Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Silken Rose

The Silken RoseThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Website, TwitterFacebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 1300s England

I read it as a: digital copy

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 355 pp

Published by: Accent Press Ltd. (23 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3-4 out of 5 stars*

This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III, beginning with her journey to England to marry a man who was more than 15 years her senior. In this book, she is called Ailenor. The narrative brings readers along as Ailenor learns first how to be a wife and queen and then a mother. It gives us a varying perspectives, from Ailenor to Eleanor (sister of Henry III, wife of Simon de Montfort) and a fictional embroideress, Rosalind, and covering a variety of the events that plagued Henry III’s reign. The trilogy plans to take a look at the women who have been termed “She-Wolves” for various reasons. This first installment takes care of Eleanor of Provence and her reign as Queen Consort.

First, the good. There were many, many enjoyable things about this book. I loved how much detail there was. In every scene, McGrath evoked imagery, scents, sounds of daily life in medieval London. I especially loved the details with herb and flower gardens. I can practically smell the lavender and rosemary. Similarly, the descriptions of the street scenes in London were pretty evocative as well. 

I also really appreciated other small details, such as the use of relics, in particular the Virgin’s girdle, as charms for a safe childbirth experience. The churching ceremony after giving birth was not given a lot of detail, but it was mentioned a few times throughout the novel and it added extra depth. Also, a queen’s role as intercessor was mentioned several times. I’m fascinated by the queens’ intercessory role throughout time and how it changed, helped, or hindered politics. Little things like this make readers like me happy. I know not everyone cares about historical accuracy when they read a book for pleasure (*horror!*), but I am always deeply appreciative of authors who are accurate anyway. The readers like me will be happy and the readers who don’t care will still read the book and enjoy it regardless. 

A few quibbles. The writing here was clear and easy, flowing smoothly from one perspective to another. The main POV character was, of course, Ailenor, but Rosalind and Nell also got a good deal of time. I was glad, though, that the chapter headings indicated when a change of perspective happened because I didn’t find there was always a lot of variance in the voices between the three women. Ailenor, Nell, and Rosalind often sounded similar and could be hard to tell apart if it were not for chapter headings.

By the same token, I felt that Rosalind was the only one who really had any character development. Ailenor, by contrast, sounded like a fully mature woman even on her journey to meet her husband-to-be when she was only 12 years old. Rosalind, on the other hand, started as a young and shy embroideress but grew into a confident and respected woman, wife, and mother. I did wish a little more of her story had been given to us. She was probably my favorite character in the book. It felt a little incomplete because there were some fairly substantial jumps in the events of her life. However, since she was NOT the primary focus of the novel, it is understandable why the author decided not to make her a larger figure. 

The novel ended with the promised betrothal of Edward to Eleanor of Castile in roughly 1254. This was about ten years before the start of the Second Barons’ War. I was a little disappointed that the novel didn’t cover that time period since I think a lot of interesting content could have been written about Ailenor during that time period. She was considered one of the She-Wolves, and the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s role was a major element within Henry’s reign. It would have been particularly interesting to see Rosalind’s role in that. Even though she is fictional, sometimes those are the best characters through which to explore an historical event or person. Again, I understand why it wasn’t included. It would have been a tome otherwise! 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was a fast, easy read and gives an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period of England’s history. 

*N.B.: I am unclear if the copy I received to review was supposed to be a finished copy or if it was an edited digital galley. The book was already published (in the UK, at least) when I got the file to review, but it was a PDF which is usually how I get galleys. I mention this because if it was a finished copy, then there were numerous places throughout where the text was positively jumbled up and sentences were a mash-up of words. For example: “I think it safer and the apartments there of the City. Without destruction remained have been redecorated.” And “He could not change his mind, had he so wished. as they fell resounding from the ancient A squire always followed his knight.” These are just two of several such examples that were scattered throughout the text. If I got an unedited galley, then never mind, these errors would be corrected upon editing. If it is supposed to be a finished copy, then that is not good and would certainly cause me to greatly reduce my rating of the book. 

