Feb 14 2021

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Yes, Boromir failed. But he was far from alone. Denethor failed in sending a war leader on a mission meant for a diplomat. Aragorn and Gandalf failed to give him his due, and after that they failed to recognize that they were freezing out their proud companion. Despite their supposed wisdom, they did not see that being right is not enough.

Yet the last words that Boromir hears are words of compassion, a promise to complete his task, words that, perhaps, eased his passing. This time through The Lord of the Rings, I was surprised at how often I encountered that compassion, though Tolkien generally calls it pity. Frodo has pity on Gollum, not only taming him and persuading him to lead Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes toward Mordor, but later persuading Faramir to spare Gollum after he has stumbled into the southern rangers’ sanctuary. Gandalf pities Saruman, when they parley among the ruins of Isengard. Sam pities the Oliphaunt, whose appearance in Ithilien foreshadows the presence of many more in the War of the Ring. And though Faramir’s men pity the other men that they ambush, it does not stop them from slaying as many as possible. There is compassion in war, Tolkien says, but it remains war.

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Hoom, hoom! Treebeard remains one of the special delights of The Two Towers, at once old even by Elvish standards and at times oddly adolescent. The tale of the Ents and the Entwives did not seem sad to me, more sort of charmingly awkward. The Ents may be thousands of years old, yet somehow they remain tongue-tied boys at their first school dance. The Entwives, I think, gave up in exasperation. The Huorns are probably the scariest life-forms in Middle Earth that are not in the service of Sauron, and a reminder of how much of Tolkien’s created nature is hostile to his protagonists.

As Frodo and Sam draw closer to Mordor, I was surprised how often Frodo seemed to sense events to his west, among the other members of the company. The time in Ithlien and with Faramir was also longer than I remembered. Tolkien uses those chapters to set up the coming War of the Ring from the perspective of people who know little or nothing of the Ring itself. The rangers of the south, like the other men of Minas Tirith see Mordor pouring forth its strength, knowing that they will bear the brunt of Sauron’s wrath for reasons they cannot begin to be aware of. Tolkien makes Ithilien especially beautiful, perhaps a Flanders before the Great War, counterpoised to the Dead Marshes, which are very much like the Low Country mud he would have slogged through during his wartime service.

The book ends with the First Age erupting into the final days of the Third: Shelob is a bane separate from Sauron, no less steeped in malice but without the desire to rule. She is daunted by the phial that Galadriel has given to Frodo, which contains light from the Two Trees from the very beginning of the world. That same scene, though, points toward the next age, with the most important choices being made by the person with the lowest social standing. Not a lord of the Noldor but Samwise the gardener is the person who saves the quest when it is in greatest danger. The orcs make the mistake of thinking that only a great elf fighter could have driven off Shelob. They have the Ring-bearer, but not the Ring; at the end of this middle book (which has classic middle-book structure, solving some problems and ending with a cliffhanger), the quest hangs by a thread. That much, at least, is every bit as gripping as I remember.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/14/the-two-towers-by-j-r-r-tolkien/

Feb 12 2021

An Easy Death (Gunnie Rose #1) by Charlaine Harris

I always vastly underestimate the amount of reading I need to do for work, but I did bet on the fact that I’d be able to catch up easily on Books 1 and 2 of the Gunnie Rose series ahead of the impending release of Book 3, due solely to the fact that Charlaine Harris is a consistently entertaining writer. And y’know, for someone most famed for her contemporary paranormal and mystery novels, her adoption of the alternate history milieu in An Easy Death comes as a pleasant surprise from an author who always seems to have another intriguing bow in her storytelling quiver or, perhaps more aptly given the setting, bullet in her six-shooter.

The assassination of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a Great Depression without a road to recovery led to the fracturing of the United States of America into different nation states. Canada swooped in on the northern Midwest states, while the original thirteen colonies (minus Georgia) pledged fealty to England and renamed themselves Brittania. Georgia and the rest of the Deep South became the virulently racist Dixie, and the rest of the American South that escaped Mexican encroachment formed Texoma. Between Texoma and Canada lie the New States of America, while the West Coast has become the Holy Russian Empire, the new seat of the Romanov family that fled their murderous, godless compatriots. The HRE is notable for being home to open magic users, termed disparagingly outside the HRE as grigoris, after the first wizard of them all, the infamous Grigori Rasputin.

