Brigdh (wordsofastory) wrote,

Significantly Delayed Reading Wednesday

What did you just finish?
An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson. Book #12 in the Longmire series, a mystery series that I'm a big fan of. Walt Longmire, the main character, is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, one of the most rural places in the modern-day US. To outside appearances Walt is in many ways the stereotypical neo-Western hero: big and tall, physically imposing, and gruff. In reality he frequently quotes Shakespeare and Dante, is extremely self-deprecating, is life-long best friends with Henry Standing Bear (a Northern Cheyenne community leader and activist) and is intimidated by his tiny foul-mouthed ex-Philadelphian deputy, Victoria Moretti. I love him.

In this book, Walt and Henry attend the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (a real-life annual event that draws half a million attendees to a small town in South Dakota) while off-duty, so that Henry can compete in one of the races. Walt gets asked by the local police to help out with what appears to be a simple hit-and-run accident, which of course turns out to be much more. The plot involves motorcycle gangs, gun smuggling, skeet shooting, the increased militarization of police departments in the wake of 9/11, advances in ceramic technology (no, really), and the long-awaited appearance of Henry's ex, Lola.

This was a very well-done book, with humor, tension, and some extremely clever plot twists. I've been a bit disappointed by the last few books in the series (nothing wrong with them; I just didn't feel like they were Johnson's best), but this one brings Longmire back to the top.

Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly. A cursed opal necklace, if worn on the night of the autumn full moon, summons an ancient Chinese demon who will stop at nothing to pursue and kill the wearer. Unfortunately the necklace has just been given to the innocent film ingenue Chrysanda Flamade.

The title and plot are (deliberately, I assume) the stuff of trashy pulp, but the rich, three-dimensional characters and setting turn the book into something else – though it's still lots of fun! Chrysanda (who actually goes by Christine, though her birth name was Chava Blechstein) is not the narrator; rather that role is taken by Norah, Christine's sister-in-law: a British woman, Oxford-educated, formerly upper class and now in the wake of WWI an impoverished widow, continually surprised to find herself in the strange new world of Hollywood, 1923. Christine is flighty, addicted to cocaine, utterly enamoured of anything resembling Chinese fashion without the least understanding of the actual country, and has a spine of steel and a survivor's ruthlessness under all her feathers and makeup. Alec, a cameraman, draws out Norah's quiet wry humor with his own patient understanding. The Chinese mythology is deepened when Shang Ko steps into the picture, an elderly wizard who has burned out all his power but is still determined to help becauses, as he says, "To do nothing against evil is not a neutral act". And then there's Christine's three pekingese dogs, who become main characters themselves.

There's at least two scenes which are straight-up horror, but my overall impression of the book is the sheer wealth of historical detail about the day to day routine of making films in the very early silent era, as well as the lovely slow growth of friendship and trust between the main characters.

It is maybe not my favorite Hambly book ever, but only because that's an extremely high bar to clear. Highly recommended.

A Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott. This is the sequel to Court of Fives, the Little Women/American Ninja Warrior fantasy YA book that I enjoyed so much. Jes is now an official competitor in the gladiator games Fives, but she doesn't have much time to enjoy her new status since political chaos is breaking out. The Commoners of the country are increasingly speaking out against their oppression, a matter which grows more fraught when the price of bread skyrockets and riots break out. Meanwhile the country goes to war with its neighbor, and Jes overhears a plot wherein several high-ranking nobles plan to kill the sickly young prince and name themselves heir to the throne. Despite all of this, Jes deliberately chooses to stay out of politics and instead focuses on protecting and hiding her family. Unfortunately for her, one of her sisters has left the capital city and could be anywhere in the countryside. Jes manages to attach herself to a royal procession so she can search for her sister, but leaving the capital exposes her to new dangers. And that's just the first third of the book. Goddamn there's a lot of plot to recap in this series.

This book does have great moments and wonderful characters. I was particularly struck by Jes's sister Amaya, who's in love with her best friend, a Patron woman forced by circumstances into the position of a lowly concubine. Amaya disguises herself as a servant to stick close to her love. And then there's Bettany, that missing sister, who is fiercely angry and protective of her people, and proves to have made some startling choices that Jes views as betrayal, though a more complicated explanation is hinted at. Lady Menoe, a spiteful deceitful aristocrat who proves to have a secret tragic past is great, as is Jes's mother, slowly taking a role as a leader of the Commoners.

But with all of that said, I didn't enjoy this book as much as Court of Fives. Perhaps it's simply the fact that the middle book of trilogies tend to drag, or perhaps it's that the world-building I loved so much in the first book got less attention here. Court politics is one of my favorite tropes, and yet even that wasn't enough to save the book for me. But even if this one wasn't as good as I'd hoped, I'm still anxiously awaiting the release of the next book later this year. Come on, Buried Heart!

What are you currently reading?
Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated by Lucinda Byatt. A NetGalley book that I've been putting off reading for approximately eight months, because I requested a copy and then promptly decided that I couldn't handle the content. But now I'm happier! Or possibly burned out emotionally, given the news lately.

