Books read, February 2019
This was an extremely reading-ful month.
Tales of the Continuing Time and Other Stories, Daniel Keys Moran. Some collections of short fiction are a great entry point into a series, a way to get a taster and see if you’d like the whole. This . . . is not that type of collection. 😛 I enjoyed it a fair bit, and certainly the non-Continuing Time stories are perfectly readable on their own, but I do not recommend it as an entry point to the series. For people who already know and enjoy those books, though, it’s nifty to get some looks at things that have only been mentioned obliquely before now: the Zaradin Church, the Exodus, the House of November, Ola Blue, etc. And the Man-Spacething War! Its name has amused me ever since I first saw it, and from what I can tell, its origin is exactly what you’d expect: humans ran into weird things out in space, called them Spacethings, got in a war with them, the end.
Of the non-Continuing Time stories, I most liked “Realtime,” which he co-wrote with Gladys Prebehalla (and which is in the same setting as his novel The Armageddon Blues, but I have zero memory of that book, so it doesn’t matter). It made me think a bit of the whole “children will listen” thing from Into the Woods. Of the Continuing Time stories, I was a little bit gutted by “Leftbehind” — simply because the leftbehind concept echoes what Trent said to Carl in Emerald Eyes about how the Castanaveras were going to leave everybody else out in the cold . . . and now here it is, hundreds of years later, and I’m pretty sure the people compared to whom others are leftbehinds are a direct outgrowth of something Trent himself did in between The Last Dancer and The A.I. War. He presumably didn’t live to see it (because hundreds of years later — though really, with this series, who knows), but he created for others exactly the situation he himself wanted to escape.
The Last Tsar’s Dragons, Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple. Novella, read for review in the New York Journal of Books. Slightly alternate history, in that Tsar Nicholas didn’t actually have dragons, but history still proceeds down basically the same path. As a result, definitely not chearful reading.
Grim Tales, E. Nesbit. Speaking of not cheerful reading! When I posted about The Phoenix and the Carpet, Sonya Taaffe recommended Nesbit’s short horror fiction, and I found this collection on Project Gutenberg. I can’t say I fell in love with it, but then again, horror isn’t my general cuppa anyway; I don’t like downer endings very much, and in horror those often come with the territory. (Though I’ll note that one of the stories in here ends well for the protagonists, and while someone else suffers, it’s more an unfortunate accident than anything malicious.) It’s definitely an interesting comparison to Nesbit’s children’s fiction, though.
The City of Lost Fortunes, Bryan Camp. First Crescent City novel, and a great example of urban fantasy firmly embedded in a specific place at a specific time: New Orleans (Camp’s hometown), a few years after Hurricane Katrina, with the scars of it still felt everywhere. I’m not the right person to judge how he handles racial matters here, but I can say with certainty that he is paying attention to them, and I appreciated the sheer global breadth of his knowledge in the various omniscient-voice reflections on patterns in mythology. (He references gods I’ve never heard of, which is a rare thing for me.) He also does a very good job with tricksters.
Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Kate Wilhelm. I’ve had this on my shelf for a dog’s age without ever reading it, and when rearranging things recently I figured I should take a look and chuck it if it isn’t of use. Interestingly, I think its greatest use is not for students of writing, but teachers: the examples of how they explained certain issues, or constructed exercises, or handled interpersonal conflicts with their students, very much spoke to me as someone who has taught writing before. (Even if BOY HOWDY do I not agree with some of Wilhelm’s prose bugbears, like how “The book sat on the table” is not an okay sentence because an inanimate object can’t sit. Honey, that linguistic ship sailed a loooooong time ago.)
My own work doesn’t count. (Different work this time than before, though.)
Gather the Fortunes, Bryan Camp. Second Crescent City novel (not yet released), and not a conventional sequel, in that it shifts to a new protagonist — a secondary character from the first book. I’ll be reviewing this one for the New York Journal of Books; for now I’ll say its structure makes it slower to get moving than its predecessor, but I like the story’s willingness to call even gods and the afterlife out when there are problems.
The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Volume 1, Ramesh Menon. This is the fourth rendition of the Mahabharata I’ve read, and by far the longest; together the two volumes are nearly 1400 pages, and large pages at that. And at that, it’s still not complete! There are footnotes saying things like “Here I am skipping over fifty pages of how the Pandavas went out and subdued kings in various places for Yudishtira’s rajasuya.” Nor is it precisely a translation; as the title suggests, it’s more the Mahabharata retold with some modern fiction techniques. But it isn’t quite a novelization, either, the way Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions is — that being the second rendition I ever read. I do recommend it (the writing is a lot better than Subramanian’s rendition, which I thought I posted about but apparently not), but only if you’ve already got a good enough grip on the shape of the story that you’re ready for a version that includes a lot — though still not all! — of the narrative byways. I may need a little while before I’m ready to tackle Volume 2.
