Friday, March 27, 2015

Audio Book Review: 'Grave Sight' by Charlaine Harris

My last audio book for my commute to and from my corporate day job was Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris. This is the first book in the Harper Connelly series. Harper is the book's heroine. After being hit by a lightning strike as a child, Harper developed the ability to locate dead bodies. She feels a kind of sixth sense, a buzzing sensation, when she's near a corpse, and she gets a vision of how the deceased came to be deceased.

Grave Sight (Harper Connelly, #1)Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong about the identities of the murderers. My first inkling was that Harper's love interest, Deputy Hollis Boxleitner, would turn out to be the killer. But no, he's just a pleasant and slightly lonely blond-haired man in his 20s who, very tragically, lost his wife.

I was a bit disappointed when Harper didn't show any inclination to stay with Hollis, or at least see him again. But she's a young woman, only 24, and she and her brother/manager Tolliver live a nomadic lifestyle. I don't judge her for having a brief romance; I'm simply more used to romance novels, where the relationships are decidedly longer-term. I didn't enjoy this as much as the first Sookie Stackhouse book because it wasn't as romantic, but that's just a personal preference.

I'm not usually much of a mystery reader. I wouldn't have listened to The Cuckoo's Calling if it hadn't been written by J.K. Rowling. Also, audio book choices are somewhat more limited than paper and e-book choices. A lot of the bestsellers that make it into book-on-CD format aren't the ones that interest me. But I do love paranormal themes, which is what makes Charlaine Harris an author of choice to me.

This was a perfectly satisfactory story with an interesting heroine with an unusual ability. I don't know yet whether or not I'll finish this series, but I certainly enjoyed listening to this audio book.

I did have a bit of a hard time picturing Harper and Tolliver, though. He's supposed to be tall and pale, with straight black hair and a mustache. I keep thinking of the Guy Fawkes mask from V For Vendetta. Harper has short, curly black hair, but when I try to picture a Caucasian women with curly black hair I keep thinking of Mother Gothel from the Disney movie Tangled. It may be that I imagine more vividly when I'm physically reading that when I'm having the book narrated to me.

I checked this book out from my local public library and was not obligated to review it in any way. Next up, I'll be listening to A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle, read by Jennifer Ehle. I actually had no idea Ehle was American, because I remember her mainly as Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, opposite Colin Firth. Her mother is English, which I suppose is why she can do a passable English accent. In any event, she makes a lovely audio book narrator of the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time.

I'll still be aggressively imagining Alexis-Bledel-as-Rory-Gilmore in the role of Meg Murry in my mind's eye.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

'Little Women and Me,' a Charming YA Fantasy

Little Women and MeLittle Women and Me by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler-Free Review

The premise is fun - a 21st-century high schooler suddenly finds herself inside the world of Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women. The characters in the book take it for granted that Emily is the middle March sister, right between Beth and Jo. Emily takes it upon herself to save Beth from you-know-what, but she also takes it upon herself to put the moves on Laurie Laurence, since Jo isn't using him.

The whole book is clever, and the ending is especially satisfying. Tasked by her English teacher Mr. Ochocinco (tee hee) with changing one thing about her favorite book, Emily manages to alter the ending of 'Little Women' in a way that goes straight for the heart. A large twist near the end makes the premise even more fun and the ending all the more satisfactory.

I purchased this book with my own funds from Better World Books and was not obligated in any way to review it. My particular copy came from Keesler Air Force Base, located in Biloxi, Mississippi. I'm not affiliated with Better World Books in any way.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Vanilla,' a #FemDom Erotic Romance by Megan Hart

VanillaVanilla by Megan Hart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really could not have enjoyed this book more. Bless Megan Hart for writing Elise, a fully-formed character so realistic she practically could have walked off the page and into the nearest ice cream parlor. Yes, she's a woman who enjoys femdom (female-dominant) sex. No, she is not a caricature based on male fantasy. She's a well-rounded person with a past and a future, with a family, with a complicated Jewish mother.

I happen to like reading femdom. A lot. I have a hard time identifying with submissive female protagonists, but I can easily imagine myself slipping into the shoes of a woman who's used to giving commands and being obeyed.

Elise isn't perfect, but she is a likable protagonist. She's still grieving over the loss of her previous relationship with "George." They called each other "George" and "Lenny" in a teasing reference to Of Mice and Men. See, Ben Linus - Elise can quote Steinbeck too. And I bet she wouldn't mess up and say Ernest Hemingway fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Sadly, Supernatural does not come up again after the excerpt I quoted here. I wanted to know more about how Elise is the Sam and her boss/friend Alex is the Dean.

