ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Monthly Archive: May 2020

Wednesday

27

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who enjoy crime novels of the Icelandic variety. Those who appreciate when the main character is both a) not a man and b) not straight.

In a nutshell:
Sonja is divorced and lost custody of her son. To get by, she smuggles cocaine. (That’s right, the cocaine smuggling came after losing her son.) She has a relationship with Agla, who is being pursued for her role in the Iceland financial collapse. Sonja wants out, and she wants to regain custody of her son.

Worth quoting:
“It was as if the apartments that were empty for too long acquired a deep sadness.”

Why I chose it:
I wanted some fiction, this was the start of a trilogy, and the author was listed in an article that included Ragnar Jonasson, who wrote the Dark Iceland series I enjoyed.

Review:
I new from the second chapter that I was definitely into this book, because chapter two was from a different character’s perspective. While the book doesn’t skip about in time, it does skip from character to character, which I love. I like seeing many of the pieces, though not all of them. It makes any eventual twists less shocking and more ‘oh yeah, that makes sense.’

The chapters in this book are short – some only three or four paragraphs – and the book reads quickly. The characters are at times a bit flat, but it’s a series so I’m hoping for a bit more in books two and three. I appreciate that the main love interest for Sonja is a woman, and that the woman she is interested in struggles with having feelings for another woman.

As for the crime aspect – it’s not so much a mystery (which is what I was initially hoping for) as a thriller. Unlike the Dark Iceland series, we’re not wondering who the murderer is. Instead, we’re with the criminal — Sonja — wondering how she ‘s going to get out of the mess she’s in. It also means people with different perspectives might find themselves rooting for different characters. Do you hope Sonja gets away with it, because you can see she’s a good parent for her child, and she just wants to get out of the whole system? Do you hope that the customs agent stops her because who knows who is getting rich off the drugs she is bringing in? Are you just generally annoyed that drugs are illegal, creating this weird smuggling system?

I read this book in 24 hours, starting it before bed on a weekend and finishing it after work the next day. I already have the second book and will be starting it after work today.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (I don’t tend to re-read fiction)

Sunday

24

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

British Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Tony Wright

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who understand how British government should work in theory but want to know how it works in practice. It’s like British government 201.

In a nutshell:
Former Member of Parliament provides a very basic (though not basic enough for me) understanding of how the UK government works.

Worth quoting:
“Britain is rare among democratic states (only Israel and New Zealand belong to the same category) in not having a book of constitutional rules.”

Why I chose it:
I was looking for British government 101 – something more than what Wikipedia might tell me – after moving to the UK in 2018.

Review:
I earned a Political Science minor in college. I have two graduate-level degrees in public administration and public policy. I’ve spent 12 of the 16 years I’ve worked post-college in the public sector in the US. I share this because I want you to understand that I find government interesting from both a practical and a theoretical perspective, and have taken great pains to educate myself in this area.

But when I moved to the UK, I felt like I was back in kindergarten. As far as I could tell, UK government looked something like this: there’s the Queen, duh. And the Prime Minister. And the PM isn’t directly elected like the US President – they are the leader of a party that gets the most votes in Parliament at Westminster. And they need the Queen’s permission to form a government, but that’s, like, a formality, because she never says no. And if they step down, there isn’t a whole new election, there’s just this mini-election by the members of the party in power (no, not the Members of Parliament, the members of the party, which might be like .2% of the actual population).

Parliament sort of governs all of the UK. But maybe mostly England? Because Northern Ireland has a devolved government. So does Scotland. And apparently Wales? Does England have one then too? Are these nations, like US states, where they all have a government but there’s a bigger federal government that handles the messy bits like trade and war? No?

And then bills that become laws – it goes House of Commons (like the US House of Representatives), then the House of Lords (not at all like the US Senat), and then it has to be signed by the PM, right? Oh, no? Not even close? Cool. Cool cool cool.

Guys, even before the bizarre autumn of 2019, where the PM resigned, and there was a glimmer of hope that Labour might take over, and EU bills were all failing, I just wanted to know how it all works. I went to a bookstore and asked one of the kindly booksellers if they had anything like a UK Government 101 book to help me understand. Like, I’d be happy with something they give to 10-year-olds. [I tried Wikipedia, but it was both too much and not nearly enough information (though I guess England doesn’t have it’s own government? The hell?).] They were confused and seemed almost shocked at my request. But after much conversation amongst themselves, the booksellers suggested I order this one.

That’s a lot of information in what is meant to be a book review, but I provide it all so you get the context that even with this very short, pretty straightforward book, it was STILL too detailed for me. It’s brief indeed, but still gets into political machinations and workings that would make better sense if I understood how the UK government was, on paper, meant to work. And this doesn’t have it.

