June Reading

Bit of a slower month this month. June really passed me by without me noticing.

Escaping From Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

Escaping From Houdini is the third installment in the Stalking Jack the Ripper series, one of the most popular properties of James Patterson’s Little, Brown imprint, jimmy patterson. These YA murder mysteries center on an ahead-of-her-time(TM) young woman, Audrey Rose, studying mortuary sciences and forensic medicine from her eccentric uncle alongside her snarky love interest, Thomas. She runs up against social stigma, since these are not very womanly professions. Also, we hear roughly once a book about how Audrey Rose is 1/4 Indian, but honestly it’s a cop out and doesn’t come into play. She is treated as white for all but one sentence per installment, to the point where it feels a bit odd that this is a part of her backstory. It’s like Maniscalco decided to take a stab at representation and then just went nowhere with it. The supposed feminism of the books is superficial and anachronistic, and the books do little to grapple with the realities of the era. Audrey Rose rejects the trappings of Victorian femininity without examining the underlying social causes or the interiority of other women in the fiction. It’s Cool Girl fiction, but with a protagonist who is also a crime solving mortician.

This particular installment unsuccessfully attempts to launch a love triangle subplot, but undercuts it at every step by having Audrey Rose reassure us that she would never ever ever give up on Thomas. The crimes are given a fun sense of urgency since the entirety of the book takes place on a trans Atlantic cruise liner, so that’s cool. I know that this series’ entire gimmick is inserting historical figures into the crime narrative, but the whole Houdini subplot was just tiring and could have been lifted entirely without impact.

I’m not going to pretend these books are good. They aren’t. They’re empty calories where people die, you get to read about Victorian autopsies, and a good portion of the narrative is devoted to the love story between Audrey Rose and Thomas. At this point I’m committed to the series and I’ll see it out through the fourth and final installment, but I wouldn’t recommend you pick it up if you already haven’t. This is best consumed as mindless background noise. Enjoyable enough to kill some time or help round out a commute. And I’m not about to pretend that I’m in any way above this kind of potato chip entertainment.

A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

A Book of Tongues is the first installment of Gemma Files’s Hexslinger series. It’s a Weird West tale that follows a band of outlaws headed up by a disgraced preacher turned cowboy wizard and his sassy gunslinger whoreson boyfriend. They’re being spied on by a Pinkerton trying to collect scientific data on wizards.

I’m a sucker for the Weird West, and I love a narrative with villain protagonists, so I thought this would be totally up my alley. I think I liked this book(question mark). It was compelling and I will likely pick up the next installment to find out what happens.

However, I think there might have just been too much going on. Also, I listened to it as an audio book and I think that made it a little harder to follow than just reading it on the page might have been.

But seriously. This book.

An incomplete list of things featured:

  • outlaws
  • The Civil War
  • wizards
  • oodles of gay sex
  • violence
  • Pinkertons
  • Aztec gods
  • San Fransisco Chinese brothels
  • WIZARD BATTLE
  • Native American shamans
  • WIZARD PREACHER BATTLE now featuring SCRIPTURE

It was maybe just one too many concepts thrown in. I’m still sussing out exactly how I feel. I would gladly spend one more book in this world to figure out what happens next, but this is the first of a trilogy and for some reason that fills me with a little dread.

Heads up that characters in this book use racial epithets and hold attitudes that are appropriate to the postbellum West. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, but the horrors of Manifest Destiny and the white settlement of the American West are examined and commented upon within the narrative.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and my best recommendation is to go into it knowing as little as possible before you start. It’s a surprisingly intimate and moving look at life in England from 1910 up through the end of World War II, following the life of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five in an upper middle class English family.

I’ve seen a few friends on Goodreads mention that they couldn’t get past page 50. I will admit that it takes a bit to get into. You really need to spend about 100 pages getting used to what’s going on, and the unconventional flow of the narrative. If you aren’t sold by page 125, then it’s safe to give up. But it does require more of a chance than some books.

