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Mini Review: The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit

the wives of los alamosWhen the top physicists in the United States – and many from the rest of the world – were assigned to Los Alamos to build the atomic bomb, so were their wives. Though their experiences were different, much of it was the same; the arrival, the mystery, the lies, and the way that life went on. The wives, strangers at first, grow to know one another and to rely on each other in the absence of the men who used to influence so many of their activities. This book takes an unusual perspective, that of all of the women, to highlight the differences amongst them while telling the story of the events that shaped their lives.

In this book, there is no “I”. There is only “we”, as in the collective. All of the women had to keep their lives secret from families and friends elsewhere. All of the women had to lie about what their husbands were doing and where exactly they lived. All of the women were mostly left to their own devices in a dusty, half-built town, often with children to raise and houses to maintain all by themselves, wondering what exactly had led them to this point in their lives. And yet somehow Nesbit does manage to get individuality across, a reminder that every woman is different.

The book takes us through most of the time that the scientists of the Manhattan Project and their wives spent at Los Alamos, telling the story through lots of different eyes rather than just a single pair. I’ve had an interest in this since I read Age of Radiance a few months ago, and I liked getting the perspective of the many women who lived through this rather than just the mostly male scientists. This is naturally fictionalised, but I liked how it got into the heads of so many women, imagining what this experience must have been like. Really enjoyable and recommended.

I received this book for free for review consideration.

Rereading: The Liveship Traders trilogy, Robin Hobb

ship of magicI want to start this post by saying that I adored this trilogy when I read it the first time. I remember loving it so much that I proceeded to push it on all the people that I knew at the time. My expectations were high. After my really enjoyable reread of the Farseer trilogy, they actually went up.

Like I experienced last month, I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten about these books. In this case, I at least remembered the characters and the beginning of the trilogy in particular, mainly because I think I read it after both the Farseer and the Tawny Man trilogies the first time. But by the time I was in the middle of the second book it was like experiencing everything again with no knowledge of what had come before. It’s honestly been a surprise to me how much reading things I thought I remembered has been like reading them for the first time. I wonder if it will stick a little bit more now that it’s been through twice, but I have enjoyed letting these books take me on the same exciting journey they did over a decade ago.

Anyway, on to this particularly trilogy. The books are set in the same world as the Farseer trilogy, but further to the south in Bingtown, a small settlement on the Cursed Shores. Bingtown governs itself throughmad ship the Traders’ Council, but are subject to a larger country called Jamaillia and ruled by the Satrap. Althea Vestrit, a Trader’s daughter, is waiting to take on her father’s ship, the Vivacia; her father is unwell and on his death the liveship will awaken. After three deaths, a liveship awakens, as the wizardwood figurehead has absorbed enough life experience and memories to take on the characteristics of a member of that family. Althea has been with Vivacia for years, in the place of her brothers who died of the Blood Plague before she was born, and fully expects to guide young Vivacia through her awakening. But when Ephron Vestrit dies, nothing goes as expected, and the small saga of the Vestrit family becomes wrapped up in many larger events.

The main thing that appeals to me about this series, especially this time, is the amazing ladies who make up the cast of the books. Brave, determined Althea is still my favorite, but this time, I much more appreciated the depth and variety of the other women who make up this world. Keffria, who thought she just wanted to hide behind her husband but actually has the strength and will to take care of herself. Ronica, who has been capable all her life but has to admit her mistakes. Even Malta, starting off a spoiled and incredibly irritating girl, eventually sees the wider picture. The huge changes that take place for everyone, the way they learn and develop and change, are a big part of the book, even as the events sweep them along as much as the readers. The people who start out these books are not the same people who end them, and it feels realistic and believable.

