Hey so apparently Code Name Verity wasn't Elizabeth Wein's first rodeo on the emotional brutality circuit. The Winter Prince is just as ruthlessly pre...moreHey so apparently Code Name Verity wasn't Elizabeth Wein's first rodeo on the emotional brutality circuit. The Winter Prince is just as ruthlessly precise in its restrained depiction of wild and complicated feelings under stressful situations. And, okay, I feel like that description is something that only makes sense to me, but the beauty in Wein's writing is in that contradictory dynamic: careful narrators committed to truth, and all sorts of hard love blooming underneath the surface of that narrative. That hard love seeps to the surface in ways that feel like punches to the gut.
The Arthurian mythology isn't really my thing, and prior to reading this book, I couldn't recall anything about who Medraut was, but I found the story easy to follow, easy to enjoy. The characters were fully inhabited, not just placeholders falling into particular roles or fates. The climactic scenes tore my heart out, but I wished for an ending that left more resolved, that lingered more on the changes that had occurred in the relationships--though I understood clearly just how exhausted the characters were and how they deserved to get ushered off the page and sleep for a few days. But my feelings re: the ending don't diminish the story at all: there are four more books after this AND the series moves off to the Aksumite Empire next, so I'm a happy reader.(less)
Enjoyable mostly because I loved reading about life downstairs. I watched some episodes of You Rang, M'Lord? a few months ago, and I was reminded of t...moreEnjoyable mostly because I loved reading about life downstairs. I watched some episodes of You Rang, M'Lord? a few months ago, and I was reminded of that while reading about Dandy's cluelessness whilst undercover as a lady's maid.
I skipped the third and fourth books in this series (the third kept putting me to sleep, and I avoided the fourth because I can't stand circuses), but as far as I can tell, this fifth book is an odd duck in comparison because it's actually fast-paced! The previous books were slower than molasses. Perhaps correspondingly, the prose wasn't as consistently sharp as in the previous books. I also don't know if this would be a good place to the start in the series, because Dandy going undercover means her actual character and life aren't depicted.
The mystery itself was engaging for the majority of the book. Dandy is employed by the lady of the household, whose husband is engaging in gaslighting and planning to murder her. On Dandy's first night on the job, however, someone else is murdered while she and her client safely sleep, and while a strike hampers official investigations, Dandy is drafted to assist--all while maintaining her cover as a shouldn't-be-so-nosy lady's maid. There are interesting complications--a baffling last will and testament chief among them--and I was reading with great interest, enjoying various twists and mental puzzles, until the resolution hit. Some suspension of disbelief was required on my part to swallow it. (view spoiler)[Is hypnosis something I'm expected to belief in? Not just hypnosis, but to that extent? REALLY? (hide spoiler)]
So. The book had its flaws and I probably wouldn't recommend it indiscriminately, but it was still an enjoyable reading experience for me on balance.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is one of those books where I struggle to judge it on its own merits. It's a good enough book, but not only is it not Code Name Verity and not tr...moreThis is one of those books where I struggle to judge it on its own merits. It's a good enough book, but not only is it not Code Name Verity and not trying to be Code Name Verity, it also has a lot of glaring weaknesses and not really a book I'd recommend to non-YA readers (whereas Code Name Verity, I shove at everyone). I mean, ffs, the character's name is Rose Justice, and she's a plucky American teenage pilot/poet who naively doesn't know what she's getting into when she signs up to ferry planes in England. It's a bit too on-the-nose and I'm-a-stand-in-for-modern-privileged-readers for me. The majority of the book is a straightforward story about a concentration camp, and I think memoirs and non-fiction are far stronger reading experiences than this was.
The book's focus on the Ravensbrück Rabbits, 74 Polish women brought to the camp as political prisoners and subjected to terrifyingly inhumane experiments on their legs, was one of its strengths, even if it the story was filtered through Rose. The book actively acknowledged this problem, the problems of telling someone else's story, and how telling your own story can be a hard enough challenge, and how these things are intertwined. There are also a lot of complications about the narrative of survival and the fetishized survivorhood narrative and how that's just not how it is or how it feels and how survivors struggle against it and with it, and these were areas where the book excelled.(less)
A beautiful book about ugly things. I really liked a lot about it, but I found the treatment of a particular issue near the ending (discussed under sp...moreA beautiful book about ugly things. I really liked a lot about it, but I found the treatment of a particular issue near the ending (discussed under spoiler tags below) to be too brief and too superficial, and it took away from the book's strengths.
