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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Books read, October 2022

This list looks way more impressive than it really is; many of the things I read this month were novella-length or shorter. But still, it feels gratifying!

Half World, Hiromi Goto. The premise of this one is pretty standard: a teenage girl who suffers from isolation at school discovers her mother and unknown father actually come from a magical realm — in this case, Half World, midway between the realms of Flesh and Spirit — and she is destined to save it. The execution of that premise, however, very much lifts it out of the stereotypes of its own plot. Half World used to be part of a cycle between the realms that kept the worlds in balance, but since that cycle was broken, the people there are trapped in reliving the nightmares of their own deaths. The way Melanie resolves that issue is very well-done, as are the characters who help her along the way — often in their own ways, not the ones Melanie expects or wants.

A Thousand Li: The Second Sect, Tao Wong. Fifth book in this cultivation series, with the protagonist struggling to recover from the metaphysical wounds he took in the previous volume. That aspect of the story pinged hard on the disability radar for me: on the one hand this is a cure narrative, since Wu Ying does succeed in fully recovering, but on the other hand, the way he gets there strongly resembles the “radical acceptance” mentality I’ve seen advocated by many disability activists. I quite liked that element and how it was handled here.

As the Tide Came Flowing In, Sonya Taaffe. Disclosure: the author is a friend. I said to her, and will repeat here, that I’m not sure I will ever know and love any single thing as deeply as she knows and loves the sea. That’s the thematic thread binding together the poetic and fictional contents of this tiny little collection, and it’s lovely.

The Best Thing You Can Steal, Simon R. Green. Novella or short novel, urban fantasy heist. It was . . . okay, I guess? I was a little disappointed because the cover copy promised that the protagonist “specializes in stealing the kind of things that can’t normally be stolen. Like a ghost’s clothes, or a photo from a country that never existed. He even stole his current identity.” But what he aims to steal here is a magical artifact, which — magical-ness aside — is a perfectly ordinary target.

The Dybbuk in Love, Sonya Taaffe. Disclosure: the author is still a friend. 😛 This is an older piece, maybe novelette in length?, that looks at the usual kind of dybbuk story from a different angle. Lovely again, just not about the sea this time.

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah Rose. I knew this was a thing, but this book made it clear in a way I’d never quite grokked just how Big Business tea was in the nineteenth century, and why it was worth a massive effort to steal tea seeds, living tea plants, and (not steal but hire, albeit for shit wages) people who knew what to do with them. I appreciate that Rose did her absolute best, within the confines of the historical record we have, to take into account the perspectives and motivations of the Chinese people Robert Fortune was dealing with; what Fortune saw as betrayal by men he’d hired to assist him was probably just them pursuing their own interests in a perfectly rational way.

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, narr. Jim Meskimen. It took me a surprisingly long time for me to get my brain to accept what it was listening to, i.e. just what it says on the tin: a history. So much of what I read these days is more narrowly topic-focused that I kept expecting a more central thread than this book really has. To the extent that there is such a thing, it’s that the so-called Dark Ages were “brighter” than popular narrative would have you believe, but I have to admit, the authors’ attempt to rebrand that period as “the Bright Ages” kept inducing a “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” reaction in me. (Especially whenever they swung from “the period was bright because there was so much diversity and curiosity!” to “but uh sometimes the brightness was from the fires of sacked cities!”) I did, however, very much appreciate their determined persistence in paying attention to the presence and experiences of women and minorities, and in calling out oppressive structures like slavery wherever they appear.

The Holver Alley Crew, Marshall Ryan Maresca. Another in Maresca’s Maradaine mega-series, which is akin to the MCU in having multiple narrative strands that sometimes run independently and sometimes bounce off each other. This one follows a group of criminals who seek money and justice, in variable order, after someone arranges for their street to burn down. I really like the older woman who operates as one of the bigger local crime bosses — she’s just the right amounts of ruthless and sympathetic.

