Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire is the culmination of the least trilogy-like trilogy that ever trilogied, Amitav Ghosh’s The Ibis Trilogy, of which the first two were Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke (both excellent). In  the sense that it got the band back together (sort of) and shifted the reader into the early days of the Opium Wars (about which I really will learn more soon!), it was a superb conclusion to the trilogy. In the sense that it pinged some ick sensors of mine, it was my least favorite of the series.

Flood of Fire

Do you remember that feeling when you were a kid and you would read a book that was too old for you in some way? Where you didn’t fully know why it was upsetting you, but you had that icky feeling where you just wanted to be away from the book? Did y’all experience that as kids? My memory of that feeling is why I feel so confident in kids’ ability to self-censor, so I hope it’s at least somewhat universal.

Anyway, I am a grown-up now, so I mostly don’t feel that feeling anymore. When I feel it now, it’s very often because a book starts leading up to predatory sexual practices. (At least, the last two books that gave me this feeling did it by leading up to predatory sexual practices.) Flood of Fire made me feel that way. (Lolita didn’t, but I was, of course, forewarned.) In the end, nothing as bad as what I was imagining happened, but the feeling lingered.

To be more specific, and a bit spoilery for some things that happen in the middle of the book: A white lady becomes overinterested in the onanistic tendencies of a mixed-race man in her employment and keeps asking him to come to her bedroom to discuss, you know, that. And that is a situation so fraught with badness that if it hadn’t been a book I’ve anticipated for years, I’d have stopped reading.

As with the rest of the series, though, Flood of Fire is kaleidoscopic in scope and more vivid than any other historical novel I’ve read. The people from the Ibis come back together in unexpected and tragic and joyful ways, and that was immensely satisfying. But I’ll probably reread the first two oftener.

Did you have that feeling ever, when you were a kid reading books? Have any of those books stuck with you?

Fiendish, Brenna Yovanoff

If you ever feel I’m not giving enough love in this space to Brenna Yovanoff, there just is not a good answer I can give you. I thought The Replacement was quite terrific, and if I hadn’t heard bad things about Fiendish, I’d have read it way sooner. I regret the error.

Fiendish is about a girl called Clementine who lies sleeping inside the cellar of a burned-out house, tangled in leaves, for ten years. When she wakes up, the world has changed. Her mother is dead, her own aunt doesn’t remember her, and her town hates and fears people like her, people who can work magic. And everyone who knows about magic says that a second reckoning is coming.

Confession: I finished the book the night before writing a rough draft of this post, and I already couldn’t remember the protagonist’s name; I had to look it up. And that’s in spite of there being several references to the song “Clementine” in the book. Which is to say that Brenna Yovanoff’s forte is not character, and you will want to look elsewhere for that. Fiendish excels at being hella creepy. Here are some things Fiendish contains:

  • an angry small-town religious mob that wants to burn things down
  • catfish with mouths full of rows and rows of sharp pointy teeth
  • a group of teenagers whose combined power is at substantial risk of destroying the whole world
  • a swampy place that responds to (but is not controlled by) the emotions of the boy who rescued Clementine from her cellar; this is fine if the boy is happy and NOT GREAT if he is cross
  • blurry, poisonous black dogs that I picture as being like dog-form versions of the smoke monster from Lost, except they excrete a black tarry poison as well as biting and scratching the living shit out of you
  • burned-down houses that people still live in

The morning after I stayed up late to finish reading Fiendish all in one go, my mum mentioned that she had seen reviews of Fiendish that decried the lack of agency on the part of the heroine, Clementine. Which: Okay, I can see that, she’s more reactive than proactive. But it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of what was a wonderfully creepy book, and it’s the wonderful creepiness I come to Brenna Yovanoff for anyway.

ODY-C, Matt Fraction (vol. 1)

Note: I received an e-book copy from the publisher for review consideration.

ODY-C: What.

