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Review Policy

March 15, 2012

I am particularly interested in books in the following categories:

  • Historical fiction
  • Foodie lit or foodie memoir
  • Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
  • Extremely well-written YA  genre fiction (no vampire romance or dystopia, please!)

If I request a specific title, I will do my best to review it in a timely manner. I will review books outside of the above criteria at my discretion.

Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books

– Elizabeth

Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

February 11, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen ChoSorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Macmillan
(Library Book)

I’d been hearing about this book for months: it was all over book blogs, end of year lists. I was excited to read it, as much for the positive buzz as for the genre blend that seemed right in my sweet spot: Regency-era England, with fantasy and magic, and some chewy social commentary.

That said, I had a little trouble getting into reading it. I felt like the start was slower than I wanted. But, on reflection, I think that’s actually a compliment to the book and the level of commitment to worldbuilding. There were two things in play: an intricate magic system entwined with social structures (and strictures) of the Society of Sorcerers, and Regency English history for one.

Also, the prose of the narrative itself, as well as the dialogue, tended towards the baroque. In spots, the prose style made the pacing lugubrious. (With the kinds of pacing and word choices that made it easy for me to think of the word lugubrious, for example.)

Even though those factors contributed to the slow start I had in reading it, I think, ultimately, they worked to make the book stronger and more impressive. Cho committed wholeheartedly to setting up the Regency English magical world, down to details of narrative prose. Entire passages wouldn’t have been out of place in a Georgette Heyer novel. And once I got used to being in the world of Sorcerers and familiars and the way that magic played into social structures and English politics, I was even more impressed with the way it all worked together: juggling worldbuilding and such conscious language with that level of strong character development can’t have been easy.

Unlike the typical Regency novel (or fantasy novel for that matter), questions of race and social constructs were front and center: The point of view shifted between Zacharias, the Sorcerer Royal, and Prunella, a young woman with magical talent navigating a society where both her gender and her race worked against her with regard to society’s expectations of women in her station. Magic, in this version of England, is reserved for gentlemen sorcerers, doing politics. There were multiple layers of politics, the politics of the gentlemen sorcerers jockeying for position, politics on an international level for England, as well as politics between the Fairy realm and the real world. Prunella’s presence added questions of gender and women’s magic to the mix. Getting to see both her untrained magical resourcefulness, and Zacharias’s reactions and expectations helped explain how magic and gender worked in that world.

Goodreads seems to indicate this is book one of an ongoing series, but the plot read as a self-contained and properly concluded story, so no sequel warning needed.

Not sure if others would find the start slow enough to comment on, but ultimately, I think it was a worthwhile read, and a smart, solid fantasy that stands out from the usual fantasy trope-fest.

Odds and Ends 2/8/16

February 8, 2016

Happy Monday! Here are some odds and ends from various corners of the Internet.

Kind-Hearted Reality Shows I Would Like to See (the Toast)

Top Chef: Team Version

You know, like Top Chef, but instead the whole cast works together to create huge, whimsically themed feasts they then all sit down and eat. There are no judges.

topchef

Come to think of it, Erica Bauermeister’s books are pretty much exactly this. And they’re pretty much my favorite things ever.

Daniel Jose Older: Writing Begins With Forgiveness. (Seven Scribes) Read this, read it again. Important advice, not just for writing, but for any creative project, or work that involves more heart than paycheck.

Far from Sunday’s Super Bowl, a Football Championship in China (NPR blog). Genuinely surprised by this, and fascinated. (And meant to post this last week, in advance of the Superb Owl.)

Lent, by the numbers, from Twitter. (ChristianityToday) Crunching the data about what Catholics are giving up for Lent (which starts this week, with Ash Wednesday.) Fascinating for both the human commentary and the data gathering. Top contenders include: school, chocolate, social networking.

The Anthropology of Space (SAPIENS blog)

In the fields of archaeoastronomy (how people understood the sky in the past) and ethnoastronomy (current cultural perceptions of the sky), scholars study how humans throughout history have looked up to the sky and wondered where we come from, why we’re here, and where we’re going.

Why is this the first time I’m finding out this exists? It delights me! Time to do some reading!

Recalling a Book: Bowing to Pressure or Righting Wrongs? (School Library Journal blog) A thoughtful series of essays to read in the wake of Scholastic’s decision to halt printing of A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Guest Post: The Unmagical Magicians

February 7, 2016

The following is a guest post from Lisa A., who I am lucky enough to know in both real-space and on the Internet. It originally appeared on her Tumblr. Thanks to Lisa for putting words to a rumbling discontent I’d been feeling with the same book, and for allowing me to share.

