Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (ARC Book Review and General Hello)

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Sometimes it seemed as if Victoria was a permanent fixture on the landscape of Britain.” I’m starting to feel the same way about this book and the landscape of my book life. I started reading it on December 16 and I’m still at only 59%. Pro tip: If you want additional interesting little tidbits, comb through the notes, which I’ve been doing chapter by chapter. If you want to finish the book anytime soon, skip the notes. It’s worth noting that although the book clocks in at a kitten-squishing 752 pages, only ~500 of those are narrative; the rest is notes and works cited. That’s fairly concise, given Victoria’s long life and long reign. But I’ve watched two other e-books disappear unread from my tablet because the library loans ran out, while I diligently read this one because it’s an advance copy (my thanks to Random House, Net Galley, and the author for the ARC in exchange for my honest review). Although it’s very newly published, in November, I’m trying to stay as advance as I still can.

All of which is not to say that the book is a slog, because it’s not. Biographies can so easily be dry but this one is well-written, scads upon scads of wonderful information rendered in a quite readable voice. I’ve had a lot going on, including a brand-new, full-time job and a fairly serious case of the holiday blahs and now my son Monster is here visiting me from Nevada, yay, and Dream Girl is home for a couple of days too, yay again, and I have a houseful with people sleeping on the floor, and I’m so blessed and lucky and it’s time to get off my depressive whiney ass and communicate with people so I’ll start with this shoutout to the world in general. *stops for breath* The time it’s taken me to read this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. It’s a highly engaging book.

One fairly large contextual error was a bit annoying, that being the author’s tendency to refer to young Victoria as a teenager. Technically she was, but the concept of the critter known today as the teenager, preoccupied with high school and dating and records/music downloads and makeup and video games, did not exist until the 1920’s or 1930’s along with compulsory education, and the term teenager was not coined until then. Referring to Victoria that way made me picture a gum-snapping bobby-soxer or a pink-haired cellphone zombie. Likewise, referring to her as single felt anachronistic. In the nomenclature of the times, she would have been a young woman, or unwed.

One particular thing tickled me: Referring to Her Majesty’s retreat at Glassalt Shiel as a “tiny cottage.” But I guess if you’re accustomed to the ~900,000 square-foot sprawl of Buckingham Palace, then, yeah. Perspective is everything.

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The “tiny cottage,” Glas Allt Shiel, Iain Millar/CC.
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A real “tiny cottage.” Unsplash/Pixabay.

This just might be the definitive biography of “the grandmother of Europe,” a queen whose influence is still heavily felt in the Western world. Along with history and politics, her personality shines through, along with the personalities of those who peopled her long life, for good or for ill, including Lord Melbourne, Benjamin Disraeli, the despised William Gladstone, and her beloved Prince Albert and the ghillie John Brown. That’s what I read biographies for. Recommended.

Bookshelves: biography, advance-review, i-am-an-anglophile, victorian-england

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The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly (Book Review)

The Poison TreeThe Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Every young person should have one summer they look back on for the rest of their lives.”

I never had mine, but given Karen’s “one summer,” that may be a good thing.

Bookshelves: brit-lit, chick-lit, mystery, plot-twists-and-irony, psych-thriller, thriller

I feel the same way about this book as I felt about The Burning Air – a climax that turns out to be worth it after rather slow building.

A couple of the situations were not terribly realistic, such as a heavily pregnant woman “feeling strong enough” to take a walk, or dropping a car’s chassis by six inches just by getting into it, or whose belly caused her to be “wedged solidly between the seat and the dashboard.” You might feel that fat, but a twiggy 21-year-old would have to gain like 300 pounds for that to be real. Same with passing out after two hits of hashish, unless the stuff my high-school boyfriend used to score was crap and I don’t know what I’m talking about here.

