While I'm not sure such a thing can exist, I would describe Slowly Fell as a cozy Gothic tale. There's all the earmarks of a Victorian Gothic: lost babes and a crumbling manse, witches and curses, consumption, murder and missing persons. But the central character of the novel, Sarah Wetherby, is such a stalwart and unflappable person that she stares down any spoopy mysteries through sheer force of will. She is Lady Elizabeth's "coping girl", sent all around England to help those in need, as a sort of helpmate to people Elizabeth deems woth.
Sarah is sent to the town of Slowly Fell to help the parson, whose wife is dying, to help with his copious children and the sickbed. The novel bops around in time, giving us backstories to Sarah, Elizabeth, the town blacksmith, and the history of Slowly Fell itself. Turns out, all those stories are interconnected, often in ways that seem very upsetting to the principles. Much of this just slides off, due to tone, in a way that should have been frustrating, but wasn't? Or not ezactly. I didn't know what to expect from the novel, so it's hard to say. I think I was expecting more Goth and less coziness, but it wasn't a bad way to spend the time. Reminded me a bit of The Thirteenth Tale, in that way. It's half spooking, but safe.
A million years ago, I picked up The Duke's Tattoo by Miranda Davis because I read some sniggering reviews about it: get a load of this. And it's true, and funny, that the opening action is one of the heroine sedating and then permanently inking a certain peer's unmentionables, and then how their rivalry and his revenge turns into love, &c &c. Oh, and all of this takes place in a Regency romance, I believe in Bath. It's pretty much the best. Sure, whatever, none of that is likely, but neither is getting lucky in a barouche, and that happens in Regency romances all the freaking time.
Seriously, you're not getting laid in this comfortably even in modern clothing, let alone the yards of fabric those poor assholes had to wear in the Regency.
Anyway, Davis's almost overblown prose -- she has an excellent vocabulary and isn't afraid to use it -- and sideways sense of humor completely won me over.
But then came the The Baron's Betrothal, which, while written in the same winsome prose, was a tiresome will-they-won't-they that I didn't appreciate. Admittedly, I almost never appreciate a will-they-won't-they, but then The Baron's Betrothal also was thin with the humor that so radiated from The Duke's Tattoo, so I don't think it wasn't just my predilections talking. Fast forward several years, and Davis's newest book, His Lordship's Last Wager, pops up on one of my if-you've-read-this-then situations, and I figured I'd give her another go. I mean, even the book I didn't like wasn't bad, per se.
Boy, but I found His Lordship's Last Wager charming. The set up is ludicrous, again: a zesty young woman gulls a lord-type into helping her transport a trained bear to Ireland. Look, I'm not going to explain how such a situation comes to be, partially because I can't remember exactly. Like the lord-type, the reader finds herself wondering what the hell happened to result in a trip through the aqueducts and canals of England of yore. I was super into it, because, wait, lemme tell you a story.
My great-grandmother, the one I'm named after, was born in the US just months after her parents stepped off the boat. (I think assholes would call her an anchor baby.) Though we don't know for sure, my family suspects that great-great-grandpa knocked up the neighbor girl in a small town in Wales, and due to the fact that he was an inveterate alcoholic (ah, the Welsh), the families sent them on their way to America. She managed to have another child, a boy, before she succumbed to Industrial Revolution Pittsburgh. Great-grandma and her brother were settled into an orphanage -- her father being too drunk to care for them -- but not after the family in Wales entreated her and her brother to "come home". The trans-Atlantic voyage was too scary for a young girl, so they stayed.
Fast forward many moons, and my mother took that faded correspondence, and tried to find our living relatives in Wales. Several things hampered this: the family names were Jones and Edwards, which are about as common as you can get; the family wasn't Church of Wales, which would be the establishment church, but Baptist; and the Baptist church in the area burned down in the early 70s, so all the records were ash. We found the house on a trip to Froncysyllte when I was a teenager, and the current owners were kind enough to let us look at the deeds (which corroborated pretty much all of the family lore), but it was a dead end.
But we were in the area, so we touristed around for a while. One of our more memorable visits was to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which is still functional, a crazy waterway strung between high Welsh hills. Observe:
Though I don't think our intrepid Regency lovers plied this waterway, much of the action of the novel takes place on the canals that crisscrossed Britain, moving goods and people just like the railroads. Davis notes that there is little contemporary description of the canals in their heyday in the 1800s, as they were largely commercial. Who writes stories about truck stops or container ships? So too, back then. But they're fascinating places, and it was entirely enjoyable to read a Recency romance that took place on the rough waterfront instead of the cultivated lawn.