Lizbeth Rose is a gunslinger, a.k.a gunnie, in Texoma. She hates grigoris, but since they don’t often come her way, has no reason to act upon her dislike… until two of them show up on her doorstep, wanting to hire her. Needing the money for what seems like a relatively easy job — tracking down a wizard and his family in Juarez, Mexico — she reluctantly accepts. As they travel south and she learns shocking truths about their mission, a combination of her gunnie code and an instinctive need to protect her own secrets prevent her from bailing like she knows she should. But desperate killers are also on their trail, and soon Lizbeth is fighting to save her own life in addition to her charges’.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/12/an-easy-death-gunnie-rose-1-by-charlaine-harris/

Feb 11 2021

The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey

The reading experience of this was really interesting to me: I spent maybe the first and last fifteen percent of the book deeply skeptical but was absolutely immersed in everything in between.

The premise is simple, for a science fiction novel. Two best friends from college found a Silicon Valley startup after one of them develops a machine that allows people to look for information up to a year in the future. Adhi Chaudry is a socially awkward nerd who happens to be a scientific genius. Ben Boyce is a born salesman with a talent for navigating the vicious world of high-tech venture capitalism. Together, they plan on making The Future available to everyone, to the consternation of governments and big business alike. But when the seemingly immutable future they’ve modeled their entire philosophy on shows signs of changing, the best friends, whose relationship has already been sorely tested by the demands of their business partnership, begin to differ significantly on what they want to do with their technology next, with possibly fatal results.

Told in extremely engaging format — collecting emails, texts, blog posts, transcripts and more — this is a fast-paced novel that works best as an examination of the ways friendships grow and fracture with time and stress. Ben and Adhi are both deeply interesting and flawed people trying to do what they think is best as they’re beset by moral and legal complexities in the attainment of their dreams. The epistolary format is really great for showcasing both their private thoughts as well as how those contradict the public things they say and do. It’s also a great way to philosophize over destiny and free will, as well as conceptions of time and inevitability (with a very cool Hindu perspective, as well.) Bonus points for drolly satirizing how little government understands technology, fitting given that the idea for this novel came from Dan Frey watching Congress (often clumsily) interrogate Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/11/the-future-is-yours-by-dan-frey/

Feb 09 2021

Feathered & Fabulous: Wit And Wisdom From Glamorous Birds by Alison Throckmorton

When I was first pitched this book for review, I was sent a pdf copy. Suspecting that I needed to hold this book to get a better idea of its worth, I requested a physical copy, and oh dear reader, it is absolutely the difference between seeing a picture of a bird and being gifted one!

For this is definitely a gift book, a beautifully produced confection of glossy, imperious bird portraits paired with pithy sayings that might have come straight from your favorite bitchy reality television program. Attention has not been spared from any aspect of this volume, from the foil-embossed cover to the delightful endpapers. It isn’t a deep or a long read, but it’s a delightful coffee-table-esque book for grownups that’s sure to elicit a smile and a chuckle from any bird lover who also happens to love pop culture (or vice versa!)

It is available as an eBook, and while I don’t necessarily recommend it in that format (the hardcover version is just so darling!) I can see where someone who needs a quick pick-me-up of sassy bird humor might prefer that. But I’ve never really cottoned to reading magazines digitally either, so YMMV! I do rather wish that the species of birds photographed had been included with each one, but it does make a good jumping-on point for finding out more about these gorgeous creatures.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/09/feathered-fabulous-wit-and-wisdom-from-glamorous-birds-by-alison-throckmorton/

Feb 08 2021

The Iron Raven (The Iron Fey: Evenfall #1) by Julie Kagawa

I’ve never read the original Iron Fey series Julie Kagawa is famed for, and as far as I can tell given my tastes, that’s actually for the best. The original books are a YA fantasy romance revolving around Meghan Chase, a human teenager who discovers that she’s the daughter of the Summer King of the Faery. Given that those novels were written a little over a decade ago, it should come as no surprise that there’s an obligatory love triangle between Meghan, her best friend Puck and the son of the Winter Queen. She picks Ash, becomes the Iron Queen etc. etc. There are admittedly a lot of cool narrative twists but most of the critical reviews of the series complain about Meghan and her relationship with Ash. I get the feeling that if I’d read those books, I would never have bothered to pick up The Iron Raven, which would have been a huge disservice to myself as this novel is pretty darn awesome.

