Review – Illumicrate Box #1

Illumicrate is a new book box subscription service, mailing out four times a year, priced at £30 per box. The plan is for it to contain new releases, mostly young adult, and the first box went out in early November. It’s always really exciting to get mail, to me anyway, and especially when it’s a surprise. I haven’t signed up to a book subscription service before, though I’ve been tempted; I’m always a little unsure about whether the book is actually going to be something I’m interested in.

Well, with this box, the contents were the following:

The box itself looks gorgeous: the design is great — simple but distinctive. Everything was well packed, too. I was glad to get Wolf by Wolf — it’s a book I’ve been thinking about getting anyway, and now, well, I have it! The matching bookmark is nice, too: the design fits perfectly with the cover art, but it’s also attractive on its own.

The necklace is quite unique, made of wood with an engraved quotation from the Hunger Games series: “If we burn, you burn with us.” It looks a little odd in shape — I wouldn’t have realised what it was without the description — but I kind of like it anyway. Definitely unique. Harry Potter is not my thing, so someone else is going to get the benefit of the poster, but it’s nice enough that a fan should enjoy it. And the little mirror is cute; I don’t have much use for one, but if I did, it’d be one that talks about books.

I’m not 100% sure that Illumicrate is going to be my thing, since I’m not always a fan of popular YA, but I’m going to stay subscribed for now and see what the next box is like. I think it’s always going to be the problem with a subscription box that sometimes it just isn’t going to fit your interests. Illumicrate is beautiful and the first box was near-enough the target that I’m happy to see what’s next.

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Review – Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities

Cover of Catastrophes and Other Lesser Calamities by Tony HallamCatastrophes and Lesser Calamities, Tony Hallam

Cheerful title, I know. It’s about mass extinctions, in theory: not just the really iconic one at the K-T boundary (that’s the dinosaurs), but the end-Permian, and others that have been defined as extinctions, some in more detail than others. I was hoping it would focus on the causes of mass extinctions and the immediate effects on animals, but actually it included a lot of geology and didn’t spend that much time discussing specific extinctions — more like ways we can find those extinctions in the fossil record, and even to what extent we can call these events mass extinctions. (For example, by the time you reach the K-T boundary in the record, most dinosaurs were already extinct and the diversity of species was tailing off.)

It’s a little dry, but not a bad guide; I only really skimmed parts of it, because I know a lot of this info about geology. It is interesting to see some things that people think they know being examined and the foundations weakened, though.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Ruddy Gore

Cover of Ruddy Gore by Kerry GreenwoodRuddy Gore, Kerry Greenwood

I wasn’t as caught up in this one as with some of the others — at least, not the mystery, though I am enjoying Phryne’s latest lover, Lin Chung. But the whole supernatural aspect is just thin to me, and the plot relies on the reader to make the same mistake as the characters, or it becomes rather obvious. I found bits of it contradictory — Phryne notices certain characters, but then doesn’t factor them into her understanding of what’s going on for far too long. And there’s the melodrama with the hints that perhaps there is a real ghost…

Not my favourite so far, but still compulsively readable, of course.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Mirror World of Melody Black

Cover of The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin ExtenceThe Mirror World of Melody Black, Gavin Extence

I was excited to read The Mirror World of Melody Black, given that I found myself enjoying The Universe Versus Alex Woods more than I expected to. Reading the first 100 pages or so, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to continue. See, the main character is bipolar, and her swings of mania and depression are really well written. I could see what was coming and wasn’t sure if I wanted to be along for the ride.

The thing is, when the main character is in a psychiatric ward, she and another character talk about it being an alternate world, and each person having their own portal to it. Basically, the turn you made that made everything go downhill. The thing that triggered the cycle. Getting better, she talks about seeing those portals and being able to avoid them. That struck a bit close — I have generalised anxiety disorder, and I’m constantly aware of the things I could do which might make me feel a little better, temporarily, but which could start me off on the whole rollercoaster of anxiety (where the only way seems to be down, and down, and down).

And around page 100, with the way Abby was behaving, I was a little worried this book was going to be one of those moments for me. Usually it’s a moment of stress in my life, or confronting a new situation. But really, I think I was just responding to Abby’s foreboding — and Extence’s. See, he finishes the book with a chapter in which he explains his own experience with mania. The chapters that I found uncomfortable were precisely the ones that made him uncomfortable and which embodied his experience the most. So yes, Mr Extence: you wrote something true. It worked.

