Take A Peek Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who larks around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.

This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer, is not only a gripping story of how the world would change if power was in the hands of women but also exposes, with breath-taking daring, our contemporary world.

My Thoughts:

The Power won the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2017. It’s a fascinating book. What would happen to our world if the power structure were suddenly flipped upside down? When women develop the power to inflict pain by channeling electricity from a newly developed physical anomaly, the rules and customs of society change rapidly, with men finding themselves on the receiving end of restrictive laws, sexual violence, and lack of political power.

The book is structured as a book-within-a-book, as a male writer many years in the future writes a novel imagining how this transition came about. As the letters between him and his editor make clear, his work is so far-fetched (in describing a male-dominated society) that’s it’s practically unimaginable. It’s an interesting take on a very different world order, positing a world that’s been run and controlled by females for thousands of years, so that a scenario with men in power — soldiers, police, political leaders — seems like fantasy.

Of course, it’s disturbing to think that physical power is the determining factor in how society is formed and structured. There’s no middle ground. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that a society of equals might be the result? In The Power, the world belongs to the strong — and with absolute power comes the corruption, abuses, and excesses that seem to inevitably grow out of a lopsided power relationship.

I couldn’t put this book down, and found the ending pretty shocking. I did wish to see through a wider lens at time — the focus on the main characters started to feel restrictive further into the story, and I would have liked to see how other parts of the world, especially more progressive urban or cultural centers, might have responded and developed as a result of the shift in power between genders. Still, it’s a totally absorbing book, and one that would be great food for discussion.

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The details:

Title: The Power
Author: Naomi Alderman
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: US release date: October 10, 2017 (published in UK in 2016)
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: PurchasedSave

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Shelf Control #89: Incendiary

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Incendiary
Author: Chris Cleave
Published: 2006
Length: 239 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In an emotionally raw voice alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor, a woman mourns the loss of her husband and son at the hands of one of history’s most notorious criminals. And in appealing to their executioner, she reveals the desperate sadness of a broken heart and a working-class life blown apart.

How I got it:

I bought a copy.

When I got it:

Right after reading Little Bee, so probably 5 or 6 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

Chris Cleave is an amazing writer. I was so impressed with Little Bee that when I came across this earlier novel, I had to get it. Have you read it? It’s been on my shelf long enough that I’ve considered donating it. What do you think — read or pass along to someone else?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my TBR list for fall 2017

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is the top ten books on our fall to-be-read lists. I have waaaaay more than 10, but here are the ones I’m especially excited about.

 

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
Release date: 9/26/2017
Blurb: In this spectacular father-son collaboration, Stephen King and Owen King tell the highest of high-stakes stories: what might happen if women disappeared from the world of men? In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain? Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is wildly provocative and gloriously absorbing.

Well, of course I want to read the newest from Stephen King, and I’m curious to see how this father-son project works out. But holy hell, it’s 720 pages! Deep breaths…

 

And speaking of the King family…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Release date: 10/24/2017
Blurb: A collection of four chilling novels, ingeniously wrought gems of terror from the brilliantly imaginative, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fireman, Joe Hill

“Snapshot” is the disturbing story of a Silicon Valley adolescent who finds himself threatened by “The Phoenician,” a tattooed thug who possesses a Polaroid Instant Camera that erases memories, snap by snap.

A young man takes to the skies to experience his first parachute jump. . . and winds up a castaway on an impossibly solid cloud, a Prospero’s island of roiling vapor that seems animated by a mind of its own in “Aloft.”

On a seemingly ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of nails—splinters of bright crystal that shred the skin of anyone not safely under cover. “Rain” explores this escalating apocalyptic event, as the deluge of nails spreads out across the country and around the world.

In “Loaded,” a mall security guard in a coastal Florida town courageously stops a mass shooting and becomes a hero to the modern gun rights movement. But under the glare of the spotlights, his story begins to unravel, taking his sanity with it. When an out-of-control summer blaze approaches the town, he will reach for the gun again and embark on one last day of reckoning.

At this point, Joe Hill has become one of my auto-buy authors, and while I usually avoid story collections, there’s no way I’ll pass this one up.

 

Odd & True by Cat Winters
Release date: 9/12/2017
Blurb: Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

Cat Winters is another author on my auto-buy roster. I’ve loved everything I’ve read of hers so far, and I have no doubt that Odd & True will live up to my expectations.

 

Artemis by Andy Weir
Release date: 11/14/2017
Blurb: Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Does anyone doubt that this follow-up to The Martian will be huge?

