Recent Reading: Gran, Moskowitz, Abbott

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran (Atria, 2018)

Book three in a series about Claire DeWitt, private investigator. I have not read the first two and didn’t mind that at all; this functions pretty much as a standalone novel. Claire is a tough character who is fueled by (sometimes barely believable) determination and a desire to find out the truth. It’s a weird foray into the mystery genre and  on paper it’s not a type that would necessarily appeal to me. But for some reason, despite the weird semi-mysticism, violence, and Las Vegas setting, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and intend to read the first two to catch up. I don’t know either! Something about the extremely surreal writing and characters was exactly what I wanted when I read it. We’ll see if the experience can be repeated. 

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz (Chronicle, 2018)

Four orphaned siblings left with a tenuous legacy of a ship and some monster hunting skills try to find the beast that killed their parents. Moskowitz just drops us straight into the world, which is a really fascinating approach. There’s not much in the way of backstory or world-building, but since this book is voicey as can be* it doesn’t really matter. The characters are compelling enough that I wanted to read on and cared deeply about what happened to them. Indi and his siblings operate in a weird sideways version of reality, more full of strange creatures and pirates than school and driving tests. But his desire to find his place, to find a home connects to that yearning that I think a lot of teens have–there’s something right around the corner if they can only just find it. It’s a slim book, but I’ve thought about it a lot since finishing it.

* a technical reviewing term, right?

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown, 2018)

An adult thriller about a woman who is suddenly confronted with her former best friend from high school. It’s been on my TBR for ages and I was in a mystery/thriller mood, so I gave it a try. I felt like it was weird about PMDD, which is a major part of the story but which was treated in a way that felt like it was there for shock value rather than feminist critique? I don’t know, I might be unfair here, but the story seemed in the end to reinforce stereotypes about the destructive power of female friendship rather than resisting them.

 

3 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Marguerite Angelica Taishen, Marghe, is being sent by a Company she distrusts to a frozen and hostile world where a virus kills all men and many of the women who try to settle there. The Company employees live in a small enclosure, while descendants of the earlier settlers have become tribal and cling to their traditions. But Marghe’s discoveries will challenge herself and the status quo. Can she help create a better life for everyone on Jeep, or will chaos and apathy win?

It was coincidence that I read Ammonite (Random House, 1992) just after Always Coming Home, but interestingly I found that they share some similar interests and themes–and similar shortcomings. Having read and loved Griffith’s Hild, I wanted to try some of her backlist while waiting for the potential sequel.

Marghe is a clearly drawn, sympathetic protagonist, who is competent and thoughtful. She’s clearly traumatized by a past violent attack, but she neither magically overcomes her fears nor are they only visible when it’s convenient to the plot. Her journey into assurance, testing her selfhood and abilities, was lovely and resonant. If you want a book where people largely are trying their best, this is a nice example.

The prose absolutely shines when it comes to the descriptions of Jeep itself. They create a sense of the world far beyond sight, evoking the smell and feel of an alien planet vividly. I think this really helped me understand Marghe’s changing perspectives of the planet. At first it is a foe to be beaten, but over the course of the book she and we begin to see the variety of life and the beauty of the landscape and its inhabitants. It’s a nice way to reinforce Marghe’s outward transformation.

This is a book about a planet full of women, but Griffith pushes back on stereotypical ideas of what this might look like. On the one hand, I appreciated this a lot. It’s a world that feels queer even when all the characters don’t necessarily identify this way–in a way that I can only call lived in. I think that Griffith approached this idea thoughtfully and with an attempt to include many different experiences and expressions. On the other hand, it doesn’t include non-binary or trans experiences at all. Here, biology and identity seem to be unmarkedly the same. Obviously, this is not great!

I was also really concerned by the position Marghe herself takes within the narrative. As I said, I found her personal journey very resonant, and the themes that Griffith is playing with are fascinating to me. But Marghe is an outsider who comes into a native culture and is adopted by them, who pushes them to change their way of life and ultimately ‘saves’ them. While race doesn’t seem to play a deciding role in power structures in this world, I still found the implications troubling within a real world context.

So, I’m not quite sure how to react to Ammonite in the end. For this cis white lady, the story was immersive and engaging. But I also see how it could very easily be hurtful and othering for readers. The beautiful prose and interesting world don’t outweigh that. With those heavy caveats, I would recommend this for fans of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series and Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, both specfic stories about competent adult women.

Other reviews:
Kate MacDonald
Alix Harrow
Niki @ The Lesbian Review

Leave a comment

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Sunday Snapshot

a bare tree silhouetted against a blue spring sky

a favorite photo from the past week; a bare tree silhouetted against a blue spring sky

 

What I’m reading

Seafire by Natalie C Parker

Beneath the Citadel by Destiny Soria

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Rock Manning Goes For Broke also by Charlie Jane Anders

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (audio book; reread)

What I’m watching
We haven’t been watching much tv this week, since it’s the first week of Great Lent. But we did watch an episode each of GBBO and Salt Fat Acid Heat (in both cases, a rewatch for me and the first time for RT).

