Kickass Women in History: Sophie Blanchard

Once a month I write a column for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (smartbitchestrashybooks.com) called “Kickass Women in History”. This month, I wrote about Sophie Blanchard, balloonist.  she was the first woman to pilot a hot air or gas powered balloon solo, and she was famous for her exhibition flights and long distance flights in the early 1800s.  On the ground, Sophie was famously fearful – she hated carriages and loud noises.  In the air, she was fearless, and she combined her skill as a pilot and an entertainer with great business sense.  Sophie died in a ballooning accident in 1819.

For more about Sophie, check out my article over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:  http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2015/03/kickass-women-in-history-sophie-blanchard/

 

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Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

cover of Voyage of the BasiliskVoyage of the Basilisk is the third “Memoir of Lady Trent”.  The fictional Lady Trent is a naturalist who travels the world to study dragons.  The books are notable not only for the lovely writing but for an incredibly compelling main character with believable strengths and weaknesses, and great attention to the process of science.  It’s also notable for its gorgeous illustrations, by Todd Lockwood.  My ARC didn’t have the illustrations (!) but here are some illustrations from the first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons:

dragons, by Todd LockwoodI find that with each Lady Trent book I enjoy the series more, partly because I find her internal struggles more interesting as she ages.  In the first book, she struggles with the idea of marriage, she struggles to win a place in the scientific community, and she and her party struggle to survive in an Eastern European style setting (the books take place in an alternate world that is clearly influenced by the Victorian Era, but which does not adhere to it).  The second book, Tropic of Serpents, has Lady Trent studying dragons in, you guessed it, the Tropics.  I admired this book because of how a variety of non-Caucasian people are involved in the story, and how Lady Trent interacts with them in a manner both plausible and gratifying.  she meets other cultures with confusion but without condenscieion.  It was an especially powerful book because underlying the dragon stuff were themes of grief, class, social roles, and motherhood.  Of the three books, I found Tropic be most emotionally compelling.

Which brings us to Voyage of the Basilisk.  Maybe it’s just that I love a good sea story, but I thought this book was the most fun so far.  I could not get enough of the boat and the diving bell and the sea serpents.  The cover alone made me do a happy dance.  In this installment, Lady Trent embarks on a trip around the world to search for dragons.  She ends up on  a tropical island, where the action slows down a bit (I really liked the boat).  But when I say “slows down”, that’s a bit misleading, because there’s a trip to a volcano, a voyage to the surface of the ocean in a diving bell, a war, and all kinds of other things that I don’t want to spoil.  There’s less internal conflict but lots of exterior conflict.  The visuals and sense of adventure are stunning.

I would have liked more time in this book with Tom and Natalie, who both get less page time in favor of newcomer Suhail, an archeologist who is just as excited about ruins as Lady Trent is about dragons.  I loved getting to see Lady Trent’s son, Jake, growing up, and I got a huge kick out of the captain especially when the captain and Lady Trent teamed up to discipline Jake, who initially saw life on deck as an excuse to run amock.  It’s a wonder he didn’t climb the rigging with a knife between his teeth.

With each Lady Trent book, I’m more enchanted.  I like the science, I like the way the books deal with gender, class, and race, and I love the characters.  I can’t wait for Book 4!  Voyage of the Basilisk comes out tomorrow and it’s worth a buy.

 

Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews With Ayana Mathis

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This month’s Between the Line’s Book Club pick is The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis.  We’ll be meeting in person at Arden Dimick Library tomorrow (March 28) at 10:30AM.  Arden Dimick Library is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95864.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Ayana Mathis’ first novel and it got an amazing amount of attention.  Here’s some interviews with Ayana that provide background information about her as well as some insight into the novel:

Twelve Tribes  was one of Oprah’s Book Club pics.  Here’s Ayana talking with Oprah about the book.

This New York Times Article talks about Ayana Mathis’s life, and the buss behind the book.

And here’s a nice long interview with Ayana from Mosiac Literary Magazine.  I especially enjoyed her explanation of why the first of Hattie’s children to have a voice is Floyd.

Hope to see those of you in the Sacramento area tomorrow, and leave your comments below!

ayana

 

The Glorious Mess of Rainbow Rowell

rainbow-rowellRainbow Rowell is a beloved YA author, whose books, Eleanor and Park, Attachments, and Fangirl cause people to swoon all over the place.  I read Attachments recently, and I loved it so much that I wanted to marry it.  I finished Fangirl  about half an hour ago and was weeping into my oatmeal over something that in any other book would have been inconsequential but that I related to completely.  Eleanor and Park was game changing in its depiction of prickly, unconventional characters.  What is it about Rainbow Rowell that inspires such a passionate response in her readers?

