Books read . . . lately

For a while there I completely stopped not only posting about what I was reading, but keeping track of what it was in the first place. So here, have what I’ve read in the last two months + what I can remember from before that.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers, R. A. Lafferty. Collection of short stories. Lafferty is one of those names I’ve heard a bunch but never read; I picked up this book at a used bookstore ages ago, and finally took it off the shelf when I joined a challenge on Habitica for reading more short fiction. As with any such collection, it was very hit or miss; Lafferty has a certain type of character he writes in multiple stories who just leaves me cold. On the other hand, “In Our Block” (with alien creatures doing a terrible job of pretending to be human) made me laugh out loud, and “Land of the Great Horses” managed to dodge making me cringe over its depiction of the Romani — in part because of how the story ends.

My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count.

The Drowning City, Amanda Downum. Secondary-world fantasy that does the thing I crave, creating a world that feels rich and three-dimensional and lived-in. I could have done with a little more exposition early on to help me keep the various polities straight, but Symir doesn’t feel like Generic Fantasy City; it feels like Downum’s experience in Malaysia shaped the place from the ground up, until you can feel the humidity against your skin. The story involves a foreign agent sent to foster revolution in a colonized city, and the various things the colonized peoples are up to on that front. I especially liked one character whose name I won’t specify, whose situation turned out to be different from and much more complicated than what you initially think.

Aru Shah and the End of Time, Roshani Chokshi. First book from the middle grade “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which as near as I can tell is Riordan supporting authors who want to tell stories like his (Percy Jackson etc), with mythologies that are not his. In Chokshi’s case, that’s the return of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata to deal with a terrible threat. Except the Pandavas do not show up where they were expected to, starting with the fact that both of the ones who have awoken so far are girls, who were not given the training they should have had for this sort of thing.

The Mummy Case, Elizabeth Peters. I recently played in a one-shot LARP based heavily on these books (I was cast as Amelia Peabody). I read one of them years ago — I think the first one — some time before I wrote the Memoirs of Lady Trent; between the game and the frequent comparisons readers have made between Peabody and Lady Trent, I was in a mood to check one out. This happened to be the only one my library had in ebook, so it was the one I read. It unfortunately suffered from the presence of Ramses, who might be the most insufferable Plot Moppet I’ve seen in a long time; he drove me up the wall in every single scene where he appeared. I’m sort of tempted to grab a book from later in the series and see what I think of him as an adult rather than a five-year-old who drives more of the plot than his parents do.

Unpublished manuscript, read for a friend.

Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction, ed. Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Read for research. A collection of academic pieces on tricksters, not as much from the folkloric end as how they show up in modern fiction. The first essay dropped me headfirst into a pit of academic jargon the likes of which I haven’t seen since I left grad school (sample quotes: “”The Erdoes and Ortiz reader organizes a polyphonic overview that inculcates and imbricates the wide terrain;” “transgressive, contraestablishment tricksterisms offer a carnivalesque post-postmodernist creativity whose central sociopsychological drive promotes important community formation;” “what I like to name the affective-effective overdetermination of mythical dynamism”), but after that it got better. I especially enjoyed the article by Sacvan Bercovitch, “Deadpan Trickster: The American Humor of Huckleberry Finn,” which digs into the ways that Mark Twain himself is being a trickster in how he presents Huck to the reader.

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace. Copy provided by the publisher, because I’d been asked to blurb the sequel and hadn’t read the first one. This kept skating right up to the edge of a level of grimness and grossness that would have made me put the book down, but never quite crossed it. Wasp is the Archivist, a young woman responsible for catching and destroying ghosts in a post-apocalyptic world — assuming she can survive the yearly challenges in which three of the “upstarts” training to become Archivist try to kill her to take her job. The unrelenting cruelty of Wasp’s situation lets up, though, when she follows a very strange ghost into the otherworld they come from, and starts uncovering the history of how the world broke.

Latchkey, Nicole Kornher-Stace. Copy provided by the publisher for blurbing purposes. If you like post-apocalyptic and post-traumatic community building, this one is for you. Bad things still happen here, but it’s no longer Wasp Against the World; it’s a group of people working step by step to improve their situation, and then to preserve what they can when the world decides to smash what they’ve managed so far. Also much more digging into the pre-apocalyptic past, and figuring out what can be preserved and rebuilt from that.

The Thieves of Silence, Jean-Claude Dunyach, trans. various. Copy provided by the author. More short stories; much like the previous collection I read, The Night Orchid, these involve a fair bit of body creepiness and alienation. My favorite was “A Wish for the Fay,” which takes place on the border between the human and fay worlds, and looks at how those two cross.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard. Copy provided by the author. Short novelette? novella? in a setting where specially-crafted blends of tea can have all kinds of effects on the drinker and interstellar travel involves shifting from normal space into “deep spaces” that pose threats to the mind as well as the body. It’s a Sherlock Holmes-type story, except (as Mary Robinette Kowal’s blurb puts it) “Holmes is a woman and Watson is a spaceship.” I would have liked it to be a bit longer, not because I needed more complications out of the plot, but just because I would have liked more room for the story to explore the world; the taste I got here was tantalizing, but too brief for me to fully sink my teeth into it.

Why Crime Does Not Pay, Sophie Lyons. Not quite an autobiography so much as a rambling set of anecdotes by a famous nineteenth-century con woman and thief after she went straight. She is very eager to hammer you with the moral lesson that CRIME DOES NOT PAY (seriously, sometimes it’s written in all caps), by telling you about all the burglars and con artists she know who met bad ends. In between you get stories about how they pulled off various heists and schemes, careening into and out of prison, making fortunes and then blowing them with hardly a blink.

Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee. Third and final book of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, but not quite the end of that setting or those characters, since I know Lee is working on other hexarchate stories. Like Raven Strategem, this changes the playing field under your feet . . . starting with the fact that you have two Jedaos running around (sort of). It’s hard to say more without spoiling the previous books, but it involves a war with more than just two sides and brings a lot of focus onto the various groups and intelligences the hexarchate tends to ignore.

The Elizabethan Underworld, Gamini Salgado. Not everything in here is underworldly (in the crime sense) so much as a study of the various outcast groups of the time, including wandering peddlers (who were sometimes criminals) and wandering entertainers (who were sometimes criminals) and wandering Romani (who were sometimes criminals) and wandering lunatics (okay, they didn’t wander so much as they tended to be locked up, so the ones on the roads were often charlatans pretending to be mad as a way of pursuing their own ends). Because my knowledge of English history really gets its feet under it with Elizabeth, I was startled to discover that the original plan for Bridewell, as conceived of during Edward’s reign, was astonishingly progressive — but unfortunately it got shafted by a loss of political support after Edward died.

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, Herbert Asbury. The book that inspired Martin Scorsese’s film. I read The Barbary Coast by the same author and found it hugely entertaining; this one is less so, though in places still quite funny. I think that may be in part because the focus really is on gangs — groups of (mostly) men who sometimes engaged in crime, but derived a lot of their identity from defending a territory against rival gangs. Reading about their conflicts very rapidly becomes like reading The Iliad or something, where it’s Yet Another Account of how X number of people on each side got into a fight in such-and-such place and here’s how many gang members and innocent bystanders died and so on. I think Asbury admired the manliness of it more than I do? Or something? Not that he thinks these were good people, but he seems to find their brawling more inherently interesting than I do.

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