Sunday, April 2, 2023

52 books project - first quarter

I am pleased and surprised at how well my "52 books" project has gone so far. My goal is to buy only 52 new books - meaning books I haven't read yet - over the course of the year.

As of April 1st, I've bought 10 new books. I've read three of them:

Deborah Crombie's A Killing of Innocents
Paula Tarnapol Whitacre's A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time
Seanan McGuire's Backpacking Through Bedlam

One book I decided wasn't for me, Talia Hibbert's Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute. I enjoy her adult romances but I don't read a lot of young adult, or New Adult for that matter. I was happy to donate it to the library sale.

Of the 10 books that fall under the project, listed over on the right, most have been anticipated pre-orders. Only one recently, The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, was an impulse buy. I heard it reviewed on a podcast and decided not to wait for a library copy.

I haven't spent much time in bookstores lately, which feels OK, not like a deprivation. I am visiting the library on my usual weekly visits and bringing home stacks of books that I don't usually get around to reading. That's where I do my browsing these days.

Otherwise, I've bought four books that I read originally as e-books and wanted to have on my shelves, from Victoria Goddard's Greenwing and Dart fantasy series.

What I haven't managed to do is cross too many books off the TBR list. I've been re-reading a lot lately, including Anthony Trollope for the first time in years. It's been a complicated time at work, and I had to travel to Oregon for a family memorial service. It was my first trip since COVID, which added to my usual travel anxiety. There were a couple of posts on the Tor website in the past months that mirrored my reading and re-reading. First, Malka Older wrote about "Comfort Reading" (this was before I was introduced to her via podcast). Like her, I have been looking for kindness in books lately. Second, Molly Templeton wrote about "Reading in a Fallow Month." Her post really spoke to me.

I have a couple of books to pre-order for May, including a new fantasy novel from Martha Wells that I am very excited about, Witch King. I'm also looking forward to the long Easter weekend, with some extra time for reading. Meanwhile, I'll keep working on the TBR stacks, and carting books home from the library.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A Killing of Innocents, by Deborah Crombie

This book is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. I was very glad to see that the HarperCollins workers' union (Local 2110 UAW) reached an agreement with the publisher this week after more than three months on strike. The union did not ask people to boycott HarperCollins books, but many readers refused to review or publicize HC books in solidarity. This was the first HC book I've had to write about since getting back to blogging.

This is the 19th book in Deborah Crombie's long-running series of police procedurals, featuring married police officers Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. In the early books, Gemma was part of Duncan's team at Scotland Yard. As their relationship became personal, they kept it secret until Gemma earned a promotion and moved to her own team. In later books their cases often overlap, or one or the other finds a reason to get involved.

The previous book, A Bitter Feast, was published back in 2019, and I had started to wonder if it might be the last. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a new book announced for April of this year, and it immediately went on my "52 books" list. It was an even bigger surprise when the publication was moved up to early February. I had started re-reading some of the more recent books in the series, since it's been a good while, and I'm glad I started with A Bitter Feast, because I didn't have as much time for re-reading as I'd planned!

A Killing of Innocents takes place a few months after the last book, so before COVID. It's apparently set in 2018, since there is a reference to Lin-Manuel Miranda in "Mary Poppins Returns." In such a long-running series, with the first published in 1993, I don't think that Deborah Crombie is tying the books to a current timeline.

The story opens in London with the death of a young doctor in training, Sasha Johnson. She is stabbed one evening while walking through a crowded Russell Square, and the only one who even notices her fall to the ground is a five-year-old boy. The case falls to Duncan and his team out of the Holborn station. As always, the story has a real sense of place, with a beautifully detailed map of the area of the investigations. Running parallel with the investigations are side stories with Duncan's team, particularly his sergeant Doug, Gemma and her sergeant Melody, and Gemma and Duncan's blended family of three children, and their family and friends. It was lovely to meet these characters again and to catch up with their lives, but I could see it might be a little confusing to a new reader. There are also new characters to follow, particularly Duncan's team in Holborn, with sections written from their points of view. It does take the focus of Gemma and Duncan, though they remain central to the story.