The Feast, Randy Lee Eickhoff. Another in his set (I have two more to go) of Old Irish literature translation/retelling/whatevers, this one of Fled Bricriu. Oh my god the unwillingness of the central characters to accept as valid the results of any contest that doesn’t result in them winning — over and over and OVER again. That part’s on the ancient Irish storytellers, not Eickhoff; the part that is on him is a style of writing that I’ve seen Rachel Manija Brown mock as “she breasted boobily down the stairs.” I get that he’s trying to represent the earthiness of Old Irish literature, but my dude, this is not the way to do it: I have never once in my life seen a woman’s breasts twitch in indignation.

The Spirit Rebellion, Rachel Aaron. Second of the Eli Monpress series (I have the first three in an omnibus, but I’m counting them separately for tracking and blogging purposes). The metaphysics that give basically everything a spirit do raise some unanswered questions about how food, clothing, housing, and so forth work in this society, but you know, I’m willing to let that go in exchange for sentences about how a dangerous spirit leaves in its wake “the terrified silence of traumatized crates.” And the personification of objects pays off delightfully at the climax.

Tiger Honor, Yoon Ha Lee. Second of his Thousand Worlds MG space fantasy series; it doesn’t require reading the first book, since this one has a different protagonist, but it probably carries more impact if you’ve seen what’s treated as backstory here play out in full. I loved watching Sebin struggle with the tension between family obligation, organizational duty, and their own sense of what’s right. This series remains, along with Hernandez’ Sal and Gabi books, my favorite stuff by far from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint.

Heaven Official’s Blessing, Vol. 3, Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. I really wish the company putting these out went more for “narrative shape” in choosing where to put the boundaries between volumes, rather than “more or less consistent page count.” This one opens up in the middle of a flashback I’d forgotten was underway, and you spend like half the book there before flashing back to the present day. I did, however, really like the Blessing Festival and the lantern contest. And although I usually find the modern, colloquial tone often used in the translation rather jarring, it paid off entertainingly when it mentioned the plays about Hua Cheng usually being titled things like “The Red Demon Torched the Temples of Thirty-Three Gods and the Heavens Could Do Fuck-All About It, or Crimson Rain Sought Flower Strung Up the Martial and Civil Gods and Slapped Them Around With But One Hand.”

The Fox’s Wedding, Matthew Meyer This is the guy behind yokai.com, who periodically puts out collections of yōkai folklore complete with his own woodblock-style art. I backed this fourth collection through Kickstarter, but it’s also available for purchase, and I highly recommend his books if you’re interested in the topic.

Mazirian the Magician, Jack Vance. A.K.A. the book more commonly known as The Dying Earth. I don’t know why Mazirian the Magician was apparently Vance’s preferred title; that’s the name of one of the stories in here, but Mazirian is not an ongoing character or anything. Anyway, this is a classic that famously inspired the “prepared spellcasting” approach seen in Dungeons & Dragons; with that context, it’s kind of hilarious to see how a supremely powerful wizard might be able to prepare as many as FIVE SPELLS. Gasp! Awe! (But their spells appear to be significantly more flexible than D&D examples, and also of course Vance could arrange for them to memorize ones that would actually be useful in the plot.)

What I found particularly interesting here was the female characters. They’re . . . not great by modern standards, but they’re significantly better than I expected them to be? I particularly noted, and enjoyed, the multiple instances where a male character gets the hots for a female one, pursues her in a kind of rapey way, and then gets straight-up murdered by or at least via the actions of his ostensible target. So their behavior, while not great, is also clearly not rewarded. (Really, almost nobody here is a good person. But there’s plenty of room for me to at least imagine some good interiority and agency for most of the women.)

Where Dreams Descend, Janella Angeles, narr. Imani Jade Powers and Steve West. I didn’t finish this one, but it’s not a DNF in the sense the internet tends to use that term; I would have gone to the end if I hadn’t been forced to return the audiobook to the library. However, I don’t think I care quite enough to check it out again later. Since I got more than three-quarters of the way through, though, I decided to go ahead and include it in this post. (Most of the time, the books I don’t finish get dropped very early on, and I don’t blog about those.)

