Jan 08 2019

White Stag (Permafrost #1) by Kara Barbieri

There are a few things that would have turned this book from passably entertaining YA fantasy to a really terrific read, and I’m hoping that the fact that there are only a few things bodes well for the future career of Kara Barbieri. First and foremost is the lack of rigor, whether it be in the editing process or in the world-building itself. I’m not the kind of nitpicker who’s all “Well in Book 3 of the so far 7-book series, it was clearly stated that the minor village of Bludhaven burned down in 1831 and not 1832” (because also I have a terrible head for dates) but there’s a lot of disbelief I’m willing to suspend, especially in fantasy novels. What I could not get over in this book was the idea that our heroine, Janneke (or Janneka to her friends,) had been Soren’s companion for a hundred years but that they were only now having this thawing in their relationship. Hell, I couldn’t believe she’d been in the Permafrost for that long yet knew so little about goblins, when she’s supposed to be smart and resourceful and all that, and had been given plenty of opportunity, often explicitly so as with her role as cupbearer/spy when visiting rival courts, to learn about the beings she lived with.

Which also leads to the whole concept of goblins only being able to destroy and thus needing humans to create and how this makes no sense whatsoever in the way it’s selectively applied. Like, Soren’s hand is damaged by the Permafrost because he dares to braid Janneke’s hair at one point, to ready for The Hunt, but his lips don’t fall off after he kisses her out of love? Not that I wanted them to, but it bothered me that the “hard and fast” rules governing goblinkind were so arbitrarily applied. Which is a shame because the world building otherwise is quite fascinating, as Ms Barbieri draws from a wealth of obscure Norse mythology to tell her tale. I do think a more rigorous editor would have been able to demand more from her, as the richness of the tale sometimes turns patchy, particularly when it comes to describing locations — oftentimes, I feel like Janneke must have some sort of myopia as nothing more than 5 feet away from her ever seems to be described. There were also a lot of assumptions in the way that events were described as givens after the fact despite their being supposedly contemporaneous with and important to the narrative. It’s like Ms Barbieri just assumed we knew stuff she had in her head, which is a common rookie mistake that a good editor should have been able to help remedy.

I also found the whole “I know he’s a serial killer but he’s my serial killer and aren’t we all really serial killers at heart” romance trope wearisome. Fortunately, this was balanced with some excellent self-examination, with the message that sometimes it’s healthier to let go of the past and embrace your future. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the natural selection theme, however, finding it painfully ironic that a character who spent so much time rightfully and knowingly fighting for survival as a human among goblins should assume that others welcome or deserve death due to inherent weakness. Also, and this is going to sound weird, was Janneke’s rape ever actually named such? I felt it was referred to euphemistically too often, and I’m not sure why. Whose sensibilities are we protecting here?

I will probably read Book 2 because the ending and epilogue were actually pretty cool, and I’m willing to overlook debut novel mistakes as a fledgling writer makes her way into the world. There’s a lot of promise here, and I’m hoping that, as with Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel Of The Sands series, it just keeps getting better.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/08/white-stag-permafrost-1-by-kara-barbieri/

Jan 05 2019

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

I absolutely adored Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and was one of many fans disappointed and confused by her follow-up, Night Film (tho the multimedia aspect of that novel was really, really nice.) So I put her third novel, Neverworld Wake, on my to-read pile but didn’t feel any burning need to actually get to it. I’m so glad that I finally did.

And before I get to reviewing the body of the book, I have to say that I kinda sorta understand why it’s marketed as a Young Adult novel but I don’t really agree. Sure, NW is about five teenagers reliving a single night of their lives over and over before banding together to investigate the death of a boy who’d once been integral to their lives. And there isn’t any graphic sex, which seems to be the only thing that would have prevented the YA label. But the protagonists being teenagers doesn’t automatically classify it as a novel for not-yet-mature readers, IMO. Idk, book marketing is weird.

