What I Read When I Dropped Off the Face of the Earth

Whew, 2021 and 2022, huh? The last, let’s see, 18 months have been a rollercoaster ride for me and for seemingly everyone else I know. I may not have been posting here, but I have been reading and books have become even more important to me as a comfort and a distraction. So just to catch up a bit before I jump back in to more detailed reviews, here are the highlights of my last 18 months of reading–not necessarily the best books I’ve read, but the ones that most soothed my soul when I needed it.

Fun YA Series

YA is always a solid place to start when you need something engrossing and distracting, but also a bit hopeful. The two series I’ve enojyed most lately have both been discussed on this blog before, but I am still talking about them.

  • Rebecca talked about the first two books in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, but The Golden Enclaves comes out in just a few days! The series has magic, and a boarding school, and some romance, while being completely unlike Harry Potter at all. This world is dark, while also managing, especially in the second book, to show how people, even deeply pessimistic people, can change the world and people around them.
  • I really enjoyed Maureen’s Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy when it was focused on the main characters solving the initial mystery about the founder of their mysterious boarding school (I do like a boarding school story). But I was surprised by how much I like the fourth book in the series, The Box in the Woods, where our heroes branch out and solve a new mystery. In all of these books I’ve been impressed with how complex the mystery stories themselves are–Johnson doesn’t skimp on the twists and turns of the crimes and cover-ups, while also drawing really layered teen characters.

Cozy Gay Period Mysteries

A nice English country house with some gentlemen falling in love? That’s my sweet spot. Magic is nice, but not required.

  • Cat Sebastian’s Hither, Page and The Missing Page are both really sweet romances/mysteries between a country doctor reeling from his experiences in the first World War, and a spy who might be ready to get out of the business and find a more settled life. She’s written loads of books that are all fun, but I think I like the 20th-century setting of these more than all her others.
  • A Marvellous Light, the first in a planned triology, is set Edwardian England–according to the publisher’s website, this makes it a “gaslamp” story–but has similar sort of “odd couple fall in love while solving a mystery” vibes. This one does happen to involve magic, and I do always love it when books have scenes–and this one has many!–where non-magical people suddenly learn that magic exists. It’s like the book version of “It’s bigger on the inside!”

Non-fiction about Archaeology

This is a very specific category of books, but somehow reading about the ancient world is very calming?

  • Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox is actually about 20th-century efforts to decipher an ancient language, with a little everygreen sexism in academia thrown in for good measure. Fascinating for anyone who likes process-y stuff and/or grammar nerds, since it walks through how scholars figure out unknown languages.

  • Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson is technically about the archeologists who do the work, not the history itself, but it was also fascinating and totally made me want to go dig in the dirt.

Actual Literature

I do read literary fiction, although it can be a hard sell when I’m looking for comfort. Of late I’ve felt overwhelmed when I see a big doorstop of a book, but both of these were comparatively short, which made them feel achievable.

  • Matrix, by Lauren Groff, was probably the best thing I’ve read all year. It’s the story of a medieval nun who runs an abbey in France. It mostly focused on her internal life as she travels through a life that may seem very small by modern standards, but is huge in spirit. I feel like every description of this book made me less interested in reading it, but it was very compelling and felt more modern than it had any right to.
  • I remember enjoying Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark when it first came out and I also liked the TV adaption of it. But for some reason, her second book Piranesi never caught my attention. I think something about the cover, and maybe the title, made me think it was going to be weird? I don’t generally mind weird, but something turned me off of it. Well, it was kind of weird, but not in a “weird for weird’s sake way.” Instead, it was one of those stories where you have to roll along for the first about 40% not really knowing what’s going on, just having faith that things will become clear. And then suddenly clues start dropping and the rush you get when you start figuring things out is so fun!

Finally, I’ll give a plug to something I was extremely skeptical of for a long time: book podcasts. I love podcasts and listen to many, many hours of true crime and comedy and pop culture discussion every week, but I’ve actively stayed away from reading-related podcasts. I think I was worried that I would feel bad about all the books I hadn’t read and would just end up adding to my already endless To Be Read list? But I’ve found two podcasts that are nicely calibrated to avoid those problems. Currently Reading and Reading Glasses are similar in structure, in that the hosts will talk about the books they are reading or have just finished, but then also address more general topic like remembering what you read, or the best tote bags for books, or how to get into books in translation or in a certain genre. And while I have definitely read things based on their recommendations–I read Piranesi after one of the Currently Reading hosts said it was basically a murder mystery–most of the time they describe books in such clear ways that I often end up deciding that the books they describe are not for me after all. Plus, these shows both manage to release an episode every week, so if you’re looking for book talk more often than the once-a-year schedule I seem to be working on, these could be for you!

