Books read in October 2013

YES, I’M LATE.  Look, September was a big month, and October … well.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape Jenna Miscavige Hill Contemporary issues
 Apollo’s Angels: A history of ballet Jennifer Homans History
 Peter the Great: His life and world Robert K. Massie History

Beyond Belief obviously continues the Scientology thing of last month.  It was quite interesting, because Miscavige Hill is the niece of Scientology’s leader, which put her in a good position to meet lots of people, but also meant there was a lot of pressure on her and her family.

Apollo’s Angels was an interesting read, being quite a detailed and thorough history of ballet.  It fell apart in the final chapters, where the author essentially decides that ballet died with Balanchine, and there are no good dancers these days because they’re all too “flat screen”.  You kids, off my lawn, etc.

But up until that point, I really enjoyed it.  I was increasingly curious as to how the author could pronounce so authoritatively on the quality of a ballet or performance that was not recorded in any way at all, but hey, grain of salt, right?

The chapter on the origins of Russian ballet led me to Peter the Great, which I … well, the parts I read, I really loved.  But large chunks of the book were taken up with detailed battle scenes, and I can’t get my head around that sort of thing.  So there was skimming.  But the bits I read, I really enjoyed, especially how Peter the Great was … well, quite good at being a Tsar, but also good at lots of other things.  While also being prone to tantrums, torture, snap executions.  You know.

One omission that I found frustrating, though, was women.  I know the book is called Peter the Great, but the lives of Russian women changed drastically in just a generation — and there’s nothing about how they felt or experienced these changes.  (I hit up the bookstores and libraries, but it looks like, as far as English-language popular histories are concerned, Russian women were invented with the Bolshevik Revolution.)  I’m hoping that Massie’s book on Catherine the Great covers this area a bit, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Books read in September 2013

Why does WordPress hate freedom, and by freedom I mean consistent paragraph breaks?  FIVE TIMES I have tried to edit this post and get consistent paragraphing!  FIVE!  And it hasn’t worked.  I’m all out of sacrificial goats, so please accept my apologies for the weirdness of the formatting.

The Fabric of Sin Phil Rickman Supernatural
To Dream of the Dead Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Secrets of Pain Phil Rickman Supernatural
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol Iain Gately History
Three Dog Night Elsebeth Egholm Crime
Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief Lawrence Wright Contemporary issues
The Digger’s Rest Hotel Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Longbourn Jo Baker Historical
Blackwattle Creek Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport Anna Krien Contemporary issues
The Ghost Bride Yangsze Choo YA
A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China Pin Ho, Wenguang Huang Chinese politics

 

 

Thirteen.  That’s thirteen books I read last month, and none of them were graphic novels or re-reads of old and familiar stories.  There’s quantity and quality.  Except that now I have to remember what I was going to say about them.

  • It’s a sad reflection on the state of popular histories in general that I got really excited when Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol devoted an entire chapter to Australia and the Rum Rebellion.  And then split a chapter between China and Japan.  And, um, mentioned Africa.Okay, what I’m saying is that if you’re setting out to write a history of [something] in a Euro-American context, you should say so upfront and not go around calling it something silly like “a global history”.  That way, people won’t be pathetically grateful when you remember there are other parts of the world.Vague observations on the state of popular non-fiction aside, this was a light, breezy read that actually didn’t contain much that I didn’t already know, but it seemed generally accurate and sensible.
  • Exciting news!  I’m now doing the odd bit of guest reviewing for the new Australian crime fiction blog, Reading Kills!  You can find my thoughts on Three Dog Night here, and my review of Safe as Houses will follow.
  • After Three Dog Night, I started reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, on account of how I enjoy Chinese history and it was ridiculously cheap on the Kobo store.  But it’s a really hard slog, not just because of the subject matter (grim), but because the author occasionally lets his right wing flag fly and makes dubious claims about how great life was under the Kuomintang.  Uh, sure, dude, whatever.So I’ve been alternating that with other books, and let me tell you, going from a history of Mao’s China to Scientology is … not that much of a headspin, actually.  In fact, according to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief, L. Ron Hubbard based part of Scientology’s practices on Chinese brainwashing techniques (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), not to mention the deliberate creation of a cult of personality (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), and the fact that totalitarian systems are all basically alike.

    Going Clear was a good read, but I did have to keep putting it down to text my BFF, who read it before me, going, “BUT SERIOUSLY!”  Of course, any book that heavily relies on disaffected former members of a group is going to have a heavily negative bias, but unless you’re a big fan of self-help systems that drive people to suicide (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), it’s hard to put a positive spin in Scientology.

  • The Digger’s Rest Hotel and Blackwattle Creek by Geoffrey McGeachin are Australian crime novels centred around Charlie Berlin, an ex-RAAF pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the Second World War.  The first novel is set in 1947; the second a decade later, when Charlie is married with a family.Both were good reads — I particularly enjoyed the first — and Charlie is a likeable character, although it’s all a bit White Guy Discovers Racism Is Bad.  (It’s saved from being entirely obnoxious by the fact that, while Charlie comes to regard Aborigines and Asians as actual people, he still has a lot of unexamined prejudices.)

