I listen to a lot of audiobooks, read a lot of library books and e-books, still somehow never have enough room on my bookshelves.
Man, I'm really struggling with this one. There's a lot of politics and arguing about trade deals, which makes me happy, but the magic system isn't that interesting, and I don't care about most of the characters except for the one female PoV (out of five PoVs so far) who is someone's little sister and has shown up once. Maybe if I keep going it'll be amazing? IDK.
I'm this far in, and we've just met our first female character! She's someone's sexy sexy mistress. If this book hadn't comes so highly recced by people I trust, I'd be out by now.
At least in regards to women. I felt like Yiddish Policemen's Union was a massive step up from Chevalier and Clay in that regard, but this was... a step sideways at best.
I don't know, maybe I just wasn't feeling this book. It's a pretty self-indulgent project in that it's a fictionalised family biography of his grandfather and himself wrapped together and told out of order, and it never quite gelled for me. I enjoyed a lot of the segments, especially the WWII stuff. I liked the relationship between Chabon and his mom. I liked the humour much of the time.
I just never quit developed a strong attachment to the characters, and the different timelines never really told a story in a way that justified the skipping chronology. We get bits of his grandfather in WWII, bits of his childhood, bits of a year in prison, bits of his courtship and tumultuous marriage, bits of a later courtship with another woman, bits of him dying. Almost all of it starring as him being gallant and heroic. The through line is possibly his relationship to rockets and a one-sided rivalry with Werner Von Braun, or it could be his relationship with his manic pixie dream wife. I couldn't really tell, and by the end I didn't care.
I'm probably being overly harsh with that description, but it seemed like the purpose of the women in this story was to be difficult, frustrating, slightly mad, and very sexy. We rarely if ever saw the story from their perspective, but we get a series of prostitutes, French girls with mysterious pasts, sexy widows in retirement homes. There's a lot about the grandmother's mental illness, especially in how it effects the men around her (and to some extent her daughter), and very little about what's actually going on in her head or what she wanted. A lot of the interactions involved implied sexual violence.
Towards the end, we get a narrative-shattering backstory revelation that more or less sinks without a ripple, and I always came back to the feeling that--rocket obsession aside--I'd much rather be reading the novel that Cabon decided not to write about his grandmother. Too bad he didn't go with that.
So this is a book that Vita Sackville-West (member of the Bloomsberry Group, sometimes lover of Virginia Woolf) wrote half way through the second world war. I had thought going in it had a similar premise to Farthing by Jo Walton, but no, in this book the Nazis conquered the UK and Ireland, and the US having won the Pacific War made peace with the Third Reich. The story follows a group of characters in a hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon, about a year after these events. The two main characters are both English expats living in the hotel, and there are US air force officers, a bunch of college kids, and a handful of other European refugees, plus the hotel staff. Some of them will be turn out to be Nazi Fifth Column, some will be up to no good in other ways, and war draws closer by the day.
Sounds exciting, right? Yeah, no. It wasn't. This is a short book, and it took my ten days to read it (granted I was busy for much of it, but still!). The two main point of view characters spend massive amounts of page time hanging out and chatting, mostly about their opinions of the other characters, especially one of the college girls. Who does not and never will have anything whatsoever to do with the plot. At all. They also talk about their experiences during the war and current events, but seriously massive page time on stuff that isn't interesting and won't matter to the story.
The style is very dialogue heavy. Everyone gets long monologues either aloud or internal about their feelings about each situation, and absolutely none of it is anything a human being would ever say, though maybe it works for thoughts some of the time. There is also a good deal of racism directed at the black musician characters, including the N-word a couple times, and an ambivalent relationship with the Hopi characters.
However, for all that? I still found it absolutely fascinating. There are some SF elements in the uses of technology (there are supersonic heavy bombers in 1942, and undisclosed WMD that was used to defeat England, and underutilised technology that can draw electricity from the air ala Tesla), and then the last third has a strong fantasy element that I won't spoil but which was used to great effect. I also really liked a lot of the responses to trauma that the female PoV character was working through, and a lot of her interactions. A lot of the writing especially the descriptions of place and emotion were gorgeous.
I think if you're interested in the evolution of alternate histories, especially of WWII, or of Sackville-West. If you're going to be more interested in everything that's happening off page, you might find it incredibly frustrating.
This, for the record, is the cover of Nenya's edition, which I grabbed off the shelf to check the spelling of something. And then started at in silent amazement for some time.
