Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Aw, Nuts

This is not the review I wanted to write of my first Alyssa Cole romance. So many of my favorite recommenders love her, and I liked A Princess in Theory when I started it, but I got sidetracked by an overdue library book. Finally, though, I got an advance copy of How to Catch a Queen and read it with my book club, right around the release date!

I'm so sorry, so very sorry to say that I quite strongly disliked this book. 

Shanti has always wanted to be a queen, and she has shaped her whole life around this ambition--learning about governance and philanthropy. Sanyu has only ever wanted to be anything but the king of the country he will inherit from his father. The RoyalMatch.com dating website brings Shanti to Njaza to marry Sanyu by his father's deathbed. But she only has three months to prove herself to be the True Queen or be sent away, like so many of Sanyu's father's queens.

Where to begin? The point of the book is that Sanyu has been damaged by a lot of toxic masculinity in the people who raised him--his father and his father's closest adviser, Musoke. But the problem is that he spends the whole book so broken and dull that I couldn't root for him at all. He's got serious anxiety about messing up his father's legacy, so he doesn't do anything at all--doesn't talk in meetings, doesn't have ideas. He's the king he thinks he's supposed to be--mean to people who imply he's anything but perfect, completely subservient to his chief advisor. 

He spends fully three quarters of the book being just what he thinks a king should be--and hating it. I think I'm supposed to pity the poor man for having to be so miserable when he just wants to love and be loved. I don't. I feel bad for how he treats Shanti, yeah, but I'm ragingly angry at him for not taking better care of his kingdom. He knows better.

So I spent most of the book angry at him. The romance mainly consisted of descriptions of uncontrollable physical attraction in moments when two people are having an awkward, or practical, or uncomfortable conversation. I didn't find it all that convincing, that he was so hot she wanted him even when he was being a jerk to her. I've never met anyone that hot.

I did read Cole's thriller, When No One Is Watching, and found it absolutely skin-crawlingly creepy. I promise to try another of her romances soon. Probably A Duke by Default, because some of the characters from that appear in this one, and Portia seems pretty great. 

Thank you, Netgalley, for the book, and I'm sorry, Ms. Cole and all her fans, that I wasn't able to love this book better.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Old West Midwifery

(I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for an honest review.)

In the spirit of reading books close to when they come out, I picked up Anna North's Outlawed, about which I knew nearly nothing except alternate history and midwives, both of which are a hell-yeah for me. Turns out I also get a ragtag band of queer women and nonbinary folks living as outlaws in the Old West. Have you ever heard such a tempting description?

The alternate history premise is pretty great; just after the United States won their independence, a devastating flu killed more than half of the people. The fledgling U.S. didn't make it, but of course the survivors carried on, and by the time of our story the middle of North American is full of small city-states that are basically just Old West towns without the federal government behind them. 

Because of the huge population loss, motherhood has taken a particularly revered, religious, magical overtone. A married woman who doesn't have a child before too long might be a witch, and might end up hanged. When Ada, who's spent her whole life learning to be a midwife from her mother, finds herself childless and getting the side-eye from her neighbors, she has to run.

Her journey over the first half of the book goes to all kinds of places where humanity, knowledge, and superstition live in various combinations. From a convent to a cattle town, to Hole in the Wall, where in real life the notorious Butch Cassidy led his famous gang. Ada's medical skills and thirst for the scientific knowledge that is so thin on the ground in her world is just the kind of detailed worldbuilding fun that I love to read.

The real meat of the book is around the Hole in the Wall Gang, notorious outlaws who are secretly women on the run. Led by the Kid, a visionary whose enormous personality is sometimes all that holds their band together against a world that's out to get them.

While the book is plotted like an adventure, what I love about it is what a careful examination it is of this world--in many ways like our own historical world and even our own current one--and also of what it means to be a person living in it. Ada's is at various points a happy wife, an accused witch, a novice nun, an aspiring scientist, a medic, and an outlaw, and she observes each of these experiences is a way that has me hooked. 