There was a lot of really intriguing material in this one. Unfortunately — and this is why I’m not going to check it out again — by the three-quarters mark, it was very clear that much of that material wasn’t really going to go anywhere until the second book of the duology. The maybe-curse on Glorian, the city’s history with its four founding houses, the possibility of secret magic there, Hellfire House and what it’s doing out in the forest, Demarco’s ostensible purpose in having come to Glorian (a purpose he seems to largely neglect), Jack’s true nature, the Conquering Circus, the sealing of the city gates, even whatever it is that’s vanishing or striking down Kallia’s competitors . . . all of that would flicker up periodically to remind me it was there, but in the meanwhile the book spent vastly more time and attention on the relationship between Kallia and Demarco, the intermittent appearances of Jack, and the playing-out of the competition, complete with a lot of instances of the judges being sexist asshats. None of which was badly done, I’d say — the competition managed to avoid the “Hunger Games clone” feel a lot of contest-focused YA novels give off, and right before my stopping point the book suddenly introduced the possibility that there’s an active conspiracy or curse against female magicians — but I got tired of waiting for all those other things to get the attention I felt they deserved. Even if they surge into prominence in the last quarter, rather than waiting for book two, it would feel like too little, too late. Which is a pity, because they did seem interesting! (If anybody has read this and/or its sequel, I am not averse to spoilers in the comments; I’d love to know what other people thought.)

The narration of the audiobook was good, though; Powers did an excellent job of differentiating the characters. West only narrates a few very brief sections about Jack, which were fine.

Books read, September 2022

The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1, Neil Gaiman. This volume covers the material contained in the Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country collections, i.e. what was in the first season of the TV show (plus some bits that weren’t, like the issues “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Façade”). I re-read it after watching the show, and I have to say, my overall reaction is that not only is the adaptation fairly good, I genuinely think it improves on the comic in places (particularly by connecting the Corinthian to Rose’s plot, and also what it did with Gault). But I was, admittedly, never a die-hard fan of The Sandman; I came to it late, never liked a lot of the art, and vastly preferred the parts of it that weren’t quite so ’90s horror-flavored.

Hand of the Trickster, Mike Reeves-McMillan. A novella bundled with some short fiction to make for a more substantial book. The novella is a fantasy heist with a protagonist who serves a trickster god; the worldbuilding around how the various deities work and fit together was quite interesting.

The Game of 100 Candles My own work doesn’t count. But hey, now I can finally talk about it publicly, instead of being coy!

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig. I think I would have loved a less sorrow-focused version of this, with invented words for a broader range of emotions; not everything in here is about sadness, but a decent percentage is various forms of anxiety or existential angst. As it stands, I wound up mostly reading this in small doses, between other books — I think it’s better-suited to that approach than to mainlining the whole thing in one go.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty, narr. by the author. The author is an American mortician who has a lot of problems with how the U.S. funeral industry has changed the way we handle death. The bulk of the book involves her traveling to other parts of the world, or to places in the U.S. with unusual setups (like open-air pyres or human composting), to see how they deal with both the body and the bereaved, reflecting on the huge variety of responses and what needs they serve — or don’t serve. It cemented my feeling that I don’t want anybody spending thousands of dollars on a coffin for me and showed me some of the issues around cremation, too; I honestly like the idea of a natural burial or even composting, if that’s a viable option by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil. (California, where I live, just legalized the practice.) The book is — naturally — a little gross here and there, because decay is a gross process, but it’s also deeply compassionate and also funny, and Doughty narrated the audiobook well.

