  Just yesterday I caught up on he published chapters; it's near the end, but from now on I have to wait a chapter a day like everyone else.  It's called Otherwise, by one of my favorite fanfic authors, Sigyn, and it's sweet and hard at the same time.  It's a time travel story--sort of--which often just end up being wish fulfillment, "if I knew then what I know now" stories about how much better things would have turned out if the characters had done what we wanted them to.  But this is about might-have-beens, and about what you lose by dwelling on what you already lost.  I love Sigyn's older Buffy, who is harder, but also much stronger in her feelings and sense of self.

So, sweethearts, this is what I read when my heart doesn't know where to turn.  What about you?  I am always looking for another comfort read.  I think it will be a while before I read any dystopian fiction.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Review: Everything Belongs to the Future

Note: This post was written several days ago.  This book is truly excellent and amazing, but I think it would have devastated me if I'd read it today. There's a lot of anger about haves and have-nots here, and right now it's hurting my heart to think about any subject like that.  You should read this book, but if you feel like I do, you might want to wait a couple of weeks.
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There are so many levels on which to love Everything Belongs to the Future that I almost don't know how to talk about it. It's about politics and terrorism and friendship and power. It's about haves vs.  have-nots and about innocence and the health care system and time.  I want to unpack the whole thing and lay it out for you, but I can't do that without spoiling it (and the slow unfolding of details here is so beautifully crafted that I can't bring myself to spoil any of it).

In this future, there is a drug that halts aging.  If you take the fix--one pill every day--you will essentially stay healthy and not age indefinitely.  But of course, the drug company can charge a fortune for it, and does, and so only rich people--and those who are chosen by them as great artists, musicians, actors--can afford the fix.  The rest of the world muddles through outside their inner sanctum.

So right there, you have a very basic fact that I've always thought was interesting about the gap between rich and poor; a lot of what the rich have is time, in a lot of ways.  They can afford to pay others to do tedious, time-consuming parts of day-to-day life--someone to clean your house and mow your lawn. A drive instead of a long bus commute, a job that gives you paid sick days so you can take care of your health.  There are a thousand little ways in which money buys you time.

This is only the tiniest pinpoint of light in the constellation of this novella's thoughtfulness.  Ask about terrorism and betrayal and sacrifice and you imagine a huge, sweeping story, but this is about a bunch of poor kids trying to make their way in the world and maybe make the world a little better.  Every character in here is smudged and shining, broken and beautiful.

Laurie Penny did something here that I want to talk about--every moment that slides past you in the book is worth stopping over and examining, whether it's the politics and economics of the food truck, or the real fraught intensity of making out with someone so as not to get caught doing something worse, or what it means to be an old woman in a world where that is theoretically optional.  I wish I could do a book club about just this book.

Many deep thank yous to Netgalley for my review copy.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Romancing My Heart of Stone

I need to stop reading romance novels that do not come recommended by people who know what they're talking about, like Sarah.  And I really need to stop being tempted by romance novels on Netgalley, because I'm far too picky and far too inexperienced to choose things that fit my very niche romance needs.

The Lady Who Drew Me In is a novel by Thomasine Rappold, third in a series but I didn't realize that till I was almost done and there was nothing lost there at all.  It's the story of Daisy, a young widow of an older, not particularly loving husband who can draw images from other people's minds. This has caused trouble in her life before and she's sworn to herself not to do it again.  Then handsome rogue lawyer Jackson turns up with a case where her talent might be the only thing that can save a little boy's life. So now they're embroiled in an adventure.

Daisy has a soft spot for kids--she desperately wanted children but her older husband was controlling and frigid (of course); now she wants to start a day home for poor children. She really likes kids. Kids are her thing. Kids.  One thing leads to another, and yada yada yada, Daisy and Jackson have to get married. But it's cool--they'll get married, have fun sex, not get emotionally involved, solve the mystery, and then go their separate ways, right?

Nothing unexpected or even really troubling there.  The mystery is actually pretty great, with suspicious townsfolk and sabotage and clues. Jackson is trying to be a better person, Daisy Loves Kids. And they fall in love but of course they can't tell each other--actually, this book is a lot better than some in this respect, in that they often tell each other things that they overhear or why they're being reserved or whatever.

I think the biggest weakness is that there is a lot of internal monologing about how much they love and want each other.  I mean, you expect a lot of emotional thought processes in a romance, but there's no actual forward motion in the feelings department, but a lot of repeated thoughts about how much the love and want each other in spite of all that stands between them.  I'd estimate that it was fully a third of the word count of the book, which was way too much.

