Monday, October 21, 2013

lots of books, all crammed in

The reading, of late:

Death of Riley, by Rhys Bowen. Slight mystery set in nineteenth-century New York. It was okay; nothing memorable.

Armadale, by Wilkie Collins. Oh, Wilkie. It's no Woman in White, but it's still delicious. There is actually a chapter entitled "The Plot Thickens" (ironically, that particular chapter caused very little to thicken). It starts very, very slowly, but once the villainess showed up I couldn't put it down. She is wonderful. Melodrama! Coincidence! Disasters at sea! Foreboding dreams! A kick-ass female character! Fabulous stuff.

Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge, by Eleanor Herman. A book about royal mistresses through history. It contained some interesting and juicy stuff, but Herman came across as so incredibly judgy about sex that the book's topic seemed a virtually nonsensical one for her to choose. (She also includes a postscript about how her second marriage has worked where her first didn't because of what she learned from royal mistresses: always put the man and his interests first, basically, and never show him you're having a bad day. Gaaaaagh.)

A Serpent's Tooth, by Craig Johnson. A solid entry in his Walt Longmire series, although the instant the male characters start remarking of a female character, "Have you noticed that she's a bit emotional lately?" I rolled my eyes back into my head. I will have you know, writers, that I have been female for almost thirty-seven years, and a good majority of that time I have been emotional as hell while also, amazingly, not being pregnant. A female character could be emotional because she has family concerns, or financial worries, or her job is preoccupying her, or for any of the reasons that a male character might not quite be himself either. But noooo, it's always that she got knocked up. (I refuse to consider that a spoiler, because the first time someone mentions it is roughly ten pages in, and if you have read any books before it's completely obvious what Johnson's point is.)

Pym, by Mat Johnson. This book is insane. And insanely good. The premise is that a fired English professor discovers a manuscript proving the historical veracity of Edgar Allen Poe's Narrative of Gordon Pym (which is recapped deftly, so you don't have to have read it), and puts together an all African-American crew to travel to Antarctica and look for the locations Poe describes. Johnson is an amazing and hilarious writer, and his riffs on literature and being black in America were my favorite part of the book. The plot is utterly deranged, although never less than engrossing. I tore through this and would highly recommend it, even though a dog disappears with no explanation (given its potential fates, I was frankly relieved to be spared detail).

The Fallen, by Jessy Mackenzie. Mystery set in South Africa. Should have had potential but was just dull and over-long.

Zelda: A Biography, by Nancy Milford. I knew very little about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald prior to reading this, other than that they seemed like exhausting people to be around. This book certainly reinforced that, but in a compassionate way. They were so, so young, after all. The last third dragged, given that it was just endless excerpts from Zelda's novel Save Me the Waltz, which was kind of a hot mess, but I found the book interesting overall.

Mind's Eye, by Hakan Nesser. Scandinavian mystery. So dark and cold. I don't feel the urge to continue with the series.

Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads, by Joni Rendon. My Early Reviewers book, and rather fun. Short, dishy little chapters, perfect for bathroom reading. From the cover and the blurb, it seemed like it was all going to be about ladies' men, but equal time is given to homosexual and bisexual writers, which I appreciated.

Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier, by Hampton Sides. Essays from a writer I love about the craziest aspects of America. Some are from the early 1990's and haven't aged as well as one would like, but Sides' writing is never anything but great. The essay about Santa Fe, where he lives, had me on the verge of packing the car and heading west; and the last section, with three essays about 9/11 and the Iraq war, was wrenching. I cried.

So what have I been doing lately? Other than reading my butt off, clearly. Well, Berowne is almost completely moved in, which is utterly wonderful. I have been dealing with anniversary-emotions: October 17 was the day Claudio left, and even though it's been three years and it was 100% for the best, every late October I get smacked with a big ol' dose of You Are Not Good Enough and there are a lot of ranting journal entries and some crying. (I believe I actually said, and meant, "Anyone else would have done everything better than I have!" to Berowne, who was kind enough to not laugh. Much.) 

But things are good. The dogs are happy and getting more walks; I am being fed by a ridiculously good cook; the dryer and the porch railing are fixed. In three weeks I get married again, which is madness and also just about the easiest decision I ever made. No complaints around here. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

mysteries, book clubs, insects

There is nothing new going on in my life which is fit for blogging, so this post will just be the books. 

I've read lately:

A Death in the Small Hours, by Charles Finch. This was my Early Reviewers book. I have read two previous entries in Finch's series, which follows a wealthy Victorian gentleman solving crimes in his spare time. In both the other two I was irritated by how brief and obvious the crime-solving part was. After reading a third, I think I've realized that the crimes aren't the point. The "mystery" in this one was also brief and obvious, and concluded when there were still about fifty pages left to go, which made me think that the conclusion would turn out to be a red herring, but it didn't. Finch is more interested in the scene-setting and the rhythms of his characters' daily lives, and while he's not quite good enough yet at creating characters sufficiently fascinating for this to work, he's getting there. I didn't at all mind how fluffy this book felt.

The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler. It's... not all that much about Jane Austen. And the women in it all have their lives orbit around men (one is a lesbian but her relationships didn't ring true to me; they were just heterosexual relationships with the pronouns switched, I felt). The one who is supposedly obsessed with her dogs doesn't talk nearly enough about said dogs and gets paired off, in strained fashion, with a dude by the end (they all get paired off, which I know is a conscious nod to Austen but which also has a lot of them going back to partners who treated them abominably, and that's not cool). I can see what Fowler was trying to do, and why this book was a best-seller, but... meh. I got initially excited by Crazy Dog Lady, but when it becomes clear that her life is empty without a man and she must stop wearing clothes covered in dog hair so that she will be loved, I barfed in my mouth a little. 

