Review: The Plantagenets

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Guys, I am a huge history nerd. As a voluntary elective in college, I took a course on the higher Middle Ages, and I loved it (I didn’t do so great on the final, but hey, that’s another story).  But for some reason, there is a HUGE gap in my education on anything that happened between like…the beginning of time [excluding some sketchy details about Greek/Roman civilization] and roughly 1300, where both my high school European history and college Middle Ages classes picked up.

But again, big nerd, and when I saw this ARC I though oooooh, pretty, kings and English history. The Plantagenets ruled basically from 1100, shortly after the conquest, until Henry Bolingbrook (Henry IV) kicked Richard II out of office because Richard was a complete idiot around 1399.

If you’re completely bored of this post already, you will absolutely not like this book. At all. Just skip it.

If you’re still with me, though, there is a very good chance that this book is going to be your jive. This 550ish-page tome gives the history of all the kings/queens—who they married, who they fought with, who they got pregnant, the land they lost & gained, who they had duels with, etc. It also goes a little into how they changed legislation & a lot about how they changed the governmental system from a complete disastrous mess into the beginning shape of the institution that it is today.

There were some fun facts in here—things like Henry II was in 1154 the first ruler to be crowned king of England rather than the old form, which was king of the English. A subtle distinction. Or the fun fact that the mortar used for the Tower of London was mixed with animal’s blood. Why? No idea. It doesn’t say.

If you’re looking for a people’s history—what life was like in the eleventh-to-fourteenth centuries, or any kind of sympathy for an entire population that probably had PTSD from being constantly invaded, burned, raped, pillaged, disease-stricken, and abused—this is not your book. Go check out A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman (she won a Pulitzer for Guns of August, which is also awesome but not about the Middle Ages).

Here, we only care about the kings, and Jones obviously has a fondness for kings who were able to get shit done—regardless of the methods they used. Kill entire armies full of people? Slaughter innocent villages? Hey, as long as you’ve got successful financing and a good relationship with your barons, go for it.

I learned a lot, but I could have probably used more fun facts and less “this dude fought with this dude, so that dude went over to hang with this person in this other place that you’ve never heard of because your sense of geography sucks, and then this other dude was upset so he got this other guy killed.” But that’s history.

Three stars because it wasn’t awesome but it was pretty good and now I know that thing about the Tower of London’s mortar, which will be fun to bring up randomly in conversation. 

 

[disclaimer: I received this ARC free from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review]

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Review: A Tale for the Time Being

Look, two reviews in one day! I’m on a roll! Image

I read these two subsequently, one right after the other, and I completely did not intend to keep reading on the  same them—but they do follow the same theme in many ways. A Tale for the Time Being alternates between two viewpoints—Nao, a Japanese girl in living in modern Tokyo, and Ruth, a writer living with her husband in a small island off of the coast of British Columbia.

Ruth finds a message in a bottle diary in a Ziploc on the beach, which belongs to Nao, who just moved back to Japan from Cali & is suffering culture shock, bullies, a suicidal dad, and recruiting from prostitutes escorts. It’s a tough life in Tokyo.

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Tumblr says this is Tokyo.

It’s hard to explain what happens without giving the whole thing away. As Ruth reads, we read—as we react, we often switch back and watch Ruth react. It’s all very metafiction. I’m having Borges flashbacks from college. Let’s just say that it’s not a coincidence that the author’s name is Ruth—it’s supposed to be all sorts of intertwined in what’s real, who’s reading who, and what the relationship is between reader and writer.

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I absolutely loved the first two thirds of this thing. Nao’s great-grandma, Jio, is a Buddhist monk & yet all sorts of hip & feisty; the Japanese culture is fascinating and disturbing in parts [just like American culture, I suppose]; the perspective on the earthquake in Japan in 2011 was really humbling, since that was just a blip on my news radar, and yet it was such a huge deal for so many people.

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This is the bubble I live in. Just go with it.

I really lost it in the last quarter, though—I felt like Ozeki was trying to stick too many ideas in the same novel. All of a sudden we’re talking about Schrodinger, and we’re getting some sci-fi/fantasy action, and lots of coincidences, and physics, on top of all our philosophy and history and Japanese culture—and it just got a little out of control.

