How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

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Author website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1959

Summary: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Review: After watching and really enjoying the new Netflix adaptation of this story, I decided it was high time I actually sat down and read the novel that inspired it. I mean, I also watched the 1999 movie adaptation and enjoyed that, so surely the book must be good too. (Don’t judge me; I was in high school, and I saw that movie on a date and was thrilled to death with an openly-bisexual character. I was easily impressed then and had no refinement to my movie-watching tastes.)

Anyway, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (often reprinted as simply The Haunting) is a short read, quick and to the point, but with plenty of room for interesting interpretation and discussion. The story is told from the perspective of Eleanor, nicknamed Nell, who accepts an invitation to Hill House after the death of her mother. Life is… difficult for Eleanor, to say the least. She lives with family who doesn’t think much of her, doesn’t have a strong personality, and spent her whole adult life caring for her ailing mother and carries residual guilt for the woman’s death. She welcomes the chance to get away from things, even if just for a little while.

The other temporary inhabitants of Hill House are Dr Montague, a researcher hoping to find evidence that Hill House is haunted, and that certain “sensitive” people might bring out conclusive evidence; Luke Sanderson, a man in line to inherit the house some day, and Theodora, who refuses to admit her surname and who Eleanor takes quite a fancy to, becoming fast friends with her despite her rather mercurial personality. There are also the Dudleys, who take care of the house but are rarely seen (Mrs Dudley is seen more than her husband, but her dialogue is often the same day in and day out, and she seems mostly put out by any change to routine, which made me wonder if she was a touch neuroatypical), and eventually Mrs Montague and her companion Arthur show up to thoroughly annoy the hell out of everyone, including the reader. But for the most part, we’re dealing with Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr Montague.

Hill House itself may well be counted as a character, since it certainly seems to contain some sort of will or intelligence of its own. During the brief time people stay there, odd things happen, such as messages to Eleanor showing up in strange places, or door closing of their own accord (though that could possibly be explained by the whole house being built with very slightly odd angles, which is addressed in the book), or phantom noises and shapes darting through hallways. The problems don’t seem to come from particular spirits or personalities that remain within the house so much as they come from the house itself, which is an interesting take on haunted house since most such stories typically involve a malevolent personality lingering on after death to cause problems. No, here the problem is the house itself, and whatever will it possesses.

As for Eleanor herself, I have to say right here that I feel so very bad for her. Her life hasn’t been easy, as I previously mentioned, and over the course of the story you can see her mental state start to slip. Her thoughts become disordered and occasionally repetitious, she acts in ways that are completely at odds with what’s going on inside her head. She doesn’t start off this way, not really, but her time in Hill House affects her very strongly.

And a lot of what she experienced was incredibly relatable to me, as I’ve dealt with mental illness in some form for pretty much as long as I can remember. Certain scenes in The Haunting of Hill House felt like they were half lifted from my own life, with myself as Eleanor, and that was more than a little bit distressing. I recall one scene where she was behaving perfectly politely, very civil and kind in her conversation with others, while thinking to herself that she wanted nothing so much as to hurt Theodora. That disconnect between internal and external, thought and action, was uncomfortably familiar to me, and I think Jackson did a very good job of conveying just how much we put on a mask, so to speak, to appear normal and do what’s expected when inside we’re anything but. The way Theodora used Luke against Eleanor, too, to make Eleanor jealous that Theo was giving her attention to someone else, eerily echoed the way one of my old friends treated me for some time.

Bonus cringe in that I absolutely had a crush on this friend at the time, so the echoes are even more poignant. (Theodora is absolutely coded as not being straight. I wondered if that was something that was in the original story as well as the film and TV adaptations, and yes. Yes it is.)

