Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (F&SF)

Writing:  5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5

Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (three are available to date) is every bit as good (if not better) than book one. I wouldn’t mind a (non-invasive) peek into Sanderson’s brain because his ability to world build is better than any I’ve seen. The variety and depth of the cultures that populate these worlds is overwhelming — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

While volume one reads well as a stand-alone (no cliff hangers), volume two does take up where it left off (by the way, I waited one full year before reading the second book and had no trouble remembering the characters or world — it was that vivid). Words of Radiance brings the storylines of the three main characters closer together as they each muster their own internal resources (and develop unexpected capabilities) to tackle the danger that faces Roshar. Dalinar rises to the challenge of refounding the Knights Radiant in spite of overwhelming and devious opposition of all the other High Princes; Kaladin contends with his own bitterness, mistrust, and divided loyalties in his new leadership position as most trusted personal guard of the King and family; and Shallan — meek supplicant scholar in book one — develops in every dimension possible to become absolutely essential for the preservation of the human race on Roshar.

Plenty of action and tension, strong moral and ethical themes around honor, blame, responsibility, and doing what is right. Great character development — the heroes make sometimes drastic mistakes and have inner as well as outer demons to fight while the villains are often motivated by similar values but conflicting needs and situation assessments. There are more answers — and more questions — on some fundamental concepts of the world such as the Spren, the Void Bringers and the Desolations. Sanderson is a master at introducing other cultures by way of natural storytelling rather than long descriptions. As an aside, I love the division of labor between males and females: females are the scholars, scientists, and engineers; males are the warriors and politicians. Reading is considered too feminine for most men. Crossover happens — some people are scandalized and others couldn’t care less. A fun twist on gender assumptions!

My favorite line: “Do not let your assumptions about a culture block your ability to perceive the individual or you will fail.”

The Next to Last Mistake by Amalie Jahn (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Inscribe Digital through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 19, 2019.

Writing: 3.5/5  Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Blonde haired, blue eyed, Iowa farm girl Tess Goodwin has her life uprooted when her father reenlists in the military and relocates the family to Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Trading farm crops and silos and tractors for soldiers and loud guns” — it’s a rough transition for Tess. She leaves behind a beloved lifestyle and her best (and in some ways only) friend Zander … for whom she may have some stronger feelings than just friendship. She also enters the very real and dangerous world of the military where “the practice of staying alive is incentivized” with a billboard displaying the number of days with no unit fatalities. However, as they say in her farming community, you “grow where you’re planted,” and this is the story of how she manages to develop in a wildly different environment.

Leaving the homogeneity of Iowa behind, this is Tess’ first experience with racial diversity. Establishing a strong connection with a group of three other girls — military and townie, black and white — she is forced to come to terms with her own implicit biases. While I got a little tired of her feeling “humble and thankful for clemency” so frequently when faced with racial realities of which she was previously unaware, I did appreciate the frank discussions of the topic, exemplified via experiences, educational mini-lectures, and a couple of really good literary discussions drawn from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

A coming-of-age story, it does a nice job of describing the experience for a specific, rather than generic, teen. Tess is a chess enthusiast, a skillful farmer, and has a much closer relationship with her father than her (perfectly normal) mother. The book does a nice job of challenging multiple gender, race, and role assumptions simultaneously.

At times the book feels a little over simplified (problems are solved with far too facile measures) and a few passages feel like mini-lectures rather than the natural expressions of teenage girls, but the characters are appealing, the descriptions of both farm and military life are engaging, and I liked the clear descriptions of difficult racial subjects from the perspective of a white girl who had not needed to consider them before.

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks

Thanks to NetGalley and Tin House Books for an advance review copy. The Orphan of Salt Winds will be published on Jan. 16, 2019.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

A dark and moody historical drama set against English marshes on the eve of WWII. Virginia — a ten-year-old orphan — comes to live at Salt Winds as the adopted daughter of Clem and Lorna. Clem is the author of wildlife books and Lorna a somewhat reluctant housewife. Tension unfurls at a steady and insidious pace as Virginia works to makes sense of the strain between her adoptive parents and the perfidious and disagreeable neighbor Max Deering. When a German aviator crashes into the marsh, events unfold that lead to a terrible denouement. Alternating chapters take place in 2015 when Virginia, in her dotage and still haunted by past events, spies a young girl clinging to the marsh wall in the bitter winds.

The writing is very good and the tension palpable. The descriptive prose brings the marshes and the time to life. The pacing is a bit slow for my taste with not enough story to warrant the length, and I would have liked a more upbeat ending. One of the more interesting aspects of the book for me is the way Virginia’s (and therefore our) understanding of individual characters changes over time. For example, Clem is the sympathetic character at the start — he behaves like a father while Lorna doesn’t seem to know what to do with the role of mother that has been foisted upon her. However, over time Virginia begins to see, and understand, how circumstance shaped Lorna and how she finally pushes through a learned submissiveness to become the person she needed to be. It’s interesting to realize that we see everything through the eyes of a ten- to twelve-year-old, and later through the eyes of the (somewhat bitter) old woman she becomes.

