Review – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

This is the second book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. The first book in the series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the Nebula award and the World Fantasy award, and was a fun read.

This book starts off planning the trip set up at the end of the first one, an expedition to visit Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Harker nee Murray, and to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing. And the adventure itself is fun, full of adventure, kidnappings, fights, romance, and lots of familiar names. The seven women from the first novel all have their parts to play in this one, with several new women in this, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. After the rescue, our heroines take off to stop a Royal Society-type organization that is creating more monsters.

I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first one, and I think the reason is that, at 720 pages, it was too long. There are two stories, related, but I think it would have worked better if the stories had been separated. And, since the book was so long, the comments from the other women, which tend to be funny and add color and character, became distracting.

I’m hoping that the author gets advice to shorten her books so that the next entry in the series will be as entertaining as the first one.

Goss, Theodora. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. New York, NY: Saga Press, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon.

Review – Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I suspect that, like Uprooted by the same author, Spinning Silver will be nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards next year.  It is engaging and well-written and will certainly be a good contender for either award.  I especially enjoyed this novel because the central characters are all female and willing to take action to change their lives, and because it isn’t set in the standard Western European fairy tale kingdom, but an Eastern European one, which means that things aren’t as standard.  (Warning: there are spoilers in this review for the novel.)

The novel revolves around three young women, all of them isolated, belittled and scorned, who decide to take what actions they can to improve their lives or the lives of those they love.  Miryem Mandelstam, the Jewish moneylender’s daughter, is the only one who truly feels loved at the beginning of the novel, is also the one who sets things in motion. When the Staryk, winter fairies, begin expanding the winter, her mother becomes sick.  Her father is notoriously bad at collecting the debts owed him, so Miryem goes out and begins doing so to get what is needed to help her mother get well. Her parents are horrified, but aren’t capable of taking over the job, so she continues.

The second of the three young women is Wanda, the daughter of one of the farmers in the nameless town in which the novel begins.  Her mother dies after giving birth to eight children, of whom only three survive: Wanda, Sergey and Stepon. While trying to recover from the final birth, her father Gorek borrows six kopeks from Miryem’s father.  After drinking two and gambling two, he uses the last two to get medicine for his wife, which isn’t enough to save her. Years later, when Miryem begins collecting what her father is owed, Gorek claims he cannot pay.  Deciding that this is probably true, Miryem bargains instead for Wanda’s labor to care for the Mandelstams.

For Wanda, the most passive of the three young women, this is a rescue.  As long as she has to work for Miryem, her father can’t sell her off to be married.  In addition, once she begins to work for Miryem and her family, she discovers love and care that she hasn’t had since her mother’s death.  It is Wanda who uses the metaphor that Miryem can spin silver into gold by watching her employer turn a small investment into a greater profit.

The Staryk king hears this and comes for Miryem.  He first gives her a silver kopek and tells her to turn it to gold.  She goes to the jeweler fiance of her cousin, he turns the silver into a ring, and they sell that ring to Vysnia’s duke in return for a single gold coin.  As is common with fairy tales, the king demands greater quantities of gold. In return, he will not kill Miryem, but will marry her. The second quantity is turned into a necklace and the third into a crown.  All three are bought by the duke to give to his daughter, Irina, to convince the tsar to marry her. Irina is the third of the young women at the center of the novel.

Each of the young women has to face a trial at the hands of the brutal and violent men in control of their lives and, ultimately, wrest control back to their own hands.  Each of them finds strength in community, and in the women, and sometimes the men, in their lives. As with traditional fairy tales, the risks are perhaps greater than the reward, but that reward is not insubstantial.  And in the end, these women rescue each other.

The connection to Rumpelstiltskin is a little on the thin side, but that was never the main charm of this novel anyway.  That is in the women.
Novik, Naomi.  Spinning SIlver.  New York, NY:  Del Rey, 2018. Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Politics – At the Core

Political discussion in this country has become a minefield.  People who used to be friends are finding themselves separated by chasms that seem insurmountable.  Our two political parties seem unable to find compromises on anything.  And the daily news, especially right now, with the children at the border, continues to get worse.  Like everyone else, I have opinions.  Mine are grounded in what I believe are good morals, ethics, facts and law.  I express them as truth and I make no apologies for that.  But.

