and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Horror Reading Wednesday

Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg. A vampire novel set in modern-day small town North Carolina. Sophie and Natalie are lifelong best friends, both single mothers to infants, both doing nothing much with their lives: in their early twenties, working at Waffle House and living in a trailer park. Until one night they cross paths with a vampire named The Whistler and wake up dead. Natalie, the more steely-willed of the pair, figures out what's going on and immediately abandons both their babies to her own mother out of fear of what she might do to them, and forces Sophie to join her on an endless road trip that's more about losing themselves than going anywhere in particular. Meanwhile, The Whistler becomes increasingly obsessed with Natalie and how to shape her into the perfect eternal partner, which sets off problems with his previous eternal partner, a woman known only as Mother.

Here in the year of our lord 2020 it's more or less impossible to do anything new with vampires. Every possible permutation of the myth has already been done and redone. But having said all that, I really enjoyed the spin Motherless Child gives to the old story. It takes the route of emphasizing that vampires are dead – not sexy immortals, but cold corpses somehow still inhabited – and underlines it with gorgeous prose:

As she pushed out into the night, she realized she even knew what the whistling in her ears was. Not cicadas. Not power lines. Not the echo of the Whistler's breath in her ears. Just the sound the world makes rushing through a pipe or pooling in a cistern. Whipping through a dead place, with neither heartbeart nor blood rush to impede it.
"Does it still feel good to you? The guys, I mean."
Now Sophie looked startled, almost guilty. After a moment, she shrugged. "It feels warm."
"Yeah," Natalie said.
"Especially their mouths."
Which was exactly right. Mostly, these last few nights, Natalie found herself hovering around their lips, in the same way she'd once crouched beside the tiny space heater her mother used, on surprisingly frigid Charlotte winter nights, to heat the trailer. That, apparently, was what sex would be about from now on. The ghost of tingling. Mostly heat.

And in the meantime, through the agony and the haze of her own tears, she'd stare, like Sophie, at the way the world looked when it was lit. How could I possibly have forgotten so quickly? But she knew the answer to that. She hadn't forgotten, really. This sight – this impossible green, this radiant orange, the daily blossoming of the whole planet – couldn't be forgotten, because it couldn't be remembered. Could not be held in a human brain. That's what made it such a daily revelation. All her life, she'd been told that death was unimaginable, unknowable. When it truth, it was life that could never be imagined. Life was just too big.

There's blood and gory death and hypnosis and all the other things that go along with vampires as well, but it's Hirshberg's invocation of death that has stuck with me. And the ending. That ending! Goddamn. It's a cliche to talk about 'strong female characters', but the final choices of Natalie and especially her mother are some cold-ass, steel-spine strength to remember.

Remina by Junji Ito. (Sometimes also titled Hellstar Remina, but my copy just had Remina) A sci-fi horror manga set in Japan in the near future. An astrophysicist discovers a new planet, whose existence seems to prove the reality of wormholes to other dimensions. A pretty significant discovery! And one that wins the scientist both the Nobel Prize and naming rights to the new planet, which he calls after his teenage daughter, Remina. Remina herself is soon a media sensation, becoming a pop star and advertising celebrity. Of course, this is a horror story, so things begin to go wrong: the planet Remina turns and somehow heads towards Earth at nearly the speed of light, and other planets and stars in its path disappear. As Remina comes closer, it becomes clear that it's not quite a planet, given that it has a massive eye and tongue; that it's eating everything it passes; and that Earth is its target. People unsurprisingly panic, and a cult suddenly arises, playing on these new fears to put the blame on Remina and her father. The cult argues that the Oguros have somehow summoned the planet, and the only way to save humanity is to sacrifice them.

The middle and late section of the book get a bit repetitive as the same plot plays out over and over again: the cult finds Remina, attempts to kill and/or torture her, a man saves her, she escapes. The only change from one round to another is that Remina's clothing becomes ever more tattered and scanty. That said, there are some fantastically creepy images throughout: Remina tied to a cross as a massive eye opens in the sky behind her; a nuclear-blasted corpse, its skull grinning through heat-tightened skin; a body melting into goo when exposed to the toxic atmosphere on the planet Remina; the constant mob of screaming mouths and reaching hands, shouting "Kill Remina!" and "Remina the witch!".

Overall, it doesn't reach the heights of terror Ito is capable of in stories like 'The Enigma of Amigara Fault' or 'Uzumaki', but it's nicely scary little story about cosmic horrors and why the brutality of man is scarier than anything out of space.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Cosmic Horror Lineup

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. A horror novel set in modern-day smalltown America, though I can best sum it up with an equation: House of Leaves + Algernon Blackwood's The Willows + a little dash of Annihilation = this book.

