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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Right now I’m reading:

Summit: A Novel, by Harry Farthing

Just finished:

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss, by Dr. Jason Fung

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

Poetry I’m reading:

Selected Poems 1965-1990, by Marilyn Hacker

For research:

The Great Humanists: European Thought on the Eve of the Restoration, by Jonathan Arnold

Featured post

Mercer Girls

Mercer Girls, by Libbie Hawker

In the 1860s Seattle was starting a boom. Logging mills and fishing were growing industries, with the Puget Sound making a wonderful harbor. What the city lacked was women. A few married women had moved out with husbands. It was also a very profitable town for “night flowers”. With a population of 10 men for every woman, most of them prostitutes, they seldom lacked for customers.

In 1864 Asa Mercer headed to Lowell, Massachusetts, on a mission from the city of Seattle. He was to recruit women of good moral character to return to Seattle to become brides. While they courted they would be paid $75 per month as teachers. He chose Lowell because it was mostly a cotton mill town and it was being hit hard by the Civil War since southern cotton was no longer available. Mercer faced a great deal of suspicion regarding his motives and, finally was able to attract 11 women to go with him on this first trip.

Libbie Hawker was a resident of Seattle and heard about the story. She wrote this book using much of the history she’d learned. She did add three women, in part because descendents of the real Mercer girls still live in Seattle and are fairly touchy about how their ancestors are represented.

Hawker adds Josephine, a 32-year-old woman fleeing Lowell from something sinister that will haunt her throughout the book. Then there’s Dovey, the 16-year-old daughter of a now impoverished mill owner whose father is trying to marry her off to a well-to-do son of a local business owner. Finally there’s Sophronia, the daughter of Christian missionaries. Sophronia is beautiful but so strictly religious that she has sent away several suitors for the simple effrontery of kissing her on the cheek. She has a way of distancing nearly everyone she meets.

On their own funds they travel from New York City to Panama, across the isthmus by train, then on to San Francisco and Seattle.

It’s during the San Francisco stopover that we learn what Josephine is running from. It’s also where Dovey, as entrepreneurial as her father, begins to ponder the profitability of starting her own bawdy house and acting as madame.

They and the other women arrive in town and are immediately overwhelmed by lonely men and generally spurned by the married ladies of the town as potential strumpets.

There are lots of cute and romantic moments in the book, along with some terror when Josephine’s past catches up with her. There are even some feminist moments when Susan B. Anthony and a companion arrive to lobby the territorial legislature for women’s rights … also based on a historical moment.

The book is fast moving and, especially with ambitious Dovey, downright hilarious at times. If you’re a fan of happy endings this book certainly has one. For my tastes it nearly goes too far, turning into a “very special episode” level of sentimentality. But, considering how most books I’ve been reading end, that may be a welcome change of pace for a lot of readers.

Hawker closes the book with an interesting epilogue about the real history behind the book. It’s interesting enough that it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to read it before taking on the fiction. It certainly puts the hardships of the real Mercer Girls in perspective.

 

 

The Emperor’s Soul

The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson

Set in Brandon Sanderson’s world of Elantra, this novella won both the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award in 2013.

Shai is a Forger. This is more than someone who creates fake art or money. In Elantra a Forger can read the energy of something, a canvas, clay, a table, a window, and discover its history and its wishes. Others in Elantra often mock this as superstition but the proof is in what they create, forming a specially made stamp which is pressed on the object and changes its nature. The object also carries the mark of that stamp to show it was a forged item. Even these, however, are often collected and put on display.

Shai has been imprisoned for copying a painting owned by one of the Emperor’s counselors. She is taken from her cell and offered freedom in exchange for an important task. It has been kept secret but there was an assassination attempt on the Emperor. His wife was killed and the Emperor received an arrow in his forehead destroying his brain. The brain has been restructured by their physicians but he’s now an empty shell, able to eat and breathe but with no consciousness. To gain freedom Shai must forge the mind of the Emperor.

Shai proposes two years. She’s given less than 100 days. Shai is placed under guard in a workroom where she must study journals and books about the Emperor to understand his personality, memories, and motivations. As she works Shai realizes that they will never willingly free her, as the information is to dangerous for anyone but the highest government officials. She works to create a stamp while she plans an escape, and she also comes to know and understand the only advisor to the Emperor who has always told the truth.

