The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The north of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.

In this novella, published on the 400th anniversary of the 1612 trial of the Pendle Witches, Winterson draws on those events in crafting a work of historical fantasy, a tale of horrifying events, beautifully told.

The historical facts are these: in 1612, a group including Alice Nutter, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alizon Device, Katherine Hewitt (“Mould-Heeles”), Elizabeth Southerns, and others were arrested under charges of witchcraft. A key witness was Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old daughter, Jennet.

Winterson takes these facts and creates a new dark and magical story around them. She draws in other historical figures, including local magistrate Roger Nowell, William Shakespeare, John Dee, and court clerk Thomas Potts, whose account of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster was published in 1613. The 1605 Gunpowder Plot and the fate of the convicted conspirators is also woven in; there is little difference, in some minds, between Witches and Catholics. “Popery witchery, witchery popery,” Thomas Potts says more than once.

The writing is lovely, spare but rich in imagery. It is an atmospheric book, focused on people and emotions, how human beings can love and betray each other. There are truly horrific scenes, especially toward the end, that pass by in such a small section of narrative that it sometimes took my brain a few pages to realize what I had just read and be struck not only by the terrible violence, but by the casual way torture is inflicted on one person by another. It feels so very wrong, but true.

Trigger warnings for rape, torture, and child abuse.

Source: I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while. I think I picked it up at my local used bookshop, where I regularly check to see if they have anything new (to me) by Winterson and a couple of other authors.

Challenges: Counts for the 2018 Mount TBR Challenge, the Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, and R.I.P. XIII (Readers Imbibing Peril)

 

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.

Cheryl Strayed’s story is pretty well-known at this point, since her memoir was an Oprah Book Club pick, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE, as the cover of my paperback edition proclaims. In her early 20s, she lost her mother to cancer; after that, what was left of her family drifted apart, and then her marriage ended. In the depths of a Minnesota winter, she happened upon a guidebook to the Pacific Coast Trail. With seemingly nothing to lose and nowhere to go, she made an impulsive decision to hike the trail that summer in an effort to rebuild herself.

The memoir unfolds in mostly chronological fashion, beginning with her mother’s illness and death and following Strayed’s trek up the trail. As she travels, though, vignettes of her past appear, doling out the details of her life before the PCT gradually. Strayed is an excellent storyteller, making what was largely an inner journey into riveting reading. She does not ignore the risks that come with being a woman traveling alone through remote locations, but while she has at least one scary encounter with a man on the trail that could have ended much worse than it did, most of the challenges she faces are the result of the mistakes of a neophyte hiker. She takes a wry tone in relating her misadventures, treating her younger self with humor and love.

I heard about this book a lot before I finally got around to reading it. Really, it wasn’t high on my list of things to read, probably because of an overdose of hype. One evening in May, Lil Miss and I were taking a walk to break in our hiking boots before our family trip to South Africa, and I found a paperback copy of Wild in a Little Free Library on our way. How could I resist a book with a hiking boot right in the middle of the cover? On our flight back to the States, the film version was one of the options, so I watched it while I failed to sleep in my seat. Once we got back, I picked up the book off my desk and read it in a day or two, and I really enjoyed it. Good call, Oprah.

Source: Found in a Little Free Library

Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #13: An Oprah Book Club Selection)

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A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals, #1)A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
My rating:
4 of 5 stars

Dear Ms. Smith,

I hope that my letter finds you well. I, Likotsi Adelele, assistant to His Royal Highness, have sought you out high and low over the last few months, at the behest of the most exalted – and most curious – Prince Thabiso. He has tasked me with finding his betrothed, and I believe I have succeeded: it is you.

Naledi Smith lost her parents to a car crash when she was so young she barely remembers them. Without any other family, she lived in a series of foster homes until she aged out of the foster care system. Now in grad school and working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she has zero time for these weird emails that keep showing up, claiming that she is some sort of long-lost African princess, if only she will please send all of her personally identifying information to confirm.

Prince Thabiso grew up wondering whatever happened to the girl to whom he was betrothed when they were just small children. An only child, facing increasing pressure from his parents to settle down with a wife, he is extremely curious when his assistant believes she has tracked the woman down – and she lives in New York City, where Thabiso just happens to be headed on business.

A misunderstanding on first meeting gives Thabiso the chance to get to know Ledi personally before revealing his – and her – true identity. But will there be a way to finally tell her the truth without the betrayal coming between them?

Since this is a romance novel, you already know the answer to that: the happy ending is guaranteed. Oh, but the getting there. Ledi is the sort of character who is so real you would swear you know her. She hasn’t had it easy, and the walls she’s put up around herself are totally understandable. A scientist to the core, she thinks of the distance she puts between herself and others as a

social phospholipid bilayer: flexible, dynamic, and designed to keep the important parts of herself separate from a possibly dangerous outside environment. It had been working for the prokaryotes for eons, and it would suffice for a broke grad school student, which was only slightly higher on the evolutionary scale.