Nenya: Yeaaaaah. There's a reason I haven't read that series yet.
*I know it's '73 because that's when the inbound ad for Kent menthol ciggies is dated. Also we are GOING to get that new collected edition of Earthsea when it comes out in the fall!
Plot, humour action scenes, dragons, love, more dragons, the heroine AGAIN saving the day, this time with smarts. Basically its everything I want in a shifter romance, and a box of kittens besides. (The kittens were really cute!)
I loved Ben's endless and increasingly byzantine family drama, and how tangled up in it all he could get. There were some great bits of world building in there, and I liked how the dragon shifter politics worked so differently from the "conventional" animal ones. Tessa was a great heroine, and I loved her cool under pressure and tangle of issues and how all that also tied into the larger plot. It was really well put together, and very enjoyable.
Looking forward to Melody and the bookstore. (I am finding the and then they moved to an idyllic small town! endings a bit jarring, but I guess that's the convention of the genre.)
I hit a couple images that I recall from Dad reading it to us, but I suspect I only reread the first two as a teen. My memory isn't that bad.
Our teen protagonist of the book is the heir to a prestigious island princedom who comes to the Isle of Roke for help. The magic is vanishing from the world, and he needs the help of Arch-Mage Sparrowhawk to figure out what's gone wrong. Prince Arren then sidekicks and plays observer to Ged for the rest of the story, and has an adorable crush on his mentor throughout.
Again the point of view shift works incredibly well. Ged gets a few short scenes of his own thoughts (most of which are about wanting to see Tenar, which is really sweet), but he really did turn into a sea-going Gandalf somewhere in the middle there. He's remote, versatile, wrapped up power and magical theory (mostly Taoist), with sudden flashes of humour and warmth. There's a beautiful line about how sudden and genuinely sweet his smile is. Though I would be very interested in a book from his point of view now since I love cranky-old-person narration, he's gotten a bit esoteric for what was essentially a young adult book. A lot of the book is about how to be a good leader, both as described and as modelled by Ged, Arran (whose favourite saga hero is his favourite because he could have taken over the world, but chose not to), and a couple dragons. The Taoism gets a big didactic at times.
So much of the first book wraps back around in this story, which marks the end of Ged's magical career as the first marked the beginning. He himself reflects that this will be what he's known for, his final great quest and its almost incidental conclusion of his life's work (which showed up as sub plots of the previous two books). He spent his life learning so that he could teach Arran. He also spent his life learning so that when someone else copied his first magical mistake and then ran with it, Ged could find and fix the problem before it literally sucked all the joy out of the world. We learn what a difference being a good man a heart made to the conclusion of the first story (and how Ged's temper still causes some pretty huge problems.)
I don't know my high fantasy history well enough to know if this was the first time the "magic is disappearing" plot was showed up (I've certainly run into it many times in later books), but rarely have I seen it so well done. The depression, amnesia and onset of barbarity in the affected regions is as horrifying to the reader as it is to Arran. There are a few comedy bits of people complaining about kids these days, but mostly it's madness, forgetting and death. The descriptions of sailing to the edges of the world as our hero falls deeper and deeper in the grip of this power are absolutely hair raising, and again Le Guin's control of language shines.
Though this book again has no female protagonists, it's actually trying a lot harder than the first two to add non-evil women of power to Earthsea. Aside from the mention of Tenar, we learn that Yarrow is one of seven people Ged trusts with his name, and the most powerful wizards we meet are both women (though currently powerless because of the plot). The progenitor of the dragons pointedly does not have a known gender. The saga hero Ged sees the most of himself in seems to be a female one.
And even that as a series of images an brief scenes: Tenar being called home through the orchard, sitting with Penthe on the wall when the looms should be black with cloth, learning to catch thrown knives, peep holes under stones in the desert, no one knowing what a bracelet was. It's more than I have of the other two, and I think that's because Tenar was a girl, and it was easier to imagine being her. Alternately, this book is just more vividly imagined than the rest, but I don't think that's true.
Le Guin chose to continue her series about Ged and letting him get older, wiser and more powerful, while keeping the protagonist a teenager. This landed her with the pleasant challenge of making a point of view character who tortures the ever living hell out of the hero of the previous book, who we love, while still remaining sympathetic. We do not meet Ged until half way through the book, and we don't get his point of view at all, other than as filtered through the teenage high priestess of the evil chaos gods. Even still, we see him clearly: Kind, humorous, a little arrogant still, now unimaginably powerful, and having an incredibly bad week.
