Civil Wars by David Armitage [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

civil-warThis book is different from what I usually review. I want to give fair warning to anyone reading this that Civil Wars is very much an academic text. I don’t say this to make it sound dry or boring, because it was neither of those things, but I know that this won’t appeal to everyone. I love footnotes and new ideas presented to me as an essay or thesis, so if you feel the same, read on fellow nerd, read on.

The subtitle of this book really sums up the content better than I can. Civil Wars: A history in ideas looks at the concept of civil war, and how we have come to understand it over time. Beginning in Ancient Greece and tracing the evolution of internal conflict through Rome, early modern Europe, 19th century America and through to the present, Armitage uses the historical record to examine how we perceive war, and how our perceptions have changed.

When I started reading this, I was immediately struck by how timely the book is, and I’m not even sure if Armitage could have anticipated that. He says “democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means” (p. 19) and as I sit here in the relative safety of Canada watching the news from south of the border, I think that’s never been more true.

I think I had always assumed that civil war was a thing that humans did to each other, and I never stopped to really consider that there was a time where this wasn’t true. Greeks and Romans had very different ideas about whether or not infighting was really a war, and those ideas are just as different from each other as they are to our modern understanding.

In terms of readability, I have already mentioned that this is an academic text. Dr. David Armitage has a long list of academic credentials, including being the former Chair of the Department of History at Harvard, and this book is not written to be the sort of narrative non-fiction you seek out at your local bookstore. It’s the culmination of significant research and thought. I also found that having a solid understanding of the historical periods he’s talking about was beneficial. There was a time in my life where I thought I might stay in academia and do my MA and PhD in History. Alas, the library called, but I have found my undergraduate degree to be extremely useful in variety of situations and would recommend to anyone that taking the time to learn your history is well worth it.

I really enjoyed this book. It was great to get back into reading something that reminded me of my love of history and of academia in general. Being a librarian, life-long learning has become a bit of cliché, but I really believe in it. This book allowed me to use what I already know to read a compelling argument and consider the implications on our world today.

I know that of all the blog posts I’ve written about great books, this one will likely result in the least number of people picking up the book, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be this book that you read next. I would encourage you to find a topic you want to learn more about and just go for it. The Great Courses, Coursera, Audible and of course your local library all have fantastic resources to help you expand your knowledge.

*Page numbers were taken from the NetGalley digital edition of this book and may not reflect the pagination in the print edition.

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai [Review]

Image result for all our wrong todaysI’ve been trying to write this review for a little while now. I had a draft, tossed it out, googled “how to write a book review” (I kid you not) and then came back to this again.

I think I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to come to a conclusion about how I feel about the book. I felt completely differently about the story at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, and I’m not sure if that’s because I always struggle with time travel plots, or if it’s because the premise of the story was excellent, but the execution was lacking.

At the beginning of the story, we meet Tom Barren. Tom lives in the future that the 1950’s thought we would have. They have an unlimited supply of renewable energy, flying cars, and there are thousands of inventions to dramatically improve their everyday lives. As Tom’s father works tirelessly for the next big scientific breakthrough, Tom struggles to fit in and find his place. In a dramatic turn of events, Tom gets caught up in his father’s work, gets transported back in time (and there is some great stuff in this section about why time travel is difficult), and changes the world. Now he’s stuck in “our world”, but soon discovers that it’s maybe not as bad as he initially thought.

What I found particularly compelling about the story was the science that apparently makes all of this possible. The Gottreider Engine is a fictional machine that is the source of energy in the novel, and underpins the entire narrative. It works by harnessing the motion of the Earth through space to generate unlimited power. This source of clean energy is what makes Tom’s world so different and more advanced than ours, and had me convinced that it was a brilliant idea. I haven’t read something like this in fiction before which was refreshing, but the concept has the allure of a Dyson Sphere about it, which is familiar. It’s so big and unwieldy that I can’t fathom actually creating one, but had me wondering if it was theoretically possible. In my mind, this is the key to great science fiction.

I was hooked by chapter two, and raced through the next couple hundred pages. Somewhere along the way, I began to lose interest. It wasn’t a chore to finish by any means, but I wasn’t invested in the character anymore, and while I wanted to know how it all ended, I didn’t find myself drawn to my laptop and wanting to spend all my time reading this book. And I think this is where the time travel elements of the plot bogged me down. As Captain Janeway (the source of all wisdom) said,”Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.”

