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Cunning Folk by Tabitha Stanmore

A spritely and deeply researched history of magical problem-solving in a distant, unsettled, and strangely familiar time.

Imagine:it’s 1600, and you’ve lost your keys. You’ve scoured your house. They’re nowhere to be found. What do you do? In medieval and early modern Europe, the first port of call might very well have been cunning practitioners of “service magic.” Neither feared (like witches), nor venerated (like saints), cunning folk were essential to everyday life, a ubiquitous presence in a time when the supernatural was surprisingly mundane. For people young and old, male and female, highborn and low, practical magic was a cherished resource with which to navigate life’s many challenges, from recovering stolen linens to seizing the throne, and everything in between. In historian Tabitha Stanmore’s beguiling account, we meet lovelorn widows and dissolute nobles, selfless healers and renegade monks. We listen in on Queen Elizabeth I’s astrology readings and track treasure hunters trying to unearth buried gold without upsetting the fairies that guard it. Much like us, premodern people lived in bewildering times, buffeted by forces beyond their control. Their anxieties are instantly recognizable, and as Stanmore reveals, their faith in magic has much to teach us about how we accommodate ourselves to the irrational in our allegedly enlightened lives today.

Charming in every sense of the word, Cunning Folk is an immersive reconstruction of a bygone world, and a thought-provoking commentary on the beauty and bafflement of being human.

Review

When I saw the title, my mind immediately went straight to witches. do not pass go, do not collect $200. But surprisingly witches don’t figure greatly in the “service magic” mainly covered in the book. Stanmore has a PhD in this topic and based on her extensive research shown in the book, she clearly knows her topic well and writes in a way that isn’t too dry and academic. She mainly covers England during the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries – with a few exceptions in place and time.

I found I enjoyed the sections that deal with the common folk just trying to find their lost spoons, shirts, and linen because, as Stanmore points out, this was a time when everything was mainly made by hand and the loss of such things could be far more than just an inconvenience. The rich and mighty mainly annoyed me as they seemed to just want to get more of what they already had. Several of the English noblemen also struck me as candidates for “Upper Class Twit of the Year.”

The chapters are grouped into topics rather than progressing by timeframe and, among others, cover basic finding lost things, influencing the rich and mighty, casting horoscopes, and predicting the future. Stanmore gives some in depth historical facts which illuminate why people were interested in doing some of these things when they did. The last bit which discusses how people today are still interested in their daily horoscopes, blessing boats to avoid mechanical breakdowns, and how building authorities in Iceland, Ireland, and Scotland have tried to keep from angering the fairies was fun to read. I would also firmly place myself in the “I don’t really believe it but why take the risk of not appeasing the fairies” category. B-

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Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

To fix the world they must first break it, further.

Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service.

When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into its core programming, they murder their owner. The robot discovers they can also do something else they never did before: They can run away.

Fleeing the household they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating into ruins and an entire robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is having to find a new purpose.

Sometimes all it takes is a nudge to overcome the limits of your programming.

Review

I think I would have been able to enjoy this story a lot more had it been a novella or shorter novel. I’ve enjoyed other stand-alone books of Tchaikovsky’s before including “One Day All This Will Be Yours,” “Elder Race,” and The Expert System’s Brother and all were shorter.

I began reading “Service Model” based on the blurb that promised a robot (Charles the Valet) that accidentally kills its owner and then goes on to discover self determination. I expected tons of humor, some hijinks even. And at first that’s what seemed to be there. The absurdity of the murder investigation and Charles’s part in it had me laughing. But it’s served up with a heaping helping of telling and repetition.

Charles ends up walking to a repair center to be fixed of the supposed glitch that caused him to murder his owner. As this happened, things slowed way down. My mind kept mentally bouncing off the thick, dense prose and unending telling. The joke of (now) Uncharles (he refuses to be called Charles anymore as he is no longer employed in the valet role at that manor) repeating his logical conclusions and being mystified by (a strange character named) Wonk’s smart aleck remarks rapidly wore thin.