It’s a charming story about both power and human personality. Shai culls bits of insight into an Emperor for whom she has no real respect. She’s also is asked to make alterations in the Emperor’s mind so that he will listen to one advisor and not others.

This is listed as Elantra Book 2, but you don’t need to know anything about Elantra or the other volumes to enjoy this standalone novella and it’s short enough to read in a long night or over a weekend.

 

The Last Tudor

The Last Tudor (Plantagenet and Tudor Novels), by Philippa Gregory

Lady Jane Gray is one of the more amazing though less-known figures in history. Her mother was the sister of Henry VIII. She was taught Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and Italian from an early age, requesting to learn Hebrew so that she could make better biblical translations. She was an ardent Protestant. She was also queen of England for nine days. All this by age 16. She was executed at 17.

Philippa Gregory presents a fictionalized view of her life, imagining a journal where we see the highlights of her life from her perspective. Lady Jane was an unwilling part of a plot which, in part, intended to keep a Protestant as the monarch. In part, also, to increase the political power of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland.

Henry VIII  left a clear line of succession in his will, which was make public and approved by Parliament before he died. First young son Edward (son of Henry and third wife Jane Seymour, became Edward VI.) Then Mary (daughter of Henry and first wife Catherine of Aragon, became Mary I.) Finally Elizabeth (daughter of Henry and second wife Anne Boleyn, became Elizabeth I.)

Mary still held to her Catholic faith, Elizabeth was Protestant, and both were initially declared illegitimate by Henry VIII when he divorced or executed their mothers. Dudley saw his chance, as Edward VI was dying, to marry his son to Lady Jane, then to overthrow the will of Henry VIII by declaring Jane next in line to the throne. The plot fell apart. Lady Jane was placed in the Tower of London and was executed for treason and conspiracy by Mary I, who earned her nickname of “Bloody Mary” honestly.

Gregory is a scrupulous historian as well as an excellent fiction writer. There are minor differences from other historical accounts. Gregory’s version has Lady Jane argued into her marriage. Other accounts say that the girl was beaten by her parents until she submitted to the marriage. Gregory, in fiction, is able to try to get into the mind of this victim of history through her feelings about the marriage, her religion, and taking on the crown. It makes it a very human and emotional story.

Gregory goes further, however. Along with the story of Lady Jane she tells the stories of Jane’s sisters: the animal loving and frivolous Katherine and her tiny sister Mary who never grew above 4 feet tall. Each sister takes up a near third of the book. Both were imprisoned by Elizabeth I (the reign of Mary I lasted only four years), both for marrying without permission.

Paranoid from living a life where execution was constantly possible, childless, and with a grant of execution from the pope Elizabeth saw plots everywhere. Both sisters posed a threat to her if they could produce a male heir.

As with Jane’s story, both sisters write their own accounts of jailing without trial, being separated from the men they married for love, and held as “guests” of loyal peers who were forced to act as their jailers. Only Mary would ultimately see freedom when Elizabeth died. Katherine died a captive. These additional stories offer some balance to Jane’s story. Jane was intensely religious as only a teen sure of her knowledge and intelligence could be. While the reader can sympathize Jane is still hard to like. Emotional Katherine and outsider Mary make the book more complete and compelling than Jane would have alone.

It’s one of the most interesting and documented times in history, with more intrigue than nearly any writer could invent. Gregory has used her fictional accounts to fully document the lives of the Tudors and the Plantagenets before them. This is her 14th book in the series about two royal families and, she says, her last.

 

Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost (DI Robyn Carter, Book 1), by Carol Wyer

This is the first book featuring Detective Inspector (DI) Robyn Carter. The book came out in early 2017 and there are already two sequels.

Carol Wyer has created a deep and interesting detective. As the book opens Robyn Carter has been on an extended leave from the police force and is now helping her cousin, a former member of the force, in his work as a private detective. It’s not immediately clear what put Carter on leave although as the book progresses we learn the full tragedy behind it.

Meanwhile we’re introduced to Alice, the daughter of a beautiful but damaged mother. In alternating chapters we learn about a sordid life of molestation and child prostitution that gradually leads her to a life of revenge killings.

