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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

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.

Books read, July-August 2021

I am behind!

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden. Second of the Winternight Trilogy, and hard going in some places. The idea that Vasya’s gifts are viewed with suspicion and fear, that people might not react well to her . . . that isn’t something Arden just pays lip service to and then breezes past to get on with the adventure.

The Hand of the Sun King, J.T. Greathouse. (Disclaimer: the author is a friend.) Epic fantasy, and one that reminded me significantly of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant and Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant, inasmuch as it involves someone from a conquered/colonized people becoming complicit in the power structure of the colonizers, then eventually turning revolutionary. The latter takes some time, but this is also the first book of a series, so there’s plenty of room for action later on.

The Memory Collectors, Kim Neville. I started out unsure of this book and then got sucked right in. The two main characters share the ability to read emotions and memories off of objects; they are polar opposites in how they deal with the psychological strain that puts on them, and the novel does a lovely job of showing how neither woman’s coping method is healthy — how both of them need to learn something from the other in order to function and survive. Very much more on the literary end of fantasy, and beautifully done.

Each of Us a Desert, Mark Oshiro. Post-apocalyptic fantasy in a setting very reminiscent of the American Southwest, though it’s never explicitly identified as our world. The main character, Xochitl, is a cuentista; she has the magical gift of relieving people’s emotional burdens by taking the stories they tell — literally taking them; the teller doesn’t remember it afterward — and giving it to Sol, the sun they worship. Like the previous book, this is not entirely a functional setup, and pretty soon Xochitl runs away from it, without quite being able to escape. This is a YA novel, though, which means that a lot of the emotional focus is on Xochitl wanting to feel seen. I’ll confess I didn’t entirely follow some of the ending, and also there were places where the text shifted into a one-sentence-per-paragraph mode long enough to feel really choppy, but overall this was engaging.

my own work doesn’t count

Hard in Hightown, Varric Tethras and Mary Kirby. This was sadly disappointing. It’s basically a Dragon Age in-joke — which I’m fine with — around the fact that one of the characters in the game, Varric Tethras, had written a hard-boiled detective novel called Hard in Hightown. Except this turned out to be more like a novelette, maybe a very short novella, than an actual novel, and also it played its concept way too straight. I wanted it to be, like, twelve hundred percent more over the top. Alas.

Over the Woodward Wall, A. Deborah Baker. Yet another pen name for Seanan McGuire, this one invented because her novel Middlegame quotes extensively from a fictional children’s book by A. Deborah Baker, and of course being Seanan, she went and wrote the whole damn book. Tonally this is in the general ballpark of things like The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and while I liked it well enough, I have to admit it felt way more compelling when I was only seeing snippets of it through the epigraphs in Middlegame. I’m likely to give it to my nephew, and I’ll be curious to see what he thinks; I can’t tell how much this will appeal to actual children, as opposed to being sort of a “DVD extra” for Seanan’s adult readers.

Icelandic Magic: Aims, Tools and Techniques of the Icelandic Sorcerers, Christopher Alan Smith. This sits at an odd boundary between academic work that goes into detail about the surviving historical texts which tell us about the making and use of rune-staves, and New Age work that makes suggestions for how to use this magic in your own life. Its focus is early modern Icelandic magic, not the period of the sagas, but it still has some interesting insights into the lines along which the ideas did and did not run: much less importance assigned to the materials used, for example, but a great deal assigned to intent.

Comeuppance Served Cold, Marion Deeds. (Disclaimer: the author is a friend, and this was sent to me for blurbing.) Jazz Age novella in an open urban fantasy version of our history, out in Seattle where a leading politician is cracking down on unlicensed magic users — which tends to include marginalized people of various sorts. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because this is built somewhat around unveiling certain details as it goes, but it was definitely a fun read.

The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China: A Social History of Examinations, John W. Chaffee. Holy crap was this dry, yo (and you’ll see more of that to come, because I’m trying to research the Chinese examination system, and as a friend put it, that entire genre is apparently dry AF). Useful if you need to know the topic for some reason? But not something I’d recommend for casual reading.

A Heart Divided, Jin Yong, trans. Gigi Chang and Shelly Bryant. Fourth and final of the Legends of the Condor Heroes; full review here.

Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley. This is the translation that famously takes the opening word, Hwaet — often translated with words like “Lo!” or “Listen!” or “Hark!” — and renders it as “Bro!” Headley is very interested in unpacking the belligerent masculinity of this poem, though she doesn’t neglect to also pay attention to the women: as she points out, an influential glossary of Old English translates aglaec-wif as “wretch, or monster, of a woman,” while the masculine form aglaeca is “monster, demon, fiend” when talking about Grendel, but “hero” when talking about Beowulf, and hmmm, maybe there’s a different meaning underlying that which could be more coherent and also more charitable to Grendel’s mother. (She suggests “formidable.”) Anyway, the whole way through this, my subconscious kept wondering when Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to make a musical of it, which gives you a pretty good sense of its general mood.