“Eleanor was right.  She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

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There are many things to love about Rowell’s work – her finely drawn characters, her refusal to be twee, her tendency to give even most of the villains emotional layers, and her funny and poignant dialogue.  Rowell’s voice as a writer is endlessly clever but also deeply heartfelt.  Above all else, I think that people love Rowell is that she’s not afraid to be messy.

Eleanor and Park and Fangirl are YA (Fangirl can also be considered New Adult since it’s characters are in college). Attachments is about adults.  All of these people have real problems, many of which are not resolved at the end of the story.  Some of the characters are attractive in a conventional sense, but many are not.  They have dreams that don’t fit the norm and they don’t know how to make their dreams fit into adult expectations.

“I think I missed my window,” he said.
“What window?”
“My get-a-life window. I think I was supposed to figure all this stuff out somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-six, and now it’s too late.”
“It’s not too late,” she said. “You’re getting a life. You’ve got a job, you’re saving up to move out. You’re meeting people. You went to a bar…”
“And that was a disaster. Actually, everything has been a disaster since I quit school.”
“You didn’t quit school,” she said. He could hear her rolling her eyes. “You finished your master’s degree. Another master’s degree.”
“Everything has been a disaster since I decided my life as it was wasn’t good enough.”
“It WASN’T good enough,” she said.
“It was good enough for me.”
“Then why have you been trying so hard to change it?”

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Rowell’s books have a kind of romance that seems both completely miraculous and completely obtainable.  Cath can barely leave her room, and her family is as messy by the end of Fangirl as it is at the beginning, but she finds love, and friends, and happiness.  Eleanor, in Eleanor and Park, is not conventionally beautiful and she has to steal soap to avoid smelling bad.  Lincoln (Attachments) lives at home and his mom makes him lunches for work.  And yet, all these people – people who are not stylish, or rich, or beautiful, or suave – all these people are written as people who deserve romantic, passionate, honest, faithful love.  And they get it.  So maybe we can too, regardless of where we live or what we look like or how much we make.

I love reading romance as fantasy, but I love Rowell because she suggest that romance is not fantasy.  We can have the same level of romance while we are paying bills and fretting over our weight and taking final exams as we could if we were Regency romance heroines dancing with a Duke.  We deserve love, seeking love is a worthy endeavor, and we deserve to find love if we are willing to work for it.  Rowell celebrates the messiness within and without us, and promises us happiness in the midst of all this mess.

“Happily ever after, or even just together ever after, is not cheesy,” Wren said. “It’s the noblest, like, the most courageous thing two people can shoot for.”

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Book Review: Pocket Apocalypse, by Seanan McGuire

20417843I’m a long time fan of Seanan McGuire, who writes urban fantasy as McGuire and horror as Mira Grant.  I thought the first two books in the Incryptid series sere a ton of fun, and even though the third book didn’t thrill me I thought maybe that was an anomaly and that the fourth book would be better.  But Pocket Apocalypse is so bad that it makes me actually angry.

The Incryptid Series is a light urban fantasy series about a family who studies, and in some cases manages, legendary and mythological creatures.  The series is relatively light in tone, a nice change of pace from the common angst urban fantasy (McGuire’s October Daye series is an excellent example of darker, edgier urban fantasy).  The first two books involve Verity Price.  While the books had problems, I found them to be engaging.  The third book focuses on Verity’s brother, Alex, and I took a bit of a dislike to him – I found him to be smug.  But I told myself that this was just  personal preference and that the quality of the writing was just fine.  I’ve reviewed the other books at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  Here’s my review of Discount Armegeddon, here’s one of Midnight Blue-Light Special, and here’s one of the first book featuring Alex, Half Off Ragnarok.

The latest book, Pocket Apocalypse, is set in Australia and features Alex and his girlfriend, Shelby.  It has many things I love.  First of all, I love anything set in Australia.  There’s tons of detail about all the crazy critters, just like in the previous books, and I eat that up with a spoon. The Aeslin Mice hitch a ride to Australia in Alex’s carry-on bag, and I love the mice, who make a festival out of EVERYTHING.  McGuire’s sense of imagination and wit are fully functioning.  So what went so horribly wrong with this book?

