Euphoria by Lily King

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Gah, this book. It was probably 4.5 stars for me going into the ending. There were so many things to appreciate about it, and just a few things that bothered me*. On a stylistic level, I thought King’s writing was strong – emotional and evocative. Thematically and politically, King’s portrayal of the start of modern anthropological ethnography was nuanced and balanced – Nell Stone (aka Margaret Mead) and her compatriots were among the first to think about bias and objectivity and global white supremacy, and they were all part of changing anthropology into what we see today. I thought King’s portrayal of the native peoples’ Stone lived with and studied in New Guinea was equally nuanced. She shows that what we know of this people has come through the lens of white anthropologists, who themselves knew that they weren’t getting or understanding everything. She wrote the indigenous characters as people, which ideally wouldn’t be a positive thing to note. (Ideally it would just be a thing that everybody does, but instead here I am, thankful that she treated human beings like human beings.) King engages with the complicated harm that white people brought to the rest of the world, especially in the return of an indigenous man who had gone off to work in a mine and came back changed.

That’s the good stuff out of the way. My niggling negatives pre-ending included a discomfort with how unclear it is what is Margaret Mead & compatriots and what is fictionalized. King changes enough, including making Stone more passive than Mead and her husband both emotionally and physically abusive when afaik there isn’t evidence of that, that I would have appreciated more notes in the back, separating truth from fiction. I also felt uncomfortable with King’s POV choices – why does Bankson get this close, personal 1st person perspective, while Stone gets either a limited-3rd or diary entries? Ultimately, King’s POVs show her focus: this is really Bankson’s story, about how Stone saved him and his career, and it seems insulting to me, to take one of the most famous & fascinating women in history and write a book about how she changed one man’s life. Judging harshly, I’m going to say that King turned Mead into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with a little less manic pixie, but plenty of “amazing, crazy, unique girl comes into a man’s life and inspire/save him.” Ughughgughgughg.

And worse than that, worse than that, and here’s where we get to my deep anger at the ending(view spoiler)

I will say that it is rare for me to downgrade a book more than half a star based on its ending (I only had one last year – Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar), so for me to go down 2 full stars is a big deal. I rounded up to 3 stars out of respect for the nuance and care King showed during most of the book.

*Thank you, Mia, for helping me to, rather than fall into to a rage cycle, think through my post-reading anger and to acknowledge all of the things I appreciated about the book.

(Cross-posted from Goodreads. See my other reviews and/or friend me here.)

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The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, by Jennifer Laam (Plus Giveaway)

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

by Jennifer Laam

“A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter—smuggled out of Russia before the revolution—continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences.

In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her. Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra.  After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie. Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy. Then as Veronica’s passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is thrilling from its first intense moments until its final, unexpected conclusion.” (via Goodreads)

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The Secret Daughter of the Tsar isn’t my typical reading fare–it’s not fantasy, sci-fi, or YA, which I’ll admit have made up most of my library lately. But then, I’m also hard-pressed to figure out exactly which category it falls into. Parts are historical, parts are contemporary; there’s some mystery and some thriller in there too, and also some romance. Plus, it’s technically an alternate-history novel, so you could also call it speculative fiction. I can’t help but be interested in books that fall between the borders of genre, so this one tickled my brain a while after I finished it.

There are three main timelines following three characters: Veronica, Charlotte, and Lena. Their stories are clearly delineated, although it’s not until the end that their threads become obviously interwoven. I found Veronica’s and Lena’s stories most compelling. Veronica is a wonderful contemporary protagonist; she’s smart but full of self-doubt, but she also doesn’t hesitate to communicate her wants in a relationship or ask for space if she needs it. Despite her doubts, she’s got strength, and it’s wonderful to read about an interesting, nuanced Chicana heroine! There are also some funny moments that–hand to heart–made me cackle aloud:

Except she had no clue how to signal what she wanted. A hand on his knee? A sly wink? She wanted to feel sexy and wild. If only she had something sexy and wild to say. “Where’s your bathroom?” she asked.