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis
1946

I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.

The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.

It gave me so many thoughts.

I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.

Continue reading

Admissions

By Kendra James

I first heard about this book during Kendra James’ very funny guest stint on my favorite podcast “Yo, Is This Racist.” I highly recommend the episode, both because the hosts are always very funny and smart and because the stories James tells from the book got me hooked (granted after a few months). It is a memoir of her experience as the first Black legacy student at Taft, a fancy prep school in Connecticut, and the whole thing was a real eye-opener for me. In the early 2000s with nascent internet and social media, her high school experience was wildly different than mine, and it was often hard to parse whether that was due to the time period, the quality of the school, or race. Regardless, she captures this moment in her life with such detail that I really felt like I was getting a clear look into a life much different than mine.

On the one hand, I never really understood prep schools, feeling that at this point, for better or worse, most high schools sort of vaguely aim their students toward college instead of trade apprenticeships. However, James reveals the extraordinarily high level of guidance students at Taft got when applying for colleges, which really hammered home the extra privilege that makes these students much more likely to go to prestigious colleges and universities. (It also made me mad all over again about the college admissions bribery scandal, since they already had such a leg up!)

On the other hand, she was one of a handful of Black students in an overwhelmingly white school (in an overwhelmingly white state), and of course that came with a fairly constant barrage of aggressions, both micro and not so small. James is so funny overall in her writing that it came as a surprise how difficult some parts are to read. She does an equally skilled job at unpacking the oversized responsibility that is piled on all the students of color, who are also still so young and just coming into awareness of themselves and the world around them.

What struck me hardest from James’ memoir was how acutely James and other students of color could distinguish between individual racism, which was often more blatant, and systemic racism, which though more subtle, could hurt them in much wider ways. This really gets at what many white people, myself included, often don’t see: some rando shouting the n-word is disgusting, but a centuries-old institution requiring the Black, Latinx, and Asian students to continuously prove their worth to both their peers and much of the faculty is much more lastingly harmful. James and her fellow students of color recognized that immediately, and I felt bad that it took me so long into adulthood to begin to see the same thing.

I also have to admit that I recognized more of myself than I would have liked in her ignorant white classmates. My own high school was also very white, and while I did not actively hold racist beliefs, I just went with the cultural flow, and the flow in the Texas public school system was most definitely racist. Admissions gives a clear, fairly universal, real world example why not being racist isn’t enough, and why we need to aim to be anti-racist instead.

I only found out in the acknowledgements (for some reason, I’ve started reading them dedicatedly, and it feels somehow very middle aged of me) that James first began to write about her experiences on our beloved defunct website, The Toast!

Beware of Chicken by Casualfarmer

Beware of Chicken (Book 1)
by Casualfarmer
2022

This was a free online story posted serially that built a large enough following to get turned into a book. I actually read this (plus book 2, and several chapters of book 3 as well) on Royal Road earlier in the year before the author took a break to format and edit book one for publication. But since the online serial is still ongoing, this is a review of the ebook which has the distinction of being complete.

This book is absolutely ridiculous and also the quintessential pandemic lockdown book. It’s like The Swiss Family Robinson for anime lovers. Do you dream of leaving all the anxiety and stress of the world behind and go start a small farm that takes a lot of work to create but also is wildly, improbably successful? How about just have everything work out all right and be loved and respected as a powerful person while also being a friendly goof who enjoys life? There is no conflict that isn’t resolved nicely in our main character’s favor, with every protection that an author with world-building abilities can provide. This is the comfort book to end all comfort books.

The basic plot is that our main character, a guy from Canada, wakes up in a Xanxia (fantasy China with magic and demons and swords, etc.) in the body of Jin Rou, a lowly outer disciple of a great cultivation sect. Jin Rou is clearly fated to be the protagonist of an epic story — poor and abused, he will struggle and fight epic battles and rise to greatness, etc. — and our main guy decides to nope his way right out of that. He takes a quick exit from the top of that mountain temple, does his research to find the least dangerous, least magical location in the land and starts a farm. He still has the strength and speed of a disciple of a great cultivation sect, as well as the education of a modern farmer/handyman, so everything goes very well for him. He also has a rooster he calls Big D.

The rooster is the titular chicken of Beware of Chicken. This rooster does understand fantasy Chinese but not modern English, wakes up to being sentient and considers himself to be named Bi Di. It is also absolutely clear to him that he, Bi Di, is the first disciple of Jin Rou, a Hidden Master of great power. Bi Di rises to greatness, the farm is amazing, and absolutely everything is ridiculous. Jin Rou is the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, and absolutely nothing goes wrong.