    The second book gets into the more preposterous end of Cold War conspiracy theories, which sat rather uncomfortably against the background of 1950s suburbia, but it was quite entertaining.

  • I discussed Longbourn in more detail here.
  • Night Games by Anna Krien examines rape culture in AFL.  Suffice to say, it made me a bit mad.  Not just because of the nature of the issue (although that was a big part of it), but the book is centred around a rape trial, and I wasn’t completely comfortable with the way she covered it.What happened was, after the night of the (tie-breaker) grand final between Collingwood and St Kilda (coincidentally the only year I paid attention to the AFL), two Collingwood players and a guy from a small local team were accused of raping a young woman.Due to what I can only call legal shenanigans, the two Collingwood players were never charged, so this young, unknown bloke was left holding the ball, as it were.The court decided that the events that took place before this third alleged rape could not be mentioned or used as evidence in any way, which basically created a big blank spot in the evening, and created enough doubt that the jury basically had to find the young footballer not guilty.Krien follows the trial closely, and is scrupulous about reporting the accused’s family’s vicious victim-blaming and general unpleasantness.  But the victim didn’t respond to any of Krien’s overtures, plus her evidence was heard in a closed court.  So her voice is, essentially, silent.  And in what purports to be a feminist examination of a rape trial, that’s a pretty big omission.  (I’m not saying that the victim wasn’t perfectly within her rights to decline to speak to Krien, but I think it was a bad idea to persist with the trial as the centrepiece of the book in that case.)

    She does, however, highlight a particular peeve I have with the Victorian legal system.  In this state, a “genuine belief in consent” is enough to escape a conviction for rape.  This has led to delightful circumstances like, “She was unconscious, but she grunted when I undressed her, so she was totally into it, Your Honour.”  I transcribe criminal court proceedings.  I DO A LOT OF ANGRY!TYPING!

  • I talked about The Ghost Bride at some length at No Award.
  • Finally, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel starts with the murder of British businessman David Heywood in China, and the ensuing investigation, cover-up, attempted defection, political headrolling and trials, and puts it all in the context of contemporary Chinese Communist Party politics.Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here, and it felt rather like three books compressed into one.  If I was the type of person who gave books star ratings, I’d give this … hmm, maybe two and a half, three stars?  The ground it covers is really interesting, from the events themselves to the current and upcoming generations of Communist Party leaders, to the limits of freedom of speech in China and the use of social media to extend them, to the scapegoating of women when a leader falls, to … well, you get my drift.So it was an informative but busy book, not helped by the structure of the chapters:  we’d be told about a person doing something, then we’d be told who that person was and how they fit into the bigger picture, and then I had to go back and reread the beginning of the chapter so I could put their actions into context.  And then I started looking people up, and realised that certain trials were still ongoing, two months after the book was published.

Because Chinese politics and Scientology are apparently BFFs, I’m now reading a Scientology biography.  Stay tuned for next month!

Books read in July 2013

Don’t look at me like that!  Yes, we’re halfway to September now, but I’ve been busy visiting my family and having a cold.

Books what I have read:

Methland: The death and life of an American small town Nick Reding Sociology
A Trifle Dead Livia Day Crime Australian, AWW
The Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris Thriller
The Reece Malcolm List Amy Spaulding YA
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search (Vol 2) Gene Luen Yang Graphic novel
The Cuckoo’s Calling Robert Galbraith Crime
Blood in the Water Gillian Galbraith Crime
Where the Shadow Falls Gillian Galbraith Crime
Broken Homes Ben Aaronovitch Fantasy
Dying of the Light Gillian Galbraith Crime
No Sorrow To Die Gillian Galbraith Crime

Is it really only a month and a half ago that I read Methland?  Talk about your depressing yet compelling reads.  If you enjoy social history coupled with true crime, it’s brilliant.  But depressing.  Turns out, if you cut workers’ wages by two-thirds and take away their benefits, morale really falls.  Who knew?

A Trifle Dead is a debut crime novel by Livia Day, a pseudonym adopted by Tansy Rayner Roberts.  Whom I LOVE, so I really wanted to love A Trifle Dead, but I … couldn’t.

It’s basically a cosy mystery (small, domestic setting, lower stakes) set in Hobart, in which … I don’t want to say “hipsters fight crime”, but “middle class twenty-somethings who work in creative industries and are really pop culture savvy fight crime”.

Like I said, I wanted to like it, but it was strangely like reading a book about my own circle of friends, except that everyone is white, cis and middle class, everyone has a really cool, satisfying job (as my Tasmanian flatmate commented on Twitter, you don’t get this many people supporting themselves through blogging in Melbourne, let alone Hobart), and all the important people are straight.  The mystery itself was mildly interesting, though predictable, but I found the characters way too irritating to care.

