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.

Sherlock Holmes would be exhausting

A Study in Charlotte is a modern Sherlock Holmes story that takes place in a posh New England boarding school with a gender swapped Sherlock, and it owes a lot to the latest Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock BBC/PBS series. Charlotte Holmes’ flaws are played up: the obsessiveness, the drug addiction, the deliberate isolation. It’s not often you see a teenaged girl portrayed with quite such off-putting characteristics.

She is still the hero though because she wants to do the right thing. She wants to help society, while realizing that she’ll never fit in – in part because of how she was brought up and in part because she doesn’t want to. And that’s all ok.

It was good brain candy for a busy/stressful time of year for me; it was what I needed.

Tell my story

The Red Tent makes me long for all the history told from women’s points of view. What were the women doing while the men were busy showing off and starting wars? What did Cleopatra think of the world she lived in? What about Elizabeth I? Or Eleanor of Aquitaine? We don’t know much, but I wish I did.

Honestly, I don’t know enough about the Bible to be able to comment intelligently on how faithful the story is, and, in fact, I’m pretty sure I was supposed to know more about Jacob and Esau and Joseph (and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) for these stories to mean more to me. But I don’t. I’m a heathen, I know.

But as a story of women living together, it was a little too sweeping to get into intimate character details – the story traces Dinah’s entire life from birth to death.   You don’t really get the intricacies of, say, her mother and aunt’s relationship, even though it must have been quite the thing for two sisters to be married to the same man. The outlines of feelings are there; there’s just too much story to get to.

Overall, recommended.

Superheroes are about power, you know

Power, having it and keeping it, is about tradeoffs. You are ultimately serving other people, and you need to remember that. That means, though, that you give up something of yourself, something of who you are. You are no longer wholly in control of what you do. You have to compromise; furthermore, if you want people to actually follow you, you cannot betray the trust that you will do what is the best for the them.

That’s what A Nation Under Our Feet is about. T’Challa is back from a stint with the Avengers, and his absence has lost his people. Of course there are people who want to take advantage of that.

This is the third book in the series, and it was totally worth my time. It made me think – because what are superheroes if not a meditation on power? This series realizes that and isn’t shying away from it. Recommended, especially reading all three volumes (18 issues, I think) in one sitting.

A Coffee Table Book

Women in Science was fine and fun with its profiles of women scientists throughout the millennia. I appreciate its inclusion of women of color along with white women – inclusivity is important!

But it’s a coffee table book, full of beautiful illustrations and short profiles. Which  is fine – we all need a good book to display, to look through. But it wasn’t a book to read straight through. Maybe one essay a night with your second grader? That might be perfect.

It’s a quest!

Let’s review the required components of a quest, shall we? (Courtesy How to Read Literature Like a Professor)

  1. A questor
  2. A place to go
  3. A stated reason to go there
  4. Challenges and trials along the way
  5. The real reason to get there (hint: it’s almost always self-knowledge)

In The Wangs vs the World, (1) the Wang family is traveling to (2) their oldest child’s house in upstate New York from their family house in LA because (3) their house has just been repossessed by the bank and their family business and fortune has just gone up in smoke during the 2008 crash. They face (4) challenges and trials along the way, including their middle child deciding he’s marrying the first woman he has sex with about halfway into the trip, a car crash, and the last of their business product, which they had hoped to deliver to a client, dissolving. But they do eventually learn (5) their family is and has always been the most important thing.

I enjoyed The Wangs vs the World. It’s funny, it’s told from a point of view you don’t often see: an Asian-American family who had succeeded through hard work, sure, but isn’t doing very well right now. At all. Those two things alone make it worth reading.