When it comes to The Haunting of Hill House, you often find people getting into discussions about whether Nell’s behaviour were due to mental illness or the house’s malign influence. Rarely do I ever see people talk about how it could be both — for some reason people often insist it has to be either one or the other. For my part, it seemed to me that Eleanor really did suffer from some degree of mental illness, exacerbated by whatever odd energies were made manifest in Hill House. To ignore the idea that something supernatural was occurring would be tantamount to saying that Eleanor was entirely alone in the house the whole time and hallucinated the whole thing. Other people experienced different events, or even the same events that Eleanor did, after all. Now yes, there are times where, if you read between the lines a little, the book seems to suggest that sometimes Eleanor does hear people speak when in fact they said nothing at all, but that’s a far cry from imagining whole conversations with multiple people. Of all the people in the house, Eleanor had the most damage, was the most desperate for a place she could call home, and Hill House preyed upon that need. It could have been any of them, really, but what self-respecting predator wouldn’t prey upon the weakest in a group, after all?

So yes, Eleanor absolutely suffered from mental illness, and that explains a number of things within the story, but mostly the things that are contained to Eleanor herself, her reactions and thoughts. External events, especially ones witnessed by others, are another matter.

In the end, while the tone of the writing in The Haunting of Hill House definitely feels a bit dated, the story itself is solid, the characters varied and interesting, and for such a short book, there’s a lot to unpack. This review really only brushed the surface, and I left out a lot of what I wanted to say about smaller scenes and random bits of dialogue that had personal meaning, and when you get right down to it, that’s exactly how a good horror story should be. It should make a mark, leave an impression, and give you plenty to come back to even once the last page has been read and the book closed. This is a classic for a reason, and I recommend reading it if you have the opportunity.

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 31, 2016

Summary: The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by double Hugo Award-winning essayist and fantasy novelist Kameron Hurley.

The book collects dozens of Hurley’s essays on feminism, geek culture, and her experiences and insights as a genre writer, including “We Have Always Fought,” which won the 2013 Hugo for Best Related Work. The Geek Feminist Revolution will also feature several entirely new essays written specifically for this volume.

Unapologetically outspoken, Hurley has contributed essays to The Atlantic, Locus, Tor.com, and others on the rise of women in genre, her passion for SF/F, and the diversification of publishing.

Review: If you’ve followed Kameron Hurley on social media for any decent length of time, you know she’s pretty outspoken about many issues relating to feminism, prejudice, equality, and the like. Aside from the fact that she’s written some great books, this is one of the reasons I keep following her. She’s got some good perspective on many issues that, sadly, often earn the ire of people who would rather keep to the status quo and not change things or work to end problems that result in unfair discrimination against various groups of people. She has a lot of things to say, and they’re worth listening to.

Which is why I love that some of her best essays were collected and published as a book. It’s a way to reach out and spread that word to those who maybe aren’t so big on social media, or just those who are browsing the bookstore one day and go, “Huh, I wonder what this is about.” Admittedly, it will probably have more appeal to those who are already fans of her writing, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the chance that somebody in need of her words will stumble across it and have their thoughts rearranged a little bit.

Hurley talks about a variety of subjects in The Geek Feminist Revolution, ranging from how women are perceived and treated in the public eye, to healthcare, to relationship abuse, to racism, to how to react when someone calls you out on a screw-up (hint: it’s not to launch a long diatribe about why everyone else is wrong). I will say this right off the bat: some of these essays are not easy to read.

I will follow that with: every single one of them is worth reading.

Here’s the thing: the world is not a comfortable place. It’s less comfortable for those who are marginalized. And Hurley talks about that unflinchingly. She talks about nearly dying thanks to illness and poverty, and the subsequent high cost of just staying alive (something that, to one who lives in Canada, is so out of my realm of experience that I can only imagine what it must be like). She talks about myriad tiny ways that society expects certain things of women and punishes them when they fail to live up to ideals. She talks about perseverance when everything seems stacked against you, how you keep going when you have passions and goals because anything less is personally unacceptable, even when people seem to make it their mission to make you stop.

So no, this isn’t a comfortable book to read. But, like so much that needs to be said, it isn’t meant to be comfortable. It’s meant to give you a perspective other than your own, to bare unpleasant truths.