It likely helps that Meghan and Ash are supporting characters here and that the focus is on Puck, the fairy formerly known as Robin Goodfellow, as he faces a new threat to the Faery Realm. He’s pretty much just minding his own business attending the Goblin Market when he runs into Kierran — Meghan and Ash’s son — who is now King of the Forgotten. The alluring moon elf Nyx, who turns out to be Kierran’s loyal bodyguard and assassin, accosts them with tidings of strange goings on in the Between realm populated by the Forgotten. Intrigued, Puck accompanies Kierran and Nyx to the forgotten town of Phaed, where an encounter with a fearful monster reawakens malevolent parts of Puck’s personality that he thought he’d long grown away from. Even worse, the monster gets away, slipping from the Between to the Nevernever of the faeries themselves, setting Puck and Nyx on a quest to warn Meghan and find help in destroying the monster for good.

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of a particularly well-written Changeling roleplaying adventure, with lots of humorous banter, mystic powers and swashbuckling action. Puck is a terrific main character and narrator, with a ridiculously louche yet disarmingly self-aware attitude, who has to confront his own demons in order to win the day. I loved the many references to other established fairy tales (tho I did think it a little weird that the faeries of this realm seemed so ignorant of references to what was clearly a neighboring mythology,) and especially appreciated how Ms Kagawa built her narrative so that I was easily caught up to speed with the who and where of what was going on from past to present. I was also deeply appreciative of how the book wraps up its A-plot before going into the cliffhanger: TIR feels satisfyingly complete on its own, but I still really want to read what happens next.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/08/the-iron-raven-the-iron-fey-evenfall-1-by-julie-kagawa/

Feb 07 2021

Drive Your Plows Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Nobel laureate, Polish literature, what’s not to like? It turns out that for me the more relevant question was what’s to like?

Tokarczuk’s first-person narrator and protagonist, Janina Duszejko lives alone in a small group of houses on a plateau in southern Poland, hard up against the border with the Czech Republic. Most of the houses are only seasonally occupied, when people from Poland’s larger cities come to enjoy their summer retreats. Despite her advancing age, Duszejko acts as caretaker for the part-time residents, looking after their houses during the cold months. The novel opens in winter, with one of her few neighbors banging on the door in the night, soon to announce that another neighbor is dead.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Druszejko is also something of an eccentric in the area, a devout practitioner of astrology who prefers the company of animals to people. In her narration, two tics show this aspect: a Propensity for Capitalization, and a habit of giving nicknames to everyone around her. The first dead man is Big Foot; the neighbor who wakes her is Oddball; the woman who runs a boutique in town is Good News; Oddball’s policeman son is Black Coat; and so forth.

“There is only one settlement on [the Plateau]—ours. The village and the town lie below, to the northeast, just like all the rest. The difference in levels between the Plateau and the rest of the Kłodzko Valley isn’t great, but it’s enough for one to feel slightly higher up here, looking at everything from above. … During harsh winters the Roads Authority, or whatever that agency is called, closes this road to traffic. And then we drive down it illegally, at our own risk. Assuming we have good cars, of course. In fact I’m talking about myself. Oddball only has a moped, and Big Foot had his own two feet. We call this steep stretch the Pass. There’s also a stony precipice nearby, but anyone who thinks it’s a natural feature would be mistaken, for it’s the remains of an old quarry, which used to take bites out of the Plateau and would surely have consumed the whole thing eventually in the mouths of its diggers. They say there are plans to start it up again, at which point we shall vanish from the face of the Earth, devoured by Machines.” (pp. 48–49)

In fact, Tokarczuk has lived in exactly this area since 1998. Given some of her depictions of nearby life, it’s not surprising that more conservative local notables have spoken out against her.