I felt I was stuck in the loops of Kafkaesque programming that had no end. Was this the point? Probably but I don’t want to read it in real time. The thought of heading out with Uncharles from the repair center after the librarians trashed the Data Compression building made my brain recoil. This is not why I read books. Sadly this one is not for me.

NOTE – This will be released on June 4th

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The Ministry of Time: A Novel by Kaliane Bradley

In the near future, a civil servant is offered the salary of her dreams and is, shortly afterward, told what project she’ll be working on. A recently established government ministry is gathering “expats” from across history to establish whether time travel is feasible—for the body, but also for the fabric of space-time.

She is tasked with working as a “bridge”: living with, assisting, and monitoring the expat known as “1847” or Commander Graham Gore. As far as history is concerned, Commander Gore died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to the Arctic, so he’s a little disoriented to be living with an unmarried woman who regularly shows her calves, surrounded by outlandish concepts such as “washing machines,” “Spotify,” and “the collapse of the British Empire.” But with an appetite for discovery, a seven-a-day cigarette habit, and the support of a charming and chaotic cast of fellow expats, he soon adjusts.

Over the next year, what the bridge initially thought would be, at best, a horrifically uncomfortable roommate dynamic, evolves into something much deeper. By the time the true shape of the Ministry’s project comes to light, the bridge has fallen haphazardly, fervently in love, with consequences she never could have imagined. Forced to confront the choices that brought them together, the bridge must finally reckon with how—and whether she believes—what she does next can change the future.

Review

This blurb sounded awesome. Time travel, spy stuff, and romance. Heck yeah. Unfortunately I discovered that I am one of the readers who does not click with this book. Either I didn’t know or didn’t remember that Graham Gore was a real person. Yes, I’d heard of the Franklin Expedition and its horrible end but Gore’s name didn’t ring any bells. After reading the author’s introduction and seeing that she has more than a slight crush on this (dead) man, I felt … weird about it. Then the book starts and I was reminded of why I don’t read (for example) books in which Jane Austen or Queen Elizabeth (either I or II) or some other real life person solves mysteries. Making a real person a main character and completely changing them creeps me out and feels slightly insulting to that person. The further I got into the book, the more uneasy I felt about the Gore character.

The fact that (at the point I stopped) the whole details of the time travel was hand waved away was okay. I’d actually rather that than have a tortured explanation that also makes no sense. But then we find out that these people were literally snatched away as if they were wild animals by use of steel mesh nets, that they fought this and were subdued, then hauled off whether or not they wanted to go which hit me badly. Fuck that.

The humor, which I was looking forward to, felt more stiff and awkward than funny. I can see by the other reviews that I’m an outlier but I’m calling it quits on this. DNF

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When Women Ran Fifth Avenue by Julie Satow

A glittering portrait of the golden age of American department stores and of three visionary women who led them, from the award-winning author of The Plaza.

The twentieth century American department store: a palace of consumption where every wish could be met under one roof – afternoon tea, a stroll through the latest fashions, a wedding (or funeral) planned. It was a place where women, shopper and shopgirl alike, could stake out a newfound independence. Whether in New York or Chicago or on Main Street, USA, men owned the buildings, but inside, women ruled.

In this hothouse atmosphere, three women rose to the top. In the 1930s, Hortense Odlum of Bonwit Teller came to her husband’s department store as a housewife tasked with attracting more shoppers like herself, and wound up running the company. Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor championed American designers during World War II–before which US fashions were almost exclusively Parisian copies–becoming the first businesswoman to earn a $1 million salary. And in the 1960s Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel re-invented the look of the modern department store. With a preternatural sense for trends, she inspired a devoted following of ultra-chic shoppers as well as decades of copycats.

In When Women Ran Fifth Avenue, journalist Julie Satow draws back the curtain on three visionaries who took great risks, forging new paths for the women who followed in their footsteps. This stylish account, rich with personal drama and trade secrets, captures the department store in all its glitz, decadence, and fun, and showcases the women who made that beautifully curated world go round.

