We don’t all have to like the same stuff

This is the second Adrian Goldsworthy book that I’ve tried to read and failed. It turns out that his books are not for Kates. I do know people who very much like his stuff; your milage may vary.

My main issue was that Pax Romana, instead of being about peace in the ancient Roman world, was actually about war and the military. Now, the subtitle of the book, yes, does state that it was also about war, but for the life of me, I could not find the “how was life during the peaceful times or maybe away from the frontiers where the fighting actually happened.”

And yes, the military is a huge part of Ancient Rome – but that’s why the title of this one intrigued me. I wanted a look from a different point of view, tell me about the other parts. I didn’t get the peace bits, and it bored me after awhile.

Alas, I couldn’t finish it, not even after trying for months. I finally, guiltily put it down a couple of weeks ago.

On the other hand…

I am of two minds about Kitchens of the Great Midwest. On the one hand, it’s about doing something really, really well – cooking in this case; it’s about building your own community; it’s got an interesting narrative structure; and it takes place in a loving version of the midwest, the midwest as an awesome place to be, not the midwest as a place to run away from.

On the other hand, there are no positive depictions of relationships between women – they are all passive-aggressive with each other, even the ostensible friends; and there are very few – maybe no – positive parent-child relationships portrayed either. The only good parent in this book is a dead parent.

Ultimately, what you think of Kitchens of the Great Midwest depends on how you come down on these ideas. For me, they largely balance each other out. My deep irritation of the continued depiction of women not supporting each other outweighs much of the positive.

As always, your milage may vary.

(This actually might be the strongest opinion I’ve ever held about a book I would give 3/5 stars to.)

Women in the workplace

Historical fiction is really about current issues, just placed in a different time to make the ideas more palatable. In this case, The Girls in the Picture is ostensibly a chronicle of Mary Pickford (the first movie star) and Frances Marion (an early screenwriter and director) from the 1910s through to 1969 – but it’s about women who care passionately about work, being the only woman in the room, and female friendship.

I’d like to read more about these topics please. Women who support each other, women who like both work and relationships, and all of the things they go through to succeed? All of them are good.

The characterization and the writing – they were fine. I like the ideas of the book more than I liked their instantiation. The Girls in the Picture wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t so compelling that I needed to finish it immediately. It was a good story to read a chapter or two of before sleeping at night.

A delight of a book

Remember last month when I said I needed some light fluff to relax during a particularly stressful time? The Wedding Date was the book I needed. It’s a lovely romantic comedy in book form that was sweet and talked about food a lot.

The central romance is between two hard-working professionals – a black woman who is the Chief of Staff to the Berkeley mayor and a white man who is a new doctor down in LA. They have a meet cute in a stuck elevator, and everything goes from there. The tension comes mainly from their busy careers and the idea that their relationship isn’t ever serious, despite them both wanting it to be.

It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was a goddamn delight. Recommended.

Gritty + Glamour makes things interesting

I want to talk about two different things that were going through my head whilst reading Murder in Belleville.

The first is quick and easy to dismiss: The Triplets of Belleville is a goddamn delight of a song and would pop into my head at completely inappropriate times.

The second is that blurb on the cover, the one that says the book is so very “French.” I spent much of the book trying to figure out why that was the case. Why? Because France was dealing very much with immigrants, many of them Algerian, in the early 90s (well, it still is, just in different ways now)? Because I suspect you could lift this storyline and put it into a city in modern America, you wouldn’t have to change it very much. (Perhaps that’s a product of America becoming more French – this was published in 2000.)

Otherwise, Murder in Belleville is a perfectly fine mystery/thriller. You don’t know what’s going on; there is governmental intrigue, a hunger strike, and eventually a hostage situation; this is a gritty world, and you don’t normally see Paris portrayed as dirty and gritty. The juxtaposition of gritty and glamorous is one of the things I quite enjoy about Paris in real life. I stayed up later than I intended last night so I could finish it before I went to sleep.

