So this was my biggest literary surprise in a long time. Maybe years. When I first heard about this I mocked the shit out of it. I love the idea of alSo this was my biggest literary surprise in a long time. Maybe years. When I first heard about this I mocked the shit out of it. I love the idea of alternate history, and it's certainly interesting to explore what might have happened if one of the more brutal rulers in history had been perceived as a woman instead. However, this book is YA. And I was sure that this would be something like The Wrath & the Dawn. ie; taking a very brutal tale and watering it down so that it's yet another YA story of a girl being inoffensively Defiant and Badass™ (never in a way that ever challenges or repels the reader) and falling in love with a Frustratingly Handsome Boy™ (who does a lot of things that are repellent and creepy but the text glosses over them or elides them and he says a lot of romantic things that get quoted over and over so who cares?). In these kinds of YA retellings, all the pain and suffering of the original is used as a way to spice up the story but won't be engaged with in a meaningful way. This kind of thing bothered me beyond what I can describe with the aforementioned Wrath and the Dawn, and I was consequently dreading this one since it deals with a very real person. I had visions of a female teenaged future Vlad the Impaler imperiously tossing her hair and not knowing she's beautiful but like being totally beautiful. As is so often the case in YA. The summaries didn't give me much hope. "No one expects a princess to be brutal." This is the 15th century, and there would have been known examples of royal and noble women being quite brutal in the ancient and medieval world. It just sounded like a way to characterize Lada as being the exceptional girl power lead and I just wasn't at all ready to read that incarnated into one of the world's most violent rulers and be expected to cheer her on.
I was prepared to pass this one by but then my friend (who also thought it would be bad) ended up reading it and informed me it was really good. So I got it from my library, read the first few chapters, and went "... huh. Well. The prose is really great at least. I'll keep reading."
And then I was pretty engrossed. It was so, so different from what I thought or even what the summary promises.
First of all, Lada is not watered down so you can cheer her on without ever having to worry about her having major flaws. It's like the author knows that female main characters are often reviewed like "I don't know I just found her to be so annoying For Some Reason" and promptly stopped worrying about wanting people to like her character. Instead, she put a lot of meticulous work into creating a very real-seeming, three dimensional person. You often won't like Lada but it doesn't matter. Her journey is fascinating, and it's easy to empathize even when she's being the absolute worst. There are so many forces that have shaped her into the way she is, and she is abused and neglected by turn.
The book side steps the type of YA flaws I ranted about (...extensively) in many places. And early case in point; her father is a selfish, horrifically misogynistic prince of Wallachia. He's disgusted to have a daughter at first. However, he quickly finds her charming once she starts walking, talking, and threatening his visitors with knives. I feel like most books (including non-YA books) always stop there; an extremely sexist man being nonetheless delighted when his daughter displays traditionally masculine traits. This is often used as a way to show how the girl is truly special and better than those other girls.
This book sets up that scenario and begins to demolish it. Having her father think of her as better than those other girls is not a compliment. He doesn't parent her in any meaningful way. And for all that he's condescendingly amused by her, he still ends up abandoning her in a hostile court. Ultimately, it becomes clear that she's a charming oddity to him but not something worth protecting and this realization shapes her life.
There are a lot of bait and switch things in this, where the author seems to display awareness of certain tropes and subverts them. I love all the things she does with Radu regarding gender, faith, sexuality, and diplomacy versus brute strength. I love it so much I don't want to write too much and would rather let people be surprised by it.
I also liked the depiction of the Ottoman court. It's a hard, scary place... but no scarier than Wallachia. The characters all have different relationships to Islam, too, which lets it feel like a dynamic faith rather than something inherently Other.