In The Burning Air I had to anchor the villain inside a thin-skinned, vengeance-bent person I used to know IRL in order to make the motive relatable. I had the same issue with this book. As square, studious little Karen was written, it was hard to fathom that she would overthrow her own accomplished and carefully-lived life to be subsumed into the world of a couple of quasi-bohos living on the dole in a filthy and rundown mansion. It wasn’t until Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Marla Singer from Fight Club popped into my head that I was able to see Biba’s supposed allure.

That I’ve had this problem with two of this writer’s books makes me think that the characterization skills are not all they could be. Still, Kelly is deft with foreshadowing and red herrings and plot twists, and the climax was divine. This is decent escapism stuff. Just picture Marla.

marla-smoking-500x218

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Pining Away (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

unsplash-pine-pixabay-cc
Unsplash/Pixabay

Jane looks at the lonely pine in the back of “her” back yard, remembering her Great-Great-Aunt Lou, who used to sit beneath a similar pine in fair weather, contentedly reading her Bible or Thoreau with a magnifying glass, ignoring everyone’s warnings about the thousands, surely thousands, of black widows back there. How carefree and safe childhood was, looking back!

Wouldn’t it be fun if she could somehow string this backyard pine with fairy lights? But no, that’s not what her life is now, not in this house that’s not even hers, it’s just where she hides, an otherwise homeless squatter.
She shouldn’t waste what battery life she has on her laptop, but she clicks on YouTube anyway, opening the clip of that hilarious dead Norwegian Blue, pining for the fjords. Everybody just wants to go home.
This is a vignette from The Life and Times of Jane Doe, this week’s Six Sentence Stories installment for Ivy’s blog hop. More fun Sixes are here.
When I think of pining, I always think of Monty Python’s dead parrot.

Takin’ a Gander (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Rough Writers and Friends December 8 flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less), write using the word gander as a verb.

“Hey, baby, how you doo-in?”

“Well, hel-lo, beautiful! “

Sidelong, Jane can see the predatory teeth. Other faces join the leer, other voices join the taunts.

“C’mon, smile, honey.”

“Take a gander at this, boys.”

Jane looks up with her eyes only, head down. All men. One in khakis and loafers, laptop bag, intent on his phone. Another checks his watch, the street, the sky, studiously oblivious. The rest grin widely or waggle eyebrows.

No allies.

She tightens her jaw and continues, aware of every twitch of her buttocks as she walks away.

“Bitch.  You need to learn to smile!”

gander-michael-flickr-cc
Photo courtesy of Michael, Flicker/Creative Commons.

This is a vignette from The Life and Times of Jane Doe. Fun and thought-provoking flashes from other writers can be found at the Carrot Ranch link above.

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey (Book Review)

Cibola Burn (Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been absolutely loving this series since I discovered it, and I’m not sure why Cibola Burn was such a plodding read for me. I happened upon the Expanse series when I was fumble-fingered with my touch screen on my library website, accidentally checking out the first installment when I was after a book entitled simply Leviathan. I tore through all ~700 pages of Leviathan Wakes in three days, and similarly couldn’t get enough of Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.

Cibola Burn, though, I had to push through, taking almost three weeks. It’s probably me and my comfort-zone issues. I had a lot going on while I was reading this, and I am prone to anxiety about things involving leaps of faith, including interviewing for and accepting new jobs and traveling by air, alone. The book itself was outside its usual setting as well, taking place entirely on New Terra, a newly discovered and settled planet beyond the Ring that was the focus of book three. I found myself missing the scope and familiarity of the Sol system.

But the writing is as skillful as always, and the characters are as varied and well-developed as those I’ve met before. The futuristic science and tech read like the real thing. Detective Miller’s old partner, Dimitri Havelock, is here as a pov character; Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper poke their heads in, with the promise of future appearances. And Amos – what’s not to love about Amos? I’m going to put my disenchantment down to personal comfort-zone stuff and perhaps middle-of-the-series syndrome. I’m still looking forward to reading the next in the series.

