Another Friday, another links round-up. This week I had some super good chili and spoke with a sternness to my elected senator at a town hall. What’s your week been like? Regardless I have brought you this links round-up for your enjoyment, and I hope that your weekend is full of sunshine and baby kisses.
Why yes I WOULD care for a Frankenstein story by Victor Lavalle that also pulls in the Black Lives Matter movement. THANK YOU FOR ASKING.
Angelica Jade Bastien on Legion (mm, yes, this is the review I was waiting for).
Even when the world is garbage, I still enjoy a celebrity Twitter feud. Have you been following the one between Piers Morgan and JK Rowling? It’s gold, and Piers Morgan’s son weighing in is the best thing about it.
You have to know about this territory called Neutral Moresnet that Belgium and Prussia owned jointly for a century. Zinc and Esperanto are involved.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has some feelings about La La Land and white dudes in jazz. Can I just say that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s encore career as a cultural critic is one of my favorite things in this life? Have I said that before? IT REMAINS TRUE.
The critical discourse around Jordan Peele’s new horror film Get Out has been ON POINT. Here’s Jordan Crucchiola at Vulture on how it makes “good” white ladies terrifying. Here’s Frederick McKindra, a Buzzfeed News Emerging Writer Fellow (yay for new critics!), on how the movie allows black men to be scared rather than scary. If you’ve seen this movie please get at me in the comments so I can ask you questions about how torturey it gets.
AT LAST I have read the sequel to the wonderful Sunbolt! Intisar Khanani is a fantasy author who really deserves a good, let’s say, 75% more fame than she is currently receiving, so let’s all get on spreading the word far and wide, okay, team? Read the novella Sunbolt if you haven’t yet, and then get straight on to the superb sequel, Memories of Ash.
Our protagonist, Hitomi, is learning magic from the secretive, kindly mage Stormwind, with whom her vampire friend Val left her at the end of Sunbolt. Many of her memories of her former life are gone, and she is focused primarily on cultivating her powers and staying under the radar. All of her peace is shattered when the High Council (led by Hitomi’s old enemy Blackflame) summons Stormwind to stand trial for treason. Though Stormwind accepts her fate, Hitomi is determined to go after her and save her from unjust imprisonment and possible death.
If you are needing (as I am) some straight-ahead fantasy adventure stories, I can’t recommend Intisar Khanani’s work enough. Her worldbuilding here, as in the last book, is superb, everything from the limitations to Hitomi’s look-away charm to the differing societal norms for the desert nomads as opposed to the people of the Mekteb (the school where magicians get trained). Possibly my favorite thing about watching Hitomi travel to so many different locations is that Khanani seems to believe in the fundamental goodness of people. Wherever Hitomi goes and however slim her chances seem of rescuing Stormwind, she always meets people who are kind and good. At a time when the world feels less and less hospitable to strangers, Memories of Ash was a balm.
As with Sunbolt, this book ends in a satisfying way that nevertheless leaves the door open for many more adventures to come. Hitomi finds herself, at one point, in a land that’s been shattered by vicious magics, and she makes a promise to come back someday to try her hand at fixing it. Part of this is my current state of mind, but most of it is Khanani’s gorgeous world- and character-building: I absolutely cannot goddamn wait to see Hitomi throw her considerable energy and talent into healing the whole world.
I’m going to start keeping records on how many books that bloggers scream about for one million years before I get around to reading them, and then when I finally do read them, it’s like “Well I should have done this a while ago.” Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s book Monstress, which in my defense has been checked out steadily from my library since the trade paperback came out (but I didn’t put a hold on it so it’s still my own fault), is one of those.
You see that cover? Every page of Monstress is of equivalent, if not greater, beauty to that cover. Sana Takeda’s art is beautiful and dreamy and gives this work of fantasy an extraordinarily epic feel. The detail on every page is incredible, her characters feel lived-in, and with all of that, she doesn’t elide the brutality our main character, Maika, both faces and dispenses in just about every issue. I was hard-pressed not to screen-cap every page for y’all, because the art is just that gorgeous.