First and foremost, we are all human.  We disagree, but underneath, we are still one.  Although I disagree, vehemently in some cases, with the opposing viewpoint, with a few exceptions, I know that the other side isn’t evil.  Even those we now view as evil rarely see themselves as such.

As humans, we frequently view an issue as having two sides.  For better or worse, we then divide ourselves into two camps, but the problem is that there are many issues and few cases in which the people in one group agree on everything.

Looking at the various political issues that we generally view as “important” when it comes to political discussions and voting, the two general principles that people use to determine what their beliefs are on a specific issue.  Please note:  what follows is MASSIVE generalization; people’s consideration is much more complex than this.

The first is that people tend to divide up the world into “Us” and “Them”.  In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing; sometimes, a situation does have two different sides.  The issue is in how large the “Us” group is and how large the “Them” group is.  The larger the “Us” group is, the more an individual believes in the positives of diversity, of identity politics, in seeing the citizens of other nations in a positive light.  The larger the “Them” group is, the more an individual doesn’t see discrimination, the more they are angered by identity politics, by being asked to understand those who are different from them, the more they see those of other nations in a negative light.  To me, we are best off in keeping the “Us” group large, comprising the entire human race.  We are best keeping the “Them” group small, and only applying it at all to specific situations.  First and foremost, we are all human.

The second principle is that of predestination, although it is usually known as the “Protestant Work Ethic”.  Basically, it means that many people believe that what happens to other people was brought upon themselves.  One common way in which this manifests itself is when people argue against welfare because they believe that most of those receiving it are lazy and are just scamming the system.  If shown an individual case, especially of someone they know, and they’ll agree that it was just bad luck and that they need the help, but they don’t generalize it to most of those in need.  In addition, they express the belief that it is better that no one be given assistance that doesn’t need it, even if that means that some who do need it won’t get it.

I don’t believe in predestination, I do believe that most people want to be independent, and I think that a safety net for those who need it is essential.  I think that “Us” means all of humanity and that “Them” is an occasionally useful, temporary description.  Over all, in no particular order, I’m a liberal, a Democrat, a Christian, a middle-aged wife and mother, full-time employed, an American … and a member of the human race.  Come join me.

My Belief in God

I consider myself a Christian.  I’m currently attending an Episcopal church about four weeks out of five.  My political views are a direct response of my religious beliefs.  I believe in God.

After reading that paragraph, most people would think that they know what I believe in.  Depending on the individual person, some would be right and others wrong.  That’s because when I talk about my beliefs, I don’t necessarily mean what others do.  So, I’m going to explain my beliefs below to make them clearer.  Note:  I am not apologizing for my beliefs.  I’m not trying to convert anyone else to my beliefs.  I am describing what I believe.

My interests for as long as I can remember, my academic training, and my current interests are that of a scientist, or at least an educated non-scientist.  I believe that reason, rationality, and logic are the best ways to understand the world around us, and the best ways to make decisions about the right thing to do.  I won’t deny a fascination with non-scientific topics, but overall I believe that the world works along rational, scientific lines.  That doesn’t mean we necessarily understand our universe–it’s big, complicated, and we’re still working on understanding the principles–but I believe that, ultimately, the explanation will hinge on reason and logic.

What does this mean for religious belief?  First, I believe in God; however, I am the first to acknowledge that I can give no logical, rational basis for that belief.  I was brought up to believe in God, it became part of my belief system, and I’ve never seen a reason to change it.  At the same time, I have never seen a logical argument for the belief in God that didn’t have at least one hole in the argument.

I do not believe that Christianity is the only path to a relationship with the Divine.  Although there are differences between different religions, I believe that most, if not all, of them point to the Divine.  Since I was raised as a Christian, that is the path that is most comfortable, but it isn’t the only path and there are others that I also find comfortable.

