Recent Reading, Part 3: Non-Fiction

 

On to non-fiction, a shorter list.

Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton is extremely readable non-fiction and I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys historicals. The Wyndhams were, as the title suggests, considered a bit wild—three sisters who moved comfortably through high society while defying many of its dictates. It’s also the story of three sisters who moved in political circles, who boasted of their intellectual tendencies, but were ultimately content to fill only the most traditional roles in the lives of the powerful men they knew: mother, mistress, wife, party planner. The woman who decided how many seats belonged at a table and then chose who to invite wielded a lot of power, I don’t want to underplay that, but it wasn’t anything new.

The strange thing is that this is a book about failures, about young people who don’t live up to their promise, about idealism fading into conventional ideals. And yet it’s incredibly fun to read. Many of the people that Renton writes about left behind journals and letters which prove that they were, if nothing else, excellent writers. So this melancholy story—it ends with World War I, and you can guess how that goes—is full of hilarious anecdotes and asides, jokes and witticisms and sharp observations, parties and pets and interior decorating and gossip. Highly recommended.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. This is an absolutely excellent book, a style of history-writing that’s become popular, and which I love: it singles out a handful of real people, all North Koreans who ultimately sought asylum in South Korea where they volunteered for extensive interviews, and tells their life stories. As the subtitle says: ordinary lives in North Korea. But Demick hangs a history of the nation on those threads, broadening the scope with context, research, all the hard data she can cobble together. The result is both a pleasure to read and incredibly informative.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole. This is a collection of essays, and the pleasure of reading came largely from the variety of topics they cover—jumping from book reviews to politics to travelogue and back again. By the end, you feel like you’ve had a wander through Cole’s pleasantly vast intellectual universe. One constant is that he focuses on race, both as a critic—his eclectic subject matter might shift from artists to authors to playwrights but he always includes African creators—and on a more personal level. He writes a lot about the experience of being a black intellectual. I nibbled on this book for a few months—the essay format is great for that—and really enjoyed it.  

One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 by Rosemary Ashton. I read this mostly for research, as my new series spans most of the 1850s, but it was enjoyable. If it sounds a bit random—why Dickens, Darwin, and Disraeli? Why 1858?—that’s because it is. The only things Dickens, Darwin, and Disraeli have in common are 1) they’re men 2) whose names all start with the letter ‘D’ and 3) they were adults in 1858. But that’s what makes the book fun, in the way that certain movies or plays can be fun: three different stories that play out on the same stage, inhabiting the same very specific moment in time. It’s slice of life storytelling meets history book.

Recent Reading, Part 2: historical all sorts

I’m grouping everything historical into this post—a mix of historical romance and historical mysteries—which adds up to a smaller list, but everything on it is excellent.

Hollow of Fear is the third installment in Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series and I love the series more with each new book. There’s just so much great stuff going on here. What initially drew me in was the way that Thomas has distributed Holmes & Watson’s canonical skills—like Holmes’s ability to manufacture disguises, Watson’s doctoring—to a wider cast of (female) characters, giving everyone a chance to shine without at all diminishing the brilliance of Holmes.

In Hollow of Fear, Thomas won my heart all over again by tackling the pros and cons of marriage in late Victorian England. She gives both sides a fair hearing—on the one hand, a rich dreamboat who, like Beyoncé, believes that if you like it you should put a ring on it. On the other hand, our heroine is a financially independent woman who understands the law as it pertains to marriage, and can’t quite stomach the thought of giving up so many rights and freedoms. Best of all? It’s a mystery series, and I honestly have no idea which side will win the day. 

Indigo by Beverley Jenkins is a miracle of the book—my first of hers, and not the last. It’s a rigorously researched novel about African-Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War, and the subject matter is grim. The hero is wanted by slave catchers; the heroine’s parents were enslaved; injustice and cruelty threaten on every horizon. It’s also as warm, loving, and sweet a romance as I’ve ever read, with a healthy helping of (rigorously researched!) wish-fulfillment on top.

There’s a lovely sense of community in Indigo, of competent and big-hearted people collaborating with purpose, with strong protagonists who appreciate one another’s strengths. The hero and heroine are good to one another at the beginning, when they don’t like one another very much, and they are good to one another at the end, when they’re deeply in love. They’re good people. And over the course of the novel, they work together, play together, save one another—they pave the way for a true HEA.

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran is one of the best historical romances I’ve ever read. I feel like I ought to stop with that—if you read me, there’s a good chance you’ve already discovered Meredith Duran. If you’ve discovered Meredith Duran, I assume you already love her books. We should all be on the same page.

But just for form’s sake: A Lady’s Code of Misconduct takes one of the oldest tropes in the book, one that really lends itself to silly, over-the-top plotting and authorial cheats—I mean amnesia—and plays it straight.

Before he was hit over the head and left for dead, the hero was a brutally effective, power-hungry, and essentially amoral politician. The gap in his memory covers pretty much his entire political career so he wakes up with a headache and no idea how he became such a terrible person. 