Anyway! Bee is our heroine, known as Sister Bee by her former classmates at the Darrow-Harker School for her unrelenting niceness. She was dating Jim, the songwriting prodigy working on a musical about the life of John Lennon, when his body is found in a nearby quarry just days before graduation. Bee’s grief causes her to flee Darrow-Harker even before the cops close the case as a suicide, but she knows Jim would never kill himself. For the next year, she goes about in a sort of trance as she tries to make sense of his death.

When one of their former circle invites her to a party, Bee accepts, thinking that if she can confront her old friends, they’ll help her find out what really happened that fateful night. But a car crash slips them into the Neverworld, a place where they’re forced to repeat the past eleven or so hours until they can all decide on which one of them gets to live while the rest slip forever into death.

So far, so many tropes, but Ms Pessl blends them all together into a really terrific, sensitively written meditation on youth and relationships that, above all, elevates friendship and the power of kindness and gratitude to change lives. I do wish there’d been a little more examining of Bee and Jim’s relationship after she managed to wake in Central Park, but I do think that overall it was a deeply satisfying novel, even if you do ache, as I did, for dorky, gallant Martha. The last scene in the Neverworld, especially, was incredibly moving.

Definitely a return to form for Ms Pessl. I can’t wait to see what she writes next!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/05/neverworld-wake-by-marisha-pessl/

Jan 04 2019

The Devourers by Indra Das

So there are some books where you finish them and you’re all “Well, I guess that wasn’t for me” such as, in my most recent experience prior to this, Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings (and have you heard, he’s coming out with a fantasy novel! Despite my tepid response to prior book, I am excite! I only hope it isn’t the literature version of the upcoming Spawn movie, which we were promised would be, unbelievably, devoid of joy, as if that were a selling point. But I digress.) The weird thing is that lots of parts of Indra Das’ The Devourers did feel like it was for me. I’m totally there for tales of everyday lonely people getting sucked into bizarre realms that parallel our own. I abso-fucking-lutely love contemporary novels set in Asia. Weird family sagas, queer characters, sign me up!

But it’s just so unrelentingly violent and I get it, that’s how the shapeshifters are, but by the time the stranger confronts each parent in turn, I was just exhausted and numb and pretty much uncaring. Idk if each confrontation was meant to shock me out of said numbness, but they didn’t and I was just meh about it all. Logically speaking, given the personalities of all involved, everything had to happen the way it did, but it was all unsurprisingly, monotonously brutal, and I just didn’t care at that point.

Also? I felt that that last sentence of an ending was simultaneously twee and cynical. I loved the prior paragraphs with their sentence hurricanes tangling the various storylines together, but the last sentence felt like such an enormous cop-out given that Alok, with his obsession with names and labels, doesn’t claim his true self by saying it outright. Perhaps that’s the point, that labels don’t matter as long as there’s love, but let me tell you, if the book had ended in the stereotypically heteronormative fashion it had been hinting at earlier in the proceedings, I would have been infuriated. Claiming your identity matters. For a book about admitting who you are and being proud of it, it was a huge disappointment that it didn’t make Alok do the same. And, you know, I’m not one of those people who think that people should out themselves before they’re comfortable, but this is a fictional character in a book who’s just led you on a journey through his psyche and who ends the narrative with words that literally mean nothing instead of words that could mean something. As a coeur de cri from an author, as an essay, as a message from a real person to a real audience, it would be fine (see: outing yourself when you feel comfortable because the real world has real problems) but coming from a fictional character? Cheap.

Much as with Mr James, I’m looking forward to more of Mr Das’ work in future, even if I was tepid, at best, about their breakthrough novels. Hope springs eternal, especially when there’s evidence for the fertile soil of their imaginations and, honestly, technical prowess. I just hope for less dreariness and, in Mr Das’ case, more courage.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/04/the-devourers-by-indra-das/

Jan 03 2019

Looking Back on 2018

My compatriots here at The Frumious Consortium have guilted me into doing a recap post, gj, all.