While the mystery is resolved very neatly, the story ended with two minor cliffhangers, for Duncan and Gemma and also for Melody. This isn't the first time Deborah Crombie has done this. I remember that the last page of The Sound of Broken Glass had me quickly flipping through the blank end pages, unable to believe that there wasn't more. The cliffhangers here give me hope that Deborah Crombie has another book in mind.

N.B. This was book #4 in my "52 books for 2023", and well worth a place.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

This Grand Experiment, by Jessica Ziparo

The subtitle of this history is "When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C." I learned about it from references in Walter Stahr's biography of Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury in Abraham Lincoln's Civil War cabinet. I had some vague knowledge that women first came to work for the U.S. government during the Civil War, Clara Barton being perhaps the best-known example, but I didn't know much. I was curious to learn more, and the description of this book made me add it to my reading stacks:

"In the volatility of the Civil War, the federal government opened its payrolls to women. Although the press and government officials considered the federal employment of women to be an innocuous wartime aberration, women immediately saw the new development for what it was: a rare chance to obtain well-paid, intellectually challenging work in a country and time that typically excluded women from such channels of labor. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washing with applications. Here, Jessica Ziparo traces the struggles and triumphs of early female federal employees, who were caught between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. In doing so, Ziparo demonstrates how these women challenged societal gender norms, carved out a place for independent women in the streets of Washington, and sometimes clashed with the female suffrage movement."
Ziparo makes it clear from the first pages that this is not a story of triumphal achievement for women. They were paid significantly less than men, they had to put a lot of time and effort into getting a position, they faced hostility and sexual harassment from their male coworkers, and there was no job security. Women were also crowded into corners and attics, as supervisors struggled with adapting work spaces for women (hoop skirts took up a lot of room), and working out how men and women could share offices. In addition, Ziparo acknowledges that most of the sources for her history privilege white middle-class women's experiences. Working-class women, both Black and white, have left fewer archival sources and are often left out of contemporary accounts.

Despite the challenges they faced, however, once women got a foothold in government employment, they never lost it. They were not pushed out of jobs after the Civil War in the same way they would be in the 20th century, to make way for the returning soldiers. In part, as Ziparo explains, this is because of the way the women's work was framed. Many of the jobs, like cutting out currency bills or binding government publications, were seen as "women's work." Men didn't compete for those jobs. Hiring women was also presented as a means of assisting the widows and orphans of the brave Union soldiers, making it more acceptable for them to work outside the home, and they still needed that assistance after the war ended. In reality, they were often supporting a home, with parents or children dependent on them.

It was sobering to read the letters of female applicants, who desperately needed work, but also needed male patrons with influence in the government offices or in Congress. The traditional work open to women outside the home was teaching or domestic work. As noted above, the jobs in the government offices, though paying women half what the male employees received, was still some of the best-paid work available. And while some of the work was repetitive and boring, like counting currency, it still got women into the nation's capital and into the proverbial halls of power. As Ziparo notes, it also normalized women's presence in government buildings and in public life.

One of the women whose career Ziparo follows through her history is Julia Wilbur, who kept a diary during her years in Washington. I was disappointed to find that the diary has not been published, though it has been digitized and transcribed. I did find however a biography, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time, and I decided it was worth a spot on my 52 books for the year.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

A lot of re-reading

Twice a month, the Smart Bitches Trashy Books website posts a prompt: what are you reading?  I always enjoy seeing what other people are reading, and the responses usually add books to my own lists. Today I found that I am not the only person whose 2023 reading has pretty much been re-reading so far. Despite weekly visits to the library, and the TBR stacks around me, I have read only one new book, The Candid Life of Meena Dave (from the library). Otherwise, it's been diving back into books, some of which I haven't taken off the shelves in ten years or more.