 

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Release date: 11/14/2017
Blurb: Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.

Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.

Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves.

But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

I am crazy excited about this follow up to the super creepy novella Rolling in the Deep (review).

 

LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Release date: 5/10/2016
Blurb: North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.

The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

I’ve been wanting to read LaRose since it came out last year, and now that my book group has it on the calendar for a group read, I finally have a deadline!

 

Standard Deviation by Katherin Heiny
Release date: 6/1/2017
Blurb: A rueful, funny examination of love, marriage, infidelity, and origami. Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, this sensational debut will appeal to fans of David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, Nora Ephron and Lorrie Moore

Graham Cavanaugh’s second wife, Audra, is everything his first wife was not. She considers herself privileged to live in the age of the hair towel, talks non-stop through her epidural, labour and delivery, invites the doorman to move in and the eccentric members of their son’s Origami Club to Thanksgiving. She is charming and spontaneous and fun but life with her can be exhausting.

In the midst of the day-to-day difficulties and delights of marriage and raising a child with Asperger’s, his first wife, Elspeth, reenters Graham’s life. Former spouses are hard to categorize – are they friends, enemies, old flames, or just people who know you really, really well? Graham starts to wonder: How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?

This is another book group pick for this fall. Sounds like fun, right?

 

The Book of Dust (La Belle Sauvage) by Philip Pullman
Release date: 10/19/2017
Blurb: Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .

Oh. My. God. A new series in the world of His Dark Materials? So freaking excited.

 

 

 

 

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Release date: 10/17/2017
Blurb: A warm, wry, sharply observed debut novel about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays…

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley, and think it sounds totally charming and fun.

 

The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay
Release date: 11/7/2017
Blurb: After years of following her best friend’s lead, Mary Davies finds a whimsical trip back to Austen’s Regency England paves the way towards a new future.

Mary Davies lives and works in Austin, Texas, as an industrial engineer. She has an orderly and productive life, a job and colleagues that she enjoys—particularly a certain adorable, intelligent, and hilarious consultant. But something is missing for Mary. When her estranged and emotionally fragile childhood friend Isabel Dwyer offers Mary a two-week stay in a gorgeous manor house in Bath, Mary reluctantly agrees to come along, in hopes that the holiday will shake up her quiet life in just the right ways. But Mary gets more than she bargained for when Isabel loses her memory and fully believes that she lives in Regency England. Mary becomes dependent on a household of strangers to take care of Isabel until she wakes up.

With Mary in charge and surrounded by new friends, Isabel rests and enjoys the leisure of a Regency lady. But life gets even more complicated when Mary makes the discovery that her life and Isabel’s have intersected in more ways that she knew, and she finds herself caught between who Isabel was, who she seems to be, and the man who stands between them. Outings are undertaken, misunderstandings play out, and dancing ensues as this triangle works out their lives and hearts among a company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.

Another ARC from NetGalley — I’ve read a few of Katherine Reay’s books, and love the way she mixes Austen-ish themes with modern-day stories.

What books are on your fall TBR list? Share your link, please, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

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Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I host a Book Blog Meme Directory, and I’m always looking for new additions! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

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Insta-Reaction: Outlander, Season 3, Episode 2

Season 3 is here! My intention is to write an “Insta-Reaction” post for each episode soon after viewing, to share some initial thoughts, questions, reactions — you name it.

Warning:

Spoilers

I may be talking about events from this episode, other episodes, and/or the book series… so if you’d rather not know, now’s your chance to walk away!

Outlander, episode 302: “Surrender”

The official synopsis (via Starz):

Hiding in a cave, Jamie leads a lonely life until Lallybroch is threatened by redcoats pursuing the elusive Jacobite traitor. In Boston, Claire and Frank struggle to coexist in a marriage haunted by the ghost of Jamie.

My take:

Major plot points:

Once again, the episode follows two separate times. We see Jamie’s world in 1752, and Claire’s in 1949.

  • Six years have passed since Culloden. Jamie is a silent, shattered shell of a man, living in a cave in the woods near Lallybroch.
  • Despite being in hiding, a legend seems to have sprung up about the “Dunbonnet” — a red-haired outlaw who covers his hair with a brown bonnet.