The Airship: Its Design, History, Operation, and Future, Christopher Sprigg. It is sometimes hilarious to read old books about technology. This one is from 1931, and it is chock full of fantastic and accessible details about how airships work and the kinds of problems they can run into, and then it closes with a discussion of the future of airships that basically boils down to 1) pressure airships will soon be extinct (Reader, “pressure airship” = “blimp” and they are still around), 2) rigid airships will totally be the long-distance air transport of the future (this was six years before the Hindenburg disaster), and 3) literally nine pages laying out the logic for why airplanes almost certainly can’t ever be viable for transoceanic commercial travel. (Among other things, he mocks the predictions that because airplane speed has been improving rapidly as of 1931, by 1950 a plane will be able to go 700 mph. Reader, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier — 767 mph — in 1947.) Obviously none of us are great at anticipating unforeseen developments in technology, by dint of them being unforeseen, but . . . still. His certainty is breathtaking to behold.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, narr. Adam Sims. I was a bit leery of this book at the outset, because I think there’s a lot of value in challenging the idea that the best thing we can possibly do is become more productive, i.e. better little hamsters running on the wheel of capitalism. Fortunately, it turns out that Pang is far more concerned with “work” in the sense of “doing things that give our lives meaning,” and deeply critical of the way capitalism often actively hinders that, by valorizing busy-ness and overwork instead of giving us the time we need to reflect and deepen our understanding of the world. He discusses the value of things like shorter periods of work, daily naps, exercise (especially challenging exercise), hobbies (especially challenging hobbies), vacations, sabbaticals, and more; my one real gripe is that he really beats the drum of “it is best to wake up super-early and do your work right away!” That idea isn’t without merit — I readily grant that my late-night habits mean I don’t get the mental benefits of doing my work and then relaxing in ways that give my brain a chance to mull over what I just did — but he lumps that in with “deadline-motivated binges” and “waiting for inspiration to strike” in ways I somewhat resented, because that is not actually me. Apart from that, I slightly wish I’d read this in print instead of listening in audiobook only because in places I felt like he was bludgeoning me with more examples of his point than I really needed, but the audiobook was still good.

The Spirit Thief, Rachel Aaron. First of the Eli Monpress series. I’ve seen this talked about as a heist novel, but while it starts out with a bit of that, the main plot is really something quite different. The magic here led to some great narrative moments: literally everything has a spirit in it, there are different ways of getting them to work with you (e.g. forcible enslavement vs. voluntary contracts), and Eli works magic by . . . basically just making friends with everything in his surroundings, much to the bafflement of wizards who are busy going “but — but — you can’t just — you’re telling me the door/tree/rock/whatever just decided to do you a favor?” There are clear indications of a deeper plot, and since I read this as part of a three-book omnibus, I will have plenty of opportunity to find out more.

Eastern Heretics: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore, ed. Amanda Lee Koe and Ng Yi-Sheng. After having enjoyed Ng’s collection Lion City, I hunted out this anthology — the title should make it obvious as to why! Alas, it was somewhat less congenial to me, as many of the stories were quite short and a lot of them were more literary in tone than I prefer. But I appreciated that it ranges all across Asia, including the western parts thereof, and there were some stories I very much enjoyed, chief among them Jason Erik Lundberg’s “Always a Risk,” which closes out the volume. That one retells the Chinese legend of the White Snake in a setting that’s . . . I dunno how to even describe it. Some kind of magical post-apocalyptic something or other that was very vivid and engaging.

If you do track down this anthology (which may be hard, depending on where you live; I had to order my copy from Singapore), be warned that the first story is kind of Trigger Warnings Ahoy, with the main character dreaming about the sexual assault of her children literally in the second sentence of the story. Me, I would not have had that be the first piece presented to the reader — not when the rest of the table of contents isn’t all of a similar tone — but here we are.

Eric, Terry Pratchett. Someone on my Discord mentioned Pratchett and thereby reminded me that there is still quite a lot of Discworld I haven’t read. This is not the best example thereof; having originally been an illustrated book, it’s very short, and there’s less meat on the bone than in some other installments. Still entertaining, though.