I do not believe that the Bible is the literal truth, at least, not in its entirety.  I believe it is filled with poetic, metaphorical, ethical and moral truths, but I do not consider it a primary source of literal truth.  If there is a story in the Bible that can be taken literally or metaphorically, and the metaphorical explanation accords with scientific research, I will believe that the story is not literal, but metaphorical.  The classic examples of this are the Creation story (Big Bang and Creationism) and Noah’s Ark .  This has major implications when we discuss Jesus.

I am not sure if Jesus the Christ existed as an historical person.  The New Testament, in and of itself, is not sufficient evidence that He existed, and the other documents typically used to “prove” His existence have issues with them.  The Reverend John Shelby Spong used the term the “Easter Event”; something happened in the middle of the first century of the Common Era.  We don’t know what it was, but Christianity grew from that event (or series of events).  The understanding of a personal relationship with the Divine, and the forgiving of sins to reunite with the Divine, and the social justice from the Old Testament, are the key features of Christianity that arose from then that I follow.

Add to all of this that my beloved spouse of thirty years is an agnostic, and has been one since about twelve.  At the same time, he is a very social person and is enjoying the church we’ve been attending; however, he won’t say what he doesn’t believe, so he doesn’t join in with the prayers, readings, and so forth.  Nor does he go up to the Communion rail, although when attendance is especially sparse and our priest calls us all up to the altar, he does go up and ask for a blessing.  To his mind, as a regular attendee, staying back is ruder than asking for a blessing is inappropriate.  Yes, he has thought all of that out carefully.  For those who ask why he attends in the first place, there are two reasons.  First, in addition to being a believer, I’m painfully shy and wind up in a corner in this kind of social situation where I don’t know anyone.  Second, he loves people in all of their many forms, loves me and wants to support me, and is growing to love the community we’re joining.  He also believes in many of the ethics and morals that the church is teaching; he just can’t say he believes in God or Jesus.

With all of the above in mind, I’m working on two separate projects.  The first one is going through the Bible and explaining, to myself and to anyone else who is interested, the meaning of the Bible, section by section.  The four Gospels have 91 chapters with 3,779 verses and that’s where I’m starting.  The second project is to take the standard things the congregant is expected to say in a typical church service and to try to understand them as a sympathetic non-believer, to try to find a way that someone like my spouse can say them without feeling that they are being dishonest.  I may get nowhere with it, but I suspect it will leave me understanding them better, which is at least all to the good.

So, there you have it.  I know I’m too serious, too academic, overly precise, and more than a little abnormal as a Christian for many of you out there.  But that’s okay.  The Bible tells me, literally, poetically, metaphorically, that I’m a beloved daughter of God/dess, and I’m doing the best that I can.

Blessings to you all.

Review – The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969, the four Gold siblings, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, go to visit a fortuneteller on Hester Street.  They don’t go to get their fortune told, but to find out when they will die.  The rest of The Immortalists follow the siblings as they live their lives until each of them, except the last, dies.

This book is an unusual one for me.  When I read fiction, it is usually genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, mystery, and combinations thereof.  This novel is none of those: it is a story of a family as they live, and die, from 1969 until today, with forays into the past to see their parents and where they come from, in both literal and metaphorical terms.

Although I had a hard time getting involved with the story, I suspect that was less to do with it and more to do with me.  The characters were complex and the story was well-told, with forays into pre-and-early-AIDS San Francisco, stage magic, and longevity research.  The story focuses on the four siblings, but we get to see four generations of the Gold family, in glimpses at the very least.

As would be expected from the synopsis, it’s a story about family, about dying, about living, and, of course, about love.  Love and life in all its messy glory.

Not my usual cup of tea, but I enjoyed it more than most of its type.

 

Benjamin, Chloe.  The Immortalists.  New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

My Political Beliefs

I have been a registered Democrat since I was eighteen, even when the country around me was making “liberal” a dirty word.  (It’s not.)  I started out pretty close to the center, but as the country has drifted right, and I’ve experienced the world around me, I’ve drifted farther and farther left.

