Progress Report on Ransom Riggs’ Library of Souls (by Jill)


Library-of-Souls cover

I’m going to keep this brief because I’m pleased to report that things have picked up quite a bit since I posted on Tuesday. Jacob, Emma, and Addison the dog are making progress in their quest to find their friends, and I’ve met a few interesting and, well, peculiar characters. I even know what the titular Library of Souls is. But I’m keeping all that to myself for now, because I’ve got one more day left of my weekend (and the rest of tonight) and I want to finish Library of Souls before I go back to work on Saturday. If I can manage to keep my eyes on my book and away from binge-watching Doctor Who, I just may be able to do it.

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Yarn Along

Yarn Along photo 2.3.16

Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet isn’t quite as bad as its title suggests, but it still isn’t doing much for me – and this is in spite of the fact that it sort of involves TIME TRAVEL. People keep telling me how great Kate Atkinson’s novels are, but this is my second one and I’m not yet a fan. This novel is just too voice-heavy for me. I’ve really become impatient with voice-driven first-person fiction, especially when child narrators are involved. It just seems too hard for authors to avoid letting voice stand in for plot. For example, I am 77 pages into this novel and not much has really happened. We know all kinds of things the protagonist thinks and feels about her friends, family, and neighbors – and that’s it. I am going to keep reading because at some point there is supposed to be some Shakespeare-related TIME TRAVEL, and that interests me. I will let you know how things go.

If you’ve been following the saga of the baby blanket, I ripped out my first attempt a couple of weeks ago because the pattern was complicated and my flawed eyesight couldn’t deal with the tiny needles and the thin yarn and the tiny pattern chart. I knit about 30 rows of the same pattern with bigger needles and thicker yarn, and I figured out where I went wrong. Now I’m back to the thin yarn again, and once again the blanket is in the stage where it looks like a fancy lollipop. Hopefully this time something will come of it, though this is the cursed yarn…

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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Early Thoughts on Ransom Riggs’ Library of Souls (by Jill)


Library-of-Souls cover

So it’s Tuesday, and my plan was to do a progress report on Library of Souls, the final book in Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Trilogy, but I didn’t make a ton of progress this week in my reading, so I don’t have much to say. Let me modify, actually. I’m a third of the way through Library of Souls, but I don’t feel like a whole lot has happened in the book that’s worth mentioning. I’m kind of disappointed in this one, actually. I feel like it’s dragging so far, and I don’t remember that being the case in the first two books in the series. The weird old time pictures are not as weird in this book; it’s almost like Riggs is running out of stuff from his collections to share with his readers.

The story picks up right where Hollow City left off: in the present day, in a London Underground station, with Jacob Portman suddenly able to tell a hollowgast, the invisible evil beasts of the peculiar world, to cease and desist its attack on him, Emma, and Addison the dog. With that, they head out into London proper, hot on the trail of the wights and their friends, and make their way into another loop. This one is just yucky. It’s called Hell’s Acre, and it’s a disgusting slum in Victorian London. I think. Where I ended last night, the gang has reached the wights’ stronghold in the loop, and they’re figuring out a way to get inside and rescue their friends. I haven’t given up on this book by any means, and I’m hopeful that the story will pick up once the entire group is reunited (I expect that will happen sooner rather than later). I think it’ll be good for forward progress that I’m starting my weekend and will have more time to sit and read each day. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to participate in Read All Day Friday with Bethany this week, because I also have a lot of Doctor Who to watch, but a Read and Binge Watch Doctor Who All Day Friday sounds really appealing. I promise to have more to say on Thursday….

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Holy Democratic Process, Batman!


This is Emma with her big, beautiful eyes, asking you to please forgive her Mom for not writing a book review tonight. The Iowa caucuses are on: the Democrats look like they’re about to start the Hokey Pokey any minute now, the Republicans have whipped out the popcorn tubs – and let’s just say that Emma and I are pretty transfixed. I’ll be back for Yarn Along on Wednesday – and yes, I am knitting as I watch!

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A Review of Lois Lowry’s Son (by Jill)

Son cover


Son was the longest of the books in The Giver Quartet, and by far the best of the series, in my opinion. It ties all of the prior books together and wraps things up pretty well, though there is still room for more sequels, though I have no idea whether or not Lowry intends to continue writing dystopian fiction. Of course, dystopian fiction writing is kind of a can’t lose profession these days, so I suspect she might continue telling the stories of this world for the rest of her life.

