Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

thebearThe Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden
Fairy-tale Retelling
330 pages
Published 2017

So I finally got around to reading this one – people have been raving about it all year long. And honestly – I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s good, sure. But it’s not Girls Made of Snow and Glass, or The Crown’s Game, or Uprooted. It’s not The Golem and the Jinni. I enjoyed it, but I think the hype is a little undeserved. I am, however, always a sucker for Russian-themed fairytales. (Probably why I liked The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate so much.) And I am looking forward to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, which just came out. (I have a hold requested on it from my library.) The third book in the Winternight Trilogy appears to be The Winter of the Witch, and is scheduled to be published in August.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in Rus – a Russia-like country, but with magic, of course. Vasilisa/Vasya is a granddaughter of a witch, and has some abilities herself. Mostly just the ability to see things that other can’t, and to talk to them. Through the course of the book, she avoids an arranged marriage, saves a priest, fights a priest, and tries like hell to save her village from the demons of winter. I loved her tenacity, and her love for the old spirits. The description of The Winter King and his home was absolutely enchanting. Overall a good book, but a bit overhyped.

From the cover of The Bear and the Nightingale:

Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
 
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village. 
 
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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International Holocaust Remembrance Day

mausMaus
Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel
295 pages
Published 1996

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day set aside to remember the six million Jews that died in the genocide of World War 2. This is an especially important day given the things that have been taking place in America over the past year. I partially read Hitlerland a few months ago, about Americans living in Germany when the war broke out, and how they reacted to the events happening around them, and was horrified at how closely the early events mirrored what is happening now with Trump. I also read the Diary of Anne Frank in high school, as so many other students did.

What I read this year was the Complete Maus. Maus is a graphic novel about the author’s father’s experience in the concentration camps. In the novel Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, and Germans are cats. (Humans are dogs and French are frogs.) The art is stark, but it fits the subject matter. It’s almost entirely black and white, with the exception of a few cover pages. The time period jumps back and forth a little. Most of it is set during the war, with the father, Vladek, narrating what’s going on. The rest of it is in modern time, sometimes with the author interviewing his father, sometimes just the author dealing with his elderly father’s eccentricities. maus-swastika

While the graphic novel doesn’t shy away from the violence and sheer number of people dying, it’s not graphic about it. There’s no gore. I feel like this would be a good first book for learning about the Holocaust, though depending on age, kids might need help with the vocabulary.

It’s a fairly fast read for an adult. I think the animals were a really well done metaphor – Vladek, a mouse, often has a pig mask on as he masquerades as a Polish non-Jew. I get most of the animal metaphors – Germans as cats while the Jews are mice, French are frogs, and Americans are friendly dogs. I had to ask Google why Poles were pigs – apparently they were represented as pigs in Nazi propaganda. There’s also an element of Poles being non-kosher, and, also, a certain amount of racism. Whether that racism is Art’s or Vladek’s is unclear, but ultimately Art chose to represent them with pigs, so. That problematic factor aside, this was a really good piece of art.

From the cover of Maus:

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Book Review: More or Less a Marchioness

marchionessMore or Less a Marchioness
Anna Bradley
Romance
330 pages
Coming out February 2018

So I didn’t actually realize this was an ARC when I read it – I won it for free through Goodreads giveaways, and it auto-downloaded to my Kindle. The Release Date appears to be February 6th.

I do like my fluff Regency romances once in a while, and this fit the bill perfectly. Ladies of the ton, rakes, respectable bachelors, scandal, beautiful dresses and piano recitals and magnificent horses being ridden in the park – these are the things I enjoy in my romances. And More or Less a Marchioness totally delivered. It appears it’s the first in a series, set in a world she’s already written several books in, so I’ll probably look up the rest of the series next time I want some fluff again. This is the first in the “Somerset Sisters” set, and I am eager to read what happens to some of the side characters. (Also something I love in my romances – branching sub plots that obviously have their own books.)

If you like your Victorian ladies with hidden spines of steel, and reformed rakes, and titles and potential scandals and fortunes teetering on the edge of marriages, this is a great book for you. There was also just a hint of kink in this book, which is unusual and turned out pretty awesomely.

From the cover of More or Less a Marchioness:

The Somerset sisters, three beautiful, headstrong debutantes in Regency London, are discovering that a bit of scandal is a delightful thing . . .
 
