Monday, 30 November 2020

Review: 'The Midnight Circus' by Jane Yolen

I had my first experience with Jane Yolen last year February, which I myself consider a bit odd. Here I was, let's say twenty years ago, a child in love with fairy tales, folklore, and the spooky and scary, and yet not one adult ever considered recommending Jane Yolen to me. It is an offense I shall not forget lightly. However, I have tried to make up for it recently and my latest mea culpa took the form of reading The Midnight Circus. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 10/1/2020
Publisher: Tachyon Publications

“Jane Yolen has done it again.” —Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked

In the newest short fiction collection of this World Fantasy Award-winning series, beloved fantasy author Jane Yolen’s dark side has fully emerged. Her vivid, startling, and thrilling tales and related poems of the supernatural—from icy-hearted witches to sometimes-innocent shapeshifters—reveal a classic storyteller at the height of her powers.

In these sixteen stories, Central Park becomes a carnival where you can—but probably shouldn’t—transform into a wild beast. The Red Sea will be deadly to cross due to a plague of voracious angels. Meanwhile, the South Pole is no place for even a good man, regardless of whether he is living or dead.

Wicked, solemn, and chilling, the circus is ready for your visit— just don’t arrive late.

Jane Yolen doesn't consider herself a horror writer, not even a particularly scary one. And yet her stories bristle with the unknown, the edge of something not quite safe, the supernatural. It is not about the blood or the glint of moonlight on a knife. It's not about the abject sadness of a matchstick girl freezing to death on Christmas eve. Yolen's stories that are scary are so because they recognize the emotional weight of it all. No need for guts spilling out here! Yolen's The Midnight Circus retains her traditional magical beauty while she pulls back the curtain on the darkness backstage.

It's hard to pick favourites from such a great collection of stories but there were a few that truly stood out to me. 'The Weaver of Tomorrow' is a great opener, setting the tone with a spunky heroine and a sense of doom. 'Become a Warrior' feels distant, as if you're watching the story unfold from behind a sheet of glass, and yet it is starkly wild and beautiful. 'Requiem Antarctica' is a great story about Scott and his doomed mission to Antarctica, with a Gothic edge thrown in. It's not until the very end that the horror sets in. 'Inscription' was another favourite, in which Yolen takes inspiration from a rock inscription found during her walks in Scotland and turns it into a story of magic and betrayal, with a feisty heroine to boot. 'Wilding' has a very different tone to the rest, futuristic, almost Sci-Fi, which took a little bit of getting used to, but I found it very interesting. Not every stories will be a hit with the reader, as is always the case with short story collections. As these stories are also taken from throughout Yolen's long writing career, they reflect different periods and styles. Two stories stood out to me in particular, 'Little Red' and 'Great Grey'. Both stories are very interesting, but should also really come with their own trigger-warnings. Neither feels truly complete and as I almost wish she would have let them simmer for a bit longer. 

Many of Yolen's stories are also tied to her Jewish heritage and they are some of the most heartfelt, frightening and beautiful stories in The Midnight Circus. The generational trauma, the fear and fact of persecution, it all comes through, especially in 'The Snatchers' and 'Names'. In the former she shines a light on the existence of the khapers, who would kidnap young Jewish boys for Russian army service. It's a haunting tale of persecution and horror that shows how this history is not left behind once one moves. It follows generations. The same theme runs through 'Names' in which the names of Holocaust victims are passed down as an almost physical reminder of the horror of the concentration camps. They are starkly beautiful stories that will send a chill down your spine, not just because they are well written but because the banality of human evil is truly the most terrifying thing.

Jane Yolen is an excellent writer. She makes story-writing look simple, each story flowing naturally as if it had always been that way. Some of her stories do seem more suitable for a younger age, yet the themes and ideas keep them relevant for all. As always, each story is accompanied by a poem and a short explanation. I love this insight into Yolen's process and especially into how she collaborates with other artists and authors. Some of her poems have turned into music, while some of her stories turned into collaborative novels. It's this evolutionary process that is fascinating to me and I like that Yolen keeps showing her work. I would prefer to see these poems and descriptions accompany each tale, rather than be collected at the back. I appreciate this might break up the unity of the collection, but now they are a bit dis-connected as you only really engage with them once you've read all the stories. This may be different when reading a physical copy of the book, however.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Jane Yolen is a master story writer. Although not all stories with resonate with every reader, there is a gem or three in The Midnight Circus for everyone. Get your ticket, join the queue, and get ready for beauty, horror, sadness and beauty.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Review: 'The Philosopher Queens' ed. by Rebecca Buxton, Lisa Whiting

