Sunday, June 28, 2020

On Persuasion

The Jane Austen SocietyThe Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The jacket copy says that fans of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir will enjoy this book; I’m a fan of the first and not of the second, but I did enjoy this historical fiction tribute to Jane Austen and her fans. I think the book was written expressly for them; deeper familiarity with her novels would certainly enhance the reading. I’m not sure that it will convert those unfamiliar with her work; it didn’t inspire me to reread Austen, but it kept my interest because it celebrates reading.
Jenner has invented a group of characters who form the Jane Austen Society in the post-WWII village of Chawton (Austen’s historic home). In homage to Austen, she concentrates on illustrating issues of class and romantic expectations in the closed-environment Petri dish of an English village; in service to her own muse, there’s a 21st Century perspective that makes it more bearable to me than Austen’s own works. The author’s outlier characters, Evie and Adam (oh, the symbolism—but no, there’s a huge age gap and they’re never associated romantically) are the ones who made the book interesting to me. I really liked them. Adam, a village farmer, discovers Austen from the visit of an American girl on Austen pilgrimage in 1932, thereby obtaining the gift of companionship and wisdom that books can bring to a lonely life. Evie’s introduced to Austen in school by the dynamic village teacher. Though she has to leave the village school before graduation in order to work in the manor where Austen once lived, she has her master reading list and she’s able to nurture her native intelligence through access to the manor library.
Most of the other characters are flawed but sympathetic, just like real life. The village doctor, the village lawyer, and the lady of the manor all have starring roles, along with the teacher and the American—later a movie star who never lost her love for Austen—her movie producer fiancĂ©, and a Sotheby’s assistant director of estate sales. Couples find happiness and the entwined threads all tie up nicely in the end. I’ll look forward to another book from the author, especially if she steps further from Austen’s shadow.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

Post-Apocalypse Hope

A Beginning at the EndA Beginning at the End by Mike Chen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The current crop of apocalyptic sci-fi books shows clearly that fiction is a form of thought experiment and that science fiction is really about the present time. I’ve got at least 4 books stacked by my chair that I’ve had to put down because the authors picked pandemic for their apocalypse and I don’t want to read about them. Chen was coming to the Tucson Festival of Books so I started reading his book with its hopeful title in March, having forgotten—if I knew—that he picked pandemic, too. I was able to keep reading this one. Chen’s book centers around people, not ideas, and that’s why it’s readable and hopeful in the current situation.
A decade after a global pandemic wiped out most of the planet’s population, the survivors are rebuilding the country, split between self-governing cities, hippie communes and wasteland gangs. The poor, as always, are stuck in one place or the other. Tensions are rising again, along with the threat of new outbreaks. The plot centers around Moira, a former child star voice artist who’s been hiding from her domineering stage dad for years; Rob, a single dad who has to keep proving to social services that he deserves custody of his daughter Sunny; and Krista, an event planner with a big heart and radical friends. Their challenges are both personal and communal, with society in such flux, but people of good heart usually find a way to achieve their dreams, especially with a little help from friends—and they do.
There’s definitely a difference between the newer sci-fi authors and the Boomers; Chen is definitely new school. The real feat that Chen pulls off is to embed his hopefulness in an engaging plot, with likable characters, and to keep the politics offstage and out of total war, through compromise. Usually in these books there are clear winners and losers; Chen has written a way into the future that is workable and believable because the only thing that works in our lived reality is compromise: nobody wins everything but nobody loses everything, either. If only the politicians would quit living in the fantasy worlds of total domination and move into the world where the rest of humanity resides. Books like this remind us of what’s really possible. Recommended.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Science Doesn't Kill People...

Sea ChangeSea Change by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sea Change is a fast, exciting read that highlights climate change instead of pandemic as its apocalypse generator. In 2022, GMOs were banned. A biopharmaceutical caused the Catastrophe: worldwide economic and agricultural collapse, and personal tragedy for lawyer Caroline Denton and her son. Ten years later, reinvented as Renata Black, she is living in Seattle and a member of the Org, an underground group of scientists hunted by the feds. But the Org’s illegal food-research might just hold the key to rebuilding the world’s food supply.
This is another original take in the genre of apocalypse, with the focus on banning a particular type of science. There’s so much material out there floating in cyberspace conspiracy theory that has not been used yet in traditional fiction publishing, and this book is a good example of how one fiction can inform another. With its near-future setting and secret science labs, I was reminded of the spy shows of the 1960s (in a fun way). The book’s main theme, of course, is that science isn’t bad; it’s the way science is used that can be problematic. In other words, “science doesn’t kill people...”.
In the end, though, what makes this such a good novel isn’t plot, but character. Renata has always been an activist, but she’s not in the Org because of food science, but because of another project, connected to her son. Through Renata/Caroline’s story we discover no matter how much we wish the world were run by reason (particularly our own reasons and rationales)—our living into the future is propelled by our responses to our loves and losses. This may be both humanity’s greatest strength and weakness; if we could harness the power of the human heart—or set it free—that would be the greatest breakthrough of all time. This is a near-future thriller worth reading.
Recommended. (Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the e-galley for review.)