Basically I was blown away by this book. It gave me exactly what I'm often searching for in historical fiction. Namely, it walks that fine line between showing you a very different place/time while still teasing out the flawed humanity of its characters. ...more
Oh my goodness, I adored this book. There are some clear flaws- I'm surprised the villain for the second half of the novel didn't literally twirl hisOh my goodness, I adored this book. There are some clear flaws- I'm surprised the villain for the second half of the novel didn't literally twirl his mustache- but they pale in comparison to the broad sweep of the whole story. This is a novel I lost myself in completely, and I listened to it almost every spare minute since I got in. It feels so good to want to devour a book like this. Yes, it's heavily laced with tragedy and suffering, but it rarely feels gratuitous. This is one of those books that uses the frame of fantasy to highlight realities of life. I loved seeing my favorite fairy tale get this treatment. I'm surprised it took me so long to read this one, but for a lot of reasons this was the perfect time to discover this....more
Read Harder 2017 category: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
Oh, man, I hardly know what to sRead Harder 2017 category: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
Oh, man, I hardly know what to say about this one. It was poetry. It chewed me up and spat me out. It made me teary-eyed at the end and it's been a while since a book has done that. It makes me want to write better and get at the heart of things, just like this. ...more
I keep feeling like I owe this book a review because I loved it, utterly. But I hardly know where to start. I'm awestruck and envious of Patchett's abI keep feeling like I owe this book a review because I loved it, utterly. But I hardly know where to start. I'm awestruck and envious of Patchett's ability to make mundane things seem completely riveting though. Also I think it's sort of amazing that this is a book about all the life that occurs around the things that are often thought of as the big moments in life. ...more
2016 Read Harder Challenge: Read a book that's over 500 pages long.
This is another book that could fit multiple challenge categories. But those I feel2016 Read Harder Challenge: Read a book that's over 500 pages long.
This is another book that could fit multiple challenge categories. But those I feel confident about finishing, while who knows if I can finish another super long book this year. And anyway, this book is just... really really long. In number of pages, but also in scope. Huge cast of characters, over a hundred years of history, 30% of the e-book is devoted to citing sources (and you're still going to be reading for 600+ pages all the same.)
Anyway, wow, this book was one of the most pleasant reading surprises I've had in a long time. So informative, but also so engrossing and riveting and so surprisingly sad in places. I knew absolutely nothing about George III's immediate predecessors, but they turned out to be fascinating in their own right. By laying out all their dysfunction, the author also shows just how revolutionary George III was being when he made a conscious effort along the lines of "yeah, I'm not going to cheat on my wife, and I'm not going to passionately hate my children." By living this life (and by living this life for a long, long time) George III completely altered the tone of relations in the royal family from then on.
Not that he was perfect. Far from it. The author makes a good case that George was an absolute tyrant to his family. For benign reasons, but still. It starts from his decision making when selecting a wife. One of his most important credentials was that she not challenge him ever. Cue 17-year-old Charlotte leaving Germany, arriving in England, and being ordered to not engage in politics and not have any real friends among her ladies-in-waiting. Hadlow is clear that he showed Charlotte a great deal of affection until his madness ruined things between them, but you still have the rather terrible reality of a man stifling basically all of a woman's independence and free thought. And Charlotte hated her lack of control, and wrote many letters to her brother that indicated having to suppress her emotions, and swallow all of her opinions. Between this and 20 years of near continuous pregnancy (she and George had 15 children) Charlotte often had to bear the brunt of keeping up a functional, happy royal family.
In turn, Charlotte often took out a natural need for control on her children. And what happened with their children is such a goddamn tragedy. They were given some of the best (and most progressive- yes, really, progressive!) education in all of Europe. The boys and girls alike. However, their parents often practiced a mix of controlling behavior and chilly reserve when it came to their children. Because George was away from them a lot of the time, Charlotte was often perceived as the reason for their boredom, when, in reality, she did almost nothing without George's say so. With the exception of the heir, all the boys were sent far from home to work. Whenever they came back, they were typically criticized for every way they'd failed while abroad. The girls were kept as permanent attendants to their mother, until they married. And, out of 6 girls, only 3 of them married. Only one of them married before menopause. There are a lot of complex reasons for their parents failing to secure marriages for them, but it led to the same life for all of them. Decades spent shut up with their mother, educated as hell, but rarely allowed any outlet for their energy. No projects, no travel, nothing.
