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Saturday, July 21, 2018

City of Ink (Li Du #3) by Elsa Hart

The publisher approved me for City of Ink on Net Galley because I had reviewed the first novel of the Li Du mystery series, Jade Dragon Mountain, here.  I praised the first book for its unusual  18th century China  setting.  When I received this third novel,  I realized that I should have gotten seven lashes with a wet Chinese noodle for neglecting to read the second book in the series, The White Mirror.  Last month I corrected that shortcoming and reviewed Li Du #2 here. I thought The White Mirror was fascinating because of it's 18th century Tibet setting.  It was the best novel that I read in the first half of 2018.  My honest review of City of Ink is below.

                       


  In City of Ink Li Du returns to Beijing from exile.   He had been exiled for his association with Shu who had been executed for conspiring against the Emperor.  Shu had been Li Du's mentor and friend.  He couldn't believe that Shu could have been guilty of such a terrible crime.  So Li Du's main goal in returning to Beijing is to clear Shu's name.

 I believe that Li Du's effort to vindicate his dead friend could have made a compelling short story.  It was certainly the strongest aspect of City of Ink, and provided a powerful ending to the novel.

Unfortunately, a great deal of narrative space was taken up with an investigation that didn't interest me nearly as much as the drama of Li Du's personal crusade to clear Shu.  There were murders at a tile factory.  Li Du diligently followed the clues and came to a slightly unexpected conclusion.  Yet this was the sort of case that could have taken place anywhere.  It was a classic mystery with the requisite plot twist, but after the extraordinary goings on in Tibet during The White Mirror I expected more.

The Imperial exams for government positions were an event in the foreground of City of Ink.   It didn't surprise me that corruption had crept into the exam process.   It would have astonished me far more if all the examiners and applicants were completely honest.  Bureaucratic corruption adds realism, but I considered it a routine element in this novel.

Li Du's friend, the storyteller Hamza was entertaining as usual.  I continue to regard him as the most interesting character in this series.  I hope that Elsa Hart includes Hamza in Li Du's future adventures.

I admit to having been disappointed by the mystery aspect of City of Ink, but I am optimistic about the possibilities that could develop for Li Du and Hamza in upcoming novels.

                               





                       

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Smoke and Iron (Great Library #4)-- Saving The Great Library From Itself

I reviewed the previous novel in Rachel Caine's dystopian alternate history fantasy series back in April here and promised that I would get to Smoke and Iron relatively soon.  The time got away from me. With the best of intentions, I become over-committed.  Then I heard from the publisher wondering when I would review it.  So I shoe-horned this Net Galley into my schedule as best as I could.  Many thanks to the publisher and Net Galley for the ARC.
 
                             

The central characters of this series are rebels, but they are rebels that are part of the Great Library.  They are scholars, obscurists with magical abilities and High Garda military officers who want the Great Library to be restored to its original values without the authoritarianism and corruption that had crept in.  They're something like the contemporary Americans who call themselves the Resistance except that the protagonists of this series are only a small group.  They needed to gain more support or they couldn't possibly succeed.  Smoke and Iron is the story of how they start to build a network.   This isn't a simple process.  It's difficult and dangerous.  It also couldn't be completed in one book.

There is a belief that heroes are people who accomplish great feats on their own.   This is a myth.  Heroes have mentors and allies.  Even an impressively strong character like the hijabi heroine Khalila couldn't do it all on her own.   Even the powerful obscurist Morgan needed help from within her own order.   Jess had connections from the criminal world where he originated.  They all had people that they could call on.  Some of those who responded were surprising.   The inventor Thomas provided some astonishing innovations.

By the end of Smoke and Iron what had seemed like a quixotic mission began to look possible.   This novel is the turning point.   So it's definitely essential to readers of the Great Library series.   Yet a  positive resolution isn't guaranteed.  Hold on to your metaphorical headgear.  The fifth book in the series is likely to be  hair-raising because the Archivist and his cronies won't give up their power without a tremendous struggle.

                           
 
                          

Sunday, July 1, 2018

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia--A Rebuttal To Hillbilly Elegy

When I came across commentary about Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, I thought about what I knew of the history of the region and it didn't sit right.  So I never did read it.   I figured that I wouldn't get any fresh insight from Vance.  I read Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders many years ago.  So I'm familiar with that perspective. I was glad to come across What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by historian Elizabeth Catte who is also native to the region.  I thought I could learn something from Catte's book.

                         

 I already knew that Appalachians were portrayed as backwards as an excuse to seize their land. Catte tells us about Kentucky widow Ollie Combs trying to block the bulldozers that were destroying her house in 1965.  (See a page on Appalachian Women on the Appalachian Voices website.) The company made the argument that Combs owned everything above ground, but the mining company had purchased the resources underneath her property. The house stood in the way of extracting that mineral wealth.  Ollie Combs was arrested.  Catte tells us that Bill Strode, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who documented Ollie Combs' act of  resistance, was also arrested. (See the article about Bill Strode on Wikipedia.)

It wasn't just about the destruction of the environment though that was also a serious issue.  It was about taking everything these people had--their homes and the farms that were their livelihood. This is the root cause of Appalachian poverty.