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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Garden Inspiration

Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic PoetEmily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet by Marta McDowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This reader finds hope and solace in troubling times through both nature and literature, so what better book to try than this combination of both. I’d checked the book out of the library before deciding whether to add it to my personal collection, so extended checkout has enabled me to decide. Exploring Emily’s gardens in Amherst is also a bit of fantasy reading for desert rats, since many of the mentioned plants do not thrive here, and snow blankets boggle the mind. Hollyhocks are August blooms for Emily, but April blooms for us, and plants that sleep for winter there thrive beautifully here and want to drowse through summer’s heat instead. There’s still lots of gardening inspiration and rumination to be had.

The author is a prodigious gardener herself, wrote Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life before this, and was the Gardener-in-Residence at the Dickinson Museum in 2018. She does a lovely job combining Dickinson’s life, poetry, and gardening, weaving the story through the seasons—and the half-seasons we gardeners know so well, those transitions when gentle warmth lets tender blooms meet, mingle, and say farewell—not forgetting the sudden harsh times when everything disappears in storm.

Illustrated with botanical prints, images of pressed flowers, and Emily’s words from letters and poems, the book is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind. Mostly focusing on ornamentals, as Emily did herself, we still get a glimpse of the family’s vegetable plot, and lessons on over-wintering outside the conservatory. From 1865:



With us, ‘tis Harvest all the Year

For when the Frosts begin

We just reverse the Zodiac

And fetch the Acres in-

(1036)



I had forgotten that all of Emily’s poems are not equally great; the author chose them for their illustrative, not literary qualities. Most work quite well, though some are difficult to parse; our common language has changed so much--and the landscapes of the country. Where Dickinson can be obscure, McDowell can wander to overly florid descriptions that miss the mark; for the most part, however, the language sings with apt observation and the gardener’s vision shines through.

All in all, this is a lovely addition to any gardening or poetry library; the gardening is forefront, with tips and admonitions from the author. Recommended.



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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Escape To Venice

Leon has been writing about police Commissario Brunetti for well over twenty years, and his city of Venice is one of the main characters, along with Brunetti and his family. The series stands out not only for its setting, but for the almost equal time devoted to Brunetti's home life as to his work; the story is never about the crimes alone, but about the people who are caught up in them. Twenty-odd years ago, Brunetti's job was petty thieves and stupid murders and working around corruption; his children were young. Brunetti, though he went to college and reads classics—Greek and Roman—for a hobby, is a working class man. His wife Paola is of the nobility, though she was a student radical and socialist; her father is a Count. The early books weave the politics of sex and class through issues of family and justice, a window into Venetian life. Venice is in the water as well as on the water, though, and the later books engage with crime in environmental issues, particularly water quality. This is all explored within the context of daily living; Brunetti's relationships at home and at work develop and change as everyone ages. There’s the ebb and flow of politics and of the canals, the rustic countryside fading away as the city grows, the customs of old fading as tourists become prevalent. Brunetti and Paola, a professor of literature whose other love is Henry James, discuss philosophy, psychology and ethics over dinner and pillow talk. In this book, we’re trying to figure out whether a crime has even been committed. Brunetti’s colleague Claudia Griffoni is featured; we always see his boss and his secretary Signorina Elettra, the most beautiful hacker in Italy, but Brunetti’s colleagues take their turn. Griffoni’s from the south of Italy, not Venetian; regional prejudices feature in the stories, too, echoing life outside the pages. They’re called to a deathbed, where the dying widow gives them not a confession, but a mystery. Who killed her husband, if he was killed? I hope I’ve intrigued you about the series; I hope you begin at the beginning. After all these years, reading Leon is like spending time with an old friend, congenial and satisfying. (Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to review!)