If you’ve read this and don’t really understand the title, I have to wonder if it’s maybe because you don’t have that experience of those portals. You don’t know that a silly minor thing could constitute a left turn into another reality. The whole book, everything Abby does from the opening pages, it’s not really a story about finding her neighbour dead, being a journalist or dating when bipolar. It’s a story about that moment she takes the wrong turn and enters an alternate world, where logic stops working properly. Melody Black is important not particularly for herself, but because talking to her makes Abby realise these things. The ‘mirror world’ of the title is really Abby’s own head, when her manic phase is triggered, and Melody Black is just a symbol.

At least, that’s how I read it.

Rating: 5/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s prompt is to do with Thanksgiving, which is always a little weird since, as a British person, I definitely don’t traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving. But it’s a nice opportunity to thank some bookish people.

  1. Mum. For many, many doors into portable universes, both through teaching me to read, sharing books, buying me books, recommending books…
  2. Lisa. For sharing many portable universes with me, over the last ten years!
  3. Robert. For running the SF/F bookclub and becoming a friend over the last year.
  4. Jo Walton. For writing books, providing sage advice, and being a friend.
  5. Lynn O’ Connacht. For many many good conversations about books, including plenty of recommendations and shared books!
  6. Ryan from SpecFic Junkie. For much encourage, chatter about books, and the general takeover of Habitica with things about books.
  7. Cait from Paper Fury. For a disproportionate number of giggles to how long I’ve been following her blog/twitter.
  8. To all the friends who know books are the best way to distract me. And there’s certainly been some tough times where I’ve needed this.
  9. To all of you who comment and like my posts. Otherwise it’d be a bit lonely around here.
  10. To Helen Hippo. For being my constant companion through universes fictional and real, even if I have worn most of her fur off.

’nuff said, I think.

“Guess my privilege must be on the fritz”

Are you familiar with the idea of privilege? If not, there are tons of 101 resources out there to explain it fully, and I’m not going to reiterate what other people have said at any length, especially since no doubt other people have said it better. The gist is: privilege is an advantage you’re born with, which you haven’t earned, due to the weight of history, culture, etc. It can derive from nationality or gender or sexuality or your educational opportunities as a kid. It can be different depending on where you live in the world, who you’re interacting with, etc.

What it is not: a guarantee that your life is going to be easier. That barriers will be removed and doors will be open. It is, as John Scalzi put it, a difficulty setting, which in games never guarantees you won’t have trouble with a particular boss or area or whatever.

So when something bad happens to you, that is not your privilege going “on the fritz”. Nothing about privilege promises that you’re going to be okay. It just says that you’re going to have an easier time if you’re born to a rich family than a poor one, if you have good nutrition growing up rather than starving, if you live in a war-free country rather than one in which a civil war is raging. You know, the obvious.

And just because you’re — for the sake of argument — straight, white and male, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other modifiers that can make things easier or harder. If you have a mental illness, then you might have trouble getting support and your illness can hold you back. If you’re from a poor background, being straight, white and male isn’t going to magically overcome all those hurdles.

You’ll just most likely have an easier time than a straight white trans* person with mental health issues, or a straight brown male from a poor background, because you’re not discriminated against for those additional reasons. And there might be other factors that cause problems for you: privilege is a subtle thing and the categories we’re using are broad. You might also have other advantages. Nobody is disputing that on an individual level, everyone will have some bad luck, denied opportunities, unfortunate interactions, etc.

If you’re honestly using your own misfortunes as some kind of symbol that privilege isn’t real, you’re just putting up a straw man argument against the concept of privilege. Nobody said you personally would have everything handed to you on a silver platter because of an accident of birth. It’s all about likelihood, intersectionality, location location location.

Your privilege isn’t “on the fritz”. When we’re talking about privilege, we’re talking about on average and in general. It’s a background advantage, as shown in studies that display a bias against groups. Having a “black name”, for example, means your CV is discarded more often than that of a white person (in the US). And the thing is, you can say that you’ve “never noticed” any bias toward you, and I’ll believe you — but that’s because you (and the society you grew up in) treat it as normal. It is normal, to you. That doesn’t make it right if, on average, other people are losing out because you retain that privilege.

And even if you don’t know what to do to change this, you can listen. You can be aware. And when someday you find yourself in the position of, say, choosing who to employ, you can be aware of your kneejerk biases.


Note: I wrote about this here because my first experiences of being told I had privilege came from members of the book blogging community, eight years ago now. It’s something being addressed by #WeNeedDiverseBooks and such movements in the bookish community — and I don’t think I’m the only one who first came into this discussion thinking, “But I just love books. Why do we gotta have all these labels? Why should I pay attention to the ethnicity of the authors I read?” And there are people coming into this discussion for the first time all the time.