And look, I didn’t want to say What in that disparaging, not-really-a-question sort of tone. I wanted to say, Hooray! Matt Fraction! Trying things! So to be clear off the top: I support trying things in this bold manner. When you find yourself confronted with a comic that gender-swaps the whole Odyssey and transposes it to a science-fictional universe in which Zeus (a lady) prevented anyone from ever having sons ever again, you have to pause to admire the attempt.

I will give you a second to do that.

Admire. Admire.

Here is my problem, apart from hating the art (because in comics I do truly prefer the art to have nice clean lines and not all muddy blurriness with blurry faces because I have a hard enough time with faces in real life, let alone drawn ones, let alone blurry drawn ones): For all the boldness of the concept, the execution isn’t bold enough. It really is just the Odyssey, but in space and with ladies. The Circe creature lures them in. The Cyclops creature gobbles them up. The trappings are fresh, but the story is beat-for-beat the old one we already know.

I’ve talked about this before: Homer is Homer. If you are going to give us a new take on Homer, it should make us see Homer differently. Fraction’s trying to be Homer, albeit in a science fiction universe where everybody is female. Once you get past the startling and wonderful weirdness of the premise, there isn’t a whole lot more there except the attempt — which fails, I think — at the sound and feel of the original Odyssey. And it is just no use Matt Fraction’s trying to be Homer. Homer has already got that covered.

No one’s sadder about this than me. Matt Fraction is one of my favorite comics writers, and I wanted to love ODY-C. But so far my feelings to it are mainly an urge to reread my dear, dear Odyssey in my dear, dear Fagles translation.

Please congregate in the comments to tell me why I am wrong about ODY-C and should give it another chance.

Shirley Jackson Reading Week (a round-up)

I read Hangsaman for Shirley Jackson Reading Week, you guys, and I feel like I did not understand one single thing about it. ?Cultural differences? So instead of reviewing that this week, I’ll be writing about “The Lottery” on Thursday (inshallah).

Anyway! It’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week around these parts, and people are writing awesome posts:

Words for Worms on We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Helen of a gallimaufry on the short story “Paranoia.”

Desperate Reader on The Sundial (my fave!).

Emerald City Book Review on The Sundial (my fave!!).

I will round up more later in the week, but you may content yourself with these for now!

Binny in Secret, Hilary McKay

Note: I received a copy of Binny in Secret from the publisher for review consideration.

Oh frabjous day when Hilary McKay has a new book! Hilary McKay — in case you have not heard me sing her praises in the past — is a British children’s writer who should be much more famous than she is. She writes the kind of old-fashioned children-doing-adventures books you loved as a kid, like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet or, more recently, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books; but with more carefully-drawn family dynamics than the former and more humor than the latter.

Binny in Secret, by Hilary McKay

Binny in Secret, the follow-up to Binny for Short, sees twelve-year-old Binny once again displaced from house and home. She and her mother, her teenage sister Clem, and her wriggly, personable little brother James, are forced out of their home by a massive storm. The new home is far from everything familiar, and Binny inadvertently becomes the enemy of the landlady’s daughter, and what is more, there are Creatures.

Where the Cassons are completely tangled up in each other, each Cornwallis is more of a discrete unit. Binny is especially solitary: Separated from her ?best?friend Gareth, and unexpectedly the enemy of one of the most popular girls in her new school, she spends a lot of her time alone. This limits what Hilary McKay is best with, family relations.

LUCKILY: To fill the tragic lack of family relations in Binny’s storyline, alternating chapters include the story of the family who lived in Binny’s house in the 1910s, three cousins and the museum of natural history they’re constructing. These chapters are a madly poignant counterpoint to the humor of Binny’s hunt for [redacted because it’s an incredibly charming spoiler].

Seriously: Hilary McKay. Look into it. She does not get the love she deserves and would that I could singlehandedly correct this problem. Let’s make Hilary McKay as famous as she deserves to be, people! Together we can!

(I really love Hilary McKay.)

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, Martin Millar

Note: I received a copy of The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies from the publisher, Soft Skull Press, for review consideration.