 I have always been interested in philosophy, in the why behind what we do and how we do it. While digging straight into philosophy books is one way of approaching it, I have always liked knowing something more of the philosopher themselves, of where they came from and what they did, not just what they thought. The Philosopher Queens is therefore the perfect introduction for someone like me. Thanks to Unbound and to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/25/2020
Publisher: Unbound

'This is brilliant. A book about women in philosophy by women in philosophy – love it!' Elif Shafak

Where are the women philosophers? The answer is right here.

The history of philosophy has not done women justice: you’ve probably heard the names Plato, Kant, Nietzsche and Locke – but what about Hypatia, Arendt, Oluwole and Young?

The Philosopher Queens is a long-awaited book about the lives and works of women in philosophy by women in philosophy. This collection brings to centre stage twenty prominent women whose ideas have had a profound – but for the most part uncredited – impact on the world.

You’ll learn about Ban Zhao, the first woman historian in ancient Chinese history; Angela Davis, perhaps the most iconic symbol of the American Black Power Movement; Azizah Y. al-Hibri, known for examining the intersection of Islamic law and gender equality; and many more.

For anyone who has wondered where the women philosophers are, or anyone curious about the history of ideas – it's time to meet the philosopher queens.

I'm not sure when I was first exposed to philosophy, but it's probably a safe bet that it was the Greek philosophers I first became familiar with. It was only during high school that I delved into some of the philosophies central to modern life a bit more deeply. It was also during high school that I first felt discomfort at the typical idea, or image, of what a "philosopher" is. I couldn't recognize myself in it, or anyone I knew, and I often wondered how these distant characters could in any way have an idea of what my motivations or thoughts are. Perhaps this is why one of the few philosophers I've always admired is Diogenes. I mean, dude lived in a barrel and couldn't care less about authority. Hygienic? No. Interesting? Very much so. Just like Diogenes kind of shifted my ideas of what a philosopher was, so The Philosopher Queens resets the whole image. Taking its name from Plato's Republic, where the "philosopher kings" are in charge of governing, The Philosopher Queens introduces the reader to various women who, in their own ways, have contributed to history and philosophy, through teaching, writing, poetry or advocacy. 

The Philosopher Queens is made up of a variety of essays, each written by a female philosopher about another. Buxton and Whiting have managed to include a relatively wide variety, both temporal and geographical, of philosophers in this book. We have Ban Zhao from first century China, who walks a fine line between expressing a woman's difficult position in a patriarchal society and reaffirming the rules of that exact same patriarchal society. We are also introduced to Lalla, a fourteenth century Kashmiri poet and yogini, whose poetry brought the complex, non-dualist ideas of Shaivism into her poetry and therefore closer to the people. I was fascinated to learn about Sophie Bosede Oluwole, a Nigerian philosopher who sadly passed away two years ago. Her work on bringing attention to African, and especially Oruba, philosophy and giving it a place next to the Western tradition is very interesting and I am planning on doing a lot more reading about her. There are also a few more familiar faces, like Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt, Angela Davis, and Simone de Beauvoir, and it's great to see them within the context of these other philosophy queens. 

What The Philosopher Queens does very well is recreating the image of the "philosopher". Many of the women in this book find themselves trying to overcome societal hurdles, which informs and influences their future work, in ways male philosophers will not have. Angela Davis' work was marked deeply by the racial violence she experienced and witnessed in America. Similarly, Hannah Arendt's status as country-less influenced how she saw human rights. We also see the consequences of this pushing of boundaries, whether it is Hypatia's brutal murder or the setting aside of Harriet Taylor Mill despite John Stuart Mill's best efforts. The authors of the biographies also don't shy away from showing that these queens are not perfect. Some, like Arendt for example (or Marx!), were rather racist. Others, like Mary Astell, found themselves both for and against women's liberation and enfranchisement. The Philosopher Queens shows us that philosophy doesn't require perfection, but that it does require a constant engaging with the world around you. Almost all the women discussed in this book make the choice to bring their philosophical knowledge to contemporary political and social issues. Philosophy, in their eyes, is not something separate, only to be practiced in an ivory tower. Rather it is something that should be used every day for the betterment of humanity and the clarification of issues. 