Obviously, this is still a romance, so it's not going to get too icky or realz. And that's fine. I'm not usually reading Regency romance for the articles, and I don't need some big bummer to prove the situation serious. That said, this novel was charming and lively, funny and unusual, and totally worth it for the reverie about my lost family alone.
Nightfall is an odd one, because I definitely liked the idea and the atmosphere well more than the actual book, so much so that I pushed through to the end. I am absolutely not the kind of reader who must finish everything she starts -- I abandon things all the time -- so that I kept trucking is decidedly in this book's favor. That said, I still wasn't super jazzed about Nightfall, so.
Three teenagers -- a sibling pair and another boy -- live on an island on a planet where the seasons are incredibly long. (Think Game of Thrones without the incest.) The entire community of the island comes in the spring, and leaves 14 years later in the fall. At that point, the island is given over to ... something, and everyone must leave their habitations just so. The teens get left behind in the push off the island, and must either make it through Night, or get off the island somehow in the cold and dark.
The environmental stuff was bananas good, and I was all in on the descriptions of the changing seasons and the changing island. The teens, maybe not so much. Several footballs are hidden for so long that it was almost insulting, plus it just made it hard to care. I also didn't find the ending particularly satisfying, but, per usual, ymmv. Winter is coming, I guess.
I'm a total mess when it comes to curating my ereader. I check things out of the library and compulsively download books both profligately and promiscuously. I follow one link after another in search of books that might appeal, and almost never make note of how I ended up with that one thing on the queue. And saying I have a queue is an insult to an organized and methodical list of readerly desire, because I pretty much read at whim (when I'm not reading for work) and my whims are scattered far and wide.
So when I picked up The Seventh Bride, I more or less assumed previous me had downloaded some crap that might be fun at bedtime, one of those first person jobs with a Strong Female Protagonist and some sexytimes, the kind where the Strong Female Protagonist spends all her time slut shaming everyone around her and sucking. Hey don't judge! I like getting pissed at my reading so I can get some godamn sleep once in a while. Alas, The Seventh Bride turned out to be well written and interesting. So much for sleeping! Sleeping is for suckers anyway.
Turns out, The Seventh Bride is a retelling of Bluebeard, the folktale probably best known from its telling by Charles Perrault (who also wrote Puss in Boots). In the tale, a young bride marries an older lord of some kind, and is admonished by him never to look in one specific room. (Just fyi, a forbidden thing in a story is called by folklorists a narrative lack, and you can bet your bottom dollar that this lack will be fulfilled in the text.) So too, in Bluebeard: the young wife finds the key, and upon opening the forbidden door, finds the heads of all the previous wives, usually seven in number. Thus, the name of the novel.
The Seventh Bride dispenses with the young wife's naivete. She knows the lord is bad news, but is more or less sold to him because of deeply unfair social architecture. Instead, the novel focuses on the relationships between the wives, some of whom are still living, and some of whom are, well, maybe not dead, but not altogether alive either. Kingfisher does a lovely job of detailing the strange connections between the women. One woman in particular is devoted to her evil husband, and a couple others are so twisted by their circumstance that they are fragile and dangerous in their fragility. This is no rosy sisterhood, but it isn't some bitch-fest either, where our protagonist gets to be Queen B because all women but her are the worst.
Nuanced relationships between women in a fucked up system? Who even does that? Kingfisher does; amen sister.
The Wingman is an eminently forgettable contemporary romance I picked up mostly because of its South African setting. I had this foreign language teacher who always said the best way to learn conversational chatter was to watch soaps: they tend to be real familial, familiar, and local. So I've enjoyed contemporary romances from other countries on this level: they give me a real interesting view of a country. I mean, of course it's stylized and perfected, but it can be unvarnished in a way you don't get in capital L Literature. I read like a half dozen novels by Ainslie Paton because she writes so winningly about Australia, and about the Pacific Rim more generally. Floored is a straight up road trip novel, and so much fun if you want to drive through a dozen shitty Australian towns. Which I do!
Anyway, The Wingman is not that, not by half. There's a little chatter about how no one speaks Afrikaans, but then no one speaks Afrikaans. The main girl runs a clinic is the bad part of town (i.e. the black part of town) but pretty much the community exists to menace her with gangsters or rescue her from said gangsters. Everything is paint by numbers small town romance with requisite slut shaming and label dropping, but that kind of label dropping that pretends it isn't interested in status objects like those bitches over there. Sure, Becky.
