A repeat of the caveats about these posts on reading. This is not meant to function as an in-depth assessment. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a mix of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood). The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for 99 cents from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.
I start many books; I don’t finish most of them. When that happens, I’m often won’t discuss them. Why? Because in terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prosthesis; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often (the misuse of language; avoidance of specificity, particularly in matters of time and/or place–see below). Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but not always. I’ll make exceptions for a) those upon whose reputation my comments will have little or no impact (which is, y’know, most of them) and/or b) I believe my commentary might prove useful to a reader or a new writer.
With that warning out of the way, here’s the state of my current reading.
- The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (July 2018; MCD/FSG)
This is an unmistakably modern novel with the sensibility of now, but it excludes the appurtenances of the twenty-first century: smartphones, mobile internet, social media (though not security devices such as motion detectors and gate cameras). It is not timeless, exactly (see below for what really pisses me off about that) but it is outside this particular time. It is set in the US, northeastern commuter territory, and is about women at war, in all the ways women have always been at war. Whether army vets or suburban wives, mothers or daughters, women have always fought: with blood and bloodlines, with love, with fury and vengeance, with the armour of composure and masks, with political and social spin. You should read this book.
Here’s the paragraph I sent to the author (who, full disclosure, is a close friend) for blurbing purposes.
The Mere Wife is an astonishing reinterpretation of Beowulf: Beowulf in suburbia–epic, operatic, and razor sharp. It uses Beowulf’s three-part structure and a fascinating take on Old English traditions of animism to create a story not of a thick-thewed thegn but of women; women at war, literally and figuratively. It is Maria Dahvana Headley’s women who are the givers of grief, the dealers of doom. They are not objects but most definitely subjects whose primary allegiance is to each other. They rule and they fight. They fight as individuals and in groups (Headley brilliantly coopts another OE tradition of collective voice), as wives and warriors, mothers and matriarchs. Their chosen weapons are as likely to be swords as public relations, and they wield both fearlessly. Monstrousness is in the eyes of the beholder and these women are terrifying in defence of their people, their position, and themselves.
- A Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell (July, 2018; Harper Voyager)
Fast-moving, diverse (race, sexuality, dis/ability) science-fictional Holmes and Watson reinterpretation set in near future Washington DC during a new civil war between decent America As We Know It and the white supremacist Christian fundamentalist Send-Them-Back-to-the-Shithole-Countries misogynist base who elected the tangerine trout. The narrator is Dr Janet Watson, army surgeon, a vet honourably discharged because she got a hand blown off in the war. She has a barely functioning outmoded prosthesis taken from a dead soldier and needs to get a sleek modern one in order to resume her civilian career as a surgeon. Budget cuts make that unlikely. Watson is black and she’s queer and she has had to fight her way to an education; she doesn’t give up easily. She comes to DC to get obstinate with the Veteran’s Administration and get what she needs. Sara Holmes is also black, probably also queer (though that’s never specifically nailed down), but she works for a shadowy government agency, and appears to be from a mysterious super-rich Family. For reasons that either were not made sufficiently clear or I didn’t quite believe (when I’m reading fast I tend not to worry about details), Holmes and Watson end up as roommates in a swanky apartment on Q street. And Holmes’s work and Watson’s personal mission begin to overlap…
O’Dell’s personal identity does not match that of either Holmes or Watson (O’Dell is the pseudonym of Beth Bernobich) but she has clearly done some work to make sure she gets as much right as possible, and it’s enormously satisfying to see the famous pair given a deliciously intersectional makeover. I found some of the political references a little heavy handed, but not enough to be burdensome. However, one thing that did pop me out of the book, if only briefly—I said, “Whoa!” and pushed the galley away from me for a moment—was right at the beginning, when on p.10 I came across my own name: Watson is reading one of the Aud books. Later, Watson name checks several well known SFF writers so it felt less weird. At the end, though, I developed a new concern: that the series (for clearly it’s being set up as a series) will magically ‘cure’ Janet Watson’s disability through technology or at least render her effectively nondisabled, and can then dismiss the difference—much as the Freeman/Cumberbatch TV series magically removes and then forgets Watson’s war-related disability. We’ll see. Meanwhile, this is clean, clear, competent work. I enjoyed it. Recommended.
- Finding Camlann, Sean Pidgeon (2012)
When I started this book I had no idea what it was about. Now that I’ve finished it, I’m still not sure. Archaeology, Welsh myth and history, poetry, language, place—this could have been such a good book. It was a pleasant read, at first. But it gradually became frustrating. I had too many questions, and it did not reward my questions—about character motivation, fact, or, well, almost anything except the Welsh countryside, which I absolutely believed and enjoyed—with answers. One of the most distracting questions for me was the narrative era. No dates were mentioned and the character attitudes were confusing. The younger men behaved as though they were from the eighties, the women from the aughts in terms of their confidence in the outside world (but the sixties in terms of their self-determination), and the older characters from the forties. I suspect two reasons for this attempt at timelessess (and this is just speculation). One, there is a hint of expat experience in the loving descriptions of the outdoors, one I recognise from personal experience. Could I be projecting? Of course; I’m just guessing. But my guess is that Pidgeon has not lived in the UK for a while and his clearest, deepest memories of the people and places are of before cell phones. Given the social descriptions I’m guessing the book is set in the early 70s, but, again, it’s just a guess. And with a full length novel the reader should not have to guess; she should know. The attempt at timelessness reminded me of the irritation I feel at books that attempt placelessness: the lack of a firm anchor becomes too great a distraction. I wish Pidgeon (a pseudonym?) had committed fully to writing an historical novel instead of plumping for an unsatisfactory compromise. I read it because I was enjoying the tramping about outdoors, but I had to grit my teeth to finish it. For those who don’t need things to entirely make sense, it would probably be fine. For the rest of us I can’t really recommend it.