Lena’s story is also engaging. She’s a genuine, brave woman, and I enjoyed her relationships with the empress and her mother-in-law, as well as her chemistry with Paul, the Black American guard at the palace. There’s so much warmth and well-meaning in her friendship with Alexandra that I didn’t want anything bad to happen to either of them (poor hopes for a Romanov storyline, I kn0w).

I found the beginning of the book slightly uneven, but in the thick of things, the pacing is good, and the plot skips along. The stories switch back and forth at tense moments that made me want to keep reading long past the end of my lunch break (and the beginning of my bedtime–I ended up having to set it aside because it was too exciting for pre-sleep reading! Got my adrenaline all pumping and stuff.)

While I enjoyed Charlotte’s storyline too, anything involving Nazis makes me kind of anxious, so I was basically reading with my eyes half-covered. I didn’t quite get as strong a sense of the danger that Veronica experiences later in her storyline; the drama was there, but the threat didn’t feel as immediate or as possible as it did for Charlotte. Veronica’s villains are a little exaggerated, although I got notes of nuance that kept them from being complete Snidely Whiplashes. I also didn’t feel Veronica’s chemistry with Michael as strongly as I did Lena’s chemistry with Paul, but I appreciated Michael for the role he played, and I did feel things come together a little more at the end. (Which is not to say that their smooching scenes weren’t well-written. Get it, Veronica!)

I’ve seen that some other reviewers had a different experience than I did, but I absolutely did not see the ending coming until it was practically on top of me. I’ll keep this review spoiler-free, but suffice to say that I was surprised–not in a bad way, but just in an oh, DUH sort of way that actually made me happy that I didn’t figure things out earlier.

Overall: It’s a tightly-written, interesting story with great female characters and relationships, and I’d absolutely read a sequel. There’s so much more to hear about Veronica!

Full Disclosure: The author is a friend and former coworker of mine. Nevertheless, I paid for my copy of the book with my own money, and I told her in advance that I’d be objective in my review.

Now, here’s the GIVEAWAY part: leave a comment (with a valid email address attached–US entrants only, please!) by 11:59 pm on Monday, November 25th, and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. The winner will be randomly selected and announced on November 26th. Good luck!

Medicus, by Ruth Downie

Medicus

by Ruth Downie

“Divorced and down on his luck, Gaius Petreius Ruso has made the rash decision to seek his fortune in an inclement outpost of the Roman Empire, namely Britannia. In a moment of weakness, after a straight thirty six-hour shift at the army hospital, he succumbs to compassion and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner. Now he has a new problem: a slave who won’t talk and can’t cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar. Now Ruso must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next. With a gift for comic timing and historical detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.” (via Amazon)

Medicus

Good Things: I picked up Medicus for Kindle because the price was right–it’s still $1.99, actually–and because the premise was pretty interesting. I’m starting to get more into mysteries these days, and an unusual setting can spice up what might otherwise be a predictable story, so why not a murder mystery set during the Roman Empire?

Which is not to say that the mystery in Medicus is predictable–at least, not to me it wasn’t, although I’m still a mystery newb at this point. The solution to the murders is both more and less complex than I expected, and while the answers that come out left me a little with a feeling of really? that’s what was going on?, it felt like a rather realistic, muted end to things, especially in comparison to some of the weirdness that the story goes through as it races to the denouement. I enjoyed the setting, although I couldn’t speak to the historical accuracy, which may end up being a sticking point for those more versed in Roman history than I. (As an aside, how much does historical accuracy matter to you in a historically-based novel? I’m still working through my feelings on authenticity and how much I care about it.)

There are moments of casual misogyny that don’t feel out of place for such a patriarchially-oriented society, and most of the moments that would have become really uncomfortable–oh great, Ruso thinks, my slave has misbehaved and now I must beat her–are thankfully averted in a way that doesn’t feel too contrived. I feel complicatedly about historical novels that impress current morals and culture on a historical setting, especially with all the preternaturally modern-sounding Bluestockings that end up running around; I don’t want to read super-misogynistic things that make me feel terrible, of course, but ignoring the reality of times and places that weren’t so hot for women (and POC, of course) and pretending everything was hunky-dorey doesn’t seem like the way to go either? To that end, I appreciated the way that Ruso slowly comes to an understanding of how shitty life is for a large number of women in his time and place, but doesn’t end up acting on that realization in a way that seems unrealistic. Plus, you know, many of the supporting characters in the story work as prostitutes and they are (for the most part) not slut-shamed by the main character or the internal narration! Yay!

