Book Review: Dread Nation

dread nationDread Nation
by Justina Ireland
YA Fantasy (Alternate History)
454 pages
Published April 2018

So, as a general rule, I don’t read zombie stories. Zombies are the one monster that will almost invariably give me nightmares. This book, however, had such hype built up around it that I decided to bend my rule.

I should not have.

Before I start in on this, let me say it’s a good story. It’s well-written, the plot is paced nicely, and it’s entertaining. All that said, it’s quite problematic in many ways. I knew some of this before I read it; there was a Twitter thread about some of the issues, namely that in the Author’s Note she describes the Native American boarding schools (where the government forced Native American children to go, and tried to destroy their heritage and culture in the name of “civilizing” them) as “well-meaning.” The Twitter thread does an excellent job of dissecting that passage, and it’s worth reading.

There’s also the incredibly unrealistic scene where Jane gets flogged eleven times, walks back to where she’s staying, has a coherent conversation where she lays out a plan she has formed, and then puts a shirt on. That last part especially got me. Like, what? You’re going to be in more pain than that! Being flogged barely seems to slow Jane down. She asks for laudanum – for her plan. Not to take for the pain.

I don’t know. There’s a lot about the book that set my teeth on edge. There’s the absurd amount of racism, but the protagonist is a black woman and it’s civil war era, so that’s to be expected. And it’s coming from characters, not from narration. Jane lies. A lot. So it’s hard to trust that she’s even a reliable narrator.

I guess it’s okay. I didn’t care for it. I found it really hard to get past the author’s “well-meaning” comment about the Native American boarding schools. And the plot of “as soon as they’re old enough, black children get sent to combat schools.” Especially with what’s going on lately with the jailing of migrant children, it feels tone-deaf, ignorant, and genocidal.

One good point was the oh-so-casual mention of bisexuality (a female friend taught her “everything she knows about kissing”) but it was only two sentences and never mentioned again. Not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the book.

From the cover of Dread Nation:

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

gentleman's guide to vice and virtueThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Mackenzi Lee
YA Historical Fiction
513 pages
Published 2017

This was excellent! First, all the diversity here – between the bisexual main character, his best friend, who is biracial, has an “invisible” disability, and also likes men (or at least likes Monty!) and his seemingly asexual sister – the book covers so many facets, it’s great.

Given that it’s historical fiction, set in Victorian Europe, Percy’s biracial heritage has him just seen as black to most people they encounter. Monty doesn’t seem to understand what that means, most of the time, and is a little blinded by his rich white boy privilege. He gets talked to a couple of times about how he’s being blind to the problems his friend is facing.

I liked that we got to peek under Monty’s playboy facade a few times, when being punched has him flashing back to being beaten by his father for being a “disappointment.” An interaction between him and a pirate captain was particularly sweet, teaching him to fight back because he’s worth defending.

I LOVE Felicity, Monty’s sister, and I’m really eager to read her story in the sequel to this book, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. She is so badass, and incredibly intelligent.

The writing was fun, the action well-paced, and the dialogue clever. I was a little put off at first by the size of the book, but I flew through it quickly. I especially liked Monty’s bisexuality – how he just cheerfully perved on practically everyone his age. It definitely reminded me of a few people I know!

Something that I noted, near the end of the book, was Percy not asking Monty to stop his perving. What he said was “if you ever go behind my back…” which implies as long as Percy knows, it’s not an issue. Yay for non-monogamy being present in YA! It’s nice to see alternative relationship structures being presented, though I wish it had been more than just implied.

This was an excellent read for Pride Month, and I loved the amount of diversity and intersectionality present in it. You can find the rest of my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue:

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions – not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still, it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Book Review: Circe

CirceCirce
by Madeline Miller
Mythological retelling
400 pages
Published April 2018

Circe was my April Book of the Month club pick, and WOW was it epic. I haven’t read Song of Achilles, but I just put a hold on it with my library, because this book was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that it sent me into a bit of a reading slump – what book could follow up this masterwork?

This is actually going to be a pretty short review because I’m just in awe of this book. Circe begins as a somewhat naive child in her father’s household, unaware of her own power until her brother points it out to her. For those powers, she is banished to a deserted island, but her powers only grow from there. We meet many figures of Greek mythology – from gods and goddesses to mortals and monsters like Scylla and the Minotaur.

I just don’t even know how to properly review this book other than it was amazing. If you like Greek mythology at ALL, you should read this book. It’s captivating.