We also learn about Abigail whose daughter is stolen from her car. This is the event that brings Carter back from her leave early and sets her on an extended investigation of what she feels are the ties between the kidnapping and a series of murders.

Most of this isn’t an unusual mash of ideas for a mystery/thriller. The depth of Robyn Carter is solidly good, as is a mystery where the reader senses that Alice is close to Abigail somehow but not who it is or why. This is well plotted and leads to a very good ending to wrap things up.

There are a couple of things the author could have tossed out that would have helped more than hurt the overall story. One small thing is Carter has a sympathetic boss on the force, but there’s the old trope tension of the boss pushing back on Carter’s tendency to go with her hunches rather than follow the evidence. This may have been interesting the first thousand times it showed up in a novel, movie, or TV series. by 1960 it had pretty much worn out its welcome. How nice it would be to see a boss who’s supportive of successful detectives.

The real joy-killer of the book are some of the lengthy monologues by some of the characters. I appreciate that Wyer thoroughly thought out her characters. Trust me, that will come out without every one of them revealing an autobiography to a yes or no question. As it stands, these short stories within a novel end up sounding like the witnesses on the old Dragnet series, or Grandpa Simpson telling Bart one of his childhood memories. Instead of adding interest to the novel I kept thinking “OMG, just shut up and get to the point!” Of course I think that when people talk to me in the real world and that may be why I usually prefer reading.

 

Rath’s Deception

Rath’s Deception: The Janus Group, Book 1, by Piers Platt

The Janus Group is an interplanetary corporation that operates assassins. For law enforcement its existence is no more than rumor and it’s been that way for a few hundred years. They have a unique recruitment program. They recruit orphan teens, male or female, and offer to teach them the trade on a very specific contract. They must accept any job. At the end of 50 assassinations the recruit will split 50% of what Janus Group received for all the jobs. The 50/50 plan. If they get killed on the job, too bad. If they get arrested, too bad. If they tell anyone, they’re dead.

Rath agrees to recruitment. His parents are dead and his brother was killed by a gang. The idea of millions in his bank, maybe hundreds of millions, is too attractive to pass up.

The book follows him through testing for the obscure group and his training. He’s then released on the populated worlds with augmentations. Nanobots enrich his blood and provide drugs when needed, facial and hair implants allow him to change his identity at will, augmented sight and hearing give him even more edge.

Despite technicians and watchers giving him no chance to make it to the money, Rath develops his skills and his resourcefulness. But things get deadly when he’s contracted to kill a missing female assassin from the group, and things get really weird when he reaches his last kill.

Given the subject, the book is generally not as gruesome as you’d expect. Rath has determination to get through recruitment tests and training and Platt has created a character who you’re determined to root for, despite his work. Especially when Rath’s world goes pear-shaped you really want him to make it out alive.

It’s an interesting future with a really nasty secretive corporation as the bad guy. It may be that, as determined as he is, Rath is a little inept at what he does that makes him sympathetic. Despite his first job ending up being far more bloody than intended his kills are mostly focused on fairly bad people, and one contract that he’s forced to take is one he avoided taking and is extremely unsettling for him. In addition, the Group has his life in its hands and can kill him by remote control at any time. It’s a motivator to follow instructions.

This first volume in the series is currently free on Kindle (check before you click) and also available in paperback and as an Audible selection. The two volumes that follow are Rath’s Gambit, and Rath’s Reckoning. There’s also a Janus Group short story available free on Kindle.

 

 

 

 

Get Well Soon

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright

I was surprised at what a fun book this was to read. Jennifer Wright has filled the book with both information and witty asides. Not that everything is easy to take. There’s the No Nose Club, founded in London to attempt to overcome one of the shocking side effects of syphilis. Or there’s the bishop asked to bless a river in order to turn it into holy ground for the many plague corpses tossed in, turning the river blue with bodies.

Then again, what do you expect in a book that covers some of the worst disease (and a few hysteric) epidemics in history. For hysteric plagues we get the Dancing Plague, which … plagued … a town in Alsace in the 16th century. There are well known maladies like the black death that killed a high percentage of Europe over several centuries, or the flu that took more soldiers in WWI than bullets then traveled home to infect and kill thousands in the US.