Between here and my work for Criminal Element, I read (with a big thanks to Goodreads for crunching the stats for me; hey, feel free to be my friend there, if you’re reading this) 185 books in 2018, which is definitely my most exhausting amount since I’ve started keeping track. A lot of this was due to picking up more work for my publisher at CE, as well as through building contacts with other absolutely lovely people in the industry. I’ve never felt more happily overwhelmed by reading and reviewing books, one of my greatest pleasures in life. You can check out my full reading list via the Goodreads link above, but I figured I’d add a Top 10 list for the year here as well. In no particular order:

1. The City Of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty — A complex examination of politics and competing motivations set in fantasy realms inspired by Islamic mythology, this book was one of the first I read this year and still one of the best and most memorable. It’s got a strong heroine, twists at every turn and some really terrific writing. The author really knows her stuff, displaying the diversity of Islamic history and experiences and incorporating all of that seamlessly into a convincing, compelling whole.

2. There There by Tommy Orange — This contemporary novel follows the lives of several Urban Indians in Oakland, California during the lead up to the Big Powwow. It is probably the best written of the books on this list, effortlessly tying together multiple plot threads and creating a glorious tapestry that practically breathes immediacy. Moving and smart, it’s won a ton of awards for good reason.

3. The Arrival Of Missives by Aliya Whiteley — This is a book I want to make everyone read. It’s short, barely clocking in at 200 pages even with the inclusion of the accompanying short story, but it’s powerfully subversive, taking a fairly commonplace trope and exploding everything you thought you knew about the (sci-fi bildungsroman) genre. Deeply feminist, it’s a wonderful reminder for our times. I really hope Ms Whiteley writes more of Shirley, the heroine.

4. Spook Street by Mick Herron — The fourth (more or less) in his Slough House series, this is so far my favorite. I read almost the entire series this year and could not get enough of this team of misfit MI6 spies languishing in professional exile in South London. Things come to a head in this novel, when their chief, Jackson Lamb, must go above and beyond to rescue an old spy, burning essential bridges in the process. Filled with both humor and grim existential despair, this is my favorite spy series ever. Books 5 and 5.5 are waiting in my Kindle as a future reward, for when I finally have free time, whenever that is.

5. Now We Are Dead by Stuart MacBride — In the same vein as the darkly hilarious Slough House books are Mr MacBride’s Logan MacRae novels, which center on policing in Aberdeen. NWAD centers MacRae’s irascible, infuriating former boss DS Roberta Steele as she tries to stop the serial rapist she got caught fitting up from striking again. References to A. A. Milne abound but you don’t have to be a Winnie The Pooh fan to be absolutely charmed — probably in spite of yourself — by our horror of a protagonist.

6. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett — Having already awarded City Of Brass the prize of being my Best Fantasy Novel of the year, I didn’t feel at all like I was shortchanging Foundryside by deeming it the best cyberpunk of the year. It’s a dazzlingly intelligent sci-fi novel dressed up as a delightfully meaty fantasy. Best of all, it’s unapologetically and gracefully diverse. I kinda wanted to have its babies.

7. Annihilation by Jeff vanderMeer — I wanted to read this book before watching the movie and am so glad I did! An ode to introspection, it was also the most compelling love story I’ve read all year. It won’t surprise you to hear that I found the movie greatly disappointing in comparison. Some of the stuff with The Biologist’s companions was neat but the rest of it was mainstream Hollywood garbage, a disappointingly exploitative adaptation of a delicately nuanced book.

8. The Warlock Holmes novels by G. S. Denning — I’m not ordinarily a fan of Sherlock Holmes pastiche but these not only kept me furiously turning the pages but also had me going back to the source material to examine the similarities. A hilarious occult take on the classic cases and definitely my favorite homages to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

9. Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao — An East Asian re-imagining of Snow White’s evil stepmother’s story, this novel is brutally honest about women and ambition and rivalry in a way that made my soul ache with familiarity, far more so than any novel set in the real world has been able to (tho Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive comes close!) I’ve heard not great things about the sequel that came out in November but plan on reading that soon, and will share thoughts once I do!

10. A Death Of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks — I read so many great novels this year, but for warning us of the perils of ignoring our history, this definitely took the prize. A rich examination of Gilded Age New York City, it was unafraid to draw parallels to modern American life while also presenting an intelligent whodunnit with an outstanding heroine.