The Reece Malcolm List is an inconsequential yet charming YA novel about a girl who goes to live with her mother, who she is meeting for the first time.

The heroine is likeable, which is a pretty impressive feat in a character who is basically showered with everything she ever wanted from the minute she sets foot in LA.  And she’s an incredibly talented singer.  And she’s pretty.  All this works because, well, not having any experience in motherhood, Reece Malcolm is buying her daughter’s love, and the heroine (you can tell I’ve forgotten her name, right?) works very, very hard at music and everything else.  And when she stuffs up, she’s called out on it.

Mostly, though, I loved the character of Reece Malcolm, who is only sixteen years older than her daughter, and who is a successful, antisocial novelist.  She’s an interesting character, and it was really enjoyable, seeing her through her daughter’s eyes.

I would have eventually read The Cuckoo’s Calling, J K Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novel, even if she hadn’t been outed as the author.  I started out looking for, you know, tell-tale signs of Rowling’s authorship, but quickly got sucked into the plot:  a model has killed herself, but her brother thinks she was murdered, and hires private detective Cormorant Strike to find out.

Some reviewers have tried to shoehorn the novel into a cosy or hardboiled genres, but really, this owes a lot to Dorothy L Sayers and the classic crime novellists of the 1930s.  Strike might seem like an odd analogue to Lord Peter Wimsey, but both are damaged war veterans (Wimsey had shell shock; Strike lost a leg in Afghanistan) and both come from powerful and well-known families (Wimsey was the younger son of a duke; Strike is the illegitimate son of a rock legend).  It’s not remotely a straight updating of an old genre, but the roots are strong.

I liked The Cuckoo’s Calling in its own right, though.  JKR obviously did a lot of research, not only into investigative procedures, but the psychology and experiences of black people in England and children of colour adopted by white families.  The plot was a tiny bit predictable, but I was only a page or so ahead of the detectives — just predictable enough to be satisfying, in other words.

Searching for Robert Galbraith in the library catalogue, I found Gillian Galbraith, an author of Scottish police procedurals.  I didn’t much care for the characters, but the first few were well-plotted.  By the fifth book, not even the plots were satisfying, so I don’t think I’ll be reading more.

Now, I don’t want to be that fan, but Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes ended on something of a cliffhanger, and I want more NOW.  Yesterday, in fact.

But I guess I can wait, because this book was full of interesting stuff about architecture and council flat design that I wouldn’t mind learning more about.  Well-played, Aaronovitch.  Well-played.

 

Books read in June 2013

I had this idea that I’d be less busy after Continuum, but it turns out I was mistaken.  Still, I found time for some books last month!

The Bling Ring Nancy Jo Sales True crime
Good Man Friday Barbara Hambly Historical crime
Rivers of London Ben Aaronovitch Fantasy
Mad Men, Women and Children: Essays on gender and generation Heather Marcovitch and Nancy Batty (eds) Television
Moon Over Soho Ben Aaronovitch Fantasy
Whispers Under Ground Ben Aaronovitch Fantasy
Melbourne Sophie Cunningham Memoir
The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman History
The Sea and Summer George Turner

Thoughts!

The Bling Ring is an expansion of this rather great Vanity Fair article about a group of Los Angeles teens who burgled a number of celebrities.  The book has a lot more information — and more hilarious encounters with Alexis Neiers, thief and reality TV star — but is also quite a frustrating read.  A lot of Sales’ journalism essentially boils down to, “What’s wrong with kids today?”, and her answers here are depressingly facile.  Lady Gaga and Britney Spears are what’s wrong with kids today, apparently.

Good Man Friday is the latest in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, about a free man of colour who investigates crime in antebellum New Orleans.  There comes a point in every series where the author starts moving their characters out of their established settings.  Here, January goes to Washington to deal with bank fraud, a missing mathematician, and the laws that forbid legislators to even discuss slavery.

I enjoyed this, although I have no concept at all of what Washington looked like in this stage of its history, so I spent a lot of time feeling geographically dislocated.  But it was great to spend more time with January’s sister, Dominique, her white lover and his wife.  It’s an awkward extended family, but an entertaining one.  I hope the next book returns to New Orleans and Rose, though, because January’s wife has been on the sidelines for a few books, and I miss her.

Rivers of LondonMoon over Soho and Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch are a series about a young London cop who finds himself transferred to the Met’s magical department after one of his witnesses turns out to be a ghost.  It’s not amazingly well-plotted — the second book is terribly predictable — but Peter Grant is a lively, entertaining narrator, and I really love the world Aaronovitch has drawn — full of people of all races and backgrounds (the hero himself is of mixed race), working class people, river goddesses, and some rather elderly magicians who are slowly coming to terms with the twenty-first century.

The series has been optioned for television, and I really can’t wait to see how it comes out.