Kara, a thirty-something graphic designer in the midst of an overtly friendly but low-key depressing divorce and with few job prospects, decides to move in with her uncle and help him run his small and extremely weird museum, the 'Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy'. Which is basically just a house stuffed full of inexplicable clutter, from a giant Bigfoot statue to a "genuine" Feejee mermaid to stuffed mice dressed in tiny armor to a collection of thimbles of the world. All goes well enough until a small hole appears in one of the walls. In an attempt to patch it, Kara and her new friend Simon, the gay barista from the coffeeshop next door, discover a mysterious hallway behind the drywall where there is definitely not enough room for a hallway, which leads to a world full of willow trees and things that shouldn't exist and multidimensional creatures that can do much, much worse things than merely eat you.

Kingfisher does an excellent job at evoking cosmic horror: the unknowable, the wrong side of reality, the just plain wrong. Which is fascinating, because now that I'm thinking of it, I can't really name many recent novels that go all in for cosmic horror, and none at all that manage to make it this scary. Because for as creepy as 'The Willows' is, its 1907 language is hard to sink into – at least for me it is. The Hollow Places very much does not have that problem. Kingfisher has done a wonderful job at taking the ideas from that story and making them entirely her own. She also is great at wringing pure terror out of some very innocuous places – an empty schoolbus, a taxidermied otter, a strangely labelled MRE.

So the horror here is A++. I can't quite say as much for the characters; both Kara and Simon felt a little flat to me, a little like fanfic cliches. But that's a very minor compliant for a book that I sped through and would highly recommend.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Now let's review my other cosmic horror read of the week!
The Fisherman by John Langan. Cosmic horror set in modern-day upstate New York. Also it's kind of a retelling of Moby Dick, if Ahab was an evil immortal wizard.

Abe ("Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe", goes the opening line) lost his wife to cancer after only two years of marriage; the method he discovers to get himself through the short-term grief and long-term loneliness is fishing ("Some years ago, never mind how many, I started to fish"). He shares this hobby with Dan, another young widower. As they spend their weekends and afternoons fishing the many streams and rivers scattered throughout the Catskill Mountains, they eventually hear of one with an unusual reputation: Dutchman's Creek. Dutchman's Creek flows out of a reservoir that covers an abandoned town, a town where once, in the 1850s, a man tried to raise his wife from the dead, and later, in 1907, another dead wife came back wrong. The connection between these two events seems to be a strangely ageless man, a man with knowledge beyond the human ken, a man called Der Fischer for the lack of any other name to give him. (“From hell’s heart," he shouts, when stymied of his catch, "I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”) He also – I know you will be shocked by this turn of events – tragically lost his wife and children centuries ago, and is determined to get them back. If Abe and Dan find Dutchman's Creek, unmarked on any map, will their wives also return, or will they fall through to another, more fundamental, dimension?

The Fisherman is related through layers of story: Abe addresses the reader in direct narration, telling us the local legend he heard from a diner cook, who recounts what he heard from a reverend, who's gathered information from a nearly senile widow. Langan does an excellent job at capturing the rhythm of oral stories, the little slips and twists of dialect that make it feel like you can actually hear Abe's voice. The writing throughout is really wonderful, full of vivid images and sensory details.

The horror here is very much of the cosmic sort: questions of mortality, glimpses at the immensity that lies behind our reality, creatures too big and too ancient for humans to comprehend. Which ends up playing surprisingly well with The Fisherman's other big theme, the horror of the ocean: humans with the flat gold eyes of fish, buildings standing empty below a mile of water, immense creatures half-glimpsed through dark water of an unknowable depth. Plus, you know, the straight-up gore of a fishhook lodged in flesh.

Overall, The Fisherman is more haunting than terrifying, though one image of jaws the size of skyscrapers reaching up out of the ocean will definitely stay with me. It's an excellent depiction of loss, and the choices people make because of it. (Though I did have a minor issue in that we've got a hell of a lot of men with dead wives, and remarkably few women dealing with their own grief. On the one hand, Langan's clearly got a motif. On the other hand, if only it wasn't such a cliche of a motif.) It's a gorgeous evocation of upstate New York, a place I've only visited once or twice but which I now really want to go hiking in (not much of a fisher, sorry). In short, it's a good book! I've been meaning to read it for ages and I'm very glad I did. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading October (so far)

The White Road by Sarah Lotz. A horror novel set in modern-day England and Nepal. Simon is a mid-twenties slacker, working at a coffee shop and half-heartedly running a website of dumb videos – until he decides that the perfect click-bait would be footage of actual dead bodies. He chooses those of a group of young cavers who were trapped and died in a sudden flash flood; due to the difficulty of getting into this particular cave in the first place, the bodies have been left there since their tragic death a few years ago. Simon hires a stranger off the internet to serve as guide to this closed-to-the-public cave, and off they go.