Good for fans of Kate Morton.

Stars Uncharted by S. K. Dunstall

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Stars Unchartede by S.K. Dunstall, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
World building: 4.5 plot: 3.5 characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

Thoroughly enjoyable, action-packed, sci-fi about a motley crew of spacefarers thrown together by circumstance. In this world, body modification for health, style, or pleasure is easily available if you have the cash, and the “modders” who do those modifications are held in far greater esteem than doctors. Nika Rik Terri is the acknowledged best, but some nasty customers who prefer not to leave witnesses have her on the run; Josune Arriola was sent to spy on Captain Hammond Roystan — clearly not the simple cargo runner he appears — but remains when her own ship shows up with a full complement of dead crew members.

In a galaxy where the big 27 Combines run the legal system, justice can be difficult to procure leading to intrigue and imaginative fight and / or flight scenes. Exploration of the art and science of body modification via genetic engineering is pervasive throughout — details of design, implementation, requirements, source materials, equipment, and the challenges of difficult cases make for interesting reading. Plenty of technical detail on fixing up their (oft attacked) ship as well. In addition to the action, I found a couple of other points interesting: Nika — the top notch modder — thinks about why style and appearance are so important to her and how that may have caused her problems in the past. Also, I found the contrast between current and previous modder training interesting — the newer training taught people to rely on technicians and equipment rather than their own deep expertise; Nika prefers to be able to maintain, extend, and even create her own equipment. A good analogy for traiing in many fields today.

Great for fans of Andy Weir, Becky Chambers, CJ Cherryh, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5+ Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A powerful novel and I don’t use that word lightly. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The story takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen year-old boy learning to be a man. He lives with his grandparents (“Pop” and “Mam”), his 3 year-old sister Kayla, and his mother (whom he calls Leonie) when she bothers to show up. Mam, Leonie, and both children have the “sight” — an ability to see and hear things that others don’t — and this filters into the story in significant and lyrical ways. The action centers around a trip to Parchman prison to retrieve Michael (the children’s white father) at the end of a three year sentence. However, the real story is about how a person can grow into an honorable and ethical human being when they are in a poisoned environment.

Jojo, Leonie, and Richie — the spirit of a young boy incarcerated at Parchman with Pop when he was 15 — are alternating narrators. The stories they tell weave together haunting tales of the past with their parallels in the present. Hints of voodoo and the thin veil between this world and the next suffuse the interlocking narratives.

The book is equal parts disturbing and heart warming; the end is quite glorious.

Some good lines
“Pop says a man should look another man in the face.”

“But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.”

“Even now, my devotion: inconstant.”

“I wait until the nicotine laps at my insides like a placid lake.”

“I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. “

As an aside, I looked up Parchman Prison because I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading and found the truth to be even worse: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison. Check out the Convict Lease Program.

Irontown Blues by John Varley

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Irontown Blues by John Varley, which will publish August 28, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4 World Building: 4.5

A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery, in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley.

Chris Bach is a PI wannabe offering his services on Luna many years after the alien invasion of Earth (which basically depopulated the planet — see previous books in the Eight Worlds Universe for more details on this, but it’s not important for this story). He sets off to solve the case of a woman who has been given leprosy against her will (hard to believe anyone would willingly contract leprosy but in this world of acceptable and reversible extreme body modifications, disfiguring diseases can be a source of amusement for some — hmmm). “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown” — trust me when I tell you that the case does not go where you think it will.

Chris is aided by his sidekick, Sherlock. Sherlock is a CEC — a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine. The tale is told through their alternating voices — Sherlock’s via the aid of a canine interpreter named Penelope Cornflower (β-Penny in Sherlock parlance). The book is worth reading for Sherlock’s story alone — if you’re at all a dog person you’ll enjoy (and crack up at) his interpretation of the world and events. Other cool characters include Chris’ not-very-maternal mother (retired police chief and now prehistoric-reptile rancher), and some pretty nasty soldiers from Charon, a once prison-planet turned … not-so-nice but now fully acceptable part of the Eight Worlds.

Great world building and descriptions of future life, both technologically and culturally enhanced. Surprising plot and interesting characters. Plenty of fun references to our favorite detectives both current and past (Elvis Cole and Marlowe are mentioned a lot as is Hildy Johnson. Heinlein gets a whole subculture.) Threads on libertarian ideals, body modification, creative habitats, and slightly insane AIs, run liberally through the story.

Hugo-and-Nebula-Award-Winner John Varley has been writing since shortly after I began reading, and I’ve read most of his work. His short story collection, The Persistence of Vision, is possibly my number one favorite SF short story collection (which is saying quite a lot). I confess I had lost track of him for the past few years and haven’t read his last couple of novels — but I’ll remedy that shortly.