Tenar we get to know better, and she's always been my favourite. She's the first time I ran into the prototypical YA heroine, and I've liked the type ever since. She is raised in a place where feelings are absolutely a weakness that not only her evil chaos gods will jump on, but her political rivals will as well. The only person she can trust is her eunuch guard, (and she doesn't understand his value until too late), so she's essential on her own from age five to sixteen. All advice and offers of friendship must be weighed and checked for dangers, everyone and everything must be watched and figured out without help. If she slips up, she'll die, probably horribly.
We're given all this during the first half of the novel, and then she meets Ged. She immediately tries to murder him. The rest of the book is Tenar exploring her personhood in the same way she explores the black subterranean maze under her temple. There's a lot of stumbling, and a lot of feeling around, and this really, really isn't Ged's week, but watching Tenar figure it out is gorgeous.
I will say that I'm glad the novel didn't explicitly push the romance angle. I'd heard it said that it was Ged's big romance, and I profoundly wasn't feeling it because Tenar was so young and emotionally shattered. However, while there's a powerful bond between the two, anything sexual that may or may not happen, happens after the end of the book when Tenar is free. (Powerful wizards not sleeping with teenage priestesses is a trope that a few more books of the period could have benefited from.)
Feeling kind of fug (DAMN YOU FEBRUARY!) so I'm finishing things, and will hopefully get to reviews later. Which is why it looks like I'm reading 12 things at once.
Eleven books read:
Women Writers Bingo: 3/25
(Personal take: Finish 25 books by new-to-me female authors in 2018*)
Finished in January: Wioletta Greg, Rose Lerner, Katherine Arden
Fiction: 7 by women, 0 by men, 0 by non-binary
Non fiction: 1 by women, 3 by men, 0 by non-binary
Paper books that I own: 0
Paper books from library: 5
E-books that I own: 1
E-books from library: 1
Audiobooks that I own: 4
1. Finish reading for Hugo Award nominations (Jade City, Prey of the Gods, Winter Tide).
2. Read at least one book for black history month
3. Stop ordering fucking library books.
*Women Writers Bingo Bonus Points:
5 of those books in translation: 1/5 (Swallowing Mercury)
5 of those books are non-fiction: 0/5
Bingo Companion Round:
5 books by non-binary authors: 0/5
I can't tell if this was a gothic romance about the fey, or an extended metaphor for seasonal affective disorder. I spent a lot of the novel not knowing what was going on, but feeling like it was probably bad, which feeling was heartily shared by the heroine.
It's set in a small town in New England or Quebec (corn, hummingbirds and colour change in the fall) in a time before internal combustion. The characters are white, but no one has an identifiably Anglo-Saxon name, or a German name, or a Swedish name (some of them sound French?). No one mentions history/politics/government/nation/currency. It could be any village, except it's so explicitly not any village that it feels like it as much as fairyland is half a universe over.
The town itself feels claustrophobic even before the snow sets in. Everyone knows everyone. No one ever seems to leave. The family with the great house on the hill is cursed, but no one remembers exactly how. When the son of the family returns, he is watched, waiting for the curse, by the heroine most of all. She watches as the hero tries to struggle free, as the barriers between her slightly out of this world village and another world entirely start to break down, as she and her family are pulled into another reality, presumably to their deaths. There's a touch of the Snow Queen in this, and a touch of the Fairy Queen, and a dash of Anne Radcliffe.
All of this is expressed in closely written, vivid language, that makes the barrier between dreaming and waking, her world and fairyland increasingly unclear. Which indeed is the case, and the book pulled off the immersion very well, but by the end it was all so tightly packed together and murky that I felt like I couldn't breath. Also, I'm really unclear as to what was going on.
I'm interested in the second book, which takes up the story in contemporary America.
My dad read the first four to us when we were tiny smol, and then I reread the trilogy as a teen, so it's very hard to separate this book from my memories of this book, which are vague but wondrous.
Le Guin herself said that the lack of positive, powerful women was a mistake made by a young author who wasn't yet secure in her writing, and thought that joining the fantasy authors boys' club meant writing about boys. Which shows, and I'm not going to tell anyone that the first book is not sexist and exclusive. I'm putting that mostly first in order to then set it aside for the rest of the review. (I will say that my father's open adoration of books written by a woman did something for my own confidence as a writer.)