What's Really Behind Those Schoolwork Packets, Or, Modern Education

Elden does a great job portraying a year in the lives of high school teachers at fictional Brae Hill Valley High School. The story takes place in Texas but teachers from all over will recognize themselves in the frustrations and hopes of these characters.During the course of the school year the tale switches back and forth from Language Arts (Lena is a spoken-word poet) to Science (Hernan has a green thumb and a crush on Lena) to Math (Maybelline has a teenage daughter at home) to Football (Coach Ray has a bellow and a soft heart) to idealistic Social Studies teacher Kaylee and tired Principal Dr. Barrios. It’s like reading a script for Parks and Rec or The Office, funny and touching at the same time. We get glimpses of their home lives and personal dreams as well as their teaching days and hopes for their students. These characters reminded me so much of teachers I have been and known, including my parents. Their hopes and dreams aren’t much different than those of the students, just more seasoned. There’s a satirical thread running through the course of this academic year: Brae Hill Valley has been chosen to model the next great packaged education system! Guaranteed! (Not.) It’s hard, when teachers have been teaching for millennia, to have to put up with fads in education; the underlying satire in the book pokes at academic and marketing professionals who proffer “expert” advice without ever having experienced the job itself. This is the clichĂ© of modern life; it’s just particularly ironic in education. The real guarantees of education come from caring about the kids, about the subject you’re teaching, and having different strategies for different learners. This would be a great book club book; there are some reading group questions at the end—might remind you of English essays in your past, and a good author interview in the back of the book. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Queen's Bargain (The Black Jewels #10)The Queen's Bargain by Anne Bishop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After I read The Queen's Bargain—I won it in a goodreads giveaway!—I immediately re-read the rest of the Black Jewels books. That’s how good it is in re-kindling the love for the Dark Jewels universe. Bishop's work focuses on the uses and abuses of power. (There are abuse triggers in her work, for those who need to be aware of this.)
This book takes up where the last left off, early years in the marriage of Surreal and Daemon. Their daughter Janaelle has been gifted the Twilight jewel at her ceremony, even though she is not Witch reborn. She’s going through growing pains. Jillian, the young Eyrian witch who helps raise Lucivar's young children, has finally hit puberty and started dating, another form of growing pains. Dillon, the young Lord she's dating, has some problems, and Lucivar and Daemon might become two more for him.
Daemon and Surreal aren't communicating with each other or their friends, and their relationship faces real consequences. Marian, Lucivar’s wife, isn’t recovering from her last birthing. Dillon and Jillian are young people making choices that have real consequences. Bishop explores consequences.
The balance of power between lesser and greater, the dance of power between duty and desire: these are the underlying themes of the work, interlaced with explorations of acceptance in diversity, not only of gender but of race and species. Those are the pleasures of a Bishop book—in addition to great storytelling. So far I've loved all of them.
Scelties abound, Karla (kiss-kiss) visits, and love is forever—the barriers between life and death notwithstanding. The door to new adventures is always open, and I'll follow Bishop there every time. Recommended.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Mad World, or a Moral World?

The InstituteThe Institute by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once again, Stephen King writes a novel that shows true horror lies not in the supernatural, but in the choices humans make. The world sees Luke Ellis as pretty special; he's got an incredible brain, and gifted with caring parents, he has reasonable social skills as well. He’s only twelve, but he’s all set to begin college classes in the coming fall. Except he wakes up in the middle of the night to his own kidnapping. His parents are also murdered, though it takes him a while to realize that fact.
Luke wakes up at the Institute, where a bunch of other kids are also imprisoned. They’re experimented on in Front Half and then disappear into Back Half and are never seen again. They each have a psychic gift, and all this murder and torture is enabled by taxpayer dollars diverted to a shadow government program.
The kids bond together, and Luke is not the only hero. In fact, the book starts out with the story of our adult hero, a cop who’s drifting his way on to a new future.
This would make a great movie, of course.
King is a master storyteller, keeping the suspense at a constant but tolerable level. We want the kids to escape, just like in the fairytales. This is the appeal of genre books and popular fiction: it’s clear who the good guys are, even if right and wrong get murky. The world is a scary and dangerous place and the only thing that helps is love and kindness; that’s what the stories are there to teach us.
The lesson is always hope, and the moral is always kindness, in the fairytales where horror was born.
King does a good job showing how people can let themselves torture kids for a living, either not caring in the first place or fooling themselves with the pretense of necessity camouflaged as national security. With this particular story, King asserts that no matter how lofty the goal, there is never a moral excuse for keeping children in cages.
(I won a Goodreads giveaway for the book, yay! and thanks!)

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Sunday, January 12, 2020

It's Not Just America

QualitylandQualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Qualityland is both a good scifi story and an extended joke. The author takes the everyday situation of receiving something you didn't order and don't want through the typical absurdities. In the process he shows society has gone beyond the Peter Principle and Murphy's Law into Peter's Problem. With its near-future setting, it reads like a cross between Douglas Adams and a Monty Python script. 
In Peter's country, Qualityland, everything is great. The status quo is always great, even if it changes often. Algorithms decide everything, from jobs to relationships to diet to social status. It's all so great. And most things are automatic. In fact, TheShop sends you things before you know you want them, and charges you accordingly.  One day Peter receives something from TheShop that he absolutely does NOT want, and he attempts to return it. But that calls Qualityland's greatness into question, being not so great. Bureaucracy and frustration ensue. 
It's a satire of modernity bringing to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” from the 18th century and Karel Capek’s play "RUR" from the early 20th; it's a cri de couer for the everyman of the 21st Century—all without preaching. The most interesting and gratifying thing about the book is that, like those other literary works, this is not about America. It's a scathing indictment of (insert name of “First World” country here). We're all alike. Kling skewers capitalism, colonialism, tribalism and most other -isms out there with an even touch, highlighting human foibles. We really are all alike.
The translation has given just the right touch of exasperation to elicit humor over tragedy as Peter tries to assert his individuality in a world gone mad with conformity and consumption, and the end result is thoughtful laughter (or facepalm) instead of tears. Highly recommended.

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