That said, those parts were pretty skimmable, and I truly did like the mystery.  I had hoped that the spirit writing thing meant that this would be a slightly magical universe, but it wasn't; it was more like the spiritualism fad of the Victorian era was actually real.  So it wasn't as special as I'd hoped, but it wasn't bad.  Not the highest praise, I'm afraid, but solid.  And thanks to Netgalley for the review copy. And advance thanks to Sarah for further romance recommendations.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Opposite of the Literal Best

Just after the amusing, charming, and edifying pleasure of whimsical nonfiction that was Unmentionable, I was so excited to have the opportunity to follow it up with The Science of Game of Thrones--pop science themed around one of my favorite shows! Perfect follow up to pop history themed around one of my favorite authors!

Yeah, but no.  I mean, not that I had a lot of hope that there would be a lot of actual science to talk about in GoT.  Dragons, white walkers, the Wall, and how long does winter last?  There's not a lot to work with here.  But the fact is that I will take any excuse for a good science niblet, so all you really needed to do is put a little theming around the edges.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  First, Helen Keen's sense of humor is not my cup of tea.  Maybe it's how very British it is, but there's a combination of silliness and mean spirit that I just can't connect with.  She reaches REALLY far to make silly puns, makes fun of people's names and bodies and hobbies.  And while yes, people who speak Klingon recreationally are an easy target, she doesn't tease them in a fond or respectful way.

Even the science, though, is a little--well, rough around the edges.  I was kind of hoping for a set of deep dives into areas that are touched on in the story, but there was no deep dive at all here.  No topic is covered for more than a couple of pages, and some of the concepts are kind of a reach to associate with the show.

Take wildfire.  This is a burning substance that is used in war (Tyrion fires it at Stannis's invading army to defend King's Landing) and it's horrible.  So how does that work?  Now, the Mythbusters would have tried to come as close as they could to it, chemically, which I think would have been interesting.  Keen took a different tack and went with something more historically related than scientifically and talked extensively about napalm.  Okay, that's definitely an acceptable angle.  But first: napalm isn't funny, which I think she struggled with.  And second, it wasn't a very interesting history of napalm.  It was more like a compare and contrast of napalm vs. wildfire, which is not that edifying, since a) I know they're different, and b) wildfire isn't real.

My favorite parts were about the genetics of inbreeding and about possible astronomical (am I the only one who always wants to write astrological when I mean science and not horoscopes?) causes of a winter of unpredictable and dangerous length.  Those were the two sections where I felt like I really learned something. In the wild, inbreeding can actually be beneficial to animal populations--in an environment where weak individuals die off quickly, the "good" genes are the only ones left pretty quickly (though scientists admit this is hard to test, since by the time your population is so low that everyone's inbreeding, you're just on big rockslide away from extinction). And winter could be caused by something besides the orbit of the planet--passing through clouds of space debris that changes the way the sun strikes the planet--which would account for the unpredictability.

But most of it ended up being fake history lessons, and I hate fake history lessons.  I'm all there for worldbuilding, but stories about war machines and the history of armed combat that touch on but don't elucidate how war happened in the real world as an excuse to basically ramble on about Westeros with a lot of bad puns...I was very disappointed.

And now, I shall go read a bunch of the nonfiction suggestions from Jenny at Reading the End, which will make me smarter and happier as a person, I bet.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Literal Best

Having very carefully thought for a full 20 seconds, I hereby declare the title of Most Fun Book I've Read This Year will have to go to Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners.  The entirely unscientific process of selecting this book as the winner is based on the sheer delight of the whole volume.

There are plenty of nonfiction "what was life like back in the old days" books.  I've got another one on my shelf right now that Li was reading for research--What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. It looks like fun, but it seems like more of a reference book--the first chapter breaks down British money (which is SO helpful. How does a pound relate to a crown, you ask?  Well, this book explained it, though I'll admit I still don't know).  So: great research, and interesting if you're immersing yourself; good, readable facts.

Oh, but Therese O'Neill's Unmentionable, this is not for researchers.  This is for people who have been mainlining Mr. Darcy all day and find themselves dying for a walk in the garden with a restrained young man.  It specifically pokes at the parts you're dreaming about, and the parts you're leaving out of that dream.

For example, more time is spent on the bathroom than in any other nonfiction I've read.  Well, not the bathroom--it's more of an outhouse, and a lot of the things you're thinking of were done in your bedroom.  There's information you didn't know about your undergarments, and how you'd go to the bathroom at a ball (the answer may shock you!). The actual smell of a London street is...easier but less pleasant to imagine after reading this.