Mad Men, Women and Children: Essays on gender and generation does exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s an academic text — the ebook was $40! — but quite readable.  My favourite chapter was one of the early ones, putting Peggy in the context of mid-20th century popular fiction about career women. There was a certain amount of repetition in all the commentary on Betty, and you could have a fun drinking game where you do a shot every time someone cites Betty Friedan.

Disappointingly, it was published too early to cover seasons 5 and 6, so there’s nothing about Dawn and very little about Megan.  This is a shame, because aside from being interesting characters in their own rights, their plotlines rebut some of the assumptions made about Carla and Betty.

I had been looking forward to The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History for months.  I don’t know why I find a freak weather pattern so interesting, but it had a considerable effect on the social history of the surrounding years.  There’s also a song about it!

Sadly, the book was quite disappointing.  There were lots of fairly abstract descriptions of weather patterns, which I couldn’t get my head around, and the social history was disjointed and unengaging.  And decidedly Euro- and UScentric.  Australia is mentioned twice, South America once, and there are three pages in the afterword dedicated to the effect of the weather patterns on Asia.

Finally, I have a lot to say about The Sea and Summer by George Turner, a classic Australian science fiction novel, but I’m saving it for a special occasion.

Books read in May 2013

FOR THE RECORD, I’m also halfway through a post about Star Trek and Khan Noonien Singh and stuff, but also I’m involved in this convention that’s a week from now, so, yeah, I’ve got stuff happening.

But not so much stuff that I couldn’t read SEVEN WHOLE BOOKS, YEAH!

Okay, so last month I read seven books and I was like, “I fail so hard!”  This month I’m practically high-fiving myself, which, also, I don’t recommend because it’s awkward and you look weird.

My excuse is that this month’s books were more substantial than April’s, in that there were no graphic novels or YA re-readds.  YEAH.

Red Dragon Thomas Harris Thriller
The Revolution Was Televised Alan Sepinwall Television
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress Rhoda Janzen Memoir
Triangle: The fire that changed America David von Drehle History
Thunderstruck Erik Larson History
Pox: An American History Michael Willrich History
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder Charles Graeber True crime

ALSO, all but one of those books was non-fiction.  Not that NF is superior or anything, but it engages a different part of the brain.

The one novel I read:

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, because Hannibal (the TV series, not the terrible book) fandom is hilarious, and also it looks like a really good show.  And I read Silence of the Lambs at an impressionable age (14), then held my breath until Hannibal came out.  Whereupon I turned my exhalation into a tantrum, because that was character-destroying shite and I have never forgiven Thomas Harris for what he did to Clarice.

(One of the few conversations I had with my high school crush — conversations that didn’t come to a premature end because I was hyperventilating, I mean — was about how much we hated Hannibal.)

I quite enjoyed Red Dragon, despite the complete lack of Clarice Starling (which is why I didn’t read it as a teen, because WHAT IS THE POINT?).  Will Graham is a character-type so common now as to be generic, but I could see where Thomas was reaching for something new.  Lecter himself seemed less layered and more cartoonish than he would later become, but it might be that I have rose-coloured memories of reading Silence for the first time.

What didn’t really work for me was the villain, who didn’t seem to fit any realistic psychiatric profiles (‘cos I’m an expert, you know) and wound up kind of a stereotype of the schizophrenic murderer.  Also, he eats a painting.  Well, a watercolour.  OH WAIT, YOU REALLY CAN’T MAKE THAT ANY LESS WEIRD.  And by weird, I mean that was the moment when literature jumped the shark.

The book about TV

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall.  A TV critic looks at the way television has evolved in the 21st century, specifically in the development of elaborate, narratively ambitious cable series.

This was pretty interesting, but what I took away from it in the end was that, coming from a critic’s perspective, Sepinwall missed both the academic and fan angles.  And that’s unfortunate, because it led to slight inaccuracies that are nonetheless grating if you’re a TV nerd.  For example, he claims that the very first TV show to be discussed on the internet was The X Files, which was more like the first show where discussion exploded and became quite mainstream.  (The first was probably Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve read that the cliffhanger that ended “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1 was what made TV bulletin boards explode.)  And The X Files (again) was one of the earliest and most successful shows to use ongoing mythology and an arc, but Babylon 5 debuted first, and I’d argue that even Twin Peaks paved some ground.

But that’s just little things.  If you want an overview of quite a few prestige TV series, and the network shows that preceded them, this is a good, light read.  And you get bonuses, like Ron Moore being quoted as saying Star Trek fans don’t watch The West Wing and vice versa.

The religious upbringing memoir

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  In which the author, after her marriage ends and she suffers a serious car accident, goes home to her parents, members of the conservative Mennonite community.

It probably says something about my upbringing that I was really struck by the lack of abuse in this book.  Actually, no, that’s not true — Janzen’s account of her time with her family also unfolds, slowly, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband — but the only terrible things her conservative! religious! family did to her involved making her wear nerdy clothes, and sending her out into the world with no sense of self-preservation against predators.  