What the book is about is a young man who isn't yet secure in his power, and thinks that joining the wizard's boys' club means being a dick. The rest of the book shows him learning from other wiser, kinder and more gentle men, and learning from himself, and learning to love. The quest is not to slay anything (though some dragons bite the dust along the way), but to understand and be better. Better explicitly means more compassionate.
It also deals with trauma recovery, in a way that I immediately identified with. Early in, our hero over reaches, and is hurt very badly, and with potentially world-ending consequences, and the memory of that hurt echoes through everything he does for the rest of his life. It's more obvious at first, where he basically curls in a ball and doesn't talk to anyone, and refuses to use magic, but even towards the end, he holds this hesitation in his heart. It could hurt again; he could screw up again; would it be better if he just... stopped. (It also deals with depression.) The depth of feeling is incredible.
Everyone talks about Le Guin's use of language, and I remembered it being very beautiful, but I hadn't remembered how completely in control of it she was, at a sentence level, even this young. The prose is very high fantasy, but unlike a lot of Tolkien imitators, Le Guin knew how to use the "Why Yes, I have read Beowulf more than once" sort of old English turns of phrase and restrained emotion to wonderful effect. It plays along and under and through our hero's own hesitation, and snarkily comments on his previous arrogance. When we see him break, it's all the more powerful because of his previous restraint. (At one point, he says something mildly disappointed, and I immediately wanted to hug him, because he was clearly heartbroken.)
Finally, I love Vetch, and want to read a whole series about him being the Wizard of Iffish, and what his family is doing, and possibly hanging out with Sparrowhawk when he blows through.
The planning we were threatening to carry out was best described by a skeptical Pentagon colleague: "We send in a series of increasingly larger probes. If they're all stopped, we fire a [nuclear] warning shot. If that doesn't work, we blow up the world."
Which seems to have been the core of US nuclear strategy from about 1946 to the present day. It's not like I didn't know about MAD/SAD, but seeing it laid out clearly and logically is something else again.
The strongest parts of the book describe Ellsberg's own "confessions" and his involvement in assessing and forming US nuclear policy in the '50s and '60s, as well as descriptions of the Cuban Missile Crisis (even scarier than you thought!) and other key events in that time. That takes up the first two hundred or so pages. The descriptions are often darkly funny in the line of a Terry Gilliam movie, and are especially interesting for Ellsberg's descriptions of the cold warrior mindset and how he himself was almost completely sucked into it (so much so that he didn't even register his own participation in the brinkmanship of the day until decades later).
The latter hundred pages or so of text describes the evolution in US policy starting with city bombing in WWII that led to "blowing up the world" being on the strategy table at all, the way the US has used threat of nuclear attack in its foreign policy from Truman through to the present day, and some tentative suggestions as to how to undo this mess. This section is interesting, but not as strong, and I wish the "dismantling" part had been about fifty pages longer and more specific. Ellsberg seems to more or less have dropped that part in the lap of the next generation. Which is his right, but the books could have used a stronger conclusion.
All and all, it's well worth reading for the history, especially if you're a fan of sites like Nuclear Secrets. As a Canadian, I can mostly hope and prey that good sense prevails in Russia and the US.
This book had a singular genius in regards to managing to hint at something I found really interesting, and then make the story about something else. Incredibly time and place specific court politics? Oh yeah, that's happening in Moscow, and we're stuck in the woods. Subverting fairy tales? The author will cordially nod at subversion across the room and then go full steam ahead with unsubverted fairy tales. Clash between pagan and Christian beliefs, exploring the world views of both? Nope, it's pure sweet pagans v. evil leach priests.
This is basically the story of a pure pagan witch who is persecuted by her evil step mother and by the town's corrupt priest who has the hots for her and punishes her for his own lust. If you think that sounds like a plot that blew in from the 1980s, oh boy you're right! The only characters who got the least hints of personality moved to Moscow about five chapters in, and were never seen again. Everyone else were more or less types swept along in story logic. Why did the towns people abandon their very helpful gods to switch to a new fake religion? Because the hot priest told them to! Why did no one give the magical talisman to the heroine until the eleventh hour, despite five hundred warnings of the dire consequences of not doing so? Because the plot demanded a draggy middle section, and the storytelling wanted her to be as poorly informed as possible. Why were almost all threats to the heroine sexually charged? Because realism or something. Probably.