But as Wright notes, we tend to forget plagues after they disappear. No one worries about swimming in a public pool and picking up polio, despite some people like Sen. Mitch McConnell being alive and “post polio” from one of the horrifying diseases from the middle of the 20th century. Thank you, Jonas Salk.

Wright covers diseases from early history, some cured by early physician Galen, and a Roman plague that was managed by Emperor Marcus Aurelius by helping to distribute food to the ill. Compare that to Ronald Reagan who hadn’t even mentioned AIDS through his entire presidency as it continued to spread worldwide.

Along with these she gives us the story of Typhoid Mary (the best summary I’ve read), the Spanish gift of smallpox to native Americans, and chasing down a source of cholera in Victorian London (one of the first examples of epidemiology).

It’s an interesting book. Better yet it can be laugh-out-loud funny. Wright could be a model for popular science writing for any college writing course. She also humanizes history, showing that history happens to people, the ones who suffer and die from ignorance and mistakes. She does a wonderful job of pointing out the real lessons of history in the public management of diseases and heaps credit on those who did it right.

 

The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth), by N. K. Jemisin

The second in the Broken Earth series, this book is also the second one to win a Hugo Award (2017). This will have some spoilers for The Fifth Season.

The story picks up a considerable time after The Fifth Season. At the end of that book things had fallen apart for Essun and Alabaster, with Essun back on the mainland and Alabaster pulled into the ground by a stone eater. Essun is now married and has two children. She’s married to a man prejudiced against orogenes, the people born with the power to heal breaks in the planet and some with enough power to stop volcanoes. While Essun is away he discovers that both their children have orogene powers. He beats his son to death but can’t do the same to eight-year-old daughter Nessun. He takes her away to a remote area and abandons her. She soon meets up with a Guardian who was nearly killed in the final battle of the first book. Nessun heals him and begins traveling with him in the increasingly desolate landscape.

This sets Essun on a hunt for her daughter, traveling with Hoa, the mysterious pale boy, and is tracked by the young woman raised in Leadership who found the mysterious hidden room in Fulcrum, the cruel school that trained orogenes.

Essun is now in an immense underground community (comm), built almost like a geode with crystals on nearly every surface. The comm is called Castrima, and it’s hidden from the roving refugees and bandits who scour the land above for food. Here she’s reunited with Alabaster. Weak, near death, and both watched over and slowly consumed by a stone eater named Antimony, Alabaster continues pushing to have Essun gain increasing power from the obelisks with the goal of healing the planet by bringing its moon back into orbit.

Meanwhile, Nessun wanders with her Guardian, increasing her own powers without training, holding resentful feelings about the mother who raised her with the same controlling cruelty used on Essun at Fulcrum.

The narrative is in constant transition, moving from Essun and Alabaster in Castrima, a comm working to control and feed its underground population and fight off raiders, then back to Nessun as her power increases along with her distrust of her Guardian escort.

There are concerns that this latest “fifth season” of volcanic ash may last 10,000 years. There are also concerns that the stone eaters have their own battle, with some wanting to support the human life on the planet and others hoping they’ll be wiped out leaving the planet to them.

This is a book that has the power to be a compulsive read, even for those who aren’t fond of the fantasy genre. I steer away from a lot of book that are filled with elves, dwarves, and dragons for the most part. I read Lord of the Rings and there are few authors that can write anything nearly as interesting. Nonetheless this was a compulsive read for me, much like an NPR critic who said he could barely eat or sleep wanting to see what came next. Jemisin has created something unique, compelling characters and storylines written with a prose elevated above most general fiction, let alone science/fantasy. It’s not entirely unheard of for the Hugos to honor multiple books in a series. They did that for Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. It is, however, rare for them to focus on books with such extraordinary literary quality.

The third book is now out. Review to follow soon.

 

 

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season (Broken Earth), by N. K. Jemisin

This novel won the 2016 Hugo Awards and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won again in 2017. The third book, The Stone Sky, is due August of 2017.

