The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho
2020

This novella is described as a found-family wuxia* fantasy, so obviously I had to read it immediately. It was also a reminder to check in on this author whose previous books I’ve really enjoyed. This novella was really good and fit in quite well with both The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

It’s amusingly laid-back in tone given how action-packed it is. It’s full of twists and turns despite being quite short. The writing is a work of art and also hilarious; the characters and relationships are complex and play with expectations and stereotypes; and the world building is rich without being dense.

Having read it along with the Hugo-nominated novellas that Anna recently reviewed, it’s solidly grouped with them in my mind as also having been nominated since it was just as good and just as distinct. I highly recommend all of them!

* Wuxia is a genre of Chinese martial arts story that I’ve recently watched a lot of.

Hugo-Nominated Novellas

I’m usually not a fan of novellas (they often feel to me like bare outlines of better, longer books), but after reading Nghi Vo’s two last year, I was ready to reconsider. The Empress of Salt and Fortune won the 2021 Hugo novella category, and since I loved that one so much, I decided to check out some of the others. These authors have definitely proved me wrong – with each one, I paused multiple times to just take in fully how good it was! And honestly, right now, being less than 200 pages is perfect for my attention span.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

I had first read Clark with his short story, A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which I highly recommend – he has a companion novella, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and a sequel novel, which I hope to read soon, set in the same magical, steampunk world. They are fun, adventurous murder mysteries with fantastical elements.

Ring Shout is a bit of a divergence, set in Georgia in 1922 during the rise of the KKK, but still maintains the exciting pace of an adventure story, as well as a wide variety of delightful characters. Clark masterfully balances the reverberating horrors of slavery with a celebration of Black life and resilience. Instead of a harrowing look at the evils perpetrated by white supremacy, he focuses on our resistance heroes who triumph against both earthly and other-worldly aggressions.

More subtly, he weaves in themes of how fear and anger can corrupt into hate, on all sides no matter how righteous or justified, and I definitely needed to do some self-reflection after reading.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

The tagline for this is “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” and it is perfect! Set in a Gilead-like dystopian future, restrictive gender and hetero-normative identity has been enforced by an authoritarian government. Our protagonist runs away from her stifling home life to join the Librarians, who disperse government-approved literature throughout the country, among other things.

Another exciting adventure story, with Western overtones, since horses and wagons have once again become the norm, with the limited cars and fuel being reserved for military use. Along with the protagonist, we get to know better the other librarians, and their role in a larger-scale resistance movement. Like Ring Shout, it is exciting, suspenseful, and ultimately hopeful.

FINNA by Nino Cipri

FINNA is set in a fictional IKEA, and I’m not sure a better dystopian setting exists. Ava and Jules are co-workers and recent exes who must awkwardly work together to rescue a customer from a wormhole, which apparently not infrequently opens in random big Scandinavian furnishing stores. Another enthralling adventure as the duo have to cross through several multiverses, with a very funny but pointed satire of capitalist grind and work culture.

Each world is a fascinating look at how trade and commerce can play out in society, diverging farther from the US standard the further our protagonists go, but I have to say that the laugh-out-loud funniest parts for me were in the prime store and all the very accurately satirized agony of working retail.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by El-Mohtar and Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War
by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
2019

This is a fascinating book that has both time travel and a branching universe physics as the background to a war between monolith entities, and all of that as a background to the relationship that builds/grows between Red and Blue, the respective top agents of each side. They are each other’s main foe and foil and the book starts when they begin an unsanctioned correspondence.

The authors make the extremely good decision to not explain how the technology works, or the physics of the universe, since that would simply bog down and distract from the relationship that is the focus. And so the hints and peaks of that background are little teasers that define a rich background and could act as prompts for a hundred other stories. But this story is about two agents who are closer to each other as enemies than they are to their allies, comrades, or commanders.

How, and why, (and when!) that relationship develops has it’s own twists and turns. While this is not a long book (less than 200 pages), there were several points where I thought I knew how it was going to go and then it twisted away in such a manner that was both completely unexpected and yet entirely perfect and how had I not seen that coming?

A good portion of the book consists of the letters that Red and Blue send to each other, so there are also three distinct voices in the text: Red, Blue, and the third-person omniscient narration that alternates which character it’s following. While the letters sometimes get a bit florid for my taste, it’s also interestingly true to the characters who write them.

This is a beautiful and fascinating story and I definitely recommend it.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
by Mira Jacob
2019

This is a very good book. It’s made up of illustrated conversations that the author had with various people in her life — her young son, her aging parents, her brother, her friends, her boyfriends and girlfriends, her husband, her extended family, her in-laws — skipping backward and forward through time. It starts out cute and funny but with heart and then keeps going, right for the heart. It never loses the cute, but it gets pretty serious.

