Waiting On Wednesday: Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book

Posted 15 January, 2014 by Nikki in General / 11 Comments

A lot of posts are going to be turning up today, I’m afraid. Like buses, post topics seem to come up all at once. (I could schedule them, but this is specifically a Wednesday meme, and the other thing I’ll post later is something I always do on Wednesdays. So!)

Anyway, this post is about Waiting On Wednesday, a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine, in which people highlight books they’re eagerly waiting for. Mine for this week is Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book. I was part of Holsinger’s Plagues, Witches and War Coursera MOOC on historical fiction, and I really enjoyed his teaching style, and appreciated the way he engaged with the students. So I’m looking forward to the book because I’m interested professionally/academically, so to speak, but also because it involves Gower and Chaucer and — well, I’ll let the blurb speak for itself, shall I?

Cover of A Burnable Book, by Bruce HolsingerIn Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White.

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an
ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low.

Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews–and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate.

Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.

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Review – The Female Man

Posted 15 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Female Man by Joanna RussThe Female Man, Joanna Russ

I think people are wrong when they say this book is out of date. Many of the feminist issues Russ engaged with are still with us today, the double-standards women are held to and the things men expect of them. That part of the book seemed perfectly reasonable to me: a little out-dated, perhaps, as all of this sort of thing will become in just a few decades, but not irrelevant.

The story, however… I found it incomprehensible, buried under the weight of the feminist concerns and issues raised. I would rather have read the story and the examination of the role of women separately, I think. For me, I came to this book expecting a classic of science fiction, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem like there’s much. It’s a thought experiment, which can be done in literary fiction just as well (better?).

I’m a little uncomfortable with it being relegated to the class of science fiction, in a way, instead of being read as a classic in general. So often that’s used as a way to minimise the importance of a work: oh, quaint old genre fiction, rather than oh, social commentary. Those of us in the genre know how powerful a tool it is when used to examine society (and if you don’t, may I introduce you to the works of Ursula Le Guin?), but in academic circles… we’re starting to see more work on genre fiction — part of my MA was on Tolkien, and mainly on his fiction — and there’s been some good work on fantasy and SF, but it’s not as if any of that is even approaching “the canon”.

I almost feel like rereading this in an annotated version, or a Norton Critical Edition, would help me appreciate it more. But just on the merits of it as a story… no, I can’t say it did much for me.

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Review – Mystery Mile

Posted 12 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Mystery Mile, by Margery AllinghamMystery Mile, Margery Allingham

Didn’t expect to read this book so soon or all in one go, but I was having trouble sleeping, so I figured, why not? It’s very obviously a cousin of Sayers’ Lord Peter (Campion could, in fact, be Peter’s cousin), although in a more satirical vein. Albert Campion is a pretty close analogue of Peter Wimsey, complete with a number of idiosyncrasies, and Lugg (although of a decidedly more criminal bent than Bunter) shares some characteristics with Lord Peter’s man.

It’s still fun, even though it’s more or less mocking one of my favourite series in many ways — it manages to be a story on its own, too. It didn’t involve me emotionally, but I did read it straight through, in one go, so there’s that going for it. I did find the mystery a little bit disjointed/incoherent: it helped that I’d read a summary somewhere before, but some of the events seemed pretty random.

Overall, I enjoyed it enough that I might pick up more, but not enough that I’m going to be in a hurry. Allingham was a capable writer, but Campion’s not interesting enough to me to follow him compulsively.

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 11 January, 2014 by Nikki in General / 29 Comments

Well, I’ve bought my first new books of 2014, and I’ve got a bunch of ARCs, so this post will be more exciting than I expected…

See Stacking the Shelves at Tynga’s Reviews to see what this is all about and find other people’s posts!