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But overall, I would absolutely, completely recommend it. You can tell that Ozeki is a filmmaker, too—so many of the scenes feel like scenes. I can picture exactly how this would look in a movie, and I would not be surprised to see this made into a feature film in a couple years. Four stars: wholeheartedly recommended with shrugs about the ending.

[edit: I received this copy from NetGalley in return for a fair review]

Review: Life After Life

“History is all about ‘what ifs’”*

Image There was a lot of hype leading up to the release of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life—I saw this one on the Millions’ list, on ads on Goodreads, on people’s blog posts, on Amazon’s anticipated list, and on many other blogs and publications. I pre-ordered it to see what the fuss was about, but I was prepared to be disappointed. I guess I’m just pessimistic like that.

Other than one point about 2/3 of the way through when I got a little tired of poor Ursula screwing up her life and dying again, I LOVED this title. It has so many of the things that I love: a fantasy element, philosophical musing, history, real characters, a thought-provoking story-line.

Life After Life follows the life/lives of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 to a moderately well-off English family living in a town outside of London. Ursula is born dead—strangled on the umbilical cord. Then she’s born again, and this time she makes it—but then she dies of drowning. Or gas inhalation. Or falling. So she’s born again—and again, and again, and again, living out different scenarios of all the different choices that she makes throughout her life.  

It was so incredibly fascinating to see how miniscule choices can change the course of a life—the butterfly effect. What I found even more interesting, though, is Atkinson’s assumption that by making different choices, we shape our personality and the choices we make for years to come.

“’[Hitler]’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.’ No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.” (360)

The choices & personality that we choose affects those around us—but not everyone. Some characters—Ursula’s aunt, her sister Pamela—were remarkably stable in their futures, while others—her mother, her brother Teddy—varied enormously in their choices. Do some of us have more potential for variation than others? Are some of us fated to some things? What can change, and what do we have a choice about?

I adored this book and all the things that it had me thinking about—the nostalgia of wondering what my life would look like if I had made different choices.

“I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history” (474).

The whole book—the whole wonderful, slightly-too-long opus—can be summed up in the one quote that I started this musing with. What if you had taken a different way home? What if you said no instead of yes? What if you travelled to Paris instead of Venice?  What would your life be like then?

I read this one straight through without stopping; I overcooked the spaghetti noodles for dinner because I was trying to read and cook simultaneously. Five stars.

*quote from page 473

Events of Note: Neil Gaiman & my Kindle

Item #1: I’m going to a Neil Gaiman book signing.

I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the cultural hub of Michigan (it’s not a lofty goal, but AA does it in a lofty way) for three years as a college student. I got my BA in English and Spanish, and not once did I go to a book signing.

Now I live 30 minutes away from AA, and I’m going to make up for lost time, starting in July with Neil Gaiman. He’s one of my favorite authors (Coraline, Stardust, American Gods, Good Omens [with Terry Pratchett, review here], Sandman, The Graveyard Book, and numerous other wonders), and this is supposedly his last ever U.S. book tour. I am so freaking excited.

As I scurried from site to site, trying to figure out how in the world I could reserve my spot, I stumbled across the correct information on the website of the bookstore “hosting” the event, Nicola’s Books. Tickets are bought through ticketmaster for $30-$60, and the event isn’t at the bookstore itself—it’s actually at the Michigan Theater, a historic theater that is frequently home to film viewings, orchestras, bands, musicals, plays, and lectures. 

It makes me curious—is this normal? Or is this the new normal? I thought that book signings were generally free events held in bookstores that were free to attend, and hopefully you bought the author’s book. But perhaps that only applies to authors with a less established following.

On the other hand, I have absolutely no problem paying to go to a signing—just like I would have no problem paying to go to an interesting lecture or concert. I just wonder if other, less notable authors use the same model, or generally follow more the picture that I have in my head.

Checking Nicola’s schedule for the summer, I think I’m going to see how many different readings/signings play out. I’ll keep you updated.

 

Item #2. I bought a Kindle.

In many circles, I know that this sort-of-kind-of-definitely places me on one of the lower circles of hell, but I have some good reasons—I promise.