Image result for captain janeway time travel

What ends up happening is that I try to logic the situation and keep everything straight, and I think that’s the job of the author. The reader should be able to just enjoy the story and not need to create themselves a timeline to follow along. And this plot wasn’t even *that* complicated. I just didn’t want to think about it. And that really slowed me down.
The tone of the writing was great throughout. Mastai has spent years as a screenwriter and it really shows. Tom is speaking directly to the audience for much of the story and he’s honest, crass, at times witty and at other irreverential. But this all serves to draw you into the story and to care about him. He also does some interesting things with the structure of the story that pay off later and I really appreciated that.

At around the halfway mark, there were some interesting discussion between the character about time travel, parallel worlds, and how it all might work. Some of it is based on scientific theories I’m familiar with (insomuch as a lay person can be familiar with quantum physics) and some of it was more philosophical and I loved it all. It was a smart way to break up the frantic pacing and do some character development. In particular:

“We didn’t have the resources to actually make the stuff we came up with, so we stuck them in our science fiction. We kept them safe in our dreams. And then you assholes raided our imaginations, took credit for our ideas, and built yourself a paradise.”

So for me, the second half of the book struggled to keep my interest and I struggled to care as much as I had in the first half. And as I got closer to the ending, I found myself feeling a familiar sense of dread. The writer has spent hundreds of pages developing a world and the rules that govern it, and now they have to wrap everything up in a way that is both convincing yet original. And inevitably, they are doomed to fail on at least one account.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the end just felt too neat, like a perfectly wrapped gift. I like having a bit of a mess left over. You can’t mess with time and space and then just expect it to all work out. You might argue that it wasn’t tidy and clean for all characters, but I didn’t really care about them anyway, so the painful bits just didn’t land for me. If I was to predict the future, the things about this book that will stay with me will be the Gottreider Engine and the science-y bits about time travel. The characters will fade and I likely won’t even remember the ending.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

lillianboxfishOn New Year’s Eve 1984, Lillian Boxfish takes a walk. It’s a simple premise that serves the narrative well. What follows is the story of a life fully lived, told in roughly chronological flashbacks as Lillian moves through the neighbourhoods of her past.

Lillian is the heroine we want to read about. In the 1920’s, she takes a job in advertising and quickly becomes the highest paid woman in her profession. She gains fame for writing catchy light poetry and for disdaining all things traditional, including love and marriage. And then she meets the man that will become her husband. She struggles to balance her marriage and her passion for writing. She becomes a mother. And a divorcée. And the times are changing.

As Lillian walks the streets of the mid-80’s she tells her story with a quiet simplicity. She’s not lost her spunk or ability to intuit a new situation, and her insights about what it was like to be a woman living a life of her own through the 20th century feel so understated and wise that I had to remind myself that this is a work of fiction. (Sort of. More on that later.) By this point she’s an old woman who knows herself completely and remains to the end a modern woman.

It’s impossible to ignore New York City as a character in the book. It grows and changes in parallel with Lillian’s life, but is ever-present and beautifully rendered. While reading this, I was also listening to Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run on audio, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and the early songs of Springsteen’s career. The characters of New York City Serenade, It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City, and Jungleland all feel like they could be right around the corner.  Like the best songs, nothing Rooney does is in your face trying to get your attention. Her writing is calm and measured, but immediately transports you to a specific time and place, and then a chapter later moves you again. The result isn’t whiplash. It’s a smooth ride.

I got to the end of the book and was excited to read about the inspiration for Lillian Boxfish. Rooney spent time with the papers of Margaret Fishback, the real-life Boxfish who was the highest paid woman in advertising in the 1930’s. Her life was as remarkable as Lillian’s and reminds us that we need to hear more stories about smart and strong women.

Feminist literature is new to my reading life. I really started to look for fiction titles with feminist themes only in the last year or so. If I know anything about publishing, it’s that readers need to be proactive about finding things that matter to them. You could easily spend your entire reading life reading books that publishing spends money making sure you see on every website and on the front shelf of every bookstore. It’s easy and there are a lot of fantastic books that get that sort of treatment and are deserving of your time.

But if you care about diversity in your reading and therefore in publishing, you unfortunately usually have to do more work. Luckily for this book, it was a Book of the Month selection, so is being read pretty widely already. A lot of books don’t have this advantage. So if you do pick this up (I suggest you do) and like it, and haven’t been thinking about your reading habits, I encourage you to. It’s something I continue to work on with every book selection I make.

 

 

The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman [Review]

library

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And then I went out and bought a copy as soon as it was available because this series is THAT. GOOD.IMG_1018.JPG

I struggle to write a coherent review every time I read the next installment in this series. My vision gets blurry, and I struggle to find the right words, and all of that isn’t to say that there is nothing wrong with the book. It’s just that I don’t care about the flaws. I so desperately enjoy reading these that trying to maintain any amount of objectivity or clarity is improbable.

