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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Books read, February 2023

More Japan — but not quiiiite All Japan, All the Time . . .

The Sword Makes the Man: Weapons and the Construction of Social Identity in Viking Age Scandinavia, written by me, age 21. No, really. Traditionally my own work doesn’t count, but I say that in the context of reading through my novels for the purpose of revision and copy-editing and the like. This? This was me re-reading my college thesis. FOR RESEARCH. I was revising The Waking of Angantyr, and I needed to check the average length of a Viking Age sword, and . . . well, the easiest way to do that was roll two feet to my right and pull this off the shelf. And then I wound up reading the whole thing, because I was curious, and because it was sort of usefully feeding my brain even though I’m in the editorial revisions stage on that novel, not drafting. The setting wound up sprouting a small addition as a result. I regret nothing, except maybe a few bits of this thesis that I would write differently now.

The Waking of Angantyr My own work doesn’t count. 😛

Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide, Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, ill. Shinkichi. This is a kind of breezy, pop-culture book, copiously illustrated with both historical paintings/woodblock prints/etc. and modern images. I tend to roll my eyes at the bits about “how to survive if you find yourself dealing with this ghost or haunted situation,” but the information itself is pretty solid, and this contained multiple stories I hadn’t read about before.

Automatic Eve, Rokuro Inui. I almost quit out of this book early on. It starts off with a samurai enamored of a courtesan he knows is in love with another man; his solution, when he comes into a lot of money, is to use some of the money to buy her freedom (good for him) hire a famed maker of automata to craft a perfect replica of her that he can keep for himself (ew). Since this is not a scenario I particularly enjoy reading . . . fortunately, right when I was on the verge of putting it down, the plot turned in an unexpected direction.

And kept turning, too. The early parts of this are almost a mosaic novel, held together only by encounters with the automaton crafter and the titular Eve, herself (of course) a construct. The threads start to pull together more as you go along, though. I mostly liked the result, and the idea (rot-13’d for thematic spoilers) that jung tvirf nhgbzngn fbhyf vf gur rzbgvba naq pner bgure crbcyr srry gbjneq gurz. However, I could have done without the male gaze-y parts, especially when not one but two automata apparently awaken from their inert, lifeless state because n thl fgnegf tebcvat gurve oernfgf. So overall, a mixed bag.

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo, Miyuki Miyabe, trans. Daniel Huddleston. This was loaned to me by my sister, and turned out to be very apropos for what I’m working on right now. It’s a collection of spooky historical tales, some tilted more in a horror direction, others more toward mystery, many of them ending on a deliberately unresolved note. They’re all set in the Edo period, but apart from a few glancing mentions, they’re not remotely about samurai; instead these are glimpses into the lives of ordinary townsfolk. I think every single story has to do with some kind of business, often wholesale, that’s large enough to hire apprentices, with recurrent attention to questions like how employment agents supply workers to those businesses and what happens when the company is inherited by the next generation. (Often the answer is “nothing good,” but not all of the younger generation in here are dissolute assholes.)

My sister hasn’t actually read this book, but said she bought it because she read and liked something else of Miyabe’s; on the basis of this one, I might well track down other work of hers.

The Tale of Genji: Scenes From the World’s First Novel, Murasaki Shikibu, trans. H. Mack Horton, ill. Miyata Masayuki. I haven’t actually read The Tale of Genji yet, which I should remedy one of these days. But I’ve absorbed some of its key bits by osmosis, and it’s honestly helpful to read something this (which amounts to the Cliff Notes of the story; I don’t know who actually wrote the chapter summaries that are the main text) before diving into the whole thing.

The illustrations are distributed one per chapter, and some of them are extremely striking! Miyata’s work is kiri-e, i.e. layered paper cutouts; it’s hard to find good images from this specific book online, but this is one I quite liked (and this appears to show the actual paper from an image, rather than just a scan of the whole). I only wish that the printing didn’t mean that many of these illustrations cross the gutter of the book — it’s clear there was some effort made to place the gutter in a minimally disruptive place, but still, they lessen the impact of the art.

Winter Counts, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, narr. Darrell Dennis. Non-fantastical mystery set among the Lakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Things I really liked here: the multiplicity of attitudes among the characters toward their Native identity and the politics around same (not just externally but internally, as this digs into the “authenticity policing” within the community and other such matters); the fact that this is not actually a murder mystery, being more about an investigation into drug trafficking on the reservation.