The author is a dark-skinned child of Indian immigrants, born and raised in New Mexico, who moved to NYC to become a writer. She lives in NYC, married to a Jewish man, and with a son just old enough to watch the news as Trump runs for election. The conversations address and illustrate a number of issues — racism and colorism, expectations and dreams, personal identity and political division — from a very personal perspective. The central theme of the book is how can she be honest with her child, preparing him for the world and raising him to be a good person, while also protecting him from the pain of a world that’s not going to be as kind to him as he deserves. In many ways, it reminds me of Coates’ Between the World and Me.

One of the real strengths of this book, that comes from Jacob’s use of dialogue, is how it presents these complex interactions without attempting to simplify or explain them. It’s all friends and family and lived experiences. As she explains to her son on page 85: “We’re in the middle place where sometimes we get treated badly and sometimes we do it to other people. But I mean, that’s not the end of the world, right? Knowing we’ve got room for improvement?” To which her young son Z replies: “I’d rather just be the good guys.” (Me, too, kid. Me, too.)

As the memoir of a living women still very much in her prime, this book doesn’t really come to any conclusions other than the need to continue on, trying to find a way to make the world better than it currently is and trust that loved ones can be better too. It ends with a kind of grim determination to keep trying.

The Chosen and the Beautiful

By Nghi Vo

Nghi Vo must have had this novel in the chamber ready to go, because it was published mere months after The Great Gatsby left copyright in January 2021. So, to brush off my decades-old literature degree, The Great Gatsby is basically a character study of one man, the titular Jay Gatsby, and the character is also more a metaphor for the corrupting deception of the “American Dream” than an fleshed out person. There’s a lot of room to fill out the lives, thoughts, and feelings of all the characters, and Nghi Vo does that very well.

The narrator is Jordan, the thinnest of the central five characters in the original, so with the most room for creative exploration, and Nghi Vo sure takes advantage of that! She’s now Vietnamese, adopted as an infant by a wealthy white missionary, and now in young adulthood doing her best to ignore anything that makes her stand out from the other bright young things. She is also untrained but agile in the Eastern magic of paper cutting, and this magical element is what really diverges from the source.

It is mostly incidental to the plot but fascinating, and there were several times where I wish the novel had thrown out the source plot entirely to just explore this magical and much more diverse world. On the one hand, the multi-dimensional Jordan, Nick, Daisy, and Tom are more interesting to read about in detail (Gatsby remains a bit of an enigma); on the other hand, those details somewhat undo the pivotal central message and theme of the original.

The very act of adding dimension negates the sense of a flat façade that Fitzgerald created, but Nghi Vo also plays with that idea in interesting, and occasionally very literal ways, as with the magical paper cutting creating animated illusions. I think in the end, I found the book more interesting than enjoyable, and not up to the very high standards of her previous two novellas, which Rebecca reviewed last year, but with all that, I still think it is well worth the read.

Clean by Michael De Jong

Clean: the humble art of zen-cleansing
by Michael De Jong
2007

This author reminds me of Marie Kondo in that he is crazy obsessive regarding his particular field of interest but also cheerfully understanding of how few other people share his joy. Luckily, like Kondo, he is happy to share the results of his obsession to help make other people’s lives easier.

He makes the solid argument that there are a lot of chemical cleaners for sale for increasingly specific uses and also increasingly long lists of dangers and side-effects to using them. Instead of spending large quantities of money on a vast assortment of supplies while hoping that you don’t accidentally recreate chlorine gas, it’s better to go back to basics with five essential cleaning ingredients: baking soda, borax, lemon, salt, and white vinegar.

The first 14 pages of the book are cleaning chart and indexing listing, in alphabetic order, all the types of cleaners you might want and which of the five ingredients is best to be used for that role and which page it’s discussed on. The next 14 pages are about the author and his philosophy of cleaning. After that, each ingredient has it’s own two-page spread on history and basic usage, and a slew of suggestions and life tricks on particular uses, each no more than a single short paragraph.

Physically, it’s also a cute little book, only 130 pages.

I got this book out of the library but I’m thinking of buying a copy to have on hand. It was interesting to read straight through, but seems like it would be more useful as a reference. Some of the recommendations seem so miraculous that I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t actually work, but everything seemed good to know and well worth a try.

Not Getting Murdered by Johnson & Cooper

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village
by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
2021

I got this as a Christmas present right before dinner and finished it within a couple of hours, while also eating vast quantities of good food, hanging out with family. This is not a long or dense book. It is hilarious!