For the sake of propriety, and her younger sisters’ reputations, Iris Somerset has kept her rebellious streak locked away. But though she receives a proposal from Phineas Knight, Lord of Huntington, Iris can’t marry a man she knows isn’t truly enamored with her. In fact, Iris no longer wants to be chosen—she wants to choose. Under the clandestine tutelage of “wicked widow” Lady Annabel Tallant, she’ll learn how to steer her own marriage prospects—and discover her secret appetites . . .
 
What kind of debutante refuses a marquess? Finn is surprised, a little chastened—and thoroughly intrigued. This new, independent version of Iris is far more alluring than the polished socialite she used to be. Finn believed he needed a safe, quiet wife to curb his wilder impulses. But the more Iris surprises him, the more impossible it becomes to resist their deepest desires . . .

Book Review: Furiously Happy

furiouslyhappyFuriously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things
Jenny Lawson
Memoir?
353 pages
Published 2015

How do you even begin to explain a Jenny Lawson book? Known as The Bloggess on the internet, Lawson is one of the most laugh-out-loud, hysterically funny, off-the-wall-crazy-pants writers I’ve ever come across. From her antics with taxidermied animals to the bizarre arguments she has with her husband to the weird tangents her brain goes on, Lawson is one of the most entertaining people on the internet. In Furiously Happy, she explores her lifelong fight with mental illness, from depression to anxiety to a number of manias, and she does so in a lovely, non-judgmental way. She does get serious – she talks about her “folder of 24” – 24 letters from suicidal people telling her that she, and the community she’s built, are the reason they’re still here. Lawson tackles the topic of depression head on, and by writing down the bizarre things that go through her head, lets people know THEY’RE NOT ALONE, and that’s incredibly important.

As the subtitle of the book says, it might be a book about a serious topic, but oh. my. is it funny. Between sneaking a taxidermied ecstatically happy raccoon into view of her husband’s video conferences, and trying to snuggle koalas in Australia while dressed in a full-body koala costume, Lawson also talks about waking up in the middle of the night thinking her arms have fallen off, and being stalked by carnivorous swans. Lawson’s blog is hilarious, and this book is one of the most insanely funny things I’ve ever read, and now I have to track down her other two books. (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and You Are Here)

From the cover of Furiously Happy:

In Furiously Happy, a humor memoir tinged with just enough tragedy and pathos to make it worthwhile, Jenny Lawson examines her own experience with severe depression and a host of other conditions, and explains how it has led her to live life to the fullest:

“I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that ‘normal people’ also might never understand. And that’s what Furiously Happy is all about.”

Jenny’s readings are standing room only, with fans lining up to have Jenny sign their bottles of Xanax or Prozac as often as they are to have her sign their books. Furiously Happy appeals to Jenny’s core fan base but also transcends it. There are so many people out there struggling with depression and mental illness, either themselves or someone in their family―and in Furiously Happy they will find a member of their tribe offering up an uplifting message (via a taxidermied roadkill raccoon). Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ostensibly was about embracing your own weirdness, but deep down it was about family. Furiously Happy is about depression and mental illness, but deep down it’s about joy―and who doesn’t want a bit more of that?

Book Review: The Power

thepowerThe Power
Naomi Alderman
Dystopia
416 pages
Published October 2017

Holy shit. I sat and stared at my Kindle for several minutes after finishing this book. The Power belongs on the same shelf as The Handmaid’s Tale and American War. It’s just amazing. The book begins in our world – but then takes a twist sideways. Teenage girls start manifesting an electrical power. They can zap people, with varying degrees of strength. It can be a pleasing, arousing tingle, or a warning jolt, or a breath-stealing, heart-stopping (literally) bolt. They soon discover that older women can also manifest the ability, but it has to be kick-started by a jolt from someone who already has it. (Even later in the book it’s revealed that there’s actually a muscle – they call it the skein – that controls the electricity, and women have, in the last twenty years or so, evolved to have that muscle.)

The book revolves between the points of view of a few different women and one man. The man is a journalist reporting on the emergence of the new power, while the women are prominent figures in the new world order that is emerging. Allie – Eve – becomes the leader of a new religion, Roxy is the daughter of a crime syndicate boss, and Margot is a mayor climbing the political ranks. Margot’s daughter also gets a few chapters.