Recursion

42046112Recursion by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: speculative fiction

Setting: All over the fucking place

I read it as a: hardback

Source: BOTM Club purchase

Length: 329 pp

Published by: Crown Books (11 June 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in contemporary times, Recursion is the story of scientist Helena Smith and Detective Barry Sutton. Helena’s mother has Alzheimer’s, which is the motivation for Helena to create a chair which can map and store a person’s core memories. However, an unscrupulous coworker realises that what she has actually created is a device which can transfer the consciousness of a person into a memory from their own past, thus rewriting history and creating false memories in the global population. Helena and Barry manage to team up across several timelines and lifetimes to try to prevent the chair from ever being created, saving the entire planet in the process. 

The theory behind this book is based on a real experiment from late 2012 in which two scientists from MIT implanted a false memory into a mouse. How the fuck they can tell what a mouse thinks or remembers is absolutely beyond me, but science is cool. Crouch took that experiment and ran with it for this novel.

It explores the risks inherent to meddling with time and history as we know it. Trying to go back and correct mistakes in one’s own life can cause significant changes to the world all on its own. When the government gets involved, trying to prevent major events like horrific school shootings or WWI and WWII or anything else of global importance, everything gets completely screwed up and people are suddenly confronted with memories of different lives, different families they have, different children, etc. This leads to mass suicides and eventually mutually assured destruction. 

I loved this book, even though it stressed me out. Especially once we got to the “let’s launch all the nukes at once!” part. But I also understand the desire to go back and change tragic events. If anything ever happened to my daughter and such technology existed for me to save her, I would absolutely burn everything down to save her. 

The characters in this were multi-dimensional, in part because they had to be across several lifetimes and different timelines. It was fun to see how each manifestation varied slightly from the one previous. I do wish we had gotten some closure on a couple minor characters, got to know what happened to them in the end. I have my assumptions, but perhaps others will come to different conclusions. 

Highly recommended for folks who enjoy a good, thought-provoking work of spec fic.

Tales of Ming Courtesans

52662129Tales of Ming Courtesans by Alice Poon (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 17th century China

I read it as an: ARC from the author (thank you, Alice!)

Source: review copy

Length: 354 pp

Published by: Earnshaw Books (1 June 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tales of Ming Courtesans is the interwoven story of three young women who trained and worked as courtesans in 1600s China. Rushi, Yuanyuan, and Xiangjun were all real women, and they had a shared background of being sold as children to “thin horse traders,” who were essentially sex traffickers. Their paths cross in a performance house in Nanjing and their friendship sustains them through some truly awful events, ranging from small personal tragedies to sweeping national crises. 

The thing I liked best about this book was how incredibly descriptive it was. Images, smells, and locations were all so vividly described, I felt like I could see the river, smell the flowers or the cooking, hear the birds and noise of the town. I liked the names of a lot of the houses or other places – Villa of Alluring Fragrance, for example. It’s descriptive and mysterious and lyrical. I loved it. It makes me want to take a trip to China to see some of these places. 

The women themselves were a force to be reckoned with – or should have been except that life, men, and the caste system kept them down. I know literally nothing about Chinese history, and even less about this particular period transitioning between the Ming and Qing dynasties. I enjoyed learning some of the history and culture of that time. It is such a rich culture with many interesting rituals, art, and literature. 

I have a very likely inaccurate vision of these courtesans as something akin to Inara Serra from Firefly. My understanding is that courtesans were pretty well educated, trained in poetry, dance, music, performance, and yes, bedroom skills. But they could choose whether or not to take a patron to bed for money, and that choice was the real defining difference between courtesans and prostitutes, who had no choice at all. At any given moment, all three women in this novel worried they would have to sell themselves to a brothel to pay off a debt or avoid homelessness. Owing a debt literally meant you could be sold like chattel to anyone who could pay off the debt by buying you. It is a horrifying thought that the women effectively were forced to participate in their own slavery and sale of their bodies. The courtesans seemed to be in high demand as well, which gives a really interesting dichotomy because it isn’t the sort of role I typically associate with being desirable. The ways in which families sought to have a child by using concubines was new to me. I guess I just need to read more since I am woefully ignorant about this part of the world, in any time period. 

Literally the only quibble I had was that, sometimes, the dialogue between characters felt a bit odd. Sometimes it seemed really formal, especially for just talking to friends or family, but maybe that is how people talked to each other in 17th century China. Other times it had some anachronisms that I am not sure about, like saying a courtesan can “hook up” with anyone she chooses to. That drew me out of the story a little bit, but the rest of it was so good that I got over it quick. 