After her bad heartbreak with George, she's chagrined to find her heart is slipping into the hands of Niall, a "vanilla" guy who doesn't really understand femdom. He's seen too much bad porn.

But this book is NOT bad porn. It's beautifully written, demonstrating once again that good sex writing is just plain good writing, period. You may count me as a Megan Hart fan now.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review through Amazon Vine.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Megan Hart's Vanilla Author Song List what would go here if Grooveshark were still around.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

'The Cuckoo's Calling' by #JKRowling Writing as Robert Galbraith

I loved this audiobook, so I'm as surprised as you are that I simply don't have very much more to say about it, other than what I covered in my March 1st post. Just a few talking points, then:

- The title, of course, comes from a poem by Christina Rossetti called "The Dirge." I haven't read much of Rossetti. I'm slightly more familiar with her notorious uncle, John William Polidori.

- I said Rowling has a casual familiarity with 400 years of British literature, but she also makes at least passing reference to American literature in this volume. A poem by Walt Whitman is mentioned. During the episode in which he learns of his ex-fiance's engagement and has too much to drink, Cormoran Strike reveals himself to have something in common with Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Namely, both were boxers in their respective armies. Also, Strike is very, very drunk, as Prew so often gets in the War Trilogy.

Physically, Strike is described as a large, lumbering man with curly hair - less Montgomery Clift as Prew in From Here to Eternity, more John C. Reilly as John Storm in The Thin Red Line.

- Apart from Cormoran, Robin, and Lula herself, I think my favorite character is Guy Somé. First of all, it's hilarious that he gave himself a professional name that's a faux-Frenchified version of "some guy." Second of all, being gay, he had no sexual interest in Lula, yet he still loved her very, very much in a platonic way. I love their friendship. I hope he shows up again in The Silkworm.

But I really hope that in a future short story or drabble based on her Harry Potter characters, J.K. Rowling has one of them wear a Guy Somé design. I'd love to see Draco Malfoy in a studded hoodie. Astoria Greengrass can wear it when he's not home.

- Vashti is a great name for a high-end clothes shop. You may remember Queen Vashti of Persia from the Biblical book of Esther. When her drunken husband orders her to appear before him and his rowdy, drunken friends, Vashti refuses. She has sometimes been thought of as haughty and self-important in Jewish tradition, but to feminists it simply seems as if she valued her own worth over her husband's senseless "command." Vashti's reward is to be replaced by the more submissive Esther, much in the same way Lilith is replaced by the more submissive Eve.

- Nothing ever explained how Lula got that scar on her arm, so I'm just going to have to assume "from Voldemort" is the correct answer.

- Headcanon: Lula Landry and Fred Weasley are dating in heaven.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Who Were the Ancient Celts?

Public domain image
(I wrote this in 2011. It originally appeared on a history website that is now defunct.)

Although the Celtic peoples were a large and influential society during the classical period of ancient European history, their lack of a written language makes their culture somewhat difficult to define and describe. The Celtic tribes never had a common leader and may never have spoken a unified language. Ancient place-names considered to be in the Celtic language were also used by non-Celtic tribes, making it seem likely that the language was never linked to one distinct ethnic or national group.

In the 8th-7th centuries BCE, approximately the time of the founding of the city of Rome, the Celts are believed to have moved into the British Isles. Their territory expanded far beyond England and Ireland, though. It included parts of modern Turkey at the easternmost, much of Central Europe north of the Alps and Balkans, the Rhine Valley, much of modern France and Spain, and the whole of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

The earliest historical mentions of the Celts come from the ancient Greeks, in about 500 BCE. The Greeks described them as the westernmost people of Europe. Around 390 BCE, the Celts sacked Rome. The Greeks and Romans considered them barbarians, and they bedeviled a number of civilizations until about 279 BCE. The end of the classical period of Celtic culture came in the first century BCE, when the Romans under Julius Caesar conquered the British Isles and Germanic-speaking tribes attacked Celtic territory from the north. After that time, Celtic cultural traditions become heavily influenced by the Roman and Germanic cultures.

Creative Commons image by Georges Jansoone
Although Celts from different regions appear to have worshiped different gods and goddesses, there is some commonality in their religion. Their goddesses seem to have been associated with the running water of rivers and streams. They worshiped a horned god, sometimes known as Cernunnos, associated with deer and bulls. Other gods were represented with a wheel and with a cauldron.