Unsurprisingly, things go wrong. Simon comes out of the cave with a pretty serious case of PTSD, as well as hearing voices – the incarnation of darkness? the ghosts of the cavers? the memory of the guide? something else yet again? – as well as the footage he searched for. After it's uploaded, the site suddenly becomes profitable, and Simon's friend pushes him into climbing Mount Everest to film more dead bodies. In what is a more implausible turn of events than seeing ghosts, Simon manages to secure a place on climbing team despite extremely little experience on mountains, and is shortly thereafter making his way to the summit. Meanwhile, the book turns to the story of Juliet, who is racing to be the first woman to climb Everest without using oxygen tanks. She's been having some weird experiences up there alone on the ice; experiences that seem tied to what Simon witnessed in the cave. This tension is summed up by a T.S. Eliot quote which is repeated again and again throughout The White Road:
“Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
there is always another one walking beside you”
Nicknamed "the third man", this real concept (described by multiple climbers and other people in extreme life-or-death activities) stalks both Juliet and Simon, a confusing, mostly unseen presence whose intentions are ultimately left unclear: malignant or helpful?

Lotz is a writer who is extremely good at depicting an environment and making you feel like you're there. The cave and Mount Everest are both excellently vivid settings, and she wrings every drop of creepiness out of them. I also found the details of how mountaineering works to be fascinating; granted, I've never read much about Everest before, but I had no idea of quite how complicated and long the process of preparing to climb it is. So that's all well-done.

Now for the negatives: the cave portion is by far the scariest part of the book, and it only takes up the first quarter or so; everything after that is a gradual let-down of realizing that The White Road is just not going to reach those same heights. I think caves might be inherently scarier than mountains – after all, I can think of dozens of creepypastas and horror movies set in caves, and none on mountains.

The characters are a collection of interchangeable cardboard cutouts; none of them feels three-dimensional or real. To be fair, flat characters are a pretty common problem in horror, and not one I necessarily mind if the scares are there. The flatness is all the more emphasized in that Simon has a habit of nicknaming everyone he meets after various media references: "Depressed Harry Potter", "a low-rent version of Tom Cruise", "Tilda Swinton [...] not in looks exactly, but in presence", and so on.

The opening caving section is wonderfully terrifying, and the Mount Everest portions are interesting as a story of mountaineering, but overall The White Road is a fairly forgettable book. I enjoyed it, but I'd only recommend it if you've already read 'Ted the Caver' and watched 'The Descent' and are desperate for more.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. A horror novel set on a modern-day Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Years ago, four friends – boys in their early twenties – do something bad while out hunting for elk one winter. Not terribly bad, not anything worse than the dumb things a lot of us get up to in our late teens or early twenties, but these four are spectacularly unlucky in that one of their victims turns out to be something more than the usual elk. And now she's out for revenge.

Part One of the book focuses on Lewis, the only one of the friends to have left the reservation; he's seemingly the most successful, with a wife, stable job, and new house. This part of the The Only Good Indians is mostly psychological horror. Minor creepy occurrences begin to build, but the constantly lurking question is if they're actually happening, or if Lewis only thinks he's being haunted and is about to do some real bad things because of that misconception.

After an incredible climax halfway through, which makes it very, very clear that this haunting is real, The Only Good Indians switches genres to essentially become a slasher story, complete with a really excellent Final Girl. Though the mental games continue, and I love how most of the deaths are not done by the monster herself, but by how she's able to mainpulate one character against another. The worst horrors are the ones you commit yourself, after all. There are so many amazingly frightening images left behind by this story: a silhouette half-glimpsed through the blur of fan blades; an elk calf, kicking its way out of the womb; the removal of teeth; an old car falling off the cinderblocks it's propped on; ants on a boot. God, just – this book is so filmic, and so good, and so scary.

I had high expectations going in, and The Only Good Indians succeeded over and above them. The early buzz made me think would be literary fiction, perhaps more concerned with social justice than with monsters, and while it handles that aspect of the plot wonderfully, it's also a genuinely terrifying horror novel, one of the scariest I've read in a few years. Honestly, I loved this, and if you've been putting off reading it, stop that! It's Halloween season, and the perfect time to get yourself a copy of The Only Good Indians.

Note: several dogs die gruesomely, in ways that are graphically described. As do humans and other animals, but I know a lot of people are particularly sensitive to dog-death.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Sunday

I'm still around! Just facing multiple deadlines. Hopefully to be around more soon! (...she says, for the millionth time.)

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo. A murder mystery set in contemporary small-town Ohio, deep in Amish country. Our lead character is Kate Burkholder, the new chief of police, who's only recently returned to her hometown after spending years in the big city. Kate grew up Amish, but left the faith at 18 and as a result is considered an outcast by her family and former community.

Now, in the deepest part of winter, a serial killer attacks. One with a particularly gruesome habit of focusing on women: torturing them, raping them, and desecrating their bodies. It seems to match the MO of a serial killer who struck in the same area twenty years previously – but Kate has a long-held secret that means she knows it can't be the same man. Telling the truth means she'll lose her job, but keeping the secret means more innocent lives could be lost.