A Splendid Ruin

By Megan Chance

Alison Green recommended this book a few weeks ago on her blog, Ask A Manager (one of my daily reads), and it sounded so gothic, fully of the secrets and decadence of the very wealthy, that I was hooked! It actually turned out to have unexpected similarities to The Maid, which I’d just previously read, both featuring fish-out-of-water protagonists who face serious endangerment from the society around them. In this case, May Kimble is an impoverished orphan who is invited to live with her estranged, extremely wealthy aunt and uncle after the death of her mother. Once there, she faces a whole slew of warning signs that she tries to explain away with her own inexperience.

Like The Maid but even more so, the tension ratchets up until the worst has happened, but then May faces the truth and finds her own strength in recover and it is very satisfying. It also has the subtlety and depth that I missed in The Maid, which in retrospect I think was the detail of the setting. Author Megan Chance gives 1900s San Francisco such color that it is almost its own character. The first half of the book leads up to the devastating fire that destroyed most of the city, and the second half occurs right afterwards, and Chance does an amazing job of bringing it all to life.

Every scene unfolded new and intriguing details about each individual character and the society as a whole. Between the vibrancy of the historical setting and the taut suspense of the impending doom, I truly couldn’t put this book down. I basically read it straight in three days in any free time I had, and then found the ending completely satisfying.

The Maid

By Nita Prose

I’d been on the waiting list for this book for several months, and when it finally came in, the librarian mentioned that it’s been coming in and out constantly. I’d heard it recommended as a mystery in the form of Agatha Christie, which of course sold me on it, but I’m not sure that I get the comparison, other than it is a mystery and a twisty one. Perhaps also that the narrating protagonist is as overlooked as Miss Marple often is?

Molly is a very skilled maid at a high-end hotel, and also very clearly autistic. I have no idea how accurate the author’s portrayal of autism is, but it certainly creates an interesting perspective. Whole scenes told one way in Molly’s perspective are clear to the reader as having entirely different interpretations under the surface that she’d not recognizing. Many of these are fairly unsubtle, but it does create an interesting puzzle for the reader to figure out exactly how is being missed or misinterpreted.

It’s a bit agonizing at times, to be honest. Molly is such a decent person, left on her own after the death of her grandmother and trying so hard, and we as the readers watch people manipulate and use her. Some scenes are vaguely funny, which made me a bit uncomfortable (Molly herself worries about not knowing if people are laughing with her or at her, and I sometimes wasn’t sure if I as the reader was, either), but more are depressing at the ugliness of people who will do anything to get even the slightest edge in life.

Fortunately this is balanced out by the charming handful of people who appreciate Molly and are ready to help when she finds herself in deep trouble. This begins when she finds a guest has died in one of the rooms, a wealthy man who had enough enemies to make his death suspicious. Molly’s unemotional reaction to it quickly attracts the attention of the police, so she and her growing number of friends scramble to discover what really happened before it can be pinned on her. I very much enjoyed the book, and read it within a few days, which is very quick for me, but the occasional lack of subtlety made the story feel somewhat unrefined in places. It has already been optioned for a movie due to come out next year, with the excellent Florence Pugh as the lead, which I think may actually be even better than the book. My sense is that the more obvious parts of the book will read better on screen than on the page, so I’m already eagerly anticipating the movie.

Silver in the Wood

By Emily Tesh

First off, I have to recommend Tor.com’s eBook club, where they basically just offer a free ebook (or three) each month. A few months ago, the offering was a compilation of Witchmark, All Systems Red, and Silver in the Wood. I’d already read and loved both Witchmark and All Systems Red, but it took me a little while to get around to reading Silver in the Wood. Well, I read it in two days, and loved it, too!

It is very short, under a hundred pages, so more of a novella, but it just feels very tidy, if that makes sense. The story actually feels a bit like an ancient forest, quiet and mystical. There are no extraneous flourishes: only a handful of characters and the entire story takes place in a cabin and the surrounding woods. As a reader we get the pertinent information as we need it, and I don’t want to give any of it away early here.

I will say that the book is separated into two parts, and I was surprised and delighted by the shift in tone between the two. Part I has a mild melancholy that I could sink into, and Part II had me laughing out loud on the first page. Because I was reading Silver in the Wood as part of a compilation, I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was in the book until I’d suddenly reached the end. It had a satisfying conclusion that fit the rest of the book, but I was sad not to have more. And then, I discovered it was the first in a duology!

