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review 2019-10-21 19:17
The Hellbound Heart ★★★★☆

The Hellbound Heart - Clive Barker 

This has to be among the most bizarre books I’ve read in a while. I’ve never seen the Hellraiser movies, so I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, either. I have to give it credit for being inventive, at least. And entertaining, even if only in a wtf kind of way. And the ending had a satisfying roundness, where

Kirsty is entrusted with the puzzle box by the Cenobites, so that she gets to hand it over with vague promises of unearthly sexual experiences to the next “deserving” soul who comes looking for it.

(spoiler show)

 

I read this book for the Booklikes Halloween Bingo 2019, for the square Read by Candlelight or Flashlight: Any mystery, suspense, supernatural or horror book - the trick here is to spend an hour or so reading by flashlight or candlelight. We finally got a “cold” front, where the temps dropped enough for me to light a fire without roasting myself, and Annabelle and I cuddled up under my Nancy Drew quilt by the fire and a Halloween candle and a nice glass of merlot for a good scary read. Sorry she's a little blurry, she doesn't like sitting still. 

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review 2019-10-21 03:24
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent - Galen Beckett

I like historical fantasy novels a lot, and so this one – drawing heavily on various 19th century novels, including the works of Jane Austen, The Turn of the Screw, and Jane Eyre – seemed an ideal fit, especially given a rather charming writing style that draws on the style of works from the period, while still moving fairly quickly for the modern reader. Unlike other reviewers, I don’t take issue with how heavily this novel draws from its sources, which are at least varied, and it seems to me there’s plenty from the author’s own imagination here. (Any claim that any of the male characters resemble Mr. Darcy, in personality or situation or plot function, is absurd.) Unfortunately, too many plot elements are contrived or stupid or rely on characters being stupid, and there’s some serious dissonance between where the book seems to think our sympathies ought to go, and where mine actually went.

Warning: spoilers below, so read at your own risk!

The book follows three protagonists. Ivy, the most prominent, is clearly based on a combination of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood; she’s the sensible young woman who keeps her household running in spite of her silly mother, unworldly younger sisters, and a father who seems to have gone insane from magical causes and spends his days in the attic muttering to himself. Rafferdy is the frivolous elder son of a lord, who does his best to bury any sense of responsibility he may have in fashion and parties. Eldyn, Rafferdy’s friend, is a young man who has fallen into poverty and wants to restore his family’s fortunes. Eldyn doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story, which is perhaps fortunate because he’s both an idiot who falls for obvious scams and refuses for no apparent reason to consider using the magical talent he clearly has, and an asshole who leaves his younger sister locked up alone all day, then when he returns and she begs him to take her out, leaves to go carousing by himself instead. And yet it appears we’re supposed to sympathize with him.

The plot moves somewhat slowly, as you’d expect for period fantasy. The first third sets up some magical troubles while following the characters through the not!London social scene. The second part switches to the first person and follows Ivy’s adventures as a governess at a remote estate; this part is a bit creepy, the influence of The Turn of the Screw obvious even to me (who hasn’t read it), with shades of Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The third part returns to sharing time between the three protagonists and builds up to a magical confrontation. I did find the book to be entertaining reading throughout, with a polished style and a well-developed and varied setting. Its fictional country is clearly based on England, and the author has clearly done some research, touching on issues like the policy of enclosure that I wasn’t even aware of.

That said, it’s riddled with plot holes. The whole existence of Part 2 depends on Ivy apparently forgetting a major revelation in Part 1: on visiting her father’s house, she learns that it can’t be opened, despite the fact that numerous magicians have tried, and not only that, when she tries a mysterious masked man appears, temporarily paralyzes her, and warns her that opening the house would bring great evil into the world. Then on a change in the family fortunes, she blithely sets out to work a few months as a governess to save up for the family’s moving costs to that very house. Um…? Some never-mentioned memory charm must have been worked on the girl, since she then proceeds to learn that she’s adopted, but never mentions or thinks of it again once reunited with her (now known to be adoptive) family.

Also really dumb: Ivy’s marrying a man who has consistently manipulated and withheld information from her for his own gain, despite her being warned by multiple people. The masked man providing Ivy with only the most cryptic possible information despite the fate of the world supposedly being at stake. At a crucial moment, when time is of the essence, he appears only to tell Ivy to go home, causing her to lose precious time as she rushes off to read a conveniently-timed letter informing her of a certain person’s villainy – if the masked man cares about the fate of the world, why didn’t he just tell her? The character who’s revealed to be a villain showing up for no reason but to helpfully confirm that he in fact is villainous, then promptly leaving. Ivy not having the sense to ask her two young charges alone and with any modicum of patience about the disturbing things they’ve been seeing and clearly want to talk about.