I definitely recommend this one! It made me curious and want to know more about a place or time or culture, which, to me, is the very best thing any book can do!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You can strive all you can to change a condition, but people can choose to ignore facts and cling to their bigoted views.
  • It sickened me to realize that Zhengyu was one of those people who could turn their back on a good friend just because standing up for the truth would inconvenience them. As Fo had remarked previously, it often took a critical incident to reveal the true nature of a person.
  • You must never let anyone make you doubt your own worth.
  • Time rushes forward and never back, oblivious of human joy or pain. We cannot but be driven by the tide of life.
  • What gives one person the moral right to call another human worthless? It’s just not right. A human is a human, regardless of high or low birth.
  • I’ve always believed food is the best glue to bind people together. 
  • Love alone can transcend time.
  • Look at the flowing water. Water is humble. It always heads to a low point. Water is soft, formless and flexible. It slides meekly and wittily around rocks, and it nurtures the plants on all sides. That way, it is content and it sings. If you are humble, wise and nurturing in the same way as water, you will not feel shame. You will have peace.

 

 

 

The Witches Are Coming

48589607._sx318_The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (Website, Insta)

Genre: nonfiction/ essays

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Lindy West

Source: my own TBR

Length: 06:27:00 

Published by: Hachette Audio (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of feminism, mostly, with other topics such as white nationalism and climate change added as well. West is a terrific writer, making her arguments succinctly, pointedly, and with a lot of humor. I had not read any of her work before, nor have I watched Shrill on Hulu. So I don’t know how much of this collection is repetitive from anything she’s written previously, but it was all new to me. 

Well, the topics themselves were not new, and I’m not really sure West added any new points to them that haven’t already been said. But her own take on them was new for me, and I enjoyed her writing voice a great deal. 

She wrote about some things I’ve said for years, among which is we need to stop praising people, especially mediocre white men, for doing things normal adults are supposed to do anyway. You went to work! You do not get a ‘yay for you!’ for that. Adults are supposed to go to work. No, you cannot babysit your own children. Taking care of your own children is called parenting. Babysitting is what you pay the teenager across the street to do. Praising mediocre white men for doing things normal people are supposed to do is partly why we are stuck with Trump in the White House and his troglodyte followers in positions of power they are in no way qualified to hold. 

Also, stop talking about how charming and handsome Ted Bundy was. He murdered women and everyone is still hung up on how nice he was. No he fucking wasn’t! He liked to kill people. Murderers by definition are not nice. If it takes a while to catch them, it’s not because they are so nice or blend in so well with society, it’s because they snowed everyone around them and used their gullibility to get away, literally, with murder. That’s not charming, that is creepy.

Also, abortions are health care and modern day fucked up rape culture needs to stop. 

So yeah, I guess a lot of it is preaching to the choir and all, but I still think most of the essays included are excellent and this is yet another book that should be required reading.

 

 

Diversify Your Reading – Cancel Culture

AOC banner
Louise Erdrich, NK Jemisin, Stephen Graham Jones, and Arundhati Roy. Images retrieved from Creative Commons.

I’m sure that everyone has heard the term “canceling” or “cancel culture” by now. This is the practice by which a person has their career damaged or even ended by others refusing to extend their support or patronage to them any longer. We’ve seen examples of this with Senator Al Franken, comedian Louis CK, actor Kevin Spacey, and singer Kanye West. Each of these people have, at one point or another, committed acts or made statements which are largely unacceptable to society. Certainly, there are some things that should not be forgiven or overlooked, and that absolutely must be called out. Sexual assault comes to mind. There can be no instance in which sexual assault is ever acceptable or tolerable. Other examples may be less clear-cut but still require an outcry. The world of publishing is no exception to this and has a long history of troublesome practices, just like many other industries.

Cancel culture actually has a longer lifespan than many people realize. It has its origins in the Civil Rights Movement and is related to boycotting, only instead of boycotting a business, one boycotts, or “cancels,” a person. This practice stems from a sense of powerlessness and inability to effect positive change, according to Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America at UC Santa Barbara. She explains that if a person doesn’t have the ability to take action through political means, they can refuse to participate. She goes on to say that canceling someone is “a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you. … I may have no power but the power I have is to [ignore] you’” (Romano, 2019, para. 24). This approach seems to be effective only some of the time, however. When revelations about Michael Jackson and R. Kelly came to light, the instances of people streaming their music actually increased rather than the other way around. Roseanne Barr, who was fired from her show The Connors for making racist comments on Twitter, still has a career. So does Johnny Depp, although he was accused of domestic abuse.