  • The redcoats come by Lallybroch regularly to harass the family and search for Red Jamie. They arrest Ian over and over again to try to force information from the family.
  • Things come to a head for Jamie when he’s nearly caught in the house soon after Jenny gives birth to Young Ian, endangering the entire family. Next, Fergus taunts the redcoats who follow him, until one cuts off his hand. Jamie rushes him to the house and his life is saved, but Jamie feels terrible about the horrible danger the family is in because of him.
  • Finally, he decides that Jenny should turn him in to the redcoats, so that the family will collect the reward offered for his capture and clear themselves of any further suspicion.
  • The night before this plan goes through, Mary McNab brings Jamie a final meal in his cave, trims his hair and shaves his beard, and invites him to sleep with her as a last comfort before he goes to prison.
  • The next day, Jamie and Jenny put on a performance for the British, who show up during Jamie’s supposed homecoming and take him off to prison.
  • Meanwhile, in Boston, Claire continues to dream of Jamie. While she’s resumed a sex life with Frank, she does so with her eyes shut, and Frank realizes that she’s still with Jamie in her heart and in her head.
  • Brianna is about a year old, and although Claire has thrown herself into motherhood, she misses having something meaningful to contribute to the world.
  • By the end of the episode, we see Claire attending her first anatomy class at Harvard Medical School, where the professor scornfully remarks that between her and the “Negro” student, they’ve become very progressive. The other students (white, male) act like jerks, but Claire and Joe Abernathy, the sole African American student, introduce themselves, and it’s clear that this will be the start of a lasting friendship.

Insta-reaction:

This show. Really. They are just ON this season, and it’s glorious.

Poor Fergus. The actor playing him is so adorable and sweet, although I believe this is the last time we’ll see him. By the time we focus on Fergus again (assuming more or less the chronology from the books), years will have passed and we’ll have an older actor playing the character. Meanwhile, though, this Fergus has grown up a bit since season 2 — he’s taller and his voice is deeper! Such a sweetie. The scene with the British officers was horrible*, although I appreciate how faithful to the book the scene was where Fergus and Jamie talk afterwards, and Fergus reminds Jamie that he’d once sworn to support him for the rest of his life if he ever lost his hand while in Jamie’s employ, a very real possibility for a pickpocket. (How ironic that he finally suffers this fate after “going straight”, no longer a pickpocket but just a boy working on a farm.)

*Does it strike anyone else as implausible that the soldiers would pin Fergus down and chop off his hand? Why would they do this? Maybe they’d beat him or take him away, but really, cut off his hand? It seems so out of place. In the books, it’s accidental. Same perpetrator (British soldier), same outcome for Fergus, but a little easier to accept than an act of outright brutality that’s just a bit too out there.

Jamie is so shattered in this episode. It’s painful to look at his face and realize that his life is just completely empty. He loves Jenny and her family, but as Ian points out, Claire is Jamie’s heart, and now his heart is gone. Gotta love the Dunbonnet look on Jamie, with the long hair* and scraggly beard. Such a wild man! The scene where he brings home the deer to feed the family and silently butchers it shows Jamie’s awful, continuous pain so clearly.

*Although if the point of the “dun bonnet” is to cover up Red Jamie’s signature hair, it’s not very effective. Those glorious red locks flowing past his shoulders are not exactly inconspicuous.

I did feel that the episode should have shown the world beyond Lallybroch in the Scotland scenes. Based only on the show, you might assume that the Fraser/Murphy family is specifically being targeted, when in history, we know that this was the time of the Clearances, when the British army ravaged the Highlands, destroyed the clans, and left the people starving and under constant threat of imprisonment and worse.

Meanwhile, the Claire and Frank scenes are an odd mix of hopeful and hopeless. There is a spark, such as when Claire and Frank coo over Brianna (and it doesn’t hurt that Frank is clad only in a towel at the time). Claire is a sex-positive woman, and there’s only so long she’s going to go without. In the two sexual encounters between Claire and Frank (as well as in the scene of her pleasuring herself while Frank sleeps), Claire takes the lead and does what feels good to her. Frank is too astute not to get what’s going on. No matter how much he loves her and wants her, he recognizes that she used to look at him while they made love, and now she keeps her eyes closed. Not very subtle, Claire. At the beginning of the episode, they’re sleeping side by side in the same bed — but by the end, they say good-night and sleep in twin beds, in the same room but with empty space between them. This marriage is not doing well, no matter the happy faces they put on for company.

