Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow
by Xiran Jay Zhao
October 7, 2021

O.O

Wowza.

This book.

The main character is kind of the embodiment of “Are you tired of being nice? don’t you just wanna go apeshit?” Yes. Yes, she does. And thus, so she does.

The book was described as a re-imagining of the life of the only ruling empress of China, Wu Zetian, in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy China that merges Pacific Rim with The Handmaid’s Tale.* There are giant mecha robots piloted by male pilots and powered by female concubines… who don’t tend to survive the process. Wu Zetian is a pretty peasant girl filled with rage. Her older sister was already sold to the army as a concubine and she’s going next, but she’s planning a revenge assassination rather than dutiful self-sacrifice.

In a society telling her that girls and women are naturally gentle and soft, appeasing and submissive, Wu Zetian knows that’s wrong from her own personality. As the book progresses, she peals back more and more layers of her own assumptions, revealing how aspects of the world that seemed like natural laws are instead very much man-made. What seems like basic history, is instead thick layers of propaganda difficult to even find the edges of. With lies and manipulations twisting any understanding of the world, moral decisions are nearly impossible. And the prize after every victory is a more difficult battle.

The whole book is a series of dramatic battles — mental, emotional, physical, you name it — that build to greater and greater heights, and the end is less a conclusion as it is a launching point. It’s extremely satisfying, so I wouldn’t call it a cliff hanger, but there’s no resting on one’s laurels in this universe. I really hope there’s a sequel and I also have no idea how the author will manage to write a sequel to this.

This is Xiran Jay Zhao’s first book, but I was first introduced to their twitter account and the very good, very funny analysis of various movies set in China and what they get horribly wrong, or occasionally right, examples: Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998).

I highly recommend this book, but also just wow: this character is amazing and she pulls absolutely no punches. And also her whole relationship situation is fabulous, summed up by her statement, “Love doesn’t solve problems; solving problems solves problems.” And she is out here to solve some @#$@%ing problems!

* Without having read The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m still going to assume it (much like Jane Eyre) would be vastly improved by the main character being more murderous. And Wu Zetian is here for that murderous response to subjugation.

Adventure Cats by Laura J. Moss

Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest
by Laura J. Moss
2017

This is a fun and inspiring book that I ran across at some point well after I’d already started taking my cat on walks with a halter and leash.* I thought to myself: this is a nonfiction book about adventure cats, my cat would definitely like to go on more adventures, so this might give me ideas.

And it did. Sort of. Maybe I’ll like outside adventures more if I have my cat with me. But as I’ve stated before, I find the concept of long walks a lot more interesting than the practice of it.

It turns out that I’m pretty much the exact opposite of the intended audience for this book. The intended audience is made up of adventurous people who are interested in seeing if they can get their cat involved in their lifestyle. My situation is that I am a standard couch-potato cat-owner who has stumbled across ownership of an adventure cat and now needs to figure out how to keep his life suitably enriched while also keeping him safe and me sane.

About half the book is made of short bios of various adventure cats and their people and what all is involved in their lifestyle. I adored these parts! So cute! There are cats who go hiking and camping and sailing and surfing and skiing and rock climbing and so much more. Awesome!

The other half of the book is focused on how-to instructions and lists of important information on how to safely go adventuring with a cat. It seems very useful and also highlighting that this is not my preferred method of relaxing or enjoying the world.

The directions on how to train a cat are also so slow and careful that it struck me as more of a deterrent than an inspiration to actually follow the method, but again: I’m not the audience of people who are adventurous and want a cat to match. I expect the written method is the correct way to train a cat, but my relationship with my cat is a lot more mutual training as I figure out how to accommodate his desires as much as I train him to accommodate mine.**

This book also ran into my standard pet peeve with pretty much all self-help books: they tend to talk to the reader with broad assertions (“you think”, “you feel”, “you respond”) that always make me feel particularly contrary (“you don’t know me!”), and I was getting that with this book as it simplified cat body language and responses in a way that was absolutely necessary for the scope of the book, but didn’t match my cat at all.***

A final warning: Every couple of pages this author uses a cutesy pun (being “purrpared”; anything being “pawsible”) and it’s way too cutesy for me.

