Sep 21 2016

Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

The premise of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels is simple: Patrick O’Brian with dragons instead of ships. What’s not to like? The first three or four books are pretty much a lark. The history is alternate – dragons! – but not too alternate, because otherwise there wouldn’t be any Royal Aerial Corps, nor any wicked Napoleon to fight. It doesn’t pay to think about the premise too hard. The notion that the presence of dragons in human history would lead to precisely the same configuration of events that allowed a young Corsican to be Emperor of France and would-be conqueror of Europe collapses as soon as it is plainly stated, so I will take it for granted and run with it. Which is precisely what Novik does, with panache.


The dragons in Novik’s world are sentient, and some are large enough to carry a crew of dozens of humans into aerial combat. The British, from whose point of view she tells the first few novels, regard dragons as beasts whose abilities to fight and talk make them useful but also dangerous. They are treated poorly, kept away from most human settlements, and strictly regimented by the Aerial Corps. The Corps itself is the most disreputable of Britain’s armed forces, the more so because dragons sometimes bond with women, accepting no one else as their captain.

In the first book, circumstances align to forge an unbreakable bond between a hatchling, soon to name himself Temeraire, and Capt. William Laurence, a Royal Navy officer of noble birth and high social standing. That volume, and the ones that follow mix exploration — Laurence is learning the strange customs of the aviators at the same time the readers are — and adventure. Part of the fun is watching how Novik arranges events so that dragons’ involvement in major battles of the Napoleonic wars changes the main line of history not a whit, something of an anti-butterfly effect. It’s a neat trick, when deftly done, and Novik is reasonably deft. Temeraire and Laurence are also a fun pair to spend time with; they’re not quite Aubrey and Maturin, but that is an awfully high bar to clear. It’s also fun to see their stock in the service rise, as Laurence becomes less of a stiff-upper-lip Navy man and more of a freethinking aviator, while Temeraire’s abilities grow far past expectations.

Precisely those developments, however, lead the series into more treacherous waters. Temeraire is too powerful for the balance of forces in Europe to stay the same, even after a similarly powerful dragon turns up as an ally of Napoleon. It’s as if Patrick O’Brian’s hero had discovered he was captain of a dreadnought in the middle of the age of sail. The stories are no longer yarns of adventure, but Novik is not yet ready to change European history. Her solution is to send her protagonists around the world (the Napoleonic wars had a global scope), but that brings in another difficulty: history outside of Europe is much more alternate. Africa, for instance, has a very different political setup than was known in our timeline. In South America, the Spanish never conquered the Inca, and a possible alliance between Napoleon and the Inca Empress drives the plot of one of the later books. These differences prompt more thinking about the premise of the series, which can’t really stand up to the scrutiny.

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Sep 20 2016

When All the World Was Young by Ferrol Sams

When All the World Was Young wraps up Ferrol Sams’ semi-autobiographical bildungsroman trilogy that began in Run With the Horsemen and continued in The Whisper of the River. It follows Porter Osborne, Jr., from his entrance into the medical school at Emory University six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor through his service in the US Army until he heads home in early 1945.

The first book told of a childhood both privileged and circumscribed, with Porter growing up as the son of a cotton planter in rural, early 20th century Georgia. It was a world still close to the soil, ruled by the rhythms of the seasons and by the near-feudal social relations of the Jim Crow South. Porter’s name was seldom used; within the closed cosmos of the county, everyone knew who he was. The second book carried him through his college years, a time of learning and exploring, marked by professors, girls, and pranks. Names play a role there, too, as he learns to juggle the identities marked by his full name, his childhood moniker (Sambo), and nicknames bestowed on him by friends. His world is bigger, but still protected by his social standing and his status as a college student.