This book provoked a lot of thoughts in me. I could probably write an entire series of articles based on what entered my mind while reading this (though none of them would be as good as what Hurley said). Aside from visceral rage at some of the things Hurley has endured in her life, what struck me over and over again was the running thread of hope, even through the anger. You push on, because that’s how change happens. You stand up and speak out, because that’s how change happens. Nothing happens by doing nothing.

And in that, Hurley is inspirational. After finishing this collection of essays, I felt the following two things: 1) better educated, and 2) galvanized to work harder on my own projects, however much opposition I meet. It may seem like a selfish thing to take away from a book like this, but I can’t deny that I felt it. She makes me feel like I have a shot of achieving my dreams, of getting somewhere I want to be, if I just persevere.

This is the kind of book that opens up a wider world, even if it’s often a dark and painful one, to those who are willing to go into it with the understanding that they may read things that aren’t comfy and pleasant all the time. It’s a phenomenal collection of experience, of pain and triumph, suffering and success, and it’s one I fully intend to reread in the future, because Hurley has plenty to say that deserves more than a single look. Break out of your comfort zone with this highly-recommended set of essays! You’ll be a better person for it, in the end.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Invisible Orientation, by Julie Sondra Decker

Today’s review will not feature an SFF book, so feel free to skip it if that’s what you come here for. But this book was am important one to me, a bit of a game changer in my life, and so I feel that it’s deserving of a review here even if it’s not what most people have come to expect from Bibliotropic.

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 2, 2014

Summary: What if you weren’t sexually attracted to anyone?

A growing number of people are identifying as asexual. They aren’t sexually attracted to anyone, and they consider it a sexual orientation—like gay, straight, or bisexual.

Asexuality is the invisible orientation. Most people believe that “everyone” wants sex, that “everyone” understands what it means to be attracted to other people, and that “everyone” wants to date and mate. But that’s where asexual people are left out—they don’t find other people sexually attractive, and if and when they say so, they are very rarely treated as though that’s okay.

When an asexual person comes out, alarming reactions regularly follow; loved ones fear that an asexual person is sick, or psychologically warped, or suffering from abuse. Critics confront asexual people with accusations of following a fad, hiding homosexuality, or making excuses for romantic failures. And all of this contributes to a discouraging master narrative: there is no such thing as “asexual.” Being an asexual person is a lie or an illness, and it needs to be fixed.

In The Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker outlines what asexuality is, counters misconceptions, provides resources, and puts asexual people’s experiences in context as they move through a very sexualized world. It includes information for asexual people to help understand their orientation and what it means for their relationships, as well as tips and facts for those who want to understand their asexual friends and loved ones.

Thoughts: I’ve talked in various places before about being asexual, and what that means for me. It’s something I’ve understood for a while now, and have grown pretty comfortable with, even if sometimes it’s a bit frustrating since it’s one of those things that isn’t very well understood and is often mocked or belittled by people who don’t know that much about it.

And for every person that’s ever asked me a stupid question about it, I wish I could just press a copy of The Invisible Orientation into their hands and say, “Here. All the answers are in here.”

I want to clarify. When I say stupid question, I don’t mean questions like, “So, what’s asexuality?” or “You mean you’re not sexually attracted to anyone?” These are smart questions. These are the questions that get asked by people who have understanding and compassion and the ability to realise that there’s more to the world than just what they’ve seen so far. Though really, most of the ignorance comes in the form of commentary rather than questions. “You can’t be asexual because you’re not an amoeba/bacterium/etc.” “You must have been abused as a child.” “My daughter went through a phase like that too.” “You’re too ugly to want to have sex with anyway.” And yes, I’ve gotten those comments, and others, over the years. The Invisible Orientation addresses this, from both sides. It’s not just a book for people who think they might be asexual. It’s also a book for people who’ve found out someone they know is asexual and they don’t know what to do or say, or just for those who want to understand asexuality better.