Being able to refuse participation in the works of a person who is offensive to us is a powerful tool and can hopefully be used to help effect change. It highlights bad behavior and reminds us that, yes, people might like the music of R. Kelly (or Michael Jackson, Kanye, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, apparently ad infinitum), but surely there must be others whose music (or acting, art, writing, etc.) is just as good with the added benefit of them not being a terrible person. The issue is complex and fraught with emotion across the spectrum; I definitely don’t know the right way to approach the topic. For me personally, it seems to make a difference whether the person is still alive or not. Living people have the opportunity to correct their ways and make amends, however unlikely that may be; the departed can never learn from their actions or remediate. Regardless, depending on what the issue is, I admit that I can have a hard time separating the artist from their art.

How does cancel culture impact publishing? As with every other area of entertainment, publishing is not exempt from cancel culture in all its varieties. Very recently, beloved author JK Rowling made some comments on Twitter which appeared to be trans-phobic. This sparked outrage and even caused some to suggest insanely that Rowling isn’t the author of the Harry Potter series, removing her from the picture entirely. This seems, to me, to be overkill. Of course, Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books; her posting something unpalatable doesn’t magically rescind her authorship and bestow it upon another. What is more important is how others will react going forward. As Charity Hudley might suggest, readers do not have to participate in Rowling’s works, and they can choose not to buy her new books or even to refuse to read those that are already published. Since making the offending statements, Rowling has not returned to Twitter, proving, perhaps, that a healthy dose of embarrassment might be an effective way to force a person to reflect on their actions. For other authors, I think it is important to consider when they were writing. Mark Twain, for instance, would no doubt be considered a horrific and unrepentant racist by today’s standards; by the standards of his own time, however, he was quite progressive. Yet many people try to cancel him and his books for their use of racial slurs. Since Twain has been dead for over a century, there is no possible chance for him to learn new ways or correct past behavior. We have to accept that his language was common for the period in which he was writing, learn from it, and move on. Same for Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Mists of Avalon. Bradley was a celebrated fantasy author – and horrific child abuser. She died in 1999, and her daughter came forward in 2014 with allegations of molestation and abuse. Even though Bradley was long since dead when this news came to light, I confess that I have been having a very hard time separating the writer from her writing. Since she is deceased, I am not sure I should because she isn’t here to make amends; it is still a stain on one of my favorite literary experiences, and I have so far been unable to read The Mists of Avalon again since the abuse came to light. Author G. Willow Wilson, talking specifically of Bradley, tweeted that she can forgive artists for “falling short of their ideals, but not for CHILD ABUSE. Will never recommend any of her work again” (as cited in Flood, 2014, para. 8).  I understand the sentiment and, for the most part, I tend to share it.

All this was a long-winded way to say that I have been thinking of my favorite authors and if I should still like their work and recommend it to others based on their past actions. Mark Twain, yes, I will always recommend him. He lived and wrote in a very different time and canceling him would be a detriment to literary and historical study. I also truly think that not engaging with problematic texts is often the wrong approach and doesn’t teach readers where the problems lie or how to address them in the future. But more modern writers? Do we cancel them, read and recommend them but with caveats, or shrug and figure one of the literary critics is bound to take them to task? You tell me. If your favorite author turned out to be a child abuser, rapist, domestic abuser, or something else, would you still read and recommend their work?

Below are some suggestions for read-alikes for favorite authors who turned out to be vile humans.

If you liked:

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (child molester), you might prefer instead The Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Woolley, the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick, or the Merlin Chronicles by Mary Stewart.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (racist, against Native Americans in particular), you may like to try Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Mailhot, There There by Tommy Orange, or The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (raging homophobe), you might prefer Old Man’s War, the titular first book of the series by John Scalzi, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or The Martian by Andy Weir.

The Thomas Pitt series or the William Monk series by Anne Perry (literally a murderer), you might prefer the Crispin Guest series by Jeri Westerson or the Lady of Ashes series by Christine Trent.