Race is a rising issue in her world, as well, both because of her new friends, but also because of political movements that are spreading through the country. Ada's scientific clarity on the subject is refreshing; her un-outlawlike tendency to say what she's thinking is anxiety-making in a book like this!

I'm at the point where we are engaging in The Big Heist, and I'm so nervous about it that I'm having trouble reading. Pretty much everything that's been at stake at any point in the book is at stake now: Ada's awkwardness as an outlaw, the risk of living disguised as a man, her friend's race, the gang's entire future. But the biggest question mark is the Kid's vision--can a bank heist really create the world they want to live in? 

I honestly don't know the answer. I'm not sure yet if this is the kind of book where we get a happy ending, where alternate history goes the way you want and big ideas and good people can win in the end, or if it's the kind of book where it all falls apart as we're faced with the inevitable fact that we can only shine our little light in the darkness.

Or is it a book where you can win the day and find reality waiting on the other side of your dreams? I have no idea! Hopefully I've just made myself brave enough to read on and find out.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Strong Recommendation, or, An Open Letter to Sarah K.

Dear Sarah,

I owe you an actual email to you, first of all, and that will come. But I'm in a tricky place here. See, I want to force feed A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik, to almost literally everyone I meet, including babies and cats. But I am trying to decide whether to recommend it directly to you.

First: did I love it? Yes, yes I did. How much did I love it? Here's a thing I've literally never done before: I read the book, got to the end, and two days later was not able to stop myself from going back to the beginning and starting the book again. I am halfway through my second read through, a week after my book club talked about it. I love it so much

What did I love? Let's start with Galadriel, the main character, whose voice is absolutely god damned perfect. She is brilliant and unlikable and incredibly rude. She is fragile and perceptive and so lonely. She is trying so hard all the time, and no one can even see it to appreciate it. She is never anything but honest, even when she's playing games with social politics. She's loyal even when she doesn't believe she has anyone to be loyal to. My soul absolutely yearns toward her.

The world building! Imagine Hogwarts without the cheerful fun, just the horrible monsters that seem to crop up in the basement and pipes every now and then. The Scholomance is a school designed to keep magical children as safe as possible from the maleficaria, the creatures that feed on their growing manna. "As safe as possible," however, is not terribly safe, and the school is a very dangerous place to be. 

Galadriel is trying to make her way through school, stay alive, and hopefully make enough of a reputation as a powerful magician to get a spot in one of the safe, walled enclaves when she's out, in spite of the fact that no one ever seems to like her. It doesn't help that she's got a strong innate talent for massive acts of epic destruction. She's destined to be a supervillain, but she absolutely refuses--which means she's fighting the magic as well as her classmates' prejudices.

The book is so good. It fills my heart--the detailed description of the political machinations, of how the school functions and how that forces the students to behave, of the underlying motivations behind obvious behaviors--it's all just spot on brilliant and I love it.

Why, then, you ask me, Sarah, why are you even doubting that you should recommend this wonderful book to me? Here's the thing: it breaks a LOT of rules of "good" writing. There is a huge amount of what I would normally call infodump--chapters where El just explains how magic works, how the school work, how the enclaves work. Objectively, it's a lot. Subjectively, it's a complete pleasure to read--her snarky voice and very practical explanations make me feel like I'm learning useful info about a world I will never be in.

But this results in pages that are single paragraphs of information, long anecdotes told directly to the reader by the narrator. There are chunks that are just about going to class, laced with liberal anecdotes about how dangerous that is.

So I'm cautious--can you get past the walls of text? I think you really should. Because besides what a pleasure it is, the book also takes on some wonderful ideas--ideas about power and the perception of power, about not knowing privilege when you have it, about all kinds of diversity and otherness--and it takes them on with such sympathy and compassion for all these teenagers who are just doing their damnednest not to get eaten by a maw mouth or a siren spider or a soul eater.