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, in and around details of her life, observations of nature on the Plateau, and disquisitions on astrology, Duszejko matter-of-factly tells of deaths that follow Big Foot’s demise from choking on the bone of a deer he had illegally shot. The Commandant (of local Police) is found upside down in a shallow well not far from the Pass. Innerd, a fur farmer brothel owner and the rare character known by name, disappears in summer, presumably having run off with a lover or else escaping vague mafia menaces. Instead, he is found some months later, badly decomposed, his leg caught in a hunter’s snare. Duszejko has a Theory that Animals are taking Revenge on the hunters who had preyed on them. All of the dead men’s Horoscopes had Signs that clearly pointed toward a demise of the kind that they met.

And … that’s about it. Tokarczuk evokes the landscape nicely. She voices criticisms of small-town life that have been around since forever, even as she gives some particularly Polish details. Experienced thriller and mystery readers will have spotted what is going on around the Plateau well before I did, and I picked up on it at most a third of the way through the book. Judging by brief descriptions of her other works — less than half of them have been translated into English, and my Polish was never enough to manage novels — I may have picked up the most pedestrian of her works. I think I’d prefer Flights, or House of Day, House of Night, or The Books of Jacob, which is forthcoming later this year. I’ll explore those because Polish Nobelist is a combination I’m predisposed to like; Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead mostly drove past me without catching my eye for long.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/07/drive-your-plows-over-the-bones-of-the-dead-by-olga-tokarczuk/

Feb 05 2021

Blind Spots: Why Students Fail And The Science That Can Save Them by Kimberly Nix Berens

As someone who grew up studying under the American, British and (the absurdly simplistic) Malaysian New Curriculum systems, as well as a mom to kids with special needs, I found this book endlessly fascinating in how it interrogates mainstream educational thought and offers solutions to the continuing problem of falling student standards. With primarily an American focus — understandably given Kimberly Nix Berens’ background in this country’s educational system — it turns a critical eye on the history of schooling in America and why it hasn’t uniformly improved the lives of its students since perhaps the initial Golden Age when mandatory K-12 freed kids from limiting and often dangerous labor practices.

It’s widely known that America is falling behind the rest of the world’s leading countries/regions in educational standards while, perhaps less well known, still spending far more than our counterparts. Dr Berens convincingly lays out why this is happening, while also suggesting what to do about it. Granted, what to do about it happens to be a plug for her own institutions/models of learning, but this shallow vein of capitalization is ultimately superseded by the fact that she’s putting her money where her mouth is and has the science to back it up.

For Dr Berens is a behavioral scientist, and she strongly believes that the greatest problem with the American system of education is its dogmatic refusal to look at results in favor of a philosophy-affirming feel-good fuzziness that ultimately fails both students and teachers. She’s critical of the quickness with which children are labeled Learning Disabled, as well as of the idea that students fail to learn because of inherent deficiencies in themselves instead of in the system.

As a former corporate trainer who strongly believes that if a willing learner is unable to understand something I’m teaching, the onus is on me to communicate effectively; and as a mom who is often frustrated at the way certain educators I know think autism is some sort of socio-educational curse instead of an opportunity to explore different methods of teaching; and as a lifelong learner with firsthand experience of wildly different methods of teaching, who also strongly believes in the ability of behavioral science to help people sort themselves out for the better, I found Dr Berens’ analysis compelling and reasonable, even if I thought her description of standard American education used far worse examples than I’ve ever seen myself…

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/05/blind-spots-why-students-fail-and-the-science-that-can-save-them-by-kimberly-nix-berens/

Feb 03 2021

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

This is one of those books that’s so propulsive that you want to devour it in one sitting, even as the harrowing nature of what you’re reading is telling you to maybe put it aside and take a nap, for the sake of your own mental health.

Sisters follows September and July, two teenage girls separated by ten months in age, as their mother Sheela takes them away from their Oxford home after a school bullying incident. Their new home, at least temporarily, is The Settle House belonging to their dead father’s family, usually let out to tenants and generally in a state of disrepair, high on the Yorkshire coast. Once there, Sheela gives in to the depression that has plagued her for most of her life, while her daughters become more and more enmeshed in the strange games they play with one another and with whomever crosses their path.

