Books read, December 2022
Quite a few of the books I read in December were either novellas or novels so short their actual word count might be in the novella range — in a few cases, even shorter than that . . . but even with that having been said, I read a metric ton last month. And bounced off nearly half as many books in their first fifty pages or so, which at least had the salutary effect of clearing out my wishlists a tiny bit. (This was made easier by library ebooks, especially while I was in Massachusetts for the holidays.) If I could keep this up, in a year my wishlists might be of a reasonable length!
. . . I am not going to be able to keep this up for an entire year.
BTW, a question for you all: the last few months I’ve been writing longer bits for each book. On the one hand, that seems good; on the other hand, I’m halfway to novelette territory with this post. Is it too much, do you think, or do you like the increased detail? Lemme know — I want these to be useful to other people as well as myself.
The Stonemason’s Tale, Ann Swinfen. I believe this is the conclusion of the series, at six books. The ending was not entirely satisfying; some of the resolution for the personal plot is left offstage, and as for the mystery, too much of the relevant information is (by dint of structure) out of the reader’s sight until suddenly the plot breaks out in a rash of Scottish Border politics at the climax. But I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m really just here for the leisurely exploration of medieval English life and the explanation of things like (in this case) how stone buildings get constructed, and it still had that, so I’m not too disappointed.
High Times in the Low Parliament, Kelly Robson. A novella that is kind of entertainingly uninterested in explaining its own setting to you. There are fairies, who have apparently stepped up to be the overlords of human society because we can’t be trusted to run it ourselves; there is a kind of E.U. Parliament somewhere out in the North Sea, because it seems Doggerland is still there. Twenty pages in I noticed that every. single. character. was either explicitly or implicitly female (and only has kids if the natal fairy says so); a bit later there was a historical reference to “one of the [king] Henries” and her many wives. Is this ever explained? Nope. You’re either willing to roll with it or you’re not.
I was willing to roll with it, though the plot wound up feeling a bit thin. The protagonist (who has a bit of a Gideon the Ninth vibe about her) is a scribe who gets sent off willy-nilly to record the meetings of the Low Parliament, which have been failing to resolve any business, and if they can’t sort their shit out, the fairies are apparently going to drown them all by flooding the place. The politics didn’t quite hang together, for what is in theory the linch-pin of the whole story, nor did the characters’ backstories get explored much — which, fair, this is a novella, but even so. I enjoyed the read, but I wasn’t wowed.
He Stands Alone, Randy Lee Eickhoff. More of his translations/adaptations of Irish literature, in this case pulling together the assorted bits of narrative about Cú Chulainn. Including, in a few places, manuscripts that have different versions of the same general story, which I appreciated. This also had less of Eickhoff’s weird-ass descriptions of women — partly because there are fewer women in here, but I’m not going to ding him for that lack when we’re talking about the what’s available in the ancient manuscript tradition. His poetry is still pretty execrable . . . but there’s an appendix in this volume that lays out the rules for several different varieties of ancient Irish poetics, and oof. That stuff poses a hell of a translation challenge. I think he would have been better-served giving up on rhyme and aiming for good poetry instead, but it’s true that rhyme is very central to the original texts.
The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, ed. Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng. A slim anthology of what it says on the tin, though in many cases the steampunk/clockpunk elements are not the central focus of the story (which I’m fine with). My favorite was definitely Olivia Ho’s “Working Woman,” which starts with an exploding hearse and pretty much continues like that. Each story is also accompanied by an illustration, which makes for a lovely addition.
The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, Katherine Cowley. I’ll admit that I’m kind of a priori dubious of this sort of thing, taking classic literature and grafting zombies or whatever onto it. But 1) this takes Pride and Prejudice as its backstory, rather than retelling it, and 2) it’s the setup for an espionage series, which is a mode I like. Plus I give it points for focusing on Mary — in fact, a central part of the point here is that the protagonist is the overlooked middle sister.
Not just overlooked, but . . . kind of unlikable, if we’re being honest, what with her sanctimonious lectures and all. So what really worked for me here was getting inside Mary’s head, where she’s still the character you know, but you get to see the reasons for it: a combination of maybe-autism-spectrum lack of natural gift for social interaction, the neglect that come from being plain and middle and not a personality that demands other people pay attention to her like some of her sisters, and cold defenses built up over years of being ignored and slighted. But she’s intelligent and observant, even if nobody has bothered to educate her in critical thinking — not surprising, of course, given the time period — and capable of learning on a social front, too, once she’s away from the various ways in which her family overshadows and sidelines her.