I kind of can't even handle how ridiculously pulpy this series is so far. Patient Zero pretends to a kind of scientrism, wherein the zombie outbreak our intrepid heroes race to thwart has, like, a modicum of scientific plausibility, I guess. Baltimore cop and chiseled jaw hero Joe Ledger gets tapped by one of those shadowy X filesy governmental organizations to track down a terrorist with a name like The Jackal. The leader of said alphabet soup organization eats cookies as his ominous tic; Joe has to murder a terrorist twice in a week; international pharma phuckers are the absolute worst. Patient Zero is good fun, with lots of kickass and a fullblown zombie outbreak to salve your need for bloodshed.
But it's The Dragon Factory which really swings for the cheap seats. There's literal Nazis, genetically engineered chimera, Neanderthals, evil albino twins with a side of incest, clones, and more, so much more. SO MUCH MORE. I kept cackling through this novel, unable to believe how fucking bonkers everything was, and just when I got a handle on it, it would get MORE BONKERS. Uff da, I haven't had as much fun with something this silly in a long time. I'm going to read the shit out every single Joe Ledger novel as long as they stay this goofy,
This poor novel had the bad sense to be published in August, this year of our Lord 2017, though, presumably, it was written earlier. EVEN SO, at the very moment of publication, it was already woefully historically anachronistic. I'm going to blame this, like so much else, on the Trump administration, and the unbelievable chaos and unprecedented violation of governmental, social, and ethical norms that we've seen in this fine country, the US of A, since then. Writing near future science fiction is an unbelievable bitch.
This is what got me. So, This is the Way it Ends is avowedly a love letter and a riff on Max Brooks' World War Z, which is also glossed with the subtitle An Oral History of the Zombie Wars. The writer here, Keith Taylor, notes in his introduction how taken he was by the retrospective and documentary feel of World War Z, and how, after expecting a raft of novelists to take up the style, he decided to fill the gap when no one did. This is the Way it Ends is successful in this Brooksian ventriloquism for the most part, and it you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like. (Well, other than a metatextual spin wherein Keith Taylor, current novelist, inserts himself inside this fictional narrative as "Keith Taylor," the documentarian for the novel. His intro dragging on fictional zombie narratives was way too clever-clever. It's the kind of thing that's fun to read to your wife after you write it, but shouldn't make it into the final draft.)
Like Brooks' novel, this one takes place a dozen odd years after the initial zombie outbreaks, after humanity has gone through the meat grinder of a full on zombie apocalypse and come out on the other side, shaky, diminished, but still standing. This is the section that got me: a centrist Republican, one who shepherded the US through the zombie wars, tells a story from mid-2019. Apparently, there are outbreaks happening all over Europe, and there's more and more worry about the zombie threat. At a bipartisan meeting, a reporter asks if maybe the US should close its borders. A democrat steps up, and in an act of partisan showboating, begins reciting the Emma Lazarus sonnet that is carved into the statue of liberty. "Give us your tired" etc. At this point everyone goes nuts, freaking that closing the borders is evil, and certainly no sane (or not evil) person would suggest such a thing. The Republican president is rueful: if only those stupid liberals knew better.
So here's the problem with this. First, let me tell a joke: at an intersection with four corners, on each corner stands an individual: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, a centrist Republican, and an alt-right nutjob. Someone drops a case of money into the center of the intersection. Which individual gets it? The alt-right nutjob, because the rest of these beings are purely fictional. Second, Trump already tried, and has been moderately successful, in implementing his Muslim ban, just recently adding to the seven Muslim-majority countries he's put on the shit list. Though the courts have put on the brakes a little, public outcry was nowhere near uniform. In fact, I think I was in a minority for thinking that was self-defeating and cruel, in addition to racist. The Trump administration is working hard at curtailing literally all immigration, legal and illegal, and we don't have anything near a zombie fucking outbreak to point at, though you wouldn't know it from some Brietbart articles, boy howdy. No one reads sonnets anymore; those are for effete liberals and they are decidedly not in charge. Third, what is this word, "bipartisan"? I do not understand this strange concept.
In some ways, this anachronism is adorable, and it dovetails into some blindspots Brooks had in WWZ. The farther Brooks gets from his worldview, the less compelling his narratives get -- the American housewife one is a big fucking mess, but then I have a whole thing about the housewife in fiction. Ditto with Taylor. As a native Brit with a Mongolian wife who spends a lot of time in Mongolia and Thailand, his grasp on pan-Asian politics is pretty great. Americans? Yeah, not so much. I'm not picking on him here though. I'm not sure I understood (even as someone who purported to at least a modicum of wokeness) how unbelievably racist and isolationist the United States is until the last election. And that election technically didn't involve zombies!