Honorable mentions go out to Cornelia Kidd’s Death And A Pot Of Chowder which was unquestionably my favorite culinary cozy this year; Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, which Doug and I have gone on at length about; Victoria Thompson’s City Of Secrets, another socially aware historical mystery, and Jay Kristoff’s LIFEL1K3 with its gonzo post-apocalyptic android teens. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson was another really amazing novel I read this year that I can’t put on this list because you should only read it after reading the first two books in the Stormlight Archives. Each installment so far has been over a thousand glorious pages but has also required that I go back through previous novels (or the Wiki!) to refresh myself on the who or what or why of certain things. Even so, I think I’m missing more stuff because I’m bad at remembering details of the Cosmere plus I haven’t read Warbreaker yet.

Special mention to the really terrific page to screen adaptations that came out this year, especially the ones that improved upon their subject material (so not you, Annihilation.) I was pleasantly surprised to be as besotted as I was by Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor, both of which starred the delightful Henry Golding. Though I haven’t read Lynda LaPlante’s Widows, when I read that Gillian Flynn was doing the screenplay, I knew I had to watch the movie adaptation, which was definitely worth my time. I also binge watched the terrific first two seasons of Riverdale, based on the classic Archie comics, and am currently part way through its sister adaptation, The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. Amazon Prime served up two more excellent adaptations for me: The Expanse (based on a series I’m itching to read) and The Man In The High Castle, which is just outstanding in so many respects, not least in the way it circles back round to the source text.

It’s been a great year for me and the written word, and I’m so pleased to have been able to share my experiences with you. Here’s to more in a terrific 2019!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/03/looking-back-on-2018/

Jan 02 2019

Taking Stock of 2018

My amount of reading took a jump in 2017 with what I read to vote for the Hugo awards, and it stayed jumped this year. I finished the Discworld novels in early September, a couple of months sooner than I had expected. I had somehow missed reading them in the 1980s and 1990s, and only started picking them up when a business trip to Basel took me past a spinner rack full of Pratchett in the airport. Four years later, I’ve made it through all 41 the first time, and am much richer for the experience. I’m sure I will go back to some, particularly the Lancre witches and Tiffany Aching.

In 2018, I also finished my little Schiller project, which I thought would go more quickly than it did. Apparently my appetite for eighteenth-century drama is easily sated in a given year. On the other hand, several of the plays are great works of the imagination, worth reading all these years later and not merely of historical interest. The Maid of Orleans is definitely the best of the four I read this year. Love and Intrigue, Schiller’s last prose play, was terrific too, in a completely different register. It’s a brilliantly engineered train wreck, filled with characters who could avoid their fates if they would just step back and consider for a moment. It must be exquisitely excruciating in the theater.

I finished some series, started others, and chugged along in still others. I finished Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century set, and read all of Greg van Eekhout’s darkly magical California. I’ve read all three of Yoon Ha Lee’s calendrical warfare novels that he has published to date; if there’s another, I hope it has less Jedao. I read just one of the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency books, so I am two or possibly three behind the author at this point. One Witcher book, three more to go. Happily, Boris Akunin’s Fandorin series has found an English-language publisher again; or more precisely, the previous publisher has decided to continue translating and releasing the series. I am in the middle of All the World’s a Stage, though I will probably not finish it by the end of the year, and I have Black City to look forward to.

Russia turned out to be a theme of the year, too. The two largest books I read — Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman and The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine — were both about Russia. Another eight or so of this year’s books were set in or otherwise concerned Russia, from Julian Barnes’ short novel about Shostakovich’s encounters with Soviet power to Wladimir Kamier’s mostly lighthearted reckoning with the disappearance of same, and from more bus stops to a powerful work about death in Russia.

Overall, I read five books in German, seven graphic works, eleven Discworld books, and ten works in translation, thanks to the middle child sharing some manga with me. (One was translated from Russian, one from Polish, two from Turkish, one from Chinese, one from German, and four from Japanese.) I re-read one book this year, Ellen Kushner’s perfect Swordspoint. I read fourteen books written by women.