I’ve been anti-eBook-reader ever since they appeared on the market a few years ago. That’s not to say that I think they’re wrong in any way; I simply have a longstanding love affair with printed books. I have walls of books (to my husband’s despair), and I love arranging them, loving on them, smelling them, finding notes in them—all of the typical ebooks-are-the-devil arguments. I have always been able to see that eBook readers are convenient and serve a certain niche, but they have never been for me.

Lately, though, I’ve been getting a number of e-galleys to review, and reading on my 15” MacBook isn’t anybody’s idea of fun. What has always been a nice, conveniently transportable size suddenly feels like a elephant sitting in my lap. I determined to go out & get an eReader.

My research led me to three different choices: the Nook SimpleTouch with GlowLight, the Kindle Paperwhite, and the Kobo Glo. I read a ton of reviews, went and saw all of them in the store (except the Glo, which our Best Buy doesn’t carry), and ended up buying the Kindle.

Here’s the thing. Amazon is the huge bully on the playground, an expression I’ve seen at least four different places online in the last week. I get that. Their purchase of Goodreads last week freaked out a lot of people. But at the same time, there are a lot of exciting things going on with Kindle & Amazon—Amazon’s publishing house, which is getting some increased buzz; Kindle singles and new marketing models (well, new old marketing models) around chapter-by-chapter (episodic) releases; and other things I’m sure I just can’t think of right now.

Amazon is always the subject of conversation, even if much of the attention is negative, and I want to be part of that conversation. Kindle will do what I want it to do—I can read my ARCs on it, get books from the library through OverDrive (Amazon doesn’t play nice with B&T Axis 360 or the 3M Cloud Library, but my local library just has OverDrive), and download from Project Gutenberg. I’m not planning on buying any eBooks at this point through Amazon.

All this being said, I will also probably buy a Kobo Mini (on sale at Powell’s this week for $59 including case!) so that I can continue buying books from my favorite indies if I do want them in eBook form.  For right now, though, if I’m going to actually put money into a book, I want a copy that I can hold in my hands and put on my very physical wooden shelf. If I’m going to move to eBooks, I don’t trust Amazon with my eLibrary. I’ve heard too many stories of libraries being arbitrarily yanked for that. And by too many, I mean one, and that’s too many for me.

I’ve never been good at choosing just one of the above.

Literary Cage Match: Part 2

ImageWhen I paired up this contestant cage match, I was—well, let’s just say the content doesn’t align much. I comfort myself with the fact that most of the TOB (Morning News Tournament of Books, 2013 results here) matchups didn’t necessarily have anything in common other than the fact that they were both books. & yep, both my contestants fulfill that qualification.

Travels with Epicurus is not so much a travelogue as a meditation on growing old, philosophy, and ways of living. The subheadings are things like “On solitary reflection”; “On existential authenticity”; “On mellowing to metaphysics.” & those sound pretty damn intimidating, but honestly, this is not a book that takes a Ph.D. in philosophy to understand.

It’s written in the slow, relaxed, conversation speech of an old man that has come to accept the fact that he is, in fact, old. He’s gone to an island in Greece to hang out & experience life there—specifically to read Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher one generation more recent than Plato with some ideas about how to live.

Epicurus’s basic idea is that you should maximize happiness in life, which seems, well, pretty obvious.

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Here are some of my favorite takeaways:

“Nothing is enough for the man whom enough is too little.” (Epicurus)

“Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” (Epicurus)

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“What, then, is the right way of living? Life must lived as play.” (Plato)

“An old man does not have to fret about his next move because the chess game is over. He is free to think about any damned thing he chooses.” (this one is quoted directly from the author, I just think it’s AWESOME)

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” (Kirkegaard)

If deep thoughts aren’t your jive, you probably won’t like this one. But I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s just for old people—I mean, come on, we’re all getting older. Who doesn’t wonder at some point [even if it’s just after one too many…drinks] why we’re here? & what we’re supposed to be doing? & why that stupid kid from college got the amazing job that I wanted so badly? Etc.

This is about those questions.

So going back to my criteria that I can basically manipulate however I want:

1. Successfully accomplishing what the author set to accomplish: I would say basically yes. He set out to talk and write about old age & ponder how you can age gracefully or live gracefully. I do think that he did this better in the first few segments; the last two or so seemed a little…without conclusion, but that’s kind of the point too. A- because I liked it.