The heroine, for her part, knows exactly what sort of man he was. She has a hard time believing the amnesiac version is real, and the more she learns to love him, the more she fears the return of his memory—and his old personality, which she’d feared and loathed.

The whole progress of the book, every twist and turn, has so much intensity and impact. It’s just great. And it’s about amnesia!

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare is wonderful in all the ways I’ve learned to expect Tessa Dare books to be wonderful: it’s beautifully written, it’s funny, it touches on some serious issues without taking itself too seriously. It dives head-first into Romancelandia’s most well-loved tropes and swims exuberantly through them, maybe adds some underwater ballet.

Dare is an author who’s figured out what she does well and plays to her strengths—and the result is some of the most consistently enjoyable historical romance I’ve read.

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn is the second Veronica Speedwell book. The series settles into itself here, starts feeling comfortable and confident and the result is that I finished it much more committed to the series than I had at the start. Raybourn is an excellent author and I loved the Lady Julia books, so it’s exciting to get on board with a series that’s still gathering steam.

Start with the aptly titled A Curious Beginning if you want to read about Veronica--a woman who has happily turned her back on polite society and embraced life as an adventurous lepidopterist who does what she pleases, when she pleases, how she pleases, whether or not it pleases anyone else—and Stoker, the irascible natural historian who joins her for witty banter and mystery-solving.

 

Recent Reading, Part 1: SFF and the like

I wanted to do a recap of my recent reading—and then I realized that it would be my first this year, and if I want to cover everything I’ve read I’ll have to divide it into several posts. I’m starting with a round-up of all things magical and speculative—fantasies, urban fantasies, sci-fi, fairy tale retellings, and the like.  

I want to highlight my two favorites: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik and The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells.

Spinning Silver is an inside-out Rumpelstiltskin, told from the perspective—essentially—of Rumpelstiltskin. The main protagonist is a moneylender who is content with her profession and proud to execute it well. We understand why especially after she finds herself entangled with a fairy prince for whom all debts are anathema.

The book is all about debts, and different kinds of debts--there are several interweaving plotlines and they all play on the same theme. What does a child owe her parents, what do parents owe their children, what happens when those relationships are unbalanced or abused. The writing is beautiful and it features a romance involving an angry, emotionally unavailable fairy prince, and that’s a winning combination in my book.

The Murderbot Diaries are a series of novellas by Martha Wells, starting with 2017’s All Systems Red, progressing to Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and ending on Exit Strategy, with a full-length novel to come. The only bad thing about them is that the novellas are expensive and they are too short. Everything else is amazing. 

This is really good, really smart sci-fi, set in a universe where corporate power has run amok and sentient robots—everything from spaceships with advanced AI to cyborgs combining man-made tech and organic matter—are common. The star of the show is the protagonist, a not-quite-top-of-the-line cyborg who gives itself the name of Murderbot, since it usually works security. Murderbot is good at security, but would really rather spend its time watching entertainment feeds, following her favorite shows, and avoiding humans. Or at least, that’s what it tells itself. When the humans it’s assigned to guard are put in danger by the very corporation that manufactured it, Murderbot goes rogue.  

But how about some other books I enjoyed?

The Power by Naomi Alderman is a beautifully written, high-concept novel that asks the question: what would happen if one day, all over the world, young women developed the ability to shoot lightning from their hands? This new power flips the fundamental imbalance that underlies all gender dynamics. The book starts out really interesting as women test the fences, feel out how things might change, and finally gain confidence in their new strength. I think it ends on a dull note, suggesting a lack of imagination more than anything, but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking book.

The Golem and the Jinni takes a piece of American history, adds a dash of magic, and the result feels truer than the truth, a vision of the America I want to live in and believe in. In the novel, a golem and a jinni separately migrate to New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. They blend in with the crowded, busy, struggling immigrant communities most associated with their own mythologies, extraordinary creatures building ordinary lives for themselves, and along the way they meet and become friends. It’s beautifully written, by turns sad and hopeful, fundamentally a love song to New York City.

The first two books in the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden were great—a Slavic setting, a blend of history and fable, some favorite tropes that are so well done I fell in love with them all over again. To wit: a feisty girl who wants to go on heroic adventures instead of getting married and settling down, matched with a curt, emotionally unavailable man who falls in love despite himself. If that’s your catnip, you’ll enjoy these books.

Two books that I loved fall pretty far along in established series, while also providing good entry points for new readers: Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews and Lake Silence by Anne Bishop.

Iron and Magic is a spinoff from Andrews’s Kate Daniels series and it features an angry, emotionally unavailable warrior (are we sensing a theme yet? I’m sensing a theme) who ends up in a marriage of convenience with a powerful witch. It features a rare alpha/alpha pairing and the relationship develops in the most marvelous, satisfying way. Plus, as with all Ilona Andrews books, the greater cast of characters is great, the worldbuilding is top-notch and there are some great action scenes.