Anyway, the protagonist of Son is Claire, and she starts her life in the same community where Jonas lived initially in The Giver. At her Twelve year ceremony she is chosen to be a Birthmother, which is looked down upon in general as a profession girls are chosen to be when they aren’t good at anything else. In Claire’s community the Birthmothers have the babies and they’re assigned to married couples to raise after they go through an application process. Birthmothers are usually bred three or so times and then once they’ve fulfilled their duties they are reassigned to another profession. Claire is only fourteen when she is bred (I’m saying bred because she’s basically a broodmare or a first-calf heifer with more advanced nutrition), and there are complications with the delivery and she is left sterile, so she is reassigned to working at the fish hatchery. She becomes obsessed with meeting her child, and eventually she makes her way into the place where “newchildren” are cared for until it’s time to go to their families when they’re about a year old, give or take. The baby ends up being Gabriel, the baby who Jonas runs off with at the end of The Giver. After Jonas leaves with Gabriel, Claire spends the rest of the book trying to find her son. She leaves the community on a ship, loses her memory in a shipwreck, washes up at another community at the base of a cliff by the ocean, and spends years there, regaining her memories and then training to climb the cliff to get out to track down Gabe. She falls in love, but leaves this man behind to find Gabe. At the top of the cliff, she meets Trade Master (remember him?), and he trades her youth for the location of her son.

In the meantime, we get to spend time with Jonas, his wife Kira, and Gabe, who is a teenager at this point, and living in a well-appointed orphanage in the community where he and Jonas ended up at the end of The Giver. Everything seems just lovely there these days, which is nice to see. There’s a final showdown between Gabe and the Trade Master, and I won’t bother telling you who wins, because this is young adult fiction. The good guys almost always win in young adult fiction.

This book, like all the others, is plot-driven, and gives itself to a lot of plot summary, which I find really tedious to write, and I suspect it’s equally tedious to read, though maybe not. I found Claire’s story the most compelling of all of the stories that are told in this series, I think because it’s much more well-developed and multi-layered than the stories of the others. Claire actually grows up and changes in the course of the novel, and goes through adult things—she falls in love and loses her person, she loses her son (but finds him again), she works really, really hard to achieve something that many find impossible (scaling that cliff). It’s not like with Kira, using her gift for weaving or Matty using his healing gift. Claire doesn’t have any magical gifts, she’s just a girl who becomes a woman and works hard to get what she wants. I can respect that. I still liked all of the others, and I liked Gabe, but they were less real to me than Claire.

Overall, this was an enjoyable, quick series of books. I feel like it was missing something, possibly a level of depth that I expect after years of reading adult books, but it was fine, really. Missing that “level of depth” made it possible for me to read three books in a week, and there are advantages to making rapid progress through large numbers of books, especially when one is in the middle of a post-a-day challenge that your co-blogger wants to keep up for as long as we can manage it. I think most people would enjoy The Giver Quartet, though it will probably be a bit simple for some. I’m going to keep going with the young adult fiction for a little bit, because I want to finish off the Miss Peregrine’s series, which is more than a little bit darker and has a few more levels of depth to it than even Son. That being said, I’ve been having a bit more trouble getting into it… So simple fiction does have its place.

Posted in Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - Young Adult, Lois Lowry, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

A Review of Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (Hogarth Shakespeare Series, Volume 1) (by Bethany)

Gap of Time

The Hogarth Shakespeare series is off to a fantastic start: Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time captures the weird intensity of The Winter’s Tale (my thoughts on the original are here and here), mirroring Shakespeare’s plot and characters while also functioning as a stand-alone novel in its own right. King Leontes is transformed into Leo, the rich, entitled CEO of a London-based company called Sicilia; his wife is the beautiful singer MiMi; Paulina morphs into Leo’s aggressive personal assistant Pauline; and Xeno is Leo’s old school friend, former lover, rival for MiMi’s affections, and video-game designer based in a fictional Louisiana city called New Bohemia.

Winterson manages the abandoned-baby aspect of the plot using a BabyHatch – one of those dropboxes that some hospitals make available so that new mothers who feel that they have to abandon their babies can do so in a safe way. When MiMi delivers the baby – whom Leo assumes is Xeno’s – Leo sends his gardener, Tony, to deliver the baby to Xeno in Louisiana. Xeno never answers his door (as we learn later), so when he can’t find Xeno Tony panics a little and puts the baby in the BabyHatch at the hospital, using a pen to prop the hatch open so he can come back and get her later. However, some thugs become aware of the fact that Tony is carrying a large amount of cash, which was supposed to go to Xeno along with the baby, and they kill him before he can return. Tony is the equivalent of Antinous in the original, and the mobsters are the “bears” that “pursue” and eventually kill him. More in a moment on what happens to the baby.