The Death of a Joyce Scholar, by Bartholomew Gill. Mystery set in Ireland. It was very intelligently written, for sure, but I didn't feel that fascination with the detective hero/heroine which will keep me reading a mystery series. 

The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths. Definitely a weaker sequel to The Crossing Places. Our heroine is knocked up and has become All Maternal Instincts All The Time, complete with no conflicted feelings whatsoever about suddenly becoming a single mother at age forty. (Also there's that inevitable moment where she's in danger and she feels the baby move and knows she must survive! for the baby's sake!!, which chafes my britches anyway [women: not allowed a survival drive unless it's for someone else's benefit!] and in this case happens when she's about ten weeks along, at which point feeling the embryo [it's not even a fetus yet] move is not a thing.) And there are the insertions of diary entries / thoughts from the killer, which I just dislike as a stylistic choice (I blame Val McDermid for starting that). But all that complaining aside, I like Griffiths' writing and she did at least keep the heroine passionate about her line of work. I'm sure I'll read the third, though I'm wary about how Ruth will handle motherhood. 

Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects, by Amy Stewart. Don't read this if you have a tender tummy or are feeling at all sick. Just don't. 

Marion Fay, by Anthony Trollope. What an incredibly odd book. The title character develops consumption solely to prove a point, as far as I can tell. It wasn't nearly as charming as most Trollope, though it had some of his wit.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

let me sum up

Oh my, I have been very remiss in updating this to reflect my reading. I shall have to be brief:

Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom, by Sara Benincasa. A quick little entry in the "I had a nervous breakdown" memoir genre. Mildly amusing, mildly perceptive, with a rushed "I'm all better now!" ending. 

Last Night's Scandal, by Loretta Chase. Chase takes the child characters from a previous romance novel and has them all grown up and falling in love. They're not as interesting as adults as they were as children, and Chase, whose previous novels are all set in Regency times, cannot stop talking about how ridiculous the fashions of the 1830's are. True, but it doesn't make it easy to believe in the heroine's unstoppable beauty, when on every page we're reminded how stupid her clothes are. And the story kind of dragged. 

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin. Sort of a mystery - the hero is a constable and there's a murder - but mostly a novel about race relations and poverty in a tiny Mississippi town. Very rough stuff but really, really well written and I was utterly captivated. 

North and South, by Elisabeth Gaskell. When it is autumn, a not-so-young woman's thoughts turn to fluffy nineteenth-century literature she has not previously read. I have a ton of Trollope on deck, too.

Kiss of Steel and Heart of Iron, by Bec McMaster. More steampunk vampire / werewolf romance fiction, which is a much more prevalent genre than I ever realized until I started rummaging around in it. There's tons of it! The queen, as far as I am concerned, is Gail Carringer, whose books are just hysterically funny on top of being well-crafted. But McMaster is also really good. Her world-building is excellent and I was able to follow the rules and logic of that world with hardly any info-dumping on her part. There is a fair amount of "my woman" stuff going on, but, well, they're romance novels. I knew what I was getting into. 

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, by David Quammen. Quammen studies the Asian lion, the Australian crocodile, the Amur tiger, and the Romanian bear as he travels around the world examining man's relationship to large predators. It's a good and interesting (and very sad, considering how we are exterminating these predators) book, but mostly it made me want to re-read Vaillant's The Tiger

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, by Richard Rhodes. Aeeiiee. Rhodes details both the mass killings which led up to the Final Solution and the psychology behind convincing groups of men to engage in said killings. It's a really brutal read, as you can imagine, but the discussions of inciting mass violence and how people react to that were interesting enough that this book was more than just a recitation of horror after horror, though it had that element as well. (Reading about Babi Yar made me try to like Shostakovitch again, but that is just never going to happen.) 

Disaster at Sea!, by Edward Rowe Snow. This is three unintentionally hilarious volumes of marine disaster and "mysteries of New England" in one. It's... not well written. Snow, I gather, was all about quantity, cranking out three or four books a year his entire adult life. He never uses a period where an exclamation point will do, and he goes on digressions within a five-page story which leaves the reader completely confused. But I gleaned some fun from reading about places I know, and shipwrecks and cannibalism are always my cup of tea. 

In life-news: Berowne is moving his stuff in a little bit at a time, and I am clearing away as much of my stuff as I can, although this means - gulp - getting rid of some books. Sacrifices must be made! Particularly when they are books I didn't like but still held onto for some reason.  

Speaking of disaster at sea, I went on a sailboat with Berowne and some friends a few weeks back. I got terribly seasick and the outboard motor not only died but tried to fling itself into the ocean on the way back, so the other gentleman aboard had to hold it on while Berowne sailed us back to the mooring, which you're not supposed to do because it's a narrow channel with lots of other boats in it and sailing doesn't give you enough control over your direction. Unless you are a totally bad-ass sailor with a calm and collected assistant (not me; I was busy not throwing up). The boat and all aboard arrived safely. Of course, I still am pretty sure the "it's designed not to capsize" statement was a total lie, and so those moments when the boat was traveling more or less sideways were a little alarming for this landlubber. As I said later, I do know how to swim but I was not going to be thrilled if I had to. 

Autumn is here! I am thrilled about that. Bingley has only eaten a little bit of Berowne's couch! The two of them are working out some pack-level issues. He's got a bit of an attitude, that brindle dog of mine, possibly because he was such an easy puppy that I never had to really establish dominance the way I did with the traumatized adult Darcy. But we'll work it all out. Life is pretty good.