Asexuality, for those who want it in a nutshell, is a lack of sexual attraction to people. It doesn’t mean that a person’s genitals don’t function, that they are necessarily repulsed by sex, or that they can’t experience sexual pleasure. It simply means that someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction. Some asexuals experience romantic attraction, some don’t. Some are willing to include sex in their relationships, some aren’t.

It’s understandably a bit confusing for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t encountered asexuality before. The Invisible Orientation does stress a lot that behaviour is not the same as attraction, so yes, it is indeed possible for an asexual person to have sex and even enjoy it even if they don’t find it the driving force in their lives that many non-asexual people do. Decker likens it a few times to a gay man who has sex with a woman on a frequent basis; that doesn’t mean he’s not sexual attracted to men, nor does it mean he is sexually attracted to women. It’s taken for granted that a person’s sexual preference will dictate their romantic relationships, just as it’s taken for granted that a romantic relationship will become sexual (or else it’s not a “real” or mature relationship). But what if this isn’t the case? What if someone wants to be in a romantic relationship without wanting to bring sex into it at all? Does this lessen the romantic attraction in the relationship? Does it devalue the relationship somehow if both parties are okay with that?

It’s a complex issue, in no small part because asexuality isn’t well understood by most people. And Decker takes great pains to shed so much light on the whole thing, every aspect (or at least every aspect that I can think of, plus some I hadn’t considered before), and does so in a way that is brilliantly comprehensive and comprehensible.

Aside from being an amazing resource that gives clarity to many issues (“If someone has sex can they still call themselves asexual?” “What if I still have sexual attraction to people but it’s really low and not that important?”), this book gave me words to properly describe so many things that I’ve felt but didn’t have any idea how to express. I’ve known I’m asexual for some time, but how do I defend that against people who can rightly say, “Your experiences with sex weren’t that great, and your hormones were messed up at a key time of your development, and you did experience abuse as a child,” and that all leads them to the ‘reason’ I’m asexual. Those statements may all be true, and I can’t deny them, but every time someone brought that up, I didn’t have the right words to say why that all felt wrong, that they didn’t cause my orientation any more than an overbearing mother caused a man to be gay. I’d get frustrated and angry at my inability to express what I felt. Now, I have the words to say it all, and there is no end to the amount that I’m grateful for that.

This is, admittedly, the only book I’ve read on asexuality, so I can’t say for certain, but I honestly can’t imagine a better one. It came to me at the perfect time, erasing so much stress from my life within a week simply by allowing me to see, in someone else’s words and experience, all the things I’ve been struggling to reconcile. This is a fantastic resource for those who are asexual and those are who curious about asexuality, anyone who’s got questions about themselves or others, and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking answers about the issue.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 21, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As any reader of Jo Walton’s Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series.

Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field’s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

Thoughts: Jo Walton is one of those authors whose work I haven’t read nearly enough of it, and I’m always struck by that whenever I do read anything she’s written. (Which I confess is usually me rereading Among Others for the umpteenth time.) She’s the kind of author who makes me remember why I love to read, and what she writes makes me want to read just about everything in sight. There aren’t too many authors I’ll say that of.

(Is it creepy of me to say that I wish I was her, just a little bit? Or at least that I had her reading speed. When she talks about reading multiple books in a day, I just kind of sigh with envy.)

Walton’s large collection of essays from Tor.com was incredibly thought-provoking, her comments on books that I may or may not have read got the wheels turning in my head and provided a wonderful and different perspective on other similar fiction that I have read. The essay highlight why talking about books can be such a wonderful thing. Different opinions lead to discussion, to a greater understanding, to perspectives a single person may not have considered on their own. Meaning apparent to one is not always apparent to another, and knowing that Walton is both a prolific reader and an excellent and observant critic made reading her commentaries a real treat for me.