I don’t often write essays about books, but The Magicians struck such a nerve that it turned out to be necessary.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

The Magicians is a fantasy book for those who find all other fantasy books a load of do-gooder heroic codswallop. A magical academy story supposedly made more relatable by framing it through the much more “realistic” lens of literary fiction. With all the tics—the sad sack but brilliant protagonist! the condescension! the cynicism! my parents ignore me! women are an alien race who might be bangable!—that make that just as much of a genre as the fantasy it disdains. I can’t wait til our culture outgrows its inexplicable need to valorize its Holden Caulfields.

It IS an exquisite portrait of everything that’s wrong with NYC’s “elite” teenagers, consumingly success-oriented, hyper-competitive, stifled, completely jaded, any spark driven out of them by too much homework.

Brakebills, the magical college, is hyper-competitive, hyper-academic, and joyless. The school is structured to be deliberately divisive, and learning together is only done extremely guardedly, if at all. Students see their peers’ successes as a failure in their own records. The teachers all seem genuinely interesting from what glimpses we get of them, but we see very little of them and they never seem to impart any of their own experience or context into their lessons, instead sticking with rote study and drills. Magic is homework, and these jaded students learn it with the same disinterested discipline they had once applied to their AP Chemistry classes.

These students are not excited about having stumbled into the world of magic (except for Penny, who is mocked from beginning to end for his enthusiasm). There is nothing exciting or delightful about this magic. They acknowledge the magical realm with the same sense of entitled privilege a certain set of nonmagical kids feel about their crucial-but-inevitable acceptance to Harvard or Yale. With the feeling of wonderment removed, these poor sods are stuck drudging away toward some abstract academic success just as they’ve been drudging their entire lives. They’re desperate to do well at school because they have been impressed with how elite it is, not because any of them seem to be interested in the actual magic at all.

Because who would be such a NERD to actually enjoy anything, ever?

This is the way you train dark wizards, fostering competition, scorn, pride, and isolation, emphasizing the superiority of knowledge over communication, teaching mastery by rote, systematically eradicating what little compassion and empathy these wretched kids may once have possessed.

“You’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it… A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength. Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”

This is Professor Fogg, dean of the school, delivering the final lesson of their time at Brakebills, teaching them that pain is the core of life and power and they should go forth and break the world with it. And in case it wasn’t clear enough that this attitude is not exactly of the Light Side, he then tattoos them with a trapped demon, marking them with it physically on their own bodies without consent. As a graduation “gift”.

The Brakebills kids don’t realize they’re being trained to be terrible…but they are. Is it any surprise that the majority of graduates are funneled into think tanks and high-powered banking? Perfect fit.

So what on earth makes this gang think they’re heroes in any way? By what right do they enter the world of Fillory feeling entitled to a hero’s role and hero’s reward? Don’t you become a hero by strong moral compass, compassion, and a calling to help? The Brakebills gang have no such qualities. This charming little speech from Quentin is their idea of heroic:

“I don’t want to sound crass, but Ember and Umber are the big shots around here, right? I mean of all those people…they’re the most powerful? And morally righteous or whatever? Let’s be clear on this for a second, I want to be sure we’re backing the right horse. Or ram. Whatever.”

Fucking hipsters.

This is a vivid illustration of the “everyone is the hero of his own story” delusion, except I’m not sure the storytelling is intentionally being leveraged that way.

I need this world to contain another secret wizard academy, the opposite number to Brakebills, some hippy dippy liberal arts wizarding school where they learn how to think holistically, how to communicate, how to engage their curiosities, how to share ideas and work together, how to embrace the weird stuff without self-deprecation or scorn; where they exercise their compassion and apply the context of the greater world, its history and its communities, to their work. Where they can grow not just in power but as humans. AKA what I would think of as…the Good Guys.

I did enjoy a lot of the imagery throughout, which was lyrical enough to convey aromas and breezes and quality of light. The bit where they all get transformed into canada geese (an appropriately jerky bird choice) was deeply, viscerally satisfying. And I had fun with the smattering of very specific references to NYC geography.

As an illumination of just what can go wrong when certain social values are taken to their most cynical extreme (“What are they teaching children in these schools…”) I think the book’s terrifically successful. But if we’re meant to be on board with this cynicism, somehow finding satisfaction and commonality in the meanness of this version of the world, then I’ll stay right over here with Aslan and Prof McGonagall* thanks very much.

*Yeah, McGonagall. I wouldn’t swear Dumbledore hadn’t occasionally been a guest lecturer at Brakebills.

