Return of the Thief

by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “Unlike others who claim to be well-informed, I am an eye-witness to the events I describe, and I write this history so that future scholars will not have to rely, as do so many staring into the past in my day, on secondhand memories passed down over the years, their details worn away by time and retelling.”
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Others in the series: The Thief, Queen of Attolia, King of Attolia, Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves
Content: It’s long, it’s political, and the characters are mostly adults. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore but only because that’s where the others are.

This book is really a book and a half. In the first part, we are introduced to Phares, the grandson of disgraced Baron Erondites (from King of Attolia), who is disfigured and mute, who is sent to live in the palace as the attendant to the King as a joke. Gen, however, sees through this ploy, and keeps Phares on, as he witnesses events that occur in both Conspiracy and Thick as Thieves. In many ways, this first part is to catch us up on what was going on in the palace while those books took place away from Attolia. And while it’s not a bad section, it does lack a plot — aside from the fate of Phares and more insight into Gen’s character — and the pace is slow.

The second part is where the book picks up and everything really begins. Costis (who left with Kamet at the end of Thick as Thieves) comes racing back to the palace with one message: the Medes have invaded over land. It is, in fact, war. And the rest of the book is Gen, Irene, Helen, and Sophos figuring out how to unify their three countries and head to war. Gen is Gen, and there are political maneuverings, and it’s a sweeping book as the countries try to fend off the invaders.

The book — the whole series really — is exploring the ideas of a small nation/state verses a larger one, and the ways politics play into it. It’s perfect for people who are interested in historical fiction, even if the “histories” in these books are not real. But, really: it’s the characters who are the most important part of these books. The way the are loyal to each other, the ways in which they betray and frustrate each other. It’s delightful winding our way through the world and even if her narrative is slow, it’s never uninteresting.

It’s not my favorite of the series, and I think it’s a good ending. She wrapped up most of the threads (to be honest: I was expecting something with the volcano, which never happened) that were hanging around throughout the series. I will miss having new stories in this world, but I am glad for the stories we do have.

The Queen’s Thief Series

I recently reread the series in anticipation of reading the new book (I figured I’d need a refresher). And then I thought I’d update my thoughts on each book. Plus: pretty covers!

The Thief
by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.”
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Original review (also reread review)
Content: There is some intense moments, and it gets a bit slow for impatient readers (I haven’t been able to convince any of my kids other than M to read these). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Quick thoughts: Ah, Gen. Seriously. I adore this one. And it works as a stand alone. Even if you don’t read the rest of the series. Read. This. One.

The Queen of Attolia
By Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “He was asleep, but woke at the sound of the key turning in the lock.”
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Original review
Content: There is some graphic(ish) violence and trauma. It’s in the YA section (Grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Quick thoughts: I think I liked this better this time around. I didn’t remember hardly anything about it, and the trauma happened much earlier than I thought it did. I don’t know if I buy the love story part, but it’s not gushy. It’s very plain, an aside to the actual story — how Eddis can end the war(s) she didn’t mean to start, and how the countries of Attolia and Eddis (and Sounis) can keep the Medes off their shore. It’s a political book, but one in which people are underestimated and use that to their advantage. That said, I found myself unable to put it down.

The King of Attolia
First sentence: “The queen waited.”
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Original review
Content: There is some violence, and it’s long. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The thing that struck me this time around is that Turner tried to make the reader believe — as the Attolians did — that Gen was a fop and a waste as a king. It really is about Gen coming to accept his role as king — a throwaway line the Eddis ambassador says to the queen: “He didn’t marry you so he could become king. He became king so he could marry you.” While this is Gen’s story, it’s also Costis’s — how his derision of the king (the book opens with Costis punching Gen in the face) turns into loyalty, respect, and love. Turner masterfully gives us just enough information for us to guess at what is going on, without it seeming obvious. It really is a delight rereading these.

