Happiness

32722015Happiness by Thich Nhat Hahn

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini

Source: library

Length: 4:13:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2015

This is the first book I’ve read by Thich Nhat Hahn and it will certainly not be my last. What a gentle and wise soul he is! I have wanted to read some of his works since I frequently use a short article he wrote in one of my classes. It is called “God is a Flower,” and is all about tolerance and loving everyone, and how if a thing exists, it is because it was created by the Creator and since there is a relationship between Creator and Created, then an element of everything is in the Creator. Therefore a flower can say God is a flower, God is a Lesbian, God is Black, God is Native American, etc. Usually it either blows my students’ minds or pisses them off. The ones who get bent usually are the ones who could use more mindfulness practices and tolerance.

ANYWAY. This was a sweet, short book about incorporating more mindfulness practices into daily life. Many things I cheerfully admit I will never do, like carrying a bell, or even keeping one at home to ring. But others, I totally dig and fit in well with Stoic practices that I gravitate towards, like being present in the moment, being grateful, taking responsibility, and enjoying what you have rather than worrying about what you do not have. These are all lessons I think everyone can and should learn, regardless of creed, religion, lack thereof, or whatever.

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Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.

Priestess of Ishana

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston

I read it as an: ARC, finished as a paperback

Source: from the author, and I bought a copy for my own collection

Length: 453 pp

Publisher: Bronze Age Books

Year: 2018

Tesha is the 15 year old high priestess of the goddess Ishana, a deity of war and love. Her duties and devotion to the goddess are strong and she carries out her role faithfully at the temple, believing she knows her life’s role. Until one day, two shepherds discover the charred remains of a man’s body in a cave, who had been killed by sorcery, a crime punishable by death. When the Great King’s younger brother, Hattu, arrives to Tesha’s city to deliver a great treasure to the temple as a sign of his devotion to Ishana, he is arrested for the murder of the man in the cave. Tesha and her blind sister, Daniti, are convinced that Hattu is innocent, but their father, Pentip, the Grand Votary and High Priest, believes otherwise. Acting against her father, Tesha meticulously searches for the truth that will set Hattu, with whom she shares an inexplicable bond and visions, free of his prison and save him from execution at his own brother’s command.

You guys. YOU GUYS! This novel is Hittite historical fantasy! Let me say that again:

HITTITE. HISTORICAL. FANTASY!

This is exactly the historical fantasy novel you were looking for to round out your 2018 reading! The world building is intricate and painstakingly drawn, which is always pleasing. The pacing has a nice blend of faster action sequences combined with complex (but not convoluted) politics and religious rites. Each character has depth and personality, some of whom you love to hate. I thought Tesha in particular was a complex person, a woman in her own right who had some power as a respected priestess, but who was also a woman in a very different and much earlier society who adhered to some patriarchal rules. It was fascinating to see her carry out her duties as well as her investigation within the scope of the limits her society imposed upon her.

The excellent author’s note at the end gives further insight into both the creation of the novel itself as well as the Hittites. I think a lot of people don’t know about the Hittites at all, or else only what is mentioned about them in the Bible. But their civilization was enormous and they had a ton of influence on the ancient world. They were literally lost to the sands of time and were only relatively recently rediscovered. There is still a lot we can learn about them, and frankly, learning history by way of well written fantasy novels isn’t a bad way to go. I think Judith Starkston has struck on a totally unique niche within the historical fantasy genre, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her next installation in the series!

**A slightly different, probably longer and better version of this review will also be posted at the very awesome book review site Discovering Diamonds. You should go check them out.

Underground Airlines

35051774Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William DeMerritt

Source: my own collection

Length: 9:28:00

Publisher: Hatchette Audio

Year: 2016

The premise of this alt-history novel is WHAT IF America had never had a Civil War? What if slavery was enshrined in the Constitution? There are four states – the Hard Four – which still have slavery, a highly regulated system with a lot of checks and balances. People like to think that it is not the slavery of the 1800s or even “fifty years ago,” but those people are incorrect. And it’s fucking slavery. Enter Victor, a young man who had once been a slave himself and managed to escape. He maintains his freedom by working for a shady government official as a runaway slave catcher, a job he is very good at but which gives him a great deal of conflict. His newest case is to track down a runaway named Jackdaw who is thought to be headed to Indianapolis. Along the way, Victor encounters shades of his past that he had tried to escape or push down, and learns that even the shady people he reluctantly works for are not at all what they appear to be.

