Monday, January 30, 2017

Review: The Middle Ages: Everyday Life In Medieval Europe – Jeffrey L. Singman

The Middle Ages: Everyday Life In Medieval Europe – Jeffrey L. Singman

We consider the Middle Ages barbaric, yet the period furnished some of our most enduring icons, including King Arthur's Round Table, knights in shining armor, and the idealized noblewoman. In this vivid history of the time, the medieval world comes to life in all its rich daily experience. Find out what people's beds were like, how often they washed, what they wore, what they cooked, how they worked, how they entertained themselves, how they wed, and what life was like in a medieval village, castle, or monastery. Contemporary artworks and documents further illuminate this fascinating historical era.

Review: This book does exactly what it says on the cover. It’s divided into chapters (“Village Life,” “Castle Life,” “Monastic Life,” “Town Life”). Each chapter explains what daily life was like for people in these environments. The book includes photographs of artwork and architecture that was made during medieval times.

I took a European history class and a German history class in high school, but other than that, I don’t know much about the middle ages. This book provides a good introduction to the time period for people like me.

The Middle Ages: Everyday Life In Medieval Europe lives in that weird gray area of educational books. It doesn’t go deep enough into any subject to be useful for serious academic research, but it’s too textbookish for casual reading. There were a few times where I felt my eyes glazing over with boredom while reading. (Spoiler alert: medieval taxes were just as dull as modern taxes.) The book has a lot of pictures, but I actually think it could have used more. In history books, a picture is worth a thousand words. For me, drawings and diagrams would have been more useful than long descriptions of clothing and buildings.

I did learn a lot, though, so the book is worth reading.

**Some fun facts about everyday life in medieval Europe**

1. Apprentices often ran away. There were laws about how many days an apprentice’s boss and parents had to spend looking for him if he ran away from his job.

2. Manufacturing was hard and expensive. Medieval people didn’t own many clothes or household items. Rich people who owned multiple houses didn’t furnish every house. When they moved from one house to another, they dragged all their stuff with them. Old or broken items were recycled and made into something new.

3. Part of a doctor’s job was to taste the patients’ pee to see if it tasted healthy. The book neglects to explain what healthy pee tastes like.

4. The diet of medieval peasants was more nutritious than the diet of modern Americans. Medieval people also had more time off work than modern Americans. They did have to deal with famines and widespread disease, though.

5. Forks and plates didn’t really exist. People ate with knives, spoons, and fingers. They used slices of bread as plates. Rich people gave their bread-plates to the poor or to the servants after they ate all the good food off them. That’s kind of disgusting, but I guess it’s better than starving to death.

6. Tourism existed. Rich people made pilgrimages to holy sites and bought souvenirs.

7. College students have always been idiots. One university was shut down for two years after a series of violent clashes between angry townspeople and drunken students.

Despite being dull in places, I learned enough from The Middle Ages that I want to find the other books in the Everyday Life series. I think the others are about ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and Vikings. I’m looking forward to them.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Sunday Post #82

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe by Jeffery L. Singman.
  • On Wednesday I review Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.
  • On Thursday I wrap up January.

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge by Eleanor Herman. Then I reread part of When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World by Leon Festinger, et al. (Why do nonfiction books need such long titles? It seems unnecessary.) Right now, I’m reading Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick. (A fiction book with a nice, short title.)

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. Rereading books. Sometimes I forget how much I like doing that.
  2. Modern medicine. I still haven’t been able to get my prescription refilled. This is teaching me how miserable life would be if medicine didn’t exist. Medicine is awesome, guys. Be grateful.
  3. I saw the movie Capote. I liked it. It made me want to track down a copy of In Cold Blood. I read that book several times when I was a teenager, but I don’t know what adult-me would think of it.
  4. National and state parks. I’m glad that I’ve spent so much of my life hanging out in these places.
  5. Walking. It’s literally freezing outside, but I walked a lot last week. I think I spend too much time on the computer. It messes with my mind.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere! 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

January Currently . . .

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. Here’s what I’ve been up to in January.

I’m Currently . . .

Reading: Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Revelry, and Revenge by Eleanor Herman and I See Reality: Twelve Short Stories about Real Life. Two books with very long titles.

Eating: Nothing yummy. All those people who claim that diet food tastes good are liars. Nachos taste good. Chocolate cake tastes good. Lettuce tastes like disappointment.

Photographing: The last photo I took was a random one of my dog under my desk. I’ve been trying to get some pictures of squirrels because there are tons of them around here. They don’t stay still long enough for photos. Especially when the dogs notice them.

Watching: Squirrel sex. I’m not intentionally watching it. I’m trying to take photos of squirrels, but they keep jumping each other’s bones right in front of me. Dirty critters. I’m trying to make nature photography, not squirrel porn.

Watching II: Children’s movies. They’re less depressing than the real world. In the past week, I’ve seen parts of A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, Frozen, Hercules, and Mulan.

Getting rid of: Books. I don’t like having more books than shelf space. I’m thinking about taking a giant box of books to the used bookstore. Then, the store will give me money or credits for more books. It’s an endless cycle.

