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This is without a doubt the most comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the cult of saints from the Roman period through to the Reformation, from Ireland in the west to Egypt and Palestine in the east. It's the kind of work that's possible only after a lifetime's work in the field, though for the most part Bartlett wears his scholarship lightly—I don't think this is a book that would be difficult for a non-specialist to read, even though at more than 600 pages it does require some degree of investment in the subject. An impressive compendium that rewards reading cover to cover and dipping into for reference.

(One downside: the use of "Jewess" on p. 42 as if it's a neutral descriptor. Why did either Bartlett or Princeton University Press think that was acceptable usage in 2013?)

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It's been a while since I've been so conflicted about a book. As a memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is fascinating. J.D. Vance gives a no-holds bar look at what it's like to grow up in a poor, white working-class family in Ohio, the grandson of migrants from Kentucky. His mother is a drug addict with mental health issues; his father was largely absent during his formative years. Vance made it out of his hometown, joining the Marines and using the life skills and the money that gave him to put himself first through undergrad and then through Yale Law.

Some of the particulars of our stories are different—I'm from Ireland; I grew up in an intact nuclear family; I never had to learn how to manage addicted adults while still a child—but in broad terms Vance told a story I'm very familiar with. I'm from a working-class family, from an economically depressed part of the country which has experienced a brain-drain for generations. I'm from an extended family which has similarly complicated ideas about honour, verbal abuse, and violence and how they should go together; where parents will go without to buy toddlers with no understanding of Christmas hundreds of euros worth of toys because otherwise what would the neighbours say?; where social conservatism wars with contrarianism (my dad doesn't think women are cut out to be mechanics, but does think that the Catholic Church should ordain female priests); where I was the first person to go to college and through sheer bloody-mindedness earned a PhD, but no man in my generation of the family did more than scrape a pass in the Leaving Cert (if that), and one cousin recently quit a shelf-stacking job at Tesco's because it was "too much bother."

When Vance described the disorientation of showing up at an elite university with his kind of background, it all sounded painfully familiar to me. (I, too, had moments of not knowing which cutlery to use when, or being quietly panicked when classmates were all, say, entirely familiar with Italian food whereas I'd never encountered spaghetti that didn't come in a tin with Heinz stamped on the front of it.)

Yet when Hillbilly Elegy tries to move beyond being a personal memoir, to become a broader, sociological look at white working-class culture in Appalachia, there Vance started to lose me. I appreciate that he's thoughtful and compassionate about his family and others like them. There are times when I agree with what he says about personal responsibility and how it's necessary to overcome "learned helplessness" in order to break the cycle of poverty, abuse, and deprivation.

But Vance is too quick to skip over the fact that many problems are systemic in nature, symptoms of far greater ills (he addresses this really only by saying that these issues are too big for government alone to solve, which is not really the same thing). He describes what he sees as inherent attributes of Scots-Irish—hillbilly—culture as fundamental determinants of contemporary white working-class ills, but never digs into why Scots-Irish culture outside of Appalachia didn't develop in the same way or why people of all ethnic backgrounds in the region experience poverty, deprivation, and social exclusion to the same or greater extent as do whites. Race is rarely and fleetingly mentioned, for all that it's a key component to understanding American history; toxic masculinity is only nodded to in one paragraph towards the end of the book; capitalism is not critiqued at all, though Vance mentions materialism as being a particular hillbilly sin. If Hillbilly Elegy does indeed explain Trump's recent election victory, it's not because it gives any great insight into the economic woes which fired up his base, but because it gives the reader a glimpse of the sense of racialised exceptionalism upon which support for an explicitly ethno-nationalist candidate was built.

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890 / Vanessa North - Roller Girl

This was probably four stars for the depiction of lots of women (straight, bi, lesbian, cis, trans, butch, femme) and their friendships, and for having a trans woman as a main character; two stars for the romance proper. Roller Girl isn't long enough to really give depth to the relationship between Tina and Joe, and the central conflict between them (we can't be open about our relationship because of how it might hurt... the dynamic of our inclusive, amateur roller derby team?) felt more than a bit forced. Overall, though, a sweet, light, positive romance.