Lake Silence is set in Anne Bishop’s World of the Others, a paranormal alternate earth where humans never become the dominant species—this earth is ruled by spirits of the earth and administered by a host of magical creatures called the ‘Others’, among them vampires and werewolves. The main series starts with Written in Red and follows an urban enclave where humans and Others meet and mingle, forming relationships that will hopefully benefit both. This side-series is set in a small town surrounded by wilderness. The stakes are lower but as with all the Others books, the pleasure in reading comes from watching wildly different beings learn to work together, solve problems together, enjoy one another’s company. The books can be gory and Lake Silence starts with a grisly murder, but the overall feel is always warm and comforting.

The Last Wish is a book of short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski set in the Witcher world and featuring Geralt—so of course I loved it. I parceled out these stories like a miser, because it’s such a pleasure to read something new about characters I love & I didn’t want to run out. But the inevitable happened & here the book is on my list. Start with the novels if you’re interested.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton was wonderful—it’s essentially a fantasy Pride and Prejudice where all the characters we know and love have been replaced by dragons. The most interesting, and horrifying, aspect of the change is that so many of the customs that seem nonsensical in Pride and Prejudice make perfect sense when the characters are cannibalistic lizards. For example: young female dragons can’t inherit from their father because they are too small, and neighboring dragons will eat them and steal their land.

And lastly, the Monstress comics by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda. The art on these comics is gorgeous and the story is grim. The contrast alone is enough to give a reader’s heart a good squeeze. It can be hard to follow, though, and the action proceeds slowly. Still, I read two volumes and I’ll pick up the third soon. 

Hectic month.

How is everyone? It's been a hectic month for me. I left Morocco, enjoyed a brief vacation in Lisbon (where I especially enjoyed Sintra--wow, wish I'd had more than a day there!), and now I'm back in California, in the US, for a few months.

I'm writing (Cordelia's book is going well!) and when I've got spare time, I'm usually canvassing. I really don't want this to be a political space--I'm not secretive about my politics but I doubt anyone comes here to learn about my views--so I'll spare you the details.

I will say that canvassing is a pretty draining activity for a grumpy introvert like myself--I use up a week's worth of smiles with every two-hour session. And yesterday was strange, just because of the weather. High winds had blown out electricity in some neighborhoods and walking door to door was more of an adventure than usual, leaping over the piles of leaves and fallen branches that had collected on the sidewalk.

I guess it's finally fall. And probably time for a report on what I've been reading over the past few months--expect a post with some highlights next week.

Are you a good Beast? Or a bad one?

So someone who read Bed of Flowers might wonder how I can claim it's inspired by Beauty and the Beast when there's nothing 'beastly' about my hero, Baron Orson Loel. 

I started writing Bed of Flowers last year, while the new Disney live-action Beauty and the Beast was in theaters, the one with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. I didn't see the movie until much later but I did catch a tweet--it's been so long I'd never be able to find the original, so I don't remember who wrote it or the exact words--but it said something like, "I'm not seeing this movie, I'm done with stories about privileged white guys getting second chances." 

It was still in the early stages of plotting out my book and this comment really stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more central it became to the way I imagined my Beast. Most modernizations I know focus on finding a real-world parallel for Beast's physical transformation. They generally link his isolation to his appearance. This can be done thoughtfully--I loved both Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast and Tessa Dare's The Duchess Deal, two romances where Beast's challenge is to deal with trauma that's left psychological as well as physical scars. These Beasts do battle with their own demons and the victory they need, the key to the happily ever after, is the resolution of an invisible, internal battle. 

But I was still thinking to myself: what if all the people who hate Beast have a point? What if they don't want to forgive him? Maybe they shouldn't have to.

And that's why I didn't write about a Beast unfairly rejected by the world--I wrote about the arrogant prince who failed a test of character. A man who's life has been blighted as a consequence of his own actions, and who accepts those consequences without resentment or complaint. 

I won't spoil the details of how it all came to be, but Bed of Flowers is set in the small seaside town of New Quay and every single person who lives there loathes Loel. The heroine's family most of all; like in the original tales, Bonny Reed--my Beauty--is the daughter of a once-wealthy merchant who's fallen on hard times.

The townsfolk of New Quay are not the problem here. Loel has no right to their forgiveness. He is not owed any second chances by anyone. The fact that he gets one from Bonny is a miracle, and he knows it.

Bonny's goodness, her ability to see the wonderful man that Loel has become, drives the novel's conflict. Bonny is a good girl, through and through. She lives to make other people happy. She's not naturally inclined to rebellion or defiance. In the first chapter of Bed of Flowers, she happily accepts a proposal of marriage from a local bachelor. He's young, handsome, wealthy, from a prominent family; he's exactly the sort of person she's supposed to marry. Her parents support the match. It doesn't even occur to her to say no.

Not until it's too late, anyhow.