The writing itself could be very beautiful, but reading it in a long stretch made me realise how hard the author was leaning on a few tricks and a basket of repeated phrases. Everything was "as sure footed as a stag" or "soft as a cat." The word "suddenly" was used once a paragraph in all action scenes. (I may have been at the "I'm so annoyed at this I'm going to pick nits phase" by the end there.) The pacing was also all over the place, but I blame first novel.
Mostly though I'm too old and too tired for stories about wicked stepmothers (unless it's from their point of view for the whole story, and then by all means proceed!) And trying to make this one simultaneously sympathetic and still evil in a very specific gendered way only made the character's lack of salvation seem really petty on the part of the author. It reminded me of this analysis of disproportionate death in Jurassic World. And then making the last quarter or so about the heroine feeling trapped by her lack of choice, while never actually giving her any choices didn't feel that well thought through either (nor the deus ex machina in the final battle). It felt very much like, "I'm not like those other girls who just love being married off to strangers or joining convents!" I'm guessing the main difference there is that those other girls don't have magic powers, and therefore have fewer choices, but the story never quite sees that either.
I was reading this for a book club, and I can't tell if I weren't reading it for that if I'd have bailed about 30% in or not. I might have kept going on grounds that a) I'd bought the book, b) I wanted to see if it really did manage to do anything more complicated or interesting than a straight up fairy tale. It kept hinting that it might. Then it didn't.
Which I can't be arsed to add. But Lerner's own covers are really lovely!
Anyway, I really liked this book. The conflict set around a national election and the complicated rules about who could vote and how to bribe them was original and created realistic, high stakes drama for all the major characters. Some of the political scandals felt a little on the nose, but I don't suppose politics have changed that much.
I liked the heroine, and how prickly and self contained she was. Her struggle to decide who to marry, and if she should remarry at all, and her conflicted feelings about her first marriage were very well drawn. I liked that a lot better than Romancelandia's usual virgin widows. She had loved before, did still love her in laws, but still felt like she'd missed out. That interacted well with the hero's poor communication skills, and lack of self awareness. So that the conflict turned into two character who never ever wanted to discuss their feelings trying to open up to each other, which also felt believable, and made me root for them without thinking they were idiots. I also liked that not everyone was a peer, and the book was quite funny.
There were about fifteen different side plots, most of which I was invested in, and which all came together reasonably well in the end, However, that did lead to the big dramatic reveal scene feeling a bit rushed. There were just so many people who had to get their oar in by then. That felt like an early book pacing problem, and I bet the rest of the series has improved by then. Some of the gender politics also felt a little modern for folks in 1812. However, given how on the nose the scandals were, I'll take that over period-appropriate horribleness.
Will definitely be going back to Lively St. Lemeston in the near future.
I finally hit my DNF point about 60% through when I realised that I was never going to reconcile myself to the fact that the hero, an English duke raised in England, was secretly a king fu master. My level of BUT WHY!? was too high for anything but the most riveting of adventures to keep me going, and nothing else in this book was that. (But why is: when he was studying at... Harrow or somewhere... he met a Chinese martial arts master by chance and he taught him the secrets of kung fu. The book answered none of the questions I had about that, most of which revolved around why it was a plot point at all).
The rest of the hero's (non kung fu related) persona revolved around being very rich, very fashionable and very bored. I feel like the author maybe watched the Anthony Andrews version of The Scarlet Pimpernel one too many times (not that there's anything wrong with that!)
Meanwhile the heroine was raised in one of those Quaker Anarchist orphanages that don't teach you about the class system, so she hits finding out that she's the legitimate daughter of an Earl with zero knowledge of anything, and proceeds to insist on being simple and true to herself and as good as anyone and hiring all her friends as maids. ("A Quaker Anarchist is guided through London society by a Kung Fu master," quoth a friend, "that sounds pretty good, actually." YOU WOULD THINK SO! Alas, the author doesn't lean into it.)
One would think that the 1810s would be a perfect time to declare war on ruffles, given the neoclassical turn in women's fashion around then, but the author disagrees, and claims that All The Other Girls dressed in an overly fussy manner (I was pretty confused about the period generally. Queen Charlotte is on the throne, and they're at war in France, but it's all ruffled dresses and dancing the waltz. WHEN IS THIS SET!?).
I may be obsessing over details? It may be because I don't care about the plot? Since there's literally no conflict and next to no romantic tension between the main characters? This underlined by all scenes being told and retold two or three times. In any case, enough is enough.
WHY WAS HE A KUNG FU MASTER? WHY!?