Exercising: I’m doing well with Couch to 5K. Back in November, I quit at week 7 because I was traveling, then I got bronchitis, then it was the holidays, and excuses, excuses. I started over. I’m on week 3 right now.

Learning: That I need better shoes. Have you ever tried walking big, enthusiastic dogs on icy sidewalks? It’s like figure skating, but less elegant and more deadly.

What did you do in January?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: Cold City – Cathy McSporran

Cold City – Cathy McSporran

Two weeks after his death, Susan McPherson sees her father on the street in Glasgow. Not long after, she takes an overdose and is committed to a psychiatric institution. There, she is given a cocktail of drugs and soon finds herself moving between the reality of the hospital and an alternate city, permanently covered in snow and ice. In her new world, her gay brother, Jamie, is married to a woman. The country is dominated by militant pagan groups and Christian fundamentalism is on the rise, led by the charismatic preacher, McLean. Susan is befriended by Raj, a mysterious man who creates paintings of wolves and Norse legends. As Susan is drawn into the struggles and relationships of this parallel world, her grip on the “first world” loosens further. Can she resolve the crises in the ice-bound city in order to return to reality?

Review: This book was so good, and then so bad, and I’m so confused, but I loved it so much.

The narrator, Susan, is committed to a psychiatric hospital after she wanders away from work, encounters her dead father on the street, and then accidentally swallows too many sleeping pills. While doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her, Susan’s mind drifts between the hospital and an alternate-reality Scotland. This new Scotland is stuck in a perpetual winter and populated by wolves and warring religious groups. Susan’s gay brother, Jamie, is hiding his sexuality. He’s married to a woman and has a child. When a group of religious fanatics catches Jamie having sex with a man, his wife and daughter are taken away. Susan and Jamie journey to a mountain resort owned by a powerful preacher to get Jamie’s daughter back. Then things get weird. Like, really, really weird.

How does this book have so few ratings on Goodreads? For the most part, it’s a freakin’ fabulous novel! It’s one of those slower-paced, beautifully written, atmospheric books that I can get completely lost in. The descriptions of alternate-reality Scotland are so vivid that they’re still stuck in my brain. There’s one scene where Susan encounters a wolf with a doll in its mouth. The whole scene is tense and weirdly wonderful. I read it twice because I was so impressed with it.

The setting is definitely the strongest part of this novel. I’ve never been to Scotland (real or imagined), but the author makes the landscape easy to picture. The setting compelled me to read this book. Even though a world full of rampant bigotry isn’t a fun place to live, I wanted to be in this bizarre landscape. I actually neglected my real life so I could spend more time reading Cold City.

Under the surface, Cold City is about Susan’s complicated relationship with her family. Susan’s mental breakdown occurs on the day that gay marriage is legalized in Scotland, and Jamie’s boyfriend proposes to him. Throughout the book, there are hints that Susan has non-sisterly feelings toward her brother. The incest thing at the end is where the book went off the rails for me.

I don’t think the reader gets enough insight into Susan’s mind. The whole novel is strange, but the ending takes the strangeness to a new level. Susan makes a bunch of choices that aren’t explained, and I don’t fully understand them. Maybe the author is trying to show that the future is unknown? Every situation that arises in life has dozens of possible “alternate reality” outcomes? A dude can be engaged to a man in one reality, married to a woman in another reality, and in love with his sister in a third reality? I honestly don’t know. I think the majority of Cold City is amazing, but then it falls apart at the end. Or, maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand the ending. That’s always a possibility.

Finally, (this isn’t a criticism), but I have to point out that this book is written by a Scottish author, features Scottish characters, and is published by a small Scottish publisher. As a result, there are Scottish phrases and slang words. Since I’m American, the slang sent me scurrying to Google several times. Most of it is pretty easy to figure out from the context, though. (Polis = police.)

So, I’m very confused about Cold City. I loved it and was disappointed by it. I guess—if you can tolerate the oddness—I’d recommend giving it a try. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Small Presses I’m Curious About

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is whatever I want.

Did you know that the majority of books in bookstores come from the same 4 giant companies? That doesn’t seem right to me. This year, I’m going to branch out and read some books published by small companies. Here are a few presses that I’m curious about. If you’re curious, too, click the links and look at their catalogs.

Small Presses I’m Curious About

& Other Stories

What they publish: Translations, “challenging” books, adult literary novels, short fiction, and some nonfiction. They also have a subscription service.


What they publish: adult literary fiction, short stories, nonfiction, children’s books, poetry.

Coach House Books

What they publish: “Innovative” books. Poetry, adult literary fiction, drama, and some nonfiction. They publish Canadian authors only.

dancing girl press

What they publish: “Fresh, innovative, exciting, feminist” poetry by women authors. Their books are handmade.

Freight Books

What they publish: “High quality” adult literary fiction, short story collections, obscure classics, books about Scotland, and some translations and poetry.