On a positive note for Claire, I’m thrilled to see her starting medical school (where I’m sure she could run circles around all those awful people in her anatomy class — how many of them have performed amputations and sewn up battle wounds, hmmm?). However, I would have liked to have seen some discussion of this between her and Frank. Was he supportive? Did he realize she needed something in her life besides house and baby? Or is he just so defeated already by her distance that he sees this as maybe a way to ground her in her life a bit more? I know a one-hour episode can’t possibly include everything, but I feel like there’s something missing as background to Claire’s showing up in anatomy class.

Jamie’s interlude with Mary McNab was sweet and nicely done. She’s a kind woman who appreciates what Jamie has done for all of Lallybroch and knows how he’s about to sacrifice himself. Her offer of comfort and healing is something Jamie needs, even if he doesn’t think he wants it. It’s been too long for him since he’s allowed anyone to really reach him or touch him, and just for this moment, he’s able to make a connection.

The parallels between Jamie and Claire’s lives lie largely in the sexual encounters shown. Claire reconnects sexually with Frank, but always with Jamie on her mind  and in her fantasies. Jamie abstains from human contact, barely even speaks when he’s around people, and is thoroughly withdrawn from other people, living only in his mind and with his memories of Claire. He does finally allow himself to be touched by Mary, which perhaps is a first step for Jamie in accepting that his life with Claire is truly over.

By episode’s end, both Jamie and Claire have made life-changing decisions — Jamie by turning himself in and facing years, or possibly a lifetime, in prison, and Claire by enrolling in medical school. They’ve both been feeling trapped by what their lives have become, although Claire is opening a door to professional freedom and achievement, while Jamie will not be free for a long, long time.

The episode title, “Surrender”, is an interesting choice. Jamie has surrendered to the British, but I’d say he’s also surrendered his isolation and mourning, finally giving in to the reality of his life without Claire. He’s lived in limbo for all these years, but now he’s accepting that this is the life he has. Claire makes it clear that she’ll never give up her longing for Jamie, but she too takes steps in this episode to embrace living this new version of a life — and while she’ll never fully connect with Frank (could there be a wider gulf than the foot separating their two beds?), she’s surrendered to the need to find meaning where and when she is. A surrender is not a happy condition — it implies giving up and giving in — but there’s also an element of acceptance: The person surrendering can’t have what he or she truly wanted, and now they agree to move forward and accept the punishment or consequences, without what they desire most.

Such a sad way to think about Jamie and Claire’s lives. And no wonder adult Brianna feels that her mother was never truly present emotionally.

Insta-reaction wrap-up:

A powerful, moving episode that’s quite faithful to the overall flow of the book, even keeping intact certain pieces of dialogue. I feel that the Jamie and Claire sections really flow together well, and the cutting from one era to another never feels jarring. The mood I get from all this is interconnectedness  — despite the distance and years between them, there’s still a firm tie between Claire and Jamie that can’t be undone or ignored.

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The Monday Check-In ~ 9/18/2017

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read last week?

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray: I finished the 3rd book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy. My wrap-up post is here.

I also read and reviewed two amazing novellas by Sarah Gailey, which are impossible to describe except as “Westerns with hippos”. Check out my post, here.

Outlander returns!

Was episode 1 great or what? My reaction post for the season premiere is here. Stay tuned for more — my reaction posts for each episode will most likely go up on Monday or Tuesday each week.

Here’s a peek at episode 2:

 

Fresh Catch:

One new book this week — can’t wait to get started!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
 

The Power by Naomi Alderman: I’ve read about half, and it’s pretty amazing.

End of Watch by Stephen King: I have a flight coming up later in the week, and for some reason I always enjoy reading Stephen King while I’m traveling. I’m saving the 3rd book of the Bill Hodges trilogy to keep me company on the plane.

Now playing via audiobook:

Venetia by Georgette Heyer: Almost done! Perfection — Georgette Heyer is always a treat, and Phyllida Nash does a superb job with the narration.

Ongoing reads:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week.

Lord John and the Hell-Fire Club by Diana Gabaldon: Outlander Book Club is doing a Lord John readalong — we’ll be reading all of the Lord John novels and stories in story chronology. This week, we’ll be finishing up the first Lord John novella, Lord John and the Hellfire Club. Next up: Lord John and the Private Matter. Anyone who’s interested is welcome to participate, so let me know if you’d like more information on how to join in.

So many books, so little time…

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Sunday sillies: Meet Nessie, my new little book friend

Here’s what I treated myself to this week:

This is Nessie, an adorable little bookmark who makes me smile when I see her holding my place for me. Here’s what she looks like out of her box:

And here’s Nessie keeping my place for me:

Isn’t she cute? She comes in other colors too (turquoise or purple, although the purple looks more magenta to me).