It’s been pointed out that perhaps men are afraid of women having equal rights because they can’t picture a world in which powerful women don’t treat men the way powerful men have always treated women. They can only imagine men and women interacting as oppressors and oppressed, not as equals. Whereas feminism wants a world where we are truly equals. The Power imagines a world where women do become the oppressors, and men are forced into the feminine role. This is enforced by the framework the novel is told in – the novel itself is bracketed by letters between the “author,” presenting his historical novel, and a woman supposedly editing his work. Through the letters, you discover the novel is a slightly embellished history of their world, with about five thousand years between the events of the novel and the time of the letters. In the tone of the letters, you see the stereotypes switched – the man is apologetic and unsure while the woman is authoritative, patronizing, and a little bit sexist. “Oh, you silly boy, imagining a world where men were dominant! What a naughty idea! Don’t you think men as soldiers is preposterous? Men are homemakers, women are the aggressive ones!” I think, if feminism achieves its goals through legislation, we will find true equality. If something like this were to happen – a drastic change, giving women a physical way to dominate suddenly, the outcome might indeed be more like the novel. Enough women have been traumatized that they’ll want – need – to avenge themselves, and violent upheaval will result.

By the last third of the novel, we see powerful women and societies acting just the same as powerful men always have – I’d like to think we’d have learned from the men’s mistakes, but humans are only human. Perhaps this is more realistic.

The book is NOT for the faint of heart. There are graphic rape, abuse, and violence scenes. They’re not gratuitous – they serve the author’s point – but they are still disturbing, as those scenes should be.

I’ll be thinking about this book for a while. It’s excellent, and I highly recommend it, if you can handle the dark themes.

From the cover of The Power:

In THE POWER, the world is a recognizable place: there’s a rich Nigerian boy who lounges around the family pool; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But then a vital new force takes root and flourishes, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power–they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world drastically resets.

From award-winning author Naomi Alderman, THE POWER is speculative fiction at its most ambitious and provocative, at once taking us on a thrilling journey to an alternate reality, and exposing our own world in bold and surprising ways.

Book Review: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

true confessions of charlotte doyle aviThe True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Avi
Middle-grade historical fiction
229 pages
Published 1990

This was my husband’s suggestion for “A Book Set At Sea,” one of the categories on the PopSugar Reading Challenge. It was a book he’d read as a child, and one I’d never heard of. It was a quick, easy read, as it was meant for children. Late elementary school, would be my guess. (Husband read it in fifth grade for a class.)

The book is set in the summer of 1832. Charlotte Doyle is setting sail across the Atlantic to return to America and rejoin the rest of her family, after finishing the school year at her boarding school. Things are a bit suspicious from the beginning of the voyage – the other two families that were supposed to be on board the ship didn’t make it, so it’s just Charlotte and the crew. Deckhands at the dock warned her away from the ship and refused to carry her things to it.

As the voyage winds on, Charlotte discovers that the crew intensely dislikes their captain and thinks he’s far too strict – he beat one of their number so badly on the last voyage that the crewman lost his arm. Torn between the “noble” captain, who represents everything she’s used to, and her own sense of right and wrong, she starts to notice how cruel he is to the crew. Ultimately, her life, and the lives of the crew, hinge on her decisions as the captain uses her to spy on the crew and report back to him.

My favorite passage from the book turned out to be my husband’s favorite, as well:

 

“What’s a hurricane?”
“The worst storm of all.”
“Can’t we sail around?”
Barlow again glanced at the helm, the sails and then at the sky above. He frowned. “I heard Mr. Hollybrass and Jaggery arguing about it. To my understanding,” he said, “I don’t think the captain wants to avoid it.”
“Why not?”
“It’s what Grimes has been saying. The captain’s trying to move fast. If he sets us right at the hurricane’s edge, it’ll blow us home like a pound of shot in a two-pound cannon.”
“What if he doesn’t get it right?”
“Two pounds of shot in a one-pound cannon.”

I quite enjoyed this little book, and it’s a great example of a girl bucking tradition and doing what she’s good at, gender roles be damned. There is a fair bit of violence – in one scene a man is severely whipped – but it’s not graphic. No sexual themes at all. Pretty suitable for kids as soon as they’re decent enough readers.

From the cover of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle:

The Seahawk looms against a darkening sky, black and sinister. Manned by an angry, motley crew at the mercy of a ruthless captain, the rat-infested ship reeks of squalor, despair…and mutiny! It is no place for the lone passenger, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle, yet for her there is no turning back. At first a trapped and powerless young girl, Charlotte dares to become the center of a daring and deadly voyage that will challenge her courage, her loyalties, and her very will to survive!