Monstress has received a huge amount of attention, deservedly, for the art, but the writing is also wonderful. I was warned repeatedly that Monstress was quite violent, and it is, in the manner of a lot of the secondary world fantasy I’ve encountered in my life. At the same time, it’s — can I say really fun? Is that glib? Our protagonist, Maika, is fighting against something evil that lives inside her, all the while trying to escape the many forces in her world that will stop at nothing to find her; and yes, that’s a recipe for violence and mayhem in secondary world fantasy. Maika is searching for answers about her own past and her mother’s, and she has a thing many people want and she is a thing many people want, and she has to find the answers before the bad guys find her. So when I say fun, I mean that this is a familiar type of story, which I enjoy, and it’s wonderful to see it played out so skillfully, with such superb worldbuilding, with end-of-issue surprises that make me gasp yet still feel completely earned, and with characters whose arcs over the course of the series I’m excited for.
Marjorie Liu has said that she has deliberately written a book of only women — and as soon as she said it, I was like, “…Oh yeah. Oh hey. There are no men in this book.” Not actually zero, but very, very few. The soldiers are women, the slaves are women, the witches are women. It’s part of what makes this story so incredible, because what we see are a multiplicity of women with different ideas and motives and values — you know, a whole bunch of women portrayed as full people. Many of them women of color. In a comic written by two women of color. Doesn’t it make your heart grow three sizes? It does mine.
AND SERIOUSLY, THIS ART.
Particularly when you remember that Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda do not share a language and have to communicate with each other via a translator, this is an extraordinary marriage of the vision of art and writing. I love this comic to shreds and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Hands up everyone who’s been on the hunt for a thoroughly Slytherin YA heroine! If that’s what you’re after, Rahul Kanaki’s Enter Title Here is the book for you.
Enter Title Here is about a girl called Reshma who is first in her class (due to a lawsuit her parents filed when the school tried to change the system by which GPA was calculated) and badly wants to get into Stanford. She’s cynical enough about the system — ever since her parents got cheated by a Silicon Valley cutthroat lady — that she believes she has to have a “hook” to overcome her mediocre SAT scores. And she decides that her hook will be an agented novel that she will write over the course of the school year, all about a studious Indian American girl like herself who gets a boyfriend, makes friends with the popular kids, and goes to parties.
White people like to think we’re all emotionless study machines. They tell themselves that their kids might not do as well in school, but at least they know how to enjoy life. Well, I’ll spend a month enjoying life and then, oh, I expect it’ll “transform” me. I learned in English class that stories often end with the character having a staggering realization: an epiphany. And I expect to have one sometime right around September 28.
By the end of the novel, I’ll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.
Spoilers: That’s not exactly what happens.
Enter Title Here tries less than maybe any other YA novel I’ve ever read to make its protagonist likeable. Even when Reshma gets caught screwing up, she’s mainly sorry that she got caught and will have that much more of an obstacle in the way of her success. She’s cynical about her relationships — romantic, platonic, and parental — and even more cynical about the world she lives in. She’s cynical, but she’s not wrong: The goalposts for success in high school are clear, and she’s got a keen eye on how to meet them.
Kanakia does something really sensible in this book, given what an unreliable narrator Reshma is. (She lies about a lot of stuff that we only find out about when other characters do — and then Reshma says, oh yeah, I didn’t mention that before because it wasn’t a big deal.) It can be hard to tell what Reshma’s like as a person — where she’s all talk and where she’s absolutely living the way she says she’s living — so Kanakia has sensibly included a few characters who’ve got Reshma’s number. In her interactions with Alex and George and even the slightly-pitiful Aakash (whom Reshma selects to be her temporary boyfriend), we’re able to see Reshma’s loneliness, her honesty, her intensity, and her spots of vulnerability, in ways that she’s slightly concealing from us otherwise. It’s a neat trick in what might otherwise have been a rather cold-hearted book.
Huzzah Slytherins! (I’m not a Slytherin tho, I am a Ravenclaw, but still, Slytherins get a bum rap, and I liked Reshma.)
Happy Wednesday! This week’s episode is FULL OF THINGS, including another sea-or-space update (you’re welcome), our run-down of recent and forthcoming TV and movie adaptations of books, and the conclusion of the Second Annual Hatening. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.