Things I did not like so much: the protagonist. The author’s note afterward comments on unofficial “enforcers” who step in on the reservations in situations where the tribal and federal police either cannot or — all too often — will not act, and I get why such a thing exists. But the first thing you see the protagonist do is beat up a fat pedophile until the guy’s teeth are literally scattered across the pavement; later he tortures somebody for information, then kills someone else in a truly gruesome fashion. (The overall context is self-defense, but the killing blow is not.) I liked Virgil best when he was doing things other than his job.

The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society, Pierre François Souyri, trans. Kathe Roth. I was initially a bit apprehensive of this, because the introduction felt like Souyri was trying to push the parallels between medieval Japanese and medieval European society while downplaying Japan’s similarity to other Asian nations. However, that was basically confined to the introduction.

The rest of the book was far more useful! It gives a very brief overview of the events leading into the Kamakura period and through to the end of the Sengoku, but tilted much more heavily toward the earlier parts than that last bit. (Which puts it in sharp contrast to other things I’ve read.) I doubt the overview would be enough for somebody not already somewhat familiar with those eras, but they were enough to blow some of the dust off my memory. Having established the context, he then spends most of his time talking about how society changed — and not just, say, the rise of the warrior class or the decline of the court aristocracy, but what we can piece together about the lives of the peasants in the fields, wandering entertainers, and so forth. This is the first thing I’ve read that makes me feel like I have any real grasp of the political/economic structure out in the countryside, much less a sense of ordinary lower-class society and the ways in which they organized themselves to resist the domination of the elites. Taht latter is kind of fascinating stuff, often religious in foundation and, in its own way, as oppressive as anything that came from above — peasants maintained their solidarity by e.g. burning down houses and murdering whole families, children included, if somebody broke ranks.

Anyway, by the time I put this down, I had a vastly clearer image of Kamakura- and Muromachi-era Japan than I did before, which fills a significant gap in my knowledge.

The Ise Stories: Ise monogatari, trans. Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler. This is more often called The Tales of Ise in English, but Mostow and Tyler argue that unlike other “X monogatari” works, this is more like “that collection of tales that includes a few about the Ise Priestess.” The actual connecting thread is the Heian aristocrat Ariwara no Narihira, assumed to be the man referred to in the anecdotes, though he’s only named explicitly in a few. The anecdotes themselves are very brief, largely consisting of some frame context around one or more poems, often exchanged between Narihira and one of his many, many lovers.

What made this really interesting to me was less the text itself — which is only thinly narrative and hinges primarily upon your ability to appreciate the poetry, a harder task in translation than in the original — and more the extensive notes Mostow and Tyler supply. Heian-era literature like this was pretty impenetrable even to later Japanese readers, so there’s centuries of accreted commentary, with scholars imposing different interpretations on the narrative and the poems; the notes give an overview of that commentary and position Mostow and Tyler’s own translation choices within that context. After a while you start to build up a sense of the different commentators and the strands they represent . . . with occasional drive-by bombings when Mostow and Tyler decide to mention the whack-ass tantric interpretive tradition in which the entire thing is akshually about the secret religious teachings Narihira imparted to Heian Japan via, yes, sex.


Before Heike and After: Hōgen, Heiji, Jōkyūki, trans. Royall Tyler. Speaking of building up a sense of a translator/commentator . . . between the previous book and this one, I’ve decided I like Tyler’s work. He’s not afraid to let a bit of his personality and opinions show through in his commentary, and his translation is much less stiff and mannered than you might expect. In one place here he translates the epithets of some of the warriors in a fashion that wouldn’t have been out of place on the American frontier, but the prize really comes with the bit he footnotes by saying, “The poem relies on word plays impossible to translate and all but hopeless to explain. I have tried to convey their spirit instead.” Said footnote is attached to the following:

     Poor Masakado
got that old noggin of his
     neatly lifted off
by a vorpal snicker-snack
from Tawara Tōda’s sword.

As for the book itself, this is a collation and translation of three different monogatari that come before (the first two) or after (the third) the much more famous Heike monogatari, in much the same way that various other Greek texts supply the lead-in to and fall-out from the Iliad. Have I read the Heike? No, no I have not. But I’ve absorbed the gist of it through sheer osmosis, and look, I’m the woman who watched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead before she’d ever read or seen Hamlet, so it’s kind of par for the course with me.