Granted, Nessie isn’t entirely perfect. Sure, she does a great job marking my pages while we’re at home, especially when I have my current book sitting all nice and prim and proper on a shelf or on my nightstand. But Nessie falls down on the job when I take her out of the house. I can’t leave home without a book tossed in my bag or backpack, and Nessie doesn’t stay put when jostled around. She’d be perfect if she had either a magnetic clip of some sort or a long bottom piece to help her stay wedged in between the pages where she’s supposed to be.

But alas, no one is perfect! I accept Nessie for who she is and appreciate her for all she does for me.

If you want your own Nessie, you can find her on the Ototo website. Here’s a screenshot of Nessie, all ready for adoption:

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Hippos Go Berserk! The weird and wonderful River of Teeth books by Sarah Gailey

FERAL. HIPPOS. IN THE MISSISSIPPI.

What more do you need to know?

In the two River of Teeth novellas, author Sarah Gailey takes us on a tour of the Wild South of an alternate United States, and it’s a crazy good time.

In River of Teeth, we learn that the United States Congress, in the mid-1850s, considered importing hippos as a solution to a national meat shortage. True story! In real life, the proposal never went anywhere, but in River of Teeth, the Hippo Act of 1857 is just the beginning of decades-long development of hippo ranches in the marshes and bayous of the South.

Hippo cowboys are called hoppers. Some hippos are bred for their meat, and others are bred to be fast and loyal mounts for their hoppers, who ride them on kneeling saddles, brush their teeth at night, and make sure they’re never too far from a body of water to swim in.

Meanwhile, a bunch of hippos that escaped from a ranch early on have reproduced and gotten fiercer than ever, and now form the great bunch of feral hippos who terrorize the Harriet, the dammed lake that once was a passage of the Mississippi.

Got all that? That’s really all just backstory to the main event. In River of Teeth, a hopper named Winslow Houndstooth brings together a gang of hired guns (and knives) — mostly outlaws — to carry out an operation (most definitely not a caper) aimed at restoring trade on the Mississippi. The group includes a pregnant Latina with a penchant for very sharp daggers, a large French woman who’s a skilled thief and tough in a fight, the nonbinary character Hero who’s an explosives expert, and slick/shady Cal, who just obviously shouldn’t be trusted. They go up against the riverboat gangster in chief who controls the Harriet and punishes card cheats by throwing them to the ferals, and there’s trickery and double-crossing galore.

Let’s just say that there are explosions and disasters, and things are left so up in the air that by the time Taste of Marrow begins, it’s no surprise that our gang is split up into two separate groups, each believing the other likely dead but unwilling to give up the search. Much of Taste of Marrow is devoted to looking for one another, but at the same time there’s a newborn baby, marshlands and rivers being overrun by the ferals now loose of their restrictions, and riverboats being chomped to shreds by said ferals. There’s also a romantic reunion worth the way, as well as a sensibility that’s fresh and in tune with women’s bodies in a way that’s utterly new in an adventure tale.

Okay, to be more specific, while on the hunt for her kidnapped infant, the tough-as-nails former assassin has to deal not only with the stress of evading the law and plotting her revenge, but with a raging breast infection that no doubt is due to clogged milk ducts after having her nursing baby taken from her. Egads, I cringed in sympathy whenever she accidentally brushed something against her painful breasts. Been there, done that, but not while riding a hippo. (Boy, don’t I feel wimpy now.)

These books are a delight, plain and simple. I mean, the premise is just crazy, right? How can you not love a “western” that features hippos? Where a popular song played on the saloon piano is “The Wild Pottamus Rag”? And these people take their hippos very, very seriously. They raise them from hops (baby hippos), talk to them, sing to them, and seem to practically mind-meld with their chosen hippos. The hippos are fast and dangerous, but also devoted and affectionate. And with names like Rosa and Ruby and Abigail and Betsy, how can you not adore them?

“It can’t be,” Hero breathed. They scrambled up, slipping in the wet clay, and ran to the edge of the paddock. They reached right through the half-rotted wood at the edge of the water and pressed both hands to the nose of the little Standard Grey hippo that was huffing bubbles into the water there.

“It had better be,” Adelia said, “or else you just grabbed a strange hippo by the face.”

