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

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 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.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

John Darnielle is the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, who I’d never actually listened to, and also a big supporter of and frequent guest on podcasts, which is where I heard of his new novel, Devil House. The main premise is that a true crime author moves into a house that was the scene of a supposed devil worship sacrifice during the satanic panic of the 80s, in order to immerse himself in the scene while writing about the event. Darnielle explained that he tried to construct the novel itself like a house, which I didn’t fully understand, and still don’t even after reading it. There certainly was a lot of description of the house, if that’s what it means?

This very lukewarm review is likely due to me as a reader, rather than the book itself, though it is also a much different book than I was expecting. This was just not the book for me (I also listened to a couple of Mountain Goats songs out of curiosity, and they were also Not For Me, so I guess that’s something learned all around). On the one hand, I was immersed enough in the entwined stories that at times I struggled to put the book down, and there was never any question in my mind about finishing it. On the other hand, I was viscerally and generally annoyed for pretty much the entire week I was reading it.

As much as I love mysteries, especially murder mysteries, I hate reading true crime. And this is not true crime, in itself, but I think Darnielle probably does a good job of mirroring it, while writing about his author. I had previously thought I didn’t like the sensationalizing of real victims in true crime, but as I read Devil House, I realized instead of any sort of lofty ideals, I really just find the psychological delving to be boring. I’d much rather read about solving the logistical puzzle of a mystery than the thoughts and emotions of the killers and victims, and there’s a lot of the latter in this novel.

The bulk of the book shifts between three time periods, our author in the present day researching his book, the double murder in the 80s, and a separate double murder in the 70s that was featured in the author’s breakout book. I kept waiting for there to be some connection revealed between the three, but I think Darnielle was trying to do something more subtle, and he was giving three ostensibly different examples that come at the same core message from different perspectives.

The book ends with a lengthy treatise on truth, stories, what gets remembered and what doesn’t, and what gets amplified in stories and what doesn’t. Darnielle writes all this with an universality (“we all…”) that captured much of my frustration with the book as a whole. I often felt like I was supposed to be reading something poignant and informative about how humans all relate to memories, but it didn’t match my relationship with my own past or memory at all. So it’s alienating, at the very least, to read what is clearly supposed to be a reflection of humanity overall, and to find it so strange and unfamiliar.

As an aside, I think the cover reflects all of my feelings very well: it is a really striking graphic design, but I realized pretty quickly that the house pictured on the cover doesn’t match the physical description in the book at all, which was a continual irritant.

Dreamland

By Nancy Bilyeau

I was positive that Kinsey had recommended this book to me, but when I texted her to tell her how much I was enjoying it, she was like, so, tell me about this book?

It’s a murder mystery, sort of: there’s definitely someone killing young women on the Coney Island boardwalk, but it is sort of in the background for most of the book. It’s also got a lot of the earmarks of gothic mystery: a very wealthy family with simmering tensions and a young woman trying to escape the strictures of the family.

The whole book is so delicately written: it is clearly much better to be super rich in New York in 1910 than it is to be super poor, but it still seems to suck pretty badly.  (It is probably by far the best to be comfortably middle class.) I didn’t expect myself to sympathize quite so much with such a wealthy and indulged protagonist, but Bilyeau does a great job of showing how imprisoning and insulating/isolating this level of wealth does. Peggy wants very much to be a good person, but her very existence within the power that her family’s wealth yields is a threat to everyone around her not equally protected by wealth.

After being coerced by her family into attending a summer retreat to Brooklyn shore, she falls into a star-crossed romance with an immigrant artist on the boardwalk. As her naivety with the everyday struggles of the rest of the world threatens his life and livelihood, I did wonder what exactly he saw in her. Peggy is incredibly sympathetic, but not always likeable, and I credit the writing immensely for that. She has such good intentions and tries so hard, but often falls back into arrogance and selfishness in times of stress. It illustrates so well how this type of upbringing can be corrupting despite one’s best intentions. (For me, the artist, Stefan, was the weakest character, sort of an unrealistic ideal that made me grudgingly suspect him of fortune-hunting, agreeing with many of the other characters.)

I did think the ending fell a little short of the suspense leading up. The more I read, the greater appreciation I have for mystery authors – it is really hard to set up a puzzle and then pull off a solution that fits all the pieces while still being a surprise at the end. It’s a rarer skill than I’d realized, and this book doesn’t quite meet it, but it doesn’t negate the beautifully atmospheric pages leading up to it.

Also, I recommend the final author’s note, since her description of which real-life people and places she based characters and settings on is fascinating!

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

The Last Graduate
Lesson Two of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
September 28, 2021

I loved the first book in this series, A Deadly Education, which was listed as book one of two, and I loved this one which is listed as book two of three, and I cannot wait until book three comes out! Because this book was a game changer and then ended immediately after the climax, so there’s none of the fall-out. It’s not exactly a cliff-hanger in the normal sense of it, because it does come to a successful conclusion, but oh man, what happens next???

In the previous book, our main character El, had finally started to make a few rare friends and form alliances. Her magic affinity is for large-scale destruction which makes the growing up process really difficult and in a school with a 1-in-7 survival rate, life is already extremely difficult. But when your school is much coveted for it’s survival rate which is so much higher than the 1-in-100 rate of anywhere else for adolescent magicians, clearly some large scale destruction to change the whole situation would not necessarily be a bad thing, if only it were properly directed.

There’s a pattern that I don’t see nearly often enough in books of having the resolution fundamentally change the world (preferably for the better, but really, at all.) Most conflicts get shown against an encroaching evil that is threatening the status quo, or alternately fighting against an evil that is currently in power so as to revert to a previous status quo. There’s something very freeing for the reader and impressive from the author to saying: the current situation is bad and the previous situation was bad too and we’re going to aim for something entirely new and different and better than anything before.

I imagine it doubles the amount of world-building that the author has to figure out, but it’s worth it! Plus, Novik is absolutely fabulous at world-building both in the large scale issues and in the constant little details of real world living that is both delightful and hilarious. Seeing the characters struggling to figure out how to live in the current situation but also find the space to think about how to change and what to change is so good and inspiring. After years of learning to accept a constant attrition rate of deaths, it’s hard for the students to learn to care again, not to mention embarrassing to admit that caring to a population just as trained against it. But they manage! And it is glorious!

This book is just so good on so many levels and made me so giddy that I had to immediately go back and reread the first book and then reread this one again. Just, so good!

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.

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!