Books read, September-October 2021

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Sequel to Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, and still very fun. My only complaint was that the resolution of the conflict with the antagonist felt a bit too abrupt; it hinged on something that hadn’t really been set up enough for my taste. Still, I’ll forgive a lot for a book that feels as good-hearted as this.

100 Plants That Almost Changed the World, Chris Beardshaw. Got this on vacation in Solvang, as part of my intermittent crusade to make myself more knowledgeable about the natural world. It’s of the same vague genre as things like Around the World in 100 Trees, only less well-researched than that one; I’m fairly sure it indiscriminately reports some folklore as if it were scientific fact. But it’s a breezy little read, and anything that helps me remember that different plants, y’know, exist, is a helpful book for me.

A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, Benjamin A. Elman. So I basically spent almost all of September reading this damn thing. It’s over 600 pages — over 800 if I included the end-notes, which I did not wade through — and frankly, most of those 600 pages were not really about things I needed to know. But parts of it are things I need to know, and I was never quite sure when one of those would pop up, so I waded on. I did give myself permission to skim any paragraph that had at least three numerical percentages in it, though, because “let’s do statistical analysis of civil examination results” appears to be a favorite pastime of the kinds of historians who write about the topic.

Scales and Sensibility, Stephanie Burgis. After making it through that, I needed something lighter. Like this, a Regency romance with dragons in it! I expected it to give me Lady Trent feels; I did not expect it to simultaneously give me Rook and Rose feels, but it did. The main character inadvertently winds up in a situation where she’s having to con everybody, and watching her frantically trying to keep those balls in the air was entertaining.

The Art of Description: World into Word, Mark Doty. I can’t remember where I saw this book mentioned, but I picked it up in the hopes that it would give me useful thoughts about, well, the art of description. Alas, it only intermittently did so, in part because it’s mostly concerned with description in poetry. And while there are some applicable lessons across the border into prose fiction, it’s not quite the same thing.

Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay. This was about 1/3rd the book I wanted it to be, and since it’s only 85 pages, it felt more like a taster of the topic than a full pour. The other 2/3rds are about the more familiar Greek constellation myths for comparison (with one howler of an error: Hera is not the Roman name for the Greek goddess Cassiopeia), and about modern scientific astronomy. I understand wanting the comparisons, but dangit, I’m here for Navajo astronomy! On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I know why there wasn’t more. Early on in this book it mentions that traditionally, star lore is passed down orally, with the tales only being told during the winter months, roughly October to February. (I started reading this in July, after I picked it up at the Grand Canyon; I hit that line, remembered that detail from my college or grad school days, and put the book down until October.) So basically, there’s a reason not to write more information up in a book that any random person could pick up whenever they like. Still, the taster was enough to make me wish I had more.

The Glass Magician, Caroline Stevermer. A quick-reading historical fantasy, based on the life of Dell O’Dell, a female stage magician in the early twentieth century. The setting was interesting, but I wound up feeling very distanced from the moments of strong emotion, so it never really hooked me.

Spark of Life: David B. Coe on RADIANTS

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts! I got too busy to keep up with coordinating them, I’m afraid. But my friend David Coe has a new book out, so I’m delighted to introduce you all to Radiants, a supernatural thriller with a queer, teenaged protagonist. Sparking this story to life required him to unfollow some earlier, well-meant advice — but I’ll let him tell you that tale himself . . .

***

David says:

cover art for RADIANTS by David B. CoeA couple of decades ago, while working on my debut fantasy series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, a first-contact story about two societies, one pastoral, one highly technological, I mentioned to my editor an idea I had to market the series as “an ecological fantasy.” He told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was a terrible idea.

“No one,” he said (I’m paraphrasing a little), “wants to read an ecological fantasy. Keep politics and social issues out of your work. Just write your story.”

Over the years I have defied that advice again and again, though I have tried to do so with subtlety and nuance. I didn’t take the ecological themes out of that first trilogy — and, to be fair to my editor, one reviewer writing for a prominent publication strongly objected to the presence of those themes. In several subsequent series, I have dealt with issues ranging from race to mental illness and addiction, but always I have done my best to keep my social content in the background, visible to those who care to look for it, but unobtrusive.