Boy Novak is a girl with a smart mouth, a crazy-making beauty, and a motherless, grim childhood that sends her fleeing from her New York City home. She winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts, an idyllic town known for its legions of artisans, a place that values beauty and that trades in beautiful things. Its most idyllic and beautiful resident (y'know, the fairest of them all) is Snow Whitman, a dreamy princess of a little girl who eventually becomes Boy's stepdaughter. Boy never assumed that marrying into the Whitmans--flinty, upright, hard-nosed, and still haunted by the loss of Snow's gorgeous mother--would be easy, but she finds her family relationships growing more complicated with the birth of her dark-skinned daughter, Bird. It's 1953, and while race relations are treacherous even in a fairy tale town, the most central pain here is centered on, and passed down by, the same source that often centers and passes down the color of own's skin: family.
I really like how Helen Oyeyemi uses fairy tales in her work. There are no straight re-tellings or tedious modern day "updates"; instead, she breaks a tale apart and uses some of the shiniest pieces in a mosaic that draws attention to the narrative patterns that become literal forces in our lives. In Mr. Fox, she kept rearranging elements of the Bluebeard story to examine the consequences of how we tell stories about violence against women, and here in Boy, Snow, Bird, she's looking at how race and identity and selfhood are invented and interpreted, all by fracturing the familiar Snow White mythos of beauty and purity and, quite interestingly, motherhood.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about passing, and overlaying a magical-realist fairy tale of deceitful mirrors and doubles makes perfect sense. W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness ("this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity") gets to the heart of what kind of work and what kind of pain is involved in passing, and the mirrors--literal and metaphorical--at work within the world of BSB are not neutral, passive objects. This story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, but the work being done here about identity is still severely relevant, even if contemporary racism doesn't always take the same form as it did then. While the principal character in this story is white Boy, this isn't a white person's white-savior story in which racism is the backdrop for the story of a white person's coming of age. There is not enough vomit in the world to express my reaction to seeing The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird and similar books being recommended as better stories about racism than this one; Ron Charles's Washington Post review expresses more elegantly how I feel about this: "This isn't one more earnest novel to reward white liberals for their enlightenment. (Insert your favorite bookclub title here.) Boy, Snow, Bird wants to draw us into the dark woods of America's racial consciousness, where fantasies of purity and contamination still lurk." Yep. Oyeyemi brings into multiple points of view as to what is gained and what is lost by those who choose to pass and those who don't, and even if Boy and whiteness are at the heart of the story, Oyeyemi continually complicates Boy's role there.
The writing is magnetic--I'd point to the book's opening sentence and the opening paragraph as good representatives of Oyeyemi's style--and I was engaged by both Boy's and Bird's sections. I also loved the letters exchanged by Bird and Snow, and while I wished for a section narrated by Snow, I think her voice still came through, and the fact that it was filtered by other character's experiences of her was part of the POINT.
However, there was an aspect to this book that I found problematic, and that I don't know how to digest, primarily because it occurs in the final pages of the book. (view spoiler)[Boy's journalist friend Mia goes searching for the truth about Boy's long absent mother and in doing so uncovers evidence for a story that she wants to write: the story of Boy's abusive father, Frank Novak "the rat catcher," a figure who looms menacingly throughout the book. Frank Novak had been born Frances Novak; an assertive academic and a radical lesbian, Frances was raped by an acquaintance, and as a result, Boy was born and Frances's identity was overtaken by the villainous Frank, her new, cruel self-image in the mirror. Mia gave Frank an opportunity to tell Boy this information herself, but now Mia outs him to Boy herself--and plans to publish this story. As Mia puts it, "I want to describe what someone goes through when they refuse to be a mother, or when they realize they just can't do it." Mia has her own story in relation to this theme, as does Boy and as do other characters, but Mia plans to write about Frank and Frances.
There were three things about this that made me uncomfortable.
2) Frank's gender identity is described by Boy as a spell that needs to be broken. I was uncomfortable with this, because even if passing is the focus of the book, racial and gender passing are two different concepts with different implications, and jumping to the conclusion that Frances needed to be rescued from Frank, without considering that Frank could be who Frances wanted to be, kind of alarmed me. In pretty generalized terms, my understanding of racial passing is that it focuses on a person's means of assuming social mobility and social power, whereas gender passing involves aligning one's public identity and one's gender identity. I'd interpret the book as suggesting that Frank's gender passing IS about how he related/relates to social structures (naming his child Boy and abusing her in situations where her womanhood is most evident also suggest this) and may not have to do with how he felt about his own gender, BUT Frank's voice throughout the story is filtered secondhand, and so it was difficult for me to interpret his personal identity.