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889 / G.B. Gordon - When to Hold Them

A slightly odd book. G.B. Gordon does a fairly good job at sketching out the two main characters—Doran, newly arrived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, alone and struggling with overcoming his gambling addiction; Xavier, a biracial park ranger who's somewhat of a loner. I bought their chemistry together, and liked that Gordon set up a dominant-submissive power dynamic between them that wasn't particularly stylised or centered around pain. However, I didn't buy the speed with which the relationship progressed—the ending in particular felt unearned. Since Doran often reads a lot more like a teenager than a guy in his early twenties, I really wanted someone to tell him to back off and slow down when he proposes moving in with an older, dominant guy whom he's known, what... a month? Two? Especially when Xavier is at times weirdly demanding in ways that don't quite feel in character or like how most people would behave in a given situation.

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888 / L.C. Chase - Pickup Men

Pickup Men is a romance that deals with some deep themes—homophobia, bigotry—but is fundamentally a sweet, light book. Tripp is a closeted rodeo champion; Marty is one of the few cowboys on the circuit to be openly gay. The novel begins with them already in a relationship, and L.C. Chase does a good job at both showing the ongoing, genuine if messy chemistry between the characters and showing how internalised homophobia could keep them apart. However, Chase isn't quite so good at maintaining balance and tone—some of the segues between scenes and chapters are awkward; some of the conflict feels forced and melodramatic; and the prose occasionally drifts towards the purple (excising the epithets would have helped immensely). Still, a sweet and engaging read.

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887 / Ben Aaronovitch - The Hanging Tree

Another entertaining installment in the Rivers of London series. Ben Aaronovitch is so good at dry humour, and I thought that this book had fewer pacing problems than some of the previous volumes. The Hanging Tree does a good job at answering some long-standing questions while setting up some new problems for Peter and the other inhabitants of the Folly and also broadening and deepening the scope of the magical world. (I will say, though, that I think the title must have been chosen way back when Aaronovitch thought the novel would go in a different direction—I kept waiting for it to become more relevant and it never really did. Perhaps it's a metaphor I just didn't get?)

I liked that we got a better sense of Lady Ty and what makes her tick, though I was sad that we didn't get so much time with Molly and Nightingale comparatively. (Albeit Nightingale and Peter had one very lovely moment at the end that made me laugh at how far they've come as friends since the first book in the series.) And without giving away too much about the ending, I'm eager to see where Aaronovitch takes things next.

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Why do the publishers of popular history works so often insist on giving them titles which set up grand claims that the book can't possibly answer, and which often don't really convey what the text is about? This is one of the main flaws with Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. Nancy Marie Brown does suggest that a woman called Margret the Adroit, mentioned briefly in a medieval Icelandic text largely unknown even to most medievalists, may have been the craftsperson responsible for some or all of the pieces, but she doesn't come close to as specific a claim as the title makes.

In fact, given the paucity of the source material, Brown spends most of the book looking at the intercultural connections of northwestern Europe in the twelfth century, when the chess pieces were likely created, and the tangled (nationalist and often elitist) historiography surrounding their discovery in (perhaps) the early nineteenth century.

Brown writes well, fluidly and engagingly, and her enthusiasm about her source material is clear. Ivory Vikings was a pleasure to read. That said, there are points where it felt like she was padding a bit in order to reach the page length her publishers required of her. Knowing something of the genealogical snarls that accompanied the transfer of royal power in this period was necessary for Brown's argument, but some of it was superfluous (even if it did introduce me to characters like King Magnus Bare-Legs).

(Advancing a theory of origin for the Lewis Chessmen is outside of my wheelhouse, though I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that a female artist contributed to their manufacture. I will say, however, that the desire to find a single maker is a distinctly post-Enlightenment one and doesn't really fit with how medieval artistic workshops operated or how medieval people thought of ownership/art.)

