rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jul. 9th, 2012 01:33 pm)
A Week to Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. Sweet, funny Regency romance in which a female geologist with a fossilized dinosaur footprint runs off with a rake with a trauma-related sleep disorder; hijinks ensue. Avoid if you're looking for realistic period attitudes, grab if you want adorable escapism. The psychological and trauma-related dynamics, however, are quite believable, which certainly added to my enjoyment.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington. Narrative nonfiction by an Appalachian journalist who starts out covering a news story about a Pentecostal pastor's trial for attempted murder by rattlesnake, and ends up snake-handling himself. Extremely strong opening, fascinating subject, excellent prose, but it ends up adding up to somewhat less than I expected. I think it needed either a bit more introspection, or a bit more larger-picture analysis, or both. Worth reading but not quite revelatory. Incidentally, how in the world do people drink strychnine and survive? Is it tiny doses, or what?

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, by Robert Johnson. Meh. Ridiculously unsourced. If you're going to say people in ancient India had the practice of choosing a year-king, I would like a cite for that or I'm going to think you read in The Golden Bough.

Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Solid historical about a baby washed ashore from a shipwreck and raised by a British tribe; they eventually exile him, whereupon he goes to Rome, gets enslaved, and eventually ends up on a slave galley. The depiction of the galley ship is horrific and vivid, and the section after that, which I won't spoil, is quite moving. But I didn't like this as much as I did some of Sutcliff's others. The protagonist was a bit too everyman for my taste.

This one is now up on Kindle, but several of her others are no longer available in that format. Weird.
Code Name: Verity is one of the best books I've read this year. I expected it to be excellent, since Wein is such a good writer and the author of several other favorite books of mine, but it surpassed my expectations.

The novel is best-read knowing as little as possible about it, since it goes in a number of unexpected but logical directions, so I will confine my description to what you learn within the first 20 or so pages:

The book is in the form of a confession written by a captured British spy during WWII. The spy is a young woman who parachuted into France after her plane crashed. Her best friend, Maddie, was the pilot, and was killed in the crash. The spy is being held prisoner and tortured by the Gestapo; to play out the remaining time she has left, buy herself an easier death, and to memorialize her best friend, she has agreed to give up information in exchange for being allowed to write her confession at book length, and to tell the entire story of how everything came to pass.

I don't think it's spoilery to say that the reliability of the narrator is questionable; that's inherent in the set-up. But how she's unreliable, how she's reliable, and why is both fun to unravel and, like the rest of the story, moving and heartbreaking. This is that rare thing, a story of female friendship as intense as any other sort of love. It's extremely well-written, suspenseful, meticulously researched, and cleverly plotted.

As you can predict if you've read any of Wein's other books, the characters are great and it's extremely, extremely emotionally intense. There are no graphic details, but the psychological depiction of what it feels like to be tortured and helpless - and to hold on to whatever you can of your power and self under circumstances where that feels impossible - is one of the most realistic I've ever read. I would not schedule any important meetings or dates or anything where you need to be emotionally together and focused immediately after finishing this book. It's terrific, not depressing, a book I'm sure I will re-read. But like I said... intense.

Also, female friendship! Girl pilots! Girl spies! Intrigue! War! And even humor and wit, which is certainly needed.

I don't usually make award predictions, but I'm going to throw my hat in the ring for this one: Code Name Verity is going to win the Newbery Medal. You heard it here first.

Code Name Verity

Please do not put spoilers in comments. If enough of you have already read it to make a discussion possible and you'd like to have a spoilery discussion, please say so in comments, and I'll open a separate spoiler post later.

Wein's other books form a sequence which is ideally read in order. However, I'll mark good starting points.

The Winter Prince. An intense, unconventional Arthurian retelling, also with an unusual narrative structure: a letter from Medraut (Mordred) to his aunt, Morgause. This gives Arthur two legitimate children, a son, Lleu, and a daughter, Goewin. It's mostly about the relationship between Medraut and Lleu, but Goewin is a very interesting character. Especially good depictions of PTSD and healing from trauma.

A Coalition of Lions (Arthurian Sequence, Book 2). After the battle of Camlann, Goewin ends up in Aksum (ancient Ethiopia.) Works as a bridge between the first book and the next sequence, but not as strong on its own as the rest of the series.

The Sunbird. If you don't need to know the details of everything that went down previously, you could start here with the knowledge that Medraut went to Aksum and had a son, Telemakos, with an Aksumite woman. Very good, but warning for child harm: Telemakos is very young and endures some very bad things. (Not sexual abuse.)