It’s not just that, though – it’s that Robin Hobb has the ability to help you see things from so many characters’ points of view. Kyle Haven, for instance, acts in a way that is incomprehensible to many of the characters, but in his own head, his views make sense (which is disturbing as a reader). Keffria finds herself swayed along with her husband because he can argue relentlessly and act as though logic backs him up, when in reality it doesn’t. He’s a product of his culture, so even as we revile him as readers we can reluctantly understand how he ended up being that way. Malta is kind of similar to this, and in fact Althea even says she could see herself in Malta, had she been stuck in the house and forced to conform to the stereotypes of female behavior when it ill-suited her personality. I love this, and I think it’s a big reason why this trilogy is my favorite. I adore Fitz, from the other two trilogies, but I even more appreciate seeing so many viewpoints and understanding the population of this society.

ship of destinyThe plot, of course, is fantastic, and had me completely swept up in it, particularly in the final book. I forgot what happened so I was swept along, breathless page after page, more or less ignoring actual chores and responsibilities to read this book (who could do washing up when someone’s life is on the line??). It is wide-ranging across lots of different territories, involves king-making and romance and danger and friendship and madness and healing and so much more. It has both that appeal of a closed environment – the liveships – and the sense of a wider, varied world, along with a rich and fascinating history.

The only part that I felt was somewhat less appealing was the sections about the serpents. They’re important, but they’re infrequent and mostly consist of searches for She Who Remembers and various worries about how they haven’t found her and are starving. But this is a very small part of a series of books that consumed my thoughts and culminated in a very happy reader.

With that, I’ll stop gushing; but if epic fantasy is something you enjoy, and you haven’t read this trilogy yet, you should. No real need to read the Farseer trilogy first, but of course, they do loosely tie together and are actually chronologically immediately after in terms of the wider world story, so I would recommend it. I’m so glad I’m still loving these books just as much as I did the first time.

January 2015 Reading Wrap-up

January felt slow while it was happening, but now it’s hard to believe that it’s February! I turned 29, watched the first season of Angel, did a whole bunch of crocheting, and carried on as normal with everything else. I wrapped up this month by getting sick – not quite ill enough to miss doing anything but too ill to really have energy or feel up to much outside of work. Fortunately, that illness has turned into a cold, and so I’m hoping it will pass soon as we get into February.

This month I read:

  • Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb
  • Royal Assassin, Robin Hobb
  • Assassin’s Quest, Robin Hobb
  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Ship of Magic, Robin Hobb
  • A Line in the Sand: Britain, France, and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, James Barr
  • Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

The problem that arises when you’re reading a lot of Robin Hobb is that no other books really appeal in quite the same way. So both Arlington Park and Norwegian Wood felt like disappointments to me. I’m not too surprised I didn’t like the Murakami a huge amount, because I think I read one of his previously and wasn’t too keen. Both of those off to the charity shop, clearing a bit of space on the shelves. A Line in the Sand was fascinating, though horrifying, and almost painful to read. It’s ridiculous what can happen to people when another country’s government decides to intervene, with no actual consideration besides what will benefit that particular country (or politician). I’d recommend it – I think it provides an informative backdrop to current events in the Middle East, if a depressing one.

Ahead this month, undoubtedly more Robin Hobb. And I’ve finally got my hands on Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I don’t think I’m going to wait long to start that.

What’s ahead for you in February?

TSS: 2015 books so far

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We’re in the slow, cold part of the winter now. Christmas and my birthday have both passed, so now I’m ready for spring, although I wouldn’t mind a bit of snow accumulation first (on a weekend, so I don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do but look at how pretty snow is). Unfortunately, months to go before spring and sunshine yet, but on the bright side, I can spend these months reading. I’ve started 2015 with three books I loved and one book I didn’t. My thoughts below.

The Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb

I’m lumping these all together because I can’t split them particularly well in my head. This trilogy is the beginning of the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of Prince-in-Waiting Chivalry Farseer of the Six Duchies and fated to be the Catalyst that changes the course of his country’s history. These books are set in a fantasy medieval world and mostly consist of Fitz growing to manhood in a very uncertain, dangerous situation, after his father’s abdication and death and his country’s coasts threatened by war with soulless raiders. He is trained as an assassin for his king, a dangerous and controversial role amongst people who would be all too happy to see him dead.

assassins apprenticeI loved reading these books again. I read them first in high school and honestly am not quite sure when, as I mentioned last week. I am so pleased that I loved them again, even though I remembered virtually nothing about them. I got so attached to Fitz all over again, even though Robin Hobb is very, very hard on him – harder than I’d thought she would be, as part of the ending of the trilogy was different than I thought I’d remembered. That was a strange experience, but I think I might have actually mixed this up in my head with the Tawny Man trilogy that picks up Fitz’s story a few years later. I knew that the author wasn’t done with Fitz quite yet, so I wasn’t disappointed with the ending, which isn’t exactly a satisfying wrap-up in some ways. I’m instead pleased that there’s more to come.