Two of those were sudden impulses. I fell into a rabbit-hole of watching on YouTube the Turner Classic Movie annual tributes to the stars lost each year. (On a side note, I will never understand why TCM doesn't offer a streaming service, for those of us who don't have cable packages.) That led me to pick up We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, by Emily Kimbrough, which I first read and reviewed back in 2011. I don't know what reminded me of Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square, my favorite of her books, but I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Vienna in 1911. I think I'm due to revisit some of her other books as well now.

I've also been working my way back through a couple of science fiction/fantasy series. I've written before about my love of Martha Wells' Raksura series, and I just finished re-reading the two volumes of short stories. I would still love to see more stories set in this world, though I was also happy to see the announcement this week of a new Murderbot novel coming this year, as well as a stand-alone book, Witch King (I've reserved space for both on the 52 book list). And I've been slowly reading my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkoskigan saga - slowly, because she does love to put her characters (and her readers) through the proverbial wringer. I finished one of my favorites, Memory, last night. I was going to take a break before starting the next one, Komarr, because it has a toxic and abusive marriage at the center of the story. I had thought instead to read one of LMB's "Five Gods" books. It's been so long since I read Komarr that I couldn't remember how the story started, so this morning I took it off the shelf just to look at the first chapter. Now I'm half-way through.

I don't know if this will be a year of re-reading, or it's just my reading mood for now. I never do quite know where my reading will take me.

Two recent posts on caught my eye. The first was "Learning to Love Paper Books Again." I've never stopped of course, and I am still reading (re-reading) in paper. I just can't focus on ebooks right now and I'm not sure why. I'm sure the right book will come along at some point and lure me back (maybe a new Bujold, since she is publishing first in ebook now).

The second was "Admiring Five of Fantasy's Best Cats." I've written before about my love of fictional cats, not just in fantasy. I was happy to recognize some of the cats in the comments, including one from the Vorkosigan saga!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Candid Life of Meena Dave

The Candid Life of Meena Dave, by Namrata Patel

As I've said elsewhere, I have re-read so many books this month that it feels like an accomplishment to have finished a new-to-me book. I came across this on the "new books" cart at the library, and the cover caught my attention.

The title character is a photojournalist with a career that takes her around the world. As the story opens, she is sitting in a lawyer's office in Boston, trying to understand how she has inherited an apartment in the city's Bay Bay neighborhood from a woman named Neha Patel, whom she has never heard of. She is also grappling with conditions on the bequest: she cannot sell the apartment for a year, and she can only sell to one of the four other owners in the condo. Meena has no interest in the apartment or in Boston.

What Meena finds in the building is history, both her own and her community, and mystery. She is the adopted child of white parents, and she knows nothing about Indian identity beyond what she has experienced in her travels. She knows nothing about her own heritage, or her own history. Her parents were killed in a explosion at their home when she was 16, and Meena (who was at school at the time) lost everything but her backpack. She has made her own way since, never putting down roots and never making connections with anyone besides her college friend Zoe. Renting a bedroom in Zoe's London flat is the closest thing Meena has to a home base.

In the building, she finds a community of Indian Americans, descended from students who came to study at MIT in the late 1940s, so that they could return to help India transition out of colonialism. Namrata Patel explains in an author's note that in writing this story she drew on the experiences of the real-life students. She notes that growing up, she did not know much about the history of Indian immigration to the United States, which dates back to the colonial era (via the East India Company). Like her, I thought Indian immigration dated from the 1960s, when restrictive laws that had blocked most immigration from Asian countries were repealed.

Meena quickly meets the three women who own the other apartments, which are entailed to descendants of the students, along with a lone male owner named Sam. The building is a warm community led by "the aunties." They try to welcome Meena into that community with food and chai and chat, but she resists, because she isn't staying. Sam, who works in film and has an adorable puppy named Wally, is harder to resist.

As Meena reluctantly spends time in the apartment, trying to figure out what to do, she finds notes that Neha has hidden all over the place. The notes are cryptic, but Neha clearly knows who Meena is, and more importantly, who her birth parents are. The notes disturb Meena, but they also demand her attention. At the same time, the aunties are giving her a crash course in culture, food, language, holidays, and even how to wear a sari.