Most of the time. It’s one thing to read one, maybe 2 essays written about a book or series that I have never read; even if I don’t know the plot or characters or setting or any of that, I can still enjoy commentary on themes or observations about various aspects of the work. But more than that? It gets tedious. Or rather, it got tedious, since there were a few series mentioned in multiple essays, looking at each book individually, then the series as a whole, and while that may be interesting for someone who has read the series, for someone like me who has not, it was just boring. In the end I had to skip chunks of them; it got too frustrating to be bombarded with more talk about things that I didn’t know and that no context would really be given for. Not that the essays weren’t insightful. It was that they were just lost on me, and that there were so many of them, one after another.

I suspect this might be a sticking point for many readers of this collection. It’s a stretch to expect that anyone who reads this will have read all the books Walton is commenting on, so we’re all going to have to take our lumps somewhere and read about some books we have yet to get around to. But 3 pages is much easier to deal with in that regard than, say, 50 or more.

Still, Walton does have the kind of writing style and observation that will draw in those with a similar passion for criticism and analysis, and I learned a lot from reading What Makes This Book So Great. It’s like a primer for those who want to be critics but don’t know where to begin. You can hand them a copy of this book and tell them, “Here, try to do it like this.” Whether you agree with her opinions or not, you can’t deny that she makes a fantastic point and her thoughts are well worth reading.

(I was also impressed by the fact that she wrote something on a novel that I was beginning to think that I’d just dreamed about reading, because I’d seen nobody else mention it anywhere. Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life. While I disagreed with some of the things she said about it, her essay helped me see things from a different perspective, which was interesting, and made me want to read it again to see if my opinion of the book may have changed over time.)

Having read it, I know it’s the kind of book that isn’t just going to get read once. It’s a reference guide, something I’ll return to again and again for inspiration for my own commentaries, and because yes, like Among Others, my To Be Read pile has just exploded and I’m going to want to revisit some of the essays after reading the book so that I can have a deeper appreciation of both. It’s a must-have book for many genre fans and just about every reviewer of genre fiction.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 27, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) We think of Queen Elizabeth I as ‘Gloriana’: the most powerful English woman in history. We think of her reign (1558-1603) as a golden age of maritime heroes, like Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Francis Drake, and of great writers, such as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. But what was it actually like to live in Elizabethan England? If you could travel to the past and walk the streets of London in the 1590s, where would you stay? What would you eat? What would you wear? Would you really have a sense of it being a glorious age? And if so, how would that glory sit alongside the vagrants, diseases, violence, sexism and famine of the time?

In this book Ian Mortimer answers the key questions that a prospective traveller to late sixteenth-century England would ask. Applying the groundbreaking approach he pioneered in his bestselling Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, the Elizabethan world unfolds around the reader.

He shows a society making great discoveries and winning military victories and yet at the same time being troubled by its new-found awareness. It is a country in which life expectancy at birth is in the early thirties, people still starve to death and Catholics are persecuted for their faith. Yet it produces some of the finest writing in the English language and some of the most magnificent architecture, and sees Elizabeth’s subjects settle in America and circumnavigate the globe. Welcome to a country that is, in all its contradictions, the very crucible of the modern world

Thoughts: It isn’t too often that I end up reviewing nonfiction anymore.  But sometimes a book comes along with such a sufficiently interesting concept that I can’t help but take a bit of a break from the norm and give it a go.

Mortimer takes a look at Elizabethan England through the amusing concept of a travel guide for time travelers, and believe me, it works.The very first chapter starts out like you’re sightseeing in some of the more well-known cities and towns. Walk down this street. On your left, you’ll see this. Walk 50 feet and take a right and you’ll see that. It’s an interesting set-up, and it works very well for getting the reader into the right mindset. It brings history to life, puts you in the centre of it, and makes it something other than that standard stories you read in textbooks.