The opening did a very nice job, I thought, of hammering home the unfairnesses of Regency society and sexism (the latter less in a interpersonally misogynistic way than the structural one of inheritance law and economics). In other places it nailed the period much less well; I forgive it Mary getting roped into gender-equal espionage adventures, since that’s the buy-in for the series, but in one place she gets called out on her privilege in a very modern-feeling way, and despite her piety, as near as I can tell she never goes to church. (When she visits the church to look at a grave for plot reasons, the strong implication is that she has never set foot in it, despite living in the neighborhood for weeks.) But the character angle worked very well for me, and I like spy stories, so I’m interested in reading more.
The Seventh Perfection, Daniel Polansky. This was fascinating. I don’t remember the last time I read something with this gutsy of a structure, or that pulled it off so successfully: this novella is told entirely through dialogue, with each chapter being nothing but the speech of a different character. (Mostly new each chapter, though a few of them repeat.) Until very near the end, everything you know about the protagonist, Manet, from her appearance to her history to her actions in the scene, you have to piece together out of the scraps of what the characters she’s interacting with say. And not just her: this takes place in a city post-revolution, and everything about their culture, their history, and the God-King who now rules them all is gleaned from the characters’ comments — or from the gaps between those comments, the things they don’t say. That would be tough enough at short story length; attempting it on the novella scale is impressive. And it works.
The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad, Lesley Hazleton, narr. Deepti Gupta. This biography is weighted much more than I expected toward the background to and early parts of Muhammad’s life — which I didn’t mind at all. What knowledge I have of early Islamic history is more about what happened after he died, so it was excellent to get more of a lead-up that places his life and actions within the context of Arab society at the time. This is definitely a political biography more than a spiritual one; Hazleton pays a lot of attention to the dynamics of the situation in Mecca (and later in Medina), and the ways in which Muhammad’s decisions may have been shaped by those dynamics. But it helped fill in a significant gap for me.
Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga, D.O. Fagunwa, trans. Wole Soyinka, ill. Bruce Onobrakpeya. The first Yoruba novel, according to its back cover copy, published in 1938. It reminds me a lot of some of the literary works of folklore I’ve read, with a frame story around the fantastical adventures of the subtitular hunter. Alas, the female characters in here — when they show up at all — are largely relegated to the realm of monsters (human or otherwise), maybe the occasional helpmeet. I’m glad I read it, but I think I’m much more interested in reading more contemporary Nigerian authors overall.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark. A fun, steampunk-y novella set in an alternate Cairo that’s freed itself from colonial control thanks to the assistance of some djinn. (Clark’s novel A Master of Djinn is in the same setting; I read that one first without the background of the novella.) This was quite fun, and did a great job of evoking the both visual styles of a resurgent Egypt and the ferment of political philosophy, religious diversity, and inter-ethnic contact of the setting. It’s a bit remarkable how little of the plot is driven by the ostensible main character — other people around him protag much more frequently — but that wasn’t a downside for me, especially at this length.
The Red Palace, June Hur, narr. Michelle H. Lee. Another of Hur’s historical Korean mysteries, this one touching on one of the few pieces of Korean history I know. She walks a delicate path in that regard, neither soft-pedaling nor completely demonizing the historical figure in question, and builds an engaging mystery woven through the historical framework. I don’t know if I would have seen the answer coming if I’d been reading this in print; in audiobook, with my attention wandering here and there, it took me by surprise.
Worrals of the W.A.A.F., W.E. Johns. Johns is better known for the “Biggles” series of pulp adventures, about a WWI ace pilot, but apparently during WWII he got asked by the British government to write a series with a female heroine to get more women interested in volunteering. Rachel Manija Brown has been blogging about both series, and I decided to pick up Worrals first; I regret nothing. Any and all sexism here is 100% on the part of the characters, not the author: Johns is fully on board with the idea that Joan Worralson, aka “Worrals,” and her best friend Betsy Lovells, aka “Frecks” for her freckles, are competent, courageous, and determined enough to do things like go out in a blaze of glory if that’s what they have to do to take down some Nazis. I don’t think my brain could survive mainlining these — not with the breakneck pace the first one had — but I will definitely read more. I especially appreciated that while Frecks is partly there to be the more cautious foil to Worrals, when the going gets tough, so does she. In a different series, she probably would have been the comic relief and source of plot complications for her more heroic friend.
Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh. This is a lovely little novella braiding historical fantasy, British folklore, and gay romance into one beautifully written tale. It ends on a very satisfactory note, and I’m sort of glad I’ve been advance-warned by friends not to read the sequel, which apparently does a masterful job of wrecking the central relationship? Even if I would have been delighted to see more of Mrs. Silver, who was not at all the character I expected based on how her son describes her.