Then there’s the weirdness about whom we’re supposed to be rooting for. Eldyn is presented as a victim but acts like a douche. Mr. Quent is presented as a Mr. Rochester, while exposing the unconsenting Ivy to dangers far more serious than a hidden first wife – and all while Ivy has a better romantic alternative. You can tell from the title who she marries anyway. In the macro plot, we’re first presented with a world in which the rich and powerful are perpetrating great injustice… only to see the rebels demonized and our heroes inexplicably siding with the status quo. I felt more sympathy for the rebels.

So, although I had high hopes for this at the beginning, I doubt I’ll read the sequels. It’s good mindless fun, though, if you’re looking for a fantasy beach read.

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review 2019-10-21 02:07
Dr. Johnson's London by Liza Picard
Dr Johnson's London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century - Liza Picard

An interesting and well-researched reference on everyday life in London in the mid 18th century, particularly for the poor and middle classes, this book covers everything from housing to medicine to jobs and labor relations to entertainment. It’s minutely organized and indexed, making it very easy to refer back to a particular section; individual sections, however, are quite short, no surprise when the text comes in at under 300 pages for a broad variety of material. I found a number of surprises about the 18th century: at the same time, water was being piped into Londoners’ homes through pipes made of elm buried under the streets (wooden pipes? And we think of water utilities as being a much later development), and convicted criminals might be put in the pillory or whipped through the streets (which sounds downright medieval). This is not a narrative – Samuel Johnson, of Dictionary of the English Language fame, provides a time frame but is only occasionally mentioned – but it should be both useful and accessible to those interested in learning more about the period.

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review 2019-10-21 01:48
Behave by Robert Sapolsky
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst - Robert M. Sapolsky

This brick of a book purports to be an interdisciplinary explanation of human behavior, drawing from biology, psychology, and sociology, and everything from primate studies to well-known works in various fields. It’s big, at 717 pages of actual text followed by references; it’s broad; and as such it’s a little bit simplistic. Even at this size, there’s not quite room to develop all of the material. The first half or so of the book is more focused on the “hard” science, beginning with how neurons communicate with each other, and working its way up through hormones, genes, brain development through childhood and adulthood and how this is affected by trauma, and the evolution of species. The second half is more focused on psychology: us vs. them dichotomies, moral decisionmaking, the causes of violence, and whether the criminal justice system really makes sense when all human behavior is ultimately driven by biology. (Sapolsky argues no, but I’m not so sure. Where would we be as a species, or as individuals, if we all just shrugged our shoulders and gave in to ideas of biological determinism?)

I certainly learned a lot from this book, which contains a ton of information presented in a way that is understandable to a non-scientist – though I struggled a bit with some of the early chapters. It provides a strong synthesis and framework for understanding information from biology and social sciences. That said, on the subjects that I did know something about, it seemed a little simplified. Fair enough; entire books have been written on subjects that comprise a single chapter here. As other reviewers have suggested, Sapolsky perhaps accepts too many psychological studies uncritically, without discussing psychology’s replication crisis, in which dozens of famous studies, when run again using the exact same methods and parameters, failed to produce the same headline-worthy results. That said, in general Sapolsky seems to take a fair approach to his material, presenting and evaluating multiple viewpoints in areas that have generated controversy. His writing is readable given the subject matter, and there’s a goofy-professor personality behind it that occasionally shines through. I wouldn’t take everything here as gospel – and I suppose we never should, since new scientific discoveries regularly require us to reevaluate what we thought was true – but the book did leave me a little more educated than I was before.

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review 2019-10-20 21:01
A Visitor's Guide to Georgian England by Monica Hall
A Visitor's Guide to Georgian England - Monica Hall

An interesting short book that gives a lively sense of 18th century England. It’s a little uneven; the chapter on health and medicine is eye-opening and informative, while the one about sports doesn’t even really stick to the time period. The conceit of being a guide for potential time-travelers is cute, but maybe a little too cute; I’m not sure much is achieved by advising readers on which vaccinations to get beforehand. Dr. Johnson's London contains much of the same information, but in a more strictly organized and thorough way. This book has a bit more narrative, informality and humor about it, though, which may recommend itself more to the casual reader.

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