There is so much going on in this story, almost too much at times. Meena carries a heavy burden of grief and anger at the loss of her parents, and the game that Neha is playing with her notes adds a lot of stress. She keeps trying to escape, from the apartment and from any relationship with Sam. She wants to know about her birth parents, and she doesn't want to know. The story felt a bit repetitive sometimes, as this cycle kept playing out. I found myself thinking that Meena could really use a therapist (she did have help after her parents' death). When the mystery is finally solved, she has to find a way to make peace with her past and figure out her future, starting with whether she will keep the apartment.

Meena also spends time exploring Boston. The author herself lives in Boston, and the story is very firmly rooted in the city. At times it reads a bit like a travelogue, but it did remind me of my years living in western Massachusetts, when a trip to Boston was a great treat. Meena's adoptive parents lived in Northampton in the western part of the state, and she finally takes a long-overdue trip back to her former home (or the site of it at least).

Saturday, January 21, 2023

"Every Book in Its Right Time"

 Molly Templeton wrote a post on, "Every Book in Its Right Time," which resonated so strongly with me. It's about how books find us, or we find books, or sometimes books pass us by, only to catch up later. 

"How does this happen? How is it that sometimes, a book that’s clearly meant for a reader takes so long to find them?

There is no answer to this question, of course. Books come to us when they come, and it’s either their time or it’s not. It’s very hard to manifest the precisely perfect moment in which to read a given book, though every so often, it can be done. You can pick just the right book for a trip, for a vacation, for a long weekend of doing little else..."


It is such a wonderful feeling, when I open the a book and it's the right book at the right time. There's a feeling of satisfaction, of something clicking into place, of recognition: this is the story that I need right now. 

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, because I keep picking up the wrong books. I don't know quite what I want to read, though I have a better idea of what I don't want to read. It's the same feeling I get driving home after work, trying to decide what to cook for dinner. I am spoiled for choice, but I can't decide. Unlike cooking, I don't have to commit to a recipe and ingredients. And I've learned it's better to stay out of bookstores in this mood, because it leads to impulse buying (and not necessarily to reading). I did stop at the library one evening this week and browsed the science fiction/fantasy section, bringing home five books that I've been meaning to read (and may even have checked out before).


 "I know that not everyone thinks constantly about what they’re reading when, and how it fits into the grand scheme of their reading life, or into the lineup of everything else they’ve ever read. But those patterns are there, all the same; those books we skip or linger over, the ones that come back, years later, looking shiny in a whole new way."

One of the joys of blogging was finding other readers who do think about what they're reading, and talk about their own books and other people's books, who notice patterns and make reading plans around them. I've missed that.


Monday, January 16, 2023

Changes in reading

I've been considering lately my reading tastes and habits: what has changed, what has stayed the same, over the years since I started this blog, over the years where it was on hold, and especially in the last couple of COVID years, with more time at home.

 What hasn't changed:

I still read a lot of history, primarily U.S. and British 19th and early 20th century. In the last couple of years I've become interested in the history of medicine, and of women's struggles to study and practice medicine.

I still buy a lot of books, and I still check out more library books that I can read. I am very susceptible to the enthusiastic reviews of other readers.

I am still primarily a "one book at a time reader."

I read by whim, by what catches my eye and interest, so I'm still a very bad book club member. I have also given up requesting review copies (not that I ever got many of those).

What has changed:

I read far fewer mysteries, primarily classic/Golden Age now, or historical mysteries like Ovidia Yu's Crown Colony series. I have lost any taste I had for gore, and so many present-day stories still seem to feature serial killers. I find cosy mysteries too cosy, or they take murder too lightly, and I can usually spot the future victim the first time they appear. I have favorite contemporary authors like Deborah Crombie and Margaret Maron, whose books I re-read with the pleasure of meeting old friends, and I do read their new books (Deborah Crombie may have one coming this year, which will be cause for rejoicing). I have donated so many mysteries to the library sale shelves though.

