Blogging for Books: The Naturalist

Just in time for Father’s Day, Blogging for Books gives me the chance to get the daddiest of dad presents.

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This is only the second time I’ve used this platform to gift books I otherwise wouldn’t read, and it does diversify my reviews.

President Theodore Roosevelt is my dad’s favorite historical figure, and he is always looking for new TR books. Unfortunately for my dad, he doesn’t care that much about the presidency, but he is 100% here for reading about Amazon explorations and Teddy’s work creating our natural parks.

So thanks, Darrin Lunde, for saving me an awkward trip to Lowe’s!*

Lunde, a Smithsonian employee, uses The Naturalist to take an interesting look at T.R.’s relationship with the great outdoors and the impact that had on his political career.

This isn’t one of my great areas of interest so it’s hard to rate the book. Certainly it was well-written but I had a hard time getting through it because I just didn’t care that much. However, if your dad is like my dad and has tried to style their life around being Teddy Roosevelt, I think this book will be a hit.

Basically, if TR or political histories are your bag of ducks, then I think this book will be a hit. If you’re like me and you’d rather read about society ladies having seances, it’s not going to have much WOW factor.

The book retails for $28 (hardcover). It can be purchased from Penguin’s website, but I suggest you hit up your nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore to snag this one for dad before his big weekend.

 

 

*I spoke too soon, after writing that intro a bat got into our apartment and I had to go to Lowe’s and ask a sales associate “which of these gardening gloves looks like they could best withstand a bat bite?” Spoiler Alert: They don’t rate for that.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Blogging for Books: Mother, Can You Not?

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I first learned about @CrazyJewishMom from the New York Times. I’m not a Times subscriber but my bff gets the Sunday paper and I was drinking coffee on her couch and took advantage. I checked out the Instagram because of the article, and stayed because I saw a lot of my mom in CJM (despite the fact that we’re gentiles).

While I still follow the account, I quickly became disenchanted with it. CJM is a “drone parent” and the similarities between Kim Friedman and Momma IotI were too much in a negative fashion. When this book came up as an option, I expected to hate read it.

So I settled down on Mother’s Day to devour Mother, Can You Not? and it painted a far, far more sympathetic picture of Kim and daughter Kate‘s relationship than I had imagined possible. I still think CJM might need to get a grip, texting your daughter 100 times in one day is just not normal, it’s clear that this mother and daughter have a relationship that is built on love and respect, even if it’s a strange kind. Kate’s anecdotes about how her mother shaped her life are understandable even by those not familiar with the CJM phenomenon, and I think Kate does have a knack for writing and I’m interested to see where she goes next. It also really sympathized Kim, who in my mind had been cast as the villain in Kate’s life. I guess I was really projecting.

My favorite story involves stealing a cat from an animal shelter… I guess that’s when I felt like CJM was someone I could relate to.

There are stories that give me cringey, secondhand embarrassment that don’t entirely paint the relationship in a good light (Kate’s photoshoot, for example), but overall Mother, Can You Not? is a tale of two women who actually understand each other.

And I respect that. And actually enjoyed this book.

 

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

[and in honor of my own fraught maternal relationship, here is the song I think best sums up what we have. “Nail in My Coffin” by The Kills]

Blogging for Books: The Witch of Lime Street

The Witch of Lime Street is a non-fiction book for those of us with a pretty specific niche interest: turn on the century Spiritualism.

This is the first book I’ve come across that discusses the complicated “frenemy” relationship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

Just in time for their new show on Fox!

That Houdini casting is on point. I am so ready to nitpick historical inaccuracies in this. So. Ready.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Witch of Lime Street focuses on Houdini, a medium known as Margery (Mina Crandon), and Scientific American’s quest to find a true medium at the height of the 20th century’s spiritualist movement. Two key historical characters in the narrative are noted believer, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and noted skeptic, magician Harry Houdini. The two came together as friends who believed legitimate communication with the dead was possible and came apart as historical frenemies.

