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review 2017-11-24 17:45
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
The Hearts of Horses - MOLLY GLOSS

It’s too bad about the title and cover. This is a lovely work of literary historical fiction, which happens to feature a protagonist who trains horses, but which neither anthropomorphizes nor is sentimental about them. Really it’s a story about the hearts of humans: how they live together and love one another. It’s the first winter of America’s involvement in WWI, and the shy but tough 19-year-old Martha Lessen arrives in a rural Oregon county looking for work. Which she finds gentling horses for eight local families; this allows the author to dip into many lives, with a strong sense of compassion and understanding of people and relationships.

So Martha is the protagonist, and hers is a fairly standard though well-told story of finding community and love after a rough childhood. But she’s also the catalyst for other characters’ stories, which occupy just as much of our time. There’s the “German” couple ostracized by many of their neighbors (they are German in that his family immigrated from there, and she married him). There’s the woman who splits wood to feed her three young children and alcoholic husband. There’s the educated farmer dying of cancer – which at the time had no real treatment – and the stalwart wife who must confront the reality of his illness and death every day.

This is a very well-written book, told in a measured, contemplative way; when there is excitement, the book is more interested in how the characters manage their situations and how those situations affect them than in action for its own sake. The omniscient narrator drops into the heads of various characters in a natural way, and also fills us in on local history and on the times. Writing 90 years later during another overseas war, the author seems particularly interested in the culture of wartime America.

Overall, this is a wise, warm and observant character-driven novel with social commentary. Be warned that it takes awhile to get going; I wasn’t hooked until somewhere between pages 50 and 75. But it was well worth the investment, and I enjoyed it as much as Gloss’s stand-out epistolary novel, Wild Life, though they are very different books. I look forward to reading more of her work soon.

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review 2017-11-21 03:44
Senlin Ascends (Books of Babel #1) by Josiah Bancroft
Senlin Ascends (The Books of Babel) - Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is an independently published success on its way to the main market. I had never heard of it, but I should have! This is the first book of a series that could go in any number of directions. Bancroft infuses his novel with a rich history and background that is a perfect counterpoint to Senlin's quest. Senlin is a mild-mannered teacher who takes his new wife Marya to the Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. He has lectured about the history of the tower for years, but is ill-prepared for the reality of the place. Marya is lost in the crowd and Senlin must face impossible challenges to find her again. The only direction for him to go is up.

I could not break away from this book. The society, the civilizations, the infrastructure of the tower were fascinating. There are so many elements of the book that I should have found absurd, but all the little pieces worked. Fans of Neal Stephenson and Frank Herbert will love it.

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review 2017-11-11 22:17
Excellent historical perspective on the genre
The Tale Of Terror: A Study Of The Gothic Fiction - Edith Birkhead

Disclosure:  I acquired a free Kindle edition of this public domain work.

 

Although a bit dry at times, Edith Birkhead's 1921 study of gothic fiction is still a valuable resource for anyone wishing to understand the evolution of the genre.  Her insights remain relevant even a century (almost) later.

 

She starts with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and moves forward into the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe, Matthew "Monk" Lewis, and others at the end of the eighteenth century.  The connections she makes between the authors and the books they read as well as the books they wrote was interesting.  Too often, literary analysts seem to assume the books write themselves and evolve one after the other without human intervention.

 

Many of the books and authors cited have of course been classics for a very long time, but others are less well known and less available even in this age of digitization.  It's going to be fun tracking down some of these unfamiliar titles.

 

One aspect I found particularly interesting, and again given that this was written nearly a hundred years ago, was that Ms. Birkhead recognized the integration of aspects of the gothic story into other genres of fiction, whether bringing elements of the supernatural into the mundane setting such as The Picture of Dorian Grey, or allowing natural fear and terror to heighten the reader's excitement and interest, as in The Prisoner of Zenda.

 

The edition I obtained is complete with footnotes and index, which will be very useful.

 

Recommended.

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review 2017-11-06 17:46
Dragonfly Song - Wendy Orr

This was kind of a hard book to review, mostly because it almost falls between genres. It's classed as an upper Middle-Grade historical fantasy, which, that's not wrong . . .

 

I felt like it had more of a classic children's fiction feel to it. It's coming-of-age, and also a sort of epic hero's journey, straddling children's lit and YA in a way that's often done more by adult literary works. It touches on many 'big ideas': deformity, religion/society, acceptance, adoption, trauma, bullying, disability, purpose/identity, fate . . . The format is creative and unique. The story arc stretches from the MC's birth to age 14 and is told in omniscient third person varying with passages in verse.

 

I'm not sure if there was a meaning to the alternating styles; at some points, I thought the dreamlike verse passages were meant to show the MC's perspective in a closer, almost experiential or sensory format as an infant, a toddler, a mute child . . . but then that didn't necessarily carry through, so perhaps it was more to craft an atmosphere for the story.

 

The setting is the ancient Mediterranean, and the story picks up on legends of bull dancing. The world feels distinct, grounded and natural, without heavy-handed world-building. It's a world of gods and priestesses, sacrifice and death and surrender. Humans seem very small within it, and as a children's book, it's challenging rather than comforting. There's death and violence and loss, handled in a very matter-of-fact manner, so I'd recommend it for maybe ages 10+, depending on the child. It's not gratuitously violent or graphic, but it's a raw-edged ancient world where killing a deformed child, having pets eaten by wild animals, beating slaves - including children - and sacrificing people as well as animals to the gods is just part of life. 

 

I was very kindly sent a hardcover edition via the Goodreads Giveaways program, and the book production is lovely. It has a bold, graphic cover with some nice foil accents, a printed board cover (which I prefer for kids books due to the durability), fully illustrated internal section pages, and pleasant, spacious typesetting.

 

Confident, mature young readers will find this an engaging, challenging and meaningful read with an inspiring story arc and some lovely writing. Hesitant readers and very young readers will probably find it a struggle. I'd give it 5/5 as a product, 4/5 as a literary work and 3/5 as kid's entertainment.

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text 2017-11-02 12:58
October Wrap Up!
Death in Dark Blue - Julia Buckley
The Quiche and the Dead (A Pie Town Mystery) - Kirsten Weiss
The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People And The 8th Habit - Stephen R. Covey
And Then There Were Nuns: League of Literary Ladies - Kylie Logan
A Hope Divided (The Loyal League) - Alyssa Cole
A Sticky Inheritance (Maple Syrup Mysteries) (Volume 1) - Emily James
The English Wife - Lauren Willig
Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life - Barbara L. Fredrickson

Time for a monthly wrap up!

 

So for the month of October, I read eight books. About average for me. 

 

The stars of the month were the non-fiction self-help books -  one a re-read, one a new find:

 

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Positivity.  Both I highly recommend.

 

I read a few cozy mysteries and a historical romance/mystery.  They served their purpose as I had just moved and was adjusting to a new schedule. Their lightness offered some much-needed escapism. 

 

That being said, I did dive into a Netgalley read of historical fiction called The English Wife. I will post the review in December closer to publication date but it was only so-so for me. 

 

Honorable mention has to go to The Sunne in the Splendour which is outstanding. I should finish it in November as I have now read 80% of it. November should prove to be interesting. I have goals of reading some science fiction and more historical fiction.

 

Happy reading! 

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