The Lion Hunter (The Mark of Solomon) and The Empty Kingdom (Mark of Solomon Book Two). One book in two volumes. Telemakos, now a teenager, is still suffering from the aftereffects of his spy mission in the last book. But, of course, the reward for a difficult job well-done is another difficult job. You could start here, too, if you don't mind not knowing the exact details of what went down. Fantastic, well-written, atmospheric, well-characterized story. Yet another excellent depiction of trauma and healing. Again, extremely intense, but easier to take since he's no longer a child. Try not to get spoiled for anything in this - don't even read the cover copy.
Sponsored by [personal profile] oursin.

An unusual, meditative collection of linked stories about an African-American vampire as she lives through the centuries, starting with her “birth” as an escaped slave in 1850 Louisiana, and concluding in an apocalyptic 2050.

As a young slave, she is taken in by a 500-year-old white vampire, Gilda, who teaches her, bonds with her, and finally passes on her name before swimming out to her much-delayed death. The original Gilda had hoped that the new one would also take on her lover Bird, a Lakota vampire, but the angry and grief-stricken Bird takes off instead. The new Gilda meets other vampires, helps people in need, and watches time go by and history march on. Periodically, vampires from her past return, to reconcile or attempt revenge. As she was taught, she takes only as much blood as she needs to survive, without killing anyone; in exchange, she leaves behind new ideas, new insights, and, most often, hope.

This is known as “the black lesbian vampire book,” but that’s not quite accurate. While Gilda seems to prefer women for romantic relationships, feeding has a distinctly sensual aspect, and she feeds on both men and women. But it’s not a romance, paranormal or otherwise. Nor is it a horror story. It’s mainstream literature, with mainstream conventions, which happens to be about vampires. Even when there’s a lot of action and drama, with Gilda fighting for her life, it has a slow, thoughtful, philosophical, humane tone to it. (It’s in omniscient POV, which is probably a good choice for a story with this much sweep.)

I liked this but found it uneven. The stories have a through-line and continuity but also stand on their own, and some are much stronger than others. (It looks like at least some of them were originally published separately.) The emphasis on daily life, complex emotions, and moral quandaries works very well in some stories, but feels dry or slow in others. The first story is wonderful; the others vary between nearly coming up to that standard, and failing to come up to it.

Gilda doesn’t have anywhere near as much culture shock (“time shock?”) as I expected given the entire premise of the book, and I think that’s a flaw. There's also almost no addressing of historical attitudes toward lesbianism, which I would have liked to have seen. In general, though bad things happen and racism exists, the focus is on resilience, hope, love, and endurance. This works beautifully in some stories, but makes others feel unlikely or slight.

Note that there is an attempted rape right at the beginning, and that the story set in the 1950s is way more graphically violent than anything else in the book. (The cover I’ve linked below is misleading. Most of the book isn’t violent at all, other than some gentle, humane, sensual – albeit often nonconsensual – bloodletting. My copy has a much more representative cover, with a black and white photo of a black woman in a white dress.)

The Gilda Stories
To quote [personal profile] smillaraaq: "Some wildernessy survival, absolute BUCKETS of Noble Warrior Guys bonding and being Reluctant Honor-bound Noble Frenemies, outnumbered ragtag bands involved in desperate pursuits and hopeless last stands...all that good stuff."

A historical novel set in Britain, as the Roman Empire is beginning to fall apart. Young commander Alexios gives the order to abandon his fort and pull out all his troops when it's attacked; when it turns out to be the wrong decision, he's disgraced and sent off to command the Frontier Wolves, in the icy middle of nowhere, where Roman soldiers rub shoulders with British tribespeople... some of whom become Frontier Wolves themselves.

Alexios feels (and is) completely out of place, but slowly learns the ways of the Wolves, with help from Hilarion, his wry second-in-command, and Cunorix, the son of a British chieftain. Yes, these can certainly be read as slashy, as can his more fraught relationship with Connla, the chieftain's wild second son. Alexios earns his wolfskin cloak and his command, witnesses and partakes in training and rituals, and comes to fit in... only to be once again faced with the same terrible choice that led him to the Wolves in the first place.

This is in the same continuity as Eagle of the Ninth: Alexios has the dolphin ring. These books build on each other, though they can be read in any order, displaying the whole brutal tapestry of history, as colonizers and conquerors march in and take over, only to be conquered and colonized in their own turn. The books are intimate, but the series gives you the wider picture.

Like Sutcliff's other books, it's very well-written and well-characterized, slowly paced (up to a point) but incredibly atmospheric. This one, with its emphasis on learning a new culture, reminded me a bit in theme, pace, and tone of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, though it has no magic. However, while it does have a basically happy ending, it gets darker along the way than the other Sutcliff novels I've read. I liked it a lot, in part because of the darkness, which concerns heroic last stands and tragic matters of honor rather than random grimdarkess.

Finally, standard Sutcliff warning for those sensitive to animal harm: animals are neither inherently doomed nor inherently safe. There is non-gruesome hunting and war-related animal death.