My political beliefs have been largely shaped by my religious beliefs, with life experience added on top.  The first thing I think whenever politics, especially finances, comes up is a passage from the New Testament, Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats.  I will admit that I always hear it in Keith Green’s voice.  If the name doesn’t sound familiar, he was a Christian singer who died in a plane crash in 1982, and he did a powerful reading of the passage that I first heard in college sometime between 1982 and 1985.  I have never been able, or wanted, to shake the power of that reading and it has influenced my politics ever since.

In addition, there are multiple passages in the prophets of the Old Testament (Amos sticks especially in my mind) in which they rail against Israel because of how they (mis)treat the poor, the widows, the orphans, and how they are unjust.  I can’t remember exact passages, but I do remember the idea continuing like a drum beat.  Between these passages and the one from Matthew, I have believed that being a good person means taking care of those less fortunate than you.

I have been blessed with good fortune in my life.  I have also been sheltered from much of the poverty and dangers of this world.  I’m also timid and shy, so I’ve never ventured out to help those in need personally.  But I do believe that we are supposed to do so, and the economy of scale means that I will vote for those politicians who agree that we, as a wealthy nation, should do so as a nation.

However, that doesn’t mean that I believe that the government should force anyone to have, or pretend to have, the same religious beliefs that I do.  My political beliefs may have been formed by my religious beliefs, but I still believe that a person’s religion is between them and their God/dess.  (Those same prophets who influenced my political beliefs would have a few things to say about Her!)

To put it simply and bluntly, I am a Democratic Socialist who believes in diversity, civility and, otherwise, to let people live freely according to the laws of our country.  These ideals don’t always play nicely with each other, but I believe it is the best way to try live up to our potential as a nation.

 

Review – Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale

Typically, when I review a series, I review each of the books separately.  For Kingdom of the Wicked, however, I’m going to review both of these books together.  This is largely because, even though the first one did come to a conclusion, they really are two parts of a larger work.

To address the technical issues first, although I didn’t have any trouble with perspective in these books, the tenses were not always consistent, which I found more annoying than confusing.

The other thing has to do with how alternate histories, or at least the ones I read, are usually written.  Typically, there is one event (a shard from an artwork carving out a six mile sphere of 2000 West Virginia and dumping it in 1631 Germany) and everything after follows logically (at least in the author’s mind) from that point.  These books, however, were specifically written to examine what how ancient Rome, with today’s technology but their legal system, would respond to a certain Yeshua Ben Yusuf (Jesus son of Joseph, or Jesus Christ).  It’s an interesting idea, and one that will work on my mind.

Although Roman sexual mores were much stricter than Dale portrays, I believe she is doing two things here.  First, she is positing what technology may have done to the sexual morals.  Second, I think she is comparing Rome and the Jews, with American and Muslim (or maybe just Middle Eastern) cultures today.

Certainly, her Rome is very concerned with law, and very concerned that the law be kept no matter what.  At the same time, they don’t believe that helping the poor or disabled helps anyone.  “Just giving to the poor encourages them to continue asking for help instead of making their way out of poverty,” seems to be the basic attitude.  Anyone who has been involved in a political debate about Medicaid and/or welfare in the U.S. will recognize the argument.  At the same time, the Jewish people are very concerned with taking care of the poor, even if that means some unworthy people get helped along the way.

The core of the story, though, is Jesus and his story.  Kingdom of the Wicked only focuses on the events of the “Holy Week”, from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to the end of the trial.  It is in this examination that I most enjoyed these two books.  The main characters we know are here, although you do need to know a little about Hebrew and Aramaic to recognize the names, (Yehuda is Judas, Petros is Peter, the Virgin Mary is Miriam Bat Amram), although others are clear, such as Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.  The familiar villains are here; some, like High Priest Caiaphas are much as expected although others, like Pontius Pilate, aren’t quite as villainous as might be expected.  (Much of that depends on what you know and what else you’ve read, as well.)

In this telling of the story, Jesus doesn’t come off quite as well as he does in the Gospels.  He’s more human, even as it’s obvious he’s trying to tell a story about God as Love, he’s more likely to make mistakes, lose his temper, and not treat people maybe as well as he should.  There are other stories from other traditions that Dale tells as well:  Yeshua Ben Yusuf’s father is a Roman soldier named Pantera, a story that was told in first and second century Jewish tradition.  Saul the tentmaker has an important role to play as well.