While researching subgenres and tags for categorizing this book I learned about the concept of “slipstream” books. From Worlds Without End:

Slipstream deals with “mainstream” themes but contains a speculative element. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a speculative future, for example, but is marketed as a mainstream novel.

http://www.worldswithoutend.com/resources_sub-genres.asp

The more you know!

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

I decided to read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country in advance of the HBO series coming out, which I will definitely be watching.

This book goes down quick and it’s a natural choice for a television adaptation. The structure itself is fairly episodic and the action escalates quickly. It does not rely on the typical horror novel structure of building slowly with uncertainty about the provenance of the evil until the last quarter of the narrative. You’re pretty clear on what (or who) the evil is from the start, and each section is a tale of how our main cast outsmarts and outlasts that evil.

Lovecraft Country exists in the universe of novels that take the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works and examines the racism and utterly banal human evil underneath it all. Having read a lot of Lovecraft when I was a teen, I love narratives that recontextualize and expand Lovecraft’s universe to better reflect our own.

Lovecraft Country is a great addition to this literary canon. It’s thoughtful, at times funny, and above all entertaining. A must read for readers interested in the modern expansion of Lovecraftian mythos.

May Reading

Zer0es by Chuck Wendi

I listened to this in the car on the way out to Cleveland for PyCon 2019. This is a fun techno-thriller, perfectly suited for a road trip. If you like thrillers involving computer hackers, you’ll like this book. I appreciate that not all of the assembled hackers are white dudes. However, the diversity of the main cast will likely not change your mind on whether this genre works for you.

Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendi

I listened to this in the car on the way back from PyCon 2019. This had much more of an impact on me, but is also substantially much more upsetting. Which I guess makes sense. It’s about a troubled girl who picks fights with Nazis, and it’s incredibly stressful.

SPOILER FOR ATLANTA BURNS BELOW

I think there’s an argument to be made that Chuck buried his gay in this one, and people will probably dislike this book for that. However, I suspect that Atlanta might be gay as well, based on a couple stray lines here and there. I’m hoping we learn she is in the sequel. Fingers crossed. Also, I think that the murder of the gay kid in this book is sufficiently motivated and necessary, and not just a cheap trick used to provide emotional stress for the straights. YMMV.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

I’ve heard Jaron Lanier on the WeCroak and Ezra Klein podcasts, so I pretty much knew what I was getting into here. I also have been feeling for a while that social media, especially any site with an infinite scroll mechanic, makes me meaner, less attentive, and changes my tolerance threshold for boredom and discomfort. I listened to this on the couch while playing Stardew Valley (one of my favorite pastimes lately) and was basically looking for something to give me permission to nope out of social media.

Quitting social seemed so hard, like I would be missing out on so much. Three or four weeks later I can definitely say that my life has not crashed and burned just because I’m not keeping up with the minute to minute hot takes on Twitter. It’s possible to get news through other sources, even if, like me, you don’t own a television.

Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, Translated by Julia Meitov Herse

I read this as a buddy read with my sister, and I loved this book. It’s harsh and confusing. You definitely feel like you’re accompanying the protagonist on her journey of thinking through mud and not understanding what’s going on. But in a good, interesting way.

HOWEVER. I did not realize until I was about halfway through that this is not a standalone novel, but the first book in a series. The next two books have been published in Russian and are being translated into English, but with no set timeline, and I’m very put out. I am invested now, but I didn’t realize I was getting myself into yet another series with no end in sight. I might have waited on this had I known.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Another book I listened to while playing games on Switch (Celeste and Stardew Valley again) and I was so underwhelmed by this book. I guess it was compelling enough for me to finish, instead of DNFing, but if that’s the best I can say about it then that’s pretty faint praise.

This book hinges on the supposed strength of the marriage at the center of it. But apart from being told that Jason, our protagonist, loves his wife so so so so so so so so much, we don’t really see it. He even admits near the beginning of the book that they both feel like they’re in a bit of a rut, and he doesn’t seem particularly happy. I suppose you could interpret everything that comes after as Jason’s realization that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, or whatever, but the whole thing just fell so incredibly flat. And the whirlwind tour of different dimensions felt tangential and useless. Also, there was an entire Strong Female Character in the middle of this book who could have been lifted straight out of the book and it would have had no substantial impact on either the plot, or the protagonist’s character development, such as it is.