She is smart and funny, and a devoted friend, and she deals with everything that comes her way until her resilience is finally tested to the breaking point. She is a woman of color, working in a STEM field, and she has no family to support her. I loved getting inside her head and seeing the world through her eyes.

The third-person perspective shifts between Ledi and Thabiso, and Thabiso is also an absolute delight. He is honestly baffled by everyday things like taking the subway or cooking a meal from scratch, because he grew up having his every need or want taken care of without his having to even think about it. He so wants to step up and do the right thing… if he can only figure out what it is and how to do it. His assistant, Likotsi, seems to be the closest thing he has to a real friend. His parents are determined to see him married off and settled down to the business of managing the kingdom, navigating the complicated issues that come with the crown.

The kingdom of Thesolo comes across as something of a Vibranium-less Wakanda. It’s a gem of a country in the south of Africa that was never colonized, instead growing into a modern nation that maintains strong ties to its past. In my head, Queen Ramatla is totally Angela Bassett, and no one can convince me otherwise.

I enjoyed this book so, so much. There are elements of Cinderella and other fairy tales, but this is a thoroughly contemporary romance. Ledi and Thabiso have chemistry that leads to some very steamy scenes, yet Ledi is clearly aware of possible health risks (as an epidemiology grad student, one would hope so!) and how to be as safe as possible on that front. The dialogue is entertaining, even when it’s really only one-way, as when Ledi finally sends a two-word response to Likotsi’s “spam” emails. One of my favorites might be when the postdoc in Ledi’s lab approaches her, about to drop some more of his work on her. The entirety of the next paragraph reads: “This motherf***er, she thought.”

(I should note here that the redaction of the curse word is mine; the actual word appears in the book. If salty language and sexytimes on the page are not your thing, this is probably not the book for you!)

The next book in the series features Portia, Ledi’s best friend; the teaser chapter in the back promises good things. Personally, I’m hoping we eventually get a book about Likotsi. A girl can dream.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: It would qualify for Read Harder 2018 Task 10, but I’ve already completed that one.

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Round-Up Review: The ScotShop Mysteries

A Wee Murder in My Shop (Scotshop Mystery, #1) A Wee Dose of Death (ScotShop Mystery #2) A Wee Homicide in the Hotel (ScotShop Mystery #3)

A Wee Murder in My Shop by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Wee Dose of Death by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Wee Homicide in the Hotel by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with the Gethsemane Brown books, I’m putting up one review for all three of these. I read all three of the span of five days, so they’re sort of a single entity in my head at this point.

Those Gethsemane Brown books seem to have sent me down a major rabbit hole of cozy mysteries, by the way. Specifically, it seems, cozies with ghosts in them. I did not see that coming, frankly.

Peggy Winn lives in Hamelin, Vermont, where she runs the ScotShop, selling all things Scottish to tourists. She makes regular visits to the Perthshire town of Pitlochry to purchase authentic Scottish wares for her stock. At the opening of the first book, she’s particularly glad to get on that transatlantic flight, because she’s just discovered her (now ex-)boyfriend in bed with her (now ex-)best friend. While in Scotland, she happens upon a strange shop and purchases a lovely tartan shawl, which she soon discovers comes with a genuine Scottish ghost. Macbeath Donlevy Freusach Macearacher Macpheidiran of clan Farquharson, deceased circa 1359, to be precise. She nicknames him Dirk.

Peggy returns to Hamelin, ghost in tow, to discover her ex-boyfriend is now her late ex-boyfriend – he’s been murdered overnight inside her shop. In the grand tradition of cozy mysteries, Peggy takes on the task of unmasking the murderer, since the local police chief is not exactly pursuing all leads.

In the second book, the local police chief is still thoroughly unhelpful, and Peggy (and Dirk) take on the task of figuring out who killed a local college professor in a deserted mountain cabin. Once that mystery is solved, the third book brings the Highland Games to Hamelin, along with (yet another) murder for Peggy and Dirk to investigate.

This appears to be a three-book series, without a fourth installment on the horizon. Which is a bit of a shame, since it seems poor Dirk will never actually get to reunite with his own Peigi or otherwise get to rest in peace.

I found the series charming, with its slightly eccentric small-town characters. The interactions between Dirk and Peggy, fraught with communication difficulties due to the seven centuries of linguistic development between their respective versions of English, in addition to cultural differences, are entertaining. Peggy’s relationships with the secondary characters round out the story and provide some interesting glimpses into parts of her life not revealed on the page. It is some of the loose ends of those threads that have me rather hoping for another sequel.

Also, I kind of want a Scottie dog now.

Source: Checked out the first book as an e-book from my public library via Libby; borrowed the second and third in paperback form from the library.