This was a horrifying book, mostly because I don’t think something like this is really that far from truth. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to envision an America that still has slavery, judging from the revolting news we see everyday. There is rampant racism and neonazis and white supremacists and other disgusting groups who would probably jump at a chance to live in a world Winters portrays here. The poverty wages that many, many people earn are hardly better than slavery in this country, and in many other countries, there are sweathouse jobs that I would argue do constitute slavery conditions. So yeah, this book was terrifying. It is too easy to see this as reality. Let’s keep books like this fiction.

For as horrifying as I found this book to be, I was actually kind of bored with it. I thought the pacing was uneven and the plot a bit disjointed. It made it hard for me to follow at times. The characters as well felt rather flat and were hard to connect with. The narrator did a great job, though, using a variety of voices to differentiate everyone, which made it more appealing to listen to. I would still recommend this book, but perhaps not as an audiobook. I think I might have been more interested if I had eyeball read it instead. Maybe. I still think the characters would have felt one-dimensional and the pacing would still be uneven.

Author Interview: Sherry Thomas

I am writing an article for the Historical Novel Society about Sherry Thomas and her awesome new book in the Lady Sherlock series. However, I thought it would be fun to post the raw interview Q&A here since my finished article for HNS will be quite different. 🙂 Thank you very much to Ms. Thomas for taking the time to respond to my questions! I always love seeing author interviews and Q&A, so I’m delighted that I get to share this with my own readers as well.

Sherry_Thomas_Author_Photo_72dpi
Sherry Thomas, courtesy of sherrythomas.com

Her Grace’s Library: The interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles is so interesting in your novels. There’s just so much to unpack with gender identity in the Lady Sherlock series, especially in The Hollow of Fear. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times before, but what made you want to write a Lady Sherlock series to begin with?

Sherry Thomas: I am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, in which Holmes meets a female partner every bit as formidable as himself. That’s the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own, but I didn’t have any concrete idea what I want to write about so I didn’t do anything.

Then came the BBC Sherlock, which was so dynamic and stylish, and which did such a fantastic job updating the character to the 21st century. That’s when I said to myself, hmm, if BBC Sherlock already made Sherlock Holmes thoroughly modern, and Elementary on CBS made Watson a woman, then the only thing left to do was to make Sherlock Holmes a woman.

So that’s what I did.

HGL: Can you comment more about Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine? I love her references to her “maximum tolerable chins.”

ST: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a casual user, taking to cocaine when he doesn’t have any stimulating cases. And he turns down plenty of cases if he finds them of insufficient interest. That’s because, as it is often deduced, Sherlock Holmes comes from either minor aristocracy or upper gentry, and has an independent income and doesn’t rely on his work as a consulting detective to pay the bills.

Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation. She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing. But of course she wants to still fit into her clothes, and “maximum tolerable chins” becomes her gauge for judging whether she can indulge in an extra slice of cake or must regretfully refrain.

HGL: What is the hardest part about writing a character who seems to experience the world so differently than the rest of us? Is Charlotte supposed to be on the autism spectrum?

ST: Charlotte would probably be considered on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, if she lived in this day and age. And it isn’t hard at all, as strange as it seems, to write how she experiences the world. Very freeing, in fact, because she sees the world as it truly is, with all the niceties stripped away.

HGL: What was your favorite scene that got edited out of The Hollow of Fear?

ST: The first ten thousand words I wrote for The Hollow of Fear were thrown out entirely, because they were about séances in Scotland, whereas the final version of the story concerns itself with neither séances nor Scotland.

But I didn’t have any favorite scenes from that, because it was just an exploratory draft to show me what not to do. Very seldom do I have good scenes that get cut because I typically underwrite in my preliminary drafts—usually due to time pressure—and in later drafts I need to fill in the scenes that should be there or should be written to greater depth.

It’s not a bad way to write. It ensures that every scene that is in the book is there only by necessity.

HGL: I read on your website that English is your second language. That’s amazing to me; I don’t think I could ever write very well in another language, let alone a well-crafted novel! Can you talk about how writing in a language that is not your native language has impacted your writing? What is the hardest part?

ST: English might be my second language, but by now it’s my primary language. (I arrived in the U.S. when I was 13, and that was 30 years ago.)

I don’t know that I ever found the language part of writing difficult. Storytelling is hard. Good ideas do not drop into my lap very often. But because I think in English, expressing ideas in English has become as natural as breathing.

I do sometimes wonder whether the fact I write largely historical fiction is because I learned English reading a lot of historical romances and even at age 18 possessed the vocabulary of a Victorian old lady.