“For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question” is the book’s opening dedication. The book is set on a planet with a single large continent called The Stillness. The moon no longer circles, and the planet itself regularly shifts its surface showing great splits that bring volcanoes or earthquakes that wipe out coastal cities with tsunamis. When things get far out of control events called Seasons occur when the weather changes and food becomes scarce. Most of these last just a few years but some are near extinction events.

Essun is the central character. Her original name is Damaya and she was born an “orogene”. These are humans who have the power to use their minds to cause changes in the earth but they’re also feared by those who don’t have the power. Orogenes are known to create large frozen areas, or can open the earth to let it swallow others when they’re angry. Families will often kill or abandon them, or other people in their “comms” (communities) will do it for them. Now and then one is found by a Guardian, who will take the child to a place called the Fulcrum, where orogenes are trained. For each test passed they’ll be awarded a ring, but the discipline is fierce.

Essun is brought into this atmosphere, and much of the book focuses on her training in the bizarre school. Once trained the orogenes are contracted out to comms to repair the earth or make beneficial changes. On one of these trips Essun is sent to a coastal city with a 10-ring orogene named Alabaster. He has extensive power, enough to stop volcanoes, and can use the powers of other orogenes to increase his own.

This pattern of being feared and hated while still being needed is a theme throughout the book. The Guardians are nearly a separate race, with the power to kill orogenes at a touch, and they are used by the Leadership caste to control the orogenes.

Essun and Alabaster do their work at the coastal city, but while they do Essun uncovers a huge crystal obelisk buried under the harbor they’ve been hired to clear. Inside is a creature known as a Stone eater, a different race made of stone but with the power to flow through rock. This causes Leadership to send a Guardian to eliminate Essun and Alabaster. They escape to an island where they both fall in love with the head of a pirate clan.

This is about as short a summary as I can give for this intricate novel. The narrative is lyrical and moves between a third person narrative and a second-person singular (“you move forward slowly”). It also leaves out a ton of characters but gives a general outline.

The writing can be almost hypnotic at times in a unique story with undertones of race, survival, and honoring the earth but without slap-in-the-face messaging. Essun is an outcast even among other orogenes in her school, and her observations about the world guide the narrative vision. Despite her being withdrawn, Alabaster sees her as someone who can match or exceed his abilities.

Despite the rhythmic pace of the prose it’s a book with several tense, emotional, and erotic moments. The changes in perspective, while following a single character, can be a bit jarring but also add a subtle push to the story and gives it even more depth.

The prose and arc are reminiscent of Octavia Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin. This ain’t your typical space opera and it almost touches on fantasy but without the usual tropes. It’s worth diving into and is a really phenomenal read.

 

 

The Good Daughter

The Good Daughter: A Novel, by Karin Slaughter

I’ve been a fan of Karin Slaughter since first reading Cop Town a couple of years ago. She writes tight thrillers with a mystery attached, usually with a strong professional woman at the center and southern locales.

This book focuses on the life of Charlotte “Charlie” Quinn. An attorney and the daughter of a notorious criminal attorney in smalltown Pikeville, Georgia. Separated from her husband for the past two years she has a one-time tryst with a handsome school teacher and they accidentally switch phones. Returning to the school she once attended herself she goes to see the teacher and trade phones when a horrible shooting occurs outside the classroom. The shooter appears to be a quiet, slow female student who is arrested on the spot.

Charlie’s father becomes the attorney for the girl and, against her will, Charlie becomes embroiled in the defense herself. But as the case progresses Charlie is regularly brought back to her own childhood and a horrible night of a home invasion and an attack on her and her sister.

There are some tough scenes of rape and shooting in the book, but the mystery is excellently hidden and I had no accurate guesses until the final reveal.  It’s a strong portrayal of girls raised by a distant and dedicated father, a distant and brilliant mother, and an event that would devastate any family. Charlie’s life and reconciliation with her ex-husband, even her law career, are in the balance as she churns through the various bits of evidence of a crime she heard but didn’t witness.

It’s a book that kept me up reading in the middle of the night wanting to know what happened next. Slaughter manages twists with artistry (there are lots and they’re BIG) and, as always, brings in an amazing number of life-like characters both good and bad.

Trigger warning for any reader upset by sexual crimes, home invasion, and crimes against children.

 

 

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