The gender fluidity and lack of barriers in relationships is quite refreshing and delightful too. Hero’s preferred pronouns are they and them, and no one ever slips up or deviates or makes an issue of it. (As a reader, I did have to re-read a couple of paragraphs when there are group scenes, as I sometimes wasn’t sure on first pass whether the “they” was referring to the group or to Hero themselves. But all good — I sorted it out).

A recurring gag throughout both stories is that various character steel themselves to ask Hero a big question, or Hero braces themselves waiting for the inevitable question that they know is coming. We readers may assume the question will have something to do with gender — and it just never is, instead focusing on mundane matters or questions about explosives or the baby or really, anything else. It a fun moment to realize that we’re being set up over and over again, and it made me giggle.

Despite the relatively short lengths of the two novellas — each under 200 pages — the characters are quite distinct and well described, and it’s really a fun batch of personalities that we get to know and follow on their crazy adventures.

If you at all have a taste for alternate history, cowboy tales, or hippos — especially hippos! — read these novellas.

Meanwhile, since starting the stories, I simply haven’t been able to get this other book out of my mind — a children’s favorite that I must have read out loud to my kiddo at least 100 times or more.

I love these western hippos, who seem to fit the River of Teeth mood:

It’s a hippo party! Good times! Crazy fun!

Don’t believe me yet? Check out the whole book, here:

 

But enough with the kids’ book — you really do need to read River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow! Or I’ll sic this guy on you…

 

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River of Teeth, 121 pages
Taste of Marrow, 192 pages
Published by Tor, 2017

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The Return of Thursday Quotables! Spotlight on Venetia by Georgette Heyer

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

Blogger’s note: Thank you, kind readers, for putting up with my summertime slacking! Now that it’s September, there will be no further excuses — Thursday Quotables is back! After taking a summer break, I’m back on track and will be sticking with my normal weekly posting schedule. Please join me whenever you have a great quotable to share!

My Thursday Quotable for this week:

 Venetia by Georgette Heyer
(originally published 1958 )

I am on a roll this year with Georgette Heyer! Venetia is my 4th book by this wonderful author, and it’s just delightful. I’m listening to the audiobook (with excellent narration by Phyllida Nash), and loving every moment. I still have quite a ways to go, but thought I’d share this passage, which is interesting to me because it does not represent the main character’s opinion, but rather shows the viewpoint of an older woman who’s trying to explain men (and their infidelities) to the lovely (and more progressive) Venetia:

“Men, my love, are different from us,” she had said once, “even the best of them! I tell you this because I hold it to be very wrong to rear girls in the belief that the face men show to the females they respect is their only one. I daresay, if we were to see them watching some horrid vulgar prize-fight, or in company with women of a certain class, we shouldn’t recognise our own husbands and brothers. I am sure we should think them disgusting! Which, in some ways, they are, only it would be unjust to blame them for what they can’t help. One ought rather to be thankful that any affairs they may have amongst what they call the muslin company don’t change their true affection in the least. Indeed, I fancy affection plays no part in such adventures. So odd! — for we, you know, could scarcely indulge in them with no more effect on our lives than if we had been choosing a new hat. But so it is with men! Which is why it has been most truly said that while your husband continues to show you tenderness you have no cause for complaint, and would be a zany to fall into despair only because of what to him was a mere peccadillo. ‘Never seek to pry into what does not concern you, but rather look in the opposite direction!’ was what my dear mother told me, and very good advice I have found it.

Yeah, no. But thanks anyway, Lady Denny.

And I do love the use of the word “zany” as a noun — I think I need to start using it in conversation.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Series wrap-up: The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

There’s something satisfying about finishing a trilogy, even if it’s not the best thing you’ve ever read.

Such is the case for me with the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. I read the first book in the series, A Great and Terrible Beauty, over 10 years ago, and apparently didn’t think very highly of it at the time — my original Goodreads rating was only one star!

Over the years, though, I’ve had multiple people tell me that I should give the books another try. And after finding copies of all three at library sales (all paperbacks $2 or less!), I’ve considered starting the books at several different times. Finally, this year, I decided to give it a whirl, and settled on audiobooks as the way to go.

First, let me just say that the audiobook narrator, Josephine Bailey, is very good. She has to portray a variety of girls of different social statuses, as well as servants, teachers, and various other adults, keeping them all distinct as individuals. There’s never a doubt which character is speaking at which time.

Note: I did ditch the audio format for a printed version for book #3, as I just couldn’t see devoting over 20 hours of listening time to a book I was feeling not entirely excited about.