The writers who lived as contemporaries of the ancient Celts all agreed their most sacred places were groves of trees, particularly oak trees where mistletoe grew. A class of priests called the Druids, or “knowers of the oak tree,” performed their rituals and sacrifices, among other secular functions. The Druids also memorized the Celts’ oral histories in the form of genealogies and epic poetry. By the time of the Roman invasion, the common Celtic people were still largely illiterate, but the Druids were able to read and write both their own language and Latin.

Archaeologists who study the early Celtic cultures of central Europe come to these conclusions about their culture:

*The men wore woolen kilts.
*They lived in square and round huts with thatched roofs.
*Most were cremated when they died and were placed in urns, which were then buried in neat rows. A few people, perhaps tribal chieftains or priests/priestesses, were buried in chariots, too flimsy for everyday use, suggesting the chariot was a religious symbol.
*They tended to be war-like, but apparently never attempted to build a large empire.
*They were an egalitarian society, without extremes of class or wealth.

Their later descendants, the ones known to the great Mediterranean civilizations of classical Europe, had the following characteristics:

*Less egalitarian than their ancestors, later Celtic peoples had a distinct class of nobles.
*Men wore gold, silver or bronze torque-style necklaces. Although these ornaments have not been found in the graves of women, Celtic goddesses are depicted wearing them.
*They kept bees, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Wild boar seems to have been a favorite food.
*The common people drank milk, beer, and mead. Nobles might import wine.
*Although at one time they were noted for going into battle naked, the Celts invented chain-mail armor.
*They wore blue body paint for ceremonial occasions and sometimes in battle. The roots of this custom may lie in the belief among many Indo-European peoples that the gods’ veins were filled with a blue ethereal substance, called ichor by the Greeks. Painting one’s self with blue was a way of asking to be taken in by the gods in the event of death.

Public domain image
The Romans typically left alone the religious practices of conquered tribes, yet they were uncharacteristically hard on the Celtic cultural practices of the British Isles. In their historical writings, the Romans claimed they were repulsed by the practices of human sacrifice and beheading of enemies killed in battle. (The Celts believed a kind of magic resided in the head, even after death.) In fact, this suppression may have stemmed from Roman fear of the temporal power held by the Druids, whose secular power within Celtic society had steadily increased by the time of Caesar.

Today, the remaining outposts of Celtic language and culture lie primarily in western Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, the Brittany region of France, and the Cornwall region of England. These far corners of the Roman Empire were less tightly controlled than the empire’s more easily accessible lands.

Common characteristics of Celtic visual arts include:

*An emphasis on geometry, particularly the circle and the number three. Many Celtic myths and folk beliefs make reference to the number three.
*Natural forms, such as those of animals and leaves.
*The theme of metamorphosis, evidenced by images that can be interpreted in different ways when viewed from alternative angles.


“Celtic Britain (The Iron Age) c. 500 BC -60 AD”

Discovery of Lost Worlds, edited by Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr. Simon and Schuster: New York.

Quest for the Past, edited by Ann Kramer and Lindy Newton. Reader’s Digest.

The Timetables of History: The New Third Revised Edition, by Bernard Grun. Simon and Schuster: New York.

The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara G. Walker. Harper & Row, San Francisco

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Real Feelings About Ersatz History

Sometimes I like to get lost on Wikipedia. I got lost the other day in the "pseudohistory" category, and it was fascinating.

It started with the Ourang Medan. Well, it started on YouTube. I wasn't signed into my Google Account, so I was browsing the home page. A channel with a series of "top 5" lists came up - in fact, the channel is called Top5s.

This is the video I saw.

[If you want to read more about the strange death of Canadian student Elisa Lam in Los Angeles, you may do so at The Vigilant Citizen.]

The evening after I watched the video, I went to bed thinking about the Ourang Medan, the "ghost ship" whose crew was supposedly found dead, with expressions of abject terror on their faces, shortly before the ship exploded and sank. I wondered if the story was true.

I looked it up the next day. According to Wikipedia, there's no evidence that a ship called the Ourang Medan even existed. If it did, it should be listed in Lloyd's Shipping Register, but it isn't.

The categories at the bottom of the entry caught my eye; this is where I noticed the word "pseudohistory." What a fascinating word, I thought: not history that actually happened, but "history" that circulates in human consciousness without apparent basis in fact. I had to know what else belonged to this category.

For the record, I should mention that Wikipedia, as a peer-edited source, doesn't have the same standards for reliability and accuracy that a source with a "gatekeeper"/editor has. Although it has guidelines, it has so many users that it would be virtually impossible to ensure that all the articles adhere to its guidelines at all times. We have to take Wikipedia entries with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean the categorization itself isn't of interest.