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Let’s first discuss that the book cover glows in the dark. It is perfection.

The Goodreads consensus seems to be “good topic, boring book” to which I heartily disagree. I haven’t technically finished the book yet, I’m too busy having panic attacks about grad school to read for pleasure, but less than 100 pages from the end and I can say that I’ve been thoroughly engaged the whole time.

That’s what makes me think this book is not for those with a casual interest in Spiritualism/the Occult. This isn’t a high-academia text, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m so engaged because I’m reading about a topic that I love and have actually lectured on. This is my jam, yo. I think it’s a well-written book, broken up into perfect little nuggets that really capture the cultural attitude towards mediums and the cult of celebrity that followed them (and also Houdini!).

One thing I really appreciated about this book was the treatment it gave Houdini. The man was a skeptic and is often portrayed as someone who simply wanted to bust some medium balls. Houdini’s relationship with the spirit world was far more complex than that, and he wanted to believe in a way Jaher makes  palpable. It was Houdini’s desire to be proven wrong himself that fueled his anti-medium campaign.

David Jaher’s biography doesn’t tell you much about his background with the subject, but I came across a Reddit AMA he did about the book and reading through that I can tell that this man has really, really done his research- above and beyond what appeared in the book.

For me, this book was the perfect intersection of academic research and relatable writing. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Spiritualist movement.

 

 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Blogging for Books: Owls

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird by Matt Sewell

This review is basically one big gift recommendation, so sucks to me for not having it done before Christmas so y’all could absorb my wisdom.

In my defense this book arrived after we had left on our trek to visit Manbeast’s family and even though I used it as a gift for him he didn’t get it until tonight.

So this is a first: first book I’ve ever given as a gift, first book I’ve ever reviewed the night I received it!

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Manbeast loves owls. He would agree with the subtitle of this book, they are Our Most Charming Bird. I generally think they are terrifying. But author/illustrator Matt Sewell has charmed even my hardened heart. Each owl is given a short blurb and a beautiful illustration. I usually cannot stand to look at a barn owl because I find them so upsetting, but Sewell makes them look majestic and -dare I say- cuddly.

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The illustrations are seriously gorgeous, and the owl descriptions are factual with a dash of irreverence.

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Manbeast has already ooohed and aaahed over ever impeccable illustration in the book and loved the few descriptions he actually read. This book is a must have for any owl lover.

Owls by Matt Sewell: Our Most Charming Bird Book.

 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Blogging for Books: The Secrets of Blood and Bone

The Secrets of Blood and Bone by Rebecca Alexander is the second book in the ‘Jackdaw Hammond Series’ and that makes it tough to review.

In order to effectively review this book, I snagged a copy of the first one (The Secrets of Life and Deathfor my Kindle app and speed read before Blood and Bone arrived at my doorstep.

This book took forever to get through, because I just got so bogged down with SCHOOL and LIFE and STUFF and it honestly has sucked pretty hard for the past ten weeks but I finally finished this book and my term.

Hooray me.

The basic plot of the series is: Jackdaw “Jack” Hammond (who is a lady) was saved from death as a pre-teen by a woman named Maggie, who is a witch. Maggie needed Jack’s reanimated blood to save her daughter Charley from leukemia, and now everyone is all grown up and Jack mostly keeps to herself with her dog (Ches) doing some small-time magical wheeling and dealing. Along the way she saves a young girl named Sadie through the same reanimation magic, meets a professor named Felix, and gets loosely embroiled with some members of the modern day incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition.  In between the main characters’ shenanigans the reader is treated to fictionalized letters of real-life figures Edward Kelley and John Dee as they deal with famous serial killer Erzsebet Bathory (who in the book is also a “borrowed-timer/revenant”).

I’m going to try to write this review without spoiling either book for you, but that might prove tricky so be forewarned.