Okay, the story, bare-bones version: Gemma Doyle is an English girl raised in India during the Victorian era. At age sixteen, she’s yearning for the London society she glamorizes in her mind, and her resentment at being denied this leads to conflict with her loving mother… and then her mother dies suddenly, a victim of a murder with supernatural overtones. Gemma is transplanted back to London, the place of her dreams, but not at all in the circumstances she’d yearned for. Instead, she’s full of pain and regret for her final arguments with her mother, feels lonely and out of place in cold, damp England, and has no one close to her other than her brother Tom and her bereaved father, so grief-stricken that he’s become addicted to laudanum as an escape from his pain.

Gemma is sent off to Spence, a finishing school for young ladies, where she’s initially mocked and scorned by the mean girls clique, but eventually she finds a way in. Soon, she’s part of a group of four, drawn to the stories of magical powers that their teacher shares with the class. They learn of the Order, an ancient league of sorceresses with powers that allow them into the realms, a magical world between worlds. Gemma finds that she has the power to enter the realms and to bring her friends Felicity, Pippa, and Ann with her. The realms are full of magical delights  — but there are also disturbances, as an old enemy wants back in and a secret society called the Rakshana try to control the Order and their use of magic.

Book 1, A Great and Terrible Beauty, focuses on Gemma’s discovery of the Order and the realms, and her fight to defeat Circe, a witch gone bad who wants to gain control of the realms and its powers by using Gemma. The four girls travel together through the land of magic, and along the way, face hard truths about themselves and their pasts. Tragedy ensues, and there appear to be fractures within the group.

In the second book, Rebel Angels, the girls are back at school before heading to London for the Christmas holidays. Intrigue and danger escalate; Gemma has succeeded in battling evil forces previously, but now there are repercussions as the limits on magic in the realms seem to have been lifted. It’s now up to Gemma to find the source of the magic in the realms and bind it so that it can’t be used for evil purposes. Finding the source turns into a quest for the girls, as they repeatedly enter the realms and travel through parts previously unknown, encountering strange creatures and danger at every turn. Meanwhile, back in the real world, they’re also dealing with the ups and downs of London society, including balls, dinner parties, and suitors, and Gemma’s heart is torn between the handsome, respectable young man who courts her and the Indian boy from the Rakshana who seems always ready to protect her. Bonus for boy #2: He’s gorgeous and sets her heart a-flutter.

In book #3, The Sweet Far Thing, Gemma deals with a promise made to share her magic with the peoples of the realms, while also dealing with the perils of making her social debut and having a “season” in London. There’s a lot of travel in and out of the realms, as the magic seeps into the real world in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Gemma doesn’t know who to trust, and her bonds with Felicity and Ann are tested as their desires come into conflict. The book builds to a war between factions within the realms while outside forces maneuver to gain power. And somewhere amidst all the drama, Gemma still finds time to worry about not falling over while curtsying during her presentation at court. What’s a Victorian girl to do?

Now that I’ve read the entire trilogy, do I stick with my one-star rating? Clearly, no — or else I wouldn’t have bothered with books 2 and 3. I didn’t hate the books, and I even thought parts of the story were quite good. I liked many of the characters, and felt the author did a good job of differentiating between the four girls at the center of the story, giving each a clear and distinct personality and letting us understand what makes each of them tick.

But the books are flawed, and the flaws become exaggerated with each successive book.

Part of the problem I have with these books is that the friendship between the girls, so crucial to the story, feels false and even flimsy at times. They’re not particularly nice to each other, and while they claim to love one another, they seem to turn sour and accusatory at the least provocation. There’s an element of trust missing, and resentments keep popping up at regular intervals. I guess I just don’t buy that these young women are truly best friends or that they truly want what’s best for one another. Shades of Mean Girls creep in too often for me to feel happy with the portrayal of female friendship.

In book #2 especially, the plot meanders… and I mean, a lot. The quests are mostly pointless filler. The story (and the book) just doesn’t need to be as long as it is. There are water nymphs and gorgons and people of the forest, and none of them really matter. Ultimately, the story is about Gemma’s access to magic and whether she can control it, and about the struggle between the different factions that want to control the magic and keep the others out. All the travels up and down rivers and through the woods are mainly there for colorful filler.

And book #3 — well, when I tell you that it’s over 800 pages, that should tell you a lot. This book should either have been split in two or — my preference — subjected to some ruthless editing and trimming. It’s overstuffed and not nearly focused enough. My complaints about the portrayal of the girls’ friendship holds true. Even this late in the game, the girls turn on one another, questioning loyalties, making accusations, and expressing a level of mistrust that doesn’t make sense given what they’ve been through together.