Despite the various caveats, I do recommend this book. It is an inspiration to see about pushing the boundaries of what I do for my cat’s enrichment and maybe for my own enrichment too.

* As a kitten, my cat was extremely curious and completely fearless and had to be held back from stalking a flock of Canadian geese, and he doesn’t appear to have gained much sense of self-preservation since then.

** I didn’t have to lure my cat into liking the halter and leash: He wanted to go outside so I made wearing a halter and leash a condition of that, and it wasn’t so much leash training as it was compromise negotiation. If he came near the door, I would put the halter/leash on him, and he’d be allowed out. If he didn’t want the halter leash on him, then he shouldn’t come near the door as I was going out.

*** Yes, my cat got startled and poofed out with a full bottle-brush tail on a walk this weekend, but he also continued to explore and had absolutely no interest in returning to the safety of the house. Yes, at another point he froze absolutely still and then had to slowly approach and cautiously whack a fallen leaf like a dangerous enemy, but again, no interest in retreating to safety.

Velvet Was the Night

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I am a big fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and I love following her across all her genre hopping: Gods of Jade and Shadow was a breathtakingly dreamlike and philosophic fantasy novel, Certain Dark Things an engrossing and gritty vampire/mob suspense novel, and Mexican Gothic a beautifully atmospheric and bizarre gothic (of course). And now, Velvet Was the Night is a picture-perfect noire in every way!

In the acknowledgement, Moreno-Garcia mentions that noir is a proud tradition in Latin America, and she has certainly done it proud with every character, scene, and even the descriptive tone of the writing. Velvet Was the Night centers around two very distinct protagonists: an apolitical, daydreaming woman stuck in a secretarial job she loathes, and a young thug hired to infiltrate and repress (i.e. beat) student and/or communist protests. Moreno-Garcia teases out throughout the book how similar they are to each other, regardless of their wildly different circumstances, as well as how each of them incrementally matures through the events that push them outside the ruts of their daily lives.

Like all good noirs, Velvet Was the Night connects the daily lives of these two individuals and the people around them to the wider scope of politics. In this case, the politics of 1970s Mexico are complicated and literally foreign to me, and yet Moreno-Garcia somehow manages to spin it out in a way that I could understand and follow along to, starting small and generalized and building up the complexity of the different factions along with the plotlines. It felt like some kind of magic trick and I have no idea how she kept me tracking all the twists and turns!

the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

This is an amazing and side-splittingly funny competition to write the worst opening sentence of a novel that would immediately make the reader walk away. (Which is good, not only for our sanity, but also because there are no full novels, just opening sentences.)

You can read all the winning entries here: Winners!
but to give you a sample, the 2021 grand prize was well-earned by this doozie of a sentence:

A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare.

Stu Duval, Auckland, New Zealand

If you feel inspired to try to compete, you can also enter your best attempt at a worst sentence here: Submit!

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

The Hands of the Emperor
by Victoria Goddard
2019

This book is amazing! I blasted through the nearly 1,000 pages over the course of maybe three days and by halfway through was sure that I had another author to follow.

First of all: the world building is amazing. It’s a fantasy setting with elaborate magical issues and multiple cultures – one of which is based off traditional Hawaiian culture, others based off African and/or Asian cultures that I don’t really recognize well enough to fully identify.

It’s a story of legendary events and fairytales happenings – the Empire has fallen, the emperor slept for a hundred years before awakening as the Last Emperor – but all of this has happened and been survived by those who remain and who now must figure out how to carry on afterwards. The background events that we gain more detail of as the book progresses are fascinating, but it’s the people and the personal relationships that are the focus.

Our main character Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Emperor. He has lived through these events and accomplished his life goals, and now finds himself in a position where power dynamics are severely stressing his personal relationships in both directions: he loves the Emperor but it’s hard to manage a friendship with someone who has god-like powers over him; he loves his family back home in the distant islands but they think he spent years as a secretary in the capital rather than, to all practical purposes, the head of the world government as the go-between between the bureaucracy of government and the god-king emperor.