Onto The Secrets of Blood and Bone specifically:

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“following her showdown with Elizabeth Bathory, Jackdaw Hammond is running from her past, hiding from her future, and hoping to contain her newfound thirst for blood. Buying an overgrown home in the middle of nowhere seems like the perfect place to escape…at least until she finds herself in the sights of a murderous family with a terrible secret and a penchant for dark magic. Meanwhile, her old ally Felix Guichard has gone to New Orleans to conduct his own investigation into the nature of blood magic, but is soon sucked into the intrigues of the city’s occult underworld. But Jack will need Felix more than she knows, for the battle for her soul is set to begin.
 
Her only salvation may lie with the secrets of 16th century master occultist Edward Kelley, and a dangerous mission he undertook in Venice to confront the Inquisition, the darkest deeds of his own past, and the fearsome power of Elizabeth Bathory.”

Blogging for Books: The World Before Us

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, is a beautiful novel.It has a very similar tone to several other semi-spooky, gothic-esque, British-based novels I’ve read in the past few years, but it stands out as a unique piece in many different ways. It took me a long time to get through it, because grad school this term has been brutal, but it was not at all because of book quality.

I will try to keep this review spoiler-free, but make no promises that I won’t accidentally let something slip!

“When she was just fifteen, smart, sensitive Jane Standen lived through a nightmare: she lost the sweet five-year-old girl she was minding during a walk in the woods. The little girl was never found, leaving her family, and Jane, devastated. Now the grown-up Jane is an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close for lack of funding. As her one last project, she is searching the archives for scraps of information related to another missing person–a woman who disappeared some 125 years ago from a Victorian asylum. As the novel moves back and forth between the museum in contemporary London, the Victorian asylum, and a dilapidated country house that seems to connect both missing people, it unforgettably explores the repercussions of small acts, the power of affection, and the irrepressible vitality of everyday objects and events.”

Publisher’s weekly compares the book to A.S. Byatt’s Possession and I think that’s a very apt connection.

This book is beautiful, in both its physical nature, the language used, and the story told. I related deeply to Jane’s job related insecurities (though fortunately didn’t share much else with her) and her dissertation topic (19th century British asylums) is a topic of interest that I also share. The book started out with a more Gothic feel, but got lighter as it went on.

This book tells four stories: The first story is of fifteen-year-old Jane trying to come of age but instead facing a life-defining personal tragedy.

The second story is of adult Jane, an archivist at a closing museum, trying to tie the ends of her life together.

The third story is of those watching Jane

and the fourth is the story of N-, who wandered away from the Whitmore Asylum for Convalescent Lunatics.

This not a traditional ghost story, or a mystery story, which is what I expected from the synopsis. It also doesn’t end with a tidy resolution- if that’s something that will bother you, you probably don’t want to read this book. I definitelyrecommend this book to anyone who likes novels that have that hard-to-explain but easily identified British feel to them.

The World Before Us is an amazing book up growing up, moving on, the power of discovery.

4 out of 5 stars.

The book was provided free from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review

Blogging for Books: The Ballad of the Small Player

Meeeeeeeeh.

I squandered my spring break by thinking about all the packing I’ll have to do if we end up moving in June (you may need to stay tuned for a big announcement, you may not. Life is great like that). Now it’s the first day of my third term of grad school, I’m not quite halfway done but I’m getting there and it feels so good to be making progress. Something that I really appreciate about Drexel is that they very clearly lay out what classes you are supposed to take, making planning so easy to visualize (something that is truly relaxing to me).

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Empire finale. I lead an exciting life, folks.

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You know who else leads an exciting life? Not the main character in The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne.

I mentioned in my previous Blogging for Books review that I was trying to stay away from Western-Focused books written by white men. This book is a success if you really stretch my to meet my criteria. It’s by a white dude, about a white dude, but it’s set in Macau so I gave myself points for that. You are given a limited selection to chose from, so you need to make do with what you can get.