What We’re Reading
Wildlife, Fiona Wood
(I also mentioned YA authors Melina Marchetta and Stephanie Perkins. Stephanie Perkins wrote Anna and the French Kiss, Lola and the Boy Next Door, and Isla and the Happily Ever After)
Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror, and the Search for Stability, Ibrahim Sundiata The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg
Sea or Space Update
Learn more about this Mauritius gravity situation here!
Riverdale (CW)1 Emerald City (NBC) The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon) A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix) The Dark Tower (movie!) The Expanse (Syfy) Powerless (NBC) Murder on the Orient Express (movie!) John Wick comic (this is a reverse one! movie-to-book adaptation!) Logan (movie)
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour
Since recording the podcast, I saw this video with the actor who’s playing Jughead, where he says that the show isn’t going to make Jughead ace. Oh well. The CW has lots of other shows I can watch instead. ↩
The time has come, the walrus said, for another romance novels round-up! I know you’ve been yearning for it. This election season was difficult, the results were worse, and these last few months more than ever I’ve needed cuddly tropey fluff to get me through.
Ruby Lang is a new-to-me author I discovered through the wonderful Romance Novels for Feminists (which has never yet steered me wrong), and I received Hard Knocks for review consideration from the publisher. Hard Knocks is about a hockey player nearing the end of his career (Adam) and a neurologist (Helen) who thinks he’s cute when he brings his friend in for a concussion check-up but does not think much of all the brain damage sports can wreak upon their players.
Oh how I love discovering a new romance author whose books are just right for me. Hard Knocks is witty and charming, with banter between the leads that is also witty and charming (in the way that so many romance novels try and fail to have their banter be, i.e., effortlessly), and I’m delighted that there’s another book in the series for me to read.1 Things I particularly loved include how angry Helen is (I love angry heroines); the fact that nobody gives a crap that she sleeps with Adam casually; frank discussion of finances (so rare); and how angry Helen is.
Did I say one of those twice? I really love angry heroines. I can already tell that Ruby Lang’s going to be one of my go-to romance authors–very much recommended!
Charlotte Highwood creeps into the library to let Lord Granville know that she absolutely does not intend to let her mother entrap them into marrying — and kind of gets entrapped into marrying him. She’s determined to find them both a way out of it. He’s a spy. Everyone’s stuck at this manor house for one of those house parties where people are so nosy and everyone is maybe creeping away to do assignations.
Frankly, this is a delight from cover to cover. I love and revel in angsty romances (cf. my longtime love for Meredith Duran), but it was a refreshing treat to encounter a heroine as cheerful and indomitable as Charlotte. She refuses to allow herself to be caught up in anything like a Big Misunderstanding and perpetually cuts through the romance novel trope bullshit to say and do exactly what she means.
Courtney Milan was one of the first — maybe the first? — romance authors I tried when I decided to give romance novels another chance; and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her latest historicals have felt a trifle pat, so I’ve been on a break from them, but her new contemporary series — of which Hold Me is the second — has been excellent so far. In addition to thoughtfully exploring issues I care about (poverty, work-life balance, complicated parental relationships, independence v. intimacy), they lay out sincere emotional problems and show us how the characters navigate those issues.
Maria Lopez runs a popular blog where she imagines end-of-the-world scenarios in great detail. She has an ongoing semi-flirtation with one of her regular commenters, whom she called Actual Physicist and who calls her Em. When she goes to deliver a message to one of her brother’s friends (a scientist), the friend, Jay, is horribly rude to her, making immediate assumptions about her intelligence based on her appearance (girly! heels!), and she takes an immediate dislike to him. Well guess what y’all. Guess what turns out to be the case.
I liked this book a hell of a lot. Maria’s trans, and I love that it isn’t an issue in her relationship to Jay. I love that we see her as part of a group of queer friends, and that part of her emotional arc involves speaking honestly with her friend and former roommate Angela (who’s getting her own book, yay!) — in other words, that overcoming her feelings problems doesn’t revolve solely around Jay. I love You’ve Got Mail-y premises like this one, and Hold Me is a hugely satisfying book along those lines.
KJ Charles has a new series called Sins of the City that’s inspired by Wilkie Collins’s fiction, and frankly that’s all the information I needed to get excited about An Unseen Attraction. (Actually all I needed was KJ Charles’s name, but this Wilkie Collins thing didn’t hurt.) I received An Unseen Attraction from the publisher for review consideration, via NetGalley.