This seems like a great second half to a book that I am still in search of. I should probably have realized that it wouldn’t be quite right because it’s about British Politics, not British Government, but alas. Couldn’t he have included, like, a chart in the first two pages explaining things? Or even stick it in the back so readers who aren’t as ignorant of the topic as I am aren’t insulted? An appendix with a flow chart would have been useful.

Back to the bookstore (when it reopens) to see if I can get something else. Maybe this time I’ll tell them its for my imaginary 9-year-old niece.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it – some day I might get that 101 I’m desperate for, and then this will make more sense.

Saturday

23

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

Asking for a Friend by Jessica Weisberg

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Anyone who likes self-help books / advice columns.

In a nutshell:
Author Weisberg explores the history of advice giving, from Benjamin Franklin to life coaches.

Worth quoting:
“Americans’ interest in advice reflects our cultural tendency toward optimism: we tend to believe that with a bit of direction and a small boost, the future can be bright.”

“People seem to prefer advice-givers whose wisdom seems attainable, who learned from doing.”

Why I chose it:
My sister gave me this for Christmas a couple of years ago, because I LOVE advice books (and have my own advice website).

Review:
The title gave me the impression that this book would focus primarily on newspaper (or online) advice columns: Dear Abby, Dear Prudence, Dr Drew (blech), Dr Ruth. And while the first two are covered in one chapter, the focus is as much on other ways people have become well-known by giving advice, including life coaches and marriage counselors.

The book is divided into four parts, and starts with ‘Old, Wise Men.’ I was most fascinated with the section on Benjamin Franklin, partly because Weisberg brings up the Silence Dogood letters, which I know only because I watch National Treasure probably three or four times a year. But it also covers experts like Dr Spock and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and traditional advice columnists like Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners), giving readers some insight into their background and their philosophy around providing guidance to others.

This book is mostly focused on the history of advice-giving; I think another volume would be interesting if it focused on the more modern advice columnists, or perhaps more of a comparison to how its evolved. This book seems to generally end with the 1990s (ish); it seems like so much has happened with this field in the last 20 years that I’d like to see that thrown into the mix.

The only criticism I have is in one chapter she reference Woody Allen a lot. I don’t need a pedophile mentioned in my books on advice, I don’t care how influential he may have been.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Sunday

10

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Book of London Place Names by Caroline Taggart

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those who like to have access to basic trivia about places they live or visit.

In a nutshell:
Author Taggart provides some history in an accessible way.

Worth quoting:
“…no one seems to be sure, but there was probably once …”
(Seriously, it seems like for half the names, this is the answer.)

Why I chose it:
Moved to London. Wanted to learn more.

Review:
I think this is the last of the books I bought on sort of a whim when I first moved here and wanted to learn as much as I could about London. Considering I’ve been here for well over two years and am just getting to them now, clearly I didn’t dive right in.

I’ve now read a few books like this one, and I think overall it’s probably the easiest read. It feels a bit repetitive at times, but that’s because most of the places have similar stories – they are names for someone royal, or for someone no one can remember, or for a geological feature.

I appreciated that Taggart didn’t include stories about ever street or every part of London – she picked some highlights. Now, I’m not sure how much cultural awareness went into her decision-making; it’s entirely possible that she systematically left out areas that might have significance to BAME groups or immigrants. But she did at least cover London south of the river, which I think some folks forget even exists. To that end, I live and work (when I’m not in lock-down) in south London, so I especially enjoyed learning about the history of the places I used to walk by every day.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Sunday

10

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Me, I thought, but apparently not, as I was not able to get through it all.

In a nutshell:
Oh boy. Iris’s sister has driven herself off a bridge and is dead. Then there’s another book, a science-fiction-y type book. Then Iris is a child, and we learn about her life growing up. Apparently later on there are many twists.

Worth quoting:
“Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow case by its absence.

Why I chose it:
I bought this awhile ago, right around when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and wanted to read more of her work.

Review:
It’s hard to review a book that I couldn’t get into, especially when maybe the issue was me? The writing is great – I can picture the characters and every scene I read. The story overall was just I think too jumpy in the beginning for me to feel invested in any area of it. I generally enjoy time jumps and not really knowing where something is going in a novel, but this felt so disjointed that I couldn’t get into any sort of flow with it.

I can see a world where I start this book on a flight and then keep reading it while on vacation. But with everything going on right now, and all the different ways to get distracted right now, I needed a book that would immediately suck me in, and this one did not.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it