- The Lost World, Michael Crichton (1995)
I loved the film of Jurassic Park. It was amazing to see those CGI dinosaurs, and I admired the infodump disguised as edutainment theme park ride—very nicely done! The acting was extremely competent, too, as was the script. The direction suffered from the Spielbergian tendency to wrap everything up in a neat, nuclear-family bow but otherwise most definitely a film to recommend. I tried the book, I think—the cover image is a stroke of genius and certainly more than fulfilled its purpose of getting me to stop and reach out—but don’t remember anything about it, even whether I actually finished it. So when I found the Jurassic Park sequel for .99c I thought it worth the risk. In fact I got more than my money’s worth; I’d say it was worth $1.99. It’s stocked with, ah, stock characters—even the dinos are stock characters by now (though probably weren’t when the book was first published; it’s like complaining that Sappho and Shakespeare are full of clichés when in fact they were the creators of those now-hackneyed metaphors)—and exposition unhindered by any disguise whatsoever: it’s just brazen infodump. For the time (1995) I’m guessing the science was cutting-edge, with much rumination on population dynamics and innovation, dinosaur group behaviour, evolution, and dinosaur physiology. I’m not a paleontologist, even in the most amateur fashion—I’m guessing many fanatical nine-year olds know more than I do—but even I know that most of those views are wrong. I’m not an evolutionary theorist, either, and I don’t know that much about complexity theory but, again, what I read here doesn’t fit with what I believe is current knowledge. So, yeah, probably fun in 1995 but, more than 20 years later, not so much. Especially when it’s clearly just a blueprint for a film, and particularly bearing in the mind the eye-rollingly clunky tech. But—and it’s a big but—I read the whole thing and did not have to grit my teeth. Because it is, essentially, fun: no real angst, no sexual violence, the good guys win, and all set outside, so not in the least claustrophobic. (Oh, oh, I feel another blog post coming on, or, hmm, maybe an essay, about the delusions of misery lit.) Worth .99c, or even $1.99. Worth the effort of a digital download from the library but not worth a trip in person if there’s something better.
- The Return, Michael Gruber (2013)
I read Gruber’s Tropic of Night for the Hammett Prize 15 years ago and bullied, wheedled, and browbeat the rest of the committee into getting it shortlisted. It was the best submission I read. No one else was keen on it because there was that undercurrent of magic, also, well, zombies. Mainstream awards used to be far more leery of areality than they are now; it was a real fight. But that book deserved it. Like O’Dell, Gruber’s identity does not match that of his protagonist but, again, I believe he does a good job. So if you’re ever in the mood for anthropology, shamanism, fearless women, explorations of race, Miami Cuban culture, food, and, yes, zombies, you should read the Jimmy Paz trilogy, starting with Tropic... But today we’re here to talk about The Return. Like Tropic, this is a family story disguised as an action thriller. It relies a bit too heavily on the invincible sidekick, but it’s a thought-provoking blast, with love, guns, and the triumph of the oppressed. You’ll have to forgive the hint of white saviour stuff (Gruber does a pretty good job of handling it, but it’s impossible to ignore) but you’ll be rewarded by smart plotting, an enticing contradiction with a possibly supernatural explanation, and the occasional moment of real emotion. (I’m not entirely convinced the emotions were wholly earned, but, hey, Gruber does it so well I’m not going to quibble.) So, yes, definitely worth a read.
- Miranda in Milan, Katherine Duckett (February 2019; Tor.com)
What happened to The Tempest‘s Miranda when she left the island and returned to Milan with Prospero? Duckett has the answer, which involves love and lust, masks and monsters—though which is which, exactly, is the early question. It’s all answered with great queer Shakespearean Italian Gothic panache. I was initially worried about the pacing but then realised it was a novella and relaxed. It’s turns out to be just the right length: a fun, fast read you should snap up when it’s out early next year.
Hal, Kate Cudahy
Light and frothy secondary world duellist lesbian romance with unexpected hints of steel. We’ll see how it goes.
Still have not got to
Staring Back, Kenny Fries
Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England, Pasternack and Weston
Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, Melvin Konner
Country Dark, Chris Offutt
On the TBR pile for the coming month
Just a couple of A-S research books. No fiction. Right now I want the characters dancing in my head to be mine, not someone else’s. Spring is here; it’s time to write.