All three of these monogatari concern outbreaks of armed violence in and around the capital, though they vary in how much of the text is spent on that part. Without in any way downplaying the cultural specificity . . . man, I’ve read the Mahabharata, and I’ve read the Táin Bó Cúailnge, and I gotta say that there’s a level on which these ancient war stories tend to look a lot alike. So-and-so gathered this many men, and here is how they were armed and armored! This guy was super-amazing and performed the following improbable feats when he was a small child! Behold as they proclaim themselves and/or their lineages and/or their deeds before engaging in what read like one-on-one duels even though this is probably not how actual wars got conducted because what the heck are all the other people on that battlefield doing! Not gonna lie, my eyes glaze over after reading too much of that in one go. I was more engaged by the parts that weren’t the battles, even when those were horrible (e.g. the extended narration of how one guy’s four young sons were taken out into the forest and beheaded for their father’s crimes).

Still and all, I got utility out of this, including some details relevant to a short story draft I’m shopping around, which I should work into the text because they’re just too perfect. And I do like Tyler’s translation, even when what’s being translated makes my eyes glaze over.

White Cranes Castle, Geraldine Harris. I only recently learned that Geraldine Harris had published another novel besides the Seven Citadels series. I didn’t realize, when I ordered it, that it was going to fit into my current theme of reading a bunch about Japan, but I should have; Himeji-jō, a very famous castle I have visited, is often nicknamed “White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle” because of its graceful beauty.

This is set in an expy of Japan, and given what I read right afterward, I think I can straight-up see how Harris probably read Morris’ work (which would have been pretty new when this was published) and was immediately inspired by the chewy little details of a different culture. The ending, however, is very Harris, if I’m allowed to make a comparison on the basis of her only other novel-length work: it very much eschews the conventional sense of resolution, this time with a side order of a really elliptical battle of wits between the protagonist and a dragon. I almost think it could have been a short story; the book is very brief, and it hops, skips, and jumps through the protagonist’s childhood rapidly enough that I felt I was told about more than sold on his relationship with his lord’s son and heir. So if that had all just been taken as a given and the whole story had been the confrontation with the dragon, it’s entirely possible that would have worked.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, Sei Shōnagon, trans. Ivan Morris, ill. Jasper Deane. Holy shit, y’all, I do not think I have ever in my life read something that leaked classism out its pores quite as rampantly as this text does.

Mostly the things I’ve read that wholeheartedly buy into the class division simply ignore the lower ranks, but not Sei Shōnagon; no, she’s here to tell you that one of the unsuitable things in the world is snow on the houses of the common folk, especially when moonlight shines upon it. (Morris helpfully clarifies that this is because “such beauty is wasted on hoi polloi and inappropriate to their gross nature.”) I actively wanted to slap her when she and the other ladies laugh merrily at and play a nasty trick on a peasant who comes to beg for help after his house burned down. And yet, at the same time, there are places where a sense of recognition and empathy comes through, when Shōnagon delights in or complains about something that is still so very true today, a thousand years later. I can see how this continues to resonate, despite the gap in both time and (one hopes) sense of social division.

(The edition I read was the one put out by the Folio Society, and the binding is GORGEOUS. I was less enamored of Dean’s illustrations, though, which are trying to be Ink Paintings But Modern in a way that didn’t do much for me.)

Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost, Zack Davisson. This touches on a number of the same ghost stories as the Yoda and Alt book from earlier this month, but rather than simply being a catalogue of interesting tales, this book attempts to dig deeper into the role ghosts play in Japanese culture, from ancient times (insofar as we can reconstruct what Japanese beliefs looked like before Buddhism reached the country) up to modern cinematic adaptations. I think my favorite aspect was the glimpse into the world of kabuki theatre and the ways in which the stage pushed the boundaries on special effects and gore. One of these days I should find a good book on the history of Japanese theatre, instead of just picking up shreds and bits on the fringes of other things I read — though the performing arts being what they are, I really need to see some actual stage productions, too, not just read about them.

Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws, Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, ill. Yutaka Kondo. The authors referenced this book in the one on yūrei, specifically in the context of the “walking maidens” corps of female spies Takeda Shingen maintained, which convinced me to pick it up. Although the title is obviously going for recognition factor and pithy phrasing, this is more broadly a book about espionage, assassination, unconventional warfare, and even sleight-of-hand techniques, plus how those things have lived on in modern media. Like the other two books by Yoda and Alt, this has a generally pop-culture tone, sprinkled with nuggets of really solid and useful information . . . at least if you’re me and find it really useful to know e.g. how high-calorie travel rations were made.