I was slightly disappointed that Janzen’s family aren’t the conservative Mennonites of the kind I saw in Canada.  Her parents had that lifestyle growing up, but were liberal enough to own a car and a modern house.  And her mother had a nursing career.  (By the time Jenzen returns, they’re so liberal her mother asks why she’s not showing off her legs in attractive shorts at a Mennonite gathering.)  But if you’re coming into this book hoping for a look at the lifestyle of the very conservative and technology-rejecting, you’re going to be disappointed.  We only get glimpses of that.

On the other hand, Janzen has an amazing ear for dialogue, and every character has a distinctive voice that feels very real.  And her observations about the Mennonite church, German-American-Canadian culture, and growing up in an eccentric and loving family are really fun to read.

There’s another book in here, though, which is about Janzen coming to terms with her marriage.  At first she seems to have come out of a relatively normal marriage that ended when her husband left her for a man he met on the internet.  Then, in a trickle, we learn more about his abuse, his refusal to hold a job (because it would interfere with his creativity), his financial exploitation, threats of violence, etc.  Janzen seems at times a little too preoccupied with her husband’s sexuality and his new partner’s penis, but it’s very clear this book was written while she was still processing and coming to terms with everything.  The story is told in a very light, breezy, funny style, so it comes as a shock when her ex almost attacks her when she turns up for a court appearance (and he subpoenaed her), and her lawyer advises her to hide in the bathroom after the hearing, so he doesn’t have a chance to attack her.

The two books don’t quite sit together properly, even united by Janzen’s distinctive voice.  I enjoyed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, but don’t feel compelled to read the follow-up.

The ones about the Progressive Age

Triangle: the fire that changed America by David von Drehle; Thunderstruck by Erik Larson; Pox: an American History by Michael Willrich.

Wanted: recommendations for books about the New Deal.  Because between these three — especially the first and last — it’s easy to forget that there was the better part of a century between the early 1900s and now, and for most of that time, America’s workers had rights and stuff.

I tweeted, you see, about the one-star review for Triangle that said it was all about the leftist notion that workplaces should be safe, and not burning to death at your job is a privilege, not a right.  I meant it facetiously, but I got all these responses from Americans who have worked or are working in warehouses with inadequate fire safety facilities, and offices without fire escapes, and so forth.

Not to single America out, but Australia frankly doesn’t get this level of popular history.  (I know, because I spent a whole afternoon looking for a book about the Bubonic plague epidemics that Sydney suffered in the early 1900s.  There was a book years ago, but it’s out of print.)

Triangle covers, obviously, the Triangle Waist Factory fire, where a large number of workers, most of them young immigrant women, burned to death due to inadequate fire safety facilities and the factory owners’ practice of locking a major exit to minimise theft.  It also covers the garment workers strike of the year before, and the campaign, after the fire, for better conditions.

Needless to say, it’s quite a harrowing read in places, but also compelling, especially the strike chapters.  The strike was overtaken to a degree by wealthy sympathisers, many of them women, which caused resentment among the Socialists, many of them men.  This third of the book is almost a diversion, since we see very few of the people involved in the strike in the fire chapters, and safety conditions weren’t on the strikers’ agenda.  But it’s a vivid introduction to the culture of New York’s immigrant classes, Tammany Hall, and the city’s conflicts.

If it had no other value — and I really do recommend it a lot — Triangle would be notable for having the most complete possible list of the fire’s victims.  The press at the time was more concerned in being first than being right, and because many of the casualties came from immigrant backgrounds, they had unfamiliar names that were often misspelled.  Von Drehle worked quite hard to find the most likely spellings and other biographical details about the dead.

Thunderstruck is much less political.  Erik Larson contrasts Hawley Harvey Crippen’s murder of his wife with Marconi’s development of the wireless, which enabled the capture of Crippen.

I’m usually a big fan of Larson’s books, but I was a bit disappointed in this one.  He continually refers to Cora “Belle Elmore” Crippen’s generous figure and sensuality, as if that somehow justifies Crippen’s murder.  He seems to regard her as a thoroughly unpleasant woman, excessively sensual, manipulative and with ambitions beyond her talents.  All of which was true to an extent, but she was also a very popular member of her social circle, well-liked by her friends, which to me doesn’t suggest she was as terrible as Larson makes out.

Marconi is an unpleasant figure, and remains so right up to his dying days (in his later years he supported Mussolini and joined the Fascists.  I don’t think that “he didn’t care for Hitler” entirely ameliorates that, you know?) but at least Larson is aware of it.

There are interesting parallels between Marconi’s work and contemporary digital rights management issues.  Marconi was paranoid about having his ideas stolen, and so, rather than selling his machines, merely licensed them, and their operators, and tried to keep wireless a closed network that he controlled.

The British government wasn’t happy about this — the post office had a monopoly on telegraphy, and regarded itself as the rightful controller of radio — and so, when the Royal Navy licensed the Marconi devices, they promptly started pirating them.  Yarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Pox: an American History is less about smallpox in general, and more about the epidemics that swept America at the turn of the century, and how they led to the formation of a federal health system, plus debates about compulsory vaccination, medical ethics and more.