3) I want to be careful not to conflate gender passing in the context of this book with the identities of trans people, but as the only explicit example of someone engaged in gender passing, it troubled me that Frank's character--violent, abusive, predatory, mentally ill, identifies as a man as a result of severe trauma--coheres with a lot of negative stereotypes & representations of trans people. When compared to the book's richness and depth in how various characters related to racial passing, the weakness and superficial treatment of one surprise! example of gender passing at the end of the book stood out as unfortunate.
The book ends with Boy, her daughters, and Mia leaving to go to NYC and confront Frank, so there is no resolution on this front, but as Boy's relationship to her daughters (and Snow and Bird's relationships to one another) drove the book for me, I didn't mind the lack of Frank-related resolution per se. I don't think it served the book very well, however. (hide spoiler)]
FTC Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
"The military officially ran the town in one way, and our husbands in practice ran the town in some ways, and we ran the town clandestinely in others."
I love the headspace that the use of first-person plural requires me to inhabit: the continuous shifting of stories and perspectives, the complicated pushback between individual and community, and a subtle undercurrent of fate and destiny suggested by how many disparate paths converge, momentarily, into one before diverging again. I enjoyed the gorgeous use of first-person plural in Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, so when I heard about the use of the same style in this book, I was totally game. Proooobably shouldn't have tried to hold up any other book to the high standards of Otsuka's prose. Nesbit's prose was clunky in comparison, and even if the style wasn't always executed gracefully, I still thought she mostly justified the POV choice she made.
This book is about, and narrated by, the wives of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, and at the start of the book, I was eagerly consuming all the details, mundane and extraordinary, about life in Los Alamos. The vignettes were sometimes too heavy-handed, and sometimes repetitive and dull. I greatly preferred the end of the book when the ethical aspects and ethical legacy were grappled with, and that's when the book really had power.(less)
The solar system that Catton puts into motion here felt complete, from the beginning of the book to the end. I was ridiculously delighted by the narra...moreThe solar system that Catton puts into motion here felt complete, from the beginning of the book to the end. I was ridiculously delighted by the narration; omniscient POV works so well when authors are explicit that destiny is a force at work in their novel's universe, and Catton didn't disappoint. The character descriptions were gorgeous and purposeful, and the plot was gleefully twisty and Victorian.
"Yes," the boy cried, "because I must! True feeling is always circular--either circular, or paradoxical--simply because its cause and its expression are two halves of the very same thing! Love cannot be reduced to a catalogue of reasons why, and a catalogue of reasons cannot be put together into love. Any man who disagrees with me has never been in love--not truly."
I mostly loved this, this saga of Alma Whittaker: 19th-century botanist, dutiful daughter, strong-willed scholar, born arguer, lifelong seeker of answ...moreI mostly loved this, this saga of Alma Whittaker: 19th-century botanist, dutiful daughter, strong-willed scholar, born arguer, lifelong seeker of answers. It's a sprawling story, curving back in on itself at times and leaving tendrils of mysteries untucked at other times, and the pace and tension meander but always seemed to suit the story well. It's a love song for science, but in a way that does--by the ending, at least--destabilize the common assumption that science and religion are doing incompatible work. I thought the book accomplished this without undermining the rigorousness of science & fact-finding and without infantilizing people drawn to religion.
Also, I finished the book with a new-found desire to go find some moss and, IDK, hug it or something.
I did have hang-ups with the narration style. First of all, it felt inconsistent, and that jarred me; based on the book's beginning with its asides and omniscience, I thought there'd be a more Trollope-y narrator hanging around with me throughout the book, and even though that sort of narration was limited primarily to the book's beginning, I kept bracing myself for a return of it at any moment, which didn't make for an optimal reading experience. At times, I was also frustrated by the reliance on characters delivering mountains of exposition and/or backstory in the form of dialogue.
Overall, however, I was impressed and engaged.(less)
I'll get this out of the way first: the burry man is a real thing and, to my eyes, looks terrifying.
This was a slow-moving mystery, but the atmosphere...moreI'll get this out of the way first: the burry man is a real thing and, to my eyes, looks terrifying.
