Saturday, December 8, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2013)

Since this has been made into a popular movie, you probably know the basics. Nicholas Young is bringing his girlfriend Rachel Chu to Singapore for the summer because his best friend is getting married. But he hasn't told Rachel much about his family, who are extraordinarily wealthy and inhabit a social sphere that Rachel probably doesn't realize exists. He thinks there will be no problem with this. It's as though he's never actually met his own family or friends before.

His cousin Astrid - one of the two characters I like in this book (the other being Rachel) - tries to warn him, but Nick is pretty stupid and won't listen to her. So of course Rachel is caught completely by surprise, his family won't accept her, some of his acquaintances decide to try and sabotage their relationship, and basically it's like a terrible reality show with a tacked-on happy-ish ending that doesn't actually make sense.

These people are mostly all horrible and nobody actually learns anything during the course of the story. Nobody grows as a person or learns anything new. Perhaps Nick realizes he should have been more forthcoming with Rachel, but that's it. (Minor rant: he also "learns" that if a woman breaks up with you, you should continue to pursue her until you get her back, because obviously women do not know what they actually want and no probably doesn't mean no.) Everyone is completely self-centered, vapid, and uncaring about anyone not in their social sphere. It's hard for me to like anything about that.

The writing was a bit forced in parts, too. For one thing, grown women in this story are constantly giggling at odd times that don't make sense. Some of the dialogue was also a big unrealistic, such as when Rachel discovers a nasty prank in her room, a kind person asks if she's ok, and she says, "No, no, I'll be fine. I'm just shaking involuntarily." Hello, let me narrate my signs of distress right now.

Here's what I did like: I liked Rachel and Astrid and their stories. Astrid was having marital difficulties (spoiler: they were fabricated, which was a totally cheap plot point), and was the only wealthy character who was anything other than a collection of eccentricities slapped together on the page. Rachel, as a "regular person" was the only other one I could really relate to. She has this great boyfriend but he hasn't shared much about his life, keeping some pretty key information from her and then just setting her down into the middle of it all and leaving her to deal with it. I felt bad for her. Nick was ok, there just wasn't much to him and, as I said, he's kind of stupid.

I also liked the settings, which were mostly in parts of Singapore and Hong Kong. As you may know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I visited Hong Kong in 2012 and I really like reading books that are set there. That's probably one of the reasons I ended up reading this, and I did enjoy reading about parts of Hong Kong that I recognized.

I also like the cover design. Simple, yet eye-catching.

I don't even know what made me pick this book up, to be honest. I don't enjoy wealthy entitled people being horrible, but I guess I hoped there would be more to it. Especially given that it's over 500 pages long. Surely there would be some real substance here. There's not.

I almost put the book down several times in favor of something else (I had the new Liane Moriarty on deck!) but wanted to find out what would become of Astrid's marriage. It wasn't really worth it. And once again, I always find much more to say about a book I don't really like than one I do. I'm actually rather curious how the movie compares and I may still see it, since most of this is about the settings and clothing and I think it might be visually entertaining. Have you seen it? What did you think?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Working Stiff

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell (2014), narrated by Tanya Eby

I bought this audiobook impulsively when Audible was having a sale and I was in the mood for memoirs. I had never heard of this one, but was intrigued by the description as it says she worked as a medical examiner in the wake of 9/11.

Judy Melinek intended to be a surgeon, but the grueling schedule wasn't for her (and, to be honest, didn't sound like it was very healthy for her patients either.) So she quit her residency and began working as a forensic pathologist in New York in the summer of 2001. Mostly, the book was more thematic than linear, with chapters focused on different types of deaths like homicides, suicides, accidents, and those from substance abuse. She talks about her experiences performing autopsies, the things she looked for, and what she learned.

It was about 3/4 of the way through the book when she talks about 9/11 and its aftermath. Although that was what reeled me in, and I was initially disappointed that it wasn't more of a focus of the book, I found everything about her job so fascinating that I'm glad she shared so much of it. Obviously 9/11 was a huge catastrophe, but what really set it apart from her other work was the scale, and the need to devise a different workflow. The actual work was similar, except that there were a lot of, um....incomplete bodies, which affected the organizational system. I'm not going to get more specific here because it goes into a territory that is not going to be comfortable for a lot of people.

So that's one important thing to know about this book. It's pretty graphic, and it has to be in order to get a feel for what Melinek's job is actually like. If you are easily grossed out or upset by things having to do with the human body, things that can happen to it, and vivid descriptions of horrific deaths, this is not the book for you. However, I find this kind of thing fascinating. And so does Judy Melinek. Of course she was affected by some of the things she saw. There was even one situation in which she paused over a body bag containing more than one small child (from a plane crash that happened just a couple of months after 9/11), and a coworker quickly volunteered to take that job. He knew she had young children.

Mostly though, she wasn't bothered, and it didn't make her worry more for her family. She saw a lot of death and knew that the more horrific accidents were actually pretty rare. She's just extremely interested in the human body and loves learning more about it, and happens to not be especially bothered by dead people. She talked a lot about her mentors and what she learned from them, and she also touched on her father's death when she was a teenager and how that has shaped her view of suicide and affected how she interacts with the families who are left behind.

It was a fairly short book (the hardcover edition is 258 pages) and the narrator was great, so I was pretty engrossed and flew through it. It was a great impulse buy and exactly what I wanted to listen to at the time. If you're interested in this kind of science, or just like learning about unusual jobs, I recommend it.

Friday, November 30, 2018

November Wrap-Up and Plans For December



Reading


I finished The Fifth Season in early November, which is the final title that I'm reading for my TBR Pile Challenge, and then plowed through the rest of the Broken Earth series. There's one more book on my challenge list but I'm not feeling inclined to read it so I'm done for the year.

This month I also finished Alisha Rai's excellent Forbidden Hearts series with Hurts To Love You. Rounding out the month, I read The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, which I loved, and started reading Crazy Rich Asians. The jury is still out on that one because sometimes reading about extremely wealthy, entitled people is just annoying but it's too early to really say yet.

In general it was a pretty good reading month!

Listening


Socks that I mention below.
While reading the Broken Earth series, I needed something less dark so I listened to The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, then started on Working Stiff by Judy Melinek which I impulsively bought on sale through Audible and had never heard of before. Melinek is a forensic pathologist, and this book is a glimpse inside a profession I know very little about.

I finished Last Seen, the podcast about the Gardener Heist. It was so fascinating, and now I want to learn more about art theft in general.

I also started listening to a podcast called Unlikeable Female Characters, which is SO up my alley. They talk about unlikeable female characters from books, movies, and TV so it sure to have wide appeal.


Watching


An early season of The Great British Baking Show appeared on Netflix and we watched that over the course of a week. It's listed on Netflix as The Great British Baking Show: The Beginning, though it's not actually the first season and I'm mystified as to why we're getting it in such a strange order. This was a good season except that they kept doing odd informational segments on things like the history of gingerbread houses and eel pie and it was not even always relevant (I really thought that technical challenge was going to be eel pie, but it wasn't. Why did we need to learn about the history of eel pie?) I really wish all the other seasons were available because watching this show greatly improves my quality of life. Please let me know if there's another happy-making food show out there because I need it.

Cooking


After making the Smitten Kitchen Blondies again for a get-together and the Peanut Butter Cheesecake Brownies for no reason, I decided I needed to stop the baking because it really does not fit in with my plans to eat a more healthy diet.