What does the publisher have to say about this book?

“As night falls on Macau and the neon signs that line the rain-slick streets come alive, Doyle – “Lord Doyle” to his fellow players – descends into his casino of choice to try his luck at the baccarat tables that are the anchor of his current existence. A corrupt English lawyer who has escaped prosecution by fleeing to the East, Doyle spends his nights drinking and gambling and his days sleeping off his excesses, continually haunted by his past. Taking refuge in a series of louche and dimly lit hotels, he watches his fortune rise and fall as the cards decide his fate.
 
In a moment of crisis he meets Dao-Ming, an enigmatic Chinese woman who appears to be a denizen of the casinos just like himself, and seems to offer him salvation in the form of both money and love. But as Doyle attempts to make a rare and true connection, all that he accepts as reality seems to be slipping from his grasp. 
 
Resonant of classics by Dostoevsky and Graham Greene, The Ballad of a Small Player is a timeless tale steeped in eerie suspense and rich atmosphere.”

Osborne is a perfectly competent writer. I have read some really boring books where the prose was just too dense, or too sparse, or whatever. Not here. Osborne is competent and knows his way around writing. And Osborne seems like an incredibly interesting person. His author bio on Random House reads: “Lawrence Osborne is the author of one previous novel, Ania Malina, and six books of nonfiction, including the memoir Bangkok Days. His journalism and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Forbes, Tin House, Harper’s,Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications. Osborne has led a nomadic life, residing for years in France, Italy, Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Thailand. He currently lives in Istanbul.”

Unfortunately, this book is still dull.

Set in the casinos of Macau (and Hong Kong? I think?), Small Player follows Lord Doyle, a Grade A scumbag with a gambling addiction and Dao Ming, the hooker with a heart of gold.

Doyle’s hit it rich by siphoning money from an old woman, a client from his former lawyer days, back in England. He faces no consequences for these actions, unless you count his bad luck. He squanders all his money, runs into Dao Ming (who he meets at the very beginning of the book) and she manages  to pay off his debts and save him from deportation, and then I skipped from chapter 17 to chapter 19 because nothing was happening, and then from chapter 19 to 21 (the final chapter) because still nothing was happening and then I counted the book as read. Pretty much nothing happens. Lord Doyle squanders his fortune, he begs some money off of another gambling addict, Dao Ming swoops in and saves the day, the he wins all his money back but misses out on true love or something. Supposedly the supernatural is involved (per the book jacket) but all I could count was the constant references to luck.

In order to enjoy a book, I have to like a characters. This doesn’t mean I think the characters should be “likeable”, I don’t need to want every character to be my bff, but I need to enjoy their presence. The best example of this feeling that I can give is the villains in the Redwall series. These villains are bad, they are evil, they are despicable, they deserve everything that is handed for them and I cheer when they are brought to their knees. But I still love them. Chapters from the villain’s POV are incredible and just as enthralling as the rest of the book, I may welcome their demise but I love to see them try and fail to enact their dastardly plans. I don’t like the characters in the sense that I support their cause or actions, or want to be friends with them but I like reading about them because they are developed, motivated, and exciting. Lord Doyle and Dao Ming are neither of these thing. Grandma is the most exciting character in the book but she doesn’t feature prominently at all.

Maybe I am just not the right audience for this book. I’ve been in casinos and I even won big once*. I don’t find casinos that exciting. They’re loud, flashy, and overstimulating and really kind of sad in a weird way as everyone is so isolated and so unaware of their surroundings. But I thought a gambling addict hitting rock bottom could be interesting. I thought Macau could be an intriguing setting. I thought a lot of things, but this book was just dull.

Unless casinos or disgraced Englishmen are your fetish, I do not recommend The Ballad of the Small Player. 2 out of 5  stars.

*$12.50 at a slot machine. 50 cents of pure profit, baby!.

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.