Shipwrecks and leadership

Island of the Lost is a book about a shipwreck in the 1860s, south of New Zealand, and the five men who survived against all odds. This is the story of their struggle, their teamwork, how and what they ate, the house they built, and the engineering ingenuity that allowed them to endure through 18 months of being stranded. (Seriously, the engineering skills were crazy amazing. There was one point where I was reminded of The Professor from Gilligans Island. Alas, no coconut radios for these gents.)

It’s contrasted with another shipwreck on the other side of the same island while these men were on the other. Those men were not well-led and most of them did not survive a much, much shorter abandonment.

I read Island of the Lost purely for book club – it’s not a book I would have picked up on my own. That said, I would recommend it if you like shipwreck stories or are looking for non-cheesy leadership lessons.

Not in the mood for sci-fi

Giving up on The City in the Middle of the Night was a hard decision that was easy to do once I made it. It has nothing to do with the book. Her writing is great, and I was drawn into the world building. Alas, I realized shortly after I picked it up that I was really, really not in the mood for science fiction. Sometimes that happens.

Charlie Jane Anders is an amazing writer, and I would encourage you to read The City in the Middle of the Night if you are into science fiction.

Late Monet: playing with light

There’s a temporary Monet exhibit at the Deyoung museum through Memorial Day weekend. It focuses on his later years, which I associate with the Water Lilies paintings that are kept in the l’Orangerie museum in Paris. They are not my favorite, honestly. They are impressive in size, but are otherwise just shades of pastel colors that I don’t find especially interesting.

What I’m saying: I went to the Late Monet exhibit because I wanted to see the art, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up too much.

But I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would. Why? Well….

I don’t think of Monet and Van Gogh as being painters who were particularly similar. But this painting above (and there were others in the exhibit)? May have changed my mind about that. The brushstrokes are similar, and the colors are brighter and more vivid than I remembered. There is a life to these paintings that I wasn’t expecting.

Monet, as always, kept up his habit of painting the same thing over and over again in different seasons and different lights. I always like seeing these paintings next to each other. You know that the one on the right was painted in the fall, whereas the one on the left might have been an early grey spring day.

And this painting of roses? I just liked this one. I like its unfinished edges, how light it is, and how it makes me think of the first really spring-y day of the year.

It’s worth your time if you can get to the Deyoung in the next couple of weeks.

Contagious Joy Fairy

The Austen Playbook is a contemporary romance novel, and I thought this was one of Lucy Parker’s better books. The romance is front and center; but the subplot is a mystery that needs to be solved – just what happened between the protagonists’ grandparents, anyway? It added a level of conflict that propelled the story along – romance novels can sometimes be short on plot and require the main characters to have unrealistic conflicts. That didn’t happen here.

Plus, the main character is described at one point as a contagious joy fairy. She is a naturally upbeat person, but isn’t obnoxiously so. Just like being around happy people usually makes me happier, being around the main character in this book also makes me happier.

The Austen Playbook is definitely recommended.

Books and coffee: the Pacific Northwest #2

After we went to Victoria, BC, we hopped the Washington State Ferry to travel to the San Juan Islands, specifically, Friday Harbor. We didn’t have a car, so the biggest town made the most sense. We spent another three relaxing days, one of which was even sunny!

This was not the sunny day, but probably was my favorite picture of the trip. It makes you understand why coffee and books are so popular in the Pacific Northwest.

Look, coffee and books are two of the things I really associate with Seattle. It has the most coffeeshops per capita in the US, and there are lots of bookstores and local authors. But we really didn’t do a lot of coffee and books.

This is the bookstore I wasn’t allowed to go inside because I basically already had a book per day for the trip. And look! They sold coffee!

I did read a lot on the trip though. In Friday Harbor, we went bike riding around the island on the beautiful day and to the Whale Museum on the day that was gross and rainy.

One of the beaches we visited on the lovely day.

I got A LOT of reading done on the trip and we ate VERY well. Overall, it was lovely and relaxing.

Charm and snacks

I have been looking forward to Somewhere Only We Know since I first learned about it last fall. Why? Because Maurene Goo writes delightful teen romances that I quite enjoy. But also because this is an updated take on Roman Holiday, one of my favorite movies.

In Roman Holiday, a princess whose life is too structured, escapes the palace after taking a sleeping pill, only to be found mostly asleep on the street by a journalist. He thinks he’s stumbled onto the story of the year, only as they spend the day together they start to fall in love. He decides that he can’t publish the story, and she returns to her life at the palace. They go their separate ways.

Somewhere Only We Know is basically the same story, but in Hong Kong instead of Rome, and with the top female K-Pop star instead of a royal princess. And instead of a journalist, it’s a paparazzo who would much rather be studying photography, but he hasn’t figured that out yet.

Both Roman Holiday and Somewhere Only We Know are full of charm and delight and love for their locations. Somewhere Only We Know is definitely also in love with food. You are likely going to be hungry whilst eating it. Have snacks handy.

If you like a teen romance with a travel flavor? This is your book.

Books and coffee: the Pacific Northwest, part 1

I expected Victoria, BC, to be more like Seattle, honestly. Vancouver and Seattle are so similar in many ways. But Victoria was different. It’s smaller, and I think because it’s the capital of BC, it’s definitely got a touch of old world glamour, as evidenced by the parliament building above.