Dead tree

Cover of The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory Cover of The Atrocity Exhibition by JG Ballard Cover of Through the Language Glas by Guy Deutscher Cover of The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence

ARCs

Cover of Dawn of Swords by David Dalglish Cover of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins Cover of The City by Stella Gemmell Cover of Red Sonja, by Gail Simone Cover of The Waking Engine by David Edison Cover of The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes Cover of Romulus Buckle and the City of FoundersCover of Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War

Of the books I bought myself, I think I’m probably most interested in Through the Language Glass, though I have some academic interest in The White Queen (I’m generally interested in the portrayal of real queens in fiction, and the interaction between their depiction in fiction and the real nobility). My partner bought me that one!

Of the ARCs, I’ve been keeping an eye on Stella Gemmell’s The City, since I enjoyed her husband’s work, which I believe she had some input on. Red Sonja is intriguing, since I’ve never read a Gail Simone comic but I’ve heard good things about her work, and I’ve never read anything about Red Sonja before.

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Review – Why Evolution is True

Posted 10 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 18 Comments

Cover of Why is Evolution True by Jerry CoyneWhy Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne

This is a suggested book related to one of my current classes on Coursera, so I decided to pick it up. I already believe in evolution, so I can’t judge on whether it’s convincing — I already know that evolution by natural selection is mathematically inevitable, and I know of a lot of the supporting evidence.

Still, this is the kind of book that produces all sorts of titbits that you didn’t know before, and which lays things out so clearly it helps you understand how to explain it to other people (which, to my mind, means a deeper understanding of the theory — if you can explain it, there are fewer grey areas).

Overall, it’s clearly written, with lots of supporting diagrams and so on where it’s useful, and a good set of footnotes and suggestions for further reading. I found it interesting, too; perhaps not for a person with a science background to begin with, but for me (humanities background, science interest) it was easy but not boringly so.

Interestingly, he also touches a little on why people find it hard to accept evolution, and answers some of those objections, too — for example, why our behaviour isn’t fully dictated by our genes, why morality and ethics aren’t dismantled in any way by evolution.

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Review – 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels

Posted 9 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 17 Comments

Cover of 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels, Nick Rennison, Stephen E. Andrews

This is a pretty good whistle-stop tour of some important, influential, or particularly interesting fantasy novels. I’ve got two pages in my notebook scrawled full of books to try now, and reminders of stuff I want to go back to. It’s a very accessible little book; it begins with an essay about the origins of fantasy, includes a glossary of various terms which can get confusing (the differences between sub-genres, for example) and a lot of extra suggestions after each book for further reading.

Normally, this sort of book doesn’t interest me much because they always pick the same novels. Well, this one had a fair amount of the staples on it — Tolkien, of course, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Lewis Carroll, Michael Moorcock — but it did have some others which surprised me — Megan Lindholm, for example, listed under that name and not as Robin Hobb — and some pretty recent ones too. It doesn’t claim to show us the best of fantasy fiction, which is a good plan, to my mind — only books which are worth reading.

Not exactly groundbreaking, but worth a flick through at least. Excuse me, I’m off to look up some ebook prices.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 8 January, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels, by Nick Rennison, review coming up tomorrow on the blog. Before that, it was volume 19 of Ultimate Spider-man, which I’m still working my way through. It was a pretty good volume.

What are you currently reading?
Most of the things I was reading last time I posted this, still, and Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse. I heard some bad things about it, which was sad after how much I loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, but actually I’m enjoying it. I’m not far into it, but the narration is fun.

What do you think you’ll read next?
Well, some more Spider-man, probably. Also Red Sonja vol. 1, which I got an ARC of via Netgalley this week. I’m curious about Red Sonja, she’s not a character I’ve actually read anything about, but I have heard about her. So this should be interesting. After that, I’m thinking of The Phoenix and the Mirror, by Avram Davidson.

Books acquired:
None bought! Some ARCs. But I’m gonna start saving this kind of thing for Saturday and Stacking the Shelves.

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Review – The Testament of Mary

Posted 8 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin.The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín

The reviews for The Testament of Mary are pretty much the spread I would expect — some people viewing it as a literary work, some as deliberately heretical trash, some seeing it as written just to shock, etc. I read it for more or less the same reasons I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: because I’m curious, because I’m okay with questioning things that I have or have had faith in. (Ask me which on any given day and I’ll be able to give you specifics.)