Only $4.90 on Kindle! Frontier Wolf
In 1960, thirteen-year-old bookworm Sophie isn't happy about being sent off to stay with elderly relatives on their decrepit old house, which was once a plantation. When she meets a spirit, she makes a wish to time-travel back to the glamorous old days of Southern belles. She gets her wish. But Sophie, who isn't quite as white as she had thought, is assumed to be a runaway slave and put to work.

This sounds like a book in which a white person experiences how black people are oppressed, and learns that racism is bad. To my amusement, about a fourth of the way in, Sophie earnestly assures the spirit that she has learned that racism is bad, and he can send her back now. Not so fast. Sophie is nowhere near done, and the book is much more complicated than that.

The plot is similar to Octavia Butler's Kindred: unsurprisingly, given the basic similarity of all "modern person travels to the past; it sucks" plots. The pleasure and value of these books is not in originality, but in immersion in another time and its culture and values, in its differences and similarities to our own. The time and place are beautifully portrayed, and its horrors are portrayed at an age-appropriate level without being downplayed. For instance, it's made clear that slaves are raped by white men and the resulting children are kept as slaves or sold, and there is a scene of attempted rape. But there's no graphic details.

Surprisingly, Sophie never quite digs into the question of her own racial identity, beyond registering how others perceive her and learning that she does have black ancestry. But it was such a relevant question that I wanted to see her wrestle with it, both on the plantation and when she returns to her own time.

The Freedom Maze has gotten great advance press, including blurbs from Jane Yolen, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Nisi Shawl. It has a slightly old-fashioned style, leisurely and descriptive, like a less ornate Rosemary Sutcliff. Most of the book is about Sophie's daily life and the relationships she makes and observes on the plantation. There's a bit of conventional action at the climax, but it's primarily coming of age story and a well-evoked portrait of a time and place. A thoughtful, well-characterized, immersive novel.

The Freedom Maze
The heartbreaking final book in Barker’s WWI trilogy.

Prior returns to the front by his own choice, where he joins Wilfred Owen, while Rivers continues treating mentally and physically brutalized soldiers at home. Meanwhile, Rivers remembers his time spent doing anthropological research on a Melanesian island, where the British ban on head-hunting had destroyed the local way of life. That part of the book steers neatly between the Scylla of Look At Those Wacky Primitives and the Charybdis of They Are Simpler Yet Wiser Than Us; the similarities and differences between their ways and the British ones, and between Rivers and a Melanesian healer, are complex, not easily summarized, and lead to the novel’s powerful conclusion.

The “eye” motif of the last book is replaced with a “head” motif in this one. I know that sounds a bit silly, but it plays out with wrenching elegance. The heads and skulls on the island are sometimes the product of violence, sometimes attached to captives who may live out their natural lifespans in comfort (so long as their head isn’t needed), and sometimes represent a deep respect for the process of life and death: the stacks of skulls are the link to their pasts and ancestors and families, the essential element of their culture without which it may not survive, and the product of the deepseated human urge to kill. Rivers repeatedly deals with horrific head injuries occurred in a war that makes pointless all his efforts to heal and to understand, the war without which he would never have done his best work.

Everything we are, everything which makes us special and unique, is in a ball of grey-pink gelatin protected by a helmet of flesh and bone: a prize, a lover’s face, a surgical problem, a link to the holy, an object of horror, the source of poetry.

The Ghost Road (William Abrahams)
A sequel to Regeneration, the historical novel about shellshocked WWI soldiers being treated at a psychiatric hospital.

This was harder for me to get into at first than Regeneration, because the early section concentrates on Billy Prior, the bisexual soldier with class issues, now reassigned to domestic intelligence due to asthma. Prior is interesting but chilly, hard to like. He’s maintaining a girlfriend and having discreet encounters with men on the side; he’s working for an agency devoted to persecuting and jailing pacifists, deserters, and gay and lesbian people, when he’s bisexual himself and has pacifist friends. The first section, which is about Prior’s inner conflicts as embodied in various figures from his low-class past who are now unjustly jailed or on the run from the war he’s trying to return to, is well-done but, for me, more intellectually than emotionally engaging.

To my relief, the novel then returns to Rivers, the psychiatrist, who is once again treating both Prior and Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent back to England after being wounded again. It’s amazing from there out – suspenseful, and satisfying on every level. All the therapy scenes, and the way that people’s psychological secrets were unraveled, were beautifully done – clever but not reductionist.

There were a number of plot surprises, which I will put under a cut.

Read more... )

I highly recommend this novel. All else aside, it’s one of the best uses of a repeated motif – the eye – I’ve ever encountered. Warning for horrific wartime violence, and the aftermath of that violence.
People had recommended this book to me for years, saying that it depicted PTSD very well. Unfortunately, since no one elaborated that it was a historical novel about WWI, I mixed it up with a novel called Restoration, by Carol Berg, which I couldn't get more than a chapter into, and which involved slaves, demons, and emo winged dudes. I always assumed the PTSD must come later.