And we watched How to Train Your Dragon last night, which I found pretty delightful!

What I’m thinking about
The Knitting Community is Grappling With Racism: this is a thoughtful take on a recent discussion within the knitting community. While I’m an active knitter and Ravelry user, I’m not very clued into the wider knitting community as such, so this was an informative and helpful read. (thanks to Jenny @ Reading the End for the link)

2 Comments

Filed under life

Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin

I’ve had a previously undeclared quest over the past few years to read as much Ursula K Le Guin as I can. Her more well known and recent works–like Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore–are old friends, but she wrote a lot more. A number of those earlier and more forgotten works are now being reissued, which helps except that it also fills me with rage that these seminal books from a giant figure in SFF are just now being republished after her death.. (I have a lot to say about a system which ignores women writers while they live and rewards them with posthumous praise, which allows them in only when they’re writing in “approved” genres and then slams those genres as immature and less important, #ursulashouldhaveanobel, Joanna Russ was right. Read and recognize women writers.)

SO. I am both really sad at the circumstances and glad to have finally read Always Coming Home. It’s a strange book, a book that’s almost all un-narrative. I called it a book of worldbuilding on Twitter by which I meant that it’s the kind of work SFF writers usually do invisibly to create a world which they then write a narrative in, work which remains largely hidden but without which the world doesn’t come alive. Here, this work makes up most of the book. I didn’t realize until just now that this almost exactly the description of “women’s work” but having realized it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

Le Guin calls Always Coming Home an “archaeology of the future”–a record of the daily life, beliefs, and practices of a people who live in some version of a future California. It’s an idea which I think was important to her understanding of the book and structuring of it. But it made me uneasy, because archaeology is such a fraught and political field, which has often been used in the service of western colonialism and white supremacy. And I don’t know that Le Guin ever fully grapples with the implications of setting her project in that context. If anyone knows of perspectives from Native critics on this, I want to read them.

That unease is real and I don’t want to just lay it down and say that this book is great regardless. But I will say that Always Coming Home succeeds far better than it has any right to. The narrative form is deliberately challenging and asks us to set aside our notions of what a book should be. It asks us to set aside our understanding of books themselves. As one of the Kesh people says, “Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”  I said on Twitter that one of Le Guin’s great gifts is the ability to unsettle and force the reader out of our comfortable patterns of thought. I don’t always agree with her–in fact I often disagree–but I’m always enriched by doing so.

One of her other great gifts is the strength of her language. There’s a way that she wrote which holds so much emotional density and complexity of meaning in a few words. It’s not simply that she was good at stringing words together in a nice-sounding sentence. It’s that she uses these nice-sounding sentences sparingly and effectively, so that they hold more meaning and more emotion than they otherwise would. I can’t really describe this in technical writing terms, but  as a reader I feel it every time.

Perhaps my least favorite parts of the book are the moments when the compiler, the archaeologist, herself speaks. These are all titled “Pandora” and I found them distracting from the main sections of the book, and the places where the archaeology aspect of the project was most troubling. The one exception is the section where Pandora talks with one of the Kesh people about about information, and the flawed systems we have in place for access to it.

Because this book is very long and very rich, I could talk about a lot more. But instead, I will just quote part of one of the poems in the book, meant as an initiation song for the people who leave the Valley that is their home and go out into the wider world.

“Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.”

“Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.”

Other posts about Ursula K Le Guin:
Planet of Exile (2011)
Gifts (2011)
Lavinia (2011)
Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)
Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
Reading Notes: Voices (2016)

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading: non-mysteries (2018)
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier (2016)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2011)

3 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

When Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi E’s dad start seriously dating, neither girl is very happy. After all, who’s ever heard of two Naomis in the same family? And it’s hard to be okay with big changes, especially when it seems like the adults involved don’t realize how tough it is on their kids. As their parents’ relationship develops, the two Naomis have to navigate a new definition of identity and family.

I’ve wanted to read Two Naomis because my friend Brandy has been talking it up basically since it was published in 2016. And with the sequel published last September, I figured I should finally pick it up!

Stories for middle grade readers are sometimes my favorites, because they don’t pull their punches. Sometimes adults think of books for kids as sweet and light–and there is certainly a place for those. But there is also a place for the books that really take a tough topic and look at it seriously from a kid’s perspective. Here, Rhuday-Perkovich and Vernick write a thoughtful and careful story of a blended family and adapting to change.