I have a thing for old fancy street lights.

It was a good walking city – a small city, but a city nonetheless. We ate very well.

Three days was about the right amount of time to spend. We saw the Royal BC museum, hung out in some of the city’s parks, went shopping, and watched A LOT of hockey.

A stuffed peacock from inside the Craigdarroch Castle

Overall, it was great for a long weekend. And hey, I only bought one new book – from Munro’s Books, a lovely local bookstore. No pictures of the store, though. I was too busy browsing.

Melodrama can be fun

A Discovery of Witches is a book that I am not convinced is good, but you can bet I devoured it and will read all three books in the trilogy. The question is: why?

First, let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Diana is a witch, but she doesn’t use her powers, nor is she interested in using them. She’s perfectly happy being an American history professor at Oxford. Until she calls up a book from the archives: Ashmole 782. This book, it turns out is enchanted, and everyone from the three non-human races (vampires, witches, demons, all of whom look conveniently human) is interested in reading it. Alas, she’s already sent it back to the stacks. Don’t bother with why everyone wants it. Ashmole 782 is the book’s macguffin. Everyone is suddenly after Diana.

One particular vampire, Matthew Clairmont becomes more entranced with Diana than the book. He turns out to be French nobility, because of course he is. They fall in love very melodramatically – the whole book is very melodramatic – and he protects her as they have adventures and he awakens the witchy part of her. Of course he does.

Which brings us back to the question of why do I like this book? I’ve admitted to enjoying romances, and the romance aspect is part of it. I’m much more partial to a story about relationships than a story where people are horrible to each other. There’s enough horror in the world.

But it’s not like this is a happy book – there’s kidnapping and torture and death. There is Good – Diana and Matthew and their families – and there is Evil – the Congregation, a group of people who want to keep Diana and Matthew apart, who also want Diana to bring the book back so everyone can learn what’s in it for their own advantage.

It’s melodrama, a genre that is so over the top that it’s practically camp, and A Discovery of Witches is definitely taking itself seriously. And that might be why I devoured it: the heightened emotions, the very clear good vs evil, putting family first, and the love story. There is something appealing about that, especially when it’s on my television screen or in a novel.

And so yes, I will read the second book in the series, which involves time travel, and probably the third, too. And I might tell you to read them too.

Virginia Hall is amazing

A Woman of No Importance is the biography of Virginia Hall, a young American socialite who falls in love with France as a girl. After college, she moves to Europe and gets a series of jobs with the US State Department; because it’s the 1930s they want her to be a secretary and she is not satisfied with that option. As a result, she moves around from place to place, trying to get a better job. During the 1930s, while she’s in Turkey, she accidentally shoots herself in the foot and loses her left leg below the knee.

When WWII breaks out, she feels the burning desire to help, to do something. She starts as an ambulance driver in France; when France falls to the Germans, she makes her way to Britain and gets a job with the SOE, also known as Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Under her cover of being an American journalist, she moves to Lyon, starts coordinating efforts amongst the resistance – turning it from pockets of people into a coordinated movement.

Virginia Hall turns out to be incredibly good at this. She inspires loyalty in people and eventually is coordinating the efforts of and distributing supplies to hundreds of people.

But she gets burnt. In 1942, a German double agent infiltrates her circle, and she barely escapes. To escape, she walks across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. In the winter. On her wooden leg. Because that’s what she does and that’s who she is.

Britain won’t send her back into the field after this incident – too many Germans know who she is and they really, really don’t like her. So Virginia switches to work for the US’ OSS. The OSS does send her back into the field, under heavy disguise, into a different part of France, to coordinate with the maquis to lay the groundwork for D Day. They’re initially resistant to taking orders from a woman, but Virginia has by this time become battle hardened and knowledgeable and takes no shit from anyone. She figures out who she can work with, discards the people she can’t, and moves on ahead.

After WWII, she finds work with the CIA, who, with the US back on its patriarchal BS after WWII, doesn’t use her nearly as effectively as they could or should.

I LOVED A Woman of No Importance. Virginia Hall is amazing, her story is well-told, and the history is compelling. Like, I finally understand why James Bond is so damn popular. I am not surprised one bit that JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has bought the rights for the movie, nor that Daisy Ridley is attached to play Virginia Hall. I hope it doesn’t sit in development for too long.

Women of the French Revolution

Liberty is a brief summary of the French Revolution told though the eyes of some of its famous women. I’d originally checked it out of the library to learn more about Germaine de Staël, but she was only one of what turned out to be six fascinating women. All of these women, from all walks of life, made a difference during the Revolution. Some ran salons, some agitated in the streets, some maneuvered behind the scenes.

The misogyny of the revolutionaries like Robespierre and Napoleon unites the stories of all six women. The major revolutionaries were constantly calling for all men to be equal, but they definitely meant men and not people. Women were supposed to stay home and breast-feed their babies and support the family. That was not the role these women chose to play. They had their supporters along the way; but at the end of the day, women in France actually ended up at the end of the Revolution with fewer rights than they started with.

I recommend Liberty if you’re interested in either a feminist take on the French Revolution or if you need a high-level refresher on what happened during it.