From the cover of Circe:

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.

Book Review: Enchantress of Numbers

enchantress of numbersEnchantress of Numbers
by Jennifer Chiaverini
Historical Fiction
426 pages
Published December 2017

Enchantress of Numbers has been making the rounds lately – it seems there’s been an interest in books about women in STEM, which is a good thing. Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer, though “computers” as we know them didn’t really exist at the time. What she wrote was an algorithm for making a machine spit out a specific result – a machine that was never actually built. Still, her contributions to the very early science of computing were invaluable and she is (rightly) revered for them. Sadly, she died in her 30s from ovarian cancer – a loss that undoubtedly slowed down the advancement of early computing.

The early parts of the book are told in third person, about her mother’s marriage to Lord Byron, and Ada’s own birth. From there, Ada tells the story in first person, as she grows up with her strict mother in English Aristocratic Society.

It is historical fiction, so the author has taken some liberties, though I was a bit confused that in the book she meets Mr. Babbage some time before meeting Mrs. Somerville; Wikipedia says Lady Lovelace was introduced to Mr. Babbage by her mentor, Mrs. Somerville. Odd that the author chose to change that up.

I’ve definitely read better historical fiction – Philippa Gregory is a personal favorite – but this wasn’t bad. It was a little slow, and a little dry in spots, but it was overall good. If you weren’t interested in Ada Lovelace or early computing and mathematics I don’t think the book would be very enjoyable at all. But if you do like those things, and are willing to put up with a little bit of boredom, it’s a decent book.

This is also my PopSugar 2018 Challenge pick for “novel based on a real person.”

From the cover of Enchantress of Numbers:

The only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the most brilliant, revered, and scandalous of the Romantic poets, Ada was destined for fame long before her birth. But her mathematician mother, estranged from Ada’s infamous and destructively passionate father, is determined to save her only child from her perilous Byron heritage. Banishing fairy tales and make-believe from the nursery, Ada’s mother provides her daughter with a rigorous education grounded in mathematics and science. Any troubling spark of imagination—or worse yet, passion or poetry—is promptly extinguished. Or so her mother believes.
 
When Ada is introduced into London society as a highly eligible young heiress, she at last discovers the intellectual and social circles she has craved all her life. Little does she realize how her exciting new friendship with Charles Babbage—the brilliant, charming, and occasionally curmudgeonly inventor of an extraordinary machine, the Difference Engine—will define her destiny.

Enchantress of Numbers unveils the passions, dreams, and insatiable thirst for knowledge of a largely unheralded pioneer in computing—a young woman who stepped out of her father’s shadow to achieve her own laurels and champion the new technology that would shape the future.

Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
369 pages
Published 2014

The Invention of Wings is one of my PopSugar Reading Challenge books, for the prompt “A Book from a Celebrity Book Club.” It was Oprah’s 3rd pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Oprah interviewed Sue Monk Kidd in the January 2014 issue of O Magazine.

I can definitely see why Oprah was so affected by this book; the two main characters are Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and Hetty Handful, the slave gifted to her by her mother when she turned 11. In an afterword, Kidd explains that she did try to stay mostly historically accurate, and Handful was gifted to Sarah when she was 11, though she apparently died not long after. In Kidd’s book, however, Handful survives. Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, and really did most of what is ascribed to them in the book, though Kidd passes a couple of their deeds from one sister to the other. The Grimkés were from Charleston, South Carolina, and born into an aristocratic, slave-owning family headed by a prestigious judge. Their abolitionist actions get them exiled from Charleston and from their church. Meanwhile, Hetty, her ownership having returned to Sarah’s mother, dreams of freedom and plots rebellions of her own.

I was a little wary going into this book; I’ve read a couple of Oprah’s picks before, and generally found them dry and uninteresting. This one, though, was very well written. The voices of both women came through clearly, as did some of the brutality of slavery. Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which got a lot of attention. If it’s anything like this, I might have to finally read that as well.

(I know the author is white, but I thought, being about slavery and abolition, it would still qualify for Black History Month.)

From the cover of The Invention of Wings:

A triumphant story about the quest for freedom and empowerment, Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel presents the extraordinary journeys of two unforgettable women: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early-nineteenth century Charleston, and Sarah, the Grimkés’ idealistic daughter. 

Inspired in part by the historic figure of abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimké, Kidd’s novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. The Invention of Wings follows these two women over the next thirty-five years as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

 

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!