Reading Challenges: None. I’m ignoring the glares coming from Mt. TBR over there.

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The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the CenturyThe Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
by Kirk W. Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2009, Edwin Rist, age 20, American student flautist at the Royal Academy of Music, broke into an outpost of the British Museum and stole hundreds of preserved birds. Among the haul were scientific samples gathered in the 1800s by Alfred Russel Wallace, painstakingly labeled with data about where and when they were obtained. Priceless to researchers, the birds – or, more precisely, their brightly-colored feathers – were worth thousands of dollars to a select group: Victorian salmon fly-tying enthusiasts. When Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about the heist two years later, during a difficult time in his own life, the case gave him something to focus his energy on. Why did Rist do it? What happened afterward? And where, exactly, were those hundreds of birds?

Johnson opens the book with Rist in the middle of the burglary, then jumps back to the history of the birds and their collector, Alfred Russel Wallace, the Tring Museum and its beginnings as the private collection of Walter Rothschild, and the nineteenth-century “Feather Fever” and birth of the hobby of tying salmon flies to exacting standards. He chronicles Rist’s life as the homeschooled tween learns about and becomes obsessed with fly-tying, becomes famous among his fellow hobbyists, and heads to London with his flute. He covers the official investigation as well as his own inquiries into what exactly happened and how. It reads like a novel, introducing characters and backstories while briskly developing the plot. End notes detail his sources, including official records and personal interviews with key figures.

This book sounded interesting from the first time I heard about it – a feather-stealing flautist? Victorian fly-tying masters buying and selling black-market bird parts? It did not disappoint. In my paperback ARC, the photo section was black-and-white and not great quality, so I was very happy to discover the photo gallery on Johnson’s site. This is definitely my kind of true crime book!

Source: ARC borrowed from a friend (thanks, CG!)

Reading Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #2: A book of true crime)

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A Study in Lavender by Joseph R. G, DeMarco (ed.)

A Study In Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes
A Study In Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes
edited by Joseph R.G. DeMarco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is Sherlock Holmes homosexual? Is Watson? Should we even be asking these questions?

DeMarco opens the Introduction to this collection of short stories with these questions. The following stories look at many facets of queer life in Victorian London as they touch on the lives of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and various original characters. In most of the stories, the (identified) queer characters are people other than Holmes and Watson themselves. Indeed, Holmes and Watson are all but entirely absent in at least two stories.

As with any anthology, the style varies between contributors. Most of the tales are written in traditional pastiche style, modeled on the Canon stories and narrated by Watson. One story is in third-person, one story is narrated by Holmes himself, and one story is a first-person narration by an original character.

I enjoyed the stories overall. There were a few that I just didn’t connect with, and the very first one surprised me with (content warning and spoiler alert!) references to incest. That topic is a Hard Pass for some readers, and I personally find it problematic in context. But that’s my personal engagement with the book, and yours is bound to be different.

If you are looking for Holmes/Watson romance, this is (mostly) not your book. If, however, you are looking for thoughtful, well-written explorations of the challenges faced by queer people in Victorian London, with a little Sherlockian flair, then this is the book for you.

Source: Purchased new

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Official TBR Pile Challenge and Mount TBR.

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The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

The Grownup

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

That’s our introduction to our unnamed narrator, who has recently started posing as a fortune-teller who reads auras (in the front room of the same establishment where she has been providing orgasms to lonely men in the back room). She’s a clever young woman who grew up a grifter and relies on her keen observation skills to provide just the right story to the right person to part them from their money. But her skills at reading people might not be quite enough in this creepy, twisty tale.

This is a skinny little book at just 62 pages, a hardback the size of a thin paperback. It was originally published as a short story in George R. R. Martin’s Rogues anthology under the title “What Do You Do?” (Which is a really excellent title for this story, actually.) It won the 2015 Best Short Story Edgar.

The narrator (I really wish she had a name) is a compelling character. She’s so sure of herself – a confidence woman in multiple senses. I was reminded a bit of Selina Dawes in Sarah Waters’ Affinity, brought up into the 21st century. She’s flawed in ways she recognizes and in ways she doesn’t. She should be one of those “unlikeable” characters, but you want to like her.

I haven’t read Gone Girl, even though it seems like everyone else has. I really enjoyed this little taste of her writing, so I can see why everyone’s been buzzing about her novels.

Source: Book of the Month club

Reading Challenges: Counts for Read Harder (Task 15: A one-sitting book), Mount TBR

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Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes, #2)Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Does anyone really believe what happened at the Reichenbach Falls? A great many accounts have been written but it seems to me that all of them have left something to be desired — which is to say, the truth.