A fun, if shallow, thriller. Castillo's descriptions of the murder scenes and bodies are way more graphic than I prefer to read, and there was a CSI-esque vibe that put me off in the early chapters. I nearly gave up on the book because of that, but ultimately I'm glad that I continued on because the plot ended up grabbing my attention and I raced through the end. I especially liked the revelation of the killer, and hadn't guessed who it would be at all.

On the negative side, the love interest is incredibly boring and cliched, though thankfully he and his relationship with Kate doesn't get very much page time. I was also surprised by how small a role the Amish setting and the clash of cultures between the Amish and the English ended up playing. Why choose such a specific setting if you're not going to make use of it? Of course, given that this is just the first book in a series that currently consists of 12 and is still going strong, I'll give Castillo the benefit of the doubt in assuming it comes up more later on.

Overall, I can't say Sworn to Silence is anything more than an adequately competent crime thriller. But it kept me engaged and my mind off of real-world problems for a few days, and honestly, isn't that all you can ask from a book?

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. The second book in Jemisin's award-winning trilogy about earthquakes, magic, culture change, oppression, and motherhood. I've been meaning to read this book for at least four years – since it came out – and putting it off for approximately 3.5 years, because I felt I should reread The Fifth Season first. The trilogy as a whole is intricately plotted, with worldbuilding, backstory, and characterization presented almost as puzzles to be slowly assembled; in other words, they're not books that benefit from being read years apart.

In The Obelisk Gate, Essun has given up her search for her daughter, Nassun, in favor of staying with a community that could provide her with safety in the midst of a world-shattering Season. This will also allow her to stay with Alabaster, her old friend/mentor/lover, who wants to teach her a new way of using her orogeny that might allow her to save the world once and for all. Unfortunately Alabaster is dying due to turning into literal stone, so there's a deadline to how much he'll be able to teach her, particularly when Essun isn't sure she wants to learn.

In another plotline, Nassun and her father (who Nassun witnessed beat her toddler brother to death for possessing orogeny, as does Nassun herself) set off on a quest to find a place where Nassun can be "cured". Since this is unsurprisingly impossible, Nassun instead learns not to trust, to use her orogeny in brand-new ways, and to find a new father.

I loved The Fifth Season. Spoiler alert, I loved The Stone Sky, which I've already finished. I love the trilogy as a whole. But The Obelisk Gate is very much a middle book. Almost nothing happens in Essun's plotline, which is a particular shock after the massive amount of plot stuffed into the first book. (Three lives worth!) And yes, it's necessary for the story as a whole for her to learn the world's backstory, for her to build relationships with the other members of the comm, for her to begin to heal, but it's still really, really boring. Nassun's plotline is much more compelling, but it takes up a fairly small proportion of the book. Her sections were an absolutely devastating portrayal of emotional abuse on a child, and the way such treatment warps personality, beliefs, and self-identity. It was so well-written, but then after each short chapter we had to go back to Essun, who is... still not doing much.

It's not a bad book! It's just the weak link between two outstanding achievements, and the best things about it are things that are also present in the other two. It's a link that does what it needs to do, even if I'll probably skip it when rereading the trilogy in the future. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Tuesday

Vienna by William S. Kirby. A murder mystery/retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons", set in modern-day Europe with a Holmes and Watson who are both women and also in an explicit relationship. This book was sold to me as "lesbian Sherlock Holmes", and to be fair, it succeeds on that front – which is probably all that matters to many of you.

Justine Am is a world-famous supermodel, currently doing a tour of the capitals of Europe for an art project in which various photographers shoot her posing with wooden mannequins from the 1700s. She's also an ex-med student, which I suppose makes her the Watson of this story. Vienna is an autistic savant (there's a little bit of jargon at one point about how autistic savants aren't really a thing, and she actually has some other rare condition, but she's clearly written to be an autistic savant despite that ass-cover), with a photographic memory for everything she's ever read, incredible math skills, and a tendency to be pulled into geometric patterns in a way that can lead to seizures. Which I suppose makes her the Sherlock? Someone has to be, at any rate. Vienna is also an orphan with a mysterious past connected to her extremely rich and powerful "uncle", a British lawyer and nobleman.

The book opens with Justine in Vienna's bed after a mildly dissatisfying one night stand. Matters grow more complicated when Justine's boyfriend is shortly thereafter murdered and Vienna becomes the first suspect. Despite being thrown together under these not-promising circumstances, they discover a real connection and fall in love. Meanwhile, the boyfriend's murder is only the first in a string of deaths which seem to be connected to Justine's photo shoots – someone is using her as an opportunity to get access to the mannequins. Figuring out who, and why, is the only way for Justine and Vienna to stay alive.

The relationship is well-written – I'm always a fan of characters who have sex first and take a while to catch feelings – but the mystery is complex and arcane to the point of silliness. It involves astronomy, anarchists, assassinations of the 1800s, alchemy, ancient Egypt, and is weirdly alliterative, I've just now realized. The solution also depends on believing that the royal families of Europe (including the Hapsburgs) are secretly still in charge of everything and have regular hidden meetings to maintain society. Which would have been outdated in 1904, the publication date of the original Holmes story, much less 2015.