Pseudohistory, it turns out, contains a great many fascinating topics. Some of it has to do with "ancient astronaut theory," as exemplified by Erich von Däniken's 1968 nonfiction book Chariots of the Gods?. (The question mark is part of the title.)

Another large subcategory of pseudohistory is labelled as Priory of Sion Hoax. This has to do with much of the background story that went into Dan Brown's writing of The Da Vinci Code. Another subcategory is the "Shakespeare authorship question." (There's also a Molière authorship question, but hey, I care much less about French literature than English. Cultural bias - sorry.)

Much of the pseudohistory category has to do with religion, much of it to do specifically with Christianity. Take, for example, the brief Babylon Mystery Religion article. Babylon Mystery Religion is a book, now out of print, by Ralph Woodrow published in 1966. Referring to an earlier (1853) book called The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop, Woodrow's book linked the Roman Catholic Church to ancient Babylonian rituals. Woodrow later recanted his anti-Catholic views in a second book.

Apparently there are quite a few factual errors in Hislop's book, stemming from misunderstandings about the historical Babylonian culture. Although scholars have subsequently pointed out these errors, the Catholicism=Whore of Babylon theme is still alive and well among some Evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.

One of the modern-day adherents to some version of Hislop's ideas is Michael Hoggard, an American (Missouri) pastor with a relatively large following for his radio/YouTube show. The show has more than 20,000 fans on Facebook. He also curates the website, which collects uses of images linked to the number 666 as they appear in popular culture.

Hoggard is a Southern Baptist. A related pseudohistorical concept is Baptist successionism, which argues that the Baptist denomination is most direct line between the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles and modern churches. The work most often associated with this view is The Trail of Blood (1931) by J.M. Carroll. It is not historically accurate, but it remained influential among Southern Baptists well into the late 20th century.

But for me, maybe the most interesting article in all of pseudohistory is the Witch-Cult Hypothesis. Remember when I got my ass handed to me for over-relying on Barbara J. Walker as a source? (If not, you can always read about it here.) Well, Walker is probably an adherent of this theory. It states, essentially, that through the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era, ancient Pagan religions survived in such a way that worshipers of The Horned God of Paganism were mistaken by Christians for worshipers of the Christian devil and subsequently persecuted as witches. This theory came about in the 19th century and was perpetuated into the 20th century, even including the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica for many years.

(Encyclopedias are them things we used to read before we had Google.)

According to the Wikipedia entry, the Witch-Cult Hypothesis found a champion in British historian/Egyptologist Margaret Murray*, who wrote The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. It is not historically accurate.

Despite its unreliability as history, Murray's book is said, in the Wikipedia entry, to have been influential in the development of the Wiccan religion. Murray's subsequent book, The God of the Witches, introduced the term The Horned God for the male deity worshiped by the alleged witch cult on Western Europe. (She acknowledged that the witch cult also worshiped a goddess, but in her opinion the witches regarded their male deity as the more important of the two.) Gerald Gardner, who was also English and is now considered the founder of modern Wicca (referred to as Gardnerian Wicca), claimed to have found a surviving coven of the kind of witches Murray described, and he started his own coven based on them, in the interest of keeping the religion alive.

But mind you, Wicca, modern witchcraft, and NeoPaganism are 20th century religions. While they revive certain aspects of ancient belief and worship, the rituals and beliefs of modern witches were created in the 20th century. And there's nothing wrong with that. People take what they need from their religions, and a religion doesn't have to be old to meet the needs of its practitioners.

The Wikipedia article on The Horned God states that Gardner, consciously influenced by Murray, borrowed his conception of Wiccan practice from Freemasonry, from the Theosophy movement, from other unnamed occult sources, and from Aleister Crowley's Gnostic Mass. (In 1913, Crowley wrote a mass for the Gnostic church, borrowing from the rituals of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, but replacing Christian concepts with his own Thelema, his "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.")

By the way, Margaret Murray is also in part responsible for the association of Glastonbury, England, with King Arthur and the Holy Grail. I used this legend in Midsummer Night.
So dig in to pseudohistory if you like. If you're interested in history - and in the history of ideas - you may find it as fascinating as I did.