Regeneration is a historical novel about a psychiatric hospital treating shell-shocked WWI soldiers with the goal, ideally, of sending them back to the front. Dr. Rivers is a compassionate if rather distant psychiatrist with a deeply-held and well-reasoned belief that the war, though terrible, is necessary. But as he treats men and listens to their horrific stories, and sees the damage the war wrought on their bodies, minds, and souls, he begins to suffer from second-hand traumatization. And, more troubling to him, he begins to doubt.

The main story follows Rivers' therapy with Siegfried Sassoon, an intellectual kindred spirit whom Rivers is determined to bring round to the view that he must return to the front rather than get court-martialed for declaring that the war is wrong. But the omniscient POV also follows other patients and other doctors, and then the people they get involved with: their families, their girlfriends, townspeople and soldiers. As the effects of the war ripple outward, so does every small moment of human kindness and cruelty. The elegant, clear prose and understated tone conveys both the utter horror of the situations, and how those horrors become both unbearable and unremarkable.

Fantastic book - great writing, great characterization, historically interesting, very psychologically astute. It does depict PTSD very well, and also conversion disorders ("hysterical paralysis/blindness/etc,") which were much more common then than now.

There are two sequels. Has anyone read them?

Regeneration (Regeneration Trilogy)
I really like Sarah Waters. Her other novels all feature Victorian lesbians. Affinity is a very spooky, claustrophobic thriller/love story/spoiler about a medium imprisoned after a seance goes horribly wrong, and the woman who visits her in prison. Tipping the Velvet is a very fun picaresque which bounces from oyster bars to theatres to the rooms of kept girls. Fingersmith is a wild thriller which doesn't entirely make sense in places, but is one hell of a ride. I recommend all of those. Some people hate Affinity because of the DO NOT SPOIL ending, but it's my favorite.

The Night Watch is well-written and gripping, but lacks the excitement, passion, and sense of joyous discovery that permeate Waters' other books. (Even her tragedies seem like she had fun writing them, even if the characters didn't have fun living them.) It's about the intertwined lives of several Londoners after and during the Blitz, and is told backwards in time. This narrative device is not arbitrary, and provides for a few interesting discoveries and poignant moments; but it also makes the entire book quite depressing, as we already know how everyone will end up, and nobody ends up better than "maybe, just maybe, they will now take a tiny step toward improving their life," and some of them don't even get that.

Several years after the war is over, everyone is miserable. Kay, the butch former ambulance driver, is mired in post-traumatic stress, depression, and agoraphoia; Duncan, the young former prisoner, is living with an old man and collecting worthless antiques; his sister Vi, a young woman, is stuck in a loveless and passionless affair with a married man; and Helen, whom I regret to say that I HATE, is obsessively jealous of her lover, the cold writer Julia whom I also kind of hate.

After a long section exploring their lives, the narrative jumps back to the Blitz, and we see who they were before, what their relationships were, and some light is shed on the more myserious elements of the first section. At the end of this, the concluding section jumps back even further, to the start of the Blitz; the concluding scene is lovely, but intensely depressing because we know how that particular relationship worked out.

I was fascinated by Kay, the heroic ambulance driver, her work rescuing victims of the air raids, and the society of butch volunteers she hung out with. I could have happily read an entire book about her and her friend Mickey, whom I loved with a passion disproportionate to her brief appearances. The other characters either interested me less, or their situations interested me less; the reason Duncan was in jail was tragic and not a story often told, but he was a rather opaque character and so were the men he interacted with; I liked his sister Vi, but except for her brief but wonderful interaction with Kay, her story was mostly about loving a married jerk and that has been told a million times; Helen and Julia I just didn't like, ever, and the more I learned about them, the less time I wanted to spend in their company, even on paper.

Worth reading if you're a Waters fan, but not a good introduction. It did make me want to read more about the Blitz, though. (Two of my favorite short stories of all time are set there, Connie Willis' "Fire Watch" ("deaths: one cat") and "Jack.") Any recommendations? Especially, any recommendations for fact or fiction featuring lesbians and/or people doing the more dramatic sort of volunteer work, search and rescue, fire watch, ambulance drivers, and the like?
Yes, these are the perfect books to take on a trip: gripping, meaty, and dense enough to take a comparatively long time to read. Queen's Play was much easier to read, and better-written, or at least less over-written and unnecessarily confusing, than A Game of Kings. Lymond showed faint traces of being human, yay, and better yet, screwed up in a way which did not later turn out to be part of his Sekrit Plan.

Read more... )
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