Last night I got bored and decided to make a batch of henna.Â I’ve experimented with a lot of different recipes, none of which have worked very well.Â I think what I decided is that A. putting lemon and sugar on it after it starts to dry really does help, and B. adding a decent …
Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer
I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook. It was like a period romance, except with fencing, diabolists, and lesbians. How startlingly creative to combine the Victorian love of the occult with the late romanticists!
The main characters are Doreena and Yvadne (guessing on the spelling) who are two unmarried sisters who love each other and yet are so diametrically contrary in character that they grate on one another’s nerves. Doreena is passionate and sensual while Yvadne is antisocial and confrontational. Since I’m an introvert who likes martial arts, I found Yvadne a relatable character, but she doesn’t make it easy. She’s a bit of a pill. And Doreena should be more likeable, since I’m also someone passionate about the arts and new experiences, but she’s kind of a cad and doesn’t always respect others’ feelings. They’re not easy women to like, but Tanzer spends so much time with them that by the end of the book I did want them to succeed and be happy.
Yvadne is passionate about fencing, and Doreena is passionate about art and sensual experiences. Each find their own circle of acquaintances and their own sense of belonging within them. If this were a historical fiction, it might have stopped at that, because that’s really enough of a human experience that we could all get something out of it, but this is a fantasy novel, so there’s also demons.
I really loved the way that Tanzer does demons in this book. They’re nuanced. There are as many different kinds of demons as there are different kinds of people, and while some of the demons want their followers to murder people, others just want a beneficial symbiotic relationship. Whether the diabolists are pure evil or just aesthetes depended on ones viewpoint. Kind of like drug users in that way; whether they’re all worthless junkies or just people who want to experience the richness of life more fully depends on where you are on the spectrum and whom you’ve come in contact with.
What I liked best about this book is the way it really made me feel creepy and gothic and Victorian without using ghosts or vampires. It was delightfully steampunk without using a single gear or clock or mechanical anything. It was Lovecraftian without using Cthulu or madness. It made candy seem as alluring and dangerous as opium. Listening to this book put me in a world that felt simultaneously familiar and exotic.
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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The skilled author of the Temeraire series has turned the story of Rumpelstiltskin into an extremely satisfying fantasy novel in Spinning Silver. It takes a setting like medieval Russia, and the premise of a father caught bragging that his daughter can spin into gold, and expands it into an amazing story.
Here’s what I loved about this story: First of all, the main heroine is Miryem, who is as Jewish as she sounds. So many books set in medieval or semi-medieval locales ignore the existence of Jewish people, as if they didn’t come into existence until 1939. Miryem is very much a product of her time and place. She understands the limitations placed upon her by her birth, that even though she’s the granddaughter of a rich and respected man, all of it could be swept away in an instant. She is of the townsfolk but yet not of the townsfolk because she’s not a gentile. She’s hard when she needs to be, and while she doesn’t much like herself for it, she doesn’t apologize and she doesn’t flinch. She spins silver into gold through her understanding of lending rates and market forces, which is a pretty awesome superpower. Only, her “reward” for doing this is to become the queen of the Tsarek King, which Miryem doesn’t much want.
One of the things Miryem does is take the neighbor’s daughter, Wanda, as a bondservant when Wanda’s father can’t repay his debt. Miryem thinks she’s being cruel, but it turns out to be a huge gift to Wanda. Miryem’s parents are exceptionally kindhearted, which is both their downfall and their saving grace. The story about Wanda and her brothers, and how they come to live with Miryem’s family is heartwarming and wonderful and there’s a scene I had to listen to more than once because it made me cry (in a good way.)
Wanda and her brothers are also a product of their time. Their father is as cruel and lazy as they are hard working and kind. They look out for one another and pretty much act the way heroes and heroines in the fairy tales usually are supposed to act; by selflessly working without complaint. This alone isn’t enough to get them to a better life, but fortunately they have some magical help.
Irina is a boyar’s daughter, whose father has decided to use the magic Tsarek (Starik? Starek? No idea how that’s spelled) silver to make his daughter so alluring that she captures the heart of the Tsar. It works, but not in the way they expect. But Irina, though her beauty had never been enough for her to aspire to grandeur, is no fool. She’s cool and collected and brave and, like Miryem, is also not afraid to make hard decisions without flinching.
So it’s the story of strong and brave young women who leverage their modest resources to save their kingdom and all the people in it, defeat the bad guys, and even win for themselves handsome husbands who love them. Highly recommend.
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The Heat Stealer by Kater Cheek
This is the third book in the Desert Mages (Susan Stillwater) series, and it might be the end of the series as I have no plans at this point for a fourth.
Susan, Zoe, Griff and Darius are living together in Zoe’s house when the air conditioner breaks and Darius announces he’s moving out. The three remaining housemates are desperate to keep their living situation intact. With money perpetually tight, they can’t afford to replace the air conditioner, and they can’t get a new roommate in Arizona if the house isn’t air conditioned. So they turn to magic. Susan casts a spell, and everything seems to be going swell when their new roommate Paloma literally makes things cooler just by being around. She has a “metaphysical disability” in that she steals heat from her surroundings.
Susan soon realizes that Paloma isn’t the godsend she appears to be. Everyone in the house start to suffer from insomnia and go a little crazy. After some nasty accidents, Susan digs further and finds out that Paloma has left a trail of horror and tragedy from every one of her living situations. Susan tries to convince her roommates that Paloma is killing them, but they don’t want to hear it; they think Susan herself is responsible.
Soon, Susan cares less about everyone staying together in the house and more about staying alive.
The first book in this series is Alternate Susan, and the second book is Mulberry Wands.