This is the sort of history that I wanted to learn in school, and for years didn’t even know existed as a study. I couldn’t bring myself to be interested in the politics and wars and the goings-on of nobility and their lives. I wanted to learn how everyone else lived. I wanted to learn how people dressed, what food they ate, what sort of jobs they did, and what the everyday lives of the majority were. And that’s exactly what this book gives. It doesn’t completely discount the role of royalty and nobility, and doesn’t pass over the politics of the day, because those things were as important then as they are now, but it gives a very complete picture of life at the time, right down to period foods and medicines. No matter what your particular field of interest, there’s something in here that will catch your eye and fascinate you. It’s the nitty-gritty detail that makes history complete, after all, and that’s exactly what I’m interested in when it comes to accounts of the past.

But beyond my own personal interest in this sort of history, I found enjoyment in this book from the perspective of a writer. Contained within this book’s pages are innuerable facts that add colour and detail to not just historical fiction, but also have potential to enrich fantasy and speculative fiction. As a writer, I knew pretty much from the beginning that this was a book I would use again and again when fact-checking, when seeking inspiration, or just when looking for something to add a bit more realism to my own fiction. It’s an invaluable resource in that regard, and I plan to use a good amount of what I learned in here. People interested in other forms of historical recreation, such as the SCA, might find this book of particular interest as well.

This was my first exposure to Mortimer’s work, and knowing that he also wrote The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England makes me want to get that book too, for further research and inspiration. And probably any other books that he does in this series, too (I might just bribe him to write The Time Traveler’s Guide to Victorian England, for instance). His writing is easy to follow without being simplistic, and though it expects you to have at least a small background in the period, still context is given and plenty of explanations follow, making this an accessible book for those who don’t know anything about Elizabethan England beyond the fact that there was a Queen named Elizabeth. While I can’t say for certain that this is a book that should grace the shelves of hardcore historians, it’s definitely something that should have its place for amateur historians, and for those interested, as I was, in taking inspiration for speculative fiction.

(Book provided for review by the publisher.)

Death by Petticoat, by Mary Miley Theobald

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Every day stories from American history that are not true are repeated in museums and classrooms across the country. Some are outright fabrications; others contain a kernel of truth that has been embellished over the years. Collaborating with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Mary Theobald has uncovered the truth behind many widely-repeated myth-understandings in our history including:

·Hat makers really were driven mad. They were poisoned by the mercury used in making hats from furs. Their symptoms included hallucinations, tremors, and twitching, which looked like insanity to people of the 17th and 18th centuries—and the phrase “mad as a hatter” came about.

·The idea that portrait painters gave discounts if their subjects posed with one hand inside the vest (so they didn’t have to paint fingers and leading to the saying that something “costs an arm and a leg”) is strictly myth. It isn’t likely that Napoleon, King George III, or George Washington were concerned about getting a discount from their portrait painters.

·Pregnant women secluded themselves indoors, uneven stairs were made to trip up burglars, people bathed once a year, women had tiny waists, apprenticeships last seven years – Death by Petticoat reveals the truth about these hysterical historical myth-understandings.

Thoughts: I’m always interested in historical trivia, so this book seemed right up my alley. It was simple, quick to read, and more than striving to explain the truth behind some of the myths, it also opened my eyes to some of the more ridiculous things that people actually believe about not just Colonial America, but North American history in general.

This isn’t the sort of book that a hardcore historian might want on their shevles, though. It breezes through things, relying more on dispelling eneral myths in the manner of a trivia book than really seeking to go into depth about where most of the myths came from and what life was really like at the time. It tells the facts briefly and with a sense of sarcastic humour, but leaves further research to the reader’s discretion.

The downside to this approach is that most people who are interested in history will already know the truth behind most of the myths mentioned, and those who aren’t interested in history probably won’t pick up the book to begin with. Which is a shame, really, since books like this are actually decent ways to learn a little without getting truly invested in the material. You read, you learn, you move on. But getting this book into the hands of the people who need it the most is usually a difficult task. Not impossible, but difficult.