Now imagine this pressure cooker situation, and what happens when the patriarch who controls it all goes mad.
I've really only touched on the surface of this book (despite rambling for paragraphs.) But it's just a really compelling, well-researched exploration of a turning point in history. It's also a family drama in which people fuck up majorly by trying so hard to do the right thing. After I finished I was left with a real sense of melancholy. There's something unchanging about people, isn't there? 99.9% of us won't be as privileged as the people studied in this work, but I think most of us have been caught up in family situations where people harm each other while being convinced they're doing right by each other. Despite her subjects' extraordinary life circumstances, Hadlow tapped into some universal characteristics in this work. I came away a lot more knowledgeable that I was about a whole century's worth of history, but I also came away reflecting on human nature in general....more
Yet another read for the Read Harder Challenge that could fulfill several different tasks. However I'm going to slot this one under "a book that was oYet another read for the Read Harder Challenge that could fulfill several different tasks. However I'm going to slot this one under "a book that was originally published in another language." Couple reasons for this. 1. According to my friends who have studied it, ancient Greek is a very difficult language. So mad respect to everyone who can read and translate it. 2. Anne Carson has a fascinating preface for every play wherein she explains her translating decisions.
This will be a short review, but I loved the concept behind this. A different play about the House of Atreus, each written by a different ancient playwright. As such, there's a chronological flow, a clear storyline. But you also see the ways in which each different playwright differs from one another. You get a sense of their styles, their strengths, and their weaknesses.
And the translation is wonderful and full of life. I got creeped out so much reading this, which is all I want out of stories about the House of Atreus. That sense of slowly creeping towards something terrifying. You really get it here in each play, despite the different authors. ...more
A bit rough around the edges in some places, but this is a very delightful, good-natured book. It has enough substance to keep it from being totally fA bit rough around the edges in some places, but this is a very delightful, good-natured book. It has enough substance to keep it from being totally frivolous, too. I loved it. ...more
This is a podcast about the Mongol empire's conquests. It takes a particular focus on how the people on the losing sides would have felt, with many quThis is a podcast about the Mongol empire's conquests. It takes a particular focus on how the people on the losing sides would have felt, with many quotes from primary sources. God knows I've loved revisionist history such as Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, but this is an important analysis of the topic as well, in my opinion. It doesn't fall into the trap of portraying the Mongols as a mindless, destructive horde. However, the mongol conquests had a devastating effect on the medieval Islamic world, and it's worthwhile considering those voices as well.
I re-listen to this podcast series every six months or so because there are so many details in it that I learn something new every time. ...more
OK, I seriously need to review this one. It's not really one I can just wordlessly assign a few stars and be done with it. I know this book was very cOK, I seriously need to review this one. It's not really one I can just wordlessly assign a few stars and be done with it. I know this book was very compelling to me, but I have trouble explaining why. I'll try, though.