Certain tenses in the English language elude my grasp. My critique partner is always correcting my usage of would/will, because I don’t do the subjunctive tense properly. Then again, I don’t think most of the reading population know or care about the subjunctive to the extent she does!

HGL: Who are some of your favorite authors/ literary influences?

ST: I read a great deal of martial arts epics when I was growing up in China. When I arrived in the states I read a ton of romance and science fiction. Later on I glommed onto fantasy and mysteries. So you can definitely say that I am a reader—and a lover—of genre fiction.

HGL: What are you reading right now?

ST: I just got done with The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett last night. And am also reading Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor.

HGL: What’s on your playlist right now?

ST: I just finished a YA adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan (nothing to do with Disney). And for some reason, when I write a martial arts story with romantic elements, I always play Josh Groban’s My Confession on a loop.

HGL: What is the best thing you have learned about writing?

ST: That it’s like working with clay. It’s malleable. And readers can’t tell by the final product how ugly it was in the interim.

HGL: That last line of The Hollow of Fear…gah! The wait for the next book might kill me. Can I ask if there is a fourth Lady Sherlock book in the works? Will there be finally happy things in store for Livia?And Charlotte and Ingram? These poor, tormented characters! Or is it poor, tormented readers? We love it, though…

ST: Yes, I have already signed a contract for books 4&5 in the series and am busy working on book 4. Dear Livia will definitely have interesting things in store for her. Lord Ingram will be there too. And I don’t know yet what exactly will happen in this book, but I certainly hope characters will change and grow in the course of an exciting venture, which is the goal I have for every book I write.

Wings of Fire: The Dragonets of Destiny

 
My 8-year old daughter was watching me grade some assignments my college students had submitted. She decided she was not impressed and thought she could do better. Frankly, this is something I have often said. She spent half the day on Thanksgiving making a PPT on a Wings of Fire book she’d read recently. She didn’t do the whole hero’s journey part, which is what my students were supposed to have done, but she still made a better presentation than many of them did. I don’t think I’m being biased… 
 

 

Doc: A Novel

8911226Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Mark Bramhall

Source: library

Length: 16:38:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2011

This historical fiction novel focuses on the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday from his early years, before he was famous for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral. He was born to be a Southern gentleman, but he moved to Texas in hopes that the hot, dry air would ease the tuberculosis that was already ravaging his lungs. When the job market proved to be less than he had hoped, he started professionally playing poker. At the urging of Kate Harony, the Classically trained Hungarian whore he lives with, Doc and Kate move to Dodge City, KS and start fresh. And Doc becomes friends with a young man named Morgan Earp and his brothers Wyatt and James and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

This book! I read this book just to check off the “Read a Western” box on the Read Harder challenge, and it was the only one immediately available that sounded remotely interesting. I’m not a fan of westerns. I did not expect to enjoy it all that much, it was just something to get through. I had no idea that I would discover the book that is probably my favorite book of 2019! This novel was just absolutely delightful. Doc Holliday was not the man he is portrayed by history, at least not according to Mary Doria Russell. He was a quiet, mild mannered, Southern gentleman who loved playing the piano, reading Classical literature, and speaking Latin. He was born with a cleft palate, and he was one of the first babies the have his fixed. He was fiercely loyal and did not seek out fame or notoriety. This Doc Holliday was a person I genuinely cared about.

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, delivered a superb performance. He shifts seamlessly from Doc’s slow Georgia drawl to the sharper twang of the Texas cowboys to the cheerful Irish brogue of the local town drunk. He gives dry wit a biting edge that made me laugh out loud more than once, and imbued his voice with such sadness or nostalgia at times that only the coldest person would remain untouched. I hope he narrates other books, because I definitely want to hear his voice again.

There was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book. Some of my favorite scenes were when Doc fixed Wyatt’s teeth and gave him dentures to replace his missing teeth. Wyatt was so happy to see his own smile, it was heartbreaking. He had to practice saying his S’s and TH’s and he was determined to get it right, which was also somehow endearing. Doc was proud of his work and delighted to be able to give a person back some of their self confidence and health, which he vigorously defended later to Kate when she was nagging him about how dentistry doesn’t pay any money. I also loved the scene near the end when Doc was playing The Emperor piano concerto. That whole scene made my face leak on my drive to work. I want to buy this for my own collection. I would listen to it again, or eyeball read it. It was enthralling.

Rereading Mordred

I have a paper due tonight, 3000-4000 words. I started writing it yesterday, which is the absolute earliest I could find time to sit my butt down and start writing. It is no reflection on the calibre of my instructor, the course, or the institution, though, which are all excellent. 