I started to tally up the books written by persons of color, but soon ran into some difficulty. Who counts? Black authors in the United States, sure; I read three works from two authors. American authors of Asian descent? Ok, one. What about Asia Minor? If the author still lives there and is a member of the dominant ethnic group? Hm. Asian authors living in Asia? Again with the Hm. Russians? Jewish Russians? Yeah, it’s complicated. Then there are people like Wladimir Kaminer, a Jewish Russian immigrant to Germany writing in German about his experiences before and after relocating, or Steffen Möller writing in German and publishing in Germany about his experiences as a non-native resident in Poland. At least I didn’t read anything by Elias Canetti this year.

One thing I haven’t looked at before in these lists is when the books that I read in the course of the year were first published. The interplay between publishing and reviewing is tricky enough, and then economics and timing get added in, and it gets trickier still. Back when I was a bookseller and part of a large independent store’s advertising and promotions staff, I got to see publishers’ efforts to make a splash with a book when it first hit the market. That was more than 20 years ago, and even then people were talking about the Hollywoodification (horrible word for a horrible practice) of book publishing, sales, and promotion. From what I can tell, the trends have only intensified, with a lot of the effort transferred into pre-publication publicity and pre-orders.

Here on the other side of the desk, I’m not completely immune to the rush either. Wholly new books are exciting! The Frumious Consortium pushes out notices of what we write on social media; we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t want people to notice what we’re up to. Sometimes authors and publishers will notice what we’ve written and either briefly reply or pass the link along to their social media networks. It’s neat when that happens! It’s fun to feel a part of a larger conversations about books that I’ve cared enough about to read and write about. I sometimes feel a pull to go after more of that.

So how close to publication are the things I read this year? I mostly read books that are recent, but not brand new. (At the other extreme, I read four that premiered in the 1700s.) I read five that were published in 2018, 20 from the two years preceding, and another 20 from the rest of the 2010s. The only other decade to hit double digits is the 2000s, with 13; 1990s, two; 1980s, three; 1970s, also three; 1960s, zilch; and 1950s, two. I would not have pegged either of those as 1950s books — I would have placed Mani later and The 13 Clocks earlier. Shows what I know about the 1950s.

Translations jumble the publication dates a little bit. All four of the manga collections I read were published in the 2010s, so there is not a great gap even if the English translation appeared in the last two years but the original work came out earlier this decade. The greatest gap is for A Hero Born, which was published in Chinese in 1957 and in English in 2018. The fastest non-manga translation was for an unabashedly academic work, Soviet Mass Festivals. Others saw twenty-year gaps. Life and Fate had an even longer road. The author submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in 1960. The censors rejected it and promptly confiscated not only all the manuscript copies they could find but also the very typewriter ribbons Grossman had used. He had managed to hide two copies, and these led to a Russian-language edition appearing in the West in 1980. Glasnost allowed its publication in the USSR in 1988. The English translation that I read was published in 2006. A translation of the prequel to Life and Fate, first published in 1956, will appear in 2019; I’m looking forward to it.

The best recollection of the 1980s was War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, the best Eurovision in space was Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, and the best riff on old pulp was Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The best set of late Discworld books are the ones featuring Tiffany Aching, and I think I Shall Wear Midnight is the best of those, with Wintersmith a close second. Best nonfiction not otherwise mentioned was Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and best reminder of working in Washington was The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple.

Full list, roughly in order read, is under the fold with links to my reviews and other writing about the authors here at Frumious.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/02/taking-stock-of-2018/

Dec 31 2018

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3) by Brandon Sanderson

I mean…

I knew this was going to be insane but I didn’t know how much. I cried at least twice, over several different characters, and I laughed out loud so many more times. On its own, it’s just a rip-roaring good time, well-written, great action sequences, terrific plot twists, incredibly well-thought out universe (and with really gorgeous illustrations!) It even explained the greatest failing of Book Two for me, the somewhat rushed ending. Honestly, the only bad thing about this book is that it is A Lot. You absolutely have to have read the thousand plus pages each of Books One and Two and hopefully have a lot of that tucked away in your brain still, or at least access to the first two books so you can look stuff up, as I totally did.

