Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing

By Lauren Hough

I first read Lauren Hough in her eye-opening expose of life as a “cable guy,” which is also where I learned that some people refuse to let service workers in their home use their bathrooms, and am now very explicit about inviting them to, if needed. I immediately followed her on twitter, where she is very smart and funny, and very occasionally mentions that she grew up in a cult. I’d always thought she meant it hyperbolically, like her family was very conservatively religious, but then she announced her book of essays which would cover growing up in the Children of God cult. I thought oh shit, and then immediately preordered straight from the publisher.

And, whew, this book has such a strong narrative flow that I couldn’t put it down, but then also my head was so full of thoughts and feelings that at the same time I wanted to take a moment to process them all. Each essay connects so seamlessly with the next that I also kept forgetting it wasn’t a single narrative and was slightly puzzled (though not bothered) by the jumps back and forth in chronology. While the essays are all autobiographical, they are sorted by themes rather than chronologically. So, there is some really interesting recursion, where Hough revisits the same events in different essays, reflecting on them in different ways. It feels like Hough is sharing her own recovery with us, circling closer to the trauma that came out of her upbringing, coming at it from different directions to make ultimate sense of the whole. It feels raw and personal in a way that I’m not sure I’ve read before.

Hough relates all of this in a matter-of-fact voice that reminded me a bit of the noir style of writing, actually. Like, the world can be a terrible place where terrible things happen, but individuals just do the best they can in the circumstances given them. And that, while systems and organizations are inevitably corrupt, the connections you make with other people can be life savers. It’s an odd combination of grim and comforting at the same time, and I love it in noir and I love it here.

Murderbot by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells were originally an (amazingly wonderful) four-part series of novellas that I already posted about here and here. But since then, there have been developments!

A stand-alone novel: Network Effect (2020)
A fifth novella: Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

I have been a bit off from reading books recently, just feeling sluggish and unable to focus, and then I was reminded that the newest book in this series was being published on April 27, 2021. So I started reading the previous book, Network Effect, that I had bought and loaded on my kindle when it first came out in May 2020 but never read (because sluggish and unable to focus), and it was a great! Are you living in a dystopia and just want to watch fiction all day? Well, Murderbot does too but they still have friends (some of whom are assholes, which is probably for the best because Murderbot is also an asshole) and then plot and events happen and it all works out, more or less, and there’s uncomfortable character growth and development that is hilarious and awkward and so exciting! It left me extremely excited about the new release.

Then I had to re-read the others in order to prepare for the latest.

I was a bit disappointed at first that Fugitive Telemetry was set before Network Effect rather than after, but then I discovered that it was a straight up murder mystery and there’s no room for disappointment. (Also, I can hope that when there is a sequel to Network Effect, it will be another novel instead of a novella!) I bought this story as soon as it was available and finished it within a day and it was fabulous! Murder mystery on a space station! Murderbot is suspicious about assassination attempts on their people! Station security is suspicious of Murderbot! They must work together to find out what happened!

As I was thinking about writing this post, I discovered two short stories that I had completely missed the existence of:

Compulsory” (2019), a single scene set before all of the previous stories, while Murderbot was still doing their regular assigned job and only on episode 44 of their favorite soap opera, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, watching it for the first time!
home: habitat, range, niche, territory” (2020), set before Fugitive Telemetry and, for the first time, following a different perspective, showing a slice of life of Dr. Ayda Mensah

So just, in general, I love this series so much!

It was also fun to discover, the day after Fugitive Telemetry came out, that I had curated my tumblr account well enough that I was seeing other fan responses to the release, and it made me so happy. Examples here and here and here.

Point of Hopes

By Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

Melissa Scott may be my new favorite author, and I just ran across her by chance when browsing SmashWords.* I am so, so happy to have found her now, but also wish I’d had her on my bookshelf decades ago. Point of Hopes reminds me of the books I loved as a kid, Patricia C. Wrede and Andre Norton in particular, but with more detailed and progressive world building. This is the first in a five novel series, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so thoroughly drawn into world!

First, the whole society is built around a complex astrology system. Major events and decisions are scheduled around fortuitous star positions, and birth charts can determine individuals’ job and status. For instance, if you have water signs, you will make a better sailor, and if you don’t, captains are much less likely to hire you on. Our main protagonist is the equivalent of a police officer (strong presence of planets in justice signs), and while he investigates several minor crimes as the novel establishes the setting and characters, he is then assigned to the major case of a recent slew of missing children and the simmering anger and panic it is causing throughout the city.

