Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander by Victoria Goddard

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander
by Victoria Goddard
2022

Every so often I google search some of my current favorite authors’ names to see if there’s anything that I missed. And yes! I discovered that this novella published nine days ago. I immediately bought and read it and it’s such a delight. It’s a companion novella to the book, The Hands of the Emperor, (and about a tenth the length.)

Buru Tovo is ninety years old, a highly respected wide seas islander, who has been waiting, mostly patiently, for years for his grand-nephew, Kip Mdang, to return from his travels into the heart of the empire and take his proper place in the island society, trying not to worry that he never will. In this novella, he decides to make the three month journey to the capital and see what his grand-nephew has been doing. In The Hands of the Emperor, we see these events from Kip’s perspective as his grand-uncle suddenly shows up at the capital with questions. This novella is the other side of that interaction. Buru Tovo’s perspective is fascinating and lovely and complex and hilarious.

Petty Treasons
by Victoria Goddard
2021

In writing up the review for Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander, I discovered that I had not made a post about Petty Treasons before. Clearly something to be corrected! I also read this within a week of it being published. It’s another companion novella, this one about Kip Mdang’s introduction to the emperor, from the emperor’s perspective. It’s another delightful exploration of what Kip looks like from the outsider point of view. But more than that, it’s also a fascinating exploration of the emperor’s perspective, because Goddard did something really interesting: at the start, the text is written in the second person — possibly the only time I’ve ever enjoyed a story told in the second person. It’s such a brilliant choice here because it highlights exactly how much the emperor is disassociating, and makes it all the more impactful when he starts to have hope and the text, in fits and starts, transitions into the first person.

I’m always so impressed with Goddard’s ability to infuse her writing with such joyful excitement. Both of these are so delightful and make me want to bounce on my toes with sheer glee.

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.

They Came to Baghdad

By Agatha Christie

I was first intrigued to read a spy adventure novel by Agatha Christie, rather than her more usual English murder mysteries, but it also turned out to be a disconcertingly timely read. Published in 1951, it is all very Cold War, with tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a planned global summit in Baghdad in an attempt to ease those tensions and prevent a third world war so soon after the second. It’s been a very odd week to read a book with such similarities and equal disparities to current events! (The Iraq of 1951 is also strangely discordant, since it is both through Christie’s blatantly prejudiced eyes, though she in fact loved the country herself, and before many of the subsequent wars that tanked its economy and culture.)

For all the overarching motivation of preventing war between America and Russia, it is really a story of England and Iraq, with the many English expats converging on Baghdad for a madcap variety of reasons. The whole plot has Christie’s classic clues and twists, but has enough screwball comedy to it that I’m very disappointed that no one has adapted it to film yet. Our main protagonist, Victoria, is a mediocre typist recently fired in London, who impulsively follows an attractive young man to Baghdad. She is more gutsy than intelligent (thus her initial poor decision making), but to the detriment of all the espionage around her, she is unexpectedly observant and also a somewhat compulsive liar. Christie’s mastery really shines in the final denouement, when all the smallest clues, including some that I had chalked up to minor writing flaws, came together very quickly in a very satisfactory way.

A very minor spoiler, the central conflict is explained to Victoria midway through the book, and hit me like a flash of familiarity:

Continue reading

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!

Cultish

By Amanda Montell

One of my new year’s resolutions was to lose some weight and, realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, I looked at some diet apps. I went through the one-week free trial of the ubiquitous Noom, and though I found it somewhat helpful, the language in the lessons made me a bit uneasy. I decided to read Cultish as a counterbalance, to help me ward off any susceptibility to a diet cult. (I ended up quitting Noom at the end of the trial, partially because of the high cost but mostly because it’s nutritional guidelines did not allow for my morning latte and my evening glass of wine, and those are non-negotiable.)

However, Cultish still ended up being hugely relevant. Amanda Montell looks at a variety of ‘cult-like’ entities, from the obvious like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate to the much milder like Instagram influencers, primarily through the lens of language and speech. As she delved into the oratory style of Jim Jones, who studied persuasive speakers ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Adolf Hitler, I began to recognize similar stylings in extremist politicians (on all sides of the political spectrum, though I do think the ultra-conservative right has a special talent for it) and even in mainstream media chasing after clicks.

Catastrophizing news items or historical events, often out of context, and creating a sense of urgency sounded exhaustively familiar:

Jonestown survivor Yulanda Williams recalls Jones showing the Redwood City congregation a film called Night and Fog about the Nazi concentration camps. “He said, ‘This is what they have planned for people of color. We’ve got to build our land up over there in Jonestown, we’ve got to get over there. We’ve got to move fast, we’ve got to move swiftly, we’ve got to pool our resources together,’” she explained.

The repetition of key phrases is also a seemingly obvious but very effective oratory tool, as well. It also reminded me of the Scam Goddess podcast, which I highly recommend and which ties into this quite well. As podcaster Laci Mosley describes, scams rely on creating a sense of urgency where there’s no time to stop and think through practicalities and logistics, since you may then start seeing the logical holes.

The big cults are the ones known throughout the country, so it’s not until Montell starts diving into MLMs and fitness crazes that she turns to more personal connections and anecdotes. They are fascinating and relatable, but at the same time, pervasively LA-centric. There’s a certain glib assumption that the author and her family are the most sophisticated skeptics possible, which sticks out from the narrative, though doesn’t take away from the still fascinating analysis of language usage.

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.