That's not the only odd thing about Kirby's writing. Justine is constantly called out for behaving "like an American" or a "crass colonial" by other characters, while this is actually not a thing that comes up all that often in my experience of living in Europe. She herself makes strange allusions to this supposed deep contrast between American and European culture, such as when she worries that a joke about Romeo and Juliet in front of a British crowd will set off "a riot, but the laughter seemed good-natured rather than derisive. How had she gotten away with mocking the country's greatest hero?" Vienna's British accent also struck me as a bit stiff and unrealistic, but not being British, I'll leave the final call on that to the experts.

The weirdest plot twist of all is when Justine loses her modeling career because it comes out that she's dating another woman. It's not even the added complications of Vienna being visibly autistic or involved in the case about Justine's boyfriend's murder that supposedly drive the nail into the coffin, but simply her gender. 2015 is not that long ago; I find it extremely doubtful that anyone would lose multiple modeling contracts due to a lesbian relationship.

Kirby's writing is highly oblique, with dialogue that often jumps from topic to topic with no transitions and plot developments that never entirely spell themselves out. I usually admire this style of writing, with its do-it-yourself approach to the reader who's left to figure out meanings and connections for herself. But Kirby occasionally goes too far, producing scenes that are just baffling rather than ambiguous.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed Vienna, despite this review sounding like a litany of complaints. It's just that the things that bothered me were all so unusual that I couldn't resist describing them in details, even though they were minor.

Medea and Her Children by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, translated from Russian by Arch Tait. A novel focusing on Medea, a widowed and childless woman living alone in the Crimea, and her large and messy Greek-descended family, who arrive at her small village every summer for beaches, parties, and gossip. The style is lyrical and frequently shifts in time from the present moment (which seems to be around the 1970s, though I don't think it's ever explicitly stated) to various events in Medea's memory, stretching all the way back to her parents' lives at the dawn of the 20th century and covering every important moment in between. Despite brief references to the many major political upheavals this period covers (WWI, WII, the expulsion of the Crimean Tatars, the death of Stalin), the focus is very much on the family and its petty dramas: dead parents, marriages, divorces, affairs (SO MANY AFFAIRS), illegitimate children, children sent to live with siblings or grandparents or cousins, house renovations, careers desired and discarded, and so on. The best passages are those describing the landscape of Crimea, its mountains and steep paths and the scent of the ocean.

Medea and Her Children falls into a certain style of 'literary fiction' that just doesn't work for me. I never engaged emotionally with any of the characters, although the writing is certainly lovely. There's all sort of major tragedies in the narrative, but I don't feel them much when the style comes off as so distancing and almost deliberately disorienting, choosing not to reveal characters' motivations or histories. Ah, well. At least there are some gorgeous turns of phrase. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading... Tuesday? Sure, why not.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. An absolutely fantastic, gorgeous novel of fantasy and horror and history. In Victorian England, fairy-land (now called Arcadia) is a real place, and Victorian England being Victorian England, missionaries are sent there. Catherine Helstone's brother, Laon, is the latest one, and he seems to have vanished – or at least isn't answering her letters. Catherine sets off to Arcadia after him, where she discovers a mystery concerning the previous missionary and his wife, a left-over changeling, and the mind-games of the fairy queen.

The worldbuilding and writing of Under the Pendulum Sun are just incredible. Arcadia is exactly what fairy-land should be: illogical and dreamlike and dangerous and amoral (not immoral!) and full of promise. The plot is less about Catherine going out to solve mysteries and have adventures than on an exploration of what Victorian Protestant theology would make of fairies (do they have souls? did God create them at the same time as humans, or earlier, or later? what is sin, to a fairy?), complete with all the colonialism and imperialism one would expect. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from some supposedly 19th-century text on religion and fairies, and I sometimes found these short pieces more fascinating than the actual main story. Which is not to say the main story was boring! But Ng has come up with such amazing, complex ideas regarding her invented theology that I could not get enough.

Speaking of the main plot, it's heavily influenced by gothic fiction: we have an excellently creepy mansion for the main setting, foggy moors, a potentially malevolent housekeeper, intricate and incomprehensible social rules that bind our heroine's options and suggest dread fates if she should accidently break a single one, and, oh yes, Catherine's sexual fascination with someone who is absolutely not an appropriate suitor.

I am head-over-heels in love with this book, and I cannot wait for Ng to write more.