This was a slow-moving mystery, but the atmosphere was a delectable mix of spooky (pagan traditions, talk of ghosts in gloomy woods), sad (family feuds, the legacy of destroying an entire generation in WWI), and funny (Dandy, who clearly prefers dogs to children, is charged with judging a Bonniest Baby competition, and she--despite her friends very clearly instructing her to simply choose the plumpest baby there--forgets and instead picks a scrawny newborn, much to the dismay of the locals). I missed the meditations on crime-solving that the first book of the series featured, but I appreciated that Dandy was very level-headed about truth-seeking--particularly in comparing it to justice-seeking.(less)
Some really, really good writing, particularly when in Agnes's point of view, and the meditations on narratives and who-is-telling-my-story and my-sto...moreSome really, really good writing, particularly when in Agnes's point of view, and the meditations on narratives and who-is-telling-my-story and my-story-is-not-who-I-am and memories-shared-but-unremembered all appealed to me greatly, but the story built around the historical facts was sometimes too slender for me.
And, completely irrelevant to everyone else but I'm mentioning it anyway, as someone with a not-particularly-rare-but-rarely-encountered-in-fiction Scandinavian surname, I was astonishingly excited when someone with my surname was mentioned.(less)
What a half-assed ending. I'm left with a bitter taste despite finding this book, as well as the trilogy as a whole, very gripping and very uncomforta...moreWhat a half-assed ending. I'm left with a bitter taste despite finding this book, as well as the trilogy as a whole, very gripping and very uncomfortable-making.
I still recommend all three books, but with the caveat that the ultimate deus ex machina ending isn't at all earned, neither as a coherent emotional arc nor, well, as a consequence of all the plot that came before it.(less)
Set in an alternate-universe fascist Britain in 1949, this is a cross-genre thriller featuring a genderflipped performance of Hamlet in which the lead...moreSet in an alternate-universe fascist Britain in 1949, this is a cross-genre thriller featuring a genderflipped performance of Hamlet in which the lead actress (Viola Lark, who comes from an infamous Mitford-like family) is a reluctant conspirator in a plot to kill Hitler during their opening night performance.
Honestly, the book had me enthralled at simply the prospect of genderflipped Hamlet (and it delves into the acting implications and all the theatre-side stuff wonderfully!), but the continuation of the world set up in Farthing is also breathlessly and twistedly done. The ever-tightening fist of fascism is relentless, and the depiction of Inspector Carmichael as a reluctant agent of this system is rendered with very patient delicacy.
Reread. I remember checking out this book from the library multiple times when I was about twelve or so, and I'm happy to report it stood up to yet an...moreReread. I remember checking out this book from the library multiple times when I was about twelve or so, and I'm happy to report it stood up to yet another reread as an adult.
Up in heaven, Eleanor of Aquitaine is waiting, impatiently and a bit impertinently, to find out if her husband Henry II will finally be judged to have served enough time "Below." To help her pass time before the verdict, three figures from her life--Abbot Suger, who knew her at the time of her marriage to Louis VII; Empress Matilda, Henry II's mother and Eleanor's mother-in-law; and William Marshal, the much-revered knight during the time of the Plantagenets--tell how they knew of Eleanor, narrating her life and, most particularly, her character and her personality.
Though the characters tell Eleanor's story in a fairly straightforward way, I still found it an engaging method of learning not only the facts of Eleanor's extraordinary life, but the motivations behind some of those amazing twists and turns. The writing is appealingly wry at times ("Any man with responsibilities in government is bound for Hell at least for a little while," says Abbot Suger, explaining why it took him, a good man of the church, a good handful of years before ascending to heaven) and understatedly poignant at others ("I wanted to bid my newest grandson welcome," Matilda-Empress says of her later years. "When a person reaches the age I then was, there are many more goodbyes than hellos. The hellos become precious.") A good read, and a good reread as well.(less)
As problematic as they can be, settling-the-west stories are a guilty pleasure of mine. Chalk it up to being obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder as a c...moreAs problematic as they can be, settling-the-west stories are a guilty pleasure of mine. Chalk it up to being obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child as well as my own "East Coast? Where's that? Is that the mythical place where radio and television station names start with W instead of K?" perspective on the United States, but stories of homesteads and schools on the prairies, plains, and deserts tend to attract me.