Ultimately, you have to figure out the answers for yourself; it doesn’t work to just be told, you have to understand, and that can take longer. But here’s my answer: because I love books, I want everyone to be able to find themselves in books, to feel like they are welcome and have a place and that their dreams line the walls of libraries the same as anyone else’s. The labels are there because a lot of people think that way, because it’s a convenient way to get an overview of the industry, because people with shared experiences stick together and that identity becomes a way to more easily communicate. The problem arises because some labels get marked as “special interest only”, while others are considered to be of universal interest because, historically, that group is used to being the default.

It’s a sucky problem. We can get access to a lot more awesome books by making sure we go beyond the default, and showing the market that demand is there. So instead of asking why we should do that — why not?

Review – The Seventh Bride

Cover of The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride, T. Kingfisher
Recieved to review via Netgalley

I actually bought this initially, but the Netgalley page said something about it being an updated version, so I went for it. I originally picked it up for the promise of a heroic little hedgehog, and I was very happy with that aspect — the hedgehog is brave, helpful, clever, and funny. It can’t speak, so it communicates with the protagonist via miming and yes/no answers. It sounded so cute. I want one!

The story itself, aside from the hedgehogs, is a nice reimagining of a Bluebeard fairytale — but darker, really, because instead of death, the antagonist steals things of worth from the women he marries — their voices, their eyes, their ability to die — and leaves them alive. I found the tone somewhat at odds with the perceived historical/mythological time it was set in; the protagonist was too modern in thought and sensibility in some ways, it seemed. But overall, I found it very enjoyable, and I loved the way it treated the other characters. The other wives, for example, are each different, some very strange, and each of them copes with what has happened to them in a different way. As people do.

And, just to reiterate: hedgehog!

Rating: 4/5

Review – Blood and Circuses

Cover of Blood and Circuses by Kerry GreenwoodBlood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood

This is a nice change of pace for Phryne, taking her out of her element and putting her in the circus, where she isn’t automatically great at everything and people don’t automatically like her — some of her privilege of being a rich person gets stripped away, leaving the tough kid who grew up in poverty to deal with things. There’s a good bit of drama towards the end, which got a bit too much for my tastes in a cosy mystery (attempted rape, protagonist is left naked in a cage with large predator animals). I did like Jack’s involvement and trust in Phryne’s work, though, and the way he corrected the other policeman who was calling an intersex person “it”.

Also, Phryne’s men made me laugh this time when they both got in bed with her to cuddle her after her shock. They really didn’t protest very much!

The series remains easy to read and solidly entertaining; I’m getting through it at speed.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Freaks of Nature

Cover of Freaks of Nature by Mark BlumbergFreaks of Nature, Mark S. Blumberg

The title put me off this right away, the opening chapter helped somewhat because it promised to be more than a parade of curiosities, showing some sympathy and understanding, but ultimately I didn’t feel it did really manage to rise above that. There was a lot of reiteration about ‘circus freaks’, etc, and I don’t think it got past the novelty factor of such cases. There were some rather odd assertions — that the figure of Atlas could’ve been inspired by people with a developmental issue who ended up with a globe of brain matter sticking out from their shoulders, for example; it seems a rather ridiculous idea to me, and I couldn’t find anyone else saying the same thing. And saying Janus could’ve been inspired by cases where faces appear on both sides of the skull — maybe, but I think it more likely it’s a metaphorical depiction arising from what the god was said to do.

The science wasn’t particularly in depth or surprising. I don’t think anyone denies that developmental factors can be as important as genetics during gestation.

Rating: 1/5

Stacking the Shelves

Hello, everyone! This week, I have a relatively small haul — I think it might be the first time in a while I’ve really shown any restraint! I’m now trying not to buy any books until Christmas, so it’ll hopefully just be library books from here on out… I have just one new-to-me owned book this week, and that came via Illumicrate (which I need to review).

Cover of Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

I’ve heard a lot about this one, so I’m excited for it!

Library

Cover of The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie Cover of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie Cover of Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Cover of Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey Cover of Arrow's Flight by Mercedes Lackey Cover of Arrow's Fall by Mercedes Lackey

Cover of Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater Cover of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

The Abercrombie books are rereads; I’ve never read Mercedes Lackey and spotted the omnibus of those at the library and thought, eh, why not?; Cait @ Paper Fury demanded I read some Maggie Stiefvater; and finally, I had access to Wolfhound Century on Netgalley… many moons ago. It’s time I actually reviewed it.

How’s everyone been? Interesting hauls? Tell!

Incidentally, I recently passed my 1,000th post and my 1,000th follower, and this is my 100th STS post. Definitely time to celebrate! But, does anyone know of a giveaway widget that works with WordPress-hosted blogs? Rafflecopter does not, as I recall.