 

Book Review: Bellweather Rhapsody

February 4, 2016

Bellweather RhapsodyBellweather Rhapsody
By Kate Racculia
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Library Book

This book genuinely surprised me, multiple times. It moved between characters in interconnected vignettes, all in one decaying formerly-grand hotel in upstate New York. It moved between genres and themes: suspense, violent horror, coming of age, romance, friendships and family.

At first, I wasn’t sure about it, based on the first few pages, which include a gory bloodbath right out of a horror movie.  I’m squeamish about these things! I kept reading, intrigued by the mystery, and by the fact that the next chapter was a flash forward to a statewide music competition as if nothing morbid had happened just a few pages before.

Glad I pushed through to read more. The story juggled a lot of genres. Horror. Mystery. Coming of age for a number of different characters, not all of whom were teenagers.
Plot twists genuinely surprised me. But, despite varying in mood and pacing, and shifting between different characters’ voices and perspectives to tell the story, the transitions never felt jarring. Suspenseful and fast in spots, but not jarring in a disruptive way.

Characters had quirks, or had events in their past that were informing their current story… but they weren’t Quirky with a Capital Q characters for the most part, and their tragedies worked as events that had happened, rather than as tropes. Even for characters who had Capital Q quirky moments (probably inevitable for a story set at a performance competition), being able to get inside their heads for point of view helped provide balance to give their oddities context. There were a couple of moments at the very end I wasn’t completely sold on… but I think the combination of getting characters’ perspectives in vignettes, and the fact that larger-than-life performing eccentrics were in play, as well as a horror-movie setup, made it work in context.
Plus, the story was genuinely funny, and warm in parts.

Much of the action of the story takes place on a weekend in the mid-nineties. Now, just about twenty years later (yow, I feel old), does that make it a historical novel? Will it age into becoming one as it’s read over the next few years? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure that’s even an important question to ask.  Yes, a character listens to music on a Discman. But it’s more about the history that individual characters have than anchored in a set era.

I stayed up very late reading this the night before last. I blame my curiosity about the mystery, and the fact that plot twists legitimately kept me guessing. I can’t remember the last time a book surprised me this well: with plausible, genuinely interesting surprises that made sense to the story. (That’s the main reason I’ve been so vague in the description of specific characters: I want you to be surprised when you read this, too.)

The shifting characters and vignettes also made this an ideal book to read for me right now, since I’ve been in such a restless reading mood. I’d be curious to read more by the same author, and I can genuinely say I don’t know what I’d expect.

 

My Bookshelf Has Nothing to Wear

February 2, 2016

All my library holds came in at once. Including 4 on Kindle.

(Doesn’t it always happen this way?)

So much to read! So many choices! This is great news, right?

I mean, look at all this bounty!
Embedded image permalink

So what do I do? Do I just dive into the pile and work my way down? Do I go strategically, in order of when they’re due back? Do I pop the lightest one in my bag to tote to work, and take one of the weightier tomes to bed each night, working my way through both?

No, dear readers, I do none of these things! I start reading a NetGalley e-galley that’s been sitting on my Kindle for months! I start reading a book I’ve had on my own personal shelf since October.

 

I pick library books up, riffle pages and pout, as what seemed so interesting when I put it on hold falls prey to what is apparently the winter of my bookish discontent.

Here are the books I’m currently ignoring on my footrest, as pictured above.

  • Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America by Jonathan Gould
  • Last Snow by Eric Van Lustbader.
  • The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases  by Deborah Halber
  • A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
  • The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmer.

I will have to put these on hold again. Except, maybe not The Skeleton Crew. The idea is there: cold cases solved by bloggers. I’m definitely interested in the idea. If it ever gets picked up for adaptation in a crime drama series on TV, I’d watch it. The writing has failed to grab me, though.

I’ve managed to get into one of the books I’ve got on my Kindle (the one with the least-urgent due date, figures). Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. I’m variously ignoring books about George Washington’s spies and some very promising fantasy novels I’ve had on hold for ages, and now I finally have them queued up. To read a book that’s not due for three weeks.

All of this is, of course, disregarding the number of unread books I personally own, the sheer towering number of which would seem to indicate that placing library holds is a silly idea.

It’s Groundhog Day. I wonder how big a shadow my TBR pile casts.

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

January 31, 2016

17406654The Golem and the Jinni
Helene Wecker
Harper
(Library book)

Set in turn-of-the-century New York, this is a fantastic (in both senses) tale of a golem and a jinni each living among humans in a way that is not quite like the typical bounds of their ancestral culture and mythology. Chava is a golem, brought to life in a twisted way, designed and bound to be a man’s wife. When he dies almost as soon as her life begins, she is unmoored and made to find her own way in New York City, with the help of a kind older rabbi who understands her nature. The Jinni is proud and arrogant, remembering the power he held in the desert before being bound to a wizard master, but what he can’t remember is who bound him or how to get free and resume his former power. Grudgingly, he takes a job using his power over fire and metal to work with a tinsmith in little Syria. Restless from their days in the human world, they find each other, and begin a friendship. The story shifts between their perspectives, occasionally looping in to encompass one of the humans they meet.