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Sep 18 2016

The Return Of Sir Percival: Guinevere’s Prayer by S. Alexander O’Keefe

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. On the one hand, it’s an entertaining tale of Dark Ages Britain, with some really cool Roman/Byzantine/Middle Eastern history and politics thrown in. On the other, it’s a re-imagining of Arthurian lore which plays super fast and loose with established canon, and while it’s good reading, I spent way too much time being irritated that S Alexander O’Keefe conveniently ignored whatever didn’t fit in with the story he wanted to tell. While that’s his prerogative as an author, it also feels lazy as hell: at that rate, why not just build your own mythos instead of piggybacking off this one? Which is also one of my problems with the genre of historical fantasy, as those of you who’ve read my extended rants against some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels will remember enduring.

Anyway, if you want an entertaining tale of knights and queens a la Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (and I choose that comparison for quite definite, not unflattering reasons,) then this is the book for you. But if you’re anything of an Arthurian purist, you might find this book less fun than annoying.

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Sep 16 2016

Die Räuber by Friedrich Schiller

This spring I went to Weimar. It’s a good weekend outing from Berlin, about three hours by train, and it’s lovely in May. The park on the Ilm, in particular, is splendid, with views and points of interest coming in and out of sight just as Goethe had intended. His country house, where he lived during his early years in Weimar and where he still retreated from official business during his later years, is on the opposite side of the park from the city (and the ducal court, in his day). It’s a modest affair, quite in contrast to his town house, which features a courtyard that carriages could drive in and out of, and an entrance stairway designed to impress visitors to the statesman, scientist, and writer. Schiller’s house was on the edge of town when he lived there, but is on the main pedestrian street now. It has been handsomely preserved and gave me a sense of both his family life and how he wrote.

Although I have a degree in German literature, I never took a class that focused on Goethe or Schiller. The university is small, the German faculty smaller still, and that class was only offered periodically. The only time it was taught when I was sufficiently proficient in the language was while I was abroad on an exchange program. (On the other hand, one of the final hurdles for the degree is a comprehensive exam on anything the faculty in your major thinks you ought to know about the subject, so I did read Faust, Werther, and familiarized myself with much of the rest.) It was nice to partly close this odd gap in my education by visiting the places where both men had lived and worked. While I was at Schiller’s house, I also picked up several of his plays, in the handy yellow Reclam editions that anyone who has studied German literature will instantly recognize.


Schiller wrote Die Räuber (The Robbers) as a very young man, and it was published in 1781, when he was 22. The five-act play follows the fortunes of the ruling family in a fictional small German state. The elder son, Karl, has been away from the court, while the younger has stayed with his aging father. Franz, the younger, plots to have his father disinherit his brother, playing up tales of Karl’s waywardness and deliberately distressing their father. Karl hears that he has been cut off, and decides to show his father and the world what an outlaw career could really be like. He builds up a band of robbers in the Bohemian forest, and they become notorious throughout the land. Karl himself tries to be something of a Robin Hood, but his underlings compete to see who can commit the worst atrocities. Franz tries to bring about his father’s death (without resorting to outright murder) so that he can rule their land with an iron hand.

It’s all very melodramatic, and indeed, Schiller is one of the fathers of European melodrama. The play was a sensation at the time — eight years before the French Revolution — for its anarchy, its comments on the nobility, on religion, on morality, on evil, and many other subjects. The characters are violent and heedless, on and off stage. There is a good priest, who tries to get Karl to surrender his band and repent, but the robbers send him packing. For good measure, they escape from the forces of law and order, killing them (off-stage, in this case) in huge numbers.

The Robbers is not subtle. For a modern reader, accustomed to characters who show their feelings and intentions rather than declaim them from center-stage, it can be a bit off-putting. No wonder Verdi adapted the play into an opera. Wikipedia tells me that there are two recent translations into English, one that leans toward imitation of the original language, and one that leans toward adapting archaic idioms into contemporary language. Both are legitimate approaches to translating a play, but I have not read either. Next up from Schiller are two volumes of plays about Wallenstein, a general in the Thirty Years War.