There are several delightful scenes that involve Cliopher’s extended family being presented with the evidence of what all Cliopher has accomplished. This is the type of scene that is often a climactic reveal in other books, but isn’t here. One of the themes that is addressed in both the political achievements that are slowly revealed in retrospect and the personal achievements that are accomplished as the story progresses, is how everything takes on-going effort: nothing permanent is truly accomplished by a single event – no matter how dramatic. Both relationships and social change take repeated and continuing effort to create and maintain.

It’s also a deeply optimistic book: the Empire has fallen and for all the disasters and deaths that were involved in that, it provided the opportunity to build something better in its place. Cliopher Mdang has spent years working to dismantle the colonial systems of the Empire and create freedom and social safety networks and he has succeeded!

The book is a wonderful thing to read in this time when I am stressed with: a global pandemic, a global climate crisis, a number of humanitarian crisis, and general political disasters. In this world, the highest members of government are working to help people and fix the world and they are succeeding. There’s very little tension in that, no worries that they’ll fail. The driving force to see what happens next is not fear but curiosity as the events get revealed, and the ongoing effort that’s put into creating and maintaining friendships.

The Return of Fitzroy Angursell
by Victoria Goddard
2020

This book continues on just hours after the final events of The Hands of the Emperor, but switches point-of-view characters and also switches tones: it’s wildly hilarious. The theme very much remains the work that has to go into maintaining friendships and how “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”

In many ways, it reminds me of TV show Galavant (even to the songs!) but particularly around the way that magic and the power of fairy tales and main characters creates wildly improbable coincidences. But the in-universe explanation of how magic and legend and stories work, makes it all make sense, at least to the point of letting the reader enjoy the ride.

Trying to avoid any spoilers for The Hands of the Emperor, the main character of this book is also particularly hilarious as it highlights the difference between how a person looks from the external perspective and how they look from the internal. Externally, this main character was very regal and reserved; internally, he’s a massive doofus. The whole thing is a delight.

This is definitely an author I’ll be following in the future.

The Twenty Days of Turin

By Giorgio De Maria

Written in 1977, The Twenty Days of Turin has been a cult favorite in Italy that only got an English translation in 2017. I was intrigued when I read reviews saying that this short novel (only 144 pages) depicts a proto social media far more accurately than any early cyberpunk authors. It’s not a spoiler to explain the setup: before the start of the novel, several young adults established “The Library,” where citizens of Turin could submit and read anonymous personal diaries. It was intended to help lonely and isolated individuals find connection with their neighbors, but quickly devolved into mean-spirited diatribes and grotesque confessions. Stunningly familiar, right?

After several mysterious, violent murders, The Library is closed down and most of the contents are burned. The novel is narrated by a local author several years later, attempting to investigate the unsolved murders and their connection to the library for a new book he is writing. He interviews several key people, and uncovers deeper levels of conspiracy in this cross between a noir mystery and a horror/fantasy novel. The conclusion ties in surprisingly with another current social debate, but elaborating any more would be a full spoil.

The pacing is odd, with long philosophical discussions between the narrator and his interviewees mixed with growing suspense and sudden outbreaks of violence in a very disconnected, dreamlike way. The narration did not always focus on what I expected to be the most interesting parts: there is less about the actual library than I’d have liked, and more description and backstory of each person interviewed than I felt was necessary. I wasn’t sure if the disconnect for me came from it being Italian, almost 50 years old, or in a genre I’m not overly familiar with.

I recommend it because it is short, interesting, and different, though not as mind-blowing or entrancing as I’d hoped on the first description. My library edition also came with two shorts, a supernatural short story featuring Lord Byron and some A+ satirical writing, and a somewhat dry essay on the new pop-rock music of the 70s and its cultural significance. Both were also very odd but entertaining in their different ways.