Review

Unfortunately my solo shopping days post-dated the golden age of the select department stores with names that evoked glamor and style. In this book, readers can catch a glimpse of it. You could also watch older movies such as “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Holiday Affair,” or “Bachelor Mother” to see them in action. High end but not quite bespoke clothes (pirating Parisian fashions was common until WWII shut off French haute couture), tea rooms, well paid and highly trained staff ready to find you whatever you needed and then ring you up there (rather than having to chase down a salesperson as we do now) – these stores not only catered to women, they employed them and paid fairly well. Beginning in the late Victorian age, many of these storied and multi-storied places of wonder grew to cover almost any need and lasted through world wars and the depression. Then came the rise of suburbia, cheaper department stores, and discount bargain stores which turned them into stuffy elephants that could no longer pivot with the latest fads. High retail space costs and Covid did for many that had managed to cling to a bit of their former glory.

But there was a time when women – the book focuses on three but many others including forward thinking African American and Jewish women are mentioned – actually ran things. And ran them well. Odlum, Shaver, and Stutz were not only fashionable women but savvy businesswomen who took moribund stores and turned them around. They knew what women wanted, how they wanted it, and gave it to their loyal customers. They also figured out how to get women to want beyond what they needed which is how to really make money. They changed how American women shopped and what they shopped for. They also had salaries and responsibilities that were, at the time, amazing. The background of these women and the stores are interesting and obviously well researched if a bit tedious after a while – maybe a result of an excess of research riches. But it is thrilling to see what women were ably doing in such a cutthroat industry long before the 70s/80s. B

NOTE – this will be released on June 4th

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The Afterlife of Data What Happens to Your Information When You Die and Why You Should Care by Carl Öhman

A short, thought-provoking book about what happens to our online identities after we die.

These days, so much of our lives takes place online—but what about our afterlives? Thanks to the digital trails that we leave behind, our identities can now be reconstructed after our death. In fact, AI technology is already enabling us to “interact” with the departed. Sooner than we think, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. In this thought-provoking book, Carl Öhman explores the increasingly urgent question of what we should do with all this data and whether our digital afterlives are really our own—and if not, who should have the right to decide what happens to our data.

The stakes could hardly be higher. In the next thirty years alone, about two billion people will die. Those of us who remain will inherit the digital remains of an entire generation of humanity—the first digital citizens. Whoever ends up controlling these archives will also effectively control future access to our collective digital past, and this power will have vast political consequences. The fate of our digital remains should be of concern to everyone—past, present, and future. Rising to these challenges, Öhman explains, will require a collective reshaping of our economic and technical systems to reflect more than just the monetary value of digital remains.

As we stand before a period of deep civilizational change, The Afterlife of Data will be an essential guide to understanding why and how we as a human race must gain control of our collective digital past—before it is too late.

Review

When I requested this title, I was expecting something to help manage data after death – the data of loved ones who will mostly likely die before me as well as proactively managing mine. After reading a few other reviews, I knew that this was actually not what the book is about. Instead it’s a philosophical look at digital data. Who controls it, who should control it, what is the future of all this data? Or at least that’s what the long introduction promised. Some important questions and quandaries about digital data were brought up. I was intrigued. Then chapter one almost put me in a coma. Chapter two arrived with an actual real life case of how digital data was being handled and I perked up. Only to sink back into eye glazed stupor the longer that chapter continued. This is a short book and honestly I ought to have been able to power through it but the thought of slogging along to the end was more than I could face. Sadly, this one isn’t for me. DNF

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The Well-Connected Animal Social Networks and the Wondrous Complexity of Animal Societies by Lee Alan Dugatkin

An engaging exploration of the wondrous social webs that permeate life in animal societies around the world.

It’s all about who you know. Whether vampire bats sharing blood meals for survival, field crickets remembering champion fighters, macaque monkeys forming grooming pacts after a deadly hurricane, or great tit birds learning the best way to steal milk—it pays to be well connected.