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Sep 09 2016

Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang

I’m a fan of the charming ABC comedy of the same name, which was how I first heard of this memoir, and was taken aback to discover that Eddie Huang himself had very negative opinions of the show. But then I read this book, and I get it. Mr Huang had an abusive childhood, and to see that elided for the prime time palate can be hard to stomach. Which, I believe, doesn’t detract from the value of the TV show at all, as it’s a necessary showcase for Asian-American culture, even if it isn’t a strict interpretation of Mr Huang’s book. Personally, I feel that content creators should take their cue from Alan Moore upon selling their rights for production in other mediums: it’s not your baby any more, so you shouldn’t feel like it’s a reflection on your worth even if it comes out atrocious or, in the case of Fresh Off The Boat, terrific but wildly inaccurate. Besides, if it weren’t for the show, I would never have thought to pick up the memoir, particularly when needing a humorous read after some of the heavy stuff I’ve been ingesting recently.

And I suppose I could have been bitter at how misled I was, not only by the show, but by all the reviews stating that this was a funny book. It’s not. Not unless you think it’s hilarious that an Asian dude becomes a black stereotype because he’s so conflicted about his own cultural identity. Don’t get me wrong: I really did appreciate the book as a considered, clear-eyed evaluation of Eddie Huang’s life by the man himself, but it wasn’t funny. Or was funny in the way The Big Bang Theory is funny where you’re not laughing with the geeks, you’re laughing at them (I hate TBBT, btw, it’s awful and minstrelsy.)

Lack of hilarity aside, this was a well-written book about a shitty but not atypical immigrant Taiwanese childhood. Mr Huang is unafraid to examine his life and choices, so while I wouldn’t have made the same decisions he did, it was easy to understand his reasons. He carries a lot of anger at the world, which isn’t a bad thing either: anger can drive you to agitate for positive change, which it often feels that Mr Huang does. The only part I found really tiresome was his insistence on being a gatekeeper. It would be nice if he extended that same examination he gives to his own and his family’s motivations to others, or at the very least tried to empathize more instead of, at best, condescending to people who share his interests but aren’t as “hardcore” as he is. One day, I suppose, he’ll learn that being cool doesn’t come at the expense of others.

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Sep 09 2016

Made You Up by Francesca Zappia



Seven-year-old Alexandra Ridgemont loves chocolate Yoo-Hoo drinks and the lobster tank at the supermarket in the small Indiana town where she lives with her archaeologist parents. The lobsters are the same bright red as her hair. But the lobsters are sad. They always beg her to let them out of the tank. Alex ignores them. At least until the day she meets Blue Eyes – a boy her age with sandy blond hair and stunning blue eyes who tells her she smells like lemons and becomes her first and only friend. Alex shares her Yoo-Hoo with Blue Eyes and enlists his help to set the lobsters free.

Except live lobsters aren’t red. And her mother says she never let any lobsters out of a tank. And Blue Eyes vanishes, never to be seen again.

Fast forward ten years.

Seventeen-year-old Alex is used to the delusions and hallucinations caused by her early-onset paranoid schizophrenia. Those suspicious looking squirrels holding a conference on the lawn are probably Communist spies. But, since Alex isn’t sure whether they’re real or a product of her imagination, she’ll take a picture of them. If they’re hallucinations, they’ll eventually fade from the photo. If they don’t, then she’ll know they were real. It’s vital for Alex to teach herself to distinguish between her hallucinations and reality. She desperately wants to go to college. She can’t afford to have another episode like the one that got her kicked out of her last school. She also can’t afford for anyone at her new school to find out about her illness.

Alex is doing fairly well at appearing normal. She has a part-time job and one of her new coworkers, Tucker, attends her new school. At least she’ll have someone to talk to when she arrives. So far, so good. Until Miles walks into the restaurant where Alex works. Miles, who has sandy blond hair and eyes the same riveting shade as Blue Eyes. They couldn’t be the same person. Could they? She just imagined Blue Eyes. Didn’t she?

I discovered Francesca Zappia’s debut novel, Made You Up, on a recent trip to my local library. I hold a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing so I’ve had to read, write, and critique a lot of stories. One semester, after workshopping a mediocre story told in first-person POV about a protagonist with a mental illness, my professor remarked that one of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to tell a story in “first-person crazy” (her words) without overwhelming the reader.