Bad Things: Although I generally felt comfortable with the line between historical accuracy and blatant misogyny that the book walks, I wasn’t comfortable with the moments when Ruso reminisces about his ex-wife Claudia. These memories don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to remind us oh yeah, what a shallow bitch she obviously was and give us a reason that Ruso doesn’t want to get involved with another woman, which–what’s the point? Now, this is the first book in a series, and this may be setting the stage for something that happens later down the line, but I didn’t feel great about the inclusion. There were also a couple moments of fat-shaming and other things that made me unhappy, and which didn’t really build towards my seeing Ruso as a sympathetic main character. Actually, he’s kind of a curmudgeon, and while he’s got that soft spot that keeps him doing good things–doctoring, helping the helpless, financially supporting his brother’s family–his grouchy view of the rest of the world as taking advantage of his good nature got a little tiresome. I also didn’t feel super-strongly about Tilla one way or another, which isn’t great since she’s supposed to be the (eventual) love interest. On the other hand, some of the other female characters were pretty rad (holla, Chloe!), so that made up for it a little bit.

Overall: I’ll probably pick up the second book at the library since I bought the third one as a Kindle Daily Deal a while back. (Those Daily Deals, they get me sometimes!) Pretty interesting, although it didn’t leave a strong lasting impression–for historical murder mystery, I’d be more inclined to recommend The Unquiet Bones, by Mel Starr.

Intro Meme

Mia and Jessica, checking in, heroically waking up at 5:30 am.

Jessica
1)Where are you reading from today? Last time Mia came to my house, so this time I came to Mia’s.
2)Three random facts about me… 1) The last time I awoke at 5:30 in the morn was… honestly, I don’t even know. 2) I love Mia’s three-legged cat, Flat Tire. 3)  I am…tired.
3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours? I’ve got 10 books to choose from: one picture book, one middle grade, three young adult, three adult SF&F, one graphic novel, and one nonfiction book. And, of course, Rain.
4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)? I think we’re both going for as close to 24 hours as we can.
5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time? Don’t be afraid to put something down and pick something new up. Even if you’re the type to only read one thing at a time, the read-a-thon is not a time to be book-monogamous.

Mia
1)Where are you reading from today? My new house! How peachy.
2)Three random facts about me… 1. I do not like peppermint tea. 2. That is why I’m drinking chocolate chai instead. 3. I am very tired as well.
3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours? Nine. Two short story collections, two graphic novels, three SF&F, one YA, and, as Jessica said, Rain. The interminable Rain.
4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)? We! Could! Go! All! The! Way!
5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time? Fortify yourself with food and drink, and never give up, never surrender.

YA Best Overlooked Book Battle

I believe I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am a judge in the 2011 YA Blogger’s Best Overlooked Book Battle (phew, what a title!) over at the Shady Glade. My co-judge for our bracket is Erika at Moonlight Book Reviews, who I am pretty sure is me in high school with her nose always stuck in a book!

We were to read two books. Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher and Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner. To make a long, slightly embarrassing story short, I only read Whale Talk. (Threads and Flames was checked out of my local library right before I was assigned to it and still has not been returned.) How, then, could I fairly judge the two books if I had only read one? I asked Erika which one should win and she didn’t hesitate. Here’s an excerpt from her decision:

“We decided on Threads and Flames for it had the most emotional intensity and a story we thought needed to be told. I actually cried during the novel and as we know that doesn’t happen often. I wish it was required that everyone read this book! Whale Talk was a great concept that was done incredibly well but I kept thinking it was missing something.”