The Class of 1761: Examinations, State, and Elites in Eighteenth-Century China, Iona D. Man-Cheong. More incredibly dry research reading on the Chinese examination system! This time in the Qing Dynasty instead! Basically, same as above, except this time with pinyin instead of Wade-Giles. (I think I’m going to get linguistic whiplash from the way the books I’m reading flip-flop between the two systems of romanization.)

Books read, June 2021

Li Yu’s Twelve Towers, retold by Nathan Mao. Seventeenth-century Chinese collection, picked up for research. This book is on the old side (printed in 1975), and I have to admit I side-eye some of Mao’s choices. You might have noticed this says “retold by Nathan Mao” rather than “translated by;” he is very free with the text in places. Example: he gives each story his own title, thus obscuring the fact that it’s Twelve Towers because each title mentions a lou (a tower/pavilion/pagoda/etc). Example: he leaves the ending off the first story because it’s “anticlimactic.” He does at least include endnotes that alert you to these decisions . . . but still. As for the stories themselves, although Li Yu is generally praised for the “realism” of his observations of human behavior, the story Mao calls “Father and Son” (actual title something more like “The Tower of My Birth”) contains series of coincidences that would make a Shakespearean comedy blush — but hey, I find that kind of thing amusing!

Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale, Judith T. Zeitlin. Also picked up for research. This gave me a lot of great context not only about Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi, but about broader Ming/Qing ideas around topics like obsessive collecting.

People and the Sky: Our Ancestors and the Cosmos, Anthony Aveni. I can’t recall who recommended this to me, but it came up in the context of me asking for a book that would give me comparative astronomy/astrology. This isn’t quite what I was looking for — I want something that focuses more specifically on different cultural systems for the constellations and their meaning — but it’s very interesting in its own right, organizing itself around the different uses we’ve gotten out of the sky and its astronomical bodies, and within that being admirably multicultural in its survey of examples.

Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan, Danny Chaplin. Also picked up for research, albeit for different reasons. This appears to be self-published, which explains why it was so badly in need of a copy-editor — not just typos and errors of punctuation but “that is not the word you meant there, sir” and (least forgivably, in my mind) the decision to not mark long vowels on any of the Japanese words and names, of which there are an abundance. Having said that, it did what I needed it to do, and my impression from reviews is that most of its errors are more of “you contradicted yourself” sort rather than a “you just don’t even know your facts” sort. It’s a massive brick (I’m glad I read it in ebook) and for my purposes I could have stopped halfway through, but I went ahead and read the rest, giant wads of “I will now name every daimyō who participated in this battle” notwithstanding. Dear heavens was this period just bloody and insane.

Rashōmon and Other Stories, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, trans. Takashi Kojima. Not research, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so! I just happened to be at Kinokuniya and picked this up, along with a folklore collection and a copy of the Kojiki that may take me forever to tackle, given that it’s the kind of volume where the top quarter of the page is text and the remaining three quarters is footnotes. But this book is quite slender, collecting both “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove” (the story that actually provides the plot of the film Rashōmon), along with several others. None of the stories were my particular cuppa, as they ooze a kind of cynicism about human nature that I don’t particularly enjoy, but it was good to read for general cultural broadening.

Easy Field Guide to Indian Art & Legends of the Southwest, James Cunkle. This doesn’t really count as a book, being a tiny pamphlet I snagged at the Grand Canyon. It’s specifically about artistic motifs in Mimbres bowls, and I like that the sketches of each bowl include (where relevant) the “kill hole” chipped in the bottom before it was placed over the face of a buried individual.

The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers, Jim Kristofic with illustrations by Nolan Karras James. Illustrated, bilingual retelling of the Hero Twins story, also acquired at the Grand Canyon. My main complaint is that the art wasn’t as well-planned for binding as it could have been; often there’s a key segment of the painting in the gutter where the pages come together, making it harder to see.

Books read, May 2021

Belated!

Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan, Usman T. Malik. I met the author at, hmmmm, I think ICFA? The book is quite literally from Pakistan; at least when I placed my order, it wasn’t available in the U.S. Some of these verged in more horror-ish directions than is my cuppa, but I liked the collection overall. And I found it particularly interesting to see where the text doesn’t bother explaining stuff: a statue from Mohenjo-daro gets referenced as if the reader is assumed to be extremely familiar with its appearance, and one story hinges on the idea of stoves being a source of fear, without saying outright why. (In the former case, I searched online for the image; in the latter, I had a vague recollection which I then confirmed, which is that men who want to get rid of their current wives will burn them alive and then blame it on an explosion from a kerosene stove.)