Naomi Marie and Naomi E do not instantly take to each other, and they both resent the fact that their parents are trying to push them together (or at least that’s how it feels to them). After all, they’re very different girls even if they do share a name. I was expecting a resolution a bit earlier, but as I thought about it, I actually really appreciated the fact that the story allows them the space to be sad and mad about what’s happening. It felt true and respectful to the kids who might need this story, and it gave the eventual resolution more weight.

I also loved how much the neighborhood shapes the setting of the story. I’ve lived in Midwestern cities for most of my life, and your neighborhood does play such an important part of your experience and perception of the city.

It’s worth mentioning that Naomi Marie is Black and Naomi E is white (as are Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick). Most of the plot doesn’t focus on race, but it comes up in a couple of subtle ways, like Naomi Marie’s little sister’s dolls. I don’t know how this would register for kids, especially white kids who aren’t already used to thinking about race, but I’m glad it wasn’t ignored.

All in all, this is a story that’s thoughtful and generous towards its characters and, by extension, its readers. Recommended for fans of The War that Saved My Life, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and Merci Suarez.

Other reviews:
Life Writings of a Reader
Novi books
YA Books Central

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Three Graphic Novels (2018)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (2015)
Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry (2014)
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)

5 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

I usually write up a little blurb for the books I read, but I knew very little about The Raven Tower before I started it, and for this book that felt right. If you want to know more about it, check out the Goodreads description!

Also, quite honestly, I read this book because it was written by Ann Leckie. Had someone tried to explain it to me beforehand, it would have been a bit baffling. But I was super excited for her first novel length foray into fantasy, regardless of what it was about.

(This is mostly because over the course of Leckie’s novel-writing career, I’ve come to trust her as an author. I know she writes books that I like, that touch me deeply, and that stay with me. Not every author gets the same trust from me. This isn’t something we talk about a lot when we review books, but it’s there all the same. And sometimes authors know this enough to use it in really interesting ways–yes, I’m thinking of Megan Whalen Turner. Other times, it can be eroded or broken, by a series of less-resonant books, or by things like bad representation.)

The thing is, I wasn’t instantly on board with The Raven Tower. It’s in second person, which is my least favorite narrative style. And because we’re dropped right in and trusted to keep up, it didn’t immediately have the deep emotional resonance that draws me so much to the Raadchai books. (Another thing we don’t often talk about is how a smart author can build up emotional connections over the course of a series, so that by the later books they can just telegraph a moment and it will hold so much more weight of meaning than it could in the first book.)

But something about the story, the insistence of the narrative voice, the things that didn’t quite line up with what I thought was happening pulled me in. Besides the fact that I trusted Leckie to write a story that ultimately would deliver. And by the end I did feel rewarded in that decision. There are some clever, slippery things that happen in the narration. They reverse assumptions about the shape of the story, even the characters. They kept me on my toes, and made the story so much more interesting than it would have been without them. But they also add in feeling as details are shaded in, as the world becomes clear, as the characters resolve. We begin to see the subtlety of the cruelness but also the strength of the kindness.

This story is the most like Ancillary Justice out of all the other Leckie stories I’ve read. But they’re not the same. As I was writing this review, I remembered James Tiptree Jr writing about Joanna Russ: “It smells revolutionary—no, wait, not “revolutionary.” Not the usual. It smells and smoulders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode. Fantastic anger. Like the writer is watching every word, saying, Cool it, cool it, don’t say it.” That’s what this books feels like. Cool it, cool it. Don’t say it. Fantastic anger.

Until at last, there is that ending, one of those endings that are far more powerful than the simple words on the page, because they are exactly where the story needs to end: still half formed, still with the taste of them in your mind. I still feel almost as though I can taste the last line on my lips, as though I shouted it myself.

I’ve been struggling to think of readalikes for this one. A little bit For a Muse of Fire, a little bit Tess of the Road, a little bit Persona and Icon. But not quite any of them. If you’ve read it and have ideas, please let me know!

Other reviews (for what it’s worth, all of these are more spoilery than this post):
Liz Bourke at Tor.com
The Book Smugglers
Genevieve Valentine at NPR
Amal El-Mohtar at NYT

Other Ann Leckie posts here:
Ancillary Sword
Ancillary Mercy

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Chime by Franny Billingsley (2011)
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (2014)
Jinx’s Fire by Sage Blackwood (2015)
Ursula K Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices (2016)
In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary (2017)
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2018)

2 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

February 2019 reading

February was not my month in a lot of ways, including reading. But there were some big things I’ve been thinking about and planning for in my personal life and I think that took up a lot of time and energy. Here’s hoping March is a bit smoother!

 

 

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri {review}
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee {review}
European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss {review}
Here to Stay by Sara Farizan {review}

Total books read: 5

Favorite books:

  • Dragon Pearl
  • Empire of Sand
  • Here to Stay

Leave a comment

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list