A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, Emma Southon. The tone of this reminds me immensely of how my friends and I used to study for the NJCL Certamen contest — a phrase which is probably incomprehensible to most of you and has the remaining few going “omg, you did Certamen?” Suffice it to say, Southon’s tone here is extremely conversational and chatty (albeit also more profane than we were back in high school). I could have done without some of her humor, like ragging on Roman names for sounding stupid — though I agree with her about the sheer repetition found in some families; it feels designed to thwart any attempt to keep straight who did what — and in places I wonder why she’s studied Rome this deeply if she truly loathes it as much as it sometimes sounds. But Southon is extremely clear about 1) how much Roman society depended on slave labor and 2) how much it didn’t give a damn about slave lives, which is hard for us to wrap our modern minds around, and so the repeated reminders are probably good.
Holliston (Images of America), Holliston Historical Society. Over Christmas (in Holliston, Massachusetts) I wound up at a party largely populated by people I didn’t know, so being me, I picked this up and read it through. If you’re in the U.S., you may well have seen this series before: they’re slender books with sepia-toned covers that collate historical photographs of different towns, with brief captions filling in some of the history. This one was notable mostly for the sheer frequency with which it noted that the pictured building was lost “in an unfortunate fire” — usually with that exact phrase, plus one “in a fire” (was that one not unfortunate?), one “unfortunate blaze,” and one “most unfortunate fire,” in that case of the building pictured on the Holliston town seal. I was, however, greatly amused by the photo of a family gathered for some patriarch’s 80th birthday . . . or rather by the caption, which noted dryly that “very few of them seemed happy to be there.”
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, T. Kingfisher. This book is basically what you would get if you crossed Robin McKinley’s Sunshine with the works of Diana Wynne Jones. (In particular, the battle at the end read like a much more in-depth version of the siege of the Wraith at the end of The Lives of Christopher Chant.) I believe I saw someone complain that the depiction of baking is not that great (Kingfisher, aka Ursula Vernon, admits in the afterword that she’s not a baker), and I know one friend was put off by the rpubrf bs Anmv nagvfrzvgvfz cnverq jvgu n yrnqre jub’f gur vaabprag ivpgvz bs gur Anmv-rfdhr ivyynva, but on the whole I enjoyed it. If you find yourself thinking that surely Chekhov’s semi-sentient carnivorous sourdough starter is on the mantel for a reason, you’re not wrong.
A Secret Princess, Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz. This is essentially a crossover fanfic of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. It starts off with all three of Mary Lennox, Sara Crewe (here revised to be the daughter of a Spanish-Filipina mother), and Cedric Errol at school together, more or less in the plot of A Little Princess; later on it pivots to be more The Secret Garden, with Cedric doubling for Colin Craven in order to stitch the one to the other.
Despite the fact that The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a kid, I’ve never actually read the other two; my knowledge of them, hastily acquired before I read too far into this book, comes entirely from Wikipedia. I probably missed any number of details worked in from those two books. On the Garden side, my partisanship for that book meant I was grumpy about seeing Martha Sowerby written here as completely odious; her only real role is to be racist towards Sara. But I enjoyed it overall, even if I felt it was going a bit off the rails at the end: Stohl and de la Cruz had to wrestle with the sentimentality and deus ex machina resolutions of their source material, while also trying to take a more bittersweet tack in their characters’ lives, followed by a time-skip to an epilogue that kind of feels like the twenty-first century intersectional feminist equivalent of Burnett’s deus ex resolutions (including a bonus cameo from Jo March of Little Women). I think it might have hung together a bit better for me if the fantasy strand had either been eliminated or worked in more thoroughly: at the very beginning of the prologue Mary has an encounter with a djinn, and then the fantasy element vanishes until about 80% of the way through the book, soon after which it’s leveraged to make somebody have an immediate and plot-necessary change of heart. The ending didn’t wreck my enjoyment, but it did feel a little Frankensteined together.
The Call, Peader O’Guilin. I bounced off over a dozen books this month, and I honestly expected this would be one of them, for the simple reason that horror is not really my jam. The premise is that twenty-five years ago, Ireland was cut off from the rest of the world, and ever since then, adolescents between the ages of twelve and eighteen are yanked without warning from this world into the “Grey Land” to which the Sídhe were exiled. Here they’re gone for three minutes and four seconds; there they’re trapped for about a day, during which time the Sídhe hunt and torture them. It says a lot about this world that the Irish are very proud that their “survival colleges” have made it so that one in ten kids now comes back alive.