I loved Fitz himself, but I also so loved the women surrounding him; Kettricken, Molly, and Patience, each of whom represents something completely different to him. Kettricken I think is my favorite in this trilogy (how did I manage to forget Kettricken?), with her inner strength and natural generosity but all too human failings of jealousy and gullibility. Hobb’s characterization has always set her books apart for me and I love how well she shows us so many types of people. I read reviews of these books after I’d finished – not something I normally do much, but I was curious – and I was surprised to see people complaining that the books were slow. I never got bored and I loved every page, just like I did when I was younger. The world that Hobb creates is so fascinating to me. I like different, unusual settings, but in all honesty I just love the traditional pseudo-medieval world she’s portraying, with the edge of mysterious magic that’s now very lost to history.

I was so pleased I chose to start 2015 off with this re-read and I know I’m going to be reading the rest of Hobb’s books set in this world this year for sure now. If there was any doubt, I’ve already started Ship of Magic, the first of the Liveship Traders series, which I actually recall as my favorite of all of her trilogies. I am so excited to reread these (Althea!), but I’m also looking forward to getting back to Fitz. I know I have plenty of books waiting for me, but these are all I want to read at the moment. Best of all, there are some at the end I haven’t read yet, not least my beautiful, signed edition of Fool’s Assassin.

arlington parkArlington Park, Rachel Cusk

One of my generally ongoing goals is to read my older books. I have a lot of books from 2008 and 2009 in particular when I went a little crazy about charity shops and bought a lot of books I’d heard of or had recommended for very low prices. I don’t really frequent charity shops for books any more; I tend to instead donate my books to them and donate money to causes I care about, while spending my money in physical bookshops to do my little bit to keep them going. But in any case, Arlington Park is one of these books and I thought it would be a quick and easy one to tick off the list before I let myself read more Robin Hobb.

Unfortunately, I can’t really say I enjoyed it. The book takes place over a single day set in the upper middle class suburb of Arlington Park, told by a rotating group of women who are extremely dissatisfied with their lives. The women are generally well-off housewives with young children, who feel out of control. One, Juliet, feels that her life and potential has been sucked out of her by her husband and children; another keeps a meticulously tidy house to ward off death and views her children as obstacles; a third, Christine, has spent most of her life escaping her lower-class childhood and seems to insist she’s “solving the world’s problems” in the midst of shopping and casual disregard for her children.

This book I felt had edges of something powerful, as there is certainly a case for discontent in the boundaries of a woman’s life when it’s ruled by other people, but it bothered me. It goes too far and it’s too easy to look at these women and think, first world problems. Things happen to them, rather than any of them taking control, and the women who did try to seize the agency in their lives were still universally unhappy. This is namely Maisie who chose to leave London and is now busily unhappily unmoored in Arlington Park. Everyone and everything is at a distance to these women. I think the author was trying to get across that material and surface wealth – having a good looking, working husband and children, a nice big house, lots of free time – doesn’t equal happiness, but I just wanted them to take control of their lives. Christine I felt was the one who epitomised the whole sentiment of the book; she is the one who says she’s solving the world’s problems, but all she’s doing is complaining about her own, feeling afraid of people “below” her because she doesn’t want to be one of those people, and virtually ignoring her children in the meantime. All of these women complain, but I wanted them to do what I would do (or at least what I feel I would do); get a babysitter and go to work, or volunteer, or do something different to stop the endless round of complaining about children and husbands. Maybe I missed the point. Have you read this? Did I?