Lovely prose, both in imagery and the way the words fell together. And I loved the way the two magical creatures came together, across cultures in New York, to learn from each other, even as they learned to navigate the human world. I enjoyed the magical language and atmosphere. Chava and the Jinni are each informed and characterized by their mythological heritage, and their thoughts explored in the shifting point of view of the story.

Accustomed to following whims and wielding power, the Jinni goes where he likes at night, melting the lock off the aquarium to wander and gaze inside, without a second thought. As he befriends Chava, the two of them argue: she is scandalized at the ways he wants to take risks, take what he wants, disobey the rules. A golem without an official master, passing as a human woman in an Orthodox Jewish community made for an especially interesting characterization where myth and culture intersect.

It was easy to read social commentary into the way Chava argued for adhering to rules, the way she obeyed a woman’s role in her adopted human culture, keeping her superhuman abilities like strength in check, but that layer of meaning didn’t distract from the story. Instead, it made it more fun to read. The threads of all the characters, mythic and human, pointed to a larger story about power dynamics that plays out in an inventive take on blending cultures’ magic as well as in commentary on social norms and dynamics between men and women. And it works fairly seamlessly, staying in the background of the lovely prose.

Something that didn’t work seamlessly: the story setting itself up for a sequel. The way the climax worked (interesting magic and power dynamics on the plus side) pointed towards a continuation that felt grafted on, where I would have preferred a self-contained resolution. I’m left dubious about where the story could go next, although willing to read because I do like the prose style.

Because I want to end this review on a positive note and get lots of people to read this lovely prose and take on cultural mythology, I’ll end with another thing I liked: the respectful way it’s a story about friendship rather than True Love. As much as the two mythical creatures argued and found each other exasperating, I could see a bond of respect, caring and friendship between them that was touching and made me smile.  Each encountered humans who were willing to help them and be generous. Part of Chava’s generous nature was built into her as a golem, but part also read like kindness. And even Jinni, who was much more arrogant around humans had moments that showed heart. I liked that.

 

 

Barbie, Books and Other Oddments

January 28, 2016

barbie-cover-finalBarbie has been redesigned, and the process made the cover of TIME. From the idea that something needed to change to reclaim Barbie’s sinking market share vs Disney/Elsa, to focus groups and efforts to promote diversity, to a redesign that includes 3 additional Barbie bodies: curvy, tall, and petite, with clothes styled for each. Big news from a marketing, parenting, social commentary standpoint.

The entire article is worth a read and clicking around subfeatures: Scenes from the focus group, Barbie’s controversies, great essay by Jill Filipovic. That said, beware clicking on the “Behind the Scenes at Mattel: See How Barbie is Created,” photoset. Disembodied doll heads. Brr! (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Reception of the new doll sizes so far has been mixed, at least in the focus groups including kids. Will be interested to see how this plays out. Personal note: Yes I had a small handful of Barbie dolls growing up. But Mom didn’t let me own any until I was basically almost too old to be interested. So, mostly a spectator/social anthropologist on this one, rather than any emotional investment or nostalgia.

And I’m serious about the doll heads.

Speaking of uncanny things, I have, at last, seen the first episode of the rebooted X-Files. Just the first episode, so no spoilers, darling. Still forming my thoughts on it: somewhere between great to have the band back together, nostalgia, and all sorts of chewy thoughts about government/information management, construction of threat, feminist critique of science fiction. I blame grad school. Based on first episode, Mulder appears to have spent intervening years cultivating stubble and watching porn (it’s canon!) while Scully has grown more magnificent, wielding surgical scalpel and raised eyebrow with equal precision.

Government/alien conspiracies are less terrifying than doll heads.

29jpblooks6-blog427Speaking of… things I have read and though t about today (ugh, need to work on that transition): Faux books or items made in the shape of books, including reliquaries, flask holders, hollow books.

Sensing an unexplored territory, Ms. Dubansky set out to map the contours of the world of fake books, eventually amassing about 600 made from stone, wax, straw, wood, soap, plastic, glass and other materials.

I acknowledge that I am a great big librarian nerd for wanting to know how these would be cataloged, and/or what the metadata would look like. I also want to go look at the exhibit currently on view at the Grolier Club.

But if any of the hollow books contain anything even slightly resembling a doll head, I’m outta there.

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