This is the weirdly wonderful kind of book with a plot that’s difficult to describe for fear of spoilers. Even going in blind, I figured out what the big twist was at the 20% mark, and spent the rest of the novel waiting for confirmation of my theory as well as details as to how it all came to pass. I must say that I wasn’t disappointed, as I can sometimes be by horror stories, as this essentially is. I think a little more time could have been spent on the pathology that made the women of this family so susceptible to what happened: I get that Peter was abusive and Sheela never emotionally stable to begin with, but a large part of me thought the plot relied too much on a shrugging “I guess that’s just genetics!” instead of looking into how September got away with being a total psychopath for as long as she did. I also wish the text had been a little more clear with what happened afterward. I enjoyed the hallucinatory, smothering feeling of July’s struggle to escape her sister, but the second time jump created more questions than it answered. The first time jump was ambiguous enough without adding a coda that only served to obscure the story even more than it had been already.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/03/sisters-by-daisy-johnson/

Feb 02 2021

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins written by Eric Kimmel

Kid One first fell in love with this book as an elementary school student, a Protestant child living in an Orthodox country enjoying a very Jewish story. And what’s not to like? Hershel of Ostropol wanders into an unnamed Central European village on the first night of Hanukkah expecting celebration and hospitality. Instead, he finds that the place is tyrannized by goblins, who forbid most anything enjoyable and who hate Hanukkah most of all. They have made the old synagogue their roost, and none dare challenge them.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel

There is a way out, of course. If someone can stay in the synagogue all eight nights of Hanukkah and light the candles each night, the village will nearly be free. The last condition is that on the eighth night the goblin king himself must light the Hanukkah candles. Then and only then will the spell be broken and proper celebrations return to the settlement. Hershel gathers a few things and makes his way up the hill; the villagers expect never to see him alive again.

Trina Schart Hyman’s illustration wonderfully capture a wintertime village in Central Europe, and they bring the goblins to life in a mix of menace and absurdity that depicts them as scary enough to keep a village in thrall but dim enough to fall for Hershel’s tricks. For defeat them Hershel does, armed with such things as boiled eggs and a jar of pickles, Hershel drives the goblins off one by one, lighting a candle each night and bringing the village closer to liberation. His wits and fearlessness are his true weapons, and kids reading the book enjoy Hershel’s unflappability in the face of increasingly horrid monsters.

In an afterword, Hyman praised Kimmel’s restraint in telling the story, saying he provided just enough direction for an illustrator to make the most of the tale’s possibilities. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal in 1990, and it has been in print ever since. I could read it again and again, enjoying Hershel’s cleverness, the illustrations’ perfection, and the goblins’ consternation each time they lose out. So satisfying!

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/02/hershel-and-the-hanukkah-goblins-written-by-eric-kimmel/

Feb 01 2021

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Happy Black History Month, everyone! I’m so excited to have just read a strong slate of contemporary novels featuring Black protagonists and casts living their best lives, whether it’s via superheroics, sleuthing or, in this latest case, shop-keeping while falling in love.

Real Men Knit follows Jesse Strong, the youngest of four very different adoptive brothers. Mama Joy, the mother whose last name they all took for their own, has just passed away and now the boys are having to figure out what to do with her yarn store, a Harlem fixture that is also, unfortunately, bleeding money. Damian, the eldest and a straitlaced CPA, thinks selling makes the most sense but Jesse, the seemingly aimless Lothario, surprises everyone by volunteering to give running it a try. Ofc, he doesn’t actually know much about running a business. Fortunately, Kerry Fuller is on hand to help.

Kerry’s mom has always had a habit of throwing herself into bad relationships, so Kerry spent a lot of time at Strong Knits growing up, eventually transitioning into the helpful, almost invisible part-time employee that the Strong bros had the habit of overlooking. So when she steps up to back Jesse’s play, they’re all surprised, especially since Kerry has recently gotten her somewhat deferred degree and is looking into getting a full-time position teaching. But she’s just as determined as Jesse to keep Mama Joy’s dream alive. Plus, she’s had an unrequited crush on Jesse since she was a teenager… not that that has anything to do with her decision, or so she tells herself.

As Kerry and Jesse work on reopening the shop and figuring out how to pay all their bills, they slowly become closer. Ironically, this causes them to want to keep their distance from one another, for fear of hurting and of being hurt. But true love, as the stories go, can never be denied.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/02/01/real-men-knit-by-kwana-jackson/