Anyway, not particularly recommended. This is one that will be going back to a charity shop (albeit five years later).

How have you started off your reading year?

Thoughts: Life, Love and the Archers, Wendy Cope

life love and the archersI didn’t know who Wendy Cope was when I started reading this book; I picked it up due to the blurb, which reads:

Selected prose from Wendy Cope, one of the nation’s best-loved poets, from a lifetime of published and unpublished work as a reviewer, critic, and journalist. Readers can meet the Enid Blyton-obsessed schoolgirl, the ambivalent daughter, the amused teacher, and the sardonic television critic. 

A book for anyone who’s ever fallen in love, tried to give up smoking, or consoled themselves that they’ll never be quite as old as Mick Jagger.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I thought so; it was also on the table as recommended in my local Waterstones, so I thought I’d give it a try*. I was hoping for something of a biography, or at least a selection of essays about the author’s life experiences. I got some of that, but I suppose what I didn’t realize is that this is more of a collection of writings than anything else. The editors have gone through a number of archives and collected works to be published in this one volume. The book is split into sections based on Wendy’s girlhood, teaching years, time as a poet, and then a few other collections of various pieces of work.

For me, by far the most interesting parts were those about her life and her transition from a teacher into a poet and how that changed her. I was immediately drawn in by the very first piece, which is composed of snapshots of her memories as a girl, and stories of her time as a teacher. I would venture to guess that I was probably most taken with this because it is the most like a memoir and suits what I’d like to read. I can also say that I enjoy the way Cope writes and I’m actually intrigued to pick up her poems now, simply because this is clear and straightforward and there isn’t enough poetry in my life. She’s also a big believer in people getting paid for their work (rather than poetry getting shared for free online) and I respect her for that; she’s not after fame, she’s after making a living for herself doing something that she loves and is good at.

The rest of it didn’t really reflect any sort of universal experience and to be perfectly honest, I sometimes found it boring. I might have been more interested if I’d known who Wendy Cope was before, but the blurb above made it seem like I could enjoy it even though I didn’t, and in this I was disappointed. The interesting sections were interspersed with too much that I really didn’t particularly like. Perhaps personal taste, as I think I might be the wrong audience, but I didn’t really find it to be nearly as universal as the blurb seems to suggest. 

Would I recommend this? I’m not sure. As I said above, I’m not sure I’m the target audience for this particular book, and I don’t think I really thought very much about what I was getting before I got it. But what I will do is go out, buy and read some of Wendy Cope’s poetry. I think it will be much more suited to what I’d like to read – and I will, of course, let you know what I think.

*I already had it for review but I bought five other books on that particular visit, so doing what I can to keep bookstores alive too. Obviously this means I received it for review consideration.

The Joys of Re-reading: The October Daye series

tssbadge1While I spent a huge portion of October not blogging, I for once allowed myself to indulge in a massive series re-read. The series I chose was the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire (very appropriate for October, I think you’ll agree), one of my favoritesThe Winter Long is the eighth book in the series and I, of course, bought it on release, but didn’t want to read it without re-reading the series. After seven previous books, the first of which I read a good few years ago, I was losing track of who people were, what they meant to Toby, and where the wider plot was going. I knew that the seventh book hadn’t had the same impact on me as it should have simply because I forgot what happened. I had read that this eighth book was a game changer and I didn’t want to miss out any emotional impact.

I intended to re-read the series gradually, spacing in between them with other books, but what happened in actual fact was that I raced through the entire series. I genuinely had forgotten a lot of what happened. I only read one book while I was in the midst of my re-read and it was only because I went on holiday to Italy and couldn’t bring all those paperbacks in my luggage.

rosemary and rueAs with many of us, I loved re-reading as a child and teenager, even as a younger adult. There was a time in my life when I’d read every adult book I owned at least twice and I think my record for an adult book was eight times. This ended when I got old enough to buy books for myself, but I still re-read sporadically then. Unfortunately, once I hit book blogging there wasn’t time any more. My logic went like this: There are so many books in the world. I own a solid chunk of them. I don’t have time to spend reading over again books I’ve already read. But that misses an essential fact; I loved re-reading these books. I enjoyed immersing myself back in Toby’s world so very much. It was fascinating to remind myself of the habits she acquired over the course of the series (coffee addiction – almost absent in the first book, rears up in the middle, vanishes) and the characters she befriends, admires, loves. And with so many books in the series, I could really feel how much things had changed for her, how she’d gone from a lonely woman who had lost everyone who meant something to her to a strong, confident one with friends and family.