Buxton and Whiting do a great job at bringing together these various biographies, writing some themselves. What these contributions do well is show the passion of the writers for these women philosophers. They were each trailblazers in their own way and their contributions were not just vital to their field but also vital to inspiring new generations of philosophers. It means The Philosopher Queens isn't overly academic, but makes for a great introduction that will light a spark in the reader. I requested various library books by these queens after finishing the book, which surely is what Buxton and Whiting were aiming for. My only gripe is that I would have liked to see the inclusion of some women from the Middle Ages. I think Hildegard von Bingen could have been a great addition, as well as Christine de Pizan or even Margery Kempe. However, there is quite an extensive index of further philosopher queens at the end of the book, so I'll keep my fingers crossed for a Part II. It's also important to note that the illustrations in The Philosopher Queens are stunning. A portrait precedes each biography and I found myself returning to them each time after having read the biography and considering them in detail.

What I only realized after finishing The Philosopher Queens is that we only have it due to a crowdfunding campaign, spearheaded by Buxton and Whiting. Firstly, a major thank you to everyone who contributed. This is a great book and I'm glad it exists. Secondly, it really struck me that there is such a demand for books such as these, and yet it takes crowdfunding to get it to the reader. It is a real shame that the publishing industry itself has not quite opened up yet to projects like these, but hopefully with books such as The Philosopher Queens, and its hoped for success, this can and will change.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed The Philosopher Queens. Although I had initially considered taking it slowly, I found myself unable to put the book down, fascinated and drawn in by each of the biographies. Whether you're a philosophy buff or someone looking to get interested, this is a great book to start with. The extensive bibliography will give you plenty of reading material afterwards! 

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Review: 'Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency' by Bea Koch

Famously, 'Mad, bad and dangerous to know' was how Lady Caroline Lamb described Byron. Of course Byron is now well-known across the world for both his writing and his shenanigans. (I mean, who brings a bear to college?) Lady Caroline Lamb, however, is sadly much less (in-)famous. Thankfully Bea Koch is here to rectify that, with a rousing gallery of Regency ladies worth risking danger for! Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/1/2020
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond the Ton and Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history -- until now.
Regency England is a world immortalized by Jane Austen and Lord Byron in their beloved novels and poems. The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels set in the period, which focus almost exclusively on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes.
But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don't fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father's family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother's assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own, Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall, and Judith Montefiore, a Jewish woman who wrote the first English language Kosher cookbook.

As one of the owners of the successful romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, Bea Koch has had a front row seat to controversies surrounding what is accepted as "historically accurate" for the wildly popular Regency period. Following in the popular footsteps of books like Ann Shen's Bad Girls Throughout History, Koch takes the Regency, one of the most loved and idealized historical time periods and a huge inspiration for American pop culture, and reveals the independent-minded, standard-breaking real historical women who lived life on their terms. She also examines broader questions of culture in chapters that focus on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, the lives of women of color in the Regency, and women who broke barriers in fields like astronomy and paleontology. In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.

Who has seen the trailer for Bridgerton? If you haven't, do yourself a favour! The Bridgerton books are some of the many set during the Regency period, which are so often pushed aside as "mere romances" or "bodice-rippers". However, the Regency was a fascinating decade during which many of England's most famous authors and poets thrived. In order to understand the "vibe", I guess, of the Regency period, just the tiniest bit of (literary) history may be worth delving in to here, so bear with me as we go through a few English regal eras. Firstly, the Georgian period, which lasted roughly from 1714 to 1830 and is the period during which Romanticism truly began to thrive, with a steady helping hand from Gothic literature. When you think Romanticism, think Percy Bysse Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and of course Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 

Towards the end of the Georgian Period is when the Regency occurred, which formally lasted for a decade, from 1811 to 1820, when George IV stepped in as regent for his ill father, George III. (So  many Georges!) However, when looking at the period's trends and their development, the period is also considered to have lasted from 1795 to 1837, when Queen Victoria's reign begins. The Regency was a period of high cultural and artistic achievement, as the Prince Regent was a key patron of many artists, including some in this book! There was also a large class divide, with the rich truly rich and the poor truly poor, which lends a darkness to the glamour and glitz of the period.