Now, smallpox was one of my big childhood fears (along with black holes and Daleks), so I started this book thinking that anyone who refused a smallpox vaccine was a dangerous idiot, same as the contemporary anti-vaxxers.  But it’s actually a lot more complicated than that:  the smallpox vaccine was (and still is!) the most dangerous, side-effect-filled one around, and for many people, the vaccine was worse than the disease.  Even if you didn’t get tetanus from an infected sample, as many children did, you might be unable to work for weeks until your body recovered.  For poor people with families to support, that was an unacceptable choice.  Oh yeah, and many states and cities had compulsory vaccination before there was a safe vaccine.

Then there’s the issue where, yeah, smallpox was basically wiped out in the Philippines, but that was because the US army were rounding people up and vaccinating them by force.  In the United States, the same treatment was meted out to African Americans and Italians, and anyone else who seemed a bit shifty.  (Spoilers!  Wealthy white people were treated differently to the poor!  I know, who saw that coming, right?)

In fact, for quite a few years, white Americans, particularly in the South, were quite convinced that smallpox was restricted to black people.  Boy, were they hilariously wrong.  There’s quite an interesting sequence about a public health official, whose name now escapes me and my Kobo is not to hand, who basically made it his mission to promote public health in the South.  And he came to the conclusion that Southerners were intelligent, sensible people who would give you a chance if you were honest with them, but their political institutions were messed up.  That seems pretty universal, really.

(This guy was also the son of a Confederate hero, a very privileged white dude who was quite pro the Jim Crow laws and other general racism, but he was also one of the few public health officials who even acknowledged that African Americans also needed support in their health issues, and he spent his later years empowering black communities to wipe out tuberculosis.  People: complicated.)

Suffice to say, things were pretty complicated and a lot of people died before matters were taken in hand.  Willrich had a lot to say about the growing power of the federal government at the time, much of which I skimmed because it was quite repetitive.  One of those books where the topic is more interesting than the writing.  But it basically boiled down to this:

The federal government finally began to oversee vaccine manufacturing, and imposed restrictions and rules, and shut down any manufacturers who weren’t doing their job properly.

This was hailed as the rise of socialism and the end of American democracy.

So far, so contemporary.  But what we don’t get these days is actual socialists taking offence and saying, nope, this is all so much capitalist bullshit, and a pox (heh) on both your houses.

The one about the serial killer

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber.  The pox book had kind of piqued my hypochondria, so naturally I turned to a book about a nurse who kills people.

This is just straight up true crime, but meticulously researched and well-written.  The first half of the book deals strictly with Charles Cullen, the murderer in question, and frankly I found it tough going, because it’s told in tight POV (based on extensive interviews with the man), and needless to say, he’s an unpleasant character.

The second half details the investigation into his crimes, hampered by the detectives’ lack of medical knowledge, and the hospitals themselves, trying to avoid lawsuits.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and a person walks into it who’s somehow radiant, even though he or she is really just words on a page?  This book has one of those people, a fellow nurse and friend of Charlie’s named Amy, who starts out as his ally and winds up risking her job and health to help capture him.  She’s a thirty-something single mother with a heart condition, an abuse survivor, the kind of woman who knows bullshit when she sees it.  And she’s so thrown when she realises what Charlie is, realising that all her well-honed instincts were completely wrong, that she has to do something.

Graeber has a good ear for dialogue — this has been a good month for those authors! — and Amy just brings the book to life.  If she was a character in a movie, you’d say she was unrealistic.  But she’s brilliant.  She’s basically my heroine.

One chilling postscript:  the final chapter deals with Cullen in jail, trying to donate a kidney to his ex’s brother.  And his chaplain recounts how she got hate mail from a Pentecostal pastor, telling her that if Charlie is saved and goes to heaven, she’ll have done a terrible thing.  That, to me, was more upsetting than the recounting of the murders, because at least Charlie Cullen knows he did something terrible and wrong.

Books read in April 2013

April was a shite month for books, and I don’t apologise for that.  I’ve been busy with Continuum stuff, I’ve been doing overtime at work, I’ve been busy.  (And I’m recording this to remind Future Liz, when she comes to look over her year’s reading, that there’s a very good reason for only reading seven books!)

Avatar: the Last Airbender: The Search (part 1) Gene Luen Yang TV tie-in graphic novel
Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation(2) (volume 2) Scott and David Tipton TV tie-in graphic novel
The Thief Megan Whalen Turner YA
The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner YA
JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner Richard Marson Biography
Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on themes, characters, history and fandom 1963 – 2012 Gillian I. Leitch (ed)
The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner YA

Round-up!

“The Search” is the latest in Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels set after the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  They are deeply unpopular in fandom, imho because they don’t contain much fanservice, but I really love his treatment of the Fire Nation characters and their complex psychology.  In fact, I love it so much that I don’t really care when the rest falls flat, as it occasionally does.