Another quibble I have with these books is that — despite the huge number of pages in the entire trilogy — the world-building is weak. How exactly does a person bind or share magic? Where are all these other Order members? Why do things work the way they do in the realms? I always felt like I was missing information, like a jigsaw puzzle with key pieces missing.

Also problematic is Gemma’s habit of ignoring advice (which the other girls are at fault for as well). She’s told not to trust anything or anyone she encounters in the realms — so she immediately trusts the first being she sees because it appears to be someone she knows. She constantly puts her faith in people who turn out to be baddies, and blindly hates those she decides are bad but who may not be. She also swears to be truthful with her friends and then goes behind their backs at a moments notice because she thinks they won’t or can’t understand or they’ll try to stop her (from doing things that are often ill-advised). Not a whole lot of common sense, basically.

I do think that the portrayal of girls’ and women’s lives in Victorian society is very well done. Females are pigeon-holed into prescribed roles early on, and any deviation from the norm is a cause for mockery, disdain, or ostracization.

Felicity takes both my hands in hers. My bones ache from her grip. “Gemma, you see how it is. They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” Felicity puts her forehead to mine, holds my hands between hers in a prayer. “Please, please, please, Gemma, let’s not die inside before we have to.”

The author repeatedly shows how the clothing of the era reinforces the restrictions society places on girls. One can’t very well run or defend oneself while wearing corsets and petticoats — walking demurely and sitting up straight and staying calm are basically enforced by the clothing required for respectability.

As we walk, the men survey us as if we’re lands that might be won, either by agreement or in battle. The room buzzes with talk of the hunt and Parliament, horses and estates, but their eyes never stray too far from us. There are bargains to be struck, seeds to be planted. And I wonder, if women were not daughters and wives, mothers and young ladies, prospects or spinsters, if we were not seen through the eyes of others, would we exist at all?

Through Gemma’s eyes, we see the damage done by the petty nastiness between the girls at the school and the emphasis on beauty and status. Gemma has (I hope) made a lasting change for the better by the end of the trilogy by pleading with the headmistress to offer her students meaningful studies rather than just posture, elocution, and deportment — and urging her to create an environment where back-biting and meanness isn’t the norm. It may be out of reach still in that era, but at least Gemma has given voice to what a more positive future might look like.

“Why should we girls not have the same privileges as men? Why do we police ourselves so stringently — whittling each other down with cutting remarks or holding ourselves back from greatness with a harness woven of fear and shame and longing? If we do not deem ourselves worthy first, how shall we ever ask for more?

“I have seen what a handful of girls can do, Mrs. Nightwing. They can hold back an army if necessary, so please don’t tell me it isn’t possible. A new century dawns. Surely we could dispense with a few samplers in favor of more books and grander ideas.”

If only the plot were tighter and better defined, I’d be able to be more enthusiastic about these books. There are clearly some important messages and themes built into the series, with powerful thoughts about girl power and friendship and independence and self-determination. Unfortunately, much of this positive is overwhelmed by the wandering and messy plotlines.

Do I recommend the Gemma Doyle trilogy. Um… I mean… yes? Maybe? There are nuggets of good, and the books are never boring. I just wish someone had taken a big paring knife to sections of the books, and then maybe infused a good helping of explanations to the fuzzier bits. As historical fiction goes, the books do a good job of invoking the societal norms, class structures, and expectations of the Victorian era. But, if you need a tightly woven plot to go with the atmospheric elements. you might be better off looking elsewhere.

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Book details:

A Great and Terrible Beauty – 403 pages, published 2003
Rebel Angels – 548 pages, published 2005
The Sweet Far Thing – 819 pages, published 2007

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Shelf Control #88: I Capture The Castle

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: I Capture the Castle
Author: Dodie Smith
Published: 1948
Length: 343 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has “captured the castle”– and the heart of the reader– in one of literature’s most enchanting entertainments.

How I got it:

I don’t even remember — but I suspect I picked up a copy at one of our library’s big books sales (just like at least 50% of the books on my shelves)

When I got it:

Sometime within the last five years or so, I believe.

Why I want to read it:

This is one of those books that everyone tells you to read. It’s supposed to be funny and charming and quirky, and I’ve heard it described as a modern classic. As a bonus reason for reading it, I’m participating in an acrostic challenge with my book club and I’m missing a title that starts with the letter I — so I guess I just have to read this one before the end of the year!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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