Now, this long preamble exists to give us a backdrop to the women Bea Koch discusses in her Mad and Bad. Koch shows us how women were able to thrive in the arts, to enjoy power through high society rules, and to break those rules as long as the did so quietly. But Koch also shows us the dark side of this, the slide into poverty, the cold shoulder when they had been too loud, the quiet disappearing once you're no longer popular. Koch divides her book into various sections, each looking at a different group of women. We have the Hostesses, the high society women who decided who was (and crucially who wasn't) invited to the season's key events. We have actresses who astounded the audience and then disappeared. Jewish women who kept up intercontinental correspondence, women who contributed to the sciences and the arts. It's quite inspirational to read about this women, which was surely the point. There are names that might be familiar, like Dido Elizabeth Belle, butt here also will be many that the reader has never heard of. What Mad and Bad does well is show the wide variety of lives possible during the Regency period, as well as the diversity of the English population itself, hopefully adding to the growing number of nails in the coffin of the idea that the English population was solely white until, let's say, the 1960s. 

Mad and Bad is clearly a passion project. Bea Koch, one of the owners of the Ripped Bodice bookstore, has a deep love for the Regency era and its women, which shines through in how she speaks of them. Each little biography is well-researched, if perhaps not exactly investigative. The tone is kind and enthusiastic but therefore perhaps also lacks a bit of rigour. It feels as if you've settled down with your cool aunt, who is ready to drop some brilliant facts over a glass of red wine. This means that as an introduction to the fascinating women of the Regency Period, Mad and Bad is perfect. For those looking for an in-depth or academic breakdown, I'd recommend continuing the search. What Mad and Bad has done is address some of my own preconceptions in regards to the Regency Era and its women, which means my Christmas will be spent watching Bridgerton.

I give this book...

4 Universes.

Although perhaps not the deepest book, Mad and Bad is a great introduction to the various women who made the Regency period fascinating! Sure, Lord Byron is fascinating, but honestly Caroline Lamb and her aunt Georgiana sound like the people I'd want to hang out with. Wordsworth might be it for some, but I prefer Mary Anning digging up fossils.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Review: 'After All I've Done' by Mina Hardy

 What first drew me to After All I've Done was the stunning cover, the business of it and the quiet way in which the title stands out. And then the blurb had everything I could ask for as well: broken friendships, tense marriages, memory loss and a mysterious accident. Who could ask for more? Well, sadly After All I've Done did leave me hanging a bit. Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/10/2020
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Writing as Mina Hardy, New York Times bestselling author Megan Hart delivers a thrilling new psychological suspense for fans of The Woman in the Window and When the Lights Go Out.

She's lost her best friend, her husband--and possibly, her mind.

Five months ago, an accident left Diana Sparrow badly injured and missing a few months of her memory. As if that's not enough, she's started having recurring nightmares about the night of the accident. Dreams that feel so real, she's left questioning: maybe she didn't just slide off the road into a ditch. Maybe, just maybe, she hit something. Or someone.

She can't turn to her former best friend Val, who's been sleeping with Diana's husband Jonathan for months, but she might find some comfort in newcomer Cole Pelham. Yet the closer they become, the more Diana begins to wonder what really happened that night--and how Cole might be connected. Worse, it seems everyone else could be involved, too.

Who was with her that night? What really happened? As her life unravels thread by thread and the dreams become too real to ignore, Diana will have to face the unthinkable--and do the unforgivable.

One of my favourite things to find out about authors is how they write, or rather, how they craft their plot. I've heard of all kind of methods, from carefully crafted outlines that take up dozens of pages, to more simplified plans that paint a rough picture. Others prefer to just start writing and shape the material as it comes. Tolkien would begin re-typing his document every time he decided to change up something about the plot. As a wannabe-writer myself, I often wonder how I would go about it. The fear of plot holes, of loose endings and an unsatisfying conclusion would probably put me in the former camp, yet I've never been able to properly finish a plot outline, let alone a novel. I'm hammering on about this because a stable plot, and accompanying stable character development, is so crucial, especially in thrillers. In order to keep the suspense going and to keep a reader on the edge of their seat, it does all have to fit together perfectly. A random character can't just remain random. Like Chekov's gun, an obviously displayed plot device has to be used. The issue I ran into with After All I've Done is that much of the plotting felt very recognizable and yet the ending didn't come together for me. Somewhere halfway through the book it lost its cohesion for me and I was wondering if it was all going somewhere satisfying.