When I read The Winter’s Tale, I interpreted Leontes’ sudden insistence that his wife Hermione was having an affair with Polixenes as a psychotic break of some kind – and I think that’s how I would have set it up if I were trying to modernize the play. However, I like the way Winterson did it better: she set up a situation in which Leo and Xeno have a long friendship, dating back to boarding school, where they were not only friends but lovers. Leo insists that he is not gay; the adult Xeno is openly gay in other areas of his life but is always closed-mouthed and non-committal around Leo. Once, when they were bicycling together as boys, Leo dared Xeno to cycle right along the edge of a canyon. Xeno did so and nearly died when he misjudged the edge and fell. Leo was the one to speed back to town on his bike and get help, but the two never talked about the incident, and we learn through Xeno’s interactions with others in the novel that he still resents Leo’s dare. Also, when Leo was pursuing MiMi, they split up after a fight and had no contact for a year, and then Leo sent Xeno to Paris to find MiMi, give her a cheesy note, and persuade her to come back. Xeno does so – successfully on all counts – but in the process he and MiMi develop a strong emotional bond that never goes away, even when Leo and MiMi marry. The salient point from all of this summary is that Leo and Xeno have a number of unresolved conflicts and resentments between them, in spite of their friendship. Leo envies Xeno’s closeness with MiMi, and Xeno resents the near-death encounter on the edge of the canyon, plus the fact that Leo seems to see him as so non-threatening that he used him to win back MiMi. And of course, the fact that they are ex-lovers adds complexity to their friendship. All of these details help to make Leo’s overreaction plausible, although he still comes off as a deeply angry and suspicious person.

On the New Bohemia side of the Atlantic, we meet Shep (a stand-in for the shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, of course; the novel actually opens with him) – a nightclub owner and piano player – and his adult son Clo. Shep is the one who found baby Perdita in the BabyHatch. There is a long story attached to this incident, of course, involving the fact that on the night Shep sees the baby in the hatch (actually, there is a light on in the hatch to indicate that a baby has been left there, which reminds me of the light at Krispy Kreme that lets passers-by know that the doughnuts are fresh, but let’s not think about that connection too carefully) he is also grieving his wife on the one-year anniversary of her death. She died at that same hospital, and Shep was the one to cut off her oxygen and smother her with his hand. He did it because she was suffering and would not recover, and he does not regret that action exactly, but his own role in her death and in the proximity of her suffering compounds the grief he already feels. He sees the baby as a sign that God has offered him a chance to redeem himself. He raises Perdita, and the next time we see Perdita after the sixteen-year gap of time, she is part of a loving but simple family and is a talented singer like her mother.

In The Winter’s Tale, the truth about the links among the characters starts bubbling to the surface in the interminable Act IV, scene iv, when highborn and lowborn characters alike attend a sheepshearing feast, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Winterson updates this scene by setting it at Shep’s 70th birthday party (at Fleece, the bar he owns – get it, Fleece?). Perdita invited a boy she likes, Zel, who turns out to be Xeno’s son. Zel has very little contact with Xeno, who “became weird” after a traumatic event sixteen years ago – i.e. when his best friend Leo chased him around a car park (hee hee British English) and tried to kill him (again), forcing him to flee London for his life, leaving behind not only Leo but also MiMi and Pauline, with whom he was very close. Ever since then, Xeno has been living in his isolated house, more or less as a recluse, designing commercial video games for profit but spending the rest of his time working on a private video game that involves major world cities, a trapped angel, Leo, MiMi, and lots of feathers (this sounds odd, but it is actually woven well into the plot and managed beautifully). Xeno does show up at Shep’s birthday party, though, because he goes looking for Zel at the auto mechanic shop where he works and is told to look for him at Fleece.