Plus, TYBALT.

I knew I loved these books, but I think re-reading them cemented that for me. I was worried a little bit that they wouldn’t hold up. Seanan McGuire is an auto-buy for me and I’ve read a lot of her books, so I was actually worried that Toby would sound just like all the other characters McGuire has written. She doesn’t and neither do the other characters in this book. In addition, McGuire has obviously grown as a writer since she started writing these books and the last book was jaw-dropping. I picked exactly the right time to do my massive re-read as I genuinely don’t think I’d have gotten the connections as much without it. Yes, McGuire fills in the backstory, but filling in the backstory has never been the same for me as having it in my own memory. I’d rather flip through a paragraph of who Simon Torquill is remembering the emotional impact his actions had on Toby than forget who he is and need that paragraph. This book truly is a game changer, just like the back cover says. Toby is hit by revelation after revelation that change the way she views many parts of her life and which will have a significant impact on future events in her life. I was so glad I could make those connections.

I don’t think I’ll re-read all eight of these books when the ninth comes out, but I am so pleased I’ve reminded myself of how much joy there is in re-reading. This won’t be the last time I read these books.

And this re-read, although it was a few months ago, has sparked another one, which I’m in the midst of at the moment; all of Robin Hobb’s Farseer (and related) books. When I went to hear Robin Hobb give a talk and sign books in honor of Fool’s Assassin a few months ago, I was dismayed by how little I remembered the books. Not small things – big things, like who characters actually were besides Fitz. I shouldn’t have been particularly surprised since I read them in high school (I think – I can’t even remember how I discovered Robin Hobb, let alone when I read Assassin’s Apprentice for the first time, since she was already a favorite when I started recording books I read) and there have been a lot of books between then and now. Rediscovering books I think I’ll love just as much now as I did then seemed like a great way to start 2015 to me, and so here we are.

How do you feel about re-reading your favorite books?

2014 Reading in Review

2014 was the year I gave up on the reading spreadsheet and decided to just let Goodreads sort out my reading. As a result, I don’t have fancy statistics to show, and this post has been a bit more difficult to write (and included me getting halfway through creating a new spreadsheet before giving up) but I decided to just go with it and highlight what I thought was worth it.

I didn’t manage 150 books, but 144 is a number I’m very happy with. My reading was mostly speculative fiction, with fantasy in particular dominating the books I chose for personal enjoyment. This year, that was most of them. My system of reading a review book and then a personal book got dropped, so although the “immediate” TBR pile still has a few of them in there, they seem to make up more like one of each six or seven books I read rather than every other book. I love the freedom of choosing whatever I like. It may have kept me away from reviewing, because of the guilt thing, but I missed reading whatever I felt like whenever I wanted. As a result of this I had an amazing time re-reading the October Daye series in (not coincidentally) October, along with lots of other books I chose myself. Although I felt like I did away with all of my rules as the year went on, I kept reading more books by authors of colour – the figure isn’t high, but the consistency is there, and I can and do plan to work on that balance in 2015. Mostly female authors, mostly fantasy of various kinds, that seems to be where I’m happiest in my reading life right now, and I’m okay with that.