But more than any epic fantasy novel, Oathbringer really sits down and examines morality in a way that progresses beautifully from its predecessors. This is a book about what to do when you thought you were the good guys but you find out that you’re not (is that even a spoiler? I thought it was fairly obvious.) It’s a thoughtful parable of justice and retribution and how to work towards restitution. It’s not a perfect template of any of our earthly politics, but it does allude strongly to modern issues and suggest ways to solve them, without ever losing sight of its fantasy setting. It’s also a great parable for How To Be Good. It’s okay to make mistakes. What’s most important is accepting responsibility and then doing better.

It’s really hard to review this 1200+ page book with any coherence, but I really loved the fact that this was another installment in a series with such moral clarity that you could 100% use it as a template for living in the real world. I totes want to be a Knight Radiant (funny aside: I occasionally use a variation on the name Radiant when I’m skulking around the Internet, taken not from the alter ego in this book but from Magic The Gathering’s badass if possibly unhinged Radiant Archangel) but will settle for trying to be a Good Person.

That said, I still feel bad for Eshonai. Tho, I’m super happy that, unrelatedly, the nice guy won! Brandon Sanderson always chooses the right couplings, IMO.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/12/31/oathbringer-the-stormlight-archive-3-by-brandon-sanderson/

Dec 27 2018

Hey Ladies!: The Story of 8 Best Friends, 1 Year, and Way, Way Too Many Emails by Michelle Markowitz, Caroline Moss & Carolyn Bahar

Hey Ladies!: A Cautionary Tale

Let me begin by admitting that I was lucky enough to spend ages 8-21 being an Upper Middle Class Asian in Asia, thereby escaping completely the clutches of the American bridal-industrial complex. However, having lived over half my life here now, I can’t claim to be completely unscathed as a result of watching loved ones succumb to that soul-sucking behemoth. My own wedding was quite nice and bridesmaid-free, a small (by Asian standards, with only 100 guests or so) affair on the beach with appropriate dress code and a request for no boxed gifts. It was still quite stressful to put together, so I don’t understand why certain American women willingly put themselves through the wringer micromanaging every little moment of a single day of their lives, and all the lead-up that entails.

Fortunately, Hey Ladies! is here to help explain. Following a year in the lives of 8 best friends, HL! is written in the form of e-mails and texts etc. as the women hilariously prepare for the wedding of one of their own. It is jaw-droppingly outrageous and side-splittingly awful and I could not stop reading it (or admiring the pictures by Carolyn Bahar.) HL! is a relentless but ultimately kind-hearted skewering of a certain demographic of American women and the expectations they exert upon one another as they attempt to appear successful (not, if you’ll notice, to actually succeed.) The protagonists are all flawed and rather silly but they do care about each other very much. These women remind me of people I know and love, and there are glimmers of myself in most of them. Honestly, I’d be surprised if any American woman between the ages of 18-68 didn’t recognize at least part of herself in these ladies.

A quick, charming, satirical/anthropological read. Sequel please!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/12/27/hey-ladies-the-story-of-8-best-friends-1-year-and-way-way-too-many-emails-by-michelle-markowitz-caroline-moss-carolyn-bahar/

Dec 26 2018

This Dreaming Isle edited by Dan Coxon

I love the idea of this, and I love the way it’s been edited, dividing the book into three distinct parts that reflect very much the most vital areas of England: Country, City and Coast. The seventeen stories in this collection cover a host of supernatural occurrences, embracing the diversity of the English experience. Most were very well thought out, even if the execution on some felt iffier than others. I’ll discuss a few standouts, beginning with The Headland Of Black Rock by Alison Littlewood, which was far and away my favorite of the bunch. It packs a lot of story into its few pages, of an aging celebrity who falls in love with a mute girl by the seaside, and satisfyingly covers a wide and complete-feeling gamut of emotions.