One-pot Mujadara
I made a couple of new things from Melissa Clark's Dinner, including Winter Vegetable Hash with Jalapenos and Fried Eggs, which didn't come out the way it was supposed to but was still tasty, and the One Pot Mujadara, a fairly easy meal of lentils, rice, spinach, and delicious crispy-fried leeks. I'll be making this one again, I'm sure.

For October's Cookbook Club at work we cooked from Smitten Kitchen Every Day, which I then purchased. Earlier this week I made the Wild Mushroom Shepherd's Pie and had serious issues with the recipe. You cook some mushrooms and then add a significant amount of liquid, then simmer it until the liquid reduces to a thick gravy, "about 10 minutes." Well, Deb Perelman apparently has no sense of time because I simmered for 35 minutes before giving up and throwing the Shepherd's Pie together and into the oven because I was starving. This monstrosity took me 3 hours to make and came out more like soup. The flavor was great though, and the leftovers thickened up a little. But seriously, can you please test all of your recipes? Thank you.

A couple of old favorites that I cooked include the Hot and Sour Braised Tempeh, a delicious noodle dish from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman, and the Gingered Winter Vegetables from Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I've never been vegan, but that cookbook is great and has been one of my go-to cookbooks for years!

Doing


Eric and I went with another friend to a fun event called Tavern Night, held at the Boston Tea Party Museum. We sat at a table with an actor portraying Sam Adams, and ate delicious foods, drank hot buttered rum, sang songs, and even learned a old-timey dance.

I celebrated an early Thanksgiving in Maine with family. They all work in health care and often work on holidays so we celebrate whenever they are available to get together. Have I mentioned that my sister has a llama? That's a photo of her on the right (the llama, not my sister.) The lighthouse in the photo below is at the end of the road I lived on growing up.

I spent real Thanksgiving watching episodes of The Great British Baking Show in my pajamas before going out to a restaurant in the evening. Which honestly was pretty great.

I finished TWO knitting projects! I posted about my sweater already, but I also finished a pair of socks. I've started more socks now, but in a much prettier colorway. (I mean, I love black, but sometimes you need to mix it up a bit.) Black is very hard to photograph, but nevertheless I've include a pic to the right.

Work has felt really busy, and I'm on the Social Committee this year which means planning the staff holiday party which is a total nightmare and I want to stab everyone. The end.

Plans for December


December is that very special time of year in which I try to remember what my goals were for the year, and then determine whether or not I fulfilled them. (Usually not.)

I need to set up my new bullet journal planner thingy, which I started planning ages ago, set it aside, and now I don't recall what I had in mind. I'll go back and look at my notes and drawings which I'm sure will be some combination of helpful and mystifying.

Traditionally, I don't do much for Christmas except decorate the house a little and watch lots of Christmas movies, then go out to eat on Christmas Day. There's only two of us and we used to cook, but it was a whole lot of effort and then we were just exhausted and cranky by the time we ate alone in our kitchen. Anyhow, I really want to plan some other festive activities as well, but I don't know what. Going to a show? Making fancy cookies? I have no idea.

We'll be having a New Year's Eve party though and that is basically planned at this point. It's just a matter of cleaning the house and buying some booze. I've got a few days off leading up to New Year's Eve so it shouldn't be a problem to have everything ready.


How was your November?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (2018)

"I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off."

From this very first line, I was enraptured by the new novel by Mackenzi Lee. It's a sequel to A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, but although I think you should read that one because it's great, it's not necessary to have read it first. The main character in the first book was Henry "Monty" Montague, and this second book is about his sister, Felicity.

Callum is the baker for whom Felicity works, and after she sews up his finger he proposes marriage. But Felicity has always wanted to be a doctor and is not interested in marriage or romance, so after a failed attempt at talking her way into medical school (which won't admit women) she follows a lead and dashes off to Austria in search of her long-time idol, Dr. Alexander Platt. Platt is about to marry Felicity's former best friend Johanna, with whom she parted under less-than-friendly circumstances. Felicity is only able to make the trip with the help of a third woman, a Muslim pirate named Sim, who is absolutely deserving of her own book. Sim has her own motivation for making this trip and, once revealed, the trip develops into a much different kind of adventure.

So I love Felicity: her determination, her intelligence, her sense of justice. I also love that she is not perfect. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the feminism, and it is just as complicated here as in real life. Felicity and Johanna grew up with a matching interest in science and the natural world, but when Johanna started to get interested in things like fancy dresses and social events, Felicity judged her for it. When they reconciled, they had some things to work through and had a great conversation about assumptions and how a person can like pretty dresses and science at the same time.

But she's not just smart and kind of judgmental; she's funny too. In one of my favorite passages, Felicity is trying to change out of her dress in a hurry without any help and it's a struggle.

"I can't even reach the damn buttons running up the back, let alone unfasten them. I keep turning in circles like a dog chasing its tail, trying each time to stretch my arm just a bit farther while holding on to the deranged hope that perhaps if I catch the buttons by surprise they won't dart away from me."

The other two women are also fantastic characters, complicated and imperfect, and this makes them very real and makes the story even more exciting.

A big part of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue was the romance between Monty and Percy, but this follow-up is not a romance at all. Rather, it's an adventure story with strong themes about friendship and I am totally here for it. In fact, it's strongly suggested that Felicity is asexual/aromantic. Her disinterest in Callum's marriage proposal isn't about him specifically, but about her. She wants to live alone but be surrounded by friends as she pursues her work, and she says that kissing (people of any gender) really does nothing for her. As much as I love a good romance, it's refreshing to have a historical teen adventure novel that is just that. Not everything has to be about romantic love and not everybody has to have it in their life.

This was a super fun story that I enjoyed a lot, and really got me out of the bleak place that The Broken Earth Series took me (and I loved that series, but needed an antidote). It's a teen book so the writing style is light and fast-paced, but there's still a lot going on and lots to think about. It was also different enough from the first book that there's not that pressure to be as good at the same kind of story, if that makes sense. I'll definitely be looking out for whatever Mackenzi Lee shares with us next.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sunday Knitting

Way back when Barack Obama was president,* I started a sweater. That was in May of 2016. It is not insignificant that we had just gotten a dog the previous August, because my knitting has slowed down considerably since then. Time is a factor, sure, but the larger impediment to knitting these days is having a grabby many-toothed beast at my side at all times, wanting to know what the hell that thing in my hands is and needed to both smell and taste it. So these days, I need to steal away and do my knitting alone behind closed doors, usually while listening to podcasts or audiobooks rather than my old way of knitting while watching tv. This is all to say that it has taken me almost 2.5 years to knit this goddamn sweater.


And yes, the sweater is lying on the floor for these photos because if I were to wait until a good time to get modeled photos it would probably be another six months. The weather has been crappy, I don't have a picturesque background nearby, and my skin is a mess. So this is what you're getting.

I can tell you that the sweater fits okay, though it's a bit long and hugs my butt in a way that's not exactly flattering. But usually they end up stretching a bit width-wide, which shortens it length-wise so the final verdict on fit isn't in quite yet.



It came out pretty well, I think. It's a bit rumpled in the photos. I blocked it out all nicely, but then it was folded up and even shoved in a suitcase for a trip to Maine and back without even being taken out. I haven't worn it yet, I don't know why.

I picked this pattern because I love the interesting textures in ganseys, but this had the added challenge of a hood and a front pocket. I've been down that road before with my Rogue Sweater (pic to the right because it was pre-blog and I had photos on flick that now aren't showing up. Honestly I forgot I even had a flickr account.) I love the idea of a hoodie more than I love an actual hoodie. They look great, but are impractical to wear with a coat because what do you do with the hood? It always seems to get in the way. that's an awful lot of work to put into something that isn't practical.

However, I'm happy to say that both the hood and front pocket came out pretty well. The pocket is formed in a rather complicated way, and I had to go back and rip it out and re-do it because I attached in such a way that it didn't lie flat. I'm glad I took the time to fix it because I would not have been able to live with it like that. That was a hard lesson I've learn from the past - a lesson learned, in fact, from the above pictured Rogue. There's a cable pattern going around the hood, joining on the front neckline and I made a major mistake in the cable that is front and center on the sweater. I still wear it (I wore it a couple of days ago, in fact) but I see it EVERY TIME and it makes me so annoyed. But that was one of my first sweaters and remains one of the most complicated and I didn't know how to go back and fix it and then be able to continue without losing count of all the things I was doing at one time.

How did this turn into a post about a different sweater?

Here's a closer photo of the patterns on the front.



Oh, you'll notice it has a couple of buttonholes but no buttons. Well. For this I would have wanted buttons in the same color as the yarn, but how would I go about finding buttons in that exact shade of mustard yellow? I have no idea, but I'm sure I'd never actually button the neck so I decided not to even bother trying. I made buttonholes in case I ever changed my mind.

So there you go: my first finished knitted thing in quite a while. You know, I actually also recently finished a pair of socks and even took photos, but socks don't really need an entire post so I'll put those in my monthly wrap-up, which will come (hopefully) in less than a week.


*How I long for those days. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Hurts To Love You

Hurts To Love You by Alisha Rai (2018)

At this time last year I read the first book in this series, Hate To Want You, moved on to Wrong To Need You this past spring, and now I've finished the trilogy. I've been very good at finishing the series I've started recently!

The heroine of Hurts To Love You is Eve Chandler, the youngest of the Chandler siblings. She is often referred to as "Baby Chandler" which she likes as much as any grown woman would. Eve wants people to start taking her seriously and treating her as an adult, and that includes her long-time crush, older guy Gabe Hunter. When Eve was in college - not many years ago - she hit on him in a bar when she was drunk and he rebuffed her, but she is determined to try again with him. Now is the perfect opportunity, because they'll be together for a week as Livvy and Nicholas (from the first book) get married. The wedding party is meeting up to stay at a house together in the days leading up to the wedding, but for various reasons, most people are arriving late which means that Eve and Gabe have some time alone together.

Gabe is the son of the housekeeper for the Kane family, so he grew up very close with Livvy, Jackson, and especially the now-deceased Paul. Gabe is more of a one-night stand kind of guy than a relationship guy, but this is a romance novel so obviously that is going to change. He sees Eve for the first time in a while when they meet for a wedding cake tasting. Livvy is sick and can't taste anything and Nicholas is, I think, out of town on business so the two of them are standing in for them. This is the moment when Gabe realizes Eve is no longer inappropriately young for him.

Despite her wealth, Eve is driving for a ride-share company and has been making sure she is there to pick up Gabe when he needs it, but she does so in disguise. She's trying to make her own way now that she no longer works for the family business, but she's also doing market research for her own company, which will be a competitor for Ryde. She feels a little bad for stalking Gabe, but doesn't realize that Gabe may become attracted to his driver "Anne" and that might make him conflicted about Eve.

So the romance is all well and good, but as with the other books in this trilogy Rai has done such a great job with all the family drama and character development that is really what I'm here for. I love Eve. I love her imperfections and her determination to prove herself, and the way she gives herself pep talks because she is trying to be more confident and assertive. She grew up being bossed around and emotionally abused by her father, and she is no longer having it. Her brother Nicholas is over-protective and keeps treating her like a child and she will not take that anymore either. She is done trying to please everyone, and through the course of this book she is all about acknowledging what she wants and taking steps to get it. She gets some great sisterly advice from Livvy about this, too, which really bolsters her determination. I really love Livvy.

I'm less in love with the guys in this book. Nicholas really seems like an ass, even though I liked him in his own book (Hate To Want You). The way he treats Eve is really grating, but there's a fantastic conversation in which Livvy lectures him about how Eve is an adult and he needs to treat her like one. It was a really good feminist moment (and not the only one in the novel.)  Gabe is fine, but I find it hard to trust a guy who doesn't like sweets. He hates sweets. What is wrong with him?

Oh, but the family story! This has been a long arc through all of the books and I am very much here for it. I love a good family saga. The relationship between the Chandlers and Kanes began as a business partnership and friendship, weathered the imprisonment of one of the original partners in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and was essentially destroyed when Eve's mom and Livvy's dad were killed in a car accident together and there was a lot of fallout including the Kanes being robbed of their part of the business. The two families have been enemies since then, and this wedding between Livvy and Nicholas is the first official reconciliation between them. A lot is riding on this. Some members of the family want the old animosity put to rest, but some - like Nicholas and Eve's father - cannot bear the thought of the two families reuniting. In the course of the book, we learn even more about the fraught history of the Chandlers and Kanes as more secrets are revealed.

I'm actually a bit sad that the series is over because I've gotten really invested in these families. Alisha Rai is one of the better romance writers I've come across and I follow her on Twitter and I've really enjoyed her interviews on the Smart Bitches podcast. I'll be looking out for her next book, for sure!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3) by N.K. Jemisin (2017)

During the course of The Obelisk Gate, we learn that nobody in Essun's time knows that the Earth used to have a moon. Alabaster implores her to learn how to harness the power of the obelisks because the moon is in long orbit and rarely nears the Earth. But soon it will be near enough to the Earth that maybe it can be knocked back into the old trajectory. This is the crux of The Stone Sky - Essun needs to try to achieve this feat, which hopefully will end the Seasons once and for all.

But she is where we left her at the end of the last book: traveling from the destroyed community inside the geode to another place where they all hope to live. Unfortunately, they're going in the opposite direction of where Essun's daughter Nassun last was - not that it matters, because Nassun is traveling too. She is also learning to harness the power of the obelisks, but for a very different purpose. Also in this final volume, we get a really great back story - that of Hoa, the stone eater, back when he was....well, not a stone eater. This story reveals what caused the moon to be knocked out of its orbit in the first place.

There is so much great stuff in this book! I had been dying for the back story, and of course was anticipating the moment Essun would attempt to get the moon back to its rightful place. It was so tense though, since Nassun's plans were pretty opposed to Essun's and only one of them could be successful. Also, Essun was slowly turning to stone as Alabaster did in the last book, which is a side effect of harnessing the obelisks in this way. So she had to be very careful using her powers because each time she did, another part of her would turn to stone. She had to really pace herself here.

The relationships between characters in this series are complicated, and watching how they develop was one of my favorite aspects of the story. In a Season, many things are suspended and times are desperate, which means you really, really want your community as a whole to survive because your own life depends on it. Those who are commless don't last long. Survival is the most important thing, but it's a given that not everyone is going to survive. This necessarily affects interpersonal relationships and means that leaders often have to make very tough decisions for the good of their community. Essun was in rough shape while she was traveling, but knew she wasn't going to get much of a break. She also had a lot of tension with Ykka, the leader of the community Essun inadvertently helped to destroy. I also really loved the relationship between Essun and the stone eater Hoa. And of course, Essun and Nassun were headed for the same place at the end and they didn't really have an awesome mother-daughter relationship in the best of times. So, there was a lot going on here!

I may have mentioned this before, but this is the first time in a very, very long time that I have read a series start to finish, one right after the other. Surprisingly, I didn't feel like I needed a break at all (even though the story was so bleak!) and I didn't get tired of it or wish it would hurry up and be over. Generally I'm pretty impatient and always thinking about the next thing, but I was so invested in what was going on that I wasn't at all in a hurry to leave it. In fact, I'd love another visit to this place - after the things happened at the end of this book I really want to know what everything was like for everyone going forward.

N.K. Jemisin has a book of short stories coming out later this month called How Long 'til Black Future Month, which is one of the best titles I've heard in a while. Of course I'm already on hold for it, but I was very excited to learn yesterday that one of the stories takes place in the world of the Broken Earth series, so I will get to revisit it after all!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2) by N.K. Jemisin (2016)

Since this is the second book in a series, there need to be spoilers for the first book, The Fifth Season.

For one thing, Damaya and Syenite are names that Essun used during different periods in her life, so the three stories are really all one story. I didn't talk much about the plot of that book, but it begins with a huge rift in the Earth that is bringing on a Fifth Season. At the very end, Essun is reunited with Alabaster, who is slowly turning to stone, and he asks her if she's able to call the obelisks to herself yet, and if she's ever heard of a moon. The Obelisk Gate picks up during this same conversation, and Alabaster explains that she needs to find out if she can control the obelisks, and it's very important and related to the moon.

The book moves back and forth between Essun's story and that of her 8-year-old daughter Nassun, who disappeared along with her father at the beginning of The Fifth Season. Nassun has pretty powerful powers of her own and her relationship with her father is strained at best. He's taking her to a place he's heard of where they may be able to "cure" her, but that's not what this place turns out to be all about. Nassun meets her mother's old Guardian, Schaffa, though she does not know that he knew her mother. Schaffa has changed since those days and he and Nassun work together to train her and she continues to discover new ways her powers work.

There were some very cool things in this story, such as a whole community that lives inside a geode. I kind of hope this is made into a movie someday so I can see it because it sounds spectacular. Plus everything involving the obelisks was kind of cool, though I admit I'm still a little unsure about the role they play - we see ways in which they are used, but I'm wondering how they will relate to the larger picture. I also liked everything about the stone eaters - I have a hard time not picturing them like the weeping angels from Doctor Who, but I find them so delightfully creepy.

In a way, I think this books suffers a little from being the second book in that I didn't feel like the plot was furthered as much as I would like, but there was a lot going on and many new elements introduced, so I ended up liking it as much as the first. Last weekend I decided to grab The Stone Sky from the library when I went into work on Monday, but I ended up being out sick and someone else got our copy before I returned. I requested a copy from another library and was afraid I wouldn't get it before this long weekend. But I got it just in time, which is great because I need to start on it immediately! I'm really, really looking forward to seeing where this story goes in the final book!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Kiss Quotient

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018), narrated by Carly Robins

Stella Lang is an econometrician, developing algorithms to predict customer purchases, and makes a ton of money doing it. She works seven days a week because she has no social life. Her parents want her to settle down and get married and have some kids, but she doesn't even like kissing. She has Asperger's and many parts of dating are distasteful to her, and her past experiences have been terrible. She decides she needs help from a professional, and hires escort Michael Phan.

Michael works as a tailor in his family business so he can be near his mother who has cancer. He dreams of being a fashion designer, but first he needs to get out from the debt he's accrued because of his mother's illness. So he started escorting to make extra money to put towards these expenses.

Predictably, Stella and Michael develop a relationship that goes beyond one of escort and client. But of course neither wants to admit that they've developed real feelings for the other, and they both have secrets they're keeping from the other. Michael doesn't usually see a client more than once, to guard against the possibility of an attachment, but Stella manages to talk him into having a fake relationship with her so she can practice that. While they both start having feelings, neither thinks the other will reciprocate. Michael sees Stella as socio-economically far above him, and Stella thinks Michael is so attractive and sexy he could have any woman he wants, so why would he want someone so awkward?

So, there's a trope in romance that I hate, when the heroine dislikes or is uninterested in sex until she meets the hero and his magical penis and she's suddenly having multiple orgasms. It's not because she has gained experience or worked through her issues or learned more about her own body, it's tied explicitly to the guy who, quite frankly, isn't doing anything super special. It irks me to no end. In this case, I know the reason things went so well with Michael is because he's so patient with her sensory issues. He doesn't know for quite a while that she's on the spectrum, but he's just a considerate lover. It's his job, after all. It makes sense in the context. It still annoyed me.

Otherwise, I found this story delightful. I especially like Michael's Vietnamese family and how they embraced Stella even though she committed a major faux pas the first time she ate with them. (They were microwaving food in plastic containers and she refused to eat it and said they shouldn't either because it's poison.) They saw past her inadequate social skills and got to know her as a person, and when they realized that having so many people in the house and the tv on and someone playing the piano was sensory overload, they toned things down a bit.

I found Stella's quirks pretty charming. She owned the exact number of outfits she needed to get through the week and they were all variations on the same thing, she owned only one kind of underwear, she had an unwavering bedtime routine, and was just super practical about everything. She was practical and logical and I am a big fan of those things. I also loved Michael - he was so thoughtful and kind and would do anything in the world for his mother. He and Stella were both interesting people and I really enjoyed getting to know them and was rooting for their relationship to work (and yes, of course I knew it would work out in the end!)

I listened to the audio version and it's exactly what I needed as a counterpoint to The Fifth Season, which was excellent, but so dark. The narrator had a bright, upbeat tone that was perfect for the book. I should also mention that the author is on the autism spectrum herself, which I wondered about as I was reading. There were a couple of moments where I wondered if things were realistic, but I'm guessing they were. I know authors usually do research but when it comes down to how the characters actually think and the things going on inside their heads, I believe it more if I know the author has a shared experience with that character.

The Kiss Quotient has been getting a lot of buzz, and I can see why. If you like cute, quirky contemporary romances, give it a try!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin (2015)

As far as I can tell, this book takes place in our world but far, far in the future. There is one big land mass called the Stillness, ironically, because it is unstable, shifting and moving and filled with geological cataclysms. Every now and then one is catastrophic enough to cause a Fifth Season, during which the sun will be blocked out for months or years, and civilization dies leaving only enough people to begin again when the Season is over. The people live in a constant state of disaster preparedness.

There are people in this world called orogenes or, disparagingly, roggas. They can sense and control movement within the earth, stopping or causing earthquakes, and moving the earth's plates. There are three stories about orogenes in this book. One is about Essun, a woman who's toddler son has just been murdered by her husband. One is about Damaya, whose parents have just reported her and she is removed by a Guardian who watch over people like her, keeping her under control while teaching her how to effectively use her powers. The third story is about Syenite, paired with a man named Alabaster to hopefully breed and create another person with the same powers. Although orogenes are powerful, that power can be controlled by Guardians and orogenes are basically treated as slaves.

It took me quite a while to get into this book. I was initially rather disoriented and confused, but also intrigued. The world-building was pretty amazing even if I didn't quite understand it. After finishing I went back and read the prologue again and it made much more sense this time - I sort of wish I had done so earlier in the book. There are still things I'm a little unclear about, like the role of the obelisks that hover in the air, but I expect some of this will become more clear in the next book, The Obelisk Gate.

It's very dark, and an unpleasant world to be in, but nonetheless compelling. Getting to know the characters and their motivations is a big part of what I like about this book, particularly since they're all in such desperate situations. It's also kind of a tough book to say much about without spoiling it.

I'm very grateful to a coworker who told me I should be sure to have the second book on hand because I would want it when it finished. Initially I wasn't sure I'd move on to the second book, or maybe not right away (this is an unpleasant world and I thought I might want to read something light and funny between books) but I'm glad I heeded my coworker's advice. I went home on Friday with close to 100 pages left, thinking I might finish it over the weekend and instead finished that evening.

I've already moved on to The Obelisk Gate and should have a post about that one before too long!

This was on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and is probably the final one that I'll read. The remaining title is NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, but my interest has waned in favor of some of his other work. But since I read both of my alternate titles, I can consider the challenge completed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October Wrap-Up and Plans for November



I've been having a thematically fall month: baking, reading horror novels, waking up in the dead of night by a spider crawling across my face...I wish that last one was a joke. It's not.

Reading


I've finished eight books if you count the two I finished at the very beginning of the month, Catherine the Great and The Arrangement. After I finished those, I really wanted to read some horror because it's October and that feels like I thing I should do. I went with Slade House by David Mitchell, which was already on my To Read list, and was excellent. So creepy! Then I impulsively grabbed The Girl With All the Gifts which has been on my radar for a while, though I didn't realize it was going to be about zombies. Still, it was pretty good.

Shoutout to the new novel by John Green's brother Hank which I enjoyed a lot. I also finished the Wayfarers trilogy finally. I wanted to finish that before starting on the Broken Earth series, and I needed to do that soon since The Fifth Season is on my TBR Pile Challenge for this year. The Fifth Season has taken me a bit to get into - it was hard to even orient myself - but the world-building is pretty stellar and I'm really liking it now. I grabbed the second one from the library because I was warned that I'll want to have it on hand when I finish the first.

Listening


I only listened to one audiobook this month, Can't Nothing Bring Me Down, though I did just start The Kiss Quotient at the very end of the month and like it so far.

I'm still chugging along with all of my usual podcasts, which is partly why I didn't listen to many audiobooks. I was sad to hear that Panoply is no longer producing podcasts which means that By the Book is looking for a new home. I'm confident they'll find it though because they've gotten a lot of attention and seem pretty popular.

Watching


Pretty sky over my neighborhood.
I watched Pride and Prejudice when I was home for Columbus Day (which is actually called Indigenous Peoples' Day in my city and I'm a fan of the change, but old habits die hard.)

One Saturday I was sick and watched To All the Boys I've Loved Before on Netflix, which was good but I don't love it as much as many people apparently do. Honestly, I couldn't get over the wealth of everyone in the movie. The lacrosse, the ski trips, the gigantic house the main family lives in. That same day I also began the newest season of Call the Midwife.

I think I've mentioned listening to the Slow Russian podcast, but this month I started watching some of their YouTube videos, which I like a lot, especially since they're very short. It's fun to actually see things in Russia, like a typical apartment and also the host Daria's grandmother's dacha (country house.)

Cooking



I can't believe how much I baked this month. I made two more bundt cakes: the lemon version of the America's Test Kitchen Classic Bundt Cake (I made the regular version last month) for a work party, and the Marble Bundt Cake from Smitten Kitchen Every Day for Cookbook Club at work. I divided the batter SO unevenly on the marble cake that it was mostly chocolate, but you know, not one person who ate it complained about that. Also, it came out of the pan beautifully, as you can see, but then you melt chocolate and creme and pour it over the top and it looks rather messy (yet delicious.) But I think it would also be delicious without the extra chocolate.

I also made the Moosewood Fudge Brownies from Moosewood Cooks at Home (twice, I think), Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Brownies from a recipe on the package of baking chocolate, and Blondies from Smitten Kitchen. I used only chocolate chips as add-ins in the blondies and I swear there were more chips than batter. They came out very well, I think - gooey and butterscotchy and I may have to make them again sometime soon. In less sweet baking, I made the Whole Wheat Quinoa Bread from America's Test Kitchen Bread Illustrated. I love this bread, though it's kind of a pain to make since you have to cook the quinoa first.

Smitten Kitchen Blondies
I cooked some actual food too! After the Beef Stroganoff Disaster of last March I wanted to try this dish again. The recipe has you add sour cream to a hot bubbling pot and didn't mention tempering it first so it didn't separate, so it ended up looking rather ugly (though it tasted fine.) This time I was more careful but, alas, the results were similar. This led to an obsessive search for different Beef Stroganoff recipes and I'm very surprised to see how wildly they differ. It was overwhelming. I may just let it go for now.

Years ago when I had a book group that met for brunch, I often made Strata from a recipe I found online somewhere. I think I got tired of it, but recently decided to try it again one weekend when I had a lot going on. It was delicious! I need to get that back in my meal rotation. (But not too often or I'll get tired of it again.)

Doing


I don't think I had many social plans this month. The aforementioned Beef Stroganoff was a dinner I cooked with a friend at my house. I also went to another friend's house to watch a Red Sox game and have drinks and snacks. It was that game that lasted about 17 hours, but I had left by 10 anyhow since I had to work the next morning.

I think all I've been doing at work is training new people, and at home the dog has been misbehaving a lot, which I think is due to the sudden drop in temperature. Plus I was sick one weekend, which is always a bummer (why can't it be a work day?) So it's been rather a mixed bag, I guess.

Oh! My sweater - the one I began knitting back when Obama was president? I finished it. I finished it! I just need to wash and block it and get some good photos. I'll share more soon but here's a little preview on the right, taken right after I sewed in the first sleeve.

Plans for November


My plans primarily involve drinking tea and reading books while snuggled up under an afghan and I hope to continue this until approximately April. And the mid-term elections are something to look forward to, at least I certainly hope they go the way I want them to. I'm getting together with friends and it will hopefully be more fun than the last time we got together on an election night, which actually was fun until the results started coming in. Also Thanksgiving, I guess. I'm heading to Maine for what I call Fake Thanksgiving since we often do it on a different weekend, like this year, depending on when everyone has to work.

How was your October?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3) by Becky Chambers (2018)

This third and final book from the Wayfarers series is set among the Exodus Fleet: the last humans on a dying Earth who left to seek a better life elsewhere in the universe. It's hundreds of years later, they've made contact with other planets, and many Exodans have left the Fleet to make lives for themselves on planets, as planned. But many remain aboard the huge self-sustaining ships, continuing the only way of life they've ever known.

We meet the Fleet's Archivist, Isabel, who is happy aboard the fleet with her wife Tamsin, both of whom are getting older now. Eyas is a Caretaker, the Exodan equivalent of a funeral director, devoted to her work but also thinking about what more she wants from her life. Kip is still a teenager and longs to leave the Fleet. Sawyer, on the other hand, grew up on the planet of Mushtello but comes to the Fleet seeking a change. Tessa has two young kids, and the novel opens with a prologue, set five years earlier, when her youngest is witness to the largest tragedy ever to befall the Fleet. One of the ships has an accident resulting in its destruction and, along with it, the death of more than 43,000 people.

I was about halfway into this book and really struck by the lack of plot. It was more slice-of-life than anything, and it took me a while to get to know the characters since it moved back and forth between them. When all was said and done, some things did happen and lives were changed and huge decisions made, but it was definitely not an action-packed story. This may be why I didn't love it as much as the other books in the trilogy. Don't get me wrong, it was still 4 stars on Goodreads, just not 5.