Let me also throw it out there that I read this months ago, but am just now sitting down to tell the Internet about it, so I’ve had some time to digest the story. There will be no spoilers from here on out for The Burning Page, but if you haven’t read The Invisible Library or The Masked City yet, proceed with caution.

Librarian Irene and her assistant (also dragon) Kai are reunited and back to work, though on probation. The fallout from Kai’s imprisonment is still being acutely felt, but there are new problems to contend with. When a gateway back to The Library malfunctions, Irene and Kai must make a hasty and dangerous escape from an alternate Revolutionary France. And they’re not the only ones having problems. Glitches and failures are being found throughout the library, and it is quickly discovered that The Library is under attack. Cue series baddie: Alberich.

There is a lot going on in this book. All of the threads that have been carried through the novels since The Invisible Library are still in play, and it makes life for Irene more and more challenging. Kai’s relationship to dragon royalty always seems to complicate things, and her friend Vale is suffering from Chaos poisoning/withdrawal. As always, the plot races along, and in hindsight, it’s hard to choose which threads I cared about most. Cogman is upping the ante and complexity with each book, but hasn’t (to date) dropped any balls.

I am,however, always left feeling like I want more character development. I get that all the worlds are ending and all, but I really care about interpersonal relationships, feelings, and yes, a little romance. I relish those bits of the story, and could always stand to have more of them. We’re just getting into it, and then some catastrophe is sprung on whoever is involved so we quickly transition back into the main action. If I wrote fan fiction, this universe would be ripe for some side-stories. Since I don’t, I’d be happy if the books were half as long again to make room for these stories.

My single concern about the series as a whole at this point is that this pace will continue in a way that ends up making things slightly ridiculous. There are only so many times you can bring the main character, all of her friends, and all the worlds to the brink of annihilation, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that she can keep the series feeling new and interesting without resorting to the end of days in every book.

To be clear, this hasn’t happened yet. I’m just ready for the next book now so I’m thinking ahead.

When the Music’s Over by Peter Robinson [Review]

*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

peterI tend to get a craving for a good mystery in the fall and winter months, when all I want to do is bundle myself in flannel and wool and drown my cold-weather sorrows in tea. It’s all very cozy, but I don’t like cozy mysteries. I like them visceral and shocking and knee-deep in the criminal psychology, or I like to follow a familiar detective around as they solve the latest crime in their own unique way. This book falls into the latter category, though I would argue that Robinson always does a good job of explaining the motivations of his characters.

When the Music’s Over is the 23rd installment in the Inspector Alan Banks series, and picks up with Banks just after he receives his latest promotion. Having to deal more with managing his staff and the politics of policing, he stays involved with a high-profile case involving an aging celebrity accused of rape decades after the crime allegedly occurred. At the same time, we also follow the murder of a young woman who is sexually assaulted, abandoned on the side of the road, and then is murdered shortly after. The cases involve some similar themes, but maintain their distinct story lines and give you a lot of bang for your buck, or intrigue for your page count.

I’ve read a lot of this series, though not every single book, and certainly not in order, but I do get the sense that while Robinson has always been good at developing complicated crimes with complicated motivations, his plots are getting more sophisticated, and are involving themes that are less black and white, and leave things much more up for debate not only between characters within the story, but for the reader. I find them fascinating, and he’s absolutely one of my favourite mystery authors.

That being said, I don’t actually read a lot of mysteries. I started in on them mostly as a professional development/reader’s advisory project, as I was trying to expand my reading horizons and get a feel specifically about what makes detective stories appealing to readers. There’s definitely something satisfying about knowing that the detective will solve the crime at the end of the day, but I’m also curious about stories where this isn’t so much a given. (If you have recommendations, leave a comment!)

So many of the really interesting plot points are developed and revealed over time, so I don’t want to talk too specifically about the nature of the crimes as it would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Robinson incorporates some timely subject matter and controversial issues that feel very modern. I’m not sure how well the books will stand up because of it, but it makes for some great reading at the time. If I can make a criticism, it’s that I would have liked more character development. Over a long series like this, I know the plot takes center stage and the main detective evolves more slowly, but those were always the best bits for me, and I missed it a little bit in this book.

I hope I can rely on Robinson to continue publishing with some regularity. I like knowing what I’m going to get in a book sometimes, and with him, I know I’m going to like it.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet [Review]

scotland

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

bloodyproject.jpgHis Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae is great. Let’s start with that. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this work of fiction (yes, it’s fiction, but I had to double check after the first couple of pages) tells the story of a bloody triple-murder in a remote farming community in Scotland in 1869 as told through witness testimony, medical examiner’s reports, trial transcripts, and the confessions of Macrae himself.