In the end, although there are many things I would quibble with, and although I would love to see an editor correct some of the technical shortcomings of these two books, this story of first century Jerusalem and Yeshua Ben Yusuf will stick with me.  I give it four stars.

 

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book One: Rules.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book Two: Order.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Good Guys by Steven Brust

Good Guys is a detective story: the main characters have to find out who’s killing people with magic.  Seems simple, but along the way they have to figure out if they’re actually the good guys and if they’re working for the right people.

I have a complaint about Good Guys that I’ve run into a couple of times lately.  I’m not sure why this isn’t being caught/addressed, or if this is a factor of growing older and more aware of the technical aspects of writing, but Brust is not good, especially early on, about signalling that the story is being told from a different character’s point of view.  I went several chapters before realizing that the sections being told from the bad guy’s perspective weren’t being told from Donovan’s.  It’s not that I didn’t know who the person was who had the perspective, but that I could so easily mix them up.

Other than that one complaint, I enjoyed Good Guys.  The “whodoneit” aspect of the story is answered early on, the “whydoneit” follows within a reasonable amount of time.  When the characters do something stupid, the results of their stupidity (impatience) are what you would expect.  The guy who falls into the “magic is real” actually acts like someone would in his position, and the confrontation with the higher-ups actually feels real.  There are no loose ends dangling, although this could easily be turned into a series.

I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure it will go onto my “reread” list.  A solid 3.5 stars.

Brust, Steven.  Good Guys.  New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

The description of Space Opera looked entertaining: the fate of humanity hanging on how we do in a Eurovision-type performance.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book living up to the promise of its description.  Then again, I’m middle-age, have never seen a Eurovision competition, and don’t enjoy absurdity or surrealism.  Finally, the writing style sounds too much like Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, and even Adams can grate on my nerves after a while.

The novel consists of two stories that weave together into the third main story.  First, it is an exploration of the history of and behind the Metagalactic Grand Prix,  and all of the different races that have participated in it.  Valente shows that she is comfortable in the science fiction genre, there are multiple races, all of them wildly different, all of them extraordinarily strange, and none of them predisposed to like, or hate, Earth and humanity.  It’s a strange, strange universe that Valente gives us.

The second story is that of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, three musicians who had one hit many years ago.  The band has broken up: Dess tries to continue as a solo artist, Mira dies, and Oort goes “straight”.  The stories of their lives could come straight out of the gossip magazines.  But when, through the standard absurdity, the band is called to represent Earth, they rise, or try to rise, to the challenge.

The main question of the book is, as Valente asks, “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony?  …  Do you have soul?”

Without giving away how Dess and Oort, and the aliens who try to help and hinder them do, and while admitting that I didn’t much care for the book, won’t be rereading it, and only finished it to write this review, I will tell you this.  Valente does have soul, a lot of it.

 

Valente, Catherynne M.  Space Opera.  New York, MY:  Saga Press, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Hello

Whether you have just found this blog, or have been following it for the past month, welcome.  My plan, until I change it, is to post the following:

  • On Sundays, a post about the what and why of my religious beliefs, and anything else that falls under that basic category.  I currently attend the Episcopal church, my political beliefs follow directly from my religious beliefs, and I’ve done a good bit of reading and thinking about religion in many of its different forms.
  • On Thursdays, a post about the what and why of my political beliefs, which place me at the left of the Democratic Party.  I’ll try to keep the religious bits out of these posts.
  • For the rest of the week, at least two book reviews, since I’m trying to read at least two books a week.  I started out with the finalists for the Nebula and Hugo awards (and I’ll repost the Hugo finalists closer to the awards), but I read a lot of things other than science fiction and fantasy.
  • Anything else that comes to mind.

I am, at the least, a middle-aged woman, a computer programmer, a wife, a mother, and a friend.  I approach the world by reading and thinking about it.  If given something I don’t understand, like Harry Potter’s Hermione, I go to the library!

It’s a weird, strange, wonderful world we live in.  Come join me.  I promise, I’m only cranky sometimes.