I also very much enjoyed Jeannette Ng’s We Regret To Inform You. It was a bit daunting at first, especially if you’re not terribly familiar with the Venerable Bede, but once you slip into the cadences of academia and grow comfortable with the alternate universe on display, the twist is quite impressive. Domestic Magic by Kirsty Logan was far more straightforward but felt beautifully constructed, and I loved the message of women’s love. Angela Readman’s Swimming With Horses was also a delight to read, if definitely one of the milder stories in this collection.

Of the stories that had great ideas but didn’t quite land with me, for one reason or another, a standout is James Miller’s Not All Right. The protagonist is a horrible person and Mr Miller eviscerates him and his ilk very adeptly — I just didn’t understand the what and why of the mishmash of supernatural goings-on around him. I feel like it’s a great idea for exploration in a longer novel, say. I also found Robert Shearman’s The Cocktail Party In Kensington Gets Out Of Hand to be memorable even if I didn’t like it so much as find it deeply discomfiting.

Overall, an entertaining collection of supernatural fiction that considers the many aspects of modern England whilst also incorporating its past. It wholly satisfied that part of me that loves to indulge in the occasional horror anthology.

A big Thank You to Unsung Stories for sending these wonderful books to me. Their commitment to fantastic British fiction is terrific, and I’m much the richer for having encountered them.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/12/26/this-dreaming-isle-edited-by-dan-coxon/

Dec 24 2018

2018 Reading Roundup

I’ve now read 100 books in 2018. I won’t stop between now and the end of the year, but this seemed like a good point to pause and take stock. Here’s a list of my top 10 SFF, fabulist, or otherwise wackadoodle books from the last year, presented in the order that I read them (not by order of enjoyment).

The Princess Bride (William Goldman)

Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls)

The Merry Spinster (Daniel Ortberg)

Freshwater (Akwaeke Emezi)

Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

Night Beast (Ruth Joffre)

Stand Still, Stay Silent, book 1 (written + drawn by Minna Sundberg)

The Future Is Female (ed. Lisa Yaszek)

Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (N.K. Jemisen)

And here’s a quick breakdown, for all you last-minute gift buyers out there.

The Princess Bride is better than the movie in almost every way, the only lack being Wallace Shawn (whose inimitable nasal tones and marvelous brocade jacket would be a tall order to include in any novel). I have the 25th-anniversary edition, which includes a short piece called “Buttercup’s Baby,” but any of them would have sufficed. Pro tip: best read out loud, to someone younger than you. Practice doing the voices first.

Mrs. Caliban does a lot of work in a remarkably compact space. If you liked The Shape of Water (which Mrs. Caliban preceded by three decades), you’ll also enjoy this. It centers on a housewife who engages in an extramarital affair with an escaped piscine gentleman, with unsettling consequences.

The Merry Spinster‘s standout story, “Daughter Cells,” also has to do with intelligent ocean life. Come for the murderous merpeople, stay for the wickedly clever and inventively-gendered reimaginings of fairy tales, folklore, and classic children’s literature. (Ever thought Frog and Toad Are Friends got a little gaslight-y? This is the book for you.)

Freshwater is the kind of book you read in one sitting—not because it’s short, but because its world and voice are so deeply absorbing. It’s a distant cousin of Helen Oyeyemi’s first novel, The Icarus Girl, although Emezi’s work is at once scarier and more experimental. Give yourself some time to return to the familiar world after you finish.

I can’t recommend Lincoln in the Bardo more highly than all of your Facebook and Goodreads friends already have. Now that it’s out in paperback, you don’t have any excuse not to read it. Though I’ve heard the audiobook is also excellent, if that’s your thing.

Night Beast is to Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen as Freshwater is to The Icarus Girl. Joffre publishes in a wide variety of venues, from bastions of domestic realism like The Kenyon Review to Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams’s SFF journal, and there are a number of genre-benders here. If you want a sample, here’s my favorite, “Safekeeping,” at DIAGRAM.