The Cthulhu Mythos by HP Lovecraft (racist), you might prefer anything at all by Neil Gaiman, The Only Good Indians and After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, or Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (racist, imperialist), you might prefer The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, the Broken Earth series by NK Jemisin, The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (racist, imperialist), you might prefer Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, or just about anything by Sonali Dev.

Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (who, depending on who you ask, is transphobic), you may prefer An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, the Tensorate series by JY Yang, or The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg.

References

Flood, A. (2014, June 27). SFF community reeling after Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter accuses her of abuse. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/27/sff-community-marion-zimmer-bradley-daughter-accuses-abuse.

Romano, A. (2019, Dec. 30). Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture. Vox.com, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.

The Power

29751398._sy475_The Power by Naomi Alderman (Website, Twitter)

Genre: speculative fiction

Setting: everywhere, possibly in the near future

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 341 pp

Published by: Viking (27 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

TL;DR version: girls are now born with the ability to conduct electricity (specifically, they can electrocute people) because of a weird skein under their collar bones, and the menz are scared shitless.

In an unspecified time which feels like the near future, girls are suddenly born with a ‘skein’ under their collar bones which allows them to electrocute people. They can turn on this ability in older women as well. The Power follows four young people through their initial discovery of these skeins and the ways in which they adapt to them. One is Roxy, a tough girl from London whose family is feared for running an organized crime operation. Allie/Mother Eve is an abused foster child from the east coast who takes the power from her skein to escape and set up a new life for herself. Jocelyn is the daughter of an up and coming political superstar in the midwest, and her skein seems to be broken. Tunde is an aimless young man from Nigeria who finds his path as a reporter. The ways each of their lives intermingle relay the genesis of the skeins and their impact upon all of human society.

First, things I liked.

If I had a skein that let me zap people, I can’t honestly say I would use it for good. I can think of a fair few men who could use a good electrocution. But you know? If (mainly white) men overall, and throughout history, weren’t such rapey, abusive dicks bent on systematic oppression of women and minorities (see plot line with Roxy’s brother and dad), I wouldn’t even think about what I could do with the ability to electrocute people. Do better, menz. 

I liked that the book touched on beneficial ways women could use their skeins. It was clear that some women were more skilled than others in how they could use their power – some could only use it to hurt, but others could use it to try to help or heal people. Some girls were skilled and powerful enough to awaken the power in older women who had not been born with a skein. Others healed the sick or injured. 

I thought it was interesting, though not at all surprising, to consider that religious exploitation was a thing regardless of whether it was women in charge or men. It seems that religion will always find a way to take advantage of people who are afraid or feel lost or whatever it is that makes them flock in their thousands to weird evangelical circus-like performances and throw their money at it. Faith healers are such a crock, whether in reality or in spec fic, and they prey upon people who are desperate in some way or other. And really, religion is a crock as well. Logic is better than magical thinking, and taking active steps to fix a problem in society is more effective than trying to pray it away. 

Also, I did like that this dystopian novel gave something to women rather than taking something away and exploring the fallout from that. In The Handmaid’s Tale and Red Clocks, women no longer have any reproductive rights. In The Unit, older people are sent to a nursing home type of setting to await the days when their organs will be needed for people who are considered young and relevant still. In Vox, women’s voices are taken away in that they are only permitted to speak 100 words a day. So many other examples portray a world in which something vital is taken away from women. So it is interesting to read a book where something is given to them for once. 

Now, things I didn’t care for.

The novel at times felt more like a research project than a book. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that power and authority in the world tends to come from the ability to hurt other people. Ask any woman and I can almost guarantee that she has at least once in her life been afraid of a man and what he would do to her. So kind of the whole premise, while an interesting thought experiment, it also doesn’t really ask any new or profound questions. It seems to be trying to answer questions that have been posed and explored forever in other speculative fiction novels, movies, TV shows… 

The book eventually got around to Men’s Rights movements. I found myself snorting at these scenes every time they came up. Of course, my reading is influenced by actual history and I couldn’t quite separate that from the book, which is no fault of Alderman’s. But a Men’s Rights movement was as ridiculous to me as a Straight Pride parade – do men think women’s rights are as preposterous as I felt the men’s rights were in this? Again, if the menfolk would quit trying to control and suppress everyone, there would be no need for men’s OR women’s rights movements. We could all just be equal. Which seems to scare men like Moscow Mitch absolutely shitless. 