Nevertheless, in reading death by Petticoat I did learn a thing or two, so I can’t and won’t consider it an evening wasted. This is the kind of book you can get through in an evening, after all. It was worth reading even just for the discussion it generated between my roommate and I. But mostly, I would recommend it to history enthusiasts who want to have a good chuckle at some of the more silly things that people believe about their history.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

Waiter Rant, by Steve Dublanica

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Author’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2008

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In this book, the pseudonymous Steve Dublanica (a.k.a. Dan John Miller) achieves for waiters what Anthony Bourdain did for cooks in Kitchen Confidential. By the evidence of Waiter Rant, not even his seminary classes or job as a psychiatric worker could prepare Dublanica adequately for what he would experience pulling shifts at an upscale restaurant outside New York City. He tells story after entertaining story about customers, co-workers, and bosses who range individually from the imperious to the clinically insane. Along the way, the author-waiter delivers sound advice on proper tip etiquette and the art of getting good service.

Thoughts: Always interested in what things look like from the other side, this book seemed like a perfect fit for me. I’ve had good service, bad service, and utterly indifferent service from people at different restaurants, and I figured it was worth seeing the thoughts and opinions of this person who turned commentary on his work into a book that thousands of people were talking about.

My intuition led me in the right direction.

The author’s candid commentary on the inner workings of an upscale restaurant and all the politics and insanity surrounding it was a wonderfully entertaining read, and more than a little informative. I can’t say that I previously even thought about some of the issues he brought up, both in dealing with coworkers and with customers.

While the author did paint himself as something of a sympathetic figure through the whole tale, he was up front and honest enough to not do that in every instance. He freely admitted that he could be just as much of a jerk as anybody else, took his revenge on cranky customers, and talked trash with the kitchen workers. While I can’t say I approved of some of the things he did, I commend him for being honest about it all, and not making himself seem completely like the poor trod-upon worker whose boss and coworkers were all out to get him.

Though I won’t lie; there were plenty of people who treated him unfairly enough, and for stupid enough reasons, that I wanted to be able to knock their heads together more than once.

This book does more than shed light on the inner workings of the restaurant world, though. Many of the practices shown in here can be transplanted and applied to just about any job. Unscrupulous business practices, manic control-freak bosses, and corporate politics doing more to ruin a job experience than anything else. These aren’t things that only exist in restaurants, and I found myself relating to the author’s situation numerous times even though I have never had a job like his before. I think this is the kind of book that can speak to anybody who’s ever worked in a less-than-enjoyable job, and as such ties many people together in a loose community that they may never have even thought existed before.

Funny, irreverent, honest, and enlightening, this book is one that I can highly recommend to just about anybody. Wjether you close the book loving it or hating it, you won’t be able to honestly say that you didn’t learn something, or that you couldn’t ever relate. Definitely worth taking the time to read.

Fail Harder, by the failblog.org community


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Failblog.org
Publication date – September 5, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) FAIL Harder follows the hilarious best-seller Fail Nation to showcase 200 original full-color photos of world-wide FAILS based on the popular website failblog.org, the most visited member of the Cheezburger Network.

So what qualifies as a FAIL? How about a nursery outfitted with a gun rack hanging over the baby’s crib? Perhaps the equation, “E=MC3” written on a classroom’s write/erase board. What about a trifecta of beauty parlor, chain saw repair, and nightclub housed inside an all-in-one-stop shop?

Classic FAILs like these are presented in more than 15 different categories, including At Home, In A Relationship, On the Job, and With Your Pets.

If you must FAIL, FAIL Harder.

Thoughts: While I do think it’s great that the failblog community has grown to such proportions as to release photobooks of the site’s content, I have to see that a good percentage of the images shown in Fail Harder were ones that I distinctly remember seeing on the website. Without having to pay for. Which automatically means that those who buy this book are most likely going to be ones who mostly want to support the community and the project, rather than those seeking something new.

That being said, I’m someone who heartily approves of supporting the community, so this doesn’t seem like a money-making scheme from those who run the site. As much as I’m sure I could find all the images in the book for free online, going through the site’s archives would be a pain (albeit an often-hilarious pain), and it’s nice to see some of the best of the worst contained in one place.

