Little List of Reviews #6

It’s been a while since I’ve done a little list of reviews! I tend to do this when I only have a few thoughts about a book, it didn’t excite me much, or a myriad of other reasons. Sometimes I also just like to get reviews done and get them off my to-do list! I also am the sort of person who sometimes prefers the shorter review. Give me thoughts, not the plot! These are all super backlist books for me because I’ve had them on my shelves forever.

Little List of Reviews #6Title: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
Published by Penguin Books
Published: January 26th 2010
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 278
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

"This debut novel weaves the kind of mannered fantasy that might result if Wes Anderson were to adapt Kafka." --The New Yorker

Reminiscent of imaginative fiction from Jorge Luis Borges to Jasper Fforde yet dazzlingly original, The Manual of Detection marks the debut of a prodigious young talent. Charles Unwin toils as a clerk at a huge, imperious detective agency located in an unnamed city always slick with rain. When Travis Sivart, the agency's most illustrious detective, is murdered, Unwin is suddenly promoted and must embark on an utterly bizarre quest for the missing investigator that leads him into the darkest corners of his soaking, somnolent city. What ensues is a noir fantasy of exquisite craftsmanship, as taut as it is mind- blowing, that draws readers into a dream world that will change what they think about how they think.

One of my professors used this book in one of her mysteries English courses and since I had already graduated, I really wanted to read it after she spoke about it with me over lunch. However, it sat on my shelves for almost three years until I finally picked it up in one of my “I’m going to choose some books I’ve been meaning to read since forever and actually sit down and read them” phases. (If you’re curious, I picked four and have since read three!) I appreciated this for what it does. I hesitate to call it magical realism because that’s Latin American in its roots, so it’s probably more along the lines of fabulism. The Manual of Detection plays with the mystery genre and all its tropes and twists them up and around. I enjoyed it while I was reading it and I read it in a day, but I ultimately found something weirdly lacking with it.

Little List of Reviews #6Title: The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Published: October 27th 2015
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Pages: 498
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Work
Goodreads

Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff, author of the #1 bestseller Cleopatra, provides an electrifying, fresh view of the Salem witch trials.

The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent's life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched--at a politically tumultuous time--on the edge of what a visitor termed a "remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness." With devastating clarity, the textures and tension of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.

The Witches is Schiff's riveting account of a seminal episode, a primal American mystery unveiled--in crackling detail and lyrical prose--by one of our most acclaimed historians.

The Witches is one dense book, in content and in pages. I grabbed this off the ARC shelf at work forever ago because I enjoy reading about the Salem Witch Trials, but as usual life and other books got in the way. Now that I’m seriously weeding my shelves and my ARCs, I told myself I had to read this one now or let it go. I read the first few chapters and got sucked in to the bizarreness of it all, but it’s very dense and difficult to read at times from a technical standpoint because it almost expects you to have a solid knowledge of Puritan American history. I do find the parallels fascinating though because so much of it is still in practice today in regards to the treatment of women.

Little List of Reviews #6Title: The Girl from the Savoy by Hazel Gaynor
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Published: June 7th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 419
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Presenting a dazzling new historical novel … The Girl From The Savoy is as sparkling as champagne and as thrilling as the era itself.

Sometimes life gives you cotton stockings. Sometimes it gives you a Chanel gown …

Dolly Lane is a dreamer; a downtrodden maid who longs to dance on the London stage, but her life has been fractured by the Great War. Memories of the soldier she loved, of secret shame and profound loss, by turns pull her back and spur her on to make a better life.

When she finds employment as a chambermaid at London’s grandest hotel, The Savoy, Dolly takes a step closer to the glittering lives of the Bright Young Things who thrive on champagne, jazz and rebellion. Right now, she must exist on the fringes of power, wealth and glamor—she must remain invisible and unimportant.

But her fortunes take an unexpected turn when she responds to a struggling songwriter’s advertisement for a ‘muse’ and finds herself thrust into London’s exhilarating theatre scene and into the lives of celebrated actress, Loretta May, and her brother, Perry. Loretta and Perry may have the life Dolly aspires to, but they too are searching for something.