I read more fantasy, both urban fantasy and what I think of as traditional or high fantasy, and also romantic fantasy. I think I needed worlds away from our own, especially in the last two years. I always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, but I have found so many new and diverse authors to read: T. Kingfisher, Becky Chambers, Nghi Vo, Leslye Penelope. Just in the past year I became slightly obsessed with Victoria Goddard's books, starting with all 600 pages of The Hands of the Emperor, as well as Katherine Addison's Goblin Emperor and Audrey Faye's Ghost Mountain pack of shifters. Faye's books are absolute comfort reading for me.

I haven't read a good Victorian doorstopper in ages. I haven't been reading the Virago and Persephone authors I collected so carefully - except that over Christmas I picked up Margery Sharp's Summer Visits (from Jane of Beyond Eden Rock's Goodreads recommendation). Losing myself in the story reminded me that it's not just fantasy that can take me to other worlds. I ended up looking to see which of her books I am still missing, so now The Faithful Servants has replaced it on the TBR stacks - and I finally ordered a copy of The Rescuers (I nobly resisted permanently "borrowing" a copy on a visit to my brother's family).

I think I am quicker to decide a book isn't working for me. Library books go back with no guilt. Thankfully my library started accepting donations again for their book sale shelves. There are still books I set aside for now, to try again (also known as "allowing a book to ripen").

I would have said I don't re-read as much, but looking back over last year's reading log, I see quite a bit. That has become my top question in deciding whether to keep a book: will I want to re-read this? It's interesting how often the answer is no.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Reading plans and goals

I miss having my own place to talk about books. And I miss hearing about other people's reading. I'm on LibraryThing and GoodReads, and I'm always happy to find new people and their books to follow. I also spend a lot of time over at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where the reviews and discussions have enriched my reading (and added to the TBR stacks). 

With the new year turning, I was thinking about reading resolutions, plans or goals. I weeded a fair number of physical books off my shelves last year, but I didn't manage to read all the books I bought. Over the past year I followed Simon of Stuck in a Book's Project 24, where he bought 24 books - my fingers automatically typed "only 24," because I can't imagine buying just 24 books over an entire year. (For the record, I bought 98 physical books last year; I've given up trying to track how many ebooks I buy or own.) 

After thinking it over, I decided my project goal for 2023 would be to buy no more than 52 books, one book a week (or for each week). I decided it would apply only to physical books. (I still read much more in paper, especially lately when I struggle to focus on ebooks.) And I think it's only fair to have an exception for my birthday week. But I also realized that the concern for me still isn't the number of books I own, it's the number of unread books. So if I read a book I borrowed, and it's one I want to keep on my shelves, that book wouldn't count against the 52 books.

This, I thought, is a reasonable goal and a plan I feel really comfortable with. I have a list of upcoming books by favorite authors, and intriguing ones from new-to-me authors, which I know I will be buying. Scheduling a list of books to pre-order has been a wonderful distraction and comfort over the last two difficult years, giving me something to look forward to each month. First up for this year is Femina, by Janina Ramirez (she was a guest on the BBC History Magazine podcast, also a rich source of book recommendations over the past couple of years). And there's still room for the lagniappe books.

However, this week highlighted the main weakness of my goal - and really, what got me to the TBR shelves and this blog in the first place: impulse buying. On Monday I read a glowing review of Heather Fawcett's Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries, and rather than waiting for my library hold to come in, I headed over to Barnes & Noble and bought a copy. When I went after work to pick it up from the store, I told myself I wouldn't look at other books, I would just go to the counter and get that one. But I couldn't resist browsing, and then I found Talia Hibbert's Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute. It had a "Buy 1, Get 1 50% off" sticker, so of course I had to find another book to get the discount <insert eyeroll emoji>. Sure enough, I found Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman (also already on my library list).

So here I am, two weeks into 2023, and three books down. Hopefully tracking my 52 books here will help me focus. I'd like to meet this goal, while still working to reduce the number of unread books, and also to weed my shelves of books that I don't need to keep.