As an aside, the descriptive blurb on the novel says it was written during the height of domestic terrorism in Italy, and it made me wonder if in forty years the 20s would be considered the “height of domestic terrorism” in the U.S. For more context, I recommend this Goodreads review by Luca Signorelli, acknowledged in the translator’s notes as a key figure in bringing about the translation.

The Mueller Report: 3 graphic novels

I was certainly never going to read the actual 400+ page report, so I was intrigued with the idea of a graphic novel that breaks it all down. Then, when I saw there were three different versions, I clearly had to compare and contrast!

The Mueller Report

By Shannon Wheeler and Steve Duin

I read this one first because the illustrations are fun and cartoony, if not exactly true to life (I very much appreciated the authors including footnotes identifying key actors on each page and an illustrated index, since there are so many, and middle-aged white men in suits tend to all look alike anyway).

In 200 pages the graphic novel gives an impressively comprehensive overview of the entire report, breaking down the two different probes and the final conclusion that managed to disappoint and anger pretty much everyone. Because they have so much territory to cover, it moves quickly from event to event without delving into any one of them deeply.

The Mueller Report Illustrated: The Obstruction Investigation

By The Washington Post

This is the one I was most anticipating, with the most realistic graphics and the heaviest hitting analysts, but I was a little disappointed when I realized that it only delves into the second probe (which I only knew to distinguish because of Wheeler and Duin’s graphic novel). It does, however, give more nuance to events that I then realized had been compressed in the previous comic, and provides some of the supporting evidence in reproduced memos and articles. That said, this being The Washington Post, their own articles are heavily featured, of course.

However, if you, like me, think this is basically the only way you are going to be able to review the Mueller report, this is available free online with a scrollable layout here, so I recommend checking it out.

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel

By Barbara Slate

This Mueller Report went back even further than the first one, setting the stage in 2014 with Russia’s Internet Research Agency and the initial plans for Trump Tower Moscow. It is also the shortest of them all at just 107 pages, so it whizzes through everything at a brisk pace, occasionally leaving me a little lost among all the names, even after having the read the other two. The illustration style, too, was sketchy and inconsistent enough that I struggled to match the figures to the real life people.

That said, I think Slate really shined best in the occasional, isolated full-page graphics each dedicated to one specific issue, such as Russia’s approach to organizing political rallies in America and the search for Hillary’s emails.

***

All in all, I found them all interesting and entertaining, and while I didn’t grasp everything, I’m much better informed than I was before. What I found particularly interesting was seeing what scenes all three decided to emphasize (Trump’s unorthodox one-on-one dinner with James Comey, Chris Christie’s prescient warning that Flynn would be an on-going scandal, Trump keeping Session’s resignation letter even after asking him to stay) and where they diverged.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

This is a tricky review to write because this book was fascinating and well-written, but I didn’t care for it and I don’t think it quite managed to pull off what it had intended to.

I have a great deal of respect for Natasha Pulley as an author, and really enjoyed her previous three books. She always has really interesting concepts and does amazing things with timey-wimey stuff, and this book is no exception. The Kingdoms is unrelated to the previous series, with its own world and characters, mostly around an alternate history of the Napoleonic War (1805 – 1807), but also in “Londres” some 93 years later (1898 – 1900).

Not to include too many spoilers, but as you might guess, this delves into time manipulation and changing timelines and people changing because of changing timelines even more than any of the previous books had. Unfortunately, I think this is the first time she didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The chapters skip around in time a lot, and I often had to just go with the flow rather than completely understand how the parts interconnected, and there are some parts that I don’t think make sense based on the internal world-building. I considered reading the book a second time to more fully track the course of events, but that brought me to my second problem: I found all of the characters vaguely unpleasant in a wide variety of ways. For good and valid reasons: they’re all horribly traumatized in a variety of ways too, but that just makes reading about them even less pleasant. A mixed blessing was how low-key they all were about the horrifying circumstances and the even more horrifying adaptive behaviors.

