The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 23rd June 2020
I love the idea of Wuxia, but I’ve actually encountered very little of it, and I think that puts me at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating how successful this is, and knowing how to enjoy it. And it’s marketed as being about a “found family” — well, that should be totally up my street!
Unfortunately, I didn’t really get along with it as well as I’d hoped, and the “found family” feels fairly thin. The characterisation of anyone apart from the main characters is fairly light, and I didn’t really feel I got a handle on who anyone was as a person and what they held dear, apart from those main two (and even then, sometimes I struggled). It feels like it’s going to be an adventure story, but in the end it’s more personal — only I didn’t feel like I came along for the journey.
This sounds more critical than I want to be; I enjoyed reading it, and appreciated Tet Sang a lot. I don’t know how to stack up my experience here against other Wuxia books, and I think that’s part of the problem.
Language Myths is a short and sweet collection of essays from various linguists, ruminating on various language myths from the incredibly specific (“Maori is an inferior language because you cannot use it to discuss astrophysics”) to the words on everyone’s lips (“kids are ruining the English language with their sloppy usage”). Most of it will be unsurprising to anyone with a spec of linguistic knowledge, and the level of interest and depth varies depending on the linguist writing the given essay and how good they are at putting their point across.
I don’t agree with some other reviewers that all the myths are strawmen, because I’ve heard exactly these arguments coming from people who hate language change, think that young people are undermining the pure clarity of the English language as it was spoken When I Was A Lad, etc, etc. Some of the myths feel a little more awkward, though, and I suspect that it because it is the particular linguist’s bugbear, and they just really wanted to write about that specific thing.
It’s not mindblowing, and the quality varies a little, but it’s still a decent primer on some of the things that linguists have to say about common perceptions of how language works.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Whoa. I did not expect to be so wildly sucked into this book. I mean, a part of me might have expected it: it’s the kind of gossipy, dramatic book with Big Secrets that is designed to get its hooks in, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else.
Evelyn Hugo is a fictional Hollywood star. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth. Her career is over now, but she’s a legend. She’s been enticing and entrancing people for years… and she wants rookie journalist Monique to write her biography. She’s going to tell her everything, under just a few conditions. Evelyn Hugo wants to tell the truth, even when it doesn’t paint her in the best light. And she’ll answer Monique’s questions in her own time.
I didn’t know much about this book until someone bought it for me in a Secret Santa book exchange, so I didn’t know what I was getting into… and it’s almost better if you don’t, if you’re into that tantalising question of what exactly Evelyn Hugo’s deal is. It doesn’t take long to get part of the answer, but if you want to be totally surprised, ignore my review and everyone else’s and go in completely fresh.
If those who don’t want spoilers have bailed out…
Let’s talk about the queer content. The big secret of Evelyn Hugo’s life turns out to be that she was bisexual and in love with another film star. Husbands came and went, with several of her domestic arrangements just providing cover for an on-again, off-again relationship. I don’t know if Reid is bisexual or how she identifies, but Evelyn’s voice and experience of bisexuality rang generally true to me as a queer person. The Hollywood setting provides a backdrop to Evelyn’s yearning and messing up and trying again when it comes to her secretive affairs with women. Or mostly just one woman, which is the bit that maybe rings less true for most people: Evelyn has sex with men frequently, and falls in love with some of them too, but when it comes to women we only actually see one attraction, one love.
Now that kind of rings true for me with some of the things she says early on about what sex and attraction mean to her. She has sex in a lot of cases because it’ll get her what she wants, not out of genuine connection; she seems to find real passion only once she’s made connections, once there’s some kind of relationship, and she only finds that with another woman once. She only lets herself find it once, maybe. But it still seemed a little odd.
When it comes to the relationship itself, the beats are familiar and not at all surprising: we can’t let anyone find out! We have to hide! We have to fake it with men! Oops, one of us actually slept with the man and now she’s pregnant! Break up! Make up! Secretttsss! It was a fun read, but I’m really side-eyeing anyone who calls it “groundbreaking”, especially when it comes to the queer content. It rings true, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I’d have been more impressed if the two of them made a go of it without breaking up constantly, maybe?
There is also a whole racial side to the book when it comes to Monique Grant, who defines herself as “biracial”, and to Evelyn, who is Cuban and completely hides it to become a blonde bombshell. I don’t know what Reid’s experience is there, but to me these portrayals felt clunky. Monique literally says she “felt like two halves”; it feels like a cliché to me. There’s one moment that rings maybe a little more true, and that’s when Evelyn’s maid speaks Spanish in front of her totally without realising she can understand, and she realises she’s buried her Cuban identity so deep it’s disappeared… but this is not really a story I feel very familiar with and mostly I feel unqualified to comment on whether it’s representative of real experiences.
In both the sexuality and the racial content, though, it feels like accounts I’ve read before, like it’s been cut out with the same cookie-cutters as a whole bunch of other stories. There’s a reason the cookie-cutters are that shape, but the shapes produced are 2D.
I don’t know if that all makes sense, but it’s how I felt about the book.
The best thing about the book for me was Harry Cameron. He was Evelyn’s best friend, and there is something real and true in the way they protected each other, made things work for one another, made a family together. I would have loved this theme to be stronger — that there was no passion between them, but he was her true partner who stuck with her through everything, who made things work even when it was hard. Evelyn’s female partner and what they did for each other paled for me compared to the truth of two queer people sticking together to make things work, and being a family even when it doesn’t conform.
Evelyn herself… she’s a strong character, and there’s a lot to like and hate about her. Again, I wouldn’t say she’s a particularly groundbreaking character, and I called most of the twists and turns of her motivations and manipulations.
In the end, it was a fun read. I tore right through it. I don’t think it was the best book in the world and I wouldn’t call it profound, despite the evident effort to make us believe in a love that transcended Evelyn’s seven husbands, the real love of her life. The answer should’ve been Harry Cameron, and for me, it missed its mark in downplaying his importance.
I love the idea of books like this: here in one book, we’re going to impart to you the principles behind everything you need to know to rebuild all the comforