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Friday, May 18, 2018

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

The Hogarth Shakespeare project consists of modern retellings of the plays; Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler's riff on The Taming of the Shrew. Tyler's Kate -- smart, prickly, insecure, a little odd, and kind of a jerk sometimes -- is not your typical "sassy" young woman. Pyotr is a dorky, equally odd Russian scientist working with Kate's father, in need of a wife right away because his visa is about to expire. Watching the two of them slowly grow to understand each other was entertaining and touching.

The other characters are good, too; Bunny is vain and bratty, but smarter than people give her credit for. She becomes a surprising advocate for her sister, although she ultimately doesn't understand why Kate goes through with the marriage (uh, spoiler!). Their father is an extremely absentminded scientist who loves his oldest daughter but doesn't understand why she doesn't leap at the chance of fraudulent marriage to a weirdo. Amusingly, his primary motive for the marriage is selfish -- he doesn't want to lose the best assistant he's ever had, right before his big breakthrough -- and only belatedly does he realize that he will therefore lose Kate's heretofore unappreciated housekeeping services. And Pyotr's landlady, her aide, and Kate's aunt all stole the few scenes they were in.

The only misstep is the speech Kate gives towards the end, defending Pyotr in particular and men in general. Not only did I disagree with the content (yes, it's wrong and damaging that men are taught to suppress most of their emotions, but no that doesn't mean men have it tougher than women), it seemed out of character for someone who otherwise tends to keep her own counsel.

My advice? Skip the speech and enjoy the rest of this delightful book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Bureau of Peculiar Crimes

Christopher Fowler's mystery series centers around London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, a department of oddballs who investigate odd crimes. They are led by the septuagenarian detectives Arthur Bryant and John May.  I read the first three novels: Full Dark House, The Water Room, and Seventy-seven Clocks.

There's a lot to like here -- quirky characters; abundant references to mythology, folklore, and London history; spooky crimes; and clever solutions. But for all the lighthearted elements, there is an undercurrent of darkness. Full Dark House had a terribly sad solution, and some of the deaths in Seventy-seven Clocks were quite upsetting. Fowler doesn't shy away from showing the evil in human nature.

Fowler also sets the books in different time periods; the first is set during World War II and details the Unit's first case, the second is set in early twenty-first century, and the third in the 1970s. This allows Fowler to comment on London society at different stages and to make use of different levels of crime detection technology. And yet certain commonalities become apparent. Bryant (an old-fashioned type) laments the changes happening all around him. But apparently he's been complaining for decades, which suggests the problem is his -- change is inevitable, but that doesn't necessarily mean things get worse. Reading all three together highlight that fashions may change but human nature doesn't.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Round-Up: Librarian Edition

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: Of course I was intrigued buy a book centering around a woman who works for a magical library that connects to multiple worlds. Irene, who collects books for the library, was an enjoyable heroine, and I liked the peeks into alternate Earths and alternate literatures. My only quibble is with the purpose of the library itself -- why, exactly, are the librarians collecting books, if no one but librarians are allowed in the library? Cogman all too briefly explains that the books are important for the stability of the worlds they come from, but how and why? I think this element of the world-building needs more work.

The Masked City: The sequel to the above.  I found the writing to be a little strained in its cleverness, and the politics and red tape Irene was dealing with -- her assistant has been kidnapped, and it's her fault because reasons, and if she doesn't rescue him she'll be in trouble and if she does rescue him she'll still be in trouble because more reasons -- seemed forced and unnecessary.  The actual rescue provided plenty of drama and tension, and was fun to read.

The Dewey Decimal System of Love by Josephine Carr: on a librarian kick, I decided to re-read this book I first read over a decade ago, during the height of "chick lit."  To call this an example of that genre, however, would do it a disservice; unlike the utterly conventional characters of other novels, these ones are deeply weird.  It makes for a refreshing, if odd, read.

Falling for Trouble by Sarah Title: A romance novel about a librarian and a punk rocker, but in a twist on expectations, the librarian is a man and the rocker a woman. This book was absolutely delightful, the best romance I've read in a long time. Title's writing is skillful and clever, her characters are genuinely interesting, and the love story progressed without the usual "I hate you!/I love you!" nonsense.  Apparently this is part of a series, and I will absolutely check the others out.

What the Librarian Did by Karina Bliss: The flip side to the above (or, I guess, the A-side to Title's B-side?), where the librarian is a woman and the guitarist a man.  This novel was far more conventional, even cliched, in just about every aspect, and it didn't really hold my attention; I ended up skimming it. It didn't help that I read it right after Falling for Trouble.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Who Can Save Us Now? Edited by Owen King and John McNally

Who Can Save Us Now? is a collection of short stories about superheroes, and it was about what one would expect -- satires and parodies of characters like Batman and Superman, stories that show the darker, more prosaic side of superpowers such as broken relationships and inconvenient consequences, and riffs on issues like heroism, sacrifice, and idolization.  The stories were, for the most part, enjoyable and clever, but they don't add much to the genre.