Rustication by Charles Palliser. A gothic novel set in a true-to-genre crumbling mansion surrounded by boggy marshes in rural England in the 1860s. The novel is supposedly the journal of Richard, a seventeen-year-old who has just been rusticated (slightly kinder slang for being suspended or expelled) from Cambridge for debts, opium abuse, and possibly being involved with a friend's suicide. Rather than returning home, he finds his mother and sister Euphemia have moved to said crumbling mansion, while his father has recently died under a cloud of scandal. His death has dropped the family from middle-class to poor, while the scandal means former friends refuse to associate with them. Their mother deals with this by fixating on Euphemia's chance of securing a good marriage with a nearby Earl's nephew, which depends on their ability to get tickets to an upcoming ball. Richard deals with this by, well, doing opium, refusing to take on any responsibility in their changed circumstances, and writing explicit sexual fantasies about every woman he comes across, from powerless servants to fourteen-year-olds to his own sister. When the women react exactly how you would expect them to react to a young man who veers between annoying and outright sexually harassive, he calls them names, accuses them of unnatural coldness, and switches his obsession to the next woman he comes across.

In the background of this family drama, the local community finds itself besieged by anonymous, crude letters, mostly addressed to women and accusing them of various sexual crimes, interspersed with threats against the same Earl's nephew Euphemia plans on marrying. At the same time, and presumably committed by the same person, livestock begins to turn up dead and mutilated, again with a sexual focus: male animals are castrated, pregnant females have their wombs removed.

Surely, given all of this (and I haven't even mentioned multiple other sexual tragedies occurring in the neighborhood: a secret child, a notable who has sex trafficked a young girl while pretending she's his 'ward', a servant subjected to continual prepubescent rape by her father and brothers, and death by incompetent abortion, among others), you would think that the misogyny and sexual violence of the Victorian era is Palliser's theme. I certainly assumed so! More fool me, because the real twist ending is that Collapse ) I don't think I've ever come across a book that so clearly established a theme, only to reach the end and find that all these instances never added up to anything more.

To be slightly fair (though I'm not sure Palliser deserves it), the writing was excellent at capturing the dark and gloomy mood and building the tension. I raced through the last hundred pages in a single sitting, though of course that was mostly because I was so excited to reach the twist, only to realize on the last page that the twist I was expecting didn't exist.

Ugh. I don't know what was going on here, or why this book has generally positive reviews. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

(no subject)

Hello everyone!

I aten't dead. Just extremely, extremely busy in these odd times. I hope you all are also well! And I hope that soon my life will calm down a bit and I can return to checking DW on the regular.

In the meantime, I have been doing a lot of reading, though alas, not so much with the typing up of my thoughts afterwards. Since I can't leave my house, I've been focusing on finally getting around to reading all the big tomes on my bookshelves, the ones that usually I put off because they're too big to fit into my purse. They, uh... mostly haven't been great. Further proof that I am far too easily seduced by a pretty cover. Anyway, here's two I did manage to write up!

Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney. A novel set in New York City in 1870s. Georg Geiermeier is a recently arrived immigrant, and his various adventures manage to hit upon every single remotely memorable thing happening in the city at the time: the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, P.T. Barnum's circus, the explosion of the Staten Island Ferry, working on the sewers, laying cobblestones on the streets, German immigrants, Irish immigrants, Black immigrants, female doctors, secret abortionists, new factories, old Brooklyn farms, street life ('Gangs of New York' style), a night in the Tombs, sex work, life in Five Points, the freezing solid of the East River, and on and on. Gaffney's determination to namecheck every element of her research ends up feeling somewhat ridiculous, and by the end I started to laugh whenever she brought in yet another historical event.

All of this pointless scene-setting provides the background for a fairly bland narrative: Georg falls in love with Beatrice, a member of the Whyos gang, which leads to a rivalry with Johnny, the leader of the gang who wants Beatrice for himself. Meanwhile, a sadistic arsonist/serial killer becomes convinced that Georg is to blame for his own incarceration, and is determined to get revenge. None of these characters are particularly interesting, and the plot never manages to do anything surprising. It's not improved by Gaffney's odd stylistic choices – occasionally butting in with an omniscient narrator to inform us of things like "but Georg wouldn't know that for another two years" or "none of them suspected that the problem was already solved". She doesn't do this often enough for it to become a consistent feature of the book, but it appears just often enough to give a further distancing effect to any emotion the reader might have been developing for the characters.

Overall it's cliched, it's frustrating, and it's mostly just boring. Is there anything exactly wrong with Metropolis? No, not really. Are there thousands of better historical novels out there better than this stale melodrama? Very much yes.

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone. Nonfiction about Joanna I, who ruled Naples (her titles as ruler of Jerusalem and Sicily were more hopeful than accurate) in the 1300s, and who has been considered 'notorious' ever since due to rumors that she had her husband violently murdered. And possibly also for her role in inciting the Western Schism (that time when the Catholic church had two simultaneous popes, each of whom of course denounced the other as the antichrist).