Except it totally did and we're all going to die. The horror of reading horror fiction for me these days is in how unscary it all is. It's nowhere near as terrifying as considering a malignant narcissist who considers Nazis "fine people" starting World War 3, the one that will kill us all, while tweeting on the shitter one Sunday morning. In the words of Mira Grant, rise up while you can.
I'm a little wary of multi-author narratives in print, which is a little goofy, considering that this is basically how all television is scripted. I love me some television, but, of course, it must be said that the strength of the singular vision -- the showrunner or creator -- is a huge factor in whether any given show is successful. (Successful to me, anyway; I'm not talking folding green. That's a whole other thing.) But I've been burned with uneven and unsatisfying multi-author novels before, so. I picked this is up because I've been slow-burning my way through Max Gladstone's Craft sequence. Maybe his name is top of the marquee because he's the best known of the writers, but I suspect not. This has his fingermarks on it, narratively speaking -- from the baroque murder mystery plotting to the strange other gods and devils.
But even if Gladstone wasn't the showrunner, if you will, whoever it was did an excellent job. I greatly enjoyed Bookburners, even despite my prejudice.. I felt like it overcame the lumpiness of multi-author novels I've read through what must have been good editorial control, which nevertheless allowed the individual writers to show off their specific style. Each section is episodic like television, with a mini-arc that has its own satisfaction. Sometimes the episodes were more mythology heavy, and that's fun too. The possibilities of the premise are no where near exhausted by the end, which is also a plus, given how many television shows / series / trilogies / whatever should be strangled after the first outing. How many Matrix movies are there, for example? Want to talk about season 2 of Heroes? or Lost?
Anyway, much fun was had by me.
Lots of shitty sff tropes hitched to the specific kind of ugly sexual politics one finds in romance novels overwhelm what should (and occassionally is) a quipping romp through the universe. Rape threats and straight up sexual assault continue regularly from the first scenes to,the end of the novel. Before I get the "but that's realistic" chorus, I would like us to all take a minute and consider that this is clearly supposed to be a comic space fantasy with romantic elements, and the introduction of "rape as realism" is unnecessary, thematically jarring, and fucking stupid. And that's not even getting into a 45 minute diatribe about the very equation of rape with realism.
Which is disappointing because there are some nice comic moments and a gift for the absurd in Star Nomad, hidden in under bad world building and rape threats. Sure, a lot of it was derivative -- Firefly has its fingerprints everywhere, from setup to character types -- but I'm not looking to some romp through a pirate-infested asteroid belt to blow my mind or anything. (Unless it's Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, and that shit was amazing.) The Paradox series by Rachel Bach, starting with Fortune's Pawn, contains many of the same elements found here, but is much more expertly done. Start there for your lighter space opera.
I'll admit I was trepidatious about being assigned this novel to review at first. Much as the setup is catnip to me -- a fresh take on technological shutdown and societal collapse? Sign me up! -- I have a real thing about how the Amish are sometimes portrayed. They're sort of infantized and fetishized in a lot of contexts, like they're just these adorable weirdos who don't have electricity. Not to get too far into it, but any religious group who practices shunning is on my shit list, and that goes for Scientology as well. But! The Amish are no monolith, like any group, and embrace a number of societal ideals I find admirable, non violence being the main one. Anyway.
David Williams managed to sidestep all of my fears, and spin a compelling tale. His main character, Jacob, is not without faults, but his very active engagement with the rough realities of the technological failure of the English (that's us, to them) is deep and thoughtful. A very good book.
Enjoyable action-driven detective yarns, with a magical twist. Though I occasionally have "but wait..." moments about how the House system works -- surely that makes no sense -- I admit this is nit-picking. I'm not reading Andrews novels for robust legal systems, so what I am complaining about? But they are good at energetic, ranging plots full of enough bloodshed and yearning to keep me well pleased.
My latest at B&N Sci-fi & Fantasy.
I've been intermittently reading James's novels as the mood strikes me for historicals, and it always seems to go thusly: one novel that's cute and light, followed by one (or even two) that are too douchey or dumb. I first hit James because she's the daughter of Robert Bly, a local poet of some note. I pretty much live to hate read Bly's stuff, which I have the occasion to do because my dad thinks he's awesome. So there's this tangled web of fathers and daughters and reading and whatnot.