Before the labor regulations of the New Deal, the mining companies didn't treat their Appalachian employees much better. You can find out more about the serious exploitation that was going on by reading the History Channel's article about the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, which was called "the largest labor uprising" in American history.  Although I was aware of the intense labor struggle between miners and mine owners in West Virginia,  I learned from Catte that the mine owners actually had a private army which was dropping bombs on the strikers from private planes.  The fight to preserve Blair Mountain as a historical site is currently ongoing. It's slated for mountaintop removal mining. (See this article on the Progressive.org website.)

Catte also mentions  Black Appalachians in her book. If you read Vance's book you'd think that there were no African Americans in Appalachia.

Elizabeth Catte has an extensive bibliography to bolster her arguments.   It was refreshing to see her perspective. She successfully proves that there have been  and still are Appalachian radicals, and that the population of Appalachia is more ethnically diverse than Vance portrays.

                       











                             

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Lost Pilots--Aviation History Marred By True Crime

I won The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead from Goodreads giveaways.  It was published last month, so I'm about a month late with my review.  I admit that I've been a good deal later than that, but I do wish I could manage to be more timely.  I read giveaway books in the order that I receive them rather than the order that I won them.  So the next book on the giveaway pile was actually a 2017 win that arrived very late due to a mix up.  I hope to review it some time in July.

I wanted to read The Lost Pilots because the history of women's aviation is one of my abiding interests.  See the very first review that appeared on this blog of a book dealing with the female Russian WWII ace, Lilia Litvyak here.  So I hoped to find out about the female Australian aviator, Jessie Miller, by reading The Lost Pilots.

                                


The aviation history aspect of this book was fascinating.  I enjoyed reading about Jessie Miller's aviation accomplishments.  I even liked reading about the discrimination against women that held her back because it gave me a clearer picture of the experience of woman pilots during this period.  I felt that the speed limitations on women in the Women's Air Derby were the aviation equivalent of footbinding because they hobbled women probably due to a mistaken belief that women were incapable of flying safely at greater speed.   I considered this ironic because it seemed to me that it was William Lancaster who was incapable of flying safely.  He had a pattern of poor decisions that resulted in accidents which ruined his flying career.   He was continually being given opportunities and wrecking planes.  This caused potential employers to lose confidence in him.   Honestly, I don't know why anyone was impressed with Lancaster.

As much as I admired Jessie, she sure did have bad judgement about men. Over the course of the narrative, I kept on changing my mind about which of the men involved in the true crime sequence was worse. 
 
In the title of this review I state that The Lost Pilots was "marred" by true crime since this is a genre that makes me uncomfortable.  Because I tend to avoid true crime, I've never really thought about why I have problems with it.  In my entire past history on Goodreads, I've only shelved one of my reads as true crime.  It was Murder in the High Himalaya which I didn't review on a blog, but only on Goodreads.  I remember feeling that it was sordid with no redeeming value.  I love fictional crime novels for their clever plots, important themes, memorable protagonists and witty dialogue.   All of these are products of a novel's artistry.   True crime lacks these characteristics.  So all that's left is the facts of what occurred which can feel rather sordid.

I have friends who love true crime.  So they are likely to feel that The Lost Pilots was enlivened by true crime, rather than marred by it.   I will say that the true crime aspect of this book did affect me powerfully.  I was very conscious of the fact that these were real people and I cared very much about Jessie Miller. When I became fully aware of the personal consequences of these events for Jessie, I felt sick to my stomach and couldn't continue reading until the following day.  It seemed to me that she was more of a victim than the dead man, Haden Clarke, because she had to live with the repercussions for the rest of her life.

Since I can't imagine writing about the lives of Jesse Miller and William Lancaster without introducing Haden Clarke into the mix,  I suppose it was inevitable that this book was destined to include the true crime element, and that I would enjoy reading it less.  Yet Corey Mead's writing, organization and research are first rate.  So I would recommend The Lost Pilots from a historical perspective.

                              


                                

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yes, We Do Need Better Science About Women

 I received a review copy of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong from Edelweiss last year. I admit that I should have gotten to it sooner. I finally read it because it was the Book of the Month on a Goodreads group.  I've posted some comments to the group's discussion thread, but I know that isn't sufficient.  When I request books from Edelweiss, I commit to reviewing them on my blog.  My review is rather late, but I still feel that I owe the publisher and Edelweiss a blog review.  So let's see if I can generate one. 

                                




 I consider Inferior a survey on the subject of science written about women which has actually been dealt with in more depth in narrower books dealing with women in particular fields of science.  

Nevertheless, Saini points things out that I hadn't realized before.  For example,  I hadn't known that androgen increases risk-taking behavior, not aggression.   It occurred to me that there are both pros and cons to being risk-takers.  Saini doesn't really discuss the implications of androgen and risk-taking very much.  Since women's hormone balance changes as we become older, does science show that post-menopausal women do in general take more risks than younger women?  I am skeptical about this possibility.

 I also hadn't known that in addition to human women only female killer whales survive past menopause. This is interesting, but then the book lets me down with obvious ideas about elders having something to contribute which is very inter-cultural.