Ice Melts in the Wind: The Seasonal Poems of the Kokinshu, trans. Larry Hammer. Much, much shorter than the previous. 🙂 I really like Hammer’s translations (disclosure: he’s a friend); not only does he stick pretty closely to the shape of waka/tanka rather than throwing line length out the window the way some poets do, but he includes notes on every poem that give you context about the poet or the circumstances of composition or the history of Japanese aesthetics or just his own observations on how this is the best poem so-and-so ever produced but it’s still not all that great. It is not Hammer’s fault that if you pile up all the seasonal poems they start to get astoundingly repetitive; if you want a more varied selection of Heian-era Japanese poetry, his book One Hundred People, One Poem Each translates a different collection that includes some of the Kokinshu seasonal poems, but also poems on other topics.
The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart, Motohisa Yamakage. This . . . is not quite the book I thought it was when I picked it up. Motohisa Yamakage is the 79th leader of Yamakage Shinto, and this book talks about how that’s a tradition from Koshintō, i.e. “old Shinto,” i.e. the original version of the religion. Except that further digging elsewhere showed me that everything which calls itself a Koshintō tradition is actually what in Japan get classed as “new religions” — which makes sense when you reflect that everything we know about Koshintō is a reconstruction, there being not much in the way of written records about religion in Japan prior to the advent of Buddhism. And while 79 generations of leadership made me think Yamakage Shinto must be pretty old (most “new religions” are post-Meiji, i.e. roughtly 150 years old or less), well, it depends on the length of tenure for each leader, doesn’t it? Maybe this goes back to the Edo Period, but Real Original Shinto it ain’t.
Which isn’t the same thing as saying the book is useless. From what I can tell, the early chapters about the origin of sacred sites and purification and so forth are reasonable, and where it’s speculating (e.g. the meaning you can derive from each step of Izanagi-no-mikoto’s purification after visiting the underworld), it’s the kind of speculation I consider entirely reasonable for a religious leader to undertake. When it gets to the part about how performing these hand gestures and reciting these words will develop your psychic ability to sense the vibrations of spirits and also lead to medical recovery that astonishes doctors . . . then we’re pretty clearly more in “new religion” territory. And even then, it’s still a window into Japanese religion, which is a useful thing for me.
Deathless, Catherynne Valente. Re-read. I’d forgotten how quickly this one reads — I devoured it in about two sittings, for all that it gets horrifically depressing toward the end. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a retelling of a Russian folktale about Koschei the Deathless and the warrior princess Marya Morevna in the context of early Soviet Russia — the interwar period up through World War II. I still think the ending comes apart a little bit, but at least this time through I recognized who the people were in Yaichka . . . in part because I’d just read The Last Tsar’s Dragons, which prompted me to look up a lot of stuff about twentieth-century Russian history they never taught me in school.
No Saving Throw, Kristin McFarland. Mystery novel written by a client of my literary agency, which her agent sent me because she knows I’m a gamer. You know how police procedurals and other mystery shows often have that one episode where they’re dealing with gamers? This is so much better. The author is a gamer herself, and the heroine is the proprietor of a Friendly Local Gaming Store in a conservative town that isn’t sure what to make of her whole enterprise. When one of her customers dies during a vampire LARP and some of her other customers are accused of the crime, she’s worried the scandal will kill her store and the community she’s built around it. This cross-hatches with plot about being a small business owner and the difficulties such people face. I correctly guessed some but not quite all of the plot, which was a nice balance. The subtitle “A Ten Again Mystery” suggests McFarland is hoping to do more with these characters; if so, I’ll be interested to see how, as one of the things this book pays attention to is the way in which amateur investigators blundering around trying to play Nancy Drew can actually make things worse — so I don’t expect the heroine will be in a hurry to do that again.
Shinto Shrine, Kato Kenji, illustrated by Iwasaki Jun. — Names given in Japanese order (family name first), as that’s the way it’s done on the book cover. This is a very small book with 300% more practical information than Yamakage’s, and 500% less woo. In fact, it won’t tell you anything at all about the lived experience of Shinto religion (which is what I was hoping for from the Yamakage, and . . . partially got?). But it does an absolutely excellent job of explaining the parts of a Shinto shrine to you — complete with drawings and numbered keys — and what people do at shrines, and then the back half of the book is mostly a list of major jinja and who’s enshrined there, which names off a lot of kami that aren’t the ones you’ll run into if you google “Shinto mythology.” It’s also part of a series called “Bilingual Guide to Japan,” and now I’m curious what other volumes there are.
Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson. — I, uh, may have posted on Twitter that I didn’t need to read another book just so I could say I had finished one an average of every two days throughout February, and people there, uh, may have egged me on. <_< So I picked up this collection, which is the second by Hopkinson that I’ve read, after Skin Folk. It’s less overtly steeped in Caribbean folklore than I recall that one being, but that element is definitely is still present, as is the general sensuality I associate with her work. I did notice, though, that her shorter stories didn’t work as well for me — I found myself really wanting more meat on those bones, the way you get with her longer short stories.