Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Written as a fictional memoir, this novel reads delightfully as a natural history rather than as a typical fantasy. Consider it magical fantasy masquerading as magical realism. Isabella is an entirely relatable heroine as she navigates the field of dragon study, a truly unsuitable job for a woman by the standards of society. Her passion is not to be thwarted though as she marries a man quite willing to put up with her “eccentricities”. Perhaps the charm of the novel comes from Isabella’s candidness about her struggles as well as her fascination with knowledge. Her marriage to her husband is of the standard of the time, not really a grade passion, but a happy partnership. Her true love is dragons and she is plunged directly into not only studying them, but solving a mystery of their erratic behavior on her expedition. Willing to admit her mistakes as well as her triumphs, Isabella is genuinely interesting and I look forward to more of her adventures.

4 out of 5

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Review: I Work at a Public Library by Gina Sheridan

 

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From a patron’s missing wetsuit to the scent of crab cakes wafting through the stacks, I Work at a Public Library showcases the oddities that have come across Gina Sheridan’s circulation desk. Throughout these pages, she catalogs her encounters with local eccentrics as well as the questions that plague her, such as, “What is the standard length of eyebrow hairs?” Whether she’s helping someone scan his face onto an online dating site or explaining why the library doesn’t have any dragon autobiographies, Sheridan’s bizarre tales prove that she’s truly seen it all.

As someone who has worked as a school librarian for several years now, it is easy for me to believe some of the truly bizarre things requested and questions asked. The outlet of the public library gets even stranger as some truly unique (and sometimes oddly clueless and outright rude) members of a community start being added into the mix. The results are funny, sometimes head scratching, and sometimes heartwarming. The interesting thing about most people who work in libraries is that we love helping people find information and really are advocates of free speech and reading. There is a real passion for the job. It just happens to be a job that really weird things get asked. Sheridan shares some of her best anecdotes of what she’s heard and seen in this little book.

3 out of 5

Review: Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett

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“When you fall in love, you will carve out your heart and throw it into the deepest ocean. You will be all in—blood and salt.”

These are the last words Ash Larkin hears before her mother returns to the spiritual commune she escaped long ago. But when Ash follows her to Quivira, Kansas, something sinister and ancient waits among the rustling cornstalks of this village lost to time.

Ash is plagued by memories of her ancestor, Katia, which harken back to the town’s history of unrequited love and murder, alchemy and immortality. Charming traditions soon give way to a string of gruesome deaths, and Ash feels drawn to Dane, a forbidden boy with secrets of his own.

As the community prepares for a ceremony five hundred years in the making, Ash must fight not only to save her mother, but herself—and discover the truth about Quivira before it’s too late. Before she’s all in—blood and salt.

Remember that episode of the Twilight Zone with the kid who could wish people into the cornfield? Well imagine if he wrote a book. I hope y’all like cornfields, because there are a lot of them here. The major issues the book has is that the author tries to explain a lot without actually explaining anything. There were several points that I was deeply confused as to who was doing what in what vision and what was going on. The book starts out giving every impression that it’s going to be an intense horror novel, but then it forgets the horror and starts hitting all the general YA romance novel cliches with the heroine falling for the one boy she’s forbidden from and being the Chosen One, etc.

Oddly, the ending is the book’s saving grace. I’d say about the last fifth of it is really good. Fast paced, some unexpected twists, confusing vaguely explained things suddenly coming into focus as to why the author only vaguely explained them, and the love story actually having some meaning. Unfortunately the first 4/5 of the book is a real slog through the corn. I only wish the first part was as good as the ending turned out to be.

3 out of 5

Review: The Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

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Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.

Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.

Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.

The majority of sources I’ve found on Cixi have tended to paint her as the villain in history, a woman who bullied the wards she was put in charge of to keep power. The problem with identifying her as that is that many of the references to her reign are biased either because she was a woman, because they were written with a racist Western eye, or because of Communist influence on how history is documented. Cixi was a complex woman who made mistakes as a ruler, but who also was forward thinking for her time, highly intelligent, and extremely capable as a leader. The smear campaign to paint her as some sort of monster has been most unfair when many male rulers who have done far worse than she ever did have been shown more favorably by history. This particular book has tried to present Cixi in a more fair light and the author has rigorously backed up her claims with primary sources. Cixi is shown as a leader whose country was at a crossroads and who had to deal with unscrupulous European and American powers trying to take control in addition to traditions in her own country that made her rule a complicated balance of the old ways and modern technology.

4 out of 5

 

Review: The Determined Heart by Antoinette May

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The Determined Heart reveals the life of Mary Shelley in a story of love and obsession, betrayal and redemption.

The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?

I’ve read a bit about Mary Shelley, mainly because her life tends to need little embellishment to make it interesting. She herself was a brilliant woman, but tied to men who were self centered and ultimately hypocritical in many ways. The intellectual group she ran with tended to plow rough shod over those who stood in the way of their wants with little empathy. Into this complicated relationship structure it is easy to understand how someone like Shelley could truly understand loneliness and rejection present in her masterpiece. Constantly surrounded by high emotion and much death, Mary’s work is a product of her life.

The novel itself is an enjoyable read, if a bit heavy handed about painting who are the villains and heroes of the story. Mary Shelley’s life and relationships have never impressed me as quite so cut and dry. Claire, who here is pretty unequivocally shown as a callous evil step sister, has always seemed a bit more sympathetic than this book paints her. And Mary too had her own flaws. Harriet Shelley was treated horrifically by her husband, and Mary by extension. Her ultimate suicide is placed squarely on both Bysshe and Mary’s responsibility. Mary left just as much a wake of destruction in some ways as her husband. But it’s hard to make a readable popular novel that is able to take in all the complexities of Mary Shelley’s life and is still enjoyable. And this book is enjoyable. It’s a fast read that doesn’t bog itself down in the deep psychology of the Romantics, but presents their lives as the fascinating story they were.

Four out of five.

Review: Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray

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Lydia’s job at the library is her world—until a mysterious patron catches her eye . . . and perhaps her heart.

Just months after the closure of the Chicago World’s Fair, librarian Lydia Bancroft finds herself fascinated by a mysterious dark-haired and dark-eyed patron. He has never given her his name; he actually never speaks to a single person. All she knows about him is that he loves books as much as she does.

Only when he rescues her in the lobby of the Hartman Hotel does she discover that his name is Sebastian Marks. She also discovers that he lives at the top of the prestigious hotel and that most everyone in Chicago is intrigued by him.

Lydia and Sebastian form a fragile friendship, but when she discovers that Mr. Marks isn’t merely a very wealthy gentleman, but also the proprietor of an infamous saloon and gambling club, she is shocked.

Lydia insists on visiting the club one fateful night and suddenly is a suspect to a murder. She must determine who she can trust, who is innocent, and if Sebastian Marks—the man so many people fear—is actually everything her heart believes him to be.

I enjoyed this book even if it felt a bit rushed in some of the important places. I tend to get bored with romance novels pretty quickly, so the addition of a murder mystery into the “opposites attract” formula of a romance was a welcome one. The strength of the novel actually was the historical aspect and the preliminary addressing of the murder. The romance itself felt rushed as the book set up a good amount of time dealing with who these people were by themselves, but not so much time addressing why they’d be attracted so strongly to each other with so little interaction. The mystery also promises to be a good catalyst to the romance, but it is so quickly resolved in about two pages at the end that it seemed like the author was just trying to get some sort of ending for it so she could finish the book. On the whole the book was a nice read, but left you wanting just a bit more in some areas.

3 out of 5