The biggest drawback for me was that the plot and character development were really…not great. Most of the characters were flat, had little actual development, and I didn’t give a crap about any single one of them. Well, I kind of cared what happened to Jocelyn a little bit, and Tunde was an interesting perspective. But in general, even they were mostly static, and I don’t think the novel needed ALL of the POV characters to be POV characters. Most of them weren’t really all that interesting, or at least I didn’t think so. I think it would have been more interesting if the novel had been told from the POV of just one person. All the international politics and women going insane seemed like it was contrived and hard for Alderman to pull off convincingly. 

I actually quite liked this book and don’t mean to sound as if I didn’t, but I think it had a lot of problems.

Guest Post: The Tubman Command

42869630This is a guest post by Cathy Smith.

When we hear the name Harriet Tubman, the first thing that may come to mind is the Underground Railroad, but Tubman, also known as Moses, contributed much more to the American Civil War than what she did to help slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Tubman also worked as a spy for the Union army, and The Tubman Command is an historical fiction account of a raid Tubman could have helped plan that took her behind enemy lines and into the heart of danger.

Elizabeth Cobbs is a skilled historian who uses her knowledge and research of the time period to build a story that connects readers directly to the soul of a woman who opened the door of change for hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. Cobbs skillfully weaves together a story about Tubman and her world that paints a vivid picture of the lives of people during one of the bloodiest wars in American history.

As I read The Tubman Command, I found myself stepping back into the 1860s, living Tubman’s life through her everyday experiences. I could taste her homemade gingerbread to the point that I found myself searching the internet for a similar recipe. I could sense the spirit of the culture through the bits and pieces of the words to the songs that Cobbs weaves into the dialogues and descriptions of the scene that moves the story forward. Cobbs masterfully creates a world mixed with emotions that makes you smile on one page and brings you to tears on the next. It was hard putting the book down as you lived a short part of one woman’s life while she worked unconditionally to save others from fates worse than death.

Tubman was a hero to the people whose lives she touched and changed throughout her lifetime. Tubman’s strength and courage remain an inspiration today. Cobbs does an outstanding job taking readers into Harriet Tubman’s world, and joys and heartaches of people who lived suppressed lives until Tubman was able to help them find their way to their Promised Lands.

Reading outside your comfort zone

Lately, while we are all on new ground with Covid-19 and quarantine, I thought it might be a diversion to talk about our reading comfort zones. We are most of us living outside our comfort zones right now, anyway, so it seems apropos. A big passion of mine is to try to encourage people to read more diversely, be more aware of blind spots or failures within the publishing industry, and to boost readership and marketing for authors in marginalized communities. To do these things in my own reading life, I use various reading challenges like Book Riot’s Read Harder, Pop Sugar’s annual reading challenge, or Goodreads’ A-Z Challenge.

I like these kinds of reading challenges because they all have at least one category that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of reading myself. Which is, of course, the point. Over the years of doing reading challenges, I have learned of some excellent authors that I would not have read had it not been for a challenge task. Some of my favorite tasks have, in past years, included reading a debut novel by an author of color or member of the LGBTQ community; a book in any genre by a Native American, First Nations, or Indigenous author; a book by or about a refugee; a nonfiction STEM book written by a woman; a classic you have never read; a book that won either a LAMBDA, Audie, or Booker award (or all of the above); a book written in the year you were born; a book about a religion other than your own; a book about a food cuisine you have never tried before; and a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman or child. I haven’t always liked the books I’ve selected for these reading challenge tasks, but that’s ok. I am never sorry for having read a book, even if I didn’t like it much, and if it does some good to bring more awareness to an issue, then I consider it time well spent.

What usually happens, though, is that I do end up enjoying the books, and sometimes they even turn into one of my favorite books ever. A couple years ago, one of the challenges I was doing called for reading a Western. I do not do Westerns. I don’t like Western movies, I don’t like cows, I don’t like gun fights, I don’t like many of the things that make Westerns, Westerns. So, I was not too thrilled about that particular task. I picked a book that was definitely a Western but was written by an author I was already somewhat familiar with. And it ended up being one of my favorite books I read in that year! If you’re curious, I picked Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell. I listened to it on audiobook from the library and loved it so much I got my own copy of it from Audible, as well as its sequel.