Bookshelves: action-with-a-body-count, futuristic, manly-men-kicking-ass, heroine-kicking-ass, multiple-povs, noir, sci-fi, space, space-opera

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Lucifer’s Banker by Bradley C. Birkenfeld (Advance Book Review)

Lucifer’s Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank SecrecyLucifer’s Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy by Bradley C. Birkenfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The upshot: An intriguing story about high-level, monkey-business Swiss secret banking, written by the whistleblower who brought it all down around the ears of Americans evading taxes through offshore accounts and investments.

Bookshelves: advance-review, memoir, non-fiction, schadenfruede, true-crime, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, in-the-news

I admit I almost didn’t make it past the prologue. I read, “[T]hey took off my cuffs and watched me like a pair of kittens trapped in a cage with a jackal.” Seriously. A banker dude who can make prison guards flinch just by wishing them a good weekend as they escort him to solitary. Who is this, Riddick? Oh, nope – it’s 007, to whom Birkenfeld compares himself several times.

I’m glad I kept reading, though. It’s a good story, told in an engaging, conversational voice, like we’re all just sitting around the bonfire with our beers. Or rather, lounging at the club with Laurent-Perrier champagne and caviar. I learned a lot about high-level banking and monkey business within and between the Senate and the Department of Justice, without feeling anything was flying over my head or that I was being talked down to.

The writing and story quality make this a four-star read, despite the author’s ego shining through like a small moon. I’m deducting a star for my dislocated eyeball, from eye-rolling at the raging misogyny and the manliest-of-the-manly-men schtick. I’m giving it back for turning a potentially dry story about bean-counting and shell games into a page-turning tale, even better because it’s true.

My thanks to Net Galley, Greenleaf Book Group, and the author for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

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Professional Reader

Not Allowed (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch December 1 flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less), write about something or someone not allowed.

Jane forks over a hard-won two dollars and tucks the Gatorade in her bag. “Can I have the code to the restroom, please?”

The man shakes his head shortly: No.

“But I’m a customer.”

“It’s after eight o’clock. Employees only after eight.”

They stare at each other, an impasse. Maybe if she’d ordered a sandwich. Too late now. Jane turns her back on his smirk.

Out on the street, she hands the Gatorade to shabby man by the door, curled against the dirty bricks. Westlake Tower is a few blocks away – maybe the shopping center is still open.

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Public domain.

A week late and several dollars short, this post responds not only to Charli’s prompt, but to the United Nations World Toilet Day this past November 19, recognizing that ten percent of the world’s people lack access to sanitary toilet facilities. Go ahead, picture the ramifications. My thanks to Norah and Anne for bringing my attention to this, and encouraging me to break the taboo and at least begin to address this issue faced by my fictional homeless Jane Doe and billions of other people around the world, homed or otherwise. It is not just a homeless issue; it is a basic sanitation and human rights issue.

Most large cities and many smaller ones lack public toilets. Of course there also laws against urinating, defecating, or sleeping in public. Instead of doing something constructive about the problem (and remember that non-homeless people often need a restroom when they’re out and about, too), we issue tickets to poor people who have nowhere else to go and no money to pay the ticket anyway. Tickets like that pile up, become criminal summons and a record, preventing a person from qualifying for a job, benefits, or housing. And that’s just one way in which poverty has become a self-perpetuating, criminal act.

Like that’s going to make the problem going away.

Many years ago when I was a 911 dispatcher, we got a call about a bank hold-up. The robber was calmly and slowly walking away from the scene. He was an older man, in his eighties, who had just lost his wife and his home and had nowhere to go, no one to turn to. He wasn’t armed, although he’d said he was. But even tell a bank employee you have a gun and demand money, and guess what? You’ve got three hots and a cot for at least ten years. The arresting officer, a very kind man and a true good cop, was almost crying as he finished the booking.

This is a vignette from The Life and Times of Jane Doe. Fun and introspective flashes from other Rough Writers and Friends can be found at the link above.