Clem manages a lodging house where everything is in perfect order, apart from the one tenant Clem’s noble half-brother won’t ever let him evict. When that tenant turns up brutally murdered, Clem’s tidy world is turned upside down — and so is the life of another of his tenants, the sexy taxidermist Rowley Green.
So much Wilkie Collins in this book, y’all. I loved it. Dark secrets to be uncovered, the promise of more scandal to come in subsequent books, it’s all completely up my alley. Better yet, Charles does a wonderful job of showing how Clem and Rowley learn to be ever-better friends and lovers to each other, treading gently around insecurities but setting boundaries where necessary. Clem is on the spectrum and Rowley comes from an abusive home, and they make mistakes with each other. The tension doesn’t arise so much from a Big Misunderstanding as from the clashes that happen around conflicting motives, loyalties, and ways of being a person. Charles is terrific at depicting Clem and Rowley’s attempts to navigate all of this, and it makes their happy ending all the more satisfying.
Basically, if the idea of a story about love, taxidermy, and murder most foul appeals to you, I’d recommend you run straight out and preorder An Unseen Attraction. It comes out on 21 February and is well worth your time.
What romance novels have you been enjoying lately, friends? I always need more recs!
It’s about a guy with allergies who falls in love with his allergist. I mean, come on. That could not be more charming. ↩
If you are an enjoyer of handsome men, this is the links round-up for you! To be quite honest, the world has been mighty daunting these past two weeks, and I haven’t wanted to include a lot of things in my links round-up that would bum you out more. I tried to mostly have fun stuff in here instead. Not sure if this is going to be the new path forward for these links round-ups? I don’t know. Do y’all have a preference? Incisive commentary, or fluffy cheering-up items? A blend?
I have a lot, A LOT, of questions about what goes on at a miniaturist convention. A LOT, and also, I kind of want to go to a miniaturist convention and then write a murder mystery set at a miniaturist convention. Don’t you?
Mm, at last, a thriller set in Martha’s Vineyard that takes into account the bloody conflict between India and Pakistan (and sometimes China) over who rightly owns Kashmir. I read about author A. X. Ahmad in NPR’s 2015 Book Concierge, and yes, I am embarrassed that it took me over a year to finally read The Caretaker. But such is the life of a reader.
I was kind of joking before — I have not been specifically yearning for a mystery novel set in Martha’s Vineyard that also incorporates the Kashmir conflict. But it’s kind of great that one exists. A. X. Ahmad has written two books about ex-Indian army captain Ranjit Singh and the mysteries in which he finds himself enmeshed, and this is the first. When Ranjit takes a job as a caretaker for the rising star politician Senator Neals, who recently negotiated the return of a hostage from North Korea, he anticipates a quiet winter for himself and his family as the Martha’s Vineyard vacationers clear out for the season. Instead he ends up embroiled in international intrigue and deception, his family slated for deportation as he scrambles to figure out what is happening in time to restore their life of normalcy.
I don’t read many mysteries and am therefore not particularly qualified to speak to whether one is good, but The Caretaker was an immensely satisfying read for me. Ranjit takes the job as caretaking with the intent of using the extra cash to buy a nice winter coat for his beloved daughter Shanti. When the situation spins wildly out of control, he remains competent and careful, working through the information he possesses to try and get the situation back under control. It’s a fun and exciting story with characters I enjoyed, and I’d definitely read a second one.
In not-so-great elements, here is where I have to cop to being extremely my father’s daughter. One time I was talking to my dad about some romcom he’d checked out from the library, and I asked him how he liked it. “I didn’t like it at all,” he said, the most indignant that a human man has ever been. “The guy and girl are cheating on their boyfriend and girlfriend! This was supposed to be a comedy!”
LOOK. I would JUST HAVE PREFERRED IT if Ranjit hadn’t cheated on his wife. I just would have felt happier about him as a protagonist is all, if he hadn’t slept with the Senator’s wife — not once! SEVERAL TIMES, a bunch of them while his wife and daughter were meantime in a detention cell.