This is probably my least favorite book I’ve read all year. Well, that or Hadriana in All My Dreams. Apples and oranges, I guess.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Looking back it appears that May was a great month for audio books. I listened to more audio books last month than I think I did in all of 2018. I listened to this one while packing to go to Costa Rica for work and finished it right before an eventful karaoke night at my local bar.

We Set the Dark on Fire takes place an alternate reality in which upper class women are sorted into two classes of potential wives, the Primeras (who run the hosuehold) and the Segundas (who have sex with and do emotional labor for the husband). High profile men get a pair of these wives to help prop him up as he enters adulthood. This YA novel is about class struggles, gay feelings, and institutional sexism. It’s perfectly enjoyable. I’ll probably read the sequel when it comes out.

However, it was very confusing to listen to two audio books in a row with prominent characters named Daniela Vargas.

And that’s it for May. Here’s hoping for an equally, if not more productive and satisfying reading month in June.

Movie Review: Ma

Listen, you pretty much already know whether you’re going to like this movie. Octavia Spencer stars in this horror film about a middle aged woman who buys alcohol for teenagers and lets them party in her basement. From the beginning she seems…off, and the situation doesn’t improve from there.

You either read that description and thought that it sounds terrible or, like me, you thought “this combines two of my interests: horror movies and Octavia Spencer.” Nothing that happens in the movie will change your mind based on how you reacted to this premise.

Octavia Spencer is, as always, a gem. Highly enjoyable way to spend a Friday night.

SPOILER below:

I’d give this a 3.5/5. I would have given it a 4/5 but I think the munchausen by proxy story thread was underdeveloped.

Unsolicited Book Recommendation: Tess of the Road

One of the best books I read last year was Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a kind of meandering fantasy story about a girl who is rejected by her family and so she walks through the country. It’s episodic and understated, and a year later it still takes my breath away sometimes when I think about it. I’m quietly heartbroken that it didn’t win the Nebula’s Andre Norton award for YA SF/F.

Tess is given more room to be flawed and interesting and angry and complicated than I feel like many protagonists in young adult literature are. She’s given room to breathe and evolve as she walks the road and accrues new experiences. I think I actually cried a couple times near the end of this book.

One of the best things about this book is that the people in the world around Tess feel as real and fleshed out as she is. Character driven fantasy can sometimes fall into the trap of evolving the main character in a navel-gazey way that flattens the people around that main character. But there is a real sense that the world around Tess would move without her, and that people have their own complicated interests and motivations that are not just there to benefit the protagonist.

Tess of the Road is technically a sequel to the Seraphina Duology also by Rachel Hartman, but it’s not necessary to read that before jumping in here. Seraphina is on my list, but I still haven’t gotten around to it. Rachel Hartman is also working on a sequel called Tess of the Sea. I’m excited for when it comes out, but also a little puzzled as to where it could go. This snapshot of Tess’s emotional journey feels so complete.

I certainly plan on rereading Tess of the Road before the sequel comes out, and maybe a couple more times before that. This book is meditative and heartfelt; I could not recommend it more.

Review: The Merry Spinster

4/5 stars

As with most short story collections, there are a couple I really loved and a couple I could have done without. That’s just the nature of the format, I think.

Ortberg’s strength in all of his writing, both here and online, is his unique talent for creating distinct, believable, voices. Whether it’s the cheeky, omnipotent narrator in “The Daughter Cells” or the un-self-aware self-righteousness in “Cast your Bread upon the Waters,” he does a fantastic job of giving each character a rich texture and inner life that can be difficult to achieve in short fiction.

“The Wedding Party” did the least for me; I wasn’t really familiar with the source material for that story and the meandering conversation left me cold.

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” absolutely broke my heart. I’ve been in that friendship. It absolutely rips you apart, and you can’t even see it happening.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this as the first of Ortberg’s works for someone to read. Start with Texts from Jane Eyre, then read some Objectivist Harry Potter. You’ll know by then whether Ortberg’s work is for you.