My own personal reading highlights, reviewed and not reviewed:

Books

  • life after lifeEdward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber – review – perfect for my target period and really interesting besides (or so I would think!)
  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson – review – I just loved this book. I loved the time travel aspect and the way it looked at how tiny events can result in huge life changes. I’ve recommended this to so many people this year and I don’t see that ending. I’m so excited for the follow-up, I just hope it’s as brilliant.
  • Cinder, Scarletand Cress by Marissa Meyer – these books completely captivated me. This was the first time in a long time that I stayed up too late reading, and I want more of that in my life. I was in London for work and read Cinder and Scarlet in one night (consuming a really amazing curry in the meantime). Never have I been so grateful for my ereader – and the meeting the next day still went well.
  • A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan – this hit just the right notes for me at the right time. Very anticipated and very enjoyable.
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – I so wish I’d written about this book after I read it. I absolutely adored it and, like Life after Life, have gone about recommending it to everyone I know who reads books regularly.
  • The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater – The only reason I haven’t read Blue Lily, Lily Blue yet is because I can’t bear the idea of waiting for the fourth book, and also because I think I want to read these two. So brilliant. Wish I’d written thoughts down (again).
  • We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – review – I’ll let my words speak for themselves this time.
  • americanahThe Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez – review – you can’t go wrong with either of Henriquez’s books.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – mini review – I loved so much about this book. I’m glad I at least wrote something to express that.
  • Written in Red by Anne Bishop – this was a surprise to me. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. In some ways it reminded me of books I’d read when younger and I’m not sure I can articulate why I liked it so much. Maybe because I love closed-in communities and stories (boarding schools, spaceships, etc.) and this fit right in. I remember it really fondly and I’m looking forward to book 2.
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins – review – a book I liked so much it inspired me to write about it. More of these in my life and no books I feel required to review and I might just become a blogger again.
  • My Notorious Life by Madame X by Kate Manning – review – One of only two historical fiction choices on this list, I was so unexpectedly pleased with this book that I had to include it. It is not only a good read, it feels important.

Authors

  • I love everything that the writing team of Ilona and Gordon Andrews produces. No questions. This year, I only read Clean Sweep, but trust me when I tell you I have a re-read of the Kate Daniels series planned this year.
  • Rainbow Rowell – Fangirl and Attachments this year. Love stories <3
  • Rachel Bach – I read the Paradox trilogy this year and loved Devi and her quest to save the universe. I have really high hopes for future writing from her.
  • Seanan McGuire – as I mentioned above, I read the entire October Daye series in a row before I read the latest installment and I loved doing it. I had forgotten so much about Toby’s earlier books and the way things changed. Plus, going back at this time was honestly perfect because the last book was a game changer and it became clear that McGuire laid the groundwork from day 1. Amazing.

2014 is also the year I blogged less than ever (since making a start), and I’ve not made my general malaise about writing much of a secret. I’m trying to remove requirements and write when I feel like it, about what I want. I am trying to remember this blog is for me – so often I only write about something if I have it for review or if it’s exceptional. I want to write a sentence about everything I read, even if it’s just I loved this and I think this is why, or why not. I want to make this into a hobby I enjoy again, because what I’ve learned with my haphazard year of blogging is that I don’t want it to end. I’m not a professional at this and I don’t need to be.

The same honestly goes for reading. I’d like to achieve more diversity, and I think the best way to do that is to continue making sure I’m reading diverse books every single month, like I did this year, but more of them. I’d like to read more non-fiction, but I think I can do that if I disregard my numerical targets. I have a lot of exciting non-fiction waiting for me, more than ever. I did put a numerical target in place – the same as last year, 150 books – more because I think that’s the amount I naturally read than a stretch. I just like having a number there.

I think I’ve stopped accepting review copies, too. I still get emails. I star them sometimes and think I’d like to read those books. But then I remember the pressure and I think, you know what, I’ll just buy it if I want to read it. I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy the books I really want to read, and in any case I have two bookcases full of books I haven’t read yet. No point adding to those.

In other aspects of my life, much of this year was great, and should go down as such in memory. We have made strides financially, professionally, and educationally. We saw the culmination of years of work and effort – our debt is gone and my husband completed the degree course he’s spent six years on with a first. I was promoted at the beginning of November and for once I’m not getting the two-year job change itch. I’d like to stay where I work. Personally, I rediscovered one of my favourite hobbies, which is crocheting, and although I may not have exercised enough this y ear, and really should do more in 2015, I am the same dress size as I was when I was 21 (albeit a bit tighter) but I will take that as a victory since it definitely hasn’t been the case for all of the years since then.