So, upon reading the cover blurb for Made You Up, I was immediately intrigued. Here was an author who had written a novel in “first person crazy” well enough to land a contract with a traditional publisher. I had to read it. I have to admit, I was impressed. Ms. Zappia manages avoid the pitfalls of info dumping or bogging down her reader with the details of Alex’s inner world. Alex’s hallucinations are woven into the fabric of the story until they seem almost commonplace.

Unfortunately, this is also the biggest drawback of the story. Alex has grown so accustomed to her hallucinations and paranoid delusions that they seem to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Even when Alex is in the throes of a full-fledged psychotic break, her inner monologue seems calm and rational. Other characters are only slightly fazed by Alex’s screaming and raving. Alex’s new friends take their first experience with her illness in stride with the sort of attitude one might expect of a group of college students caring for a drunk friend who just needs to sleep it off. They don’t seem afraid, repulsed, or to feel much of anything beyond mild curiosity.

While I can understand Alex’s family being less perturbed by the symptoms of her illness, since they’ve had years to acclimate, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief where her friends were concerned. While I will be the first to admit I have no idea what it’s like to live with schizophrenia or with a loved one who suffers from it, the lack of emotional turmoil for Alex and her friends just didn’t ring true for me. As much as I enjoyed this book, Alex’s parents seemed to be the only ones who had any genuine feelings about her illness.

Despite its few flaws, Made You Up is successful at portraying a smart, funny young woman who is, like every other teenager, just trying to figure out her place in the world. Ms. Zappia manages to tell her story without reducing Alex to a walking cliche, which is a bonus. I recommend getting your hands on a copy of Made You Up. It’s worth reading and I look forward to Francesca Zappia’s future novels.

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Sep 02 2016

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Essentially Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day, I really loved the premise and the storytelling and, most of all, the characterizations, particularly of Sam and her three best friends. They’re the most popular girls in school and catty bitches (tho once again I wonder at how prevalent this experience is for high schoolers worldwide: the majority of popular kids I know/knew of in real life were all actually really nice.) On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, they get into a car accident that sends Sam into a weird purgatory of reliving this day over and over again till she gets it “right.” Given all the things I loved about it, you’d think I’d rate it highly, but there were two major sticking points for me.

The first and lesser of those is Kent. God, he sounds irritating. I get that he’s supposed to be the “nice guy” who loves Sam for who she “really” is, but Sam is essentially just an insecure teenager desperate to retain her popularity, which is a fairly broad subset of adolescent girlhood, so this makes Kent none special. His quirks are meant to be endearing, but they’re really just annoying (he wears a bowler hat, ffs.) I get that he’s supposed to be flawed, too, but as a character, he treads so closely to the “nice guy” stereotype who’s only nice to you because he wants to get laid (which makes him not much more sympathetic than Rob, honestly) that I found him a very lacklustre hero.

The second major point is a huge plot device having to do with why Sam is stuck reliving that day. When she finally figures out her purpose, I was incredibly underwhelmed. If there’d been a passage where Sam reflects on why she needs to save Juliet specifically in order to move on, I would likely have cared more: as it was, I was just bewildered. I suppose this makes me sound like a Mean Girl myself (was I popular in high school? Honestly, I never even cared,) but Juliet is ridiculously boring compared to Sam, and doesn’t seem worth the effort. I get that this is Sam’s journey, and she has to do it in order to progress, but she never asks why, just considers herself a necessary sacrifice. Which is arguable. I spent way too much of the book really liking Sam and really being bothered that she had to die while boring, dumb Juliet lived. I’m not trying to make light of the real consequences of bullying, but at no point did I feel that Juliet was anything more than a paper thin construct instead of an actual person with feelings and motivations that I cared about. Like Kent, she was more of a stereotype of a person than someone to hang that pivotal role on. More’s the pity, because so many other characters are vivid and sympathetic, and the book overall is beautifully written.

