September Books

Work has been slow this month. The downside? Less money. The upside? More reading! Some reviews are still to come. 

 

Golden Age: A novel (Last Hundred Years: a Family Saga) - Jane Smiley The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate (Icons) - Karen Armstrong Indexing - Seanan McGuire Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language - Rosemarie Ostler

Brinshore: A sequel to 'Emma and Elizabeth', inspired by Jane Austen's unfinished manuscripts, 'The Watsons' and 'Sanditon'. (The Watson Novels Book 2) - Ann Mychal The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Homes - Judith Flanders The Chess Queen Enigma: A Stoker & Holmes Novel (Stoker & Holmes Novels) - Colleen Gleason The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World - David Jaher The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life - Peter Ackroyd

A Calculated Life - Anne Charnock Farthing - Jo Walton Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War - Steve Sheinkin Lady Byron and Her Daughters - Julia Markus

Golden Age: A novel (Last Hundred Years: a Family Saga)

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Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1262319/september-books

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Human, or not?

Review:

A Calculated Life - Anne Charnock

This is a slow starting but ultimately moving  “wow!” of a story, set in a dystopian future London with three types of “humans”: humans with a moderate amount of genetic engineering to help them resist social evils like addiction, genetically engineered humans who have been enhanced with implants to make them smarter, and simulants or “created” humans who have been completely bio-engineered to have beyond genius level brains that can process huge amounts of data for their employers. Simulants, of course, have never been children and they have no families, so they live in regulated dorm-like residences. There has been some tinkering with the simulant models to make them more personable, but giving them a larger emotional scope could backfire by decreasing their functionality, so they are carefully monitored for any deviations.

Jayna, one of these newer simulants, uses her stellar data crunching skills to forecast social and economic trends at the offices of Mayhew and McCline where she tries to interact smoothly with both types of more normal humans.These humans interest her greatly in spite, or maybe because, of the fact that she often has to correct their faulty work, and the slow start I mentioned is no criticism because it’s fascinating to be inside her head as she interprets the world around her.

Jayna starts to believe that both her personal life and work-related predictive skills would be enhanced by experiencing more variety and  texture, which draws her slowly into an increasingly dangerous relationship with Dave, an un-implant-enhanced human who works in the company archives but has a side business selling honey. Dave’s grandfather had been a rebellious, freethinking college professor, placing Dave very low in the social hierarchy, so he lives in the high-rise, slum-like outskirts of town, past the comfortable upper middle class houses of humans with implants, and beyond the citrus groves that must be part of the English landscape as a result of climate change.

As new understandings and sensations open to Jayna–some as simple as the smell of a fresh brewed cup of coffee–she feels compelled to continue her risky encounters with Dave, but if she’s caught she could be wiped clean and reprogrammed by “the constructor”, the entity who supplies the simulant workers to businesses.

The author creates a strong connection between hyper-intelligent but naive Jayna and the reader–though anxious about the possible consequences of Jayna’s actions I was cheering her on–and the world building of this chilling, socially stratified future London is excellent, and introduced naturally through Jayna’s interactions with the people who work at her office and the simulants who share her housing compound. The building tension of the story kept me hooked, and the ending left me a lot to think about. I listened to the well done audio version of this unusual but compelling book.

Original post:
Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1262295/human-or-not

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History that reads like a political thriller

Review:

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War - Steve Sheinkin

Written for middle school age children, this book races along like a political thriller and will hook most readers, this adult included, with its all too real story from the Vietnam War era. I was in high school when the top secret Pentagon Papers were printed in newspapers around the country, so I remember Daniel Ellsberg and the revelations he made public, but author Steve Sheinkin fills in details that were unknown at the time, at least by me.

 

For people who weren’t alive then, this history will present them with an unsettling look at the motivations of past presidents, both Democratic and Republican. None of them wanted to be the first American leader to lose a war, so the military action in Vietnam dragged on and on, while the number of people killed continued to climb with no possible victory in sight. Watergate and Nixon’s eventual resignation are covered as part of the events surrounding the release of the Pentagon Papers.