Fast forward to my newest work, Radiants, a supernatural thriller to be released October 15 from Belle Books. When I showed my initial draft of the novel to my agent a couple of years ago, before we began to shop it to publishers, she came back to me with surprising feedback. She told me the book felt a little flat to her. This was not the part that surprised me; I sensed the lack of energy as well, but was at a bit of a loss as to how to fix it.

What I hadn’t expected was her advice. “Publishers these days want books with some social relevance,” she said. “You’re so political, so passionate in your opinions. Let that guide you in your revisions.”

How far we’ve come.

As soon as she said this, my mind began to whir.

Radiants tells the story of a teenaged girl, DeDe Mercer, who has the ability to control the thoughts of others. She can step into someone’s mind, make a decision for them, and then jump back out, leaving her will imprinted on their thoughts. She and other Radiants (who have a variety of abilities) access their talents by drawing upon planetary energy systems — the rotational and orbital energies of the earth and moon. And though DeDe has been warned by her mother not to use her power at all, she is confronted by a situation that leaves her with little choice. DeDe’s abilities come to the attention of government agencies, several of which send operatives after her, all hoping to turn her into a tool. Or a weapon. I loved the set-up from the start, but armed with my agent’s advice, I saw new possibilities.

Those who seek to use her, who seek to create an army of Radiants, don’t care about the consequences of their ambitions. But DeDe soon realizes that her deceased father, who was also a Radiant, saw the danger. Too many Radiants drawing upon those planetary energy systems threaten to destabilize earth’s orbit and rotation, imperiling the very survival of the planet.

DeDe’s decision to use her ability despite her mother’s objections is prompted by an injustice against her closest friend (and crush), Kyle, who is genderqueer. Kyle is bullied for what feels like the hundredth time, and rather than just taking it, they fight back, bloodying the nose of a much larger student. Though they were defending themself, the principal of the high school decides to suspend them and not the instigator. DeDe refuses to let this decision stand and uses her power to change his mind, setting in motion the events of the novel.

The government agencies pursuing DeDe and her family stop at nothing to have their way, and think nothing of kidnapping DeDe’s mother, splitting the family. DeDe and her brother, Miles, who is about to come into his power, fight back to win their mother’s freedom, a conflict that forms the narrative core of Radiants.

An allegory for global warming. A story about gender identity and bigotry. An indictment of governments using their power to separate children from their parents.

Once I recast the plot in these terms, my passion for the book grew exponentially. I still loved my characters and narrative, but now I also cared deeply about my themes, my underlying message. I didn’t feel the need to disguise these elements of my storytelling. Instead, I reveled in them.

Don’t get me wrong: Radiants is first and foremost a thriller. It might well be the most tightly paced, action-packed book I’ve written. I don’t bludgeon my reader with politics. But neither do I shy from issues that matter to me.

And once I allowed myself to write this way, my novel came to life.

Many thanks to Marie for hosting me on her site!

***

From the cover copy:

DeDe Mercer is a Radiant who can control other people’s thoughts, make them do what she wants. For years she’s controlled her power, keeping her secret, never using it on anyone—until the day she had no choice.

Now the government is after her, after her brother, too, because he’ll come into his power before long. The Department of Energy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security — they all want her, and they’re willing to do anything, hurt anyone, kill if necessary, to make her their weapon.

But DeDe has had enough. They think she’s a weapon? Fine. They’re about to find out how right they are.

David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. He has written epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins, and is now expanding into supernatural thrillers with Radiants and its sequels. In addition, he has co-edited several anthologies for the Zombies Need Brains imprint.

As D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

***

Like me, he has multiple professional identities! You can find him as David B. Coe on his website, Facebook, and Twitter, or as D.B. Jackson on another site, Facebook, and Twitter.