My only real complaint about this novel is that Winterson hammers home a bit too hard that this is a novel about time. Time is in the title, of course, and the effects of the 16-year gap on all the major characters is clear, but at times – especially near the end – she just lays it on a bit too thick. We get it. One example is the fact that much of Shep’s birthday party is taken over with a semi-ridiculous subplot involving a DeLorean (the TIME machine from Back to the Future, get it?). This episode takes a while to wade through and is never integrated into the rest of the plot. I guess something had to happen to make this scene as tedious as the original. Later, though, some of the guests start to reminisce about the night when two mobsters killed Tony Gonzalez (Leo’s gardener, the one who brought Perdita to the baby hatch). Everyone remembers it because it was a major news event at the time, and Shep and Clo remember it especially well, of course, because they were involved. Xeno also remembers the episode as well, because as a frequent houseguest of Leo’s he knew Tony Gonzalez well, and also because he knew that Leo was sending Tony with the baby but assumed that if he hid out long enough Tony would just bring the baby back to London. Xeno hadn’t counted on the baby hatch. So, over the course of the scene, the truth largely comes to light. Perdita and Zel, who soon fall in love, go to England to meet Leo. Perdita is put off at first, but soon – because Shakespeare gave this weird genre-bending play a comic ending – the family is reunited and everyone – including Shep and Clo, who fly over to London and are included in the festivities – is happy again. In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione is turned to stone during the whole 16-year gap of time. Winterson manages that little plot hurdle by having MiMi go to Paris and go into a period of stasis. She just lives, eats, and goes for walks by the Seine; she doesn’t sing or have contact with other people (with a few exceptions) or do anything productive until she learns from Pauline that Perdita has returned. I liked my idea of sending her to a luxury Botox clinic for 16 years better – but I guess I can’t have everything.

This is the first book of Winterson’s that I’ve read, and I loved it. It is lyrical in a woman-book sort of way, but I wasn’t annoyed by it. Even though I knew more or less where the plot was going, I felt caught up in the suspense of wondering how the characters would learn one another’s true identities. There are sadly insightful lines (like “Forgiveness is a word like tiger – there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is” [17]) and effective pop culture allusions (like “There’s the world hanging in space. There’s Superman beating the speed of light – turning all his love into speed and light – and forcing time to defeat itself. He’s spinning the world so the water is pulling back into the dam and the rocks are anchoring their rockiness back into the cliff face. Slowly the red car rises from the ravine, the metal body undents, the windscreen unshatters.” [92-93]) and evidence that even assholes like Leo have deep thoughts, as when he holds up postcards of the Mona Lisa and L’Origine du Monde and says to MiMi, “‘These two images put together explain why men find women so threatening. The world comes out of your body and…’ – he was waving the Mona Lisa at me – ‘we have no idea what is in your head.’” [61]. And yes, there are way too many reminders that in this novel time is plot, character, setting, and theme – but that’s okay. I enjoyed this novel and am very excited about Hogarth Shakespeare’s plan to publish ‘cover versions’ of all of Shakespeare’s plays by bestselling authors in the upcoming years. Next up is Howard Jacobson’s reworking of The Merchant of Venice, and I can’t wait.

krispy kreme photo

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Hogarth Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire (by Bethany)

justinian's flea cover image

This is the sort of history book I love – multidisciplinary, oriented around synthesis rather than analysis, and not afraid to go into detail about a sex act that a certain former empress of the Eastern Roman Empire liked to perform with a goose (I’m not telling, but it’s on pp. 74-75 if you have a library card). The stated purpose of this book is to explore the effects of the massive outbreak of bubonic plague beginning in 542 C.E. in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas – in particular in the area of ending what we think of as the “ancient” way of life and ushering in what is usually called the medieval world. To give you a sense of what Rosen is like as a storyteller, with the exception of a few paragraphs in the introduction, the bubonic plague makes its appearance in the book on page 162. This is a historian who believes in using a wide-angle lens. Prior to the arrival of Y. pestis. Rosen covers the events that caused the Roman empire to split into its eastern and western halves, the barbarian invasions and other events that caused the western empire to fall in 479 C.E., and the rise of Justinian. Another section is devoted to Justinian’s courtship and lifelong love affair with Theodora-of-the-aforementioned-sex-act (actually, her name up until she married him was Theodora-from-the-brothel – seriously), his fascination with the more arcane elements of Christian dogma, his law code and the refinements he made to the fine arts of bureaucracy, and his exhaustive but unsuccessful attempts to reconquer the western empire. We learn about his best general, Belisarius; his Quaestor (sort of like a chief of staff), Tribonium, his Praetorian Prefect, John the Cappadocian; and his oversight of the rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia. All this swooping around, shifting between wide and zoom lenses, make for a certain “Alice’s Restaurant” quality in the narrative (Remember the Bubonic Plague? This is a book about the Bubonic Plague.) that I imagine would annoy some readers – but I liked it quite a lot.