We know at the beginning of the book that Macrae is imprisoned for the crime, and that he doesn’t seem too bothered by that fact, but as the story goes on, we learn more about Macrae’s possible motivations and the events leading up the crime. The waters are muddied as we hear more from other sources about Macrae’s actions and character.

The book succeeds most in creating a vivid and atmospheric world. It’s less of a thriller than a character study as told through the various documents pertaining to the case, and explores some of the fundamental elements of the criminal justice system that we still ask ourselves today. Under what circumstances is a crime understandable or explainable? How does your upbringing impact your choices as an adult? At what age should we be held accountable as an adult? Are humans inherently good or evil?

I think that the best books don’t really answer these questions. They present a story to the reader in such a way as to ask the reader to consider it for themselves, and by the end of the novel, to either have a better understanding of their views, or to walk away from the book ready to admit that they aren’t entirely sure.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Criminology has always interested me, and the details of the crime didn’t bother me too much. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skim over those parts, but I think the violence does add something to the story. We spend a lot of time with Macrae before we hear any real details about the crime, so when it is discussed, the brutality only serves to make the plot and the character development more rich. I found that although there were a few parts that lagged, by the time I realized that I wasn’t as engaged, the next section was only a few pages away and the story would transition to another document type or point of view.

While the book is quite literary (in my mind, it is, whatever that means…), I think it’s one of the more genre-focused books I’ve noticed on the Man Booker lists. The first half of this reads more like historical fiction (which the Man Booker judges seem to like more than say, science fiction) but there’s also a detective story thread that runs throughout, making it more fast-paced than your average work of straight-up literary fiction. I really appreciated reading something different for this prize.

I’m always curious about how other readers approach awards. I pay the most attention to the Man Booker Prize, from the time the longlist gets announced to the winner. I also tend to keep track of who wins the National Book Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and sometimes the Pulitzer. Part of this is surely because I’m a librarian and avid reader, and so this sort of news is my jam, but I always buy a copy of the Man Booker winner if I don’t already have it, and I’ve been working my way (very slowly) through the Pulitzer winners since 1990. I don’t think award-winners are better than other books in so many ways – I think for me it’s just a point of interest and a desire to have my own opinion about the “big” books.

 

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue [Review]

county-kerry-ireland

I received a copy of The Wonder in exchange for an honest review by the publisher.

I sit here wondering what the last Donoghue I read was. I read Room shortly after it was published in 2010. Goodreads tells me that I never made it Frog Music, so I think it would have been Astray, a collection of short stories based on historical events published in 2012. At the time, I would have been reading for a Canadian award committee, and I believe it did make it to the shortlist that year. I wonder these things, because for some reason, I forgot that Emma Donoghue can write one hell of a story.

The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is brought to Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Since her last birthday 4 months previous, Anna and her family swear she hasn’t eaten any food, and instead is subsisting on “manna from heaven”. A local committee wants to test the veracity of her claims by having a respected nurse either confirm or deny a miracle.wonder.jpg

Once I had finished reading the story, I noticed that not a whole lot had actually happened. There was a resolution to the plot, and there were some anxious moments throughout, but what Donoghue does so well is get into her characters and develops her narrative through them. Anna is a fully-formed devout child who, for all her conviction, sees the world as any child would. Lib struggles at times to reconcile her training with what she’s observing and feeling first-hand. The story is really about the relationship between these two characters and how the influence and change the other.

What I enjoyed more than this relationship was the setting and the feeling of Ireland a hundred-plus years ago. Donoghue captures all of the superstition, religious fervor, and political history of a people in her small town personalities. The potato famine, the relationship to England, and the continuing power of the Church are all there, but it never felt heavy-handed to me.

The story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, a largely Victorian phase, but with roots hundreds of years previously. Young girls would claim to go months or years without eating anything, and they quickly became local celebrities. I didn’t know much about the topic prior to reading this novel, but have since poked around and read about some of the most famous cases from the period. This BBC article about Sarah Jacobs was great, though hold off if you want to read the novel spoiler-free.

Overall I liked this book. The writing was phenomenal, and Donoghue really manages to capture a time and place through her characters in a way that doesn’t bog down the pacing or plot of the story. I’m glad that it wasn’t any longer, as there were already a few parts that dragged a little bit for me, but that’s a minor grievance. This would make a great book club selection, or a cozy weekend read as we move through fall and into winter.