A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: ““The king of Attolia was passing through his city, on his way to the port to greet ambassadors newly arrived from distant parts of the world.”
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Original review
Content: Like the others, it’s very dense and political. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I knew this was more Sophos’ story than Gen’s, but I had forgotten how much. The thing is: the plot blurb on the back isn’t correct. It’s 1/3 Sophos’ telling the Queen of Eddis the story of his year after being kidnapped (which happened during the King of Attolia, if I remember right; there’s a brief mention of it in passing), a little more than 1/3 of Sophos being re-acclimated to royal life and the compromise swearing loyalty to Gen as Attolis. And then the last bit is Sophos becoming king in his own right. It’s political and twisty, with lots of machinations and back-handed dealing. And it’s brilliant. Really. I love the subtle details: how the book switched from first person to third person and back. And the small things, like the way Turner uses names. And, at the center of it all, sits Gen, who is wonderful and infuriating, and definitely worth swearing fealty to. I liked this one the first go-around, and I still think the first half of this series is stronger, but I found myself enjoying this one all the more for having read the others in quick succession.

Thick as Thieves
by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence:  “It was midday and the passageway quiet and cool.”
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Original review
Content: The main character is an adult, and there is some violence. It’s in the YA section of the bookstore.

This one is the outlier of the series. Gen is really not there for most of it, with the main character being the slave of a former Mede ambassador (back in The Queen of Attolia). He was a minor character there, so it might seem, at first, a bit weird to have a book entirely from his perspective. But. He’s a fascinating character and over the course of the book his relationship with “the Attolian” (from The King of Attolia) grows. It’s an interesting narrative all the way through, but it’s the end that really makes this one worth it.

All this to say, if you haven’t given this series a try, you really should!

The Truths We Hold

by Kamala Harris
First sentence: “Most mornings, my husband, Doug, wakes up before me and reads the news in bed.”
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Content: It’s pretty policy-heavy. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up over the summer mostly because I was interested in what her story was. I didn’t get around to reading it until right after the election, when I figured that because she was going to be Vice President, I really ought to learn more about her.

Granted, reading a memoir that was mostly likely written because she was considering a presidential run isn’t the most balanced way to get information about a person. That said, I am interested in people’s stories and how they see themselves. Looking at it that way, I learned a few things.

1: Kamala really is her mother’s daughter. She rarely, in the book, talked about her father — he as a presence in her life for the first several years, but after her parents divorced, he was out of the picture (at least narratively). You can tell, as a reader, how much Kamala admires her mother, and how much she relied on her advice, and how big a loss it was when her mother passed away.

2: Although her mother was South Indian, Kamala and her sister were raised as Black women. They lived in a heavily Black neighborhood in Oakland, CA, during the late 1960s and 1970s. Her mother was involved in the Civil Rights movement and exposed her daughters to many of the leaders at the time. Kamala grew up around passionate Black women who not only believed in justice, but had each other’s backs as often as they could.

3: Kamala works hard. And she cares. Maybe sometimes her polices are a bit misguided (not that she would admit that), but I think they come from a good place. She wants justice and a better life for people. She wants to reform the justice system, but she also wants to try and stem off the things that lead people into the justice system. Maybe she doesn’t have the best ideas to do it, but she is willing to listen, to put herself into situations that allow her to listen, to advocate, and to do the work. I can respect that.

So, not, it’s not a brilliant narrative, and she’s not the most lyrical writer. But it was still good to read.

Audio book: The End of Policing

by Alex S. Vitale
Read by Michael Butler Murray
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some description, none graphic, of abuses by police officers over the history of policing in the United States. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

When all the protests started happening around the death of George Floyd, one of the things I heard and saw was a call to defund the police. I had no idea what that meant, and so (as I do), I found a book — the author was in a story on NPR — to explain it to me.

Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, collects data in various areas, from homelessness to the war on drugs to protest policing, about how effective the police force and criminal justice system is in the United States. The short answer: the police are completely and utterly ineffective in dealing with problems in communities. They are there to protect those who have property (usually white people) from those who don’t (usually poor, non-white people). And the methods they use are, to be frank, racist and ineffective.

The data in the book is a bit old; the most recent is from 2014-2015, but I don’t think much has gotten better. Vitale asserts that without real reform — and not just more “diversity training” — to communities and the way they tackle things like poverty, joblessness, mental illness, and immigration then searching for “criminals” and arresting Black and brown youth are not going to solve the problems. In short: defund the police and send the money into the social programs that we have been starving for 40 years.