. . . and here ends my binge of Reading About Japan, which was like 25% research for the current book and 75% “I’ve built up such a backlog, I should use this as an excuse to chisel that down.” There’s one more book I wanted to read and didn’t get to; while there was time for me to pick it up and maybe even finish it before the end of February, my brain said NO I DON’T WANT TO and that’s how I know I’m done reading about Japan for the moment. (I also finally acquired a translation of Heiki monogatari, but wow, no, that is way more pages than I want to tackle at the moment.)

The Watcher by the Threshold, John Buchan. A very slim short fiction collection from a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Scottish author better known for his WWI adventure novels. I saw someone mention this in the context of British folklore, which of course piqued my interest, so I picked up a modern reprint (the stories being now in the public domain).

The first story in here, “No-Man’s-Land,” and to a lesser extent the titular story and “The Outgoing of the Tide,” reminded me a bit of Lovecraft, especially with the found documents/frame story approach to the narratives. Here, though, the source of horror is not the scary dark-skinned Other, but rather the past. The things our ancient forebears used to know and do, and the possibility of those hideous rites surviving or resurfacing into the present day. Other stories — specifically “The Far Islands” and “The Rime of True Thomas” (which was not, as I expected, a retelling of “Thomas the Rhymer”) — had more an echo of Dunsany about them. Nearly all of them are slow to start, spending a lot of time on establishing the central character and the landscape before getting into the plot proper, but as long as you’re willing to tolerate that, they’re often very good at building atmosphere. I don’t know that I’m compelling to seek out more of Buchan’s fiction, especially because he’s unfortunately fond of “phonetically” spelling out Scottish dialect, but I don’t regret reading this.

Books read, January 2023

Much of this month’s reading was All Japan, All the Time, as I got started on the draft of The Market of 100 Fortunes (my third Legend of the Five Rings novel). Some of that was direct research; some was just me getting my head back into the correct cultural gear; some was me figuring, well, I’ve got a bunch of Japan-related books that have been piling up on my lists, so why not use this as an impetus to read some of them.


Geraldine Harris’ Seven Citadels

Yoon Ha Lee has mentioned this quartet of books several times over the years, reminding me that I loved them as a kid and prompting me to re-acquire the series to see if it holds up. (The four volumes are Prince of the Godborn, Children of the Wind, The Dead Kingdom, and The Seventh Gate.) My recollection, at a distance of nearly thirty years, was that it had amazing worldbuilding and an ending that kid!me had kind of a “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?” reaction to, but which I suspected was actually kind of amazing in ways I didn’t properly appreciate at the time.

Reader, I did not misremember.

Plot summary first: the declining empire of Galkis is under threat from without and from within, and their only hope is for someone to go on a quest to free their prophecied Savior from a prison whose seven keys are in the keeping of seven sorcerers (well, five sorcerers and two sorceresses). This is 100% unabashed Plot Coupon territory, a reason for Prince Kerish-lo-Taan, his half-brother Forollkin, and the companions they pick up along the way to roam through nearly the entire map collecting inventory items until they have the full set . . . but two things significantly mitigate the cheesiness and predictability of that plot. The first is just what it means in practice for them to be obtaining those keys, and the second is how it all resolves in the end, which is not at all what you might expect (hence kid!me’s reaction).

Before I get to that, though, the worldbuilding. When I bought copies of the books, they were shockingly short; the longest is still less than 250 pages. How much setting richness, I wondered, could possibly be squeezed into such a small space?


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.


Books read, November 2022

In November 2020, I randomly decided that I would try to prioritize reading Native American authors that month. This year, seeing the number of books by such authors that had piled up on my shelf and on my wishlists, I decided to go ahead and fully devote the month to that focus.

Now, there are flaws in this approach, and I know it. Why, for example, should I cordon such authors off in a specific month? The answer to that is (of course) not to cordon; this year I did actively choose to hold off on a couple of the books because I knew I was going to approach November this way, but in the future I’m not likely to do that. There are also merits to the approach, though: by taking in such fiction and non-fiction in a concentrated dose, I see patterns and themes and gaps in ways that would elude me if the material were more spread out. Case in point, I noticed that I have quite a lot of Anishinaabe authors here, with smaller clusters elsewhere, but there are whole swaths (like the Plains) that are relatively untouched.

So my verdict on the experiment as a whole is that I think it was interesting to do, but I don’t think I’d try to repeat it on a yearly basis. Unless, maybe, I wind up with such a backlog again that another focused push makes sense. 🙂

On to the books themselves!


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, 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.