It was a very different cultural climate then–a divisive time when four students protesting the war were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State University–but there are obvious parallels to even that story in some of today’s news headlines. The book finishes with a “hero or villain?”  discussion of Edward Snowden and his more recent actions exposing classified CIA documents. This is a thorough and thoughtful introduction for young people that will be interesting for many adults too.

Original post:
Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1261841/history-that-reads-like-a-political-thriller

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Danger in paradise–re-reading a book I’ve loved for more than 40 years

Review:

The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart

This beautifully written, utterly charming romantic thriller kept my heart pounding in terrified suspense, even though my original copy of the book is falling apart because I’ve read the story so many times. When I was twelve or thirteen, Mary Stewart was a favorite author of everyone I knew who loved to read–my mother, her friends, me, and eventually my younger sisters–and of all Stewart’s books it was The Moon-Spinners that siren-called me back to its pages again and again.

Nicola Ferris is on holiday in Crete, surrounded by age-old ruins, sunny skies, and colorful wildflowers. While hiking among fragrant lemon groves on the craggy hills of the White Mountains, she impulsively follows the path of flying egret and runs into an Englishman who’s been shot, yet won’t tell her what happened and just wants her to go away and forget she ever saw him, though he obviously needs help. But as Nicola continues her vacation, enjoying the beautiful scenery and relaxing with her cousin, she can’t help noticing details that draw her back to the mystery and into danger.

I’m not normally a reader who enjoys a lot of description in books, but in The Moon-Spinners it’s so gorgeous and transporting I relish every word and image. While the story is set firmly and very compellingly in the all-too-real world, Stewart’s writing is laced with ancient myths and literary allusions.  

The novel was written in the early 1960’s and Nicola shares some of the attitudes of that era, a time when men were leaders, male superiority was casually accepted by just about everyone, and the ideal for women was to be safely put up on a pedestal, but Nicola strains against those strictures too because she’s observant, quick-witted, and independent.

It had been decades since my last reading, and delving back into The Moon-Spinners was like going on an archaeological dig through layers of my own worldview, helping me remember, even re-feel, some of my earliest understandings of life and love and the kind of person I wanted to be, since I was brought up surrounded by those early 60’s assumptions too, before everything started changing just a few years later in the decade.

Original post:
Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1260866/danger-in-paradise-re-reading-a-book-i-ve-loved-for-more-than-40-years

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A quick look at Wilkie Collins

Review:

Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life - Peter Ackroyd

This very short biography of Victorian author Wilkie Collins is breezy in style and it skims the surface of his colorful life. Readers are given facts about his childhood, oddly shaped body, dislike of marriage, two mistresses, friendship with Charles Dickens, travels abroad, and illnesses, but with only 233  small size pages of text there isn’t room to go into much depth about them all.

 

I would have liked to learn more about how the two mistresses managed–their relationships with Collins overlapped, and though he provided for them and their children as best he could his refusal to marry put them both in a difficult situation. I also would have enjoyed  a larger sense of history from the book, and deeper insights into life in Victorian England, but as the subtitle indicates this is “A Brief Life” and I did come away from the book with new perspectives on Wilkie Collins.

 

I was most fascinated by the ongoing overview of the books and plays Collins wrote that’s integrated into his personal history, with the plots and characters of those works put into the context of his life and time. This quick introduction to Wilkie Collins is like an intriguing appetizer that whets the appetite for more.

I read an ebook advanced review copy of this book provided to me at no cost by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

Original post:
Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1260094/a-quick-look-at-wilkie-collins

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Rapping, and ectoplasm, and ghosts, oh my!