Nothing is ever perfect, and I don’t want to pretend it is; there are a few things going on which are not in the public eye and which I’d like to keep out of it. But this was, primarily, a good year for me and I’d like to remember it that way.

So, for 2015, let’s keep it simple. More of the good stuff, less of the pressure. No expectations or requirements, just goals. And we’ll see how we get on.

Review: Alice and the Fly, James Rice

alice and the flyI’m not sure how to even start describing this book. Greg is a very shy, awkward teen boy who is deathly afraid of Them – spiders. This fear permeates many of his thoughts, and amongst a few other things, like a lisp and fits, makes him a complete and total outcast who virtually never speaks to anyone. But he does think, and feel, and want to share, so he does this in the form of a diary to a pretty girl he likes. This is what we read, gaining access to Greg’s innermost thoughts while only intermittently experiencing others’ thoughts of him.

Just like the summary to this book is hard to write, so is any review of it. It’s extremely affecting, but difficult to describe. The story is revealed very slowly, mainly because Greg’s diary is interlaced with interviews done after an unknown event about him. In this way, we get to know him mainly through his own eyes, but also through the eyes of others. This is a heartbreaking way of telling the story, really effectively getting across how very different someone can be on the inside. Greg is isolated, but he both does and doesn’t want to be, something that the people around him don’t realize at all. It casts a fresh perspective on the way we treat those we consider to be different, especially mentally ill, who may look or act differently but are still so human.

This book is designed to make us uncomfortable, to make us think about how we treat people. It costs so little to be friendly yet we can be so horrible to someone we perceive as different from us. Greg’s mind is not an easy place to be, but it’s how people treat him that hurt the most, even when he shrugs it off. It is painful, and it is uncomfortable, but it is worth reading.

A lot of the press surrounding this book emphasizes that it’s really about love, and I didn’t see this at all at first but eventually came to see this point of view by the end. Greg’s illness doesn’t stop him from loving with all of his being, nor does it stop others from being capable of loving him, even if he is isolated. It is also about the struggle to put on a front and appear normal, even when we really aren’t, even when no one is. Greg’s family is far from normal, but they go to lengths to pretend and to project an image of perfection and happiness rather than addressing any of the causes behind their root misery. This willingness to ignore very obvious issues is part of what results in the final piece of the plot falling into place.

I couldn’t say I enjoyed this book, because I don’t think it’s a book to enjoy. I was certainly drawn to it, intrigued enough to find out what had actually happened, to gain some sort of resolution, but it was hard going. Not hard to read, but very affecting. I can see why it’s garnered so much pre-publication praise, and I would add my voice to theirs. This is a book that’s worth reading.

I received this book for free for review consideration.

Review: My Notorious Life by Madame X, Kate Manning

my notorious lifeAnn “Axie” Muldoon is an Irish girl poor in money but rich in family, with a mother and two beloved siblings. When she, Dutch, and Joe meet a philanthropist intent on saving children, she finds her young life spiralling deeper into poverty, this time without the people she loves, as her brother and sister are left behind in Illinois with adoptive parents. Now an orphan, Axie is taken in by a doctor and midwife, learning a trade that will rescue her from the poorhouse but set her up for an infamy her young mind can’t imagine.

Loosely inspired by the life of Ann Trow Lohman and set in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, My Notorious Life by Madame X is a brilliant historical novel rooted in actual fact. While Ann Muldoon didn’t exist in real life, children were taken from their parents in New York City and sent to the midwest to be adopted. Midwives – particularly those who performed abortions – were persecuted for the smallest of visible crimes, as was anyone doing anything perceived immoral in a similar way by the male lawmakers of the time. And Ann Trow Lohman did make an absolute fortune as Madame Restell, midwife and seller of contraceptive medicines under a different name. These historical events, combined with Manning’s gripping storytelling and evocative scene-setting, resulted in an excellent read.