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden. An absolutely lovely historical fantasy novel set in Russia, the first of the Winternight Trilogy. It managed to make me feel sympathy for the “evil stepmother,” and I like the ambiguity around the romance — I’ll be interested to see how the tension of the latter plays out in the rest of the series.

Star Eater, Kerstin Hall. Disclosure: the author is a friend. The worldbuilding here strikes a balance where on the one hand, the things people are doing are deeply messed up, but on the other hand, you see why just deciding not to do those things isn’t a solution. (Example: if you stop your rituals, the floating island everybody lives on will literally fall out of the sky. Into a demon-haunted wilderness, for bonus points.) As a result, it comes with trigger warnings for things like cannibalism and a really twisted sexual scene. This book is a stand-alone — I don’t know if Hall intends more in this setting or with these characters, but the plot doesn’t demand it — but I’d be interested in more about the history behind everything we see here. You get bits of it in the last segment of this book, but my nerdy heart wanted more!

A Snake Lies Waiting, Jin Yong, trans. Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang. Third of the ongoing English translation of the book usually called Legends of the Condor Heroes. I distinctly enjoyed the portion of this that had to be more about problem-solving than just fighting your enemies — first with setting up a trap; then with getting someone out of it — and chef’s kiss to the bit where one of the bad guys screws up his attempted takeover of the Beggar Clan by trying to be too dignified. On the other hand, it’s deeply grating when one of the two strongest female martial artists in the whole story is described as being no match for a third-tier dude who’s literally had the entire lower half of his body crushed with a boulder.

A Radical Act of Free Magic, H.G. Parry. Second half of the duology that began with A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. Robespierre is dead; Napoleon is on the rise; Haiti is in the process of becoming a free country; England is having problems. The pacing that results from a duology structure means I spent the first chunk of this book having a sad that Pitt and Wilberforce basically weren’t talking to each other, but fortunately that didn’t last. The ending is also interesting because of how closely this hews to the shape of real history, while providing different reasons for events: the invented threat gets thoroughly taken out, but other bits are left somewhat dangling because history says they won’t be dealt with for another few years or decades. I didn’t find it unsatisfying, but it definitely isn’t as tidy as we usually expect from novels.

The Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer, ed. Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans. I swear to god that someone whose blog I read regularly had a review of this book, but I’ve checked all the usual suspects and not found it, so either I missed it in my search or I’m imagining things. And yet, if I didn’t see a review, then where did I find out about it? Anyway, this runs the full gamut from the basics of craft to some philosophical things about life as a writer. Unsurprisingly, I found the latter more useful than the former, but this could still be a good book to recommend to a newer writer.

City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett. Second of the Divine Cities trilogy, and it’s been years since I read the first one, but that didn’t materially hamper my enjoyment. I continue to be be fascinated by the type of worldbuilding I see here and in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, where it’s a secondary world with magic but the general feel is modern rather than historical. (Who else does that?)

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien. Second of a middle-grade series about martial arts figure skating. For much of this book I was enjoying it but also a little frustrated with Peasprout’s blind spots, because I keep wanting her to be more diplomatic and aware of others (while fully recognizing that the whole point is that failure to do so is a flaw she’s having to grow past; this is more about me not being the target audience than anything else). Then I got to the end of the book and OMGWTFBBQ PLEASE TELL ME THERE WILL BE A THIRD BOOK BECAUSE I NEED ANSWERS. O_O

The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner. This is a series I’ve heard recommended many times over the years, and I finally got around to picking up the first book. Having done so, I’ve gotta ask . . . does it get better? Because I was seriously not impressed. Something like a fifth of the book is the characters traveling while having the same repetitive interactions and facing no particular challenges. Then they’re still traveling, but at least there are some challenges and the interactions have gotten less repetitive. I semi-guessed where the story was going, but when I found out I was right, my main reaction was to be irritated by how unreliable the narration had to be in order to pull that off — not least because it left Gen a fairly colorless character along the way. I’ll keep reading if people tell me the later books are stronger, but if this is one of those cases where a person’s reaction to the first installment is diagnostic of the whole, I may not bother.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Revised & Expanded), Jeff Vandermeer. So, I feel like how you react to this book will depend greatly on how well you vibe with Vandermeer’s preferred aesthetic, which very much tilts toward the surreal and grotesque. I . . . don’t, so from my perspective, the illustrations that pack this book mostly just make it longer and heavier. Even the ones that are diagrams intended to demonstrate some point or another about narrative add basically nothing for me. The text was mostly fine, but for me the greatest value by far comes from the mini-essays sprinkled throughout from other writers, just because I think it’s good for one’s writing advice to come from multiple sources. I have a harder time imagining when I might recommend this book than I do with The Pocket Workshop, unless I knew the recommendee really digs the aesthetic.