Speaking of simmering anger and panic, this novel (written in 1995!) features a neighborhood convinced that a foreign-run pub is somehow hiding the missing children, despite no evidence from repeated searches, eventually culminating in an armed attack. I seriously had to check the publication date again (which actually gets a little confusing, because I think it was first published in print in 1995, and then later e-published in 2012).**

Second, while the society is strictly stratified by class and the culture most closely matches the late Middle Ages in Europe, it is all subtly matriarchal. The author has a nice show-don’t-tell style, so the society comes together in bits and pieces through the perspective of our solidly middle-class protagonists. There is a queen, who is childless and expected to name a female relative as heir to the throne, and the highest positions in society, such as the city council, are predominately held by women. Overall, though, both gender and sexuality are unrestricted. Our secondary protagonist is a soldier recently decommissioned in the city, under suspicion as an outsider, but fully acknowledged and accepted as bisexual. A relationship between the two protagonists evolves over the series, but the first book simply introduces their friendship.

*SmashWords is one of the primary alternatives to Amazon for self-published authors. The website is fairly clunky and difficult to navigate, but they give the authors 85% of sales, which is worth it to me.

** I am almost positive that the eBook was generated with an automated text reader, since there are unfortunately a number of typos that would come from that process: corner turning into comer,  and ever into even, for instance.

The Postscript Murders

By Elly Griffiths

I previously reviewed The Stranger Diaries, and promptly requested the sequel, published just last year. Griffiths wisely doesn’t try the same trope of an embedded mystery story within the novel, but instead creates a sort of homage to mystery novels, their authors, and readers, and I liked it even more!

An elderly retiree dies of seemingly natural causes, but her somewhat highly-strung caretaker, already uneasy over the death, finds a business card next to the body for a “murder consultant.” She brings her concerns to Detective Harbinder Kaur, who begins to look into it partly out of curiosity and partly because the caretaker is persistent, beautiful, and flirty.

Like The Stranger Diaries, the narrative rotates through four perspectives: Detective Kaur, the practical one trying to maintain a balanced perspective; Natalka, the caretaker excited for the adventure of an investigation; Edwin, the urbane neighbor of the deceased in their retirement home; and Benny, the shy owner of a local coffee shop. Whereas before the different perspectives lead to shocking reveals, The Postscript Murders is more like a screwball comedy, which I absolutely adore!

The mismatched group together dive into an investigation of what might not be murder at all, stirring up suspicious reactions right and left, and culminating in a road trip to a mystery authors convention. Throughout the book and especially in the convention setting, Griffiths is able to gently spoof mystery writers and readers, which combined with the delightful characters, is laugh-out-loud funny.

Griffiths is doing a lot here, and I felt the ending wasn’t quite as neat a solution as I like in mysteries, but that is a small bone to pick with an overall truly delightful novel.

Who Is Ana Mendieta? by Redfern & Caron

Who Is Ana Mendieta?
by Christine Redfern & Caro Caron
introduction by Lucy R. Lippard
2011

This is a relatively short but extremely full and dense graphic novel. It’s a biography of an artist, but also a window into an artistic movement, and also a true crime tragedy, and also a demonstration of how systemic prejudice works to keep a whole demographic down. The particular art styles of both the book and the art movement that it describes are not ones that I particularly enjoy (a lot of shock value and intentionally disturbing imagery), and yet, I still highly recommend the book. It was a reminder to me of what second-wave feminism was trying to accomplish and the context it was working in.

Ana Mendieta was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, moved to the US in 1961, and died violently in 1985 (her husband was indicted for murder three times by a jury, and acquitted three times by a judge who then sealed the records.) During her life, Mendieta was a rising star in the art world and making waves. But the book also points out that she, like so many women before her, had to be their own firsts, breaking the glass ceiling, not because there hadn’t been women before her, but because the existence of those women was and is so regularly denied. This book itself is an effort to not have Ana Mendieta suffer the same fate, not just of death but of being quietly brushed aside, leaving art history to continue as a history of male artists.

So all of this to say: this book is educational, distasteful, enraging, and important.