Diana thinks she may have lost her mind. After a car accident she is left badly injured and with memory gaps, although harrowing dreams make her think there was more to her accident than her husband is admitting. Her best friend is no longer speaking to her and she is not sure why. A handsome stranger keeps popping up and seems to know her oddly well. So what happened? Honestly, a lot happens! After All I've Done flits back and forth between elements from the past and Diana's current, confused present. The ex-best friend, Valerie, and mystery stranger, Cole, also get the opportunity to narrate chapters, which mostly adds to the confusion. It is clear a lot happened in the time Diana can't remember, but the gaps are not really filled in by the narration from Valerie and Cole. Rather, the tension is predictably heightened chapter by chapter, and then deflates with what feels like a rushed ending that tries to shock but really only feels misplaced. 

This is my first book by Mina Hardy and there were a few things she did in After All I've Done that completely hooked me. The descriptions of Diana struggling with her injuries and the slow road towards recovery was very well done and added an interesting layer to the novel. Sadly this is then occasionally forgotten when the plot calls for Diana to do something physical. I also enjoyed the tension Hardy built between Diana and Cole, although the plotline also felt a little exploitative to me. The plotline with her mother-in-law is often repetitive and yet clearly hinting at danger, which leads to my pet peeve of heroines blatantly ignoring red flags right in front of them. Many aspects of the plot feel predictable, which can be part of the joy of reading thrillers, but then towards the end it seemed as if Hardy felt that she needed to throw in something unexpected to make After All I've Done truly rememberable. Instead the ending is a little sickening and disconnected from the tensions built prior. 

I give this book...

2 Universes!

Although After All I've Done did keep my attention, I found myself rolling my eyes a little too often. When everything was brought together in the end, it fell flat which lead to me questioning just what had kept me interested for so long. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Review: 'The Lakehouse' by Joe Clifford

I probably don't need to restate my love for thrillers and horrors. I heard a lot about The Lakehouse and had been really drawn in by the cover itself. There is a great atmosphere about it that really raised my expectations. Unfortunately I think they might have been raised a little bit too high and I ended up disappointed during my reading. Thanks to Polis Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/29/2020
Publisher: Polis Books

After being cleared of his wife’s murder, Todd Norman returns to her small Connecticut hometown in order to finish building their dream house by the lake. He is eager to restart his life and cast aside any remaining suspicious...but all of that is dashed when a young woman’s body washes up on the beach next door. When Tracy Somerset, divorced mother from the small town of Covenant, CT, meets a handsome stranger in a midnight Wal-Mart, she has no idea she is speaking with Todd Norman, the former Wall Street financier dubbed “The Banker Butcher” by the New York tabloids. The following morning, on the beach by Norman’s back-under-construction lakehouse, another young woman’s body is discovered. Sheriff Duane Sobczak’s investigation leads him to town psychiatrist Dr. Meshulum Bakshir, whose position at a troubled girls’ group home a decade ago yields disturbing ties to several local, prominent players, including a radical preacher, a disgraced politician, a down-and-out PI—and Sobczak’s own daughter. Unfolding over the course of New England’s distinct four seasons, The Lakehouse is a domestic psychological thriller about the wayward and marginalized, the lies we tell those closest to us, and the price of forbidden love in an insular community where it seems everyone has a story to tell—and a past they prefer stay buried.

A house on the lake. A mysterious new man in town. A body washed up on the beach. The perfect trifecta of happenings to be the start of a great thriller. One of the things that makes reading thrillers so comforting is that it's always about fitting the same kind of puzzle pieces together. There is a crime, there must be a perpetrator. There is your main character, who will have to figure out what's going on while, most likely, being in danger themselves. There are side characters who are either super helpful or super suspicious. Or maybe, just maybe, they're both. It is from these recognizable pieces that authors have been able to create something new and exciting every single time. But this is where drudgery can come from as well, when readers can predict all the next steps and the element of surprise disappears.