In this tour of the animal kingdom, evolutionary biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin reveals a new field of study, uncovering social networks that existed long before the dawn of human social media. He accessibly describes the latest findings from animal behavior, evolution, computer science, psychology, anthropology, genetics, and neurobiology, and incorporates interviews and insights from researchers he finds swimming with manta rays, avoiding pigeon poop, and stopping monkeys from stealing iPads. With Dugatkin as our guide, we investigate social networks in giraffes, elephants, kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, whales, bats, and more. From animal networks in Australia and Asia to Africa, Europe, and the Americas, The Well-Connected Animal is an eye-opening exposé of wild friends, enemies, and everything in between.

Review

Sadly this one isn’t for me. The idea sounded wonderful and as an animal lover who has watched countless documentaries on them, I couldn’t wait to dive in. At the 25% mark, after I realized I was having to reread half of what I’d read and still couldn’t get my mind to focus on the material, it came to me that what I was reading seemed to be more on the scientific side and about how the data was gathered and who gathered it instead of more what the data said. For the right audience, I can see from other reviews that this book will hit the spot for some readers but alas, not for me. DNF

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Voices from Gettysburg: Letters, Papers, and Memoirs from the Greatest Battle of the Civil War by Allen C. Guelzo

The voices of those who witnessed the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath with their own eyes – who saw the bloodshed, heard its din, trembled in its crash, struggled with its aftermath – are collected for the first time by Allen C. Guelzo, America’s foremost Civil War scholar, in this moving and sobering oral history.

This treasure trove of original documents – many never-before published – creates a uniquely personal, day-by-day eyewitness account of the monumental collision at Gettysburg, in the words of the commanders, soldiers, politicians, and civilians from both the North and the South who experienced firsthand the changing course of the Civil War.

Three pivotal days in 1863 – July 1st through July 3rd – marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. While the audible voices of those who experienced it first-hand in that crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania have been lost to history, their words live on in Voices from Gettysburg.

Gathering a treasure trove of powerful, rare, and haunting original documents, New York Times bestselling author and award-winning historian Allen C. Guelzo presents a uniquely readable and intimate oral history of the Civil War’s turning point. We hear from a Union staff officer, a Confederate amputee, artilleryman, a sympathetic Northern woman, a Union prisoner-of-war, Union colonels and Confederate generals, a drummer boy, a fearful college student, those who orchestrated the Battle of Gettysburg, those who survived it, and those who would perish.

With introductions from Guelzo, a detailed order of battle, and comprehensive list of every unit that fought, each of these original maps, personal letters, excerpts from forgotten memoirs, and more never-before-published documents offers an unprecedented narrative of the Great Rebellion and the impetus for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – in the authentic words of fire, blood, and smoke by those who saw the battle, heard its din, trembled in its crash, and struggled with its aftermath.

Review

One hundred and sixty one years ago the Union was fighting to keep people interested in fighting to keep the Union. The first two years of the Civil War had been … not so good for the North and Northerners were getting fed up. There was a fear among Republicans and abolitionists that too much more bad news from the battlefront would drive politicians to throw in the towel and let the South go. The Southern military – or at least those with their eyes open – realized that only by gaining a great victory could they get to those peace negotiations and have a hope of the North giving up and letting them go. Gettysburg was that Southern push for victory and that Northern desperate attempt to turn the tide.

Guelzo knows his stuff and writes well. He’s mainly eschewed the more commonly referenced and dipped into many unused sources. Given the number of people, battle locations, and moving pieces, he includes a lot of specific information (e.g. Regiments) about who was where and did what rather than just say “Union troops” dug in here and “Southern troops” attacked there. YMMV on how detailed of a summary you want to read.

Parts of it have spoken more to what I was hoping for. The book opens with a chapter that mainly consists of memoir material written (in some cases) decades later which is more dry and measured. The sections that utilize letters, newspaper articles, and other things written in the moment have captured my attention more. I’m still working my way through the book and definitely think it’s one that benefits from a reader taking time to let it all sink in.

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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