The thing is: this isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing. Vitale reminds readers that Clinton and Obama were as bad promoting policing as the answer to being “tough on crime” as Reagan and the Bushes were. It’s a policy thing. Which reminds me of something else I’ve seen: the system isn’t broken. This IS the system. The way policing has developed in this country is inevitably skewed against the poor and the non-white. And to change it will take an overhaul of not just policing, but the whole system. It’s not going to be fixed with short-term, “look at us we’re doing ‘reforms'” bills, but a constant holding politicians and elected leaders accountable for the money that is going into the policing system.

And I think Vitale has convinced me that we really do need to #defundthepolice.

Why We’re Polarized

by Ezra Klein
First sentence: “‘I’ve spent a part of every day since November 8, 2016, wrestling with a single question,” writes Hilary Clinton in What Happened.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing. It’s in the Current section (it’s where we put all political books) at the bookstore.

I don’t usually read political book. I leave that to my husband, who then (sometimes) summarizes them for me. But the title of — and the idea behind — this one captured my attention. I have noticed over the past four years (though probably longer, if I’m really honest) that we’re just getting more and more polarized politically, and I wanted to know what to do about it.

Well the bad news: Klein doesn’t have a whole lot of ideas about “what to do about it”, and what ideas he does have probably don’t have much chance of getting passed (get rid of the Electoral College, increase the Supreme Court to 15 people, and so on). But what he did do was help me understand how we got to this place. And the reason? It’s actually a logical growth from the way politics has been headed since the 1960s. In short: political parties could agree and compromise more because they both basically agreed that black people were the worst. Change things so black people have rights, and suddenly (well, over time), one party becomes a haven for everyone who thinks that’s a Bad Thing and the other party becomes more open to diversity. Sure, that’s simplifying, but it has a lot to do.

There are other reasons: how politics have become national (can you name your state representative?) instead of local, and that’s more polarizing. Or how parties have become less about politics and more about identities and how we identify. It’s less about concrete policies and more about ideologies, which isn’t a great way to run a country.

So, even though it’s not terribly helpful on the action end of things, it was quite fascinating to understand how we got to this point. Especially for someone who doesn’t read a lot of political science scholarship.

Red, White & Royal Blue

by Casey McQuiston
First sentence: “On the White House roof, tucked into a corner of the Promenade, there’s a bit of loose paneling right on the edge of the Solarium.”
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Content: There’s lots of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some tasteful sex scenes. It’s in the romance section of the bookstore.

The 30-second pitch for this one? In an alternate reality, a woman has become President, and her 21-year-old son has fallen in love with Prince Henry (not Harry…) of England. Of course they keep it secret for a while, of course there are bumps and fights, and highs and lots of steamy kisses in cloakrooms. Of course this creates an international incident (sort-of, but not really) and of course this is super fluff.

It’s fun and smart super fluff though. I enjoyed Alex and Henry’s relationship, how they went from arch-nemesis (but they were never, not really) to lovers and I liked Alex’s mom and how smart a president she was. I liked the world that McQuiston imagined existed (can we live in that one instead of this one?).

There’s really not much more to say. It was fun. And maybe that’s all that matters.

Death of Truth

by Michiko Kakutani
First sentence: “Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power.”
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Content: It’s a small book, but dense, dealing with philosophy and politics and it doesn’t hide that it’s critical of Trump. It’s in the politics section of the bookstore.

Kakutani, who was the former chief book critic of The New York Times, decided that what the current political climate needed was a book examining how we got to the current political climate, and the inherent distrust of the media. On the one hand, yeah: this book is important. On the other hand, the only people who are going to read it are the people who think that the current political climate is problematic. So, I guess the question is: what’s the point of the book?

I did learn a few things: I had forgotten (or never learned) that the Fairness Doctrine — the policy which demanded that media give equal time to all political parties, and which I learned about while studying journalism in college — was overturned (disbanded?) in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Combine that with the Telecommunications act in 1996, which allowed for media conglomerates, and you end up with our current media climate, in which someone like Trump can call reputable papers Fake News because he disagrees with them, and in which you have a majority of Republicans who believe that the media is lying and making up stuff. Of course it’s more than that, but that’s what I found interesting about it.

(As an aside, Russell, who actually studies these things, found the book to be lacking. My take-away? This book was not meant for scholars.)