The Stranger Diaries

By Elly Griffiths

Book cover for Stranger Diaries

Mysteries follow trends just like everything else, really. The reason “the butler did it” is such a cliché now is that for a while it was the big surprise in mysteries, that the ‘invisible’ servant in the background could be the culprit! Then there was the investigator being the murderer, leading pretty directly to the unreliable narrator. We seem to now be in a surge (resurgence?) of meta-mysteries, murder mysteries that hinge on other murder mystery novels.

In previous years, I’ve certainly read plots with allusions to other books, of course, but I think what makes this recent iteration stand out is that that the full content of this sub-book or story is embedded in the novel. Magpie Murders was my first experience with this, and probably the most notable, and it seems to me that Elly Griffiths is very much playing off it here. I don’t mean to call The Stranger Diaries derivative, because I think it is an extremely clever structure, and I look forward to reading a bunch of different authors’ takes on this trend.

The Stranger Diaries actually mixes things up pretty intriguingly by rotating through narrators including: the inspector, a smart and no-nonsense policewoman; the friend of the victim, a fellow English teacher at the local prep school; that friend’s daughter who attends the school; and finally a short horror story written by a somewhat obscure author who used to live in the school a century ago. If that seems like a lot and a bit of a jumble, it is, but it also works.

First the detective is a wonderfully practical woman who has worked her way up to a respected position as both an Indian and lesbian woman in a British police department, and she provides our most unbiased view of events. The friend and fellow teacher is more closely involved with both the victim and all the other teachers (suspects) at the school, and gets at more of the emotional impact of the crime and investigation. She is also researching and writing a book about the horror author, giving us some more background into clues that seem to tie the story to the crime. Her daughter, then, reveals undercurrents among the students of the school that are invisible to basically all adults around them. So, it isn’t exactly unreliable narrator for any of them, but just really highlights that everyone can only see a situation from their own perspective, and one can only get a more complete picture by piecing all those different perspectives together.

I’d previously read Elly Griffiths’ Magic Men series, and this book just reinforced for me how good she is at characters. They are all quite likeable while still being flawed each in their own distinct ways. I think I’ve described Griffith’s writing this way before, but though they aren’t “cozy mysteries,” strictly speaking, they feel like comfortable mysteries. Everyone (except the victim, of course) is going through their life, doing the best they can, and mostly getting by pretty well. It’s dramatic enough to keep it interesting but not overly stressful or grim. It hit the sweet spot of what I’m looking for in these already stressful times, and I’ve already put a hold on the sequel.

The Goblin Emperor

A friend once told me that he had improved his life by deciding that he would never again read a book that started with a map. I have a similar philosophy about books that start with a list of characters. If there are going to be so many people with such complicated names that I won’t be able to keep up with all them without a family tree, I am not going to have the bandwidth to enjoy the story.

And then there’s the common issue with fantasy books that Justin McElroy so neatly summarized in this tweet:

Exactly! Just tell me who has the sword and get on with it! I will never remember which mountain range the trolls originally came from! By these measures, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison should absolutely not have worked for me. It starts with a glossary and a pronunciation guide and a chapter that reads like a description of elven culture from a Lonely Planet guide. Ten pages in I was deeply skeptical. But once I got swept up into the story I was so invested that I stayed up until 2:00 AM on a Tuesday because I was so desperate to find out what to this teenage half-goblin/half-emperor I had gotten so attached to.

Maia is the youngest son of the emperor of a kingdom of elves, but after his goblin mother dies he is exiled to the far edge of the empire and largely forgotten about. Until his father and older brothers are all killed in a airship crash. Overnight Maia becomes emperor and is thrust into the intrigue of a royal court he had never been allowed to even visit. He must master everything from dinner with his advisors to foreign relations to infrastructure development, all while trying to figure out who he can trust and who might take the opportunity to overthrow a teenage ruler with no allies. But Maia is smart and kind and determined to do things differently than his father. He never really wanted to be emperor, but once he gets there he is determined to do the best job he can, and I found myself very invested in his success and well-being.