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who – Assimilation(2) volume 2, aside from having a mouthful of a title, was pretty flat storywise.  (Plot-driven crossovers often are, in my experience, even in fan fiction.  Crossovers where characters get drunk and hang out are much more fun.)  But I bought it for the artwork, which is glorious.

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series is like the Vorkosigan Saga, the Mary Russell novels and the Lord Peter Wimsey series: a set of books around a brilliant, unreliable protagonist that I re-read over and over again.  (Turner based her hero on Miles Vorkosigan; Lois McMaster Bujold and Laurie R. King drew inspiration from Lord Peter for Miles Vorkosigan and Mary Russell respectively, and so the circle is closed.)

This time through — not quite through, actually, I still have A Conspiracy of Kings to go, but I find that oddly hard to read for some reason, even though I really enjoy it — I was amazed that any of these books after the first were classified as middle grade novels.  The hero is maimed (by the heroine!) at the beginning of the second book (not a spoiler; it’s on the back cover), is married by the end, and the third book is about politics and marriage, from the perspective of a lowly guardsman.  Whenever someone tells me you can’t do _________ in YA, I’m going to think of Megan Whalen Turner.

Richard Marson’s biography of Doctor Who producer Jon Nathan-Turner was compelling yet awful, like a nerdy version of Heat! magazine.  Turner was a complex person, in a committed relationship for most of his adult life, yet he and his partner were quite open about sexually exploiting fans.  (In the case of the partner, this included attempts at outright sexual assault, including one on the author.)

Turner’s tenure was the most turbulent time in Doctor Who‘s history, some of which was caused by circumstances beyond his control.  Other parts … you know, there’s a reason why Russell T Davies never engaged with fandom, and why Steven Moffat should never have tried Twitter.  Doctor Who fandom can be toxic, and if you have the ego it takes to survive in the entertainment industry, you’re going to wind up being equally toxic back.  And not just to the fans:  there’s a really ugly account of JN-T spitting in actress Nicola Bryant’s face after she joked about sleeping with a gay man he fancied.

The information in this biography would make fascinating entries in, say, a history of the culture of the BBC (which I would totally read), but as an account of an individual’s life, much of it felt prurient.  But then, one suspects JN-T would have appreciated that.

Doctor Who in Time and Space is a recent collection of essays about … you know.  The JN-T book made me curious about the fanzines of the ’80s, and Google Books threw this up as a result.

I am … disappointed.  There are a few good essays here, including an outstanding piece by J. M. Frey called “Whose Doctor?”, about Sydney Newman and Doctor Who‘s ties to Canada, and colonialism and cultural cringe.  That alone was worth the $16 I paid for the Kindle edition.

A lot of the essays, though, just made me cranky.  For example, “Nostalgia for Empire, 1963-1974” by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom is based on the premise that Doctor Who had no political stories after 1974.  Even if you narrow “political” down to “about imperialism”, which is the authors’ particular area if interest, that’s nonsense.  Robert Holmes wrote a whole lot of Tom Baker stories about imperialism’s first cousin, colonialism, albeit not always with grace.  But then, he wasn’t exactly subtle, either.  And if we take a wider view of “political”, the McCoy era was basically one big critique of Thatcherism, racism, consumerism, etc.

But the essay that particularly annoyed me was “A Country Made From Metal? The “Britishness” of Human-Machine Marriage in Series 31″ by Kate Flynn.  This is ostensibly an examination of the Pond-Williams marriage, only it seems to take the premise that Rory is the only person that counts in that relationship.  For example, Leadworth is described as “Rory’s home town”, when it was also Amy’s.  Additionally, at different points the author describes Amy as “for the dads”, “hypersexualised” and “shrew”.  (There’s a whole section about how Rory is emasculated by women who don’t appreciate him.)  It’s a shame, because there were a lot of interesting ideas in this essay, that could be further applied to series 7 and the Ponds’ departure, but the misogyny was just disappointing, especially coming from a woman.  (I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.)

Finally, I just didn’t find the collection hugely well edited.  Unless “the wizard Gandolph” is a figure in some media I haven’t yet encountered.

Books read in March 2013

The Dust Bowl Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan History
Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen with annotations by David M. Shapard Classic
The Death Maze Ariana Franklin Crime
Relics of the Dead Ariana Franklin Crime
Eleanor of Aquitaine: by the wrath of God, Queen of England Alison Weir History
The Assassin’s Prayer Ariana Franklin Crime
The Shattering Karen Healey YA NZ
Gilt Katherine Longshore YA
Thus Was Adonis Murdered Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Shortest Way to Hades Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Sirens Sang of Murder Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Sybil in her Grave Sarah Caudwell Crime
When We Wake Karen Healey YA NZ
The Devotion of Suspect X Keigo Higashino Crime

Oh sure, this month the copy and paste will work!  How I love the capriciousness of WordPress!