In the end, though, Kakatuni doesn’t really offer any solutions how to solve this problem. Though, in talking about it, I came up with one: Turn off the TV, shut down social media, and talk to someone, especially someone who disagrees with you. Maybe then, we can figure out how to look past this fear and let people speak their truths, and find a common ground again.

Audiobook: Tyrant

Shakespeare on Politics
by Stephen Grenblatt
Read by Edorado Ballerini
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content:  There’s some in-depth Shakespeare analysis, which might make it uninteresting to some. It’s in the Shakespeare/Theater section of the bookstore, but it could go in Current Events/Politics as well.

The basic premise of this book is simple: Greenblatt, a noted Shakespearean scholar, takes a brief — by no means scholarly — look at some of the  tyrants in Shakespearean plays. He primarily looks at Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus: dissecting their motives, their pasts, and their rise to tyrant-dom. It’s, on the surface, an interesting look at these four plays (there’s a bit about Julius Caesar, as well), a fascinating and well-written exploration of these characters.

But — and maybe this is my politics showing — there’s a lot of similarities between the current administration and the tyrants in these plays. It serves as a reminder that these things are never new: there have been tyrants and tyrannical behavior for a long time. And those who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of Shakespearean analysis. Greenblatt never comes out and says “Trump is like this” but the undercurrent is there (if you choose to see it). It’s a smart analysis of the plays, and I learned a lot about them (I’ve never seen King Lear, and that is something I should fix; and I’d like to see the Richard III with Ian McKellen again), and the book is definitely worth it for that.

Young Jane Young

by Gabrielle Zevin
First sentence: “My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including several f-bombs, as well as some off-screen sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Release date: August 22, 2017

The relationship between mothers and daughters (and between women in general) is not a new topic for fiction. It’s been Done.  And yet, Zevin — through this tale of an intern, Aviva, who has an affair with her boss, who just happens to be a congressman — manages to make this tired trope fresh. We get the story from four perspectives: Rachel, Aviva’s mother ; Aviva — both then and now, as Jane; Ruby, the intern’s daughter; and the congressman’s wife. It’s a unique way of telling the story, in bits and pieces (you don’t get Aviva’s then perspective until the very end, and it comes as a sort of “choose your own adventure” tale, one in which she wishes she could change her decisions), and from different perspectives. Choices have consequences, more so for women in these situations (so, whatever did happen to Monica Lewinsky?) than for men. It’s a fascinating study of our scandal-obsessed culture (really, are famous people’s private lives really news?) and how we’re much more willing to forgive men than we are women. (I think that’s the most biting thing: that Aviva is much more harshly judged than the congressman ever was.) And how relationships between mothers and daughters are not always straightforward. And what one person says isn’t always what the other person hears.

I love the way Zevin spins a story, and the way she is able to make characters pop to life. She doesn’t dumb down the kids (or make them too precocious; Ruby was the right balance of nerdy and eager), and she makes everyone sufficiently complicated.

Definitely highly recommended.

Audiobook: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Al Franken
Read by the author
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Content: There are six f-bombs in one chapter, mostly because there are two in the title of something Franken wrote and he said it three  times. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I suppose, if you don’t know who Al Franken is, you probably won’t have any interest in this book. That said, I knew who he was, but wasn’t a huge fan.  But, I’d heard enough good about it that I decided to download the audio book.

Franken is in his second term as the junior senator from Minnesota, a former writer for Saturday Night Life, and a very, very smart writer. This book is basically a memoir of his time at SNL, his family life, his first election, and his thoughts on being in the Senate as a whole.

It’s a very smart book. And while it’s not always hilarious, it IS very funny. And insightful. Be aware that Franken is a Democrat, and so there’s definitely a partisan flavor to it (he blames Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Mitch McConnell for the current state of politics), but he also recognizes a need to work together, and has some good things to say about many Republicans (just not Ted Cruz). It’s insightful, interesting, and incredibly engaging.

And on audio? Very delightful. I loved listening to Franken read his words (I often enjoy celebrity memoirs more in audio) and thought it was a definite value-added to the book. He kept me engaged in the book, and I looked forward to turning it on whenever I got in the car.

A very, very good read.