Drowned Country

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the sequel nearly as well. I was so happy to revisit the people I’d loved so much in the first one, but a couple of years have gone by in the world, and things have fallen apart. The general tone of the book shifted from quietly melancholy to angsty, and there wasn’t much humor at all.

A big part of that shift was due to the change in protagonist. While both books are written in third person, one character’s internal thoughts and feelings are expressed, and I didn’t like the internal life of this book’s protagonist nearly as well. His general personality was a slight irritant to me throughout the book, even when other characters and events caught my attention.

And the plotline is interesting, if somewhat recursive of the previous book. The ending was satisfying enough, too, that I don’t regret reading the book. Our protagonist matured enough over the course of the story that I’d probably read a third sequel if one came out, though this seems pretty definitively a two-parter.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa, 2003
translated by Stephen Snyder, 2009

This was a very small and sedate novel, focusing on the characters, and experiencing the world through those characters, rather than any particular plot. It was also a quietly sad story about a successful friendship. It has the feel of a classic, or an archetype, helped by the way that none of the characters are named.

I rarely read books from the Literature genre, which might explain why this book felt so unique to me, but I think it really is unique. I rarely read Literature in part because I don’t tend to enjoy it, but I did like this one. Despite how different it was from other books I’ve read, or maybe because of it, my brain kept reminding me of other books that had some point of similarity.

It had a similarity in tone to the calmness of The Empress of Jade and Fortune. A scant handful of characters and a house. Nothing terrible happens in the book, and anything that happened in the past has been survived, by these characters at least.

The titular Professor reminded me of Paul Erdős from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, and also of Charlie Gordon in the later half of “Flowers for Algernon”. The professor is a mathematician who sees the deep beauty of numbers and also a brilliant man with a brain injury that he’s aware of and trying to compensate for. His injury prevents him from making new memories, so that every day he meets his housekeeper for the first time.

The book itself delves into some of the math puzzles and history that he tells to the housekeeper and her son, and shows how the housekeeper learns to appreciate the endless stability and mystery of the numbers as well, despite her not being particularly mathematically inclined. That aspect reminded me of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, a book that attempted to shoehorn a philosophy textbook into a novel and that I did not much care for. This book is somewhat more successful, I think, in including a few actual mathematics principles with explanations, and might be an interested way to introduce the concepts to a student.

The book is written in the first-person by the housekeeper, and her perspective is fascinating in its incompleteness. There are events in her own life as well as in the professor’s life that she never gets the full story for, and also doesn’t look for. It’s left to the reader to consider what we know or can guess but also put aside what we don’t know and live in the moment. The book as a whole felt like a wonderful and much needed break from the frantic plots and fraught relationships of much of my other reading. I really enjoyed it.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula via e-mail

I just discovered the existence of Dracula Daily:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel – it’s made up of letters, diaries, telegrams, newspaper clippings – and every part of it has a date. The whole story happens between May 3 and November 10. So: Dracula Daily will post a newsletter each day that something happens to the characters, in the same timeline that it happens to them.

Now you can read the book via email, in small digestible chunks – as it happens to the characters.

I just signed up for this and am really looking forward to it!

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Someone had recommended The Angel of the Crows as Sherlock fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, and as Rebecca pointed out, they weren’t filed off much. For me, though, this had the benefit of the book feeling immediately comfortable even in the unique setting. Set in an alternative Victorian Era, angels guard most of the public spaces of London, while their fallen numbers rampage in war zones. Doyle has returned from war in Afghanistan (a depressing constant) with incapacitating wounds and a couple of secrets that are slowly revealed over the course of the book, and finds housing with the titular Angel of the Crows, who solves mysteries to pass the time and keep London safe.

Doyle, of course, quickly gets roped into assisting the angel Crow, and both of them are so eminently likeable with their various flaws and idiosyncrasies, and their relationship was so sweet, I could have read twice as many stories of their adventures. Crow’s lack of understanding of many human traits makes much more sense and is much more sympathetic, coming from a literally unearthly being. Addison also builds off of a variety of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories, including the Hound of Baskerville and the Speckled Band, and I really enjoyed seeing the reinterpretations in a world where werewolves and vampires exist openly.

Rebecca read it first and warned me that the book has very episodic plotting, with many shorter cases solved within the arc of the longer Jack the Ripper investigation. Knowing what to expect, I read the book somewhat like a collection of short stories, and found that especially accessible, too. None of the mysteries were as complex as one would get in a single dedicated novel, but I could read one each night and then set the book down satisfied. It’s been such a nice end to my day all this week that I’ve got a bit of a book hangover now, even though my to-read stack is towering.