Harmony Ink Press

What they publish: Teen and new adult LGBTQ+ fiction.

Prospect Park Books

What they publish: Books with “wit, creativity, intelligence.” Adult literary fiction, mystery and crime fiction, cookbooks, humor, drama, books about southern California, and some children’s books.


What they publish: Contemporary British novels, short stories, poetry, mystery and crime novels.

Tin House

What they publish: Adult literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Still curious?

Check out Small Press Distribution. It’s like a nonprofit Amazon for books from small presses. You can browse books by category. 

Do you read books published by small presses? I need recommendations. Do you know any good small presses that publish young adult books?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: Gemina – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Gemina – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed. 
The saga that began with Illuminae continues on board the space station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of BeiTech’s assault. Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter, Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion. 
When an elite BeiTech team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum may be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival. The fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands. 
But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

Review: This review is for book 2 in a series. I tried not to spoil anything, but you might want to check out my review of book 1.

I have a serious case of bookish déjà vu right now. I’m pretty sure I’ve read this novel before. It was called Illuminae.

The plot of Gemina runs concurrently to the plot of Illuminae. While the survivors of the BeiTech assault limp toward the Heimdall wormhole aboard the Hypatia, BeiTech is plotting their next move. BeiTech soldiers invade Heimdall station to cut off the Hypatia’s escape. That’s when all hell breaks loose.

Teenagers Hanna and Nik survive the invasion of Heimdall. Hanna is the spoiled daughter of the station’s commander. Nik is a drug dealer with a mysterious past. They have to work together to save the station and protect the Hypatia.

If you liked Illuminae, then you’ll probably like Gemina because they’re extremely similar. I know they’re part of a series, and they’re supposed to be similar, but they’re very similar. Both books are told in epistolary form with a mixture of chat logs, surveillance footage, and official documents. Nik and Hanna are basically clones of Ezra and Kady in the first book. Almost all of the characters in this series are sarcastic, athletic, flirty, and quick-witted. I desperately wanted more variety in the characters’ personalities.

“And now, born from the ashes, she’s a warrior in bloodied black.” - Gemina

Even the plots of the novels are similar. Both books have long, slow buildups to the action. Both books have disparate elements that come together to create chaos for the characters. In Illuminae, it’s invasion + evil AI + virus = problems. In Gemina, it’s invasion + malfunctioning wormhole + snakes on a spaceship = problems. There’s just too much similarity between the books for my tastes.

“It may comfort you to know that your death, while astonishingly violent, will likely be mercifully swift.” – Gemina

My only other issue with Gemina is the number of surveillance footage sections. These sections are summaries of security camera footage transcribed by an anonymous character. There are a lot of them, and I didn’t find them as compelling as the chat logs and other documents. I know that we need these sections to understand the plot, but the anonymous character puts an extra layer of distance between the reader and the main characters. The surveillance footage pulled me out of the story.

Despite the déjà vu and jarring sections, I loved the experience of reading Gemina. This novel is a 600-page beast, but the brilliant formatting makes it a quick read. It’s a beautiful book. I especially like the part where Hanna and Nik are in parallel universes. This plotline could have been confusing, but the formatting makes the action easy to follow. Whoever designed Gemina deserves a cookie.

My new favorite character is Nik’s cousin, Ella, who is a great addition to the series. She’s a fifteen-year-old computer genius who relies on a wheelchair and oxygen tanks to survive. Ella is lively. Just like a real teenager, she’s quirky in a slightly annoying way. She tells jokes during deadly situations and doesn’t take anything seriously. I need book 3 just so I can get more Ella.

I’m looking forward to reading the final book in the trilogy. I have a feeling it’ll be insane.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sunday Post #81

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.
  • On Tuesday I talk about small presses.
  • On Wednesday I review Cold City by Cathy McSporran.
  • On Thursday I tell you what I’ve been doing in January.

In My Reading Life

Bad news. I DNFed 2 books last week. They were The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel and Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville. I started both of them in December and was having a really hard time paying attention to them. I finally just gave up on them and reread Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Then I read Angel Catbird, volume 1 by Margaret Atwood and Johnnie Christmas. Right now, I’m reading Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge by Eleanor Herman, and I See Reality: Twelve Stories about Real Life.

In The Rest Of My Life

Last week was not the greatest for me. My aunt died from cancer while Trump was being inaugurated. My dog injured herself. And, for reasons I don’t understand, I can’t get my prescription refilled. So . . . yeah. Feeling kinda sick right now.

But, let’s do this. Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. The blog now has a discussion library! It’s up there ^, right under the header. All my brilliant opinions about stuff are in one place.
  2. I finished my 2016 reading statistics post. It took forever because I had to do math and make graphics. I hate both of those things, so I’m proud of myself.
  3. I didn’t cheat on my diet or slack on my exercise. I was tempted to be lazy last week. Deep breaths and back away from the cookies.
  4. Book trading.
  5. This commercial from New Zealand. When my diet is over, someone needs to park that churro cart in my driveway.  

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other. See you around the blogosphere!