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Bride of the Rat God is the book that introduced me to Hambly when I was a teenager, and still one of my favorites of hers! (Though some of the way that Chinese culture/immigrants are handled in the book makes me a little uncomfortable now - it's sort of like, I can see that she was trying very hard, but it's also like a stepping stone to where she eventually gets, a few years later, in writing other experiences/cultures, if that makes any sense.) But yeah, this was the first of her books I read, and I still reread it every so often just to enjoy spending time with the characters. One of her recent website short stories is a further adventure of these characters, and I absolutely loved it!
Yeah, I did have mixed feelings about Chinese aspect of it. On the one hand, Shang Ko has too much characterization and his own arc to really fit the role of a "magical negro" (magical Chinese dude?) which by definition has to be one-dimensional, and the Manchu vs Han backstory keeps the Chinese from being an undifferentiated mass, and the constant repetition of Kafka's Metamorphosis underlines that Western cultures sure do have their own weird mythologies....

...and yet for all of that, the basic plot really does feel like a Magical Negro one: the heroines get in trouble, mysterious Other with powers shows up to rescue them, leaves again once the white characters have been saved. I kept going back and forth while I was reading it, trying to decide what I thought, and I still can't quite make up my mind.

Thanks for mentioning the short story! :D I'll totally have to check that out.


January 16 2017, 02:46:03 UTC 1 month ago Edited:  January 16 2017, 02:46:30 UTC

Yeah, that was my exact reaction to it. I think the real problem is that the basic idea is inherently an othering one (a cursed Chinese artifact afflicting white characters, with the added problem that they're living in a massively racist time period and are unlikely to have much interaction with actual Chinese people in a non-othering sort of context). She really does try hard -- I feel that she was at least aware of the problem and trying to minimize it, and I think if she were writing it 10 or 15 years later, she would probably have done better. Especially based on the short story, which in some ways feels like she's aware of the deficiencies in the other book and is trying to counterbalance them; I think you'll see what I mean when you read it, and in some ways, reading them back to back is a really striking demonstration of how much she's matured as a writer over the, whatever it is, 25-year gap between the book and the short story.

But that qualm aside, I absolutely loved the rest of it: the sisterly relationship between the girls is wonderful, I loved the love interest (I read this book at a time in my life when I scorned most romance in fiction, but this was one of the few I really liked even then -- Hambly's always been good at getting me on board with her romances in a big way) and THE FU-DOGS. :D
You're really making me curious about the short story! I'll have to go and pick it up immediately.

And yes, the fu-dogs were WONDERFUL. :D I'm normally not a huge fan of cute pets in fiction, but I suddenly want to go meet a bunch of Pekingese.
Bride of the Rat God sounds fabulous! I love things set in the 1920s, and the 1920s movie industry is a beautiful bonus.

But I've promised myself I'm going to make a dent in this pile of books that I own but have not yet managed to read. Oh past self, why did you buy so many books?

Let me know how the suicide book goes. I tried reading a book about the history of depression while in the throes of depression myself, and ended up taking it back to the library post haste because I couldn't stand having it in the house.
Haha, yes, I'm having this same problem myself frequently: this new book looks so good! But... my pile of TBR books is so large. :(

The suicide book had some very interesting chapters, and some that needed more research, so on the whole worth reading but could have been better.
Oh, I love Bride Of The Rat God! Great fun and, yes, it does give you some idea of the day to day process of film making at the time. And the lovely scene with the character talking about making a film about this man who turns into a cockroach ... The characters were great, and Barbara Hambly knows about Pekes, having had some of her own. My paperback is wearing out from rereading; I may need to buy it in ebook.
Ha, yes, I loved the idea of the cockroach movie! That was a favorite part.

I've never had a Peke, or even interacted with one beyond seeing them on the street, but the book definitely made me want one of my own. Unfortunately I'm not sure my cats would get along with a dog!
You do realise the joke in the cockroach movie was that it refers to Kafka's Metamorphosis?
Oh, yes! I kind of enjoyed it even more for that, because it's such a classic of literature, but the descriptions of the potential movie kept coming off as so bizarre.
I'm intrigued by the Hambly book. Should I pick it up or start with another of hers?
It's a one-off, not part of a series, so it would be a great one to start with! Like I said, it's not quite my very favorite, but those are all part of long series, so this would be a much smaller time investment and does show off her particular skills well.
There's at least two scenes which are straight-up horror, but my overall impression of the book is the sheer wealth of historical detail about the day to day routine of making films in the very early silent era, as well as the lovely slow growth of friendship and trust between the main characters.

That sounds great.
I think you would really enjoy it! You certainly know much more about early Hollywood than I do.
"To do nothing against evil is not a neutral act"

Well, he's right.
Yeah, for a book about rat demons in 1920s Hollywood, it ended up having a surprisingly relevant message for this month.