The Whistling Season is twelve-year-old Paul Milliron's story of the year his widowed father answers a newspaper ad of a housekeeper ("can't cook, but doesn't bite") looking for work in Montana. Plenty of changes abound when upbeat housekeeper Rose and an unexpected plus-one, Rose's dandy intellectual of a brother, Morrie, arrive in Marias Coulee, but the story becomes even more interesting when the town's sour teacher elopes with a traveling preacher and one-of-a-kind Morrie is reluctantly prevailed upon to take her place in the one-room schoolhouse.
Paul is a wise and fantastic narrator, believable as a seventh-grader and as the school inspector he grows up to be, and he's both funny and sharp in turn. The book made me laugh a few times, kept me glued to the pages in anxious fear at other times, and made my eyes tear up once or twice. There's a beautiful sense of time's passage in this book, as well as a nostalgia that's rendered in an appealingly pragmatic way. The nostalgia isn't a fetishization of innocence or childhood, but a somewhat wistful respect for the connection between the past, the present, and the future, and a recognition of the bond and legacy of generations. Not to get all "We're all in this together!" on you, but the spirit of acknowledging how people connect, how pain and joy both get passed between us as a side effect of human communities, pervades the story, and made it a rich read. It's a straight-forward read, no interesting narrative tricks or surprisingly skillful displays of plot or character, but it's a satisfying story that doesn't overreach.
I waffled a bit on my star rating. I found the narrative device of narrating from the 1950s sometimes confusing (the character used the term "now" to orient the story in both time periods, which grated my literal and consistency-loving soul) and, only in the last pages of the story did that set-up pay off in anything emotionally thoughtful. The ending (and big plot reveals), while I thought it gripping, was also a bit jarring and rushed, and it felt markedly different from the rest of the book. However, I felt the emotional and intellectual net of this book to have noteworthy width and depth while still being immensely accessible and filtered through a likeable POV, and because I immediately started rereading favorite parts of the book as soon as I finished, I'm pretty sure this'll be a favorite book of mine for a long while to come.(less)
At a train station while on a short leave, WWI nurse Bess Crawford witnesses a tearful encounter between a woman and a soldier. Nothing out of the ord...moreAt a train station while on a short leave, WWI nurse Bess Crawford witnesses a tearful encounter between a woman and a soldier. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but Bess recognizes the woman as the much beloved wife of a soldier she recently nursed, and the man she's with is not her husband. Their farewell isn't so much a farewell as the end of a confrontation, and Bess can neither parse the ambiguous emotions being exchanged nor intervene as the man gets on the train and the woman leaves.
Weeks later, back to work near the front, Bess sees the woman's picture in the newspaper: according to the article, she was murdered hours after Bess saw her, and the police have no leads.
I like this series for the way it intertwines life-at-war with people-are-always-going-to-be-unfathomably-complicated. It's not war that necessarily brings out the best or worst in people; it's all the uncomfortable human emotions and frailties that we're swimming in, no matter the external pressures, that determine how we treat one another. I also like the character of Bess, as stereotypically plucky (and stereotypically foolish of an amateur detective) she is.
One thing that doesn't really appeal to me about this series is how old-fashioned it feels. I completely understand I'm reading historical fiction (I mean, really!), but I still find the sexism and colonialism replicated in these books hard to take. Like, how everyone assumes that Marjorie, the murdered woman, must have gone bad, because good women, especially good married women, don't just get murdered! There's absolutely no thought spared to the possibility that Marjorie, who died three-months pregnant, had been raped; no, everyone privy to this information assumes she was having an affair and had gone bad. I understand these attitudes were prevalent back at the turn of the century, but I still didn't appreciate how these unquestioned assumptions in the book a) turned out to be correct, and b) that going unexamined, they contribute to continuing this perspective here in the 21st century.(less)
The mystery element was decent but not exceptional and I wasn't satisfied with how it resolved, so I probably wouldn't recommend the book for its plot...moreThe mystery element was decent but not exceptional and I wasn't satisfied with how it resolved, so I probably wouldn't recommend the book for its plot, but I loved the thoughtfulness with which the story, and with which Bess, wrestled with the theme (as stated by the title) and with trying to do well by people whose voices are marginalized (by death, by PTSD, by mental illness, by family dynamics).
I was disappointed in a trope used by the book. Spoilers for the ending: (view spoiler)[the one character with a non-war related disability, and who is basically defined by the narrative by that disability, is a resentful, evil, cowardly murderer. How regressive and offensive. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>(less)