Rereading Mordred

Once upon a time in literature, a boy pulled a sword from a stone and Arthurian literature was born. However, there is no one genesis of the Arthur legend. Correspondingly, various changes take place throughout the canon, from the way the knights’ armour looks to the way the characters themselves are portrayed. A character who has undergone a great deal of change over time is Mordred. From various medieval texts to J.R.R. Tolkien’s interpretation, Mordred’s competence, approach to leadership, and relationship with Gwenhwyfar are woven together to create a highly complex, often misunderstood character. Read More »

Medusa the Mean

12052534Medusa the Mean (GoddessGirls #8) by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: our own collection

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2012

In Medusa the Mean, there are only two things Medusa really wants – to be immortal like her sisters and the popular girls and for Poseidon to like her. To achieve these dreams, Medusa decides she needs The Immortalizer, a magical necklace she saw advertised in a magazine. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work, of course. In the course of trying to become immortal, Medusa is also trying to find the perfect wedding gift for Zeus and Hera’s upcoming wedding, try to figure out how to bond with the kindergarten buddy she’d been saddled with, and make sense of the weird visit to the Grey Ladies she’d been forced to attend. And, since this is for pre-teens, there is plenty of angst and wondering about why she kinda likes Dionysus when her crush is on Poseidon.

I actually liked this one quite a lot. I’ve enjoyed the others well enough, though I think most are too involved with crushes and getting crushes and who likes whom, and hetero-normative reinforcement. But this one, though it had its share of crushes, focused a lot more on things like why Medusa was so mean. She was one of a set of triplets, but her parents treated her like she didn’t exist. Her sisters were born immortal but not Medusa. She was bullied in her hometown and had no friends. She is excluded from everything and to protect herself from being hurt, she starts shutting people out and being mean to keep them away. Which is completely normal, and really fucking sad. This is a great example of why you treat people nicely and try not to be a dick, because it can have real repercussions for people when you aren’t.

When we were reading this together, there were many times when my daughter said she felt really bad for Medusa. So did I. It opened up a dialogue of why kindness matters, and why maybe some people behave like they do. I’ve always told her that people who are mean didn’t get enough hugs when they were children. This is why we read literature, because it teaches and reinforces empathy. I don’t like all of the GoddessGirl books very much, but this one was definitely a win.

Star Trek: Prey: The Hall of Heroes

29430792Star Trek: Prey: The Hall of Heroes by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 387 pp

Publisher: Pocket Books

Year: 2016

The final installment in Miller’s Klingon trilogy was a great read. In this, Korgh’s plotting of nearly 100 years is unraveling around him and he scrambles to keep his plans intact. Starfleet is working closely with an old enemy, Ardra, to find the truthweavers, the illusionists who are responsible for misleading the Unsung as well as a variety of other races. They have also brought the Kinshaya to the brink of war with the Klingon Empire because of Shift, an Orion woman now working with the Breen. Enterprise, Titan, and Aventine and their crews are all working to track the Unsung as well as Korgh’s Phantom Wing, of course not knowing about Korgh’s involvement in any of it. Worf and Kahless are working with the Unsung to help them understand the Klingon way, an act that ultimately brings about redemption in ways none of them anticipate.

This was a fantastic finale to this trilogy. There was a ton of action – space battles! Chases! Hand to hand combat! There was intrigue – Korgh did it! No, Shift did it! Wait, is that Ardra? Maybe she did it! The plot throughout the trilogy was pleasingly complex but not overly convoluted, which I think is a difficult balance to strike. Miller managed it beautifully.

I really loved the theme of honor in this one. It was woven throughout the trilogy, of course, but it came through strongest in this final novel. Is honor something you can really take away from a person? Can you earn it? If someone says you are without honor, can you still act honorably? Is honor something that is innate, regardless of dogma or inculturation? How do you learn about honor if no one is there who can teach you? These issues and more are up to Worf and Kahless to decide as they try to guide the Unsung on a new path to redeem themselves for their past acts.

I had kind of hoped that Sarken would stay with Worf, but the resolution to that was perfect and appropriate. And the last line of the book was killer! I loved it.

On a side note, I eyeball read this but I might pick up the audiobook versions just to show S&S/Pocket Books that there IS a market for full-length Star Trek audiobooks. I’m glad they are starting to get their act together and put out the newer ones but I really wish they’d go back and do some of the older ones in an unabridged edition. If the need a narrator, I volunteer as tribute!