2. Speaking truth—I would say absolutely on this one, if only because he quoted a whole lot of philosophers with some really awesome things to say. A

So I’m going to give this one an A—as a work of page-turning fiction, this one is…not that, but it’s a quiet, reflective book that I really enjoyed.

So grade-wise? This one kicked the pants off Seduction for me.  But I am open to discussion and disagreement on that.

Also, I think if Jac & Mr. Klein (TwE author & narrator) had a conversation, Jac would totally get fed up with his questions & pondering and leave, so she’s disqualified anyway.

Have a great hump day tomorrow!

 [I received this ARC free from NetGalley]

Literary Cage Match: Part 1

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading…kind of obsessively lately. This is partly because I was on vacation last week and had time, and partly because my finals are all over for this semester, and I’m free [aka I’m just working full time instead of working full time & going to school part time] to do a lot more ignoring of my hubby in the evenings.

So I was lying in bed last night with all these characters & books racing through my head—and March Madness, of course [GO BLUE]—and it occurred to me: I don’t have the attention span to do a whole tournament, but what if these books were in individual cage matches? Who would win, for example, between The Pink Hotel and Mom & Me & Mom? Both talk about moms, right? Or which character would win a no-holds-barred fight, Mae from Gameboard of the Gods or Yagharek from Perdido Street Station?

Suffice to say I had some really weird dreams last night.

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I thought I’d give it a try as a feature, and debuting here tonight….

LITERARY CAGE MATCH!

I figured we should have so guidelines around what criteria I’m actually using to judge these suckers. Besides the random meaningless points I’ll give out for things that I like about the book, I’m keeping this two things in mind:

  1. Successfully accomplishing what the author sets out to accomplish. If this is supposed to be suspenseful, was it actually suspenseful? If it’s supposed to be sad, did it make me sad? If it’s a comedy, did it make me laugh? And so on. We can go into the whole complicated mess of authorial intention later; I want to keep this as simple as possible.
  2. Speaking truth of some kind. I know this is vague, and it’s intentional—but I mean that it reveals something true about life; it’s timeless; it’s realistic. I’m talking about awesome descriptions that take your breath away, thoughts that make you stop and ponder, realistic depictions of relationships—that kind of thing.

These are intentionally simplistic and vague because dangit, this is my cage match, and it gets to be what I want it to be.

 

WITHOUT ANY FURTHER ADO…OUR FIRST CONTESTANT!

 

SEDUCTION

I picked up this ARC at Net Galley because, well, it has a pretty cover.

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See? Pretty. & It did what covers are supposed to do, which is to attract attention. What I didn’t know until after I’d already read this sucker is that it’s actually fifth in a series, which explains some of the vague references to earlier happenings in the main character’s life that I had no clue about. Whoops, my bad.

Seduction: A Novel of Suspense (that’s the subtitle according to Goodreads) follows Jac L’Etoile, a young woman with a television show about mythical happenings & where they came from. Kind of like Mythbusters, but with like, actual myths instead of urban ones. Anyway, she gets a call from an old friend that takes her to Jersey, which is NOT the same as New Jersey, which I figured out very confusedly after a few pages and a Wikipedia search. Jersey is actually an isle off the coast of Normandy that’s owned by the UK. Courtesy of Google Maps:

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Obviously I do not have the best grasp of geography. That’s England on the top side, there, and France in the bottom right.

Anyway, in Jersey, she gets to know the Gaspard family, which is troubled in many ways. Her present-day story is interspersed with flashbacks to 1885, where Victor Hugo is also living on Jersey, in exile from Paris, and getting increasingly immersed into the world of séances & spiritualism (see: crazy ghosties) world.

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What I didn’t like about this book: in the first five pages of this book (so I’m claiming this is not a spoiler), Victor Hugo finds out that his favorite daughter has drowned, and honestly, I found his grief in the first few pages really boring. & I may be a horrible person, given, but I was completely untouched by the whole thing. Maybe it was just that I didn’t have time to get to know the characters before he was having a meltdown. I found the first fifty pages, in general, really tough to slough through. They were awkward in parts, completely overdramatic in parts, and I certainly did not myself unable to tear myself away from the plot that was developing.