I have read some classics that I somehow managed to miss throughout my college and grad school years. I’ve read books that are beloved and been confounded as to why they are so popular; I’ve read books that got panned and felt they were among the best literature I’ve ever encountered. I’ve learned about more things to look for when trying to find a new book or author to try. And, most importantly, I’ve had a ball doing it. For me, reading is and always has been an escape, not something that should be a chore or something that causes any stress. So what if you don’t finish that reading challenge? So what if you only read 10 books all year but had planned to read 100? Did you have fun in the process? Then that is all that matters.

Here are a few of the books I have learned about from various reading challenges and ended up loving, in no particular order. Have you done any reading challenges? Where or how do you learn about new books and authors? What books did you discover that you wouldn’t have otherwise?

Outgrowing God

Outgrowing GodOutgrowing God by Richard Dawkins (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: nonfiction/atheism/YA?

Setting: n/a

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 294 pp

Published by: Random House (8 Oct 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a terrific, brief book that addresses religion from a scientific perspective, as do all of Dawkins’s books. In it, he lays out many arguments people use for believing in a god (it teaches you morality, you can’t be good without God, etc) and then he goes on to point out the fallacies involved in thinking that. Such is the first part of the book. The second deals more directly with actual science and evidence for how we know what we know. 

I love this logical approach. Even as a child, religion never made sense to me. When I asked questions in Sunday School, I was rarely satisfied with the answers I was given – you just have to have faith (why, though? That’s not good enough), we can’t see God but we can’t see the wind either and so that’s the same thing (honestly, what the actual fuck?). Now, of course, I know a lot more about logic and reasoning than I did as a child, and the kinds of arguments and fallacies that are involved. But not everyone does. Nor would I try to change, say, my granny’s mind about her beliefs. It doesn’t hurt me and it is a comfort to her, so I’m not here for that. But I do think a ton of people need to read this book, and all of Dawkins’s other books, and then move on to writers like Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, and the late, greatly missed Christopher Hitchens. It will be an eye opener for many, in the best way, I promise.

I felt like this book was written for a slightly younger audience. I don’t know if Dawkins did that intentionally but this would be easy for most teens to grasp, as well as adults who are not as scientifically literate as some of his other readers. I appreciate Dawkins’s ability to write science in a way that is easy for a layperson to understand but that doesn’t dumb it down so much it is essentially inaccurate. Some people say he is condescending, but I don’t really think it’s that so much as he is breaking down complex issues and tells his readers if an upcoming section is particularly challenging. He’s just being a typical professor – ok, class, time to take careful notes. I think too that maybe some of the ‘he’s really condescending’ crowd might just feel a little defensive about their beliefs that he is disassembling. Just a thought. 

I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially those who might still cling to certain beliefs, religious or otherwise, without good evidence to support it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Arguing over whether angels are demigods is rather like arguing whether fairies are the same as pixies. 
  • …if I’d been born to Viking parents I’d firmly believe in Odin and Thor. If I’d been born in ancient Greece I’d worship Zeus and Aphrodite. In modern times, if I’d been born in Pakistan or Egypt I’d believe that Jesus was only a prophet, not the Son of God as the Christian priests teach.
  • We can’t prove there are not fairies but that doesn’t mean we think there’s a 50:50 chance fairies exist. 
  • ‘Jesus’ is the Roman form of the Hebrew name Joshua or Yeshua. It was a common name and wandering preachers were common. So it’s not unlikely there was a preacher called Yeshua. There could have been many.
  • We tend to think the United States is an advanced, well-educated country. And so it is in part. Yet it is an astonishing fact that nearly half the people in that great country believe literally in the story of Adam and Eve. 
  • You get the impression from him that God i far more interested in the sins of one species, living on one little planet, than he is in the vast expanding universe he had created. 
  • The whole bit in chapter 11 about patterns and how human brains are evolutionarily hard wired to seek them, and how false positives and false negatives may have started superstitions and religions. 
  • Science regularly upsets common sense. It serves up surprises which can be perplexing or even shocking; and we need a kind of courage to follow reason where it leads, even if where it leads is very surprising indeed. The truth can be more than surprising, it can even be frightening. 
  • Courage isn’t enough. You have to go on and prove your idea right.
  • Isn’t science wonderful? If you think you’ve found a gap in our understanding, which you hope might be filled by God, my advice is: ‘Look back through history and never bet against science.’
  • I think we should take our courage in both hands, grow up and give up on all gods. Don’t you?