Finally the narrative shifts back to the book’s stated focus, although Rosen still waits a while to tell us what happened when the people of the eastern Roman empire started contracting the plague. Part III of the book is called “Bacterium,” and its protagonist is Y. pestis. In this section, the bacterium is given the same close attention Rosen gave to Diocletian, Constantine, Theodora, Belisarius, John the Cappadocian, and the others in Parts I and II – and I loved that. This section also covers the complicated population dynamics among four organisms – Y. pestis, a flea called X. cheopsis, the Mediterranean black rat (Rattus rattus!), and a certain H. sapiens – that indicate when outbreaks of plague are likely to happen. Again, I love it when historians integrate science into their work, though others may not.

Without trying to reproduce the book’s argument in detail, I’ll sketch out a few of the long-term effects of the arrival of the bubonic plague in the Mediterranean in 542. First, of course, it thinned the population. Plagues of all kinds always do that – but apparently this outbreak eradicated even more of the population than the one in 1348-9, which famously wiped out 50% of the population from the British Isles all the way to India. Because the plague hit Constantinople first, that city was the first to see its population slashed. With so many people dead – including lots of young people in the prime of life – Belisarius and the other generals in Justinian’s army found it impossible to fill the army’s ranks. One result of the shortage of soldiers is that several tenuously-held cities in Italy and other parts of the former western empire were retaken by the “barbarians” – and by barbarians I mean my own ancestors and those of everyone else of Western European descent: the Franks, the Gauls, the Huns, the Slavs, and so forth. The barbarians got the plague too, but they didn’t get it until later. The plague tended to travel from the seaports (where it arrived on ships from Africa) to higher ground; Constantinople was right on a major seaport, while some of the barbarian strongholds like Tours and Ravenna – and Rome itself – were a bit inland. Not much, but enough to make a difference. By the time these cities started feeling the effects of population loss, Justinian’s army had already been defeated and gone home. Similarly, Justinian lost some of his empire’s most prized cities in the east – most notably Antioch – because his opponents, the Persians, didn’t get the plague until several years after it hit Constantinople.

Also notable were the regions the plague did not affect. In order to travel and not die out, the plague needs a relatively high concentration of human beings, so it never managed to travel across the Arabian desert to infect the civilizations in Yemen and the cities of Mecca and Medina. This is notable, of course, because 100-ish years after 542, while the eastern empire was still suffering the long-term consequences of its population loss, Muhammad and his followers – and, later, his descendants – were surging northward to conquer in the name of Allah in the very earliest years of Islam. By this time, the Persians – who had taken Antioch and other cities while Justinian’s army was hobbled – had themselves been decimated by plague, so the Muslims were able to take these same cities from the Persians. Soon the Muslims developed a reputation as some of the fiercest fighters in the world – a reputation that continued though the Crusades and continues to affect east-west relations today.

In Europe, especially in France, where the plague came late but was no less destructive than it was in Constantinople, the plague led to some interesting agricultural changes. With so many able-bodied people no longer able-bodied (or no longer bodied at all), farmers were forced to innovate. They modified their manual plows so they could be pulled by horses. Even centuries after the plague, of course, this innovation freed up human workers to do other tasks and was exported to nearly every other farming society. Furthermore, the need to rely on horses forced farmers to plant more oats in their fields – to feed the horses – and the resulting three-field crop rotation system ended up being a much more efficient land-use strategy than the two-field system that had been in use before. These and other innovations helped to create the agrarian society of medieval Europe, in which the economy was based not on money or trade but on the land and the goods the land produces.

There’s much more in this book – it truly is a work of interdisciplinary history. If this era of history is new to you, you might want to read a more comprehensive study of the late Roman empire first to get your bearings, but if you are comfortable with history I highly recommend it. With the possible exception of the chapter on Tribonium and his bureaucratic innovations, this book is never boring. I learned a lot and will be seeking out more of Rosen’s work soon.

P.S. I did mostly manage to participate in Read-All-Day Friday today. Here’s a photo of me reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (photobombed by my toe). Look at all that yarn sitting unused in the background!

RAD Friday photo 1.29

P.P.S. Rattus rattus!


Posted in Authors, Glimpses into Real Life, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Read-All-Day Friday, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized, William Rosen | Leave a comment