I think it’s an honest and earnest attempt to think about Mary as a person, not as the sort of demi-goddess we’ve made of her. To think of her as a woman, a mother, and as a mortal, as someone of quiet faith and love for her son. Tóibín’s Mary isn’t a believer, really; she doesn’t see what Jesus does as proof of miracles, she’s not exactly sceptical but is concerned about what is done to Lazarus, she doesn’t seem to believe he’s the son of God. She resists the urge to find meaning in what’s done to him. She’s even human enough to leave the site of the crucifixion to save her own life.

The book is her telling her story, quietly, with certainty, knowing it won’t survive or rival the story Jesus’ followers want to tell — i.e. what we know as the Gospels — but because she needs to voice her truth. Parts of the story didn’t really work well for me, the semi-imprisonment she has where she’s looked after by Jesus’ disciples, for example, but overall I found it moving — in a quiet, understated way. These are the emotions of a woman who has lost her son, quiet and traumatised, not the mother of a martyr, a saviour. Which is fine and worthy, from my point of view, but I think other people object to that.

(Particularly, people keep saying that Tóibín is writing Mary using modern psychology. That’s… somewhat true, but I think people in times past still had the same feelings — depression, PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc — and just understood them differently. Mary never talks about Freud or anything, so I think that’s not really an issue.)

It’s a very slim book, and I’m not entirely sure why it was shortlisted for the Man Booker: it’s not that powerful a story, though it has its moments. But it is worth a read if the idea interests you — it certainly won’t take too long.

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Review – The Gutenberg Revolution

Posted 6 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Gutenberg Revolution by John ManThe Gutenberg Revolution, John Man

The Gutenberg Revolution is a really easy read, with a pretty chatty style that doesn’t undermine the material, but does make it easy to digest. I read it on the train — like some other people I see reviewing it, actually — and it was interesting enough to hold my attention from start (in Cardiff Central) to finish (somewhere between London and Lille).

It begins by exploring the man who invented moveable type, Johann Gutenberg, and the context he was born into and grew up in. It isn’t all about Gutenberg specifically, though: it talks about the people he was involved with, or could’ve been involved with, in the endeavour — and most of all, about the revolution that was printing and how it became a force for social change, particularly the Reformation. There’s quite a good bit about Martin Luther, as well as some other interesting titbits about how the printing press went on to be used. There’s a bit about Caxton, which is particularly interesting to me given my interest in Arthuriana (even if Sir Thomas Malory is far from my favourite).

John Man’s enthusiasm for the subject comes through perfectly, and I like that he chose a type setting (Poliphilis) for the book related to one of the stories he wanted to tell. It’s a pretty clear and easy to read font from my point of view, though I’m not sure how it’d be for someone with sight problems. Still, I enjoyed it — the book as a whole, of course, but also this specific font.

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Review – A Hole in the World

Posted 5 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Hole in the World by Sophie RobbinsA Hole in the World, Sophie Robbins

A Hole in the World isn’t a very mature story, and the writer has a long way to go, but I did find it pretty fun all the same. I loved the set of friendships going on between characters, the fact that not everyone had to be paired up, the fact that Bianca and Scotty are best friends and say “I love you”… That aspect of it made the story feel more mature than it could have done, because it wasn’t all about Bianca and Alexandra, and while it has a happy ending, it’s not all wish fulfillment. People get hurt along the way.

Aspects that felt immature were the focus on things like iPods and brand names, naming specific songs, etc. It made it very much of its moment: it’s not a story that will be timeless. The writing style itself needs sharpening up, and a good editor could probably transform it. And then there’s obviously the age of the characters — I’m a bit past giggling and “ommggg you have a cruuuush”, or I’d like to think so, at least.

But it’s still a fun little adventure story, and definitely worth the 77p I spent on it. It’d be 2/5 stars for technical merit alone, at best, but I enjoyed reading it. Three stars!

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