If you are reader of a certain age, chances are you grew up spending a lot of time in used bookstores, unearthing weird old dusty paperback fantasy novels that you could buy for 25 cents. The Goblin Emperor reminds me of those books in so many ways–it has the timeless feel of a classic. But it’s also a book written by a woman in the last decade, which gives it a refreshingly modern twist. Maia would never talk about “social justice,” but he is a mixed-race ruler who doesn’t understand why he should be making decisions that benefit rich nobility rather than his poorest subjects. As a modern-day reader, classic sci-fi and fantasy sometimes has to be read through gritted teeth as it casually drops weird racist and sexist ideas. It was a pleasure to read a classic fantasy story that reflected ideas of equality and justice.

The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, but I’m glad I came across it now, because in June a sequel is being released and I will be first on the list for it.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Coming-of-age court intrigue

You might also like: We’ve talked about the Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner so many times that I almost hate to mention it again, but those books are wonderful and feature the same sort of twisty negotiations and constantly shifting alliances. But I would also recommend the television series The Great on Hulu, which tells the story of Catherine the Great’s introduction to the Russian court in a quite darkly comedic way.

Mumbo Jumbo

By Ishmael Reed

This book is something else! I picked it up on the basis of a short summary: during the Jazz age, a new dance takes people over uncontrollably, sweeping through the country. And yeah, I guess that’s sort of the basic structure that holds everything else together, but it is only the top gloss of a truly sprawling narrative.

In sheer scope of characters and plot lines, Mumbo Jumbo reminded me of Infinite Jest (though much shorter, only 217 pages), and after the most rudimentary of research (Wikipedia), I think it may exemplify postmodernism. Wikipedia defines postmodern literature as a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. Mumbo Jumbo checks off every last one of those, and truly deserves to be taught alongside Pynchon, Wallace, and the rest. I only wish I’d been able to participate in a class or even a book club to go through this novel in detail!   

Reed weaves so many allusions to historical, political, and cultural events throughout the plot (and even the occasional off-hand comment) that I’m sure I missed at least half of them. The ones that I caught, at least enough to follow up on with more research (Wikipedia again) were fascinating! For example, one of the plotlines revolves around Warren Harding’s run for president and people’s concern over his Black ancestry, which was a new one for me! I looked it up and it appears to have been a rumor spread by his unhappy father-in-law (debunked by DNA testing in 2015). On the other hand, every new fact about Warren Harding I read was completely bonkers, so I highly recommend reading both his and his wife Florence Harding’s Wikipedia pages.

Other plotlines include three Harlem mystics, devotees of different beliefs, in an amicable competition for believers (at least one of whom is possibly classic hotep?); art heists of European and US museums to return artifacts to their original countries; newspapers being used to send secret messages and either foment or quell various rebellions; a Haitian routing of a US invasion; among others. Each plot has a good half dozen characters with occasional overlap, all creating an extremely complicated but entertaining web.

I worry that I’m making this sound like slog, but while it wasn’t a quick read, the whole novel is also both very funny and emotionally engrossing. I really cared about the protagonists and their endeavors, and dreaded the machinations of the antagonists. The humor is both absurd and bitingly satiric, and the laser sharp cultural criticism still extremely resonant today.

illustrated travelogues

These books make me yearn for the open road. I don’t really enjoy hiking and I haven’t traveled much in a while even before the whole world went into various levels of quarantine but having read/looked through these two beautiful books about traveling the countryside by bicycle and by foot, I yearn. The complete impossibility of doing this myself makes the yearning all the stronger, since it doesn’t have to confront the fact that I like my creature comforts a bit too much for camping.

You & A Bike & A Road
by Eleanor Davis
2017

I received this book as a Christmas present in 2020 and read it within days. It’s basically a copy of the author’s sketch-pad/diary that she kept while making a cross-country bicycle trip from Tuscan, Arizona where her parents live to her home with her husband in Athens, Georgia. The pages are little illustrations of her experiences with short descriptions to show her thoughts. She’s struggling with depression and this is a way for her to get out of her head and try something new and difficult. While the main plot, such as it is, is her personal journey – both physical and emotional – it’s also dotted with stories of the people she comes across at the various resting points. As much as the journey works for Davis, it works for the reader too, to vicariously experience the weirdness, exhaustion, and exhilaration of making this attempt, and get out of my own head too.