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Aug 30 2016

The Just City by Jo Walton

I love so much how my experiences with Jo Walton’s books just get better and better. I spent the climactic scene of The Just City with one hand clutched to my breast, knowing something terrible was coming and feeling a kind of horror and relief when it finally did — horror because it truly was terrible, and relief because the suspense was finally over. And then I instantly put the next book, The Philosopher Kings, on my reading list: the hallmark of any good series. I’m not sure whether I should be pleased or annoyed with’s book club (and by extension Ingress Book Club) for making me discover so much that is new and amazing for me to read, and need to keep reading.

Going back to The Just City specifically, I spent the first 30% of the book or so cautiously intrigued by the premise, as I’m not actually familiar with the contents of Plato’s Republic. My philosophical education is sorely lacking, I know, partly because I get so impatient with impractical conceits, which is what a lot of philosophy boils down to. Given this attitude, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I found myself growing increasingly appalled by what was happening in that first 30%. I was starting to wonder whether I should be trusting Jo Walton even after the splendid Tooth And Claw (and, for the record, this has nothing to do with what happens to Maia: I found that part realistic and sobering and a very necessary description of how most people deal with that.) And then Sokrates showed up.

My man, Sokrates. Walking into the main forum and asking, “What nonsense is this?” And then strolling along picking up on all the things I’d found unsettling (and more: like Lysias, I would never have thought to wonder about the workers’ sentience,) and being better and braver than I would ever be, speaking truth to power. So much happens in this book, a lot of bad shit, a veritable road built of good intentions leading to that inevitable final scene. It is breathtaking to read Jo Walton’s careful construction and ruthless deconstruction of Plato’s Republic. And more: her ideas on theology and synthesis are just two more of the interesting topics she tackles as she examines what it means to be a good person, what it means to build a good, a just society. This is a brilliant book about pursuing excellence, and the difference between theory and practice, and how important it is to recognize human feeling and the need for volition. I am the richer for having read it, which isn’t something I can say for most books. Highly recommended.

Read Doug’s review here.

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Aug 19 2016

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

So much of this book is an exercise in narrative tension: you know something terrible is coming, and you know the general shape of it, but you’re waiting for the details to… I don’t know, ram it home? At one point — in what was, to me, one of the more compelling passages in the book — Lionel Shriver derides our culture of voyeurism in what was perhaps meant to be a disturbing cri de coeur from the young killer at the heart of this book. And yet I believe that because such terrible things keep happening, and not despite them, it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to care about the details, to deconstruct the easy myths built by society (and its mouthpiece the media, if you must) to make it so we don’t have to think about such things, to label these things as unknowable and senseless and, therefore, beyond our ability to understand. We need to try, because the people locked forever in the headlines of these awful murders are human, too.

Which isn’t to say that I believe that there are easy remedies. A lot of people, faced with tragedy like this, don’t want to look inward, don’t want to examine. It’s too hard, and it hurts too much. And that’s okay. That’s what we have good, thoughtful fiction for, to tease out the universal, painful truths and present them to us safely, so that we aren’t blinded too much by the personal in being able to acknowledge, and perhaps grasp, perhaps engage, that universal pain.

Anyway, Ms Shriver has written a terrific book that does an important job of trying to tease out the reasons behind the schoolhouse massacres endemic to recent American history. It’s not a perfect novel. Once Celia was introduced, there’s so much tension that I became almost numb to it, and the story felt like it dragged somewhat. And, frankly, I suspected the truth about Franklin about a third of the way into the book because that was the only possible explanation for Eva’s whiplash of emotions when it came to him. Let me tell you, I was getting really tired of her putting up with his years and years of bullshit: my ass would have bailed and let him deal with Kevin on his own years before, as she wryly brought up at one point. Did I think that Kevin’s weapon of choice was rather far-fetched? Yes and no, and who am I to complain about far-fetched when the very thought of young adolescents committing the reprehensible crimes that lard the book liberally in their dreary factualism is so far out of the realm of possibility for me?