So while I do agree that we need better science about women, I didn't find that Saini provided much in the way of fresh insight on the subject.

                          






                      

Nyira and the Invisible Boy--Slavery and Child Separation in a Historical Fantasy

While I was thinking about an approach to this review of Nyira and the Invisible Boy by K. M. Harrell, I realized that the opening of this novel related to current events.  Thousands of children have recently been separated from their parents who were seeking asylum in the United States.  I saw mention on social media of separation of families happening in the 18th and 19th century before the abolition of slavery. This timely reminder of shameful history became noteworthy for me because Harrell's historical fantasy contains an example.  It showed the young protagonist being tragically parted from her only parent.

After reading the description and seeing the extraordinary cover on Goodreads giveaways, I purchased a copy of Nyira and the Invisible Boy.  I considered it a must read and buying it was my best option.  Somewhat later, the author contacted me and requested a review.   I voluntarily agreed to provide one.

                             


Regarding the cover, I had already started writing this review when I came across a discussion  of the racist association of African Americans with primates on the blog Reading While White posted by Elisa Gall.  I think that African American author  K. M. Harrell is conscious of this association and was deliberately subverting that racist stereotype by showing gorillas to be superior to humans involved with slavery in his book. It's important to state that this intention is not visible to those whose only contact with this novel is viewing the cover. Yet it seems to me that associating a human being with an animal is only racist, if you accept that animals are inferior to humans.  I have never accepted the idea that humans are the culmination of the process of evolution.  On the scale of evolution, humans are recent.   Human dominance may also be very temporary. Sadly, some key dominant humans seem intent on committing species suicide by ignoring climate change.                      

 But let's get back to Nyira and the Invisible Boy.  The  female central character, Nyira , was a small child when she was  permanently separated from her father. Her village in the Congo during the 18th century, was attacked and destroyed by slavers.  Nyira fled the slavers, and encountered wild animals who were more humane than those humans who were most invested in maintaining slavery.  For a powerful book which focuses on wild animals parenting human children, see my review of the Australian novel Into That Forest here.

Nyira is eventually enslaved and is later transported to what is now known as Haiti where we meet the male protagonist, Enriquillo.

Enriquillo is a Taino.  Wikipedia and numerous other sources will tell you that the Taino were extinct by the  18th century, but Taino genes certainly survive in contemporary Haiti and Puerto Rico.  There are also numerous Taino cultural survivals.  So could there have been secret villages of Taino hiding in the mountains, as we see in Harrell's book?  We don't know for certain.  This is also a fantasy novel that involves paranormal gifts.   I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story, and this is a humdinger of a tale.  There is some cultural verisimilitude. Harell includes a bibliography of books that he consulted on Taino society and customs.  Yet he doesn't claim to be completely authentic.

I believe that the cooperation of Africans and Taino symbolized by the relationship of Nyira and Enriquillo is laying the ground for the future revolution in Haiti.  This is Haiti as I've never seen it before. Despite the horrors and degradations of slavery, I found Nyira and the Invisible Boy inspiring.   I consider it the best indie book that I've read in the first half of 2018.

                         


Friday, June 15, 2018

Illegal Holdings: UN Investigator Fights Corporate Plot In Mozambique

I  once took a MOOC  (Massive Open Online Course) on the Hague's international courts.  So I know that there is investigation of international crime.  I didn't know anything about U.N. investigation of fraudulent misuse of U.N. funds. It certainly makes sense that they would investigate if they received a report of possible fraud.  A brief search confirmed that there are such investigators.

Author Michael Niemann has been writing a thriller series about the cases of  fictional U.N. fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen.  Publicist Wiley Saichek asked me to review Illegal Holdings, the third novel in this series which takes place in Mozambique.  This sounded like an unusual focus for a thriller, so I accepted a free copy from the publisher via Wiley Saichek.

                       

Vermeulen had been sent to Mozambique to determine whether a non-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) had fraudulently misappropriated $5 million of the U.N.'s funds.  This sounds like a routine case that is unlikely to generate much suspense.  Yet someone who has committed $5 million worth of fraud would be willing to do some pretty awful things to cover his or her tracks.

There  also turns out to be some underlying motivations for the fraud that involve agricultural and land use policy which are controversial and have tremendous impact.   Which is the best way to feed the world?  Should farming be family based and small scale with a large variety of crops, or should farms be large industrial single crop operations?  What happens when large corporations who are mainly concerned with their bottom line are pitted against the interests of local communities?  This is the central conflict in Illegal Holdings.

I admired Vermeulen for his commitment to justice and his willingness to take risks on behalf of marginalized people who need someone to advocate for them.   I also very much liked his relationship with investigative journalist Tessa Bishonga whose work overlapped with Vermeulen's and helped to bring about a successful resolution of the case.


Since I believe that the issues that Vermeulen faces in Illegal Holdings are crucial ones that will decide the future of humanity as a whole, I was very much invested in this story line.   I considered the underlying conspiracy behind these events completely believable and extremely chilling.   Michael Niemann has written an immensely powerful thriller.  I can't imagine what he'll do for an encore in his next Vermeulen book.