Goldstone is here to redeem Joanna's reputation, instead showing her as a dedicated, competent, and successful ruler. And also not guilty of husband-murder since, as Goldstone says, if Joanna had wanted to get rid of her husband she likely would have had him subtly poisoned and not publicly attacked by goons to be beaten and hung. It's a fair goal, but unfortunately I came away from the book feeling like I just don't care if Joanna was good or bad. There's dozens of chapters about intricate Italian politics and backstabbing and alliances (and goddamn this is really a book that could have used a Character List; I had such a hard time trying to remember who was who), but none of it seemed to have many long-term consequences, nor was any of it interesting enough to read about for its own sake. A lot of the most fascinating bits in the book were relegated to the status of tangents, when I could have read much, much more about them: the Salerno medical school, which allowed female students and possibly teachers; repeated, devastating outbreaks of the plague; the free companies, roving bands of unemployed mercenaries who were a constant background threat in 1300s Italy; the family of a African formerly enslaved man who rose to become major political figures in Joanna's court.

I think Goldstone would have been better served by including a chapter or two focusing on Joanna's historical reception in the centuries since her life. She very briefly complains that Joanna didn't get an awesome tomb, unlike most members of her family, but that's not enough. The premise of the book is 'I am reclaiming this notorious historical figure for the side of good', but I think the average American has no name recognition of Joanna at all, pro or con. Goldstone needs to actually show us that Joanna was hated, not just tell it. That likely would also have helped with my ultimate not-caring, since part of my problem was that a great deal of the stuff Goldstone dwells on didn't seem to matter much to the grand scheme of history.

Eh, it's not a bad book. The topic is fine and the writing is fine. It's just that I prefer my interesting-facts/amount-of-text ratio to be much higher. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Weekly

The Merchant’s Partner by Michael Jecks. The second in a series of murder mysteries set in medieval England, starring Sir Baldwin Furnshill, a knight with a deadly secret (he was once a Knight Templar; since that sect has been officially disbanded and accused of worshipping Satan, he could be executed if anyone suspects him of involvement), and his friend Simon Puttock, the bailiff of a local castle.

One winter morning, an old woman named Agnes is found dead in a field, her body mutilated. It quickly turns out that most of the villagers suspected her of being a witch, which means that practically everyone had a potential motive for the murder. One young man, who visited Agnes the day before her death for medical advice, seems to be the most likely suspect, but there's more going on than Baldwin and Simon know, particularly once a second murder occurs.

This book is so bad. SO BAD, you guys. The narration switches between Baldwin and Simon, but since they are both are one-dimensional characters with no personality beyond "clever, honorable, strong detective", I never could remember which one's POV I was in, and often had to flip back and forth between pages just to figure out which of the two I was supposed to be reading. The solution to the mystery becomes obvious to the reader long, long before the characters figure it out, so it's just a matter of dully watching while they plod from clue to clue. The femme fatale who's eventually revealed to be behind it all is a misogynist cliche of a character, so over-the-top evil with her feminine wiles that it's hard not to laugh at every one of her supposedly 'seductive' lines of dialogue.

But I think the thing that bothered me the most is the utter trash that is the historical research. Jecks clearly has read a few books about medieval England (if you need to know the architectural layout, room by room, of a peasant's hovel, he will happily spend several pages describing it for you), but there's no sense that the characters actually live in, or are shaped by, a world different from our modern one. For example: the village the story is set in is so small that it doesn't have its own church or market, but it does have an inn and tavern. Why would there be enough travelers to keep an inn running? Who are these travelers supposed to be, and why on earth would they be coming to this place if there's nothing there? Travel is a major project at this time; no one is just sloping off to various small towns to check them out! Jecks also can't seem to keep straight how constrained or free his female characters are allowed to be; the societal rules women operate under change from scene to scene.

Most strikingly, this is a bizarrely secular Middle Ages. The events of the book seem to take place over two weeks at least and yet not one character ever goes to church or worries about missing it. It's fine to have individual characters who are skeptical, but the calendar and rituals of Catholicism would still structure their public lives; they can't just be unaware of it. Similarly, the book takes place in February, suggesting at least part of it should occur during Lent, but again there's no mention of it or the changes in diet and behavior you'd expect to follow.

In short: do not read.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. Nonfiction about the research and experimentations that made space travel possible, delivered with Roach's typical humour, curiosity, and tales of her mild mishaps while investigating. Packing for Mars is very much not the heroism-and-grandeur style of typical space nonfiction; instead she's fascinated by all the weird minutiae of human bodies that make space travel so difficult. There are chapters on how to eat in space (no gravity makes digestion surprisingly difficult), how to use a toilet in space (splashbacks are a major problem), how to bathe in space (NASA in the 1950s: "Or what if we didn't bathe, and just let your clothes literally rot off you?"), how to have sex in space (NASA still today: "NO."), how to be motion-sick in space (turns out that vomiting into a closed helmet is an unpleasant experience), and how to deal with the psychological experience of being stuck in a small space with the same few people for months or years (ideally without theft, sexual harassment, or murder). Roach interviews scientists and actual astronauts from various nationalities, which gives an interesting look at how people from the US, Japan, and the former USSR have taken different approaches to the same problem. She also gets a lot of fantastic, hilarious behind-the-scenes stories that don't match up to the professional image all these agencies so strenuously project.