The facts are the facts, but the fun is all in the telling.  The author is hilarious, addressing you, a time traveler into your favorite Austen book, with an intimate and frank humor, walking you through what your new life is like.  We skim the surface of a lot of subjects, and I'll admit that the social parts--strict rules of behavior and propriety--were not the most interesting, but mostly because I didn't know anything about how Victorians dealt with their periods.  Seriously, how can you not be dying to know?  It's hard enough with flush toilets!

The author's big-sisterly charm and sympathetic pats on the arm as you learn about the hard parts here just draws you through the book, and the frequent inclusion of old photographs and advertisements are hilarious.

This book made me miss The Toast.  It's not as cutting as Mallory Ortberg's work, but that's what it reminded me of--that perfect blend of hopeless love for an era and clear insight into its flaws.  I still want to wear the bonnet and walk through the garden, but I have a much deepened appreciation for modern sanitation.

I got a review copy of this book from Netgalley.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Poster Girl

Ugh, I'm behind again.  I reduced myself to a two-posts-a-week schedule and I'm still behind.

And I have so many great books to write about.  City of Stairs! Unmentionable! (Oh, I'm gonna review the heck out of those; they're both great.) 

But right now I think I need to read Fingersmith next, plus City of Blades and Gemina.  The latter two are sequels that I've been dying for; the former I'm going to see as a play next month.

Do you listen to the Reading the End podcast?  You should!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don't Cross the Streams

I've been reading books that tweak reality a bit, and the overlap can be confusing when you can't keep your head on straight. Like, is this the guy who needs to be careful not to touch anybody, or is this the guy who needs to get shot in the head in case of emergency? It led to moments of weirdness where I was nervous about all the wrong things.

Like, in Claire North's Touch, in which the narrator is a "ghost" who takes over people's bodies, moving from person to person by touch, there's all this tension around exposed skin and physical contact.  The terrified, violent people who are tracking down these ghosts wear body suits and gloves, or hazmat suits. Every time a ghost touches someone, even when there's no jump, there's a moment of tension.

I've liked the last two books I've read by North very much; I think I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August best.  Touch actually felt very much like The Sudden Appearance of Hope, to the extent that the similarity was a bit of a drag.  In all three, you learn about a person whose life is strange because of an impossible affliction--reliving history, being instantly forgotten, moving from body to body.  In each there is an opposition--those are very different, thankfully--whose work is made possible by some vague, generic, hand-wavy science-like goal or quest or tools, and our protagonist explores the moral significance of his/her life in the context of that adventure.

In Touch, the moral part is particularly interesting--the narrator can only live by stealing bodies. He steals time and resources, lies to loved ones.  It's not a choice; even to die, he (a pronoun I choose arbitrarily) would have to use someone else's body.  Sometimes he strikes a deal with someone down on their luck or in need of certain services.  Sometimes he uses an "estate agent" to find a suitable body. Sometimes he flits in and out of people for such a brief moment that they never know he was there.

There is, of course, a paranoid agency trying to destroy these ghosts, and also an evil ghost who is prone to mass murder, so there's a lot of traveling, quick sketches of train trips through Eastern European countries.  Again, if you read The Sudden Appearance of Hope, you know what this looks like.  It's good, but I think I liked Hope better, both as a person and as a book.  Or maybe I just read it first.

But periodically during the tense moments here, I would think, "well, why don't you just let him shoot you? Then everything would be all right."  That's not because I thought suicide was the answer; it's because of the audiobook I was listening to, John Scalzi's The Dispatcher.

In this world, anyone who's been murdered comes back to life.  Doesn't happen if you die by accident, or natural causes, or suicide--only if you were actively murdered by someone.  You disappear from the murder site and reappear at home in your bedroom, body back the way it was a few hours ago (so no pesky bullet holes or broken bones from that fall off the roof). 

This is a new development, something that's only been true for a few years, and there are no explanations. But there's a new system of people called dispatchers who are authorized to take people who are near death and ensure that those deaths will be murders and that, therefore, the person will live. Presumably because the whole weirdness is so new, a lot of people find it hinky.  And apparently there is a lot of grey- or even black-market use for dispatchers.  So when a coworker goes missing, our narrator Tony helps the police track him down.

This is a novella, and it's available only on audiobook, with an acceptable performance by Zachary Quinto, who did a good job with the characters, but whose first person narration was pretty emotionless.  Still, I got used to it, and I'd highly recommend the book--the mystery is good, the worldbuilding is good, and hey, if anything goes wrong, Tony can just shoot you in the head and you get to reset back to zero.

Except that the whole time I was listening to it, any time anyone made physical contact, I'd get really anxious.  Till I realized that I was expecting them to get taken over by a serial killer ghost.

Like I said, too much worldbuilding can get confusing!