Though Axie is a midwife, her practice is secondary to the relationships that make this novel. This is not only with Charlie, her husband, but with her mother, the midwife who teaches her the trade, the cook who cares for her, her only friend as a girl, her lost brother and sister, and finally the women she cares for and helps in desperate circumstances. Throughout the novel it’s clear that she firmly believes that she is doing right by these women, helping many of them out of a situation they cannot handle, or doing her best to help them avoid pregnancy altogether. As a modern reader it seems obvious that her medicines won’t always do the job she’s advertising, but she doesn’t know that, and she sticks fiercely by the women she’s caring for even at risk to herself, more than once. This, combined with her vulnerability, made me love her. She’s by no means perfect, struggling constantly with the idea that people might love her and pushing against them as a result, and she certainly does some things I wouldn’t personally agree with, but she’s strong, loyal, and ultimately admirable.

Axie also gives women early term abortions, which is discussed in detail. She is a midwife, first and foremost, but it is certainly a huge component of her working life, because women need her for so many reasons. They are too poor to feed another child. They have been raped. Their lover, who was full of compliments and kind words, will not marry them. Their families will disown them and they will live on the street. She says that she wishes the men persecuting her for helping women found themselves in some of the same situations that the pregnant women who approach her do; she’s certain that if that was the case then laws would be different. How depressingly little has changed in this respect in many parts of the world, even with the advent of birth control and women’s rights, which makes this novel resonate even more strongly with a modern reader.

And then there is Axie’s relationship with Charlie, which is never easy but had my romance-reading heart in thrall to the book more than once. From the rooftop of an orphan train to a prison cell to a 5th avenue mansion, their love story is never boring and, although it isn’t the focal point of the novel, so well done.

This book was so much more than I was expecting – a deeply powerful, fantastic novel which reminds me once again that I do love historical fiction. Well worth reading and highly recommended.

I received this book for free for review. All external book links are affiliate links.

Book Thoughts: Beatrice and Benedick, Marina Fiorato

beatrice and benedickWe might all know the ending to the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but how did they meet? Throughout the play it’s clear they have a history and Marina Fiorato has taken it upon herself to imagine what that history might be. From their first summer together through the ten years it takes them to reunite, this is a love story woven in and around Shakespeare’s wonderful play.

Much Ado About Nothing is the first play that taught me that Shakespeare could be for me. It was the first Shakespearean play I’d ever seen performed live by professionals (there have been more now, I assure you). I went to see it in the Globe, with a group of friends I had never met before. It was amazing. I loved the entire experience and it’s something I simply can’t get enough of. So it’s entirely possible that this book had a little too much to live up to and maybe it isn’t surprise that I didn’t like it all that much.

My previous experience with Marina Fiorat0’s books hasn’t been the most positive, either. I read The Glassblower of Murano a few years ago and while it was okay, it didn’t blow me away. I feel similarly about Beatrice and Benedick. I would probably not have picked this up on my own as a result, but it arrived as an unsolicited review copy. The book itself is beautiful (yep, I judged a book by its cover) and the connection with the play made it something I chose to read and looked forward to. To be perfectly honest, the book didn’t really capture me until we got to the part Shakespeare had already written – and it’s not always the best idea to mess with someone that is already so wonderful. The misunderstanding that leads to their separation was certainly Shakespearean in nature, but it frustrated me, using a common theme of two romance characters failing to talk to each other as a reason for years of suffering.

There’s also that awkward juxtaposition between the years-long story of the main characters meeting and the very few days that make up the play, as usual with Shakespeare. It just doesn’t fit together that well. The pacing feels off and rushed in the latter half because the author suddenly has to speed up the pace of events, instead of spreading them out over a summer or several years. There might be a reason there aren’t many novelizations of Shakespearean plays.

Overall, I felt it was okay, a book I didn’t mind reading, but not a book that will stay with me as I know the play will. Perhaps I shouldn’t compare, as it’s a different medium, but it is hard to come up against Shakespeare and not be found wanting.

I received this book for free for review.