Martin Millar writes books like classic British sitcoms, where there is a central organizing event (or several) around which the action is oriented, and the characters all have their separate and incompatible visions for what is to happen at this event, and everything goes magnificently to hell, and then in the end it all turns out okay, or doesn’t. Whether or not this works for you as a structure will most likely be the determining factor in whether you enjoy any Martin Millar book, ever — including his most recent novel, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies.

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is set in ancient Athens, about midway through the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens and Sparta are holding a peace conference, and the city is preparing for the Dionysian festival at which new plays will be presented to the city. Demigods and immortals descend on the city to watch these events unfold (or sabotage them). Aristophanes struggles to get his pro-peace play Peace sorted out, and common-born Luxos does his best to jump-start his career as a poet.

Describing a Martin Millar novel — and this is a very good one — is tricky because all of the adjectives that come to mind come loaded with unwanted connotations. I always say sweet, or charming, and The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is both sweet and charming, but that undersells its cleverness. Clever implies that there isn’t any heart, and there is because it is impossible not to fall for the sincerity of Millar’s characters (and the super simplicity of their motivations). Sincere misses how funny it is.

I’ll go with funny in the end, and also self-aware: Millar clearly recognizes a level of absurdity in writing a comic novel set in ancient Greece, and his book lets the audience in on the joke without getting too winky. The story has simple stakes, but Millar knows that the historical background was far from simple, and this also shows.

Martin Millar is one of my favorite authors in the sense that you know what one of his books is going to be, and it always is most satisfyingly that. The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is as solid an introduction to his particular brand of madcap scheme-making story as any he’s written in the past.

Really important question tho: Do you like Athens or Sparta better? (The correct answer is “Athens, but”.)

Shirley Jackson Reading Week (13-18 July)

Get pumped, you aficionados of the weird and creepy! This July 13th through 18th is going to be Shirley Jackson Reading Week, a time to revisit everyone’s favorite spooky-ass author or, if you’ve never read one of her books, meet her for the first time! Simon of Stuck in a Book, Ana of Things Mean a Lot, and I are the co-hosts for this event, and we hope you’ll join us!

Lucky for you, the good folks at Penguin have put all of Jackson’s books back into print, so you’ll have the pick of the litter. If this is your first time out, let me recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a story about the two sisters who survived attempted murder and the life they live in a village that fears them. Otherwise, pick your poison! We’ll be waiting.

And spread the word! Everyone should take the chance to read Jackson’s mordant, terrifying, hilarious work this summer!

The Just City, Jo Walton

So, hmmm.

At the start of The Just City, Apollo can’t work out why Daphne chose to be turned into a tree rather than mate with him. When he goes to discuss it with his sister Athene, he finds her deep in the process of planning an experiment where she will put together a working version of the Just City envisioned by Plato in The Republic. Adult devotees of Plato from all throughout history will oversee the city’s establishment (with some robots to do the heavy lifting), and freed slave children will live there with the adults, learning and growing and reproducing in the ways stipulated by Plato. Apollo decides to become human and participate in this city, in order to get a better grip on human volition.

As strange as that made the book sound, that’s exactly how strange the book is. Jo Walton admits in the epilogue to having been nudged to read Plato at a too-young age by my girl Mary Renault, and this book is essentially what you would expect from that: Something Renaulty and Socratic-dialogue-ish, with not always quite the exact perfect ratio of scene-setting to plot advancement.

Having said that, I still found myself getting lost in this book, glancing up to find that I was just about to miss my opportunity to notify the bus driver of my stop. I expected to be annoyed with Socrates when he came onto the scene — it feels like many authors who portray Socrates want to puncture his myth and make him overwhelmingly annoying and gross — but Walton’s Socrates is wonderful, exactly what you would want Socrates to be. (If you are the sort of person who wants Socrates at all.) (Which Legal Sister is.)

And when I finished The Just City, I wanted The Philosopher Kings straight away.

And also, I would never ever ever go live in any attempt at a utopian society because that seems to never work out.

This has been my fourth and final read for the Once Upon a Time IX challenge, the mythology book. Thanks so much, as always, to Carl for hosting, and do go visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading!

Question for you: Would you ever live in a utopian commune? What kind of utopia would you want it to be?