Yeah, okay, I've come to a conclusion. Sarah, you should really read this book. Whoever else you are, if you're reading this post, you should also totally and definitely read this book. 

Then maybe read it again.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

This Is Your Brain on Altruism

 In service to a discussion of charitable giving with a friend, I have been reading her book suggestion, The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer. The premise of the book is simply that basic decency requires pretty much anyone in the middle class (or up) in a developed country to give a decent amount, probably more than they're already giving, to the poor in the third world.

So I entirely agree with that premise, and I think a decent amount about my charitable giving and try to give a lot, and don't necessarily think I give enough. And still, reading through an explicit argument about it somehow engages, if not my actual hackles, then at least my argumentative streak. I want to quibble with him SO MUCH.

Some of my quibbles are pretty reasonable, I think. He comes from a philosophy background, but he uses arguments from both philosophy and social psychology to back his premise. He includes a lot more evolutionary psychology than I generally like to see in a good argument (as my son would say, evolutionary psych is suss), and even standard social psych studies always have me picturing how the undergrads who participated in the study do not in any way represent me. 

I'm sure part of it is that I just feel attacked; "you should give more" = "you aren't giving enough" = "you are doing it wrong," which will always coax a knee jerk out of me. Again, I went in agreeing that I should give more, and he has even convinced me of the point my friend was making when she suggested the book, which is that charitable giving to prevent people dying of poverty in other parts of the world is separate from the more feel-good charitable giving to more local, subtle, and/or optional improvements, like Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and local theater.

I think the key thing I want to argue about, though, are things that I think are missing from his list of "why people don't give." His reasons include things like the diffusion of responsibility, the sense that the problem is too big to solve, and the parochialism of caring about your neighbors more than people you've never seen. These are all real reasons that affect people, but they don't really resonate with me.

The problems I see with giving money to help people who are thousands of miles away are problems of trust and efficacy. When I give my money to a local organization, I have access to some amount of information about what it's doing, who is using it. I don't always look deeply into that information, and of course there can be corruption or mismanagement. But I know where my local food bank sets up shop, and I've sorted food at the regional hub. I attend shows at local theaters and listen to public radio; I follow the news enough to know what the ACLU is doing and I know plenty of people who have utilized the services of Planned Parenthood. 

So first, I have to trust that I am giving my money to an organization that is going to use it appropriately. Second, I have to believe that giving money to them will actually help the people at the other end of the transaction. Is the difference I hope to make going to be made? Does my money actually go toward food or medical care or clean water? I keep picturing the Sally Struthers commercials from years ago and feeling manipulated, not hopeful.

Marketing is what has ruined this. The only way to communicate how my help is needed is through marketing--junk mail, Save the Children commercials, etc. And I have learned enough of the world to know that marketing is mostly lies--or at least, enough lies that it's not worth paying much attention to. 

So when I'm offered to add a dollar to my purchase for a random charity, I say no, pretty much always. Because are they really going to get that money? And if they do, is that really going to help anyone?

That's why his arguments that are based on social psychology, where they ask test subjects to donate to a cause and look at what variables influence their decisions, don't resonate with me. I would say no, always.

And then I'd go home and give the money to the causes I've chosen. In case you're interested, I give to MercyCorps (because my friend who works with refugees identified them as people who have been on the ground helping her clients), Doctors Without Borders (famous and well-regarded enough that I have some idea of what they do), and Give Directly (endorsed by Peter Singer, the author of the book I'm reading, so presumably super well-researched).

And this book is convincing me that I should donate more. And that instead of totaling my giving to these places in the same category as my donations to local radio and theater, the PTA and my local library, political candidates and advocacy groups, that I should count those as two separate categories. Call them causes I support for the latter and basic obligations to my fellow humans for the former.

I am not religious at all, but I know how lucky I am in this world, and that a tithe is the least I can do.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Space Virus Cult

I've mentioned that I'm terrible about advance copies. In an effort to be less terrible, I'm reading books that came out last year that were given to me for early review. Retroactive responsibility for the win!