So, first of all, this is a very ferocious read. Minnow's led a hard, hard life, and there are some moments of extreme violence. But her inner world can be just as brutal in some ways. I truly felt her helplessness and rage. This is kind of what I wanted out of The Walls Around Us. Less focus on the fantastical, and more focus on man's inhumanity to man. There's a reason I have a 'banality of evil' tag. Minnow was especially fascinating case study on this, because she abhorred the violence in her community. And yet, in the opening paragraph of the book, we learn that she attempted to murder someone. That's the true mystery of the book; the how and the why, there. (view spoiler)[And, boy, the answer we get is truly fascinating. I spent much of the book thinking he was from the Kevinian cult. I think you're led to believe that, but I'm not sure. In truth he's someone she didn't know, and someone likely to have suffered as much as her. But, during their encounter, Minnow was hurting- physically and mentally- and so she wanted to hurt someone right back. For all her ideals, this is something she's capable of doing when she's in total agony. Because this is what she's capable of doing. But, also, what many people are capable of doing whether they have opportunity or cause to do it. And whether they get caught or not. So much suffering is caused because a perpetrator was in pain in some way. (hide spoiler)]
But it's not an entirely bleak tale. Despite everything that's done to her, Minnow retains some of her crucial characteristics; namely her curiosity remains. She develops a strong friendship with her roommate in juvie, too. And she learns to navigate the world and finally decide for herself. The book shows the awful things she is capable of doing, but it also shows how she's capable of recovering and connecting with others. The story doesn't wrap things up in a bow but, when it leaves you, you can trust that things will be okay. It's fine that Minnow isn't 100%, because people are works in progress and she is okay with that....more
God, what a book. Courtney Summers has this way of writing where... You're not reading so much as experiencing everything. You don't finish a story ofGod, what a book. Courtney Summers has this way of writing where... You're not reading so much as experiencing everything. You don't finish a story of hers until it's done with you.
Nothing gets tied up neatly here. Which is funny because I think that, out of all her books, this one has the ending that works the most.
Not an easy read, but a mental palete cleanser in a weird sort of way. Sometimes it does the soul good to read something so honest. ...more
This reminded me of reading Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies. On practically every page there was a sentence or a paragraph that made me go "yes, thisThis reminded me of reading Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies. On practically every page there was a sentence or a paragraph that made me go "yes, this is my favorite quote ever."
The only part I wasn't wild about was the epilogue, but I'm going to dig around and see how others interpreted it. Regardless, it certainly didn't detract from the book for me. ...more
I've had this on my to-do list ever since seeing the fantastic Hindi film Haider (an adaptation of Hamlet that is set in mid-nineties Kashmir.) BasharI've had this on my to-do list ever since seeing the fantastic Hindi film Haider (an adaptation of Hamlet that is set in mid-nineties Kashmir.) Basharat Peer wrote the script and the movie made me want to learn even more about the time period explored in it.
This book fulfills a category in the Read Harder Challenge. Actually I could slot it into several categories, but ultimately I'm going to put it into "a book by a person whose gender is different from your own." This is a deliberate decision on my part. This memoir really drives home how life in Kashmir is an incredibly gendered experience. As one reads, one gets the sense of an entire generation of men who have had battle and war imposed on them, whether they wanted to become "militarized" or not. At one point, Peer goes through a bunch of his friends and acquaintances, talking about how they chose to respond. Some left, some joined militant groups and died, some joined these groups and then reintegrated back into Kashmiri towns and villages after years of danger and trauma. Being male in Kashmir seems to mean being viewed as an enemy of the state as soon as you're able to walk.
There are also tons of men who have been flat out "disappeared" by the state. These portions of the book haunted me the most because of my own personal interest in missing persons cases (I am working on a criminology degree because these cases effect me so deeply.) Having a missing loved one sounds like the worst kind of personal hell to me. You can't grieve, you can't give up hope, you feel stupid for having hope. Law enforcement can often be apathetic during these cases, but in Kashmir the government is often complicit in these losses. It's really hard to imagine the psychological toll this must take, but this book gets me a bit closer to imagining it.
Which isn't to say women didn't suffer in Kashmir, because they absolutely did (and still do.) In Kashmir, there's that age old tactic of rape as a weapon of war, and support from the community can be very hit or miss after. Although, on a happier note, I was fascinated by the passages on Islam in Kashmir, and how it generally supports women.