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos

If I haven’t recently recommended Marisa de los Santos’s Love Walked In and Belong to Me, let me take the opportunity to do so now. She’s a writer along the lines of Jojo Moyes or Rainbow Rowell, where the books feel light-hearted even when sad things occur, and where the author seems to be the direct puppeteer of your heart strings (in a good way! not in a manipulative way!).

Falling Together, de los Santos’s third book, was kind of a disappointment. I had my doubts about her fourth one, The Precious One. But I am glad to report that Marisa de los Santos is right back on form. She’s a lovely and lucid writer, and her particular strength as a writer — which she has in common with Rowell and Moyes, and which makes me cherish them so much — is her generosity to her characters.

Taisy Cleary’s father cut ties with her and her mother and brother when Taisy was eighteen, and she has hardly spoken to him since. Now Wilson has contacted her and asked her to come visit in [location], where he lives with his glass-blowing wife and his new daughter, the eponymous “precious one,” sixteen-year-old Willow.

It’s such a dear of a book. As Mumsy pointed out to me, and Jill mentioned as well in her review, Marisa de los Santos writes better women than men: Either the male characters are too impossibly wicked or they’re too saintly good. So there’s an extent to which you may need to suspend your disbelief about some of what happens in this book. But it’s still lovely. If you like Jojo Moyes, hit up The Precious One. And then read Love Walked In and Belong to Me, cause those books are the books I read when I start to feel forlorn.

The Kingdom of the Gods, N. K. Jemisin

There will be no tricks in this tale. I tell you this so that you can relax. You’ll listen more closely if you aren’t flinching every other instant, waiting for the pratfall. You will not reach the end and suddenly learn I have been talking to my other soul or making a lullaby of my life for someone’s unborn brat. I find such things disingenuous.

I have this imagined thing when I’m trying to read more authors of color where I worry that I’ll reach a point at which there are no more books by authors of color that I want to read. I’ll just be gazing at my TBR list, and absolutely everything on it will be by white authors, and I’ll have to face the fact that my author-ethnicity pie chart is going to become a closed-er and closed-er mouth Pac-Man of whiteness.

This is a crazy fear for a number of reasons, not least of which being that I control what goes on my TBR list so I can definitely avoid this outcome long before it happens. But it’s sort of functioning at a lower level of consciousness where I don’t fully articulate it to myself but I do ration out the books I read by authors of color I already know I like, so that if this baleful circumstance should come to pass, I would still have at least three books loaded up in the chamber ready to save my stats.

As this is objectively deranged, I reminded myself to borrow one of the NK Jemisin books I hadn’t read yet from the library prior to setting out for India. I read it on a cross-country train trip. Whiskey Jenny was sick, and we were both exhausted and filthy because we had done a bike tour of Jaipur in the morning and embarked on a 36-hour train ride in the afternoon without any opportunity for a shower, and people kept stopping by our train car to peer at us, and we were paranoid about it because a tour guide had recently mentioned to us how slutty people in India think American girls are and followed that up a really scary story about a Japanese tourist getting raped as she endeavored to navigate public transportation in Jaipur. Under these circumstances, a lovely fantasy novel like The Kingdom of the Gods was a wonderful escape from reality.

If you’ve read the prior two novels–well, you should definitely read the prior two novels. Jemisin explains what happens in them, but still, you’ll get more out of this one if you’ve read the other two. It’s about Sieh, the god of childhood, the trickster god, who comes to love two mortal children and then, without warning, finds himself suddenly mortal, suddenly subject to aging. Lacking his powers and getting older at an unpredictable rate, Sieh must ally himself with godlings, gods, and mortals to stop another gods’ war more horrifying and fatal than the first.

I love to see writers growing as I progress chronologically through their work. N. K. Jemisin won me over with her worldbuilding and her command of a unique, startling narrative voice. Both those things are still on offer here, but The Kingdom of the Gods also has a more suspenseful and engaging plot than the previous two books in the series, such that I had a hard time putting it down even to go to the loo. (Though in fairness: We were on a train. Nobody wants to use the loo on a train if they do not have to.)