And yet, as the mother of three little boys who will likely grow up to be relatively affluent half-white suburban schoolchildren, the prime pool from which these murderers statistically emerge, I worry. I know I shouldn’t use this novel as a handbook for signs to look out for, but how can I help from looking at my children askance sometimes, when some of their behavior seems less positive than I’m comfortable with? Heaven forfend I should adopt Franklin’s hearty refusal to face the truth, gaslighting his wife as his coping mechanism (and oh how I HATED him for that.)

Not that Eva is the perfect mother, but who, at any point in human history, is? Please don’t point to your own mother: just ask her yourself and she’ll laugh and laugh at you. I found Eva’s odd superiority as unearned as Kevin did, and it rankled how she just let Franklin treat her like that for so long (in a rather stunning commentary on how women of a certain class and age bend their own persons to please an undeserving spouse.) And the book doesn’t have easy answers, though there are plenty of what-not-to-dos. But it’s all that fallibility, all that human weakness, all that understanding that we as individuals are at the mercy of societal forces and mores that can be overwhelming to navigate, much less fight, that make this such an amazing, empathic book. It has quite worn me out, emotionally and intellectually, leaving me weak but satisfied, the best kind of book indeed.

And I’m secretly glad that my children aren’t like Kevin, even as I fear that that is not enough to keep them safe.

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Aug 12 2016

Moscow in Movement by Samuel A. Greene

Moscow in Movement examines how citizens and state power interact in post-Soviet Russia. Samuel A. Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, looks at the lived experiences of Russians and considers several case studies carefully to show how individual Russians, elements of Russian society, and representatives of the Russian state form their relationships. In the end, Greene is asking similar questions to those posed by Authoritarian Russia: How does Russia work, why is it that way, and what does that mean in a larger sense? Where Gel’man took basically a top-down approach, Greene takes mostly a bottom-up approach, looking at elements of Russian civil society as well as individual interactions with the state.

Moscow in Movement

Greene’s book, published by Stanford University Press, is an academic treatise, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses from the non-academic reader’s point of view. This is not to say that it is dry or overly long; far from it, the main text is less than 250 pages, and the narratives that support the analysis are vivid and true to life. The strengths of the book as an element in academic discourse include a strong theoretical basis for the groups Greene chooses to analyze, a clear argument about the meaning of the events he relates, and careful documentation of his work, so that interested readers can check or learn more. The weaknesses, from my point of view, include an overly long chapter on theories of civil society, a long time lag between the events described and the book’s publication, and a nagging suspicion that the chapters were written for other uses and then stitched together to make a book. (This last is a structural issue by no means limited to Greene’s work. Fritz Stern’s justly famous and groundbreaking Gold and Iron, for example, has a long chapter on Balkan railroad financing that was plainly written to stand alone.) As a counterpoint to claims that Russians are innately passive in the face of state corruption, the book is invaluable, and as an description of social change at the personal level, it is incisive.

Greene’s core argument is that power in Russia is a “club good,” available to members of the club for their own use and guarded from non-members.

In Putin’s Russia, political competition exists, but it is closed, not so much in the sense of barriers to entry (though these obtain) as in the sense that the state organizes politics in such a way as to prevent competitors from creating a power base that draws support from outside the limited sphere of “administrative resources.” …
A fundamental result of this arrangement is that the contemporary Russian state does not engage society at large. Indeed, it actively works to exclude the public from the processes of government, not so much to control the public as to prevent uncontrollable elements—such as a mass-based movement—from entering the political arena. (p. 7)

How do people react to such a setup? “Faced with a disengaged elite, civic disengagement is a rational response. But we should understand that disengagement to be circumstantial and contingent, rather than cultural and absolute.” (p. 10) The way that Russians react to their circumstances, Greene argues, are neither mysterious nor immutable. An understanding of Russian culture and history is certainly helpful, especially as a means of seeing how institutional choices have shaped the civic space in which citizens life, but that same history also shows how ordinary Russians have acted to press their claims on the state. Greene examines cases where interaction with the state was inevitable—for people beaten by police, for example—or where citizens worked together to stop state action or retain benefits.

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