The only part that I really enjoyed was the last 50 pages or so in which everything came together and a variety of explanations clicked into place and there’s a couple of impressive feats. There’s even a mostly happy ending (as long as you don’t think about it too much.)

So, to sum up: I didn’t enjoy it but I hope that there are other readers who did. And I’m impressed with the writing that tried to do something really difficult. I’ll still keep an eye out for anything else that Pulley writes.

meh

I think I’m feeling a little cranky because I finished the complete Astreiant series, which just seemed to fit everything I like best in a novel, and now I’m vaguely disappointed in every novel I’ve read since.

Ladies’ Bane

By Patricia Wentworth

I’ve had Patricia Wentworth on the periphery of my to-read list for a while now. She’s a contemporary of Agatha Christie, and is often compared to her, and I do love my Agatha Christies! I picked Ladies’ Bane sort of random, thinking that it sounded pretty gothic, which I’m also partial to. And it was very gothic! A young lady marries a man in a whirlwind romance and disappears to his county estate, and when her cousin comes to check on her, she finds her much changed with no idea who to trust. Classic gothic! And Wentworth’s mainstay detective, an elderly ex-governess, doesn’t appear on the scene until a quarter of the way through. 

But I don’t know…I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but it very much lacked the spark of Agatha Christie. The characters were not quite dimensional enough, the mystery not quite twisty enough, and the personal touches were a little more crude and even a bit mean. I think this is why detective Miss Silver didn’t quite catch on to the extent of Miss Marple. She’s more judgmental and reproving, and her apparent signature quirk of quoting Tennyson doesn’t really help. I asked my mom, another big Agatha Christie fan, whether I was just missing something with Patricia Wentworth, and she agreed that she hadn’t taken to her at all either.

Some Danger Involved

By Will Thomas

This mystery is very consciously and closely inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Watson. It starts intriguingly enough with our Watson-figure, a down-and-out disgraced academic applying for the job as assistant to an enquiry agent who is demanding and idiosyncratic enough to run off all other applicants. The enquiry agent, the assistant, and surrounding characters are all interesting in distinct ways, but after a while I wanted deeper insight into their characters. The detective himself appears as a bit of a Mary Sue, with the universal respect he garners and his expertise in a range of martial arts. I was unsurprised to read in the author’s biography that he himself studies and practices several forms of martial arts.

The plot also centers around the Jewish community in London in the nineteenth century, and again, it was interesting, but I was a little uneasy that the author may not know enough about Jewish traditions and culture to write accurately and sensitively about it, especially with the lack of subtlety in other parts of the book. So, overall, I enjoyed the book well enough, but wanted more depth across the board. 

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You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey

By Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

Comedian Amber Ruffin relates, with her sister’s help, all the bonkers stories of racism that her sister Lacey experiences in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. As she writes in the introduction, these stories will shock white readers and relate to Black readers, and man, was I shocked! She also warns that many of the stories don’t seem to have any logical motivation behind them, that people just seem to wild out for absolutely no reason, and that is racism in a nutshell.

At one point, after a particularly enraging story, Amber writes, “I have never been able to understand why white people have such a low tolerance for hearing about racism.” And I thought to myself, I could tell her why. It’s that most of us white people have the same sense of race relations as very young Black children before they’ve been fully exposed to the onslaught. I went most of my life thinking that the vast majority of people are generally decent and trying to do right, though they may stumble occasionally. All while Lacey, her siblings, and her parents experience daily racist words and actions from people just being mean to be mean.

It is a real testament to their writing how laugh-out-loud funny the book is, and how well they capture their relationship as sisters on the page. While Lacey deals with some truly outrageous shit, she often gets her own again in satisfying ways and reassures the reader that she is doing just fine with a loving family and friends and successful career. Of course, she has her sister to commiserate with as well, and I’m just grateful that they let us readers take a peak into their conversations (not to mention the brilliant photographic evidence)! The book alternates fonts for the two, which is very effective, but afterwards, I somewhat regretted not listening to the audiobook read by the two authors. The conversational tone makes it a quick read, but I bet would really shine in audio.