But the writing here is super sharp — aided in part by the fact that it doesn’t confine itself to the single or dual first person or third limited so common in the rest of YA. Instead the omniscient perspective roves freely, giving us not just insight into the other students and their teachers, but even glimpses of foreshadowing, making it clear that the odd little events and inconsistencies building up around the edges of the story are leading somewhere more than just the usual round of Nessa’s classmates dying one by one. Nessa herself suffered polio in childhood and now has badly weakened legs; given the importance of being able to run from Sídhe hunters, people around her openly wonder why her parents didn’t do her the “mercy” of poisoning her before she reached the age to be Called. Her ingenuity and determination to survive, plus the borderline absurd “Derry Girls meets survival horror” vibe of this book, meant I inhaled it in a day flat. And yet I’m leery of picking up the second book, because wow this gets grim, and horror is still not my jam.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, Axie Oh. Much more my usual speed! This novel is loosely inspired by a Korean folktale: there are horrible storms, and so the people conclude they must sacrifice a young woman to be the Sea God’s bride. But in the novel, the storms have been going on for a century, and the sacrifices are yearly, and the protagonist Mina takes the place of the folktale’s heroine at the last instant. This sends her to the Spirit Realm, where she encounters something of a mystery, as the Sea God turns out to have been asleep for a hundred years. I liked her relationship with another character, Shin, much more than I like most YA romances; Shin is likewise a god, but one who no longer recalls what he’s the god of, and there are some really touching moments built around that. And in general I feel like this managed to avoid the trap some YA seems to fall into, where the romantic relationship is placed so centrally that all other characters and even the rest of the plot feel like an afterthought: several other Sea God’s brides play a role, as do the creatures (an imugi and a kirin) that help Shin, and even Mina’s family, courteous of a narrative that often dips into flashback. I really liked it.
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, Mary Roach. Her nonfiction is reliably entertaining reading, and this is no exception. The topic here isn’t quite what it says on the tin, though: although the introduction references a book that is about animals being dragged into lawsuits (a book I am now tempted to try and hunt down), the actual focus is on human-animal interactions, and more specifically, the methods we use to try and deal with the problems that result, whether those are crop depredations, fatal attacks, nuisance behavior, and more. Roach does a good job of laying out how in many cases, none of our existing solutions — humane, cruel, or somewhere in between — are really all that effective. When there is indeed something that works, it’s usually a matter of modifying human behavior (e.g. convincing people in bear-populated areas to reliably use bear-proof containers for trash, or convincing the government to pay for school buses so children aren’t walking down leopard-haunted roads at dusk) rather than doing anything to the animals . . . and unsurprisingly, that’s easier said than done.
Castle, David Macaulay.
Cathedral, David Macaulay.
Pyramid, David Macaulay. Grouping these three together because I knocked ’em all off in a single night and what I have to say applies to them all. These are older books (old enough that these copies, retrieved from my husband’s parents’ house, have no ISBNs) and certainly aren’t au courant with the last, oh, fifty years of research . . . but they remain pretty good introductions to the architectural methods and concerns of the past. Each one details the construction of an imaginary but typical building per the title, explaining how people without access to modern technology managed to build such impressive structures. (I didn’t mean to come full circle with The Stonemason’s Tale, but there was definitely an echo this month.) Don’t look to ’em for political nuance, e.g. questions about the means by which pyramid laborers were mustered for work, or acknowledgment of the colonial tensions around Englishmen building castles in Wales, but that’s fine: that isn’t what the books are here for.
How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts, Ruth Goodman, narr. Jennifer M. Dixon. This was delightful! It’s essentially a deep dive on Elizabethan etiquette and mores (and a little bit of crime), but couched in the conceit that your goal is to be an utter asshole by violating that etiquette and those mores. And I do mean a deep dive: Goodman goes into very specific detail about, say, the body mechanics of bowing, and how the fashion for the proper way to bow changed over time as first French and then Italian styles came into vogue; or about table manners, followed by the question of how many ordinary people followed the strictures about napkin usage, as guessed at by the frequency with which napkins show up in the postmortem inventories of people’s possessions. I love “daily life” kinds of books, but man, it’s rare for me to see one this granular! Yet still entertaining — all the more so because I listened to this in audiobook, and Dixon’s very dry and proper narration adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the discussions of some extremely vulgar topics.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer. I thought after the last book that I was done for the month, but then I inhaled this one in an evening. It was a Christmas gift from my in-laws, and it is not nearly as much of a style guide as the subtitle suggests — though there is some of that, and I feel like the second half, where Dreyer starts going into things like commonly misspelled words, similar words that are confused with each other (e.g. reign/rein, hoard/horde), and words you can trim out because they’re redundant with the rest of their phrase, got less engaging. However, I say that because the first half was extremely engaging! Dreyer is the copy chief for Random House, a man who has spent many years looking at the prose of writers, and it’s fascinating to see us and our work from what amounts to an outside perspective. I sort of want to end up at a cocktail party with him so we can pass a delightful hour alternately agreeing on where to break rules (he readily tosses stupid ones out the window, allows that some should be situationally broken for effect, and admits that he occasionally makes decisions on the rigorous basis of “what looks good on the page”) and arguing about the things he declares Holy Writ that I disagree with. I walked away from this book with the impression that he might find those arguments as entertaining as I would. The book itself made me laugh out loud at multiple points, which might not happen as frequently for anybody who isn’t a professional writer . . . but I am, and it was thoroughly entertaining to read.