(Erika kindly didn’t reveal in her decision that I had only read Whale Talk. Thank you, Erika, for saving some of my dignity!) Threads and Flames is a story culminating in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (link is to Wikipedia). Whale Talk is about a multiracial boy who deals with stuff, like athletic competition, small-town prejudices, and child abuse. (That’s Chris Crutcher’s MO.) I didn’t think Whale Talk was missing anything, personally. It had been on my TBR for a long time. I even owned it!

So how could I pick a book I didn’t read? Well, ultimately, for two reasons. The first was that I trusted Erika’s judgment about the emotional intensity of Threads and Flame. The second is that this is a tournament for Overlooked Books. While Whale Talk might be under-appreciated when compared to the Twilights and Hunger Games of the blogging world, I had heard and read about it in multiple blogs. It also has its own Wikipedia page. Threads and Flames, on the other hand, I had never even heard of! Though I can’t compare the two based on content, I can say which one seems to me to be more overlooked. And that’s why Threads and Flames will be moving on the Battle.

It isn’t Black History Month.

It isn’t Black History Month, but I’m like 90% sure it’s okay to talk about Black History even if it’s not February. (/sarcasm)

So I’m reading Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis* and in the back she writes, “I was poking through military records to find information about my grandmother and I discovered an America I’d never seen. After slavery and the Harlem Renaissance, there’s a jump in the history we learn at school to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. What happened before the mighty river that was the civil rights movement is that little streams started trickling. I never found out about my grandmother, but I found others like her. This is the story of their time.” and I was like, “That is SO damn true. One would think that that Black history (in America) goes like this:

forever ago – 1865 – SLAVERY. Damn, this sucks.
1865-1920 – No slavery, so everything was probably okay for Black people, right?
1920-1935 – Harlem Renaissance! Who knew Black people were artistic? (Aside from spirituals, of course!)
1935-1955 – Nothing big happens, just a fuzzy sort of racism. Plus segregation!
1955-1968 – Civil Rights Movement! MLK, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, the end of segregation, etc.
1968-now – No more racism! Phew!” **

There and you’ve got it! Black History. Except… what about those big gaps? Like before the Civil War, in between it and the Harlem Renaissance, and then again in between it and the Civil Rights Movement. Black History isn’t just about those big movements. (And of course, let’s not forget that the Civil War, unlike the other two, was not fought by Black people*** and was also not fought for them. Banning slavery was a political move, a side effect of other goals.) What about Frederick Douglass? What about the great debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington about how best to secure the future of Blacks in America? (There’s a great alternate history novel there, I’m sure of it.) What about the millions of other stories and experiences that I can’t even mention because I don’t know about them? And it made me wonder, reading Davis’ words, how much of that history we could fill in through fiction, poetry and biographies. I can think of four novels and a couple of autobiographies off the top of my head to start filling the timeline in and will add more as I think of them.

~~~

Key
Books in this color are historical fiction.
Books in this color are not. (That is, they were written around the time the book takes place.)

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
1775 – 1803?
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson

NINETEENTH CENTURY
1815 – Kindred by Octavia Butler
First half of the 1800s? Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
1818-1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
1850sWench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
1863 – A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott

TWENTIETH CENTURY
1900 – The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
Early 20th centuryTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
1930sNative Son by Richard Wright
1940s – Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis

Poetry
James Weldon Johnson
Langston Hughes
Claude McKay

Jean Toomer
Countee Cullen
Arna Bontemps

Nonfiction that I’m not including on the timeline for whatever reason
W. E. B. Du Bois – The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Zora Neale Hurston – Mules and Men (1935)

~~~

SO HERE’S THE PROJECT: We are going to fill this timeline in! Going as far back as we can, and going up until the Civil Rights Movement (because I feel that there is plenty of literature for that time period, plus I have to cut off the window for historical fiction as some point… If I’m wrong, let me know!), let’s collect fiction, poetry, and biographies (because we’re interested in the people of these time periods. However, if there’s is non-biographical nonfiction that you think should be included, go ahead and suggest it! The one request I have regarding nonfiction is that it be very readable and accessible to the average reader.) chronicling the history of African Americans. (I’m specifying African Americans, but should we open it up to include the histories of the whole African diaspora? A similar project for other minorities would be totally awesome, but I’m going to hold onto my Ambition Hat here and just limit it to Black history.)