Now, at the precipice of the life she has and the one she longs for, the girl from The Savoy must make difficult choices: between two men; between two classes, between everything she knows and everything she dreams of. A brighter future is tantalizingly close—but can a girl like Dolly ever truly leave her past behind?

I love historical fiction, the Jazz Age, and Hazel Gaynor’s writing, but this story took a while to gain momentum and really pique my interest. I mostly read it on my phone in slow times while out of the house, so I took a little while longer to read this than I do other books. The voices were charming, life at the Savoy and in London were richly described, but the ways in which the characters intertwined with each other just seemed a bit too perfect.

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: February 6th 2018
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants--these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley's book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor's "creature," scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time, and definitely in my list of top ten classics. So when I saw Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster beginning to make its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, I added it to my TBR and wishlist and waited for a good sale because based on the cover and title alone, I wanted it for my own collection.

I love literary histories like these that give the reader an insight into the creation of the novel while also providing context for the scientific aspects of Frankenstein. Sometimes I felt that the structure of the book could be better managed, but overall, I thought that the back and forth between Mary Shelley’s life and the real-life science that inspired the science in her novel worked effectively. Harkup’s book is incredibly well researched, and her meticulous attention to detail adds so much to the experience of reading this. For someone like me who isn’t wholly aware of a lot of medical and science history, the chapters focusing on the medical and science history were the most chilling and most engaging, especially the chapter regarding autopsies and the lucrative business surrounding the digging up of cadavers to sell to institutions of higher learning.

The main issue I had with the book were the biographical sections involving Percy and Mary Shelley because a good portion of those sections read as if they had been poorly edited or were a draft that could have easily been tightened up or finished off. I think Harkup’s strengths lie in scientific writing that is readily based upon set-in-stone information, whereas biographies do require a little more finesse in terms of narrative structure. For example, a lot of sentences in the biography sections ended with prepositional phrases and included digits instead of spelled out numerals for numbers under 100. Several sentences contained dangling participles, and I had to reread the sentences several times to be sure what the “it” was in the second half of the sentence. These are my editorial quibbles from my days editing student essays, so my reading experience is jarred when I notice these things in published works.

Overall, the science and medical histories and the biographies in Making the Monster are accessible to a variety of readers, whether or not they are familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’re interested in the sometimes gruesome practices in the history of medicine and/or enjoy literary biographies, I recommend checking this one out!

BOOK REVIEW: Code Girls, by Liza Mundy

BOOK REVIEW: Code Girls, by Liza MundyTitle: Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
Published by Hachette Books
Published: October 2nd 2018
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.

When I think of code breaking in World War II, I think of Alan Turning, British spies, and the Enigma machine. The history I was familiar with growing up didn’t mention much about American code breaking, let alone no mention of women’s involvement in code breaking during World War II.

Liza Mundy explores women who joined both the Army (WAC) and Navy (WAVES) to aid the war effort in code breaking. She focuses mostly on two women named Dot and Crow, but also includes other notable women who contributed. Mundy draws on her own research and interviews she conducted with these women, and I felt like I could read countless pages about the lives of these women and the risks they took.

It is both inspiring and frustrating to realize how much work these women did to aid the war effort and how little credit they have received in our history books. Now knowing that the work these women did to break codes entirely shifted the American’s trajectory during World War II, I want everyone who is interested in women’s history and war history to read this. It further goes to show that the paths taken in wartime are never black and white, never just a boy’s club, and never as straight as some would like to assume. War is complicated, and these women sometimes had to break codes containing information that lead to the direct harm of people they knew without being able to put a stop to the attacks. Mundy showcases the strength and resilience of these women in then-unheard of situations.

This comes highly recommended from me, so if you are interested in women’s history and World War II history, add this to your TBRs immediately.

Thank you to Hachette for sending me a complimentary copy for review. All opinions are my own.