Apart from that, an excellent read. I understand that Ranjit and his wife are separated at the start of the second book in this series, The Last Taxi Ride, so if Ranjit sleeps with any ladies in that one, I won’t have to be so fussed about it.
Friends, am I being unreasonable? Is it fine for people in books to cheat on their spouses and I should just suck it up and accept it as part of the literary landscape? Also, does it seem to you that dude detectives in ongoing mystery serieses are particularly prone to cheating on their spouses?
Mmmm, this was the YA duology I badly needed, you guys. Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton saw into my soul and recognized that I have had a slightly grim reading year this far and that I needed a ballet boarding school book, the soapier the better. Tiny Pretty Things and its sequel Shiny Broken Pieces were there in the clinch.
What a perfect book (and sequel) for my mood. Tiny Pretty Things follows three narrators at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, the blonde legacy ballerina whose bullying hounded another girl out of school the year before; June, who struggles with an eating disorder and always finds herself in second place; and Gigi, a rising star in the conservatory with an eye on Bette’s boyfriend. The book acknowledges that the ballet school is very white, but our narrators are more diverse: June is Korean, and Gigi is black. In a world of not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies, there are catastrophically not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies with protagonists of color.
As you’ll have gleaned from the previous paragraph, while these books are a lot of fun if Murder Bunheads are your thing (they are absolutely my thing, I would read a thousand books about Murder Bunheads), they do deal with some difficult topics you may not be in the mood for. June has an eating disorder, Bette pops pills, there’s racism in the ballet (shocking, I know), and there’s an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the second book as well as a severe allergic reaction leading to hospitalization. Plus, I mean, obviously bullying. THE MOST bullying.
“HOW ARE THESE BOOKS FUN THEN JENNY?” you may be screaming, and look, I don’t have a good answer. I like reading about Murder Bunheads, and I have done since I was a wee tot and I picked up Battle of the Bunheads at a book sale in Maine. These books are fun because the characters keep thinking of absolutely awful things to do to each other. Nobody is above it. Everyone is terrible. I would hate it if they were in any other setting, but since they’re in a ballet school I ate it up with a spoon.
Wanna hear a joke? I got After Disasters out from the library the week after the election. Get it. Get it. Because the election was a disaster and now we are after it.
After Disasters circles around a lot of different events, but the one at its center is the 2001 earthquake in the District of Gujarat, in India. Ted and Dev and Piotr and Andy are all involved in the earthquake disaster response, and this story follows their recovery efforts as well as how they came to be in their professions and how all their lives intertwine. It is one of those books with many moving parts that reaches its conclusion and feels — though not every loose end gets resolved — both satisfying and inevitable.
Viet Dinh employs a style of reveal of which I am particularly fond, which is to unspool gradually the emotional backgrounds of these characters in a way that casts light backward onto what we’ve seen from them already. It’s done so smoothly that even saying “reveal” is overly sensational. In practice it feels more like a gentle reminder: You knew already, didn’t you, that Ted used to work in pharmaceuticals and that this current job is a kind of atonement? Yes. The information feels so familiar that you must have known it in the first place.1
I also loved Dinh’s depiction of the practicalities of disaster relief work. I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of how he wrote about these people, but it felt at least very real, how the workers from different countries and agencies would remember each other from previous disasters, or how the practicalities of transportation would supersede nearly everything else. It was a reminder that no disaster is ever damaging enough, and no job stressful enough, that the people involved stop being human.
“This is a high-stress job, and when people work in close proximity — what do you expect? It’s emergency sex. All the aid workers sleep with one another.”
“Even Catholic Charities?”
“Especially Catholic Charities!”
I am a Catholic, and I endorse this joke.
He can’t take it, he can’t take the collapse, the damage, the dust; he wants to know that the world hasn’t forgotten him; that, in these moments after disasters, people are reaching out, so even though all the lines are still busy, all the lines are occupied, he tries, again and again and again, until — finally — he connects–
After Disasters is a lovely and sad book that gets at the meaninglessness of the disasters it depicts without ever sinking into despair. I haven’t seen much coverage of it thus far, and I’m hoping this year brings it the acclaim (I think) it deserves.
This is one of Maggie Stiefvater’s greatest gifts as a writer. ↩