Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

July 9, 2014 2 comments

Old photographs of two women in suits against a background of a steamer ship.Summary:
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days.  So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world.  When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her.  Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction.  Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first).  The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities.  Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to.  Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner.  Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British.  She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan.  One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?

Review:
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution).  I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy.  Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.

Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world.  He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves.  For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:

One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)

While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting.  Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities.  Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages.  The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.

The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)

Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism.  Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in.  Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.

From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world.  He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey.  For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage.  During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context.  It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.

After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths.  This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like.  Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives.  This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast.  They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.

What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman.  Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that.  I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them.  But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.

Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time.  The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner.  Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail.  However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction.  Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history.  Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

Buy It

Friday Fun! (June: Vacation at the Races)

July 2, 2014 Leave a comment
The motorcycle race track has many turns and elevation changes to be more interesting for the racers.

The motorcycle race track has many turns and elevation changes to be more interesting for the racers.

Hello my lovely readers!

After the busyness of May, I was incredibly grateful to have a whole week off in the month of June!  My bf only had half the week off, so at the start of the week I spring cleaned (umm….in June), made my favorite pie (strawberry-rhubarb), and got ready for our camping trip at the races.  My bf’s hobby is racing motorcycles, and when he goes to the track, he camps there.  Since I had the time off, I was able to go with him.  I’m not able to go every time, unfortunately.  I was so excited to get to be there! I love getting to see him race!  It’s so exciting, and I love that his hobby is so unique and requires such a complex skill set, from actually riding to maintaining the bike.  I also love camping and camping at the track is a wonderful different kind of camping.  The excitement of being at the track and hanging out with the racers and their families and pit crews around the campfire at night is so much fun.  My dad bought us a grill, so I was finally able to cook most of our foods at the track.  I took to pinterest and discovered lots of fun things you can grill.  I made us grilled tofu tacos, grilled quesadillas, breakfast of course, and, our favorite, zucchini parmesan.  I loved getting to spend so much time on one of my hobbies while supporting my boyfriend’s.

With my vacation in there, I’m pleased with how many book reviews I managed to write this month (eight).  I had dubbed June the month of reading ARCs, and I managed to get through four of them this month, taking my total number of TBR ARCs down to 16.  I finished designing a new cross-stitch pattern, but I have yet to post it since it is a present, and the recipient has yet to receive it!  This month I’ll be working on my first commission.  I’m excited to show it to you guys when I’m finished.

Happy reading!

Giveaway: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (INTERNATIONAL)

June 27, 2014 2 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingThis giveaway is now over! Thank you all for entering!

It’s time for the fourth giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.

There are TWO ebook versions of One Death at a Time (review) available courtesy of the author, Thomas M. Hewlett!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating what profession you think might secretly have a lot of vampires among its ranks.

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: July 11th.  Two weeks from today!

Disclaimer: The winners will have their ebook sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.

Book Review: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (Series, #1)

June 26, 2014 6 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingSummary:
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them.  He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire.  When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.

Review:
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list).  I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA.  The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.

Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective.  He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious.  It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire.  Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist.  Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series.  It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.

Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world.  The characters are multiple races and classes.  Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace.  Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at.  Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together.  They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.

I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself.  The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group.  I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it.  I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.  Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did.  I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA.  Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.

The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises.  There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict.  The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading.  Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!

Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series.  Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary.  Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

Buy It

Book Review: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

June 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A red figure hangs like a puppet from red wires on a black background.Summary:
Ever since his birthday party when a fortune cookie exploded in his face, professional blogger of all things San Francisco, Ted Hall, has been passing out, sleeping 12 hours, and waking up exhausted.  It’s disconcerting, especially since there’s a serial killer on the loose.

The circus is in town, and the highwire workers are frustrated with the star of the act, who never rehearses and periodically disappears.  And no one understands why the manager isn’t reporting their missing highwire wire to the authorities, especially since the serial killer is stringing up his victims with a strong, thin wire that sounds an awful lot like a highwire wire.

Bob the beach-living, ballroom-dancing attraction, used to be the god Kanaloa, but the immortals have abandoned humans to their own devices, and he’s not supposed to interfere.  But he just may be the key to all the mysteries occurring in San Francisco.

Review:
I picked this up because it sounded like an urban fantasy serial killer mystery, which is just my speed.  Unfortunately, I found a book with a discombobulated world and plot that builds confusion rather than tension.

If my summary above seems disjointed and confusing that’s because that’s precisely what this book is.  Multiple different extremely odd plots are going on that ultimately do have some relation to each other, but the relation takes far too long to establish or understand.  The book starts with a flashback to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and introduces us to Bob/Kanaloa.  It then jumps forward to the completely dull Ted and the exploding fortune cookie.  It then jumps backward in time again to an entirely different character, who is tied to the circus, eventually.  It takes quite a while to find out what his relation is.  These three disparate storylines that seems to have no relation to each other continue throughout the book.  Bob/Kanaloa’s journey from immortal god to just immortal beach bum would be an interesting book.  But his plot keeps getting abandoned for the other two plots, so all tension and interest is lost.  Similarly, the evil circus organizer would be interesting, but only if his plot was handled with more detail and finesse.  As it is, what he is doing and why he is evil is just confusing, not interesting.  Ted’s plot would not be interesting, even on its own with more detail, because Ted is a two-dimensional, boring character.

Beyond the three disjointed, confusing plots, nothing in this story is ever fully fleshed-out.  There’s the vague idea that immortals were once on Earth and involved but now have left, but the details of the hows, whys, and how this has affected Bob/Kanaloa is left out.  We’re told the organizer of the circus is evil, but we never see his fall from grace.  We see him as a poor pioneer then later as an evil circus worker.  The interesting part of how he got sucked into this evil is left out.  Similarly, two people ultimately become human hosts for gods, but this is basically just announced and moved on from.  The intricacies of how this feels for the human and for the god, why it might be effective or not, etc… is all left out.  This is a bare-bones, confusing plot with little development, which ruins all possible tension.

Just as the plot is created in broad, sloppy strokes, so are the characters.  The closest any come to being three-dimensional is Bob/Kanaloa, which at least made the story readable.  But the rest are quickly laid out with broad character traits, and the story moves on.  There is, for instance, no depth to Ted’s relationship with his girlfriend.  We’re told she’s his girlfriend and he loves her, but we never truly see them together and functioning as a couple.  We get no flashbacks to times prior to the supernatural craziness to see them in a non-stressful situation.  Ted’s girlfriend is there as a plot device, nothing more.

I understand that this is an advanced copy and there will be another editing pass, etc…, however this is the most errors I have ever seen in an ARC.  It was rife with typos, use of the wrong word, and format issues.  Most egregious to me is the Britishisms used by American characters, such as “prawns” for “shrimp.”  ARCs should have already had at least one editing pass.  A reasonable amount of errors could slip through, but not this many.  There were errors on approximately every other page.  Hopefully the final version received a heavy final edit.  Check reviews of the final version to be certain.

This book reads like an extremely rough first draft that badly needs an editor to come through and fix, not just minor typos and grammar, but also plot and characters problems.  It could be an interesting story if it was more fleshed-out, with some storylines dropped in favor of a more solid main one, and with at least a couple of three-dimensional characters the reader can really relate to and root for.  As it stands, there are certain scenes that are well-written and engaging, but together they do not make an engaging, readable mystery.  I normally love books published by Angry Robot, so I found this particularly disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

Buy It

Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

June 7, 2014 2 comments

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Counts For:
mia2014badge

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,046 other followers