Becky Chambers really has a knack for building worlds and characters, and it's pleasurable just getting to know them. The Exodans are in such an interesting position: they no longer have a home planet, as we are currently many generations beyond those who first boarded the Fleet, yet the Fleet wasn't planned to be a permanent home for humans. There is so much hesitation and disquiet among the Exodans because of the tension surrounding those who have left the Fleet and want to leave and those who want to stay. For instance, Tessa has had no plans to leave, but her daughter Aya really wants to go to a planet. And then there are those like Sawyer who grew up human on a non-human planet and then move to the Fleet but don't know how to fit in. The Fleet is dwindling in numbers and they need to plan for their future. They've also depended a lot on technology from other species, and they are well aware of ways they've benefitted from the Galactic Commons and the fact that they haven't given back. It's still a pretty insular community too - Tessa has an alien visitor come stay with her to observe how their community works, and it's very novel for a non-human to be aboard. It's all really very interesting to think about.

If you haven't read any Becky Chambers yet, I highly suggest giving this series a try! I'm very much looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mercies in Disguise

Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them by Gina Kolata (2017)

Well, I was not expecting this book to be such a page-turner. I heard about it pretty recently - I don't remember where, but the premise sounded interesting. It's about a family with a genetic disease and a young woman in the family who decides to get a test to learn what her fate will be. It's also about the research behind this whole group of diseases of a previously-undiscovered type, known as prion diseases. I thought it would be interesting, but I was surprised to find that I couldn't put it down.

It wasn't very long, and the story moved between the scientists trying to understand what caused a condition called kuru that affected a particular village in New Guinea, and the Baxley family who was dealing with another disease on a very personal level. It turns out that kuru is a prion disease, as is Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), as is Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker disease (GSS), which is what the Baxley family suffered from. It was a whole new type of disease caused by misfolded proteins (I think?) and this was a pretty major scientific discovery.

For the Baxley family, it was a very scary family inheritance. Tim Baxley's father Bill developed a degenerative condition that was never adequately diagnosed and which killed him within several years of first showing symptoms. At the funeral a woman off-handedly remarked to Tim that she remembered his grandfather stumbling through the factory where he worked. It was only then that Tim realized the disease might be hereditary and this began the family's earnest search for answers. Then it began to affect Tim's generation of the family. Amanda is of the next generation and she is the one who decides to get genetic testing.

Many members of the Baxley family are pretty religious and there are some interesting discussions where their faith intersects with science. This especially comes to the fore when two sisters feel the opposite about being genetically tested to find out if they'd pass it on to their kids. Amanda is determined not to pass such a horrible disease on to her future kids, but her sister Holly decides to let nature take it's course (or God, I guess. She is probably the most devout person in the family.) After reading about both of these sisters, decisions to get tested or not, and how those decisions affect their lives, it's honestly hard to fault either of them for their approach. The fact is, there are many things that can kill us (or our kids) and at some point you have to just enjoy your life and do the best you can without feeling a pressure to make the right decisions all the time. Sometimes it's not a matter of right or wrong.

I was just so absorbed by this story. Reading about all the different members of this family and the different ways in which they dealt with this disease and their fear of getting it offered fascinating insights into human nature. This is not a case where testing positive for a gene means you have a chance of getting a disease - it means you will get it. Being tested for GSS means knowing your future, knowing that you will die a slow, painful death when you are likely only in your forties. How do you decide whether to find out? It's heartbreaking.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don't recall where I heard about this. But the topic really caught my eye, as did the author. She wrote a book called Flu which is all about the 1918 flu epidemic which I read many years ago. I don't remember anything about it, but I do remember liking it a lot. This was exactly the kind of nonfiction I like - not too long, with a compelling story, and interesting people. If you like narrative nonfiction, especially about medical or scientific topics, I'd suggest trying this one.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (2018)

Late one evening, April May finds a weird art installation in the middle of New York. It looks like some sort of futuristic robot. She immediately calls her friend Andy and gets him out of bed so he can come make a video with her and the statue, which they call Carl. It goes viral. Turns out there are many Carls, in cities all over the world, and they all appeared mysteriously at the exact same time. No surveillance footage caught how they arrived - where there were cameras, they cut out for a bit. In the static, though, a song could be detected: "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen. As one mystery leads to another, April and Andy become famous for getting the scoop and are propelled to stardom.

Of course it comes with a price. April is 23 and lives with a roommate, Maya, who is also kind of her girlfriend. April is a terrible relationship partner and the distraction of fame only makes it worse. She becomes obsessed with social media and creating her brand. Soon she has an agent and an assistant, as well as the help of a scientist named Miranda who had emailed her out of the blue with some interesting insights regarding New York Carl, and now she's running around with all of these people and ignoring Maya at home.

Although April makes terrible life decisions and often doesn't treat people well, she's not a bad person. She recognizes her mistakes and owns them. There are lessons here about being addicted to fame and how that can ruin your life. But through it all, her message is for everyone to come together. That's what she thinks the Carls want. But her message isn't the only one out there. A guy named Peter Petrawicki has a very different message, and that is one of caution. He thinks April is being reckless by trying to figure out what the Carls want and giving it to them without question. His followers are known as the Defenders and they are pretty extremely opposed to April. They are extreme in general - angry, hateful, and some of them violent.

There are several compelling themes in this story. One is about fame, particularly internet fame, and how it changes you. It's also about polarization and how we let fear of the unknown divide us and pit us against each other. There's a lot to think about and it would be a great book for discussion. It's so relevant to life today.

I found this book fast-paced and conversational, and although bad things happen it all felt pretty light and fun and uplifting. Mostly. This is Hank Green's debut, and unlike his brother John Green's books, this is considered an adult book. However, the writing style and content would totally appeal to teens. I found it a breeze to get through and would totally read another book by Hank Green if he writes one.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Girl With All the Gifts

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (2014)

After reading a book about a haunted house (sort of) I moved right on to zombies. I didn't know it was zombies actually, or I probably wouldn't have picked it. But I got sucked in right away and by the time I figured out what it was about, I was too invested in these characters.

At any rate, the story begins with a girl named Melanie. She lives in a cell, and when she is taken out to go to class, it is with a gun pointed at her head while she is strapped into a wheelchair. She remains restrained while in class with other children who are also highly restrained. After class she goes back to her cell. Once a week she's fed a bowl of grubs. She doesn't seem especially upset at her circumstances, as this life is all she's known. She loves one of her teachers a lot, Miss Justineau. The only dark spots are when on occasion another child disappears and is never seen or spoken of again.

But this life is disrupted, and the story changes. I liked the beginning a lot - it reminded me of the early part of A Closed and Common Orbit. Then it became an "on the run" kind of book. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not my kind of thing. I used to watch The Walking Dead and the constant running and state of high alert just made me exhausted. So this book also made me a little exhausted. Still, I had to keep going to find out how it all ended.

I was intrigued by the author's idea of there being different kinds of zombies. Melanie is a special kind: she has the blood thirst and whatnot, but she's also smart and empathetic. She also has a great deal of strength and speed, which come in handy. She's a pretty powerful character all around.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in the story, but I will say that Melanie is on the run with several other characters that include her teacher, Miss Justineau, a research scientists, and a couple of military men. It's an interesting assortment, and one of the strengths of this novel was the way their interests all competed with one another, but that they had to work together as a team to survive.

It was only after I finished that I realized this is the first in a series. My heart sunk a little because, ugh, another series. But the ending was satisfying enough that I don't feel like I need to continue. At the same time, I'm intrigued enough about what happens next that I like knowing I can find out if I want to.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down: Chasing Myself in the Race Against Time by Ida Keeling (2018), narrated by Lisa Renee Pitts

When Ida Keeling was in her early 60s, both of her sons were murdered within a couple of years of each other. She plunged into depression. One day one of her daughters came to her and explained that she was taking Ida to run a 5k. She didn't know what else to do, but she couldn't let her mother continue to just sit at home in despair. Ida became a successful athlete and still runs today at the age of 103.