It's not a particularly deep book, and I felt like I came away with more amusing anecdotes than actually new knowledge, but it's absolutely a fun way to pass a few days.

The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera. The first in a trilogy set in fantasy-medieval China, starring O-Shizuka (granddaughter of the faux-Chinese emperor), Shefali (daughter of the leader of the faux-Mongols), and their world-altering love. In this setting, the Great Wall was built to hold back a plague of demons whose blood can infect humans, causing them to become murderous zombies. Years ago, Shizuka and Shefali's mothers teamed up to defeat the demons once and for all, and ever since humans have lived in a time of peace and health. Until hints begin to emerge that the demons are creeping back. Shizuka and Shefali are determined to once again ride to war to defeat them, except that no one believes them and there seems to be a vast conspiracy to hide the truth of the demon's return. Shizuka and Shefali, who spent their childhood together, are forced to separate to their own cultures to win the necessary support against the demons.

There was a lot I was excited about when I first heard about this book: f/f high fantasy with warrior girls fighting demons? Yes, please! And there were indeed things I liked about it, particularly the worldbuilding, which was great, and I enjoyed how the tension between the two main cultures was realistically depicted. Unfortunately the writing was incredibly slow and draggy; it seemed to take ages for each plot point to crawl across the page. Most detrimentally, I just couldn't care about the relationship between the main characters. We're told over again over again how passionately they feel for one another, how they've been destined to be together since birth, how their love is the sort that can save all of humanity, but we're never really shown any of this. The characters spend shockingly little time together on-page; they're separated for something like 99% of the story. And while I love me some good pining, I just never felt the emotions between them.

Disappointed as I was, there's enough good here that I'll probably go ahead and give the sequel a try (even though it seems like Shizuka and Shefali will spend this one separated as well???) because, well... f/f high fantasy with warrior women! It's a genre I am weak before.

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and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Saturday

The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore. In 1855 rural New Hampshire, Lucy Blunt is a servant in a rich household that revolves around the beautiful, blind, capricious, and laudanum-addicted mistress, Eugenie. Lucy's attraction to Eugenie is quickly reciprocated, a circumstance that elevates Lucy from kitchen maid to formal companion – displacing Eugenie's previous companion, Rebecca – as their relationship becomes sexual. But Lucy has secrets she can't afford for either Eugenie or the jealous Rebecca to find out, even if she could be certain that Eugenie loves her rather than only using her as a temporary distraction. To complicate matters, the entire story is being told in flashbacks as Lucy sits in jail after being found guilty for murder – though who she murdered, and why, and under what circumstances, and even if she is actually guilty, are all questions left unanswered until the climax of the novel.

First things first: The Companion is extremely similar to The Confessions of Frannie Langton. We have a maid in love with her mistress, whose habit of consuming laudanum makes her emotions and actions unpredictable; the maid ends up accused of murder; the story is told in flashbacks, coaxed out by a lawyer or journalist as the maid waits in jail. Both use the plot to comment upon the sexism and classism of the mid-1800s, though The Confessions of Frannie Langton also has a lot to say about racism, while The Companion brings in the issue of abilism.

To contrast them, The Confessions of Frannie Langton makes excellent use of gothic horror tropes to serve new, anti-racist purposes, while The Companion is more straightforwardly historic-fiction in style. On the other hand, I thought that the characterizations were stronger in The Companion, particularly Lucy's fellow servants, such as the motherly but proud Cook. The emotional relationship between Lucy and Eugenie also worked much better for me than the one between Frannie and Marguerite. But both books are gorgeously written and handle their chosen social issues with care and insight.

It's hard to complain about too many thoughtful lesbian historical murder mysteries! It's the genre I've always wanted and never knew existed. Read these both!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes. Nonfiction about one suburban homeowner in Maine and her intense study of her own backyard. Holmes learns about not just the easily visible animals (the squirrels, the ravens, her adorable relationship with a chipmunk that she trains to eat out of her hand) but the unseen: insects, fungi, the roots of plants, the water runoff, the heat bubble created by her house, the soil, even the deep-down geology. Her style is very similar to Mary Roach's – an intelligent, curious, and humorous generalist who interviews experts to learn more, with a non-insignificant part of the book being her own mishaps, misunderstandings, and difficulties in finding the right experts. Holmes does end up advocating for her readers to adopt her approach (growing a freedom lawn – no grass, just native species however messy they might look, no fertilizer or pesticides), but overall it's a book of interesting facts, pleasantly delivered.

A note: Holmes, like most nature experts, dislikes invasive species. However, there's a short section where she goes way farther than most, including a quite graphic description of the death she wishes upon sparrows and starlings. Anyone who can't read about animal death might wish to skip the first few pages of Chapter Eleven.

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