The Lakehouse, as the blurb shows, is about Todd Norman returning to Covenant to finish building the lake house the promised his wife, except this is interrupted when a woman's body washes up on his property. Except Todd Norman is called Greg in the book itself, which I guess falls down to changes in the editing between ARC and blurb. I also put some of the other mistakes throughout the book down to needing a final round of editing before final publication. But Todd/Greg also isn't the main character, even, of The Lakehouse. And his motivation for returning is never really addressed in the novel, only hinted at. The Lakehouse's narration is split up between Tracy Somerset, the new flame, Duane Sobczak, the cop, and Meshulum Bakshir, the psychiatrist. They all feel a little too like cardboard cut outs as their motivations are never delved in to too deeply. Because of this many of their actions feel like they come out of nowhere or are overly dramatic and nonsensical. 

Duane Sobczak is probably the most fully formed of the characters and shows some actual development towards the end. He is a small town cop with a one-person team consisting of his son-in-law. He strongly believes in his town and in the goodness of its people. Drugs have no place there and neither do pre-marital sex, lesbians and murderers. Watching him come up against the real world is kind of charming but also struck me as very odd in this particular cultural moment. Tracy is a messy character that I think needed a lot more pages to develop her interiority. Dr. Bakshir feels like the odd character out, largely used for shock factor in some of the twists and turns. Aside from that there is a focus on drug abuse and sexual abuse in some of the female story lines that I don't believe was handled well or with any kind of delicacy. 

I've seen a lot of praise for Joe Clifford's writing and was very excited to experience it myself. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed from the previous paragraphs, I was merely whelmed. There are a lot of interesting ideas in The Lakehouse which maybe needed a little bit more time in the oven, but in the edition I read they didn't quite fit well together yet. Some of the characters needed more development and attention in order to make them feel less like a plot-device. I saw the plot twist coming from quite early on but was looking forward to how Clifford would work his way towards it. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, many things did not end up getting explained which left me quite unsatisfied. By the end of the novel there were still quite a few plot threads that needed wrapping up which never happened. Finally, and I'm willing to admit it may be pedantic, but I loathe the title not separating 'Lake' and 'house'. 

I give this book...

2 Universes.

I had very high expectations of The Lakehouse but unfortunately none of them were met. Although I did get through the book quickly, I did not enjoy a lot of aspects of it. I may give Joe Clifford another go in future books, but only once complete edits have been done.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Audiobook Review: 'Cursed Objects' by J.W. Ocker, narr. by Tim Cambell

I was utterly thrilled when NetGalley announced they had started to also make audio books available. I had only recently gotten into audio books after mostly listening to podcasts beforehand. One of the first I requested was Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker because... well, come on! This is my first audio book review, but I will be covering many of the same points. Thanks to Tantor Audio and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this audio book in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher: Tantor Audio
Pub. Date: 9/15/2020

Beware . . . this book is cursed! These strange but true stories of the world's most infamous items will appeal to true believers as well as history buffs, horror fans, and anyone who loves a good spine-tingling tale. They're lurking in museums, graveyards, and private homes. Their often tragic and always bizarre stories have inspired countless horror movies, reality TV shows, novels, and campfire tales. They're cursed objects, and all they need to unleash a wave of misfortune is . . . you. Many of these unfortunate items have intersected with some of the most notable events and people in history, leaving death and destruction in their wake. But never before have the true stories of these eerie oddities been compiled into a fascinating and chilling volume.

Cursed Objects starts out with its very own curse, warning the reader against stealing the book. This is a very wise warning as it is, as Ocker himself admits, the most comprehensive compendium of cursed objects in the world. You don't want to mess around with those. And yet Cursed Objects is full of people messing around with these objects. Why do we believe in curses and especially in cursed objects? Some objects make sense. Of course some of the rich people who owned the Hope Diamond got themselves into weird situations. Others make less sense. But how can an object make you see werewolves? Ocker makes it clear you don't have to believe in cursed objects to enjoy reading about them, nicely side-stepping the question some may go into the book with.

Cursed Objects starts if with an explanation of cursed objects and how they differ from the other paranormal objects we may be used to. It was a nice little technical section before getting into the different sections of the book which cover different types of objects. One of my favourite stories is 'The Ring of Silvianus' which is in the first section 'Cursed Under Glass', which is closely linked (at least in pop culture awareness) to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I was also fascinated by the last few sections that looked at the business of cursed objects and why certain objects that we might expect to be cursed aren't. It really broadened the book and added something of more interest. 