As it turns out, the book didn't actually talk a ton about the running. I expected her to really focus on that part of her life and how it helped her deal with grief, but that was really just a couple of chapters at the end. Mostly, though, it was just the story of her long and fascinating life. (Which is just as well since running is kind of boring.)

She was born in New York in 1915, and I really liked hearing about what it was like for a black woman growing up at that time. Interestingly, she had her two sons with a man she wasn't married to, which is something we seem to think was a huge scandal back then, but not the way she tells it. It turns out the reason this guy was dragging his feet on getting married is because he already was. Ouch. She talks about all the jobs she had in factories and what it was like to try and get by as a single mom. She lived through the depression, World War II, and civil rights. She went to hear black leaders like Malcolm X speak often, and was even present when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech.

Ida Keeling has lived a long time, experienced many things, and learned a lot from her experiences and observations. In many ways, she's pretty old school: she's a religious woman and thinks you should always listen to your parents, who apparently can't possibly ever be wrong. But she's far from stupid. She talks at one point about how men's heads are filled with "crap" that leads to the "good old boys" way of thinking. She also states the importance of not letting people aggravate you. She says, "Like President Barack Obama, I absolutely refuse to tolerate drama." She loves Obama.

This book isn't going to win any literary awards. Keeling is an athlete, not a writer. It wasn't terribly written, but she often used vague phrases like "or something" and "things like that" and listed the specific addresses of all the places she lived and worked. It was just a bit unpolished. Likewise, the narration wasn't of the quality that I'm used to. Again, not terrible, and none of this was enough to turn me off.

In the end, I came away with a great deal of respect for this lady who has learned and experienced a lot in her 103 years. She's smart and tough, has lived through a lot, and proves you're never too old to change your life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell (2015)

When I finished Catherine the Great, I wanted nothing more than to move on to a quick page-turning piece of fiction, and now that it's October I'm in the mood for horror.  A quick scroll through my To Read shelf on Goodreads reminded me of Slade House, which just happened to be available at the library. It was the perfect choice!

The story begins with a boy and his mum, Nathan and Rita Bishop, making their way to a party hosted by a Lady Grayer. They have a hard time finding Slade Alley, but finally they do and eventually locate a small iron door that lets them into the garden of the grand Slade House. They're greeted by Norah and her son Jonah. Nathan stays outside with Jonah, while his mother goes inside with the adults, but things in the yard start turning strange and, terrified, Jonah runs inside and as he goes upstairs he passes a series of portraits and sees that one of them is of him. In exactly the clothes he's wearing today. Things get stranger and stranger, and....well, the Bishops are never seen again. Nine years later, yet another person is lured in, and the cycle continues.

I won't say much else about the story, as that's something you should discover for yourself, except to note that there was a witness to the Bishops' disappearance which led to some speculation about what was going on there. But it takes place in the contemporary world so of course people are skeptical about anything supernatural and I kind of love that about stories like this. It makes it all the more realistic and creepy to me.

The book was so atmospheric - perfect for a gray fall day - and the characters are well developed so that you really feel for them and don't want a terrible fate to befall them. (It will though. Sorry.) This is a very short book, and each chapter focuses on a different character so I was impressed at how well we got to know each of them. What they experienced was creepy and scary, and they would finally realize what was happening only when it was too late to stop it. It was just what I was looking for.

I've read only one other book by David Mitchell - Black Swan Green, which I read way back in 2007 and didn't post about here. I remember liking it a lot, but it was a very different kind of book. I'd definitely read this author again!

Do you have any good creepy fall stories to recommend?

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (2011)

When she was just 14, Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst was summoned to Russia to become the wife of the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. They were married, and Sophia converted to Russian Orthodox Church and her name was changed to Catherine. The marriage was unhappy, but Catherine took advantage of every opportunity to educate herself in hopes of someday becoming Empress.

Peter was the one destined for the throne, of course, and although he was interested in power, he wasn't a skilled leader. Obsessed with toy soldiers into adulthood, he wore a Prussian uniform as he always stayed loyal to his native country rather than to Russia. He was immature, short-sighted, and had a terrible temper. His reign was brief.

Catherine was well suited to being a ruler. Intelligent and even-tempered, she had gained admirers, slowly building support until she needed it to take the throne. She admired Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, with whom she enjoyed a long-distance friendship, and used these ideas to move Russia towards a more European model that embraced the arts and culture. She cultivated relationships in a way her hot-headed husband never would have been able to.

She had many lovers over the years, who helped her produce the heirs she needed. Her marriage to Peter remained unconsummated for nine years, though the book honestly doesn't make it clear if and when it was ever consummated. Whether or not her son Paul was Peter's son has not been determined, but Massie posits that she took her first lover in order to produce a needed heir and that Paul was a result of this liaison.

I found so much to admire in this woman, and was foremost struck by how readily she was accepted as a ruler in the 18th century. Obviously there have been female rulers going far back in history, but I've always gotten the impression they were anomalies. Catherine directly followed Elizabeth, who came not long after Anne, and there was no mention of anyone taking exception to women ruling Russia (though late in the book I learned that after her reign, the rules of succession were changed and the Emperor or Empress could no longer name their own successor; the throne was automatically passed to a male heir.) It just made me think a lot about the way we view female leadership as something new and untried.

Some of Catherine's views would be unpopular today, such as her firm belief in the autocracy and hesitation in abolishing serfdom. As much as she admired certain progressive reforms in Europe, she remained fully committed to a benevolent autocracy. And while she tried some reforms to ameliorate conditions of the many serfs in Russia, she balked at the idea of doing away with the whole system. To some extent she knew what would and would not be possible in the the political climate of the day, but she also remained steadfast in some of her beliefs. She did at one point bring together a large body of representatives from all classes in all parts of Russia in an ambitious attempt to rewrite the entire code of laws, but with limited success. From this experience she learned how much more efficient decision-making is when there's just one person doing it.

During her reign she faced and overcame some major challenges. In one instance, that became known as Pugachev's Rebellion, a man claimed to be Catherine's deceased husband, rightful heir to the throne, and despite the fact that he was obviously not Peter, gained enough support that Catherine had to devote energy and resources to quashing the movement. She also had to contend with a deadly outbreak of smallpox, which she faced with the then-bold solution of vaccinations. And of course there were the various wars she had to oversee and contend with, and these were the parts I most struggled with. I always have a tough time reading about political situations, because it's all names and dates and abstract concepts that are difficult to picture. Luckily most of the descriptions were detailed enough that I could grasp what was happening.

Most of it, though, was surprisingly easy to read and understand. This is a dense book - almost 600 pages of rather small print that took me close to a month to read - but it never felt like a chore. Massie brought Catherine and her contemporaries to life in his prose, and provided enough context to really understand why everyone believed and acted as they did. It's a compelling story, written in a beautiful and engaging style. I honestly can't believe it hasn't been made into a mini-series. I only touched on the story here, but it's chock full of drama and twists and the setting alone would really lend itself to television. I will absolutely check out more of Massie's writing, probably starting with Nicholas and Alexandra, when I'm ready to take on another huge book.