It’s clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and also by the whole genre of murder mysteries set in quaint English villages. Especially the long series’ where the amateur detective solves a murder mystery in their home village for each book, and the deaths sure do add up. In a very light-hearted and dark-humored way, this lists all the stereotypical places, peoples, and events of small quaint villages and how murderous they manage to be. (For example: if there are any vats described in the text of a book, it’s almost certainly because someone drowned in it. For safety: stay away from vats!)

The illustrations are frequent and the text is sparse, and it’s hilarious and morbidly adorable. There are also quizes! What do you do in each situation to survive the events? Each of them like a tiny choose-your-own-adventure! Hahahaha! I love this book so much!

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, by Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water
written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson
illustrated by Nikkolas Smith
2021

This is a children’s picture book that was part of The 1619 Project and it is beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated, and addresses a difficult but vitally important topic in an age-appropriate manner.

The framing story starts with a young child being given a class assignment to write out their family tree. However, while their white peers are able to go back many generations and list which countries their families came from, this black student can only list three generations and feels ashamed. The main focus of the book is the history of that student’s family that starts with joy and culture and rich history in Africa, goes through great suffering and hardship with kidnapping and enslavement in America, but still perseveres, fights, and survives to live on in the student today. It gives a message that survival in the face of trauma is to be celebrated. Black Americans have a great deal to be proud of in their African roots and their American survival and their achievements – past, present, and future.

I’m particularly impressed with the way this book shows centuries of American slavery as the middle part of the history of the student’s ancestors. Slavery was long and harsh and transformational, but it was not the start of their history and it was not the end of it.

This is clearly intended for a young audience, but I highly recommend it for adults as well, not just for the pure artistry of the writing and illustrations, but also for the soft discussion of a difficult topic.

Meddling Kids

By Edgar Cantero

Just read the blurb for this and see if you aren’t intrigued! I immediately put a hold on it and was eagerly anticipating its arrival, but upon reading quickly realized that it’s not really my thing. I get what Cantero is trying to do and I think it is really interesting, but for me, it doesn’t quite work. He wants both a winky satire/nostalgia piece and a dark, shocking horror/mystery, and they each undercut the other.

The first 50 pages were a bit of a slog, as Cantero set up the characters and setting. He really, really likes a simile, and I can’t say that I feel the same. Not everything has be like something else! Some things are just themselves! And often the similes got so convoluted, it actually obstructed understanding rather than assisted: “The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.” What does that even mean?! “From the mining equipment buried in that station like implausible goodies found inside pyramids and hellgates for the use of video game characters, Andy picked up a few items she deemed useful.” Sigh.

Once the action picks up after about a hundred pages, I started enjoying it more for the plot itself. The characters are likeable enough once the author stops rhapsodizing over their physical and mental attributes. The plot really is a good one, too, flipping the standard cartoon final reveal of a man-in-a-mask to become a façade covering something much darker.

Meddling Kids would make a brilliant movie (with a pretty serious editing job), and the author clearly agrees, painstakingly setting up sequences of physical comedy and Rube Goldberg-like action that would look stellar on the screen, but bog down the pace for the reader. Of course, even those sequences are immensely clichéd – it’s meant to be, that’s part of the joke and the homage – but that also doesn’t prevent it from also being eye-rolling. The writing style very much isn’t for me, but I think a lot of readers would enjoy it much more than I did, as testified by the raving reviews and cover blurbs.* Also, to give credit where it is very much due, Cantero takes incredible care to avoid any serious animal harm: even the literal canary in the goldmine implausibly survives intact.

About midway through the book, I checked whether Edgar Cantero had made an appearance in The Midnight Society (he has not, as far as I know), which is one of my favorite twitter accounts. The author lovingly skewers a wide variety of horror authors in ongoing tweet-length dialogues, and it makes me laugh regularly and introduces me to some new authors and some truly wild details about authors I had thought I’d previously known!

*Though, actually, when I went on GoodReads to confirm this, the majority of reviews sound the same as mine – good premise, weak execution, and they brought up some more serious issues of outdated language referring to intersex, transgender, and lesbian characters, as well as some broad racial stereotyping. I was willing to give some leeway for this since Cantero is Spanish, and Spain and Latin American countries use different terms than we do (even in translation), but readers should definitely be forewarned about that.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
by Nghi Vo
2020

This is a companion novella to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, not a sequel or a prequel, but a companion: another experience of Cleric Chih. It doesn’t have the same calm mood of the other, and I didn’t enjoy it quiet as much, but it’s still really very good and a fascinating story that deals more directly in the magical realism of this world. It’s also another beautifully crafted example of complex story telling with both a framing story and an interior story. It felt like a combination of Scheherazade and Rashomon, as it deals with the use of storytelling as a way to survive the night and with conflicting versions of the same story.

I definitely recommend it.

Also, a minor spoiler:

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