One that I'd been really excited about was Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace. The cover just screamed "space action movie" and the premise--"A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller"--promised the same. And it delivered very precisely on that promise.

In addition to "space action movie," we also get a layer of "heist" and "cult" in the plotting--again, all in space. Just catnip. Our two narrators are both on a shuttle that is hijacked in an attempt to board a floating relic--an enormous research ship that has been adrift in the solar system for a decade, since everyone aboard succumbed quickly to a virus believed to have been released by an angry, discredited scientist. One was the lone survivor of the virus as a child; the other is leading the hijacking on behalf of the Family, a group of outsiders searching for a permanent home.

This book would make an amazing movie. The flashbacks to Jas's memories of his childhood trauma; Zahra's determined loyalty to the wrong cause and moral struggles; the dorky tech nerd, the creepy, haunted ship. A lot of the strokes in the story are a little broad, especially the characterization of the other members of the Family, but in my mind, Zahra in many ways makes up for that. So many books about people in cults are about them being full of doubt, but Zahra believes in her mission. She's had a hard life, and the Family has genuinely saved her. But she's also smart, and when things start happening that require her to improvise, she starts thinking faster and faster. 

Jas was raised by his very powerful aunt and lives a life of privilege, but his relationship with his best friend, whose immigrant family suffered a great deal to get him everything he has gives Jas important perspective. He's got a lot of suppressed issues around, you know, his parents dying horribly. Being back on the House of Wisdom is bad news, especially when it looks like the virus didn't die with the crew.

This is all backstory, but I think the richness of all the details as they unfold really makes the story. It's fast paced, with chasing and hacking and fighting and parasites and explosions. The entire backstory unfolds as the plot does, which keeps the pacing from being too breakneck or too info-dumpy. There are some very cool action set pieces, and the virus is super creepy, but I think that the character and history unfolding are really what make this an above-average read.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Hogwarts Was a Dangerous Place

 I read a Tumblr post back when school started up in person that said something like "I used to that people sending kids to a school where they're likely to be eaten by a giant snake was implausible, but now I see it." 

I'm reading Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, about a school of magic where your job is just to survive while the school spends four years or so trying to kill you. Or rather, the beasties try to kill you while you're stuck in the school; "graduation" is just survival, and the rates are dismal.

This book is making me so happy I can't even tell you. I keep having to put it down because I like the cranky, grouchy, snarky narrator so much and every time she has a warm feeling she grouses about it and my heart explodes. 

It's one of my favorite kinds of books, which is a detailed, systematic look at how to go about living in a difficult situation. A big part of what I love is just the exposition, the ethnographic detail of how 1,000 teenagers do everything from negotiate status to use the bathroom without getting eaten by something out of the drain. There is so much worldbuilding and every bit of it is fascinating in both its creativity and its mundanity.

El, the main character, is a very gifted magician with a natural affinity for enormous acts of death and destruction. But she refuses to be a malificer. Unfortunately, that means working against her own magical affinity, and everything is twice as hard for her, and everyone still looks at her like she just might kill them in their sleep. Her whole life has been this way; she's used to it.

Then she meets Orion Lake, who is Not Harry Potter but is prone to wandering around the school saving random lives. He saves her life at an inopportune moment, and she snarks at him. Thus begins a friendship that is entirely incomprehensible to everyone at school, including El. 

El is an angry, brilliant delight. She is unlikable and knows it and has worked around it all her life, but god she's tired. She's very good at the strategy and tactics that are involved in the elaborate political and survival machinations in the school hierarchy, even though she's near the bottom of the pecking order. And as people start to really see her--for better or worse--she stays determinedly herself.

In the larger sense, the book is about power and privilege, and the parts of the power structure that you can only see from the outside. It's also about what makes a person a good person, or a worthy person, especially when driven to extremes. And it's about deprivation, and human contact, and friendship and strength and my heart is in a puddle on the floor again. I'm going to die because of how much I love this book. Five stars. All the stars. I might have to read it again.