The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido
by Hiroshige
1833-1834
published by Heibonsha Ltd, 1960

I received this book for Christmas in 2019, and worked though it in its and starts over the course of a year. The 55 illustrations in this series, showing images from Edo to Kyoto with the 53 stages of the Tokaido in between, are enchanting and lure me into thinking it’s a journey I would like to take. The Tokaido is a 320-mile-long road in Japan that the governments have maintained for centuries, connecting two of the country’s major cities. This set of woodblock prints by Hiroshige romanticizes each stage of the trip – the gorgeous vistas, the exciting markets, the specialized restaurants, and even the uncertain weather – and establishes his reputation as an artist at the same time. The scenes are both gorgeous and fascinating and the way they show calm water and raging storms and mountains both near and far just makes something in my mind un-tense for a little bit.

This specific publication of the illustrations also comes with short descriptions of each which were both helpfully informative and occasionally unintentionally funny. These captions vary between describing the locations (how the stages worked and which services and resources were there), describing the subject matter (what type of people were being shown and what interactions were taking place), and describing the artwork itself (letting me know which ones I should appreciate more than others, in case I wasn’t appreciating them correctly). What I considered particularly funny was the contrast between the detailed discussion regarding exactly when a particular image was set based on the presence of famous travelers versus how casually the descriptions discuss the artistic license used with both the events being shown and even the physical geography of other images that rearranged, removed, or created whole mountains for the aesthetic. But regardless of how much or little accuracy they may have, they are all lovely and intriguing.

In a time when it’s been nearly a full year of staying in my house with a single exciting trip to a grocery store every other week, these books were a chance to imagine a freedom of movement that comes with its own pros and cons, but feels so refreshing just to think about.

The Last Ghost Series

By M Dressler

I See You So Close

Book cover for I See You So Close

I read a teaser that this was a small town murder mystery but with a twist: the investigating protagonist is a ghost disguised as a human! I was immediately hooked, wondering how does a ghost disguise themselves as a human?! It wasn’t until I had it in my hands that I realized it’s a sequel (I’ve done this before). I decided that it looked like it was enough of a reset in plotting that I could start with it, and the author does a fairly skillful job of getting any new readers up to speed, I thought.

Our protagonist ghost, Emma Rose, is traveling west to outrun ghost hunters, and it quickly established that this is a world in which everyone is aware of the existence of ghosts, but enough of the living find them troubling that ghost hunters are sent to “blast” them much as one would bring in an exterminator. So, I’m sympathetic to our protagonist’s wariness around humans, but her trigger finger to just kill them before they try anything makes me think the ghost hunters are probably all for the best.

Emma Rose ends up in a small town so wholesome and welcoming it immediately sent up a whole bushel of red flags for me, though it takes her a bit longer to realize that there is a dark secret lurking in its gold rush-era history. It is a really interesting look at what life and existence means, whether in current or after-life, and whether a “live and let live” philosophy should be extended to those not actually currently living. For me, the characters seemed a little flat, not stereotypes exactly, more just simplified, and the plot somewhat fussy and over complicated. Additionally, I found the language a bit stilted, and even wondered whether it was the fault of a weak translation, but not only does that not seem to be the case, the various cover blurbs raved about the poetics of the language.

The Last to See Me

HOWEVER, I went back to read the first novel, and it is so much better! It is much more introspective, focusing on the parallel plots of Emma Rose in life leading to her death, and her afterlife as she works through what this existence means, both to her and others. It all takes place in the same small coastal town in which she lived and died, with a much smaller cast of characters, so the book can really delve into the themes of life, freedom, and justice in really powerful ways. Both novels are told in first person by Emma Rose, who is complicated enough to be not necessarily likeable, which gives some really nice philosophical depth to this first book. I think this same narration may have contributed to some of the flatness of the other characters in the sequel, since they are only really seen through Emma Rose’s eyes and thoughts.


Between reading these two books out of order, my twitter feed was full of  SF/F twitter justifiably furious at a reviewer for panning a sequel for not standing alone, leading to this extremely thorough and entertaining takedown. For many reasons, I did not commit nearly her level of insult (I’m writing on my personal blog with a small audience, these are not epic fantasy novels, etc.), but even in this case, it really brought home to me what a disservice I’d done to both books. I think the second book isn’t as good as the first, but now I’ll never have a chance to read that second book fresh but with the knowledge of the first behind it, so I can’t ever be sure. I enjoyed the first book much more than the second, but I think I would have liked it even more without the spoilers I picked up from the second.