I’m cheating a little with Stand Still, Stay Silent, since you can read all of that gloriously slow-paced and lavishly-drawn webcomic online, for free. (But you can also buy a hard copy, and save yourself some clicking.) Book two is in the works right now, with updates four days a week.

The Future Is Female turned out to be one of those rare books that I got from the library, and then wished I’d bought outright. It’s a smorgasbord of 19th- and 20th-century speculative fiction by women, which is sort of my specialty, but at least two-thirds of the writers here were new to me. There’s a lot of good work to choose from here (one of the distinct advantages of anthologies over single-author collections), but my favorite by far is C.L. Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss.” A small peeve: the Le Guin story closing the anthology, “Nine Lives,” is good but by no means her best.

Spinning Silver is a companion book, of sorts, to Uprooted, an earlier (and also excellent) Novik novel. It’s the only novel I can think of, off the top of my head, to engage at nuanced length with one of medievalesque fantasy’s neglected experiences: that of such a setting’s Jewish population.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month deserves a post unto itself. I was not previously familiar with Jemisen’s work, but now I want to go out and get everything she’s done. What impressed me most was the range of voices, settings, and genres—the fey are in this book, but so are Lovecraftian monsters, spaceships, and people who feed on earthquakes. If you need convincing, have this piece, “The City Born Great,” from Tor.com.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/12/24/2018-reading-roundup/

Dec 24 2018

Don Karlos by Friedrich Schiller

The first thing to note about Don Karlos is that I noped right out of it somewhere in the middle of the second act. My disbelief had wavered early on when Don Karlos, the crown prince of Spain, unburdens his soul to his childhood friend the Marquis of Posa. Karlos (Carl in English) says he is in love with his stepmother the queen, and means to win her. Schiller subtitled the five-act play “A Dramatic Poem,” and it is generally considered a tragedy. I knew I was in trouble when half the time it seemed like the action was better suited to a farce — mistaken identity, clueless servants, love letters not being from the expected person — than to tragic events. Slapstick among Spanish grandees is definitely not Schiller’s aim, but I kept picturing comic ineptitude rather than true love thwarted by arbitrary royal authority, and it did not get any better for me.

Early in the second act, Karlos wants to dash off to meet with the queen, whom he thinks has written him a letter returning his love, when the Duke of Alba asks him for a moment of time. Karlos has just had a big row with the king because Karlos has asked him for command of troops going to the Spanish Netherlands to quell a rebellion. The king has barely seen Karlos for many years, and turns him down flat, saying that such an important mission needs to be led by an experienced commander such as the Duke of Alba. The Duke had in fact been in the room before Karlos made his request, and Karlos used up much of his limited goodwill with the king by insisting that he send Alba out of the room for their discussion. Karlos goes through the whole inappropriate repertoire of making a request from the king: transparent flattery, begging, wheedling, insisting on his prerogatives as heir, arguing, raging. Schiller has already portrayed King Phillip II as arbitrary and cruel — he banned one of the queen’s handmaidens from Madrid for ten years for leaving the queen alone for less than a quarter hour — and he has no patience for Karlos’ sudden desire for a high position.

So, Karlos has just had a huge fight about wanting to replace the Duke of Alba when who should ask him for a moment but this selfsame Duke? Karlos, however, wants to hurry to the queen, so his first response is “Sorry, Duke dude, no time to talk, gotta run.” I suppose the eighteenth century would say that he was thinking with his hot blood and his heart, but I think his desire was lodged a little bit lower. Alba insists, and after some farcical dialogue in which Karlos is clearly distracted, they wind up challenging each other to a duel then and there. No sooner have they drawn their definitely not symbolic swords than the queen saunters by. “Naked swords!” she exclaims. Karlos, clever guy, realizes that she is not waiting for him in a secret rendezvous and wilts immediately. “Nevermind!” cries Karlos, and throws himself at the queen’s feet before dashing off. Alba, who just by the by later turns out to be a terrible choice as general in the Netherlands, is apparently the only one in this scene with any sense. “By God that was weird,” he says.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/12/24/don-karlos-by-friedrich-schiller/