Cursed Objects isn't a scary book. Those wanting to gasp out loud and be horrified may be slightly disappointed, but those wanting to hear fun stories about weird objects will feel right at home. There is a real levity to the book that I enjoyed. It's a joy to read about/listen to stories about objects from all across the world and it is very clear that Ocker has a respect for these objects and the cultures they stem from. He does his best to tread lightly and with respect wherever cultural misunderstandings are a possibility. The research that has gone into this book shows Ocker's personal commitment to the topic. 

Tim Campbell is a great narrator who really brings out all of Ocker's hard work, which is everything you could ask for from a narrator. His tone is serious when discussing the more seirous aspects of these objects, but also very humorous when the book calls for it. The audio book I listened to was about 5 hours long, which is the perfect length. It is something that can be listened to in one go or dipped into occasionally for the different stories. I will definitely be going back to this and re-listening.

I give this audio book...

4 Universes!

I absolutely adored Cursed Objects. It was a joy to listen to and I will definitely be looking for a hard copy as well. Ocker is an author I will be keeping an eye on and Campbell did a great job as a narrator.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Review: 'The Habsburgs' by Martyn Rady

One of the things that continuously fascinates me about history is how so many things that must have been coincidence lead up to something that feels inevitable. For me, the Habsburgs have always been linked to World War I, which in and of itself felt both totally avoidable and inevitable. The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady gave me a chance to dig further into this family's history and realize once again how they pop up simply everywhere. Thanks to Perseus Books, Basic Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 8/25/2020
Publisher: Perseus Books; Basic Books

The definitive history of the dynasty that dominated Europe for centuries

In The Habsburgs, Martyn Rady tells the epic story of a dynasty and the world they built -- and then lost -- over nearly a millennium. From modest origins, the Habsburgs gained control of the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth century. Then, in just a few decades, their possessions rapidly expanded to take in a large part of Europe, stretching from Hungary to Spain, and parts of the New World and the Far East. The Habsburgs continued to dominate Central Europe through the First World War.

Historians often depict the Habsburgs as leaders of a ramshackle empire. But Rady reveals their enduring power, driven by the belief that they were destined to rule the world as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church, guarantors of peace, and patrons of learning. The Habsburgs is the definitive history of a remarkable dynasty that forever changed Europe and the world.

Aaah the Habsburgs, who started as nothing and eventually had a finger in every pot and were inbred up to their ears. What a family! In The Habsburgs Martyn Rady runs the reader through this family's entire history, showing how they seemed to fail upwards consistently, until they ran the Holy Roman Empire, and then truly took the reins. You will find Habsburgs in almost every major European and global event or trend from the fifteenth century onward: the Reformation, the expansion to the New World, Freemasonry, Alchemy, and pretty much every single war or battle. They gave us the Empress Sissi and Marie-Antoinette, but also the Habsburg Jaw and many an atrocity. The Habsburgs is an expansion of Rady's A Very Short Introduction on the same topic and it is definitely expansive.

The Habsburg empire was a fascinating amalgam of different countries, cultures, histories, languages, traditions and faiths. The fact it held as long as it did is almost miraculous, but I think part of the reason why it continues to fascinate is because we find ourselves in the situation where we need to try something similar. The world is so interconnected now that we need to face every problem if not as one, then at least united in an understanding of each other. The Habsburg empire is not an example but it is a lesson of history it is worth learning. I will not go into every single thing Rady covers in The Habsburgs otherwise I would have to re-type the book, but a big focus lies on their rise to power as well as their loss of that very power.

Martyn Rady doesn't set out to share any opinions or win any arguments in The Habsburgs which means that those expecting scandalous stories about  the inbreeding and madness of the family will be disappointed. But so will those be who were expecting him to come down harshly on the imperialistic tendencies of the family. In many ways The Habsburgs is a perfect introduction, a primer of sorts, that runs you through all the major characters and happenings with just the right balance between fact and interest to make you want to do further research yourself. For me this means that Rady strikes the right tone, since no one book can cover hundreds of years and events and crises and do everything justice. Rady will make you want to pick up further books to learn more, and I couldn't ask anything more from a history book.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I'm willing to accept The Habsburgs won't be for everyone, it is exactly the kind of book for those who are interested in history. Well written and full of information, The Habsburgs is both a fun reading experience and a valuable resource.