It is 1891, and Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have just had their confrontation at the side of the Reichenbach Falls. The novel opens with a brief account of a murder in London before joining our narrator, who identifies himself as Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase, at the Meiringen police station. He tells us that he is on the trail of an American crime boss named Clarence Devereux. It seems that Devereux was planning to join forces with Moriarty. Chase was trying to prevent such a merger, and now he wants to take the opportunity to put a stop to Devereux’s activities in London for good. He teams up with Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones – a name recognizable to readers of The Sign of Four. Jones and Chase go back to London, where they follow a grisly trail to unmask Devereaux. Jones attempts to fill the gap left by the loss of Sherlock Holmes, with Chase as his Watson. But Chase has his own agenda, and things are much more complicated than they appear.

This is another book that I’ve had on my shelves for a long, long time. It was a selection from the Mysterious Bookshop’s Historical & Traditional Crime Club. I think it was the first book I received, actually. At the time, I hadn’t yet read House of Silk, so I put this book on the shelf. I eventually that one from the library, but found it rather darker than I was expecting, and I wasn’t in a hurry to drop back into that particular vision of Victorian London.

As it happens, the subject matter in this book was easier for me to handle, but there’s a twist in the book that I found more irritating than thrilling. Plus, queer coding a villain (along with our narrator letting us know that he “had seen his type many times before and felt revolted”) feels like a cheap shot.

Source: Purchased from the Mysterious Bookshop (New York, NY)
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Geek Girls Unite by Leslie Simon

Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits Are Taking Over the WorldGeek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits Are Taking Over the World by Leslie Simon
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, to be labeled a “geek” was a fate worse than death. It meant you were an outcast. A loser. Destined for a solitary existence where a twelve-sided die would provide you with the only action you’d ever know. However, over the past decade or so, four-eyed social pariahs have been waging a quiet — yet powerful — revolt.

Over the course of this relatively-slim volume, Simon describes the “Fangirl Geek”, “Literary Geek”, “Film Geek”, “Music Geek”, “Funny-Girl Geek”, “Domestic Goddess Geek”, and a handful of others lumped into “Miscellaneous Geek”. For each type that gets a whole chapter, there is a quiz for the reader to test her own category knowledge, a “character sketch” of personality traits, a “Geek Mythology” section recounting relevant historical events and people, a “Geek Goddesses” section of short biographies of celebrities who fit the particular type, a list of “Frenemies” to beware of, and a “Geek Love” section describing the type of guy who would be a perfect match for the girl who identifies herself as a Fangirl/Literary/Film/etc Geek.

It’s a fun idea, and the Mythology and Goddesses portions are the best part of the book. Unfortunately, they’re weighed down by the snarky jabs in both the “Frenemies” lists and the quiz sections, and occasionally in the opening “character sketch”. But it was the “Geek Love” bit in each chapter that really left me mystified. It just seemed completely unnecessary. If the overarching theme of the book is “Hey, Geeky Girl, find yourself in this book and take pride in your quirks!”, then what is the relevance of several pages on What Kind of Guy You Should be Looking For? The idea that the reader might not be looking for a guy at all is never even suggested. Apparently, all girl geeks are heterosexual.

I had such high hopes for this book, which just makes it doubly disappointing. I made it my first read of the new year, thinking that it would help set a tone of empowerment and pride. I finished it mostly because I didn’t want to DNF the very first book I was reading for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Source: This book has been sitting on my shelves for years. I’m honestly not sure if I bought it, was given it as a gift, or picked it up at a conference as a freebie.

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Book Review: Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

The city’s comedians have been out writing signs. One says: WHAT ARE YOU ALL RUNNING FROM? Another says: YOU’VE GOT GREAT STAMINA. CALL ME. 1-834-555-8756. Yet another reads: IN OUR MINDS, YOU’RE ALL KENYANS.

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the world of distance running, athletes from a single country have been getting a lot of attention over the last several years. The East African nation of Kenya has produced some of the fastest runners on the planet. English journalist – and runner – Adharanand Finn wanted to find out what the Kenyan secret was, so he packed up himself, his wife, and their three young children and moved the family to a village in Kenya. There, he met runners. He interviewed them, he observed them, and he trained with them. Through it all, he puzzled over what element could be the key to the success of Kenyan runners (genetics? diet? culture?), and he wondered whether it was possible to improve his own distinctly non-Kenyan performance.

I am a big fan of the whole “quirky memoir” genre, in which the author tries out some experience and writes about it. Through Finn, I got to explore Kenya and take a peek inside the lives of runners whose names I see all over the running magazines. I enjoyed the easy, conversational tone of the first-person present-tense narration. Each chapter is headed with a small black-and-white photograph of people or events discussed in the book. This is not a book to help you improve your own running times, or even really one that thoroughly explores every facet of Kenyan running (a subject of academic research in its own right). It is an enjoyable tale of what one man’s attempt to understand what it means to be a Kenyan runner.

Source: checked out from the public library

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