I’ll probably read the next one in the series at some point, too.

Sometimes you want brain candy

I swear I didn’t plan on having a sort-of romance novel publish on Valentine’s Day.  And yet, here we are.

Falling is the type of book I was looking for when I said I wanted something lighter and fluffier than I’d been reading. Something about relationships, where, even though there is angst along the way, there is ultimately a happy ending. It wasn’t the ending I expected – not in the slightest – but it was the right ending.

The writing wasn’t great, the character development wasn’t great, and I wanted the book to be better than it was, but I also kind of didn’t care that it wasn’t. It was… fine.

It was a respite from my stressful January, and that was exactly what I wanted.

You guys, War and Peace is a soap opera

This is the first time I’ve read War and Peace. I never read it for school, and to read it on your own… It took some courage-building on my part.

But I loved it! Here’s what I’ve come to realize about War and Peace: people think it’s dense and complicated because it ends on a 40-ish page meditation on the nature of free will. The other 1160 pages of it? Are action-oriented and often very soap-opera-y. There’s a scene towards the beginning where two women are literally fighting over the will of the wealthy man who is dying in the next room. (And, really, they’re both poor and the way society was structured at that point: whoever inherited from him would be fine and whoever didn’t would probably be in the poorhouse for the rest of her life. I have some sympathy.) That kind of thing happens a fair bit – it makes for a good story.

The story dragged a bit when Napoleon was invading Moscow; but maybe it was that my life got busy. Overall, it was a much better read than I thought it was going to be. Two thumbs up.

Universe Building

I need to re-read La Belle Sauvage. Were I a real book reviewer, rather than just an enthusiastic amateur, I’d re-read it before writing this short review. Why? Because I was so caught up in what was happening and what was going to happen next that I didn’t have time to properly appreciate the world and its weirdnesses. Not the faeries, not the river spirits, not the fact that a part of people’s souls live outside themselves and take animal form.

That description makes it sound fantastical and weirder than it is. In truth, it’s populated by very practical, pragmatic people. Maybe that’s why the fantastical elements work so well.

This is the first book in a prequel series to His Dark Materials, which I highly recommend. La Belle Sauvage is part set-up, part quest to save baby Lyra from the evil Magisterium – organized religious fanatics with political influence. They might run Switzerland? It’s unclear, and the Swiss association always makes me think they’re Calvinists.

The whole universe is entertaining and thought-provoking to explore. If for no other reason than to think about what animal your dæmon – the part of your soul  that lives outside your body – would be.

Definitely recommended.

Is wizard-noir a genre?

I was looking for some brain candy to read and my husband summed up Storm Front as “he’s a private detective in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard.” I said “SOLD.”

The writing style is very noir; it wants to be Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The mystery is fairly typical – there are two different threads that get pulled together at the end of the book, someone wants our hero dead, the crime gets pinned on him at some point during the story. And, naturally, there’s some past thing our hero has done and he can’t use magic to fight his way out without getting in trouble with the larger wizard community.

But a mystery is about taking a crazy world and ordering it. It gets rid of some of the chaos and at the end the world makes a little more sense. And that, it turns out, was what I needed.

I didn’t need to be put on edge

I enjoyed A Study in Charlotte, but The Last of August has a paranoid tone through the whole book that I just couldn’t get past. It was not pleasant, I was not entertained, and the entire time I was reading it, I was on edge.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, the resolution of an unsettling or paranoid set of circumstances can be a relief and the paranoia contrasts enough with the relief to make you focus on that. Not this time. Watson suspects that he is being used by the entire Holmes clan in this particular mystery that revolves around stolen art and stolen identities. The resolution is not particularly satisfying and it feels so personal that it was unpleasant.

I suppose that was the point – reading, to a degree, is about putting yourself in the  hands of the author, asking to have your emotions manipulated. It doesn’t always have to be pleasant, and sometimes not enjoying the experience is the point. But it was not what I needed.