I read this for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, bringing my total to twelve completed. This includes my two alternates, but I still have two unread on my main list. Will I finish them in the last three months of the year? We'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Arrangement

The Arrangement (The Survivor's Club #2) by Mary Balogh (2013)

Sophia Fry is a young woman who lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin and is mostly ignored by them. She thinks of herself as the Mouse, and draws herself that way, in a corner just observing what goes on around her. But one day she takes it upon herself to dress up and go to a ball. Everyone in town is attending but her family doesn't invite her and are surprised when they see her there. Her cousin Henrietta is trying to throw herself in the path of Viscount Darleigh a wealthy man she wants to marry, despite the fact that he is blind. But Sophia sees what is going on and rescues the Viscount, consequently getting thrown out of her house. The Viscount, Vincent, is incredibly grateful and proposes a marriage of convenience: his family will stop harassing him to get married, she won't be living on the streets, and after producing an heir they can live independently, which is what they both want.

Predictably, they fall for each other. Less predictably....there's not much else to it, really. I expected some sort of conflict, but there isn't really one. Technically, the thing getting in their way is their arrangement because they've agreed to part ways and then both realize they don't actually want to. Well, just go ahead and say so.

Don't get me wrong - it's a pleasant enough story and I liked both of the characters. I liked reading about Sophia and the reasons why she has been more of an observer than a participator, and I liked reading about Vincent and how he was blinded in the war and the horrible time he had getting used to it afterward. Together, they work to make the grounds of his estate more conducive to his independence so he doesn't always have to rely on another person helping him around.

The only thing I actually didn't like was near the end when Vincent confronts a guy who damaged Sophie's self-esteem when she was very young. Vincent takes it upon himself to beat the guy up, which is a stupid display of manliness that doesn't to anything to remedy the situation (the damage was done long ago.) But he does this without Sophie's permission, which I think is shitty. Especially since during the confrontation he tells the guy how much his words and actions had hurt Sophie. So, okay, you're revealing her innermost hurt to someone she dislikes and mistrusts in order to justify beating him up so you'll feel better. Got it. I really, really can't stand when men feel a need to defend women as though we are weak and need defending, and without being asked, or even consulting us. However, Sophie wasn't terribly upset and in fact I think she was touched that Vincent cared enough about her to face this guy. So I guess I'm okay with it on her behalf even though I personally find it icky.

I liked the first book in this series much better, though the writing and characters were just as compelling. It was just the plot (and that one annoying bit that got my feminist hackles up) that I wasn't terribly impressed by. And I do really like the whole conception of this series - a group of close-knit friends who all survived a war but with disabilities - so I may revisit it someday and try out the next book.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

September Wrap-Up and Plans for October



I'm glad it's the end of the month and time for my Monthly Wrap-Up because I've had nothing to post for two weeks. Read on to find out why...

Reading


Obligatory dog pic
I'm still reading Catherine the Great, and Mary Balogh's The Arrangement on the side. This is why I've had nothing to post! I haven't even started an audiobook since I finished One of Us Is Lying because I've been catching up on podcasts. Though I did just take advantage of an Audible sale and now I have 3 new audio memoirs on deck.

I only completed 4 books total in September because of my devotion to Catherine the Great. No regrets though! It's been great to really sink my teeth into such a huge, rich tome. I'm looking forward to posting about it in....oh, about a hundred pages from now.

Listening


I've started a new podcast! It's called Last Seen and it's all about the Gardner Heist. If you're not up on the world of art theft and/or don't live in the Boston area you may not be familiar with this case. The largest art theft in history occurred in the 1990s at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when two men dressed as cops entered the museum in the dead of night under a false pretense, tied up the two guards, and made off with priceless art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others. It has never been recovered and the culprits still haven't been caught. It's a fascinating case.

Watching


I've slowed down a bit on Jane the Virgin as I'm not a huge fan of long-term love triangles, but I'm sure I'll continue to watch at some point. I'm very excited that The Good Place has returned because I really need this humor right now.

My library has just subscribed to the streaming service Kanopy, which has a lot of the Great Courses, so I've started watching The Big History of Civilizations. My knowledge of history is very spotty, and I think this big overview might help me a lot. So far it's very interesting! (Like, did you know that the Paleolithic era constitutes 96% of the time there have been humans on the earth and it ended more than 11,000 years ago? It's crazy to think about how insignificantly short modern history has been in the grand scheme of things.)

Cooking


I tried a couple of new recipes from Dinner by Melissa Clark. One was Garlic-Chile Chicken Breasts, which was extremely spicy but probably would have been good had I not overcooked the chicken. The other was the very simple Sardine Crostini, which was pretty delicious if you like sardines. And I made the Spicy Pork and Black Bean Chili again, but with ground beef and kidney beans, and I left out the sage, so it was more like traditional chili. I made some accompanying gluten-free corn bread from this recipe I found online.

For years, Moosewood Cooks at Home has been a go-to cookbook for me, but I hadn't ever made the Asian version of Fish in a Packet until this month. I'll definitely make it again! It was quite simple, tasty, and healthy.

I'm ending the month with a new favorite, Chicken Marsala Meatballs with Egg Noodles from Smitten Kitchen Every Day. Except my store didn't have ground chicken so they were made with ground turkey. It's still bird!

Also, I have finally bought a bundt pan! Today I made the Classic Yellow Bundt Cake from the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook. It wasn't difficult and came out pretty well. Part of the reason I don't make cakes is because there are only two humans in my household and we shouldn't eat an entire cake. So Eric is taking a lot of it to work.

Doing


Saw this beauty in my aunt's yard!
I mentioned at the end of last month that I was having a get-together to discuss On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder as part of an off-and-on political discussion group that I started. We met, went through the book and discussed it chapter by chapter, and ate and drank and socialized. It was fun and we had a great discussion!

I saw a show called The Black Clown, which was based on this poem of the same name by Langston Hughes. It was an emotional and powerful show, filled with excellent music. I also went to the Museum of Fine Arts earlier this month to attend a knitting get-together with a friend, but then we checked out an exhibit on Casanova's Europe and then had brunch in the museum restaurant.

We finally got our back yard fenced in so the dog can run around off leash. She was extremely excited to chase after balls for a while, but now she is just obsessed with the tennis balls in an unhealthy way. I take her to the yard, she picks one up in her mouth and won't let it go for anything. And now once she does this, she won't let me come near her so I've become hesitant to even let her off the leash. Why you gotta ruin everything, Petri?

Unusual flower at Old Mystic Seaport
This month was also my annual family trip to CT. Every year my sisters and my niece drive down from Maine, pick me up, and we continue on to my aunt's house for the weekend. This year while we were there we visited Old Mystic Seaport which is not at all what I thought it was. I thought it was just maybe a cute little town on the ocean? But no, it's one of those historical villages like Plimoth Plantation or Sturbridge Village. Well. Had I known I would have visited years ago! This one's a little different though because the people who work there don't dress up and pretend to be old-timey people. But they still do demonstrations, which is the important thing. Plus it's a seaport, so there are ships you can go on in addition to visiting businesses and houses.

Also this month I finished the sock I've been working on and started the second of the pair! Still no movement on the sweater, but I'm determined that October will be the month I finally wrap up that project. I also went to Zumba a couple of times and, boy, I forgot what good exercise that is. I hope I start going regularly again because it's also fun. And I attended a fun sing-along that my library hosted, and dragged our new teen librarian along with me.

Plans for October


There's a professional conference I usually attend in October, but for various reasons I've decided not to go this year. I'm looking forward to just catching up on day-to-day work stuff, doing some planning, and having whole weekends (that conference eats a Sunday.)

I don't have many plans outside of work right now. I'll be getting together with a friend to cook, and I've got Cookbook Club at the end of the month. (I'll be using my new bundt pan!) And of course I plan to finish that sweater that I started two years ago now.

How was your September?