Anyway, 14 books this morning, the year’s maximum so far, and achieved primarily because travel is a great opportunity for reading.  Highlights, lowlights, lights:

The Dust Bowl is a tie-in to a documentary of the same name, and it’s a compelling, thorough history of the United States’ greatest man-made disaster (so far).  What made it notable for me was that I didn’t know the dust bowl was caused by unsustainable agricultural methods coupled with a land boom — I had always been told it was a natural event.

I read the first of Ariana Franklin’s medieval forensic mysteries last month, and it had me eye-rolling quite a bit, but I was also keen to see what happened next.

What happened next was that I eyerolled even more, while nursing increasing contempt for most of the male characters and a good portion of the women.  By the end of the fourth book, I would have given up on the series all together, except the author’s death brought it to a merciful end anyway.

I was particularly troubled by Franklin’s portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine as a complete ninny, so I picked up Alison Weir’s biography.  I instantly found what must be Franklin’s major source for the series — some descriptions of historical figures were almost word for word — but finished it thinking that, yes, Franklin got Eleanor badly wrong.  She was a complex woman, of course, and not always likable even after one takes into account the misogyny of the men who documented her life, but she was never stupid.

Gilt by Katherine Longshore is a YA novel covering the reign and execution of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII.  Catherine’s a difficult figure, on account of how she was stupid.  Granted, she was very young — in her teens — when Henry married her, but she only had to put up with him for a few years, and then she’d have been a rich and powerful widow.  Instead, she had blatant affairs, and then it came out she had been the opposite of a chaste maiden before her marriage, and off came her head.

Gilt covers this period from the POV of Kitty, one of Catherine’s friends and ladies in waiting, and it nicely captures Catherine’s selfishness, the danger and glamour of Tudor court life, and the rape culture that surrounded it.  Longshore also makes Catherine quite likable, to an extent, without losing sight of her failings.  It was an easy read, but a good one.

I didn’t intentionally set out to read all of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar fics, but I started one, and found that I couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

This is a British series about a legal historian and a quintet (sometimes a quartet) of barristers who solve mysteries.  The Wikipedia page compares it to Enid Blyton, and seems to imply some level of immaturity and a lack of profundity.  THAT IS A LIE.  I mean, yes, it’s about as deep as a puddle, but it’s also terribly entertaining and funny (if you like that sort of thing), and if you can picture Enid Blyton writing about kinky sex, murder and international tax planning, you should probably come hang out with me so we can be best friends.

…I should say that persons whose taste for social justice outweighs their sense of irony should probably steer clear of the series, because once you’ve categorised murder as an inconvenience to probate courts and Just Not Cricket, nothing else seems very serious either.  So you have the description of Julia looking “slightly disheveled, like one of Priam’s daughters after an unusually trying rape”, and Professor Tamar’s concern that Cantrip’s educational background puts him at a disadvantage in the company of others, ie, he went to Cambridge, poor boy.  So don’t come complaining to me about how Caudwell needs to be called out on her privilege.

With the release of Karen Healey’s When We Wake, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t read The Shattering, her last book.  TERRIBLE OVERSIGHT.  But now I’ve read both, so that’s okay.

Reading Healey can be a bit disconcerting — we’re about the same age, we both live in the Southern Hemisphere, we read the same blogs — oh yeah, and we have mutual friends.  But she doesn’t know me at all.

Nevertheless, because I read her blog and follow her Tumblr, it can be quite difficult to separate Healey’s voice from those of her characters.  For one thing, I can often go through her writing and link ideas back to YA discussions and blog posts.  I guess you might say I can see her thought processes a bit too clearly.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed these two books.  The Shattering is set in New Zealand, and although I found it highly predictable, it was a good, compelling read.

When We Wake was even better — set in Melbourne of the 21st and 22nd centuries, the Australian society of the future neatly and depressingly extrapolated from the current day.

Tegan is accidentally shot, and when she wakes up, a hundred years have passed, and she’s the guinea pig in a project to revive cryogenically frozen soldiers.  Australia is now a world superpower, with gay marriage, religious tolerance — oh, and a strict policy of no migrants.  Ever.  And refugee camps in the north.  

Tegan’s an instant celebrity, but aside from the culture shock and the trauma of waking up and finding everyone she loves has died, there’s the minor problem of the fringe groups targeting her.  And the conspiracy.  Yeah, almost forgot about that.

When We Wake was a thoroughly good read, and I wouldn’t have put it down even if I hadn’t been on a plane, but fair warning: I kind of sobbed through the last third.  The flight attendants were a little concerned.

Finally, The Devotion of Suspect X is a translation of a Japanese bestseller, which is in turn part of a series, which has been turned into a drama, which I belatedly realised I started watching last year.

I didn’t much care for the TV series, because the female lead was basically an idiot, which made it hard to watch.  In the novel, both main characters are men, but that means the main female characters are kind of passive and a bit dull.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story itself very much.  I was less enchanted by the translation, which was quite clumsy in places, and, for example, referred to kanji as “Chinese characters”.