I think the biggest strength of this book (other than its gorgeous writing) is its ability to make me understand. I see this book get criticized for having no "arc" per se, but I'm not sure if Peer is even trying to tell something definitive here. What this book does do remarkably well is to put you in the shoes of everyone he interviews. He makes you feel their fear, and he makes you feel why some people retreat deep inside their personal lives, while others want to lash out. I come from a town that a highly publicized and infamous school shooting a few years back. Even today, you still see how it impacts people's psyches. That was one incident, in one day. As I read I tried to apply that kind of uncertainty and fear in an entire state, for well over a decade. Unexpected violence changes you, and its even worse when it's built into the system, when there's no real recourse. We have problems with that here in America, too. You only have to turn on the news to see it. The circumstances might be the same, but a lot of surface level, primal fears and hopes do not change. This is the kind of book that leaves me feeling like I'll forever see the world different after having read this. ...more
Good god, this was a perfectly gut-wrenching read. I just wrote out a bunch of nonsensical, glowing paragraphs and then deleted them because; nonsensiGood god, this was a perfectly gut-wrenching read. I just wrote out a bunch of nonsensical, glowing paragraphs and then deleted them because; nonsensical. But this is one of those novels that is a fucking experience. So much emotional verisimilitude, three-dimensional characters, extensive research, social justice-conscious but steering clear of condescendingly saccharine stereotypes. I'm from Virginia and the gorgeous, gorgeous scenery and setting depictions struck me as deeply true. This is the kind of work I'm always hoping for in historical fiction and so rarely get.
This book was extremely satisfying. That's pretty much the best word for it; satisfying. I wasn't expecting that reaction for so many reasons. First oThis book was extremely satisfying. That's pretty much the best word for it; satisfying. I wasn't expecting that reaction for so many reasons. First of all, it's about a case where we can't have definitive answers until someone invents a time machine. Second, it's about an unsolved case that's become very internet famous in the anglosphere (to the point where people on forums like reddit start groaning in a very hipster sort of way; not the Dyatlov Pass again. Tell us about something we haven't heard.) And such internet famous cases bring out a lot crackpot theorizing and people quick to make a buck.
So I started it with some trepidation. But all my doubts were quickly assuaged. The author means business. He's very earnest and genuine in his research analysis, going above and beyond what a lot of people do. He pours over journals, and photos. He meets with as many witnesses as he can, and makes the fairly grueling hike to the very place the hikers died. He does research on Soviet history, weather phenomena, biological weapons and so on. He goes out of his way to meet experts in these fields. He pieces together a timeline of the hikers, the recovery team, and his own movements almost to the minute. And by doing so he pieces together a theory that seems incredibly plausible and simple. Again, we can't know for sure, but I still came away content that this is the most plausible theory I've ever heard on this case. No other conspiracy theory or skeptics debunking has come close. Seriously, I can't stress enough how much effort Eichar put into his research, and how much its paid off.
I also want to laud the style of this book. It jumps between three different periods in time; the hikers' journey, the recovery efforts, and then his own research efforts. This choice gives the book a lot of forward momentum and even suspense, in a story that has a lot of foregone conclusions. The author's also pretty good at including his own personal history and opinions without letting it bog down the narrative (a common fault in a lot of non-fiction books where the author is a "character.")
Finally, I absolutely loved his attention to the hikers as people. He includes tons of pictures of them, quotes from their journals, etc. You get a clear sense of their personalities, and youthful optimism. They weren't just sidenotes in an internet creepypasta. They were once living, breathing people with aspirations, families, friends. The Dyatlov Pass story isn't just a mystery, it's also a tragedy. And I think Eichar does honor to their memory and bravery. ...more
I picked this one up because the descriptions sounded like... I wouldn't be bored, at least. In the end it actually veers away from the sort of 'knockI picked this one up because the descriptions sounded like... I wouldn't be bored, at least. In the end it actually veers away from the sort of 'knockoff of the lord of the flies!! with girls!! in the forest!!!!" scenario that the dust jacket promised. But I didn't mind; this book wound up being pretty profound, and speaking to things I've struggled with all of my life. I always like a story that paints capacity to change and reach self-fulfillment as worth striving for, even if one stumbles along the way. And this book does honor to that basic principle....more