Let’s start with the subjective.  I can’t stand Alex.  I wasn’t wild about him in the last book and in this book I hate him with a fiery passion.  He’s smug, he’s superior, he’s condescending, he makes speeches that in no way sound realistic.  Shelby, who had a sidekick role in the last book, should have come into her own in this book, but nope, she still needs rescuing.  We know from the Price family that families in this line of work need to be vigilant, but Shelby’s family goes beyond any kind of reasonable caution and is a bunch of blustering, incompetent, trigger happy sociopaths.  I’m left rooting for the side character of Helen the Wadjet, and the mice.

But I’m willing to admit that that’s very subjective.  Maybe some people might like the family – might see them as admirable outlaw types fighting the good fight whose actions are justified because of the dangerous conditions in which they live.  Maybe some people think Shelby is spunky and Alex is reasonable and intelligent.  Even given all that, there’s a writing quirk that just drives me mad.  With almost every single sentence, McGuire stops to have Alex patiently explain what’s happening to the reader.  This is a trick she’s used before as a way to get a lot of exposition across, and in other books it’s been fairly effective.  It’s not effective in this book because it’s so horribly overused.  Yes, I need to be told (or better yet, shown) that bunyips are a real thing.  No, I do not need the action to screech to a halt so that Alex can explain to me, patiently, as though I am a small child, the difference between domestic and international flights and the terrors of thrombosis.  When Alex takes a nap, he explains that in a war you have to sleep whenever you can.  I KNOW THAT.  When a bunch of people say (I’m paraphrasing), “We were told it by way of rumor,” I don’t need Alex to respond by saying, “I could tell that we were dealing with a whisper campaign” (again, paraphrasing – the point being, yes, Alex, I can tell too, because someone ALREADY TOLD ME).  Every thing any character says or does is immediately explained to the reader.  McGuire writes perfectly good characters.  I can infer their motives from their histories, their actions, and their statements – I don’t need Alex to explain everything to me.  When he’s not explaining things to the reader, he’s explaining things to the other characters, and usually, they are obvious things.

I have to admit that I did not finish this book.  I let Alex mansplain for 85 pages (out of 340) and then I gave up.  I did some skimming and read the end.  The end was not so very compelling or convincing as to make me change my mind, although it did remind me that Helen the Wadjet is freaking AWESOME and that nothing will ever diminish my love for the mice.

Every author has stylistic quirks.  Seanan McGuire has a very distinctive way of inserting exposition.  Usually it works just fine.  This book was so frustrating specifically because I know from her past writing that she’s capable of being so very, very good.  I will even read the next book in the series, which is about Verity again and not Alex the explainer.  This particular book was just too much of the same quirk again and again.  It was tedious and honestly it was insulting to both my capabilities as a reader and McGuire’s as an author.  She’s perfectly good at showing and there’s no need to accompany every single show with a tell.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and of Israel

between the lines book club logoThe Twelve Tribes of Hattie uses biblical allusion to anchor its story as part of a larger narrative about the legacy of slavery and dislocation.  “The Twelve Tribes” is a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel, who travelled far from Israel after they left Egypt.

In the Bible, Abraham and his wife Sarah had a son, Issac, who in turn had a son named Jacob.  Jacob had twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.  He also had at least one daughter and two adopted sons.  The sons became the heads of twelve tribes of Israelites.  When Moses led the Jews out of Israel, the twelve tribes are described as camping at the base of Mount Sinai when Moses climbs the mountain and receives the ten commandments.  Eventually, two of the tribes settled in Judah, and ten in Samaria.  When Samaria was conquered by Assyria, these tribes were scattered and became known as “The ten lost tribes”.

Abraham had another son, born to Sarah’s servant, Hagar.  Sarah suggested the arrangement because of her infertility (she was ninety when Issac, her first child, was born).  But she bitterly resented Hagar and the baby, Ishmael.  She mistreated Hagar so badly that Hagar and Ishmael fled into the desert and would have died had not God heard their prayers for aid (in some versions they are sent away, so that only Issac will inherit).  Ishmael also had twelve sons, who became tribal chiefs over a wide territory.

The story of Hagar has a deep resonance in African-American Christianity and in Liberation Theology.  The phrase “The twelve tribes” generally refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but in Hattie’s story her children seem to better fit the narrative of Hagar – born into slavery and eventually freed into hardship.  Hagar was a determined mother whose children and grandchildren prospered.  Meanwhile, the children of Jacob escaped slavery in Egypt and fled into the desert with Moses seeking a better life.  Either way, the reference brings to mind stories of hardship and triumph.