Though James is a romance novelist, she's also a Shakespeare scholar and Robert and Carol Bly's kid. (I like Carol better than Robert as a writer; Carol's essays are aces.) So sometimes James writes a nice little ditty, and sometimes she goes too far up her own thing referencing Elizabethan poets. I adore Donne, but seriously, there's a limit. It just feels douchey at a point in Georgian romantic smut. And it's not as if I oppose some literary gilding in ur romance fiction, but just that it was excessive here. For sure the main character's dad DID NOT write the Christopher Smart poem to His Cat Joeffry, which is a great poem, and the misattribution annoys me some, even though it's fully acknowledged in a preface.
This was not bad, just .. odd as a romance novel. It took me ages to sort the primary couple, which can be fine, like in Talisman Ring, but here just felt diffuse. Maybe it's the Georgian setting, which is historically less, ahem, straightlaced than either the Recency or the Victorian periods, but the open fuckery sometimes felt forced. Even set now, where fuckery is not entirely unexpected, I find the easy acceptance of marital affairs, especially by women, not precisely believable. Women have always been under the thumb.
Anyway, this was fine, but clearly the start of a series, so it feels like set dressing more than playing. I'm sure I read a later book in this series at one point, and while are nods to all kinds of shit that happened in previous books, which I find irritating, the book itself was well richer for the personalities laid down earlier. Alas, early and later have their issues.
A literary map of London, with its writers and characters charted by neighborhood. Which, this us just about the coolest. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul have nowhere near the literary relevance of London (not even close), but I would kill for a literary map of my hometown(s). Here's a start:
--Dr and Mrs Kennicot from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street honeymoon near Lake Calhoun; she's from St Paul
--Much of the action of War for the Oaks takes place in and around First Ave
--Zombie novel Fiend bops around St Paul and the St Paul suburbs, ending in the St Paul County Courthouse
--Meridel LeSeuer's The Girl takes place in the dodgy part of St Paul circa 1920s; not sure where exactly
--Franzen's Freedom takes place in Ramsey Hill in St Paul
-- Diablo Cody worked as a stripper in Sex World, Sheikh's, and other Minneapolis strip clubs, as detailed in Candy Girl
--Though much of Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods takes place in the Lake of the Woods (doi), it starts in St Paul when the protagonist's bid for governor fails
--Similarly, the (I think only pseudonymous narrator) of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance starts in the Wedge neighborhood. Specific streets are named, something like 25th and Colfax
--For sure there's stuff by William Kent Kreuger, Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly, and Louise Erdrich I can't think of right now.
Man, I really like Clarke's stuff. Not real flashy, but emotionally detailed.
How do I go about changing an entry? Four Sisters is the working title of this novel, not its actual title. Which is Star's End, and quite good. Maybe not as affecting as her other stuff, but still something that I'll be thinking about this week.
The Golden Spider and The Silver Skull are both fairly paint-by-numbers steampunk: it's vaguely Victorian-ish, with the ton & the peerage and all that, but there are Babbage cards and steam mechanicals and such too.
The Golden Spider is probably the better novel, following a girl scientist trying to stop a killer and cure her brother and also there are spies.The Silver Skull relies on one of those "we have to pretend to be married so we might as well bang" scenarios, which I find tedious, and I didn't buy the reasons for the lovers to be apart anyway. But bonus points for pteranodons that the evil lady saddles up so she can have sky battles with airships. That was fresh.
What I really wanted to say about this series, the thing I found utterly charming, was the epically nerdy science behind both of these plots. A science that was lovingly detailed with so much legit scientific terminology that I would just start skimming at points as the principals breathlessly talked chemistry at each other. The author's bio states that Renwick has a PhD in chemistry, and it shows: she loves this shit; she's not going to dumb it down; and she's going to work out the science plausibly, even if it's fictional.
Hard science is very rarely my thing. I simply do not care about verisimilitude, unless you wrap it up with some actual characters, which doesn't happen as often as I'd prefer. And generally I'm not reading steampunk for the articles, but because I like the dash-punk pulp aspects: I want to see me a fucking kraken, or an airship battle that crashes, burning, into the sea, or some automata struggling with sentience. But here, in books where the steampunkery was wan and drab, I lived for the nerdy stuff, in a weird reversal. It just goes to show that the enthusiasm of the writer towards the subject, be it chemistry or krakens, goes a long way toward my enjoyment of a novel.