What I did like about this book: woven throughout this book is a love of scents; both Jac and one of the characters from Hugo’s time, Fantine, are perfumers by profession/family trade, and so much of the book is described in terms of the scents that are found. I saw some comments on goodreads that there was too much description, but I really enjoyed the thorough description of the location in terms of multiple senses: olfactory, auditory, visual.

I’m also a sucker for mythology and history, and I really don’t know much about Celtic mythology or history at all, which is super sad because it seems awesome. Big huge mystical rocks? Druids? Women in respected positions of authority? I am so there.

So did M.J. Rose succeed in weaving a “atmospheric tale of suspense with a spellbinding ghost story at its heart,” like the publisher claims? At least mostly. Once I got through the first 50 pages or so, I was at least 90% hooked through the rest. Fans of Kate Mosse and Kate Morton—maybe even Elizabeth Kostova—will love this one. I’ll give it a B.

Did M.J. Rose tell a story that spoke truth of some kind? More doubtful. Fantasy is tough, because it requires a buy-in on the reader’s part to the world that you’ve created, and I just didn’t get one hundred percent there. At some points I was still like

skepticaloprah

You expect me to believe what now?

Although I won’t be looking out myself for the next book in the series, I would still recommend it to certain of my friends that I think would enjoy it.  For truth-telling, though, I’m gonna give it a C.

TOTAL SCORE: B-

UP NEXT: CONTESTANT NUMBER TWO COMING SOON!

Sorry folks. This post is just getting WAY too long.

Review: Mom & Me & Mom

mom&me&momI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of those books that I always thought that I’d read, but now that I think about it, I don’t think I have. Maybe excerpts. Her name is just always out there–I’m familiar with her poetry without being able to recall why I know it. I like her, but before reading this, I couldn’t have actually told you why I did. Probably b/c it’s cool. Because she’s cool. I had NO idea how cool–until I read this.

Mom & Me & Mom is actually Angelou’s seventh autobiography; it is, however, her first in about eleven years. She’s 85 now; or she will be on April 4, only two days after this publishes. & in what may be one of her last books (although she said in a recent interview with NPR that “Unless the creator’s ready for me I’m not going anywhere”), she chooses to focuses on her relationship with her mom, Vivian Baxter, who died in 1991.

My mom is quiet. She’s demure. She’s a lady. The craziest she ever gets is wearing what we like to teasingly refer to as “hippie t-shirts” with Peace/Hope/Love symbols on them. My house, growing up, was quiet. My parents have always gone to bed at 10 p.m. at the latest. What can I say–we’re Canadian. I was probably one of the most boring teenagers of all time.

I cannot even express to you how different Vivian Baxter is, and how radically, unbelievably different Angelou’s life was as a child/teenager/young adult.  They would have scared the shit out of me as a teenager, but at the same time, I would give SO MUCH to hang out with them. I mean, not that I’m cool enough.

To illustrate: at one point, a man that Angelou is dating beats her to a bloody pulp. Vivian tracks her down, picks up some punks, breaks down the guy’s door where he’s stashed her, and rescues Angelou. & then later, once Angelou has recovered, her mom gives her a gun & tells her to shoot the guy. So Maya goes & confronts the sleazebag, but can’t shoot him. At which point her mom tells her that Angelou’s the better woman, but she would’ve shot him.

I think at this point, Maya’s about….mid-twenties. My age.

I mean, how surreal is that?! This is the same woman [Vivian] that gets upset at one point that Maya’s husband isn’t allowing her to go to church; the same woman that stands up for Maya when she gets pregnant at 17.

I can understand why they had a complicated relationship.

What I love about this book the most, though, is that while I’m sitting on my couch, I can just hear the words pour out of the book, as if Maya’s sitting on the chair next to me, reading me the story. Her voice is so clear, so musical; it’s a short book, given, but the time just flies by. She tells her story with grace, humility, jazz—it’s such a quiet, lovely pleasure to read.

I hope that I have half the spunk that Maya Angelou does, and that I do half as much to make the world a better place.

Five stars for being simply, beautifully, stylishly awesome. It’s a super quick read–you have to check this one out. Now go–I’m going to go hug my mom.

[I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review]