There were a few exceptions.  I preferred the stories that addressed the human impulse to make things better, and recognized the inherent dignity of the characters no matter how dorky or pathetic they were. The (adorable) standout for me was "Nate Pinckney-Alderson, Superhero" by Elizabeth Crane.  It pits a child's idealism against adult cynicism, but I was left with the distinct impression that Nate would not be outgrowing his idealism.  Owen King's "The Meerkat" was both odd and touching. Jennifer Weiner's "League of Justice (Philadelphia Division)" was probably the most conventional, and incorporated many non-superhero elements from her other fiction, but the actual plot was surprisingly compelling. And the last story, "The Lives of Ordinary Superheroes" by David Haynes, was quite moving and at times profound. These stories alone are worth the price of the collection.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Easter Eggs

I did a little pre-Easter crocheting:

I found the patterns here, here, and here, but because my wooden eggs were different sizes from the ones recommended (and my yarn was a lighter weight), I adjusted and added to the patterns quite a bit.  The one on the left is for my mom, the middle one for me, and I'm not sure what I'll do with the third.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

It's been a long time since I read a straight-up fantasy novel this good. Chakraborty's debut starts off in 18th century Cairo, where an orphaned young woman ekes out a living as a con artist and minor healer. A con goes wrong, however, exposing her to a world where djinn and ifrits are real, and where she appears to be descended from a line of powerful healers stretching back to King Solomon.

A young nobody discovering she's heir to great powers and an important legacy is practically a required element in the genre, but there's a lot that makes The City of Brass stand out. For one thing, most traditional fantasy novels take place in a quasi-European milieu, so a story set in a completely different culture is a refreshing change of pace.  And fascinating -- Chakraborty clearly did her research, and her world feels vibrant and real.

Moreover, Nahri doesn't feel like a Mary Sue because she is a complex character with genuine flaws. Chakraborty is not afraid to show a heroine who is amoral and self-centered, someone who, upon learning of her legacy, thinks not "I'm unworthy" or "how can I save the world?" but "how can I use this to my advantage?"  Which isn't to say there is no character growth; Nahri does gradually begin to care about others as she is exposed to the history and politics of the djinn populations and learns the consequences of her power.

Chakraborty has said that she wanted to use the novel to explore themes such as colonization and culture clash, apparent in the political unrest plaguing the titular city, Daevabad. What's remarkable is that despite the deep-seated prejudices and terrible events on display, there are no true bad guys. Every character is trying to right a wrong or bring peace (at any cost) to the city, and while the methods may be evil, the motivations are understandable. It's not the usual good v. evil tale, but neither is it a proponent of moral relativism.

The novel is not perfect; for one thing, it's the first volume of a trilogy, so there is a lot of world-building and exposition, and what appears to be the true plot doesn't start to take shape until the latter third of the book.  I also found it hard to keep track of all the factions, tribes, characters, and new-to-me concepts, although there is a helpful glossary at the back of the book. But I thoroughly enjoyed The City of Brass, and I can't wait until the sequel comes out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Ok, so I'm a little late with February's entry in the Inspired by Reading group (maybe because I only remembered to start reading the last week).

Watchmaker is Pulley's debut novel, and an unusual novel it is.  Set mostly in London, 1883-1884 (with a few flashbacks to Japan), it details the odd relationships that develop between Thaniel, a telegraph clerk for the government, Mori, the mysterious titular watchmaker, and Grace, a physicist at Oxford. Despite the setting and clockwork inventions, and even the touch of magic, "steampunk" doesn't really apply as the story is far more concerned with the philosophical concepts of fate and free will.  The novel is deeper and darker than its synopsis would suggest.

Fittingly, with the exception of Thaniel (a genuinely good man) the characters are difficult, flawed people who don't neatly fit into storytelling tropes like The Ally, the Wise Man, or The Antagonist. Grace in particular is fascinating, exasperating, egotistical, and sometimes just plain terrible. This gives the novel a depth that keeps it from becoming too twee and whimsical. By the story's end, there is a lingering disquiet because we don't know who is ultimately right about Mori, Thaniel or Grace. 

On to the jewelry! Incorporating watch parts was a no-brainer, but I wanted a fairly simple necklace:
I added a typewriter key because of Thaniel. Yeah, telegraph keys are unadorned because there's only the one per machine, but I like the way it looks.

I really enjoyed the thoughful Watchmaker, and I look forward to the coming sequel.