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This, to me, is one of the most heartbreaking texts to survive from the Middle Ages. Handbook for William is the only text to survive from the Carolingian period that we know to have been written by a woman. Dhuoda, a noblewoman separated from her husband and much loved children, wrote this little guide for her son to instruct him in righteous living. It is not a narrative; that, combined with Dhuoda's love of acrostics and numerology can make her text a little opaque for the modern reader. Yet the Handbook gives us access to the unhindered voice of a ninth-century woman: her hopes and fears for her family, her understanding of the society in which she lived, her deep faith, and her participation in literary culture. The context which Carol Neel provides in the introduction is what makes this all the more touching—Dhuoda was likely never reunited with her children, and the eponymous William was executed in his early twenties.

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884 / Gloria Steinem - My Life on the Road

Rather than being a tell-all autobiography, My Life on the Road is a set of memoirs linked around the theme of travel. Gloria Steinem's career has taken her all over the world and brought her into contact (and sometimes conflict) with any number of notable figures from politics and the feminist movement: Betty Friedan, Wilma Mankiller, Hillary Clinton, Florynce Kennedy. The tone is warm but sometimes disjointed. There were some anecdotes that I wished Steinem would linger over, tease out some more; some that didn't seem of a piece with the rest of the text. I was fascinated to learn about the National Women's Conference, which took place in Houston in 1977 and which Steinem calls "the most important event nobody knows about", and which seems to have been an intersectional gathering avant la lettre.

Steinem is right to quote Native American scholar Paula Gunn Allen, who wrote that "the root of oppression is the loss of memory" (226)—that when women and other oppressed groups do not have a knowledge of their own past it is more difficult to dismantle contemporary systems of oppression. I'm in agreement with a lot of what Steinem says about the necessity to recover older rhythms of living with the Earth, for more people to be aware that the Western gender binary is not the only way for people to relate to their bodies.

And yet I also found myself frustrated at several points with the way in which Steinem uses history to make her point. Correlation is not causation. The political system of the United States is not directly modelled on the egalitarian democracy of the Iroquois Confederacy. Not all pre-modern forms of political organisation in Europe were hierarchical or feudal—how else could Iceland have a parliament as old as it does?—and Steinem's claims erase with a stroke of a pen the powerful (and sometimes non-Christian) women of medieval Europe. There were not eight million women burnt at the stake for witchcraft and practice pre-Christian traditions in the Middle Ages (no footnote for that eyebrow-raising number), and nor is the layout of a Catholic church an echo of female genitalia ("a vaginal aisle up the center of the church to the altar (the womb) with two curved (ovarian) structures on either side" (207)) in anything other than a manner so general that the same could be said of almost any building you care to mention.

Women can find ourselves in the past without having to resort to myth-making of our own.

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883 / M.K. Hobson - The Hidden Goddess

It's been several years since I read the first book in this series, The Native Star, so the previous adventures of Emily Edwards and Dreadnought Stanton were far from fresh in my mind when I began The Hidden Goddess. Still, this novel almost stood alone and I could pick up the threads again without too much difficulty. M.K. Hobson has a knack for writing page turners, even when as in The Hidden Goddess the pacing is all off and the characters repeatedly fail to talk to one another in a manner that I normally find quite frustrating.

Emily is still a great main character: sympathetic, trying to do the right thing, but sometimes overwhelmed or making poor or selfish choices because she's running on limited information. Her relationship with Dreadnought Stanton was at once realistically drawn (falling in love and getting engaged is not the end point of a relationship) and deeply frustrating (the too-crowded final section of the book brings some revelations about Stanton's past that... well, if I were Emily, I'd have dumped him.)

One of the bigger flaws I remember from the first book is that the Native American characters featured seemed to be there solely to sacrifice themselves for white people. In this book, the big bad is the Aztec goddess Itztlacoliuhqui (who, I discovered when I googled, is actually a god in the Aztec pantheon, and whose gender swap appears to have been in the service of one of the more frustrating reveals at the end of the book), who is all savage blood lust and destructive urges, who is confined to a temple in Mexico that's strewn with dismembered body parts, and who is described as "dumb as a bag of hammers." Everyone who serves this goddess and actually does something to move her plans forward? A white American. Yeesh.

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