*That Madeleine L'Engle's fictional protagonist in The Time Quintet is named Margaret "Meg" Murry is coincidence, I think.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

#Nonfiction #Psychology 'Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil' by Paul Bloom

I majored in psychology in college, and I'm still fascinated by the science of how the human mind works. For that reason, I decided to read Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

The author, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, states in the preface that some of his inspiration for this work combining developmental and evolutionary psychology with moral philosophy was a book by Adam Smith which Bloom had studied in Edinburgh. Smith is more widely known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (often shortened to The Wealth of Nations), but the volume that concerned Bloom was The Theory of the Moral Sentiments

In his 1749 work, Smith claimed human beings were born with a sense of morality. Bloom also brings in Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1787, "The moral sense, or conscience, is as much part of [a hu]man as his [or her] leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree."

Bloom goes on to demonstrate, using evidence gleaned from various scientific studies, that psychologists tend to favor the view that some of what we call morality is inborn to human beings. The first chapter deals explicitly with what "morality" might mean in human beings who are less than two years old. Subsequent chapters branch out into what morality means in adults, because we have to understand what kinds of behaviors we're talking about when we try to define what moral behavior is. 

Overall, Bloom's evidence suggests the moral picture of the human species is a fairly optimistic one. Human beings do seem to be wired to be empathetic and helpful to one another, even when acts of kindness do not immediately reward us. Interestingly, Bloom also cites evidence of empathetic behavior in non-human animals. Even rats hate to see other rats suffering.

Even though the title is a bit of a misdirect, since the entire construction doesn't deal exclusively with infant morality, the research itself is fascinating. Not only that, but Bloom has organized it into chapters that are clear, intuitive, and readable. I don't think one would need to be a psychology major to understand this book. Like Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye the Science Guy, Bloom has the gift of translating scientific concepts into everyday language.  

About the Author: Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. He is the author or editor of six books, including the acclaimed How Pleasure Works. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, and his scientific and popular articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Science, Slate, The Best American Science Writing, and many other publications. He lives in New Haven with his wife [Karen Wynn, also a professor of psychology at Yale] and two sons. Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter at @paulbloomatyale.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Currently Reading: 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith

The audiobook I'm currently listening to (borrowed from my local library) while I commute is The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling. Thus far, I've listened to 5 of 13 discs.

Oh, Jo, how I've missed your expansive vocabulary, your encyclopedic knowledge of Classical mythology and folklore, your insights into human nature, your particular sense of humor, your casual familiarity with 400 years of British literature, and your use of the Latin language.

Two references to Virgil's Aeneid have occurred in the part of the book I've listened to thus far - is Rowling drawing a comparison between Lula Landry (the deceased fashion model around whom the mystery occurs) and Queen Dido of Carthage? I seem to remember that Dido commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff; Landry is thought to have committed suicide by jumping from her flat's third-floor window. Carthage is in North Africa; Landry is of multiracial English and African descent.

Sidebar: I had to read the Aeneid in college and I distinctly remember barely being able to understand a word of it. I remember calling my dad and asking him if he could take me to Barnes and Noble to get the Cliff Notes. This was the late '90s, mind you, and I don't think Shmoop and SparkNotes were things yet.  If they were, I hadn't yet discovered them.

The statue of Eros - well, technically his twin brother Anteros, but commonly referred to as Eros - at Piccadilly Circus is where Robin Ellacot and her beloved Matthew got engaged to be married. Creative Commons image by Eriko Nakagawa.
Will Cormoran Strike turn out to be another literary example of Marry the Man with One Leg? He walks with the aid of a prosthesis after losing part of a leg in Afghanistan. You know who else in British literature was wounded in Afghanistan? John Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Although Cormoran is the Sherlock Holmes and his Watson is Robin Ellacot, I tend to think it's an intentional homage.

And Now Some Harry Potter References I Have to Get Out of My System.

Will that pink "bekittened" death threat turn out to be from Dolores Umbridge?

(Actually, I already heard about the man with the not-cheating wife who sent the death threats. Umbridge was my first thought, though.)

How did Lula get that scar on her arm? Was it - Voldemort?

Cormoran's sister Lucy has three sons. In their portrait, the boys are wearing bottle-green school uniforms. Slytherins, then?

Tanacetum vulgare, or tansy, in a Creative Commons image by fir0002
I like the name Tansy, even if the character isn't a very lovable one. Neville Longbottom, Hogwarts professor of herbology, could tell you that tansy, a member of the daisy family, has also been used as a medicinal herb, although it should not be due to toxic side effects. WebMD can tell you that the word "tansy" derives from the Greek word athanasia, or immortality. The ancient Greeks used it for embalming.

Because the plant effects include stimulating blood flow, it has been used to treat fluid retention and to stimulate menstrual flow. It has been used for abortion. BUT it should not be used medicinally because of the serious risk of side effects that include kidney and liver failure and death.

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