The images were of high quality and most of them were worth a chuckle, such as a bottle of wine that advertised that it was both “made in France” and “made in Spain,” or the sign attached to edutainment software that stated the games were “so much fun they won’t even know their learning.” Much like the site itself, though, there were a few “failed fails” in here, ones that were obviously posed shots or even obvious Photoshopping jobs. But overall, the quality was good, and it has far more hits than misses.

As said previously, this one is definitely for fans of failblog who want to support the community. Others can probably give it a miss, or else visit the site itself for free versions of what this book contains.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, by Brianna Karp


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Author’s website
Publication date – April 26, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) “I am an educated woman with stable employment and residence history. I have never done drugs. I am not mentally ill. I am a career executive assistant—coherent, opinionated, poised, and capable. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t have assumed that I lived in a parking lot. In short, I was just like you—except without the convenience of a permanent address.” Brianna Karp’s account of her journey through homelessness immerses us in a timely, relevant topic that all too many Americans know about first hand.

Thoughts: I’ve had a few friends who, at various points in their lives, have found themselves homeless for one reason or another. So when I saw this book, my curiosity was piqued. It wasn’t until around halfway through that I realized I’d already heard about the author, though not extensively. I remember browsing news links one day and hearing about a homeless woman who’d landed an internship with a magazine writer. That was my introduction to Brianna Karp, and my introduction to her was, no doubt, just about identical to thoudands of other experiences, as people read the news and saw a glimpse of this woman.

Brianna’s story wasn’t an easy one to tell, but she does so with a frankness that reminds me sometimes of a person who’s seen and been through too much and has just become immune to many of the stresses associated with some of the terrible things that can happen in life. From an abusive upbringing to finding herself homeless to falling in love with a man who turns out to be a total asshat, Brianna seems to have been through a bit of everything. She doesn’t flinch away from telling it like it is.

This book does a lot to help break down some of the all too common stereotypes associated with the homeless. Let’s face it, when most of us think of homeless people, one of the first images that comes to bring is an unshaven guy in a long coat and knit skullcap, or a woman with unkempt hair pushing a shopping cart of her belongings down a street. They’re the common face of homelessness because they are very visible, by dint of their being so far outside what we expect people to be and look like. But scratch even a little bit below the surface and what you’ll find are young couples living out of their car, guys coming from a day at the office straight into a homeless shelter, and it’s not because they drink away their paycheques, but because society is expensive. Think about how much it takes to rent an apartment. First month’s rent, damage deposit equal to that, last month’s rent in some places. Ad we aren’t all lucky enough to get paid $50000 a year. Some of us make less than half that. My roommate makes about one quarter of that.

Aside from breaking down stereotypes about homelessness, another theme that runs under this whole book is the value of social networking. Weird though that may sound. But through free (or at least cheap) Internet connections, Brianna made a host of friends who helped her out of tight spots, either financially or emotionally, all because she started a blog and made a few connections to other websites. It may sound trite, but this is a testament to what people can do for one another when they are united by a common thread and pull together in times of need.

This isn’t a book I’d recommend to everyone. There are depictions of abuse — emotional, physical, and sexual — that left me queasy, and there are many parts of this book that I simply couldn’t relate to, as I don’t place the same emphasis on appearance and social-climbing that many do, especially young women. But given the main theme of the book, those parts that I couldn’t relate to are easy to relegate to the back of my mind and overlook. I can do that, but I know far too many people who can’t, and I think that sadly, the message of this book would be lost on them.

Which makes them, perversely, the very people who ought to read this book and have their preconceptions blows out of the water.

I’d recommend giving this one a chance, at least. It’s slow going at first, as Brianna spends a good deal of time setting up the backstory of her life before tackling the actual issue of homelessness, but it’s still worth the attempt.

(Provided by the publisher for review via NetGalley)