This is more important than it may seem. Part of the horror of being a slaves and other displaced/repressed person, or descendant thereof,  is that your history is lost. Only rich, privileged people had time to write, whether autobiographies, novels, or histories. That is why the trend of slaves and ex-slaves writing narratives in the middle of the 19th century is so rare and wonderful and why historical fiction written from the viewpoint of POC is also rare and wonderful. Any book that highlights these unique, mostly untold stories, deserves and needs to be spotlighted and applauded. (Sorry for all the bold, I just feel like that whole paragraph is damned important!)

Now it’s your turn. What books do you know of that will help us fill this timeline in?

~Here is a link to the page I made for this project. Please comment either here or there with your own comments, additions, and suggestions!~

*Tanita Davis is a native Californian who lives in Scotland, according to her jacket copy, with a baker! I have the one part of that that you can’t retcon (being a native Californian), so can I please request from the universe a baking Scottish boy who will fall in love with me and come take me away? kthxbai
**Please note that that is a very sarcastic timeline, espousing views that I absolutely do not hold to.
***There were African American soldiers, but I mean that the impetus for the movement was not from within, but from without.

Jessica’s Library Haul

God, I love the library!

I’m reading Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves for the online African American Read-In (hosted by Ari of Reading in Color, Doret of HappyNappyBookseller, and Edi of Crazy Quilts). It’s going to be on February 20th so I had to get my act together and get a hold of the book! I’m super excited, though. I’ve heard such good things about it and just needed the excuse!

From the inside cover: “Hanna simply wants to be loved. With a head plagued by hallucinations, a medicine cabinet full of pill, and a closet stuffed with frilly violet dresses, Hanna’s tired of being the outcast, the weird girl, the freak. So she runs away to Portero, Texas, in search of a new home.
But Portero is a stranger town than Hanna expects. As she tries to make a place for herself, she discovers dark secrets that would terrify any normal soul. Good thing for Hanna, she’s far from normal. As this crazy girl meets and even crazier town, only two things are certain: Anything can happen and no one is safe.”

 

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Brand new to my library! *faints from being TOTALLY THRILLED TO PIECES*

This book hits so many of my book fetishes. Orphans, secret societies, secret societies WITH FEMALE AGENTS, historical setting (Victorian), INTRIGUE, MYSTERY, a mysterious house, people with SECRETS.

*faints again*

Seriously, guys, this book was freaking written for me. I think.

 

 

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier

And, of course, my (first) obligatory gardening book and, like all of them, fairly useless since I don’t have my own garden. This one is pretty awesome, though. I love growing some of my own food and not having to replant every year is a huge draw for someone as lazy as me!

For the non-gardeners out there, annuals are plants that you plant every year and die every year. A lot of flowers and vegetables are annuals. Biennials are a bit longer-lived – their life cycle takes two years to go through. Perennials live anywhere from three years to, well, as long as any plant can live. Trees are a great example of perennials. Oftentimes, perennials will take two years to get a real harvest.

The book is split into three parts: Gardening with Perennial Vegetables, Species Profiles, and Resources. As you would expect, the largest part of the book are the profiles. I’ve already read through the first part and can’t wait to start making a wishlist of plants I will someday grow!

 

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

Do I really need to read yet another memoir sort of book detailing some twenty- or thirty-something’s adventures in urban farming?

Yes, yes, I do.

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up (like I said, I’ve read a few of these books already), BUT Carpenter’s tale takes place near me, in Oakland, California. The street she describes living on sounds eerily familiar to my brother’s street.

I love living here in the Bay Area. I love its life, its diversity, its wonderful weather… I love to read about other people loving the Bay Area. So when you combine that with urban farming, well, I found it pretty irresistible!

 

 

So what have ya’ll gotten from the library recently? And if you liked the sound of Bleeding Violet, join in on the Read-In!