Review:

The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World - David Jaher

While the 1920’s are well known for flappers, jazz, and speakeasies, I wasn’t as aware that séances  were so popular in both America and Europe, but it makes sense. Lots of people had lost loved ones to the double tragedies of WWI and the worldwide flu epidemic that followed, and modern spoken-word transmission wonders like the telephone and wireless radio made communication across distant planes of existence seem possible, even likely. So likely, the venerable Scientific American magazine held a contest offering a lot of money to any medium who could convince an investigative committee that their powers of summoning the dead were real. But though scientists were open-minded about the possibilities of contact with those now residing in the great beyond, the subject remained highly controversial because many religious people were horrified by the spiritualism craze.

Author David Jaher tells this intriguing history with such immersive detail that I actually started to feel a little creeped-out while reading about the dead rising in my dimly lit bedroom, an effect that was enhanced when the book’s cover literally glowed in the dark after I finally turned off the light (an unsettling but potent design choice). But along with its interesting historical insights, my favorite parts of the book involved its compelling portraits of the living, not the conversations of the dearly departed–though I did love picturing Summerland, reputed home of those who have passed on, where one no-longer-living young man claimed he could enjoy a celestial strain of whiskey and astral cigars.

I knew Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had some mystical interests, but I had no idea how consumed he became. He made several extensive tours of America promoting the “new religion” of spiritualism, the only religion, he believed, that could be proved true by science. Henry Houdini also plays a large role in the spiritualism controversies reported in this book. He hoped communication with the dead was possible because he longed to have contact with his beloved mother, but unfortunately the master magician could see through all the mediums’ very amazing tricks and slights of hand. Houdini became one of the judges of the Scientific American contest, and he made it his mission to debunk all spiritualist frauds, a relentless activity that put him at odds with his equally but oppositely obsessed friend Doyle.

The medium the book spends the most time with is the “witch” of the title, charming Mina Crandon who was known as “Margery”. She was the best hope of those running the Scientific American contest, because she was educated and never took money for exhibiting her powers, factors which made her seem more credible than the other mediums they tested, but there ended up being  a lot of twists and turns to her story.

Jaher’s book is a fascinating and well told slice of history. Based on how vivid and readable the book is I was unsurprised to learn he’s a screenwriter. The fact that he’s also a professional astrologer did make my eyebrows raise just a bit.

I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.

Original post:
Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1259001/rapping-and-ectoplasm-and-ghosts-oh-my

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A detailed backstory of the places we call home

Review:

The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Homes - Judith Flanders

This copiously researched 500 year history of homes in Europe and America has an almost overwhelming amount of detail, but is so fascinating I kept interrupting the lives of people around me to share something I had just read. Stretching from the tiny, crowded, windowless shacks of our ancestors to the paradigm shifting development of modern suburbs, Judith Flanders has written an eye-opening account.

Included in its scope are 500 years of evolving attitudes about family, marriage, children, gender roles, manners, human waste disposal, how brightly lit a home needs to be, when privacy is required, and what having a clean home means. Flanders describes the difficult ways people got water into their houses before plumbing, how meals were cooked over an open fire (stew was the main menu item for a long time), and how the Industrial Revolution came about. The effects of religion, technology, and changing economic circumstances are explored, and one book-long theme involves home versus house, and the fact that some languages and cultures don’t make a distinction between the two words.

There were all sorts of oddities I didn’t expect. At different points in history beds used to be kept in the parlour for show, sand was put on the floor to soak up grease and wax, people shared beds with their servants, and what little furniture there was stayed pushed against the wall and only moved into the center as needed–the better not to trip over it in the interior dimness that was standard for hundreds of years.

Another thing that interested me is that preserved historic houses are mainly the best of the best, not representative of where most people lived, and they are also the most recent examples of their kind–no one would have saved earlier inferior dwellings as they were replaced. For instance, as awful as they are the slave quarters on view for tourists are actually upgrades, and vast improvements over what enslaved people had to endure for most of the history of slavery in the American South.

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Jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1257944/a-detailed-backstory-of-of-the-places-we-call-home

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