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This book taught me a lot about trees that I didn’t know, and what I did know about trees had mostly come from secondhand accounts of this book before I read it. For example, that trees can communicate via chemical signals in the wind or through fungal connections in their roots. I suspected from personal experience, that it’s better if a tree grows slowly in its first few years of age so that it becomes much stronger as an adult, but from Lab Girl I thought that trees had a teenage period in which they did most of their growing and that they slowed down as an adult and this book countermands that. I guess there’s just a lot I don’t know about botany.
The best and the worst thing about this book was the way in which it describes trees and healthy forests as much more than a collection of inanimate objects. That trees are alive, we knew. That they have familial relationships, that they keep one another going after one has been cut down, that they communicate (and that they can’t communicate if not raised there, because of the symbiotic relationship with fungus) was all mind blowing. It was almost supernatural how foreign these concepts feel to me.
That was the best thing, that I learned something that completely changed how I thought about the world. The worst thing is that it completely changed how I thought about trees. I used to feel pretty good about my simple IKEA furniture of birch and pine (a renewable resource!) and now that I know how interdependent trees are and how irreplaceable old growth forests are, I feel less virtuous about all the wood pulp and paper products I consume. I already feel kind of bad for the animals I eat, now I gotta feel bad about the plants that are killed on my behalf?
I got the audiobook, which was read well enough, though some of the content felt a little dry. The author writes for a German audience, and supposes that all of his readers are well-acquainted with hardwood European forests. He says things like “the next time you go for a walk in the woods” as if this were a common, everyday occurrence (which, admittedly, for Germans, it often is.) It was the kind of book you’re glad to have read, even if you maybe don’t really enjoy it at the time.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
This isn’t the sort of book where guessing what the husband’s secret is too early will ruin it for you. Clever readers might pick it up from the back flap. But that’s not what this book is all about. The book is about how secrets and foolish actions have a rippling effect, distorting and damaging the lives of people one hasn’t even met.
There are three families at the heart of this story. Cecelia and John-Paul with their three girls, Tess and William (and her cousin Felicity, with whom Tess is quite close) and Rachel, who dotes on her grandson Jacob. All three are going through major upheavals. Cecelia finds a note from John-Paul to be opened upon his death. William and Felicity confess to Tess that they have fallen in love, and Rachel learns that Jacob’s parents are taking him to live in New York. What these three families initially have in common is a Catholic school in Sydney named Saint Angelos and a man named Connor Whidbey. One of Cecelia and John-Paul’s daughters adores Mr. Whidbey, Tess has an affair with him, and Rachel despises him because she thinks he murdered her daughter Janey.
Janey’s murder, never solved by the police, looms large in most of the minds and memories of the adults who work in or have children who attend Saint Angelos. Rachel never quite gets over it, and people don’t quite know how to treat her. Her grief is like a dark stinky cloud that surrounds her and people shy away. Rachel learned that Connor was the last person to see Janey alive, but she doesn’t understand why. Janey was a good Catholic girl who didn’t hang out with boys, or so Rachel believed. Seeing how the course of Rachel’s life was so irrevocably altered by Janey’s death was one of the strengths of this book. Janey had a younger brother, Rob, who you can see was also hurt by his sister’s murder, not just by the fact of it and his own grief but by the way his mother never quite got over it. Because Janey didn’t live, she never got to be imperfect and have her relationship with her family evolve.
Cecelia is a perfectionist, dedicated to being the perfect mother, PTA president and killer Tupperware representative. She’s one of those women you see sometimes at schools and think does everything better than you so you kind of hate her for it while also admiring her. When she finds John-Paul’s letter, she’s extremely troubled by it. Who wouldn’t be? What could it contain? She promises not to open it, and intends to, but John-Paul reveals its importance by his actions and she changes her mind. Moriarty teases and hints at possibilities: a suicide pact, an affair, a closeted homosexual. Then she reveals the secret you probably guessed early on. Cecelia knows that this secret probably can’t be kept any longer and that keeping it has hurt John-Paul for decades. But if they reveal it, their lives are probably all ruined, not just John-Paul’s but his whole family.
The secret that ruins Tess’ life is that her cousin Felicity (who is more like a twin) and Tess’ husband Will have fallen in love. The three of them are deeply enmeshed in one anothers’ lives. They even run a company together. Tess takes her son Liam and flees to Sydney, using the excuse of her mother’s broken ankle. Nursing her broken heart, she falls into a relationship with her old boyfriend Conner Whidbey (I listened to the audiobook version so I’m guessing on the spellings here.) Now Tess has her own secret, and her own decision to make as to whether she can get past the hurt of betrayal and rebuild her marriage or if she’s going to dump it and forge ahead with someone new.
One of the things I like about this book is the way that all of the people, even the children, have their own personalities and motivations. No one is just a person trying to look out for themselves; everyone is connected to other people by blood or love or circumstance or society. (It’s a huge change from the other book I was reading which I finished a day before this, in which only one person in the book had another human being he cared about besides himself.) This isn’t escapist fiction, where the reader can delve into problems that are easily solvable through violence or cunning. This is a complex story about relationships, with the theme of sin and punishment, guilt and redemption and how small acts can damage families, how one person’s choice can affect people even decades later.
There are some interesting subplots or themes that color the novel as well. One of Cecelia’s children, Esther, is obsessed with the Berlin Wall, and her stories of the people who tried to escape and either succeeded or didn’t resonate with Cecelia’s emotional landscape. And the events of the weekend coincide with both Easter and the anniversary of Janey’s murder. Another thing Moriarty does is tell you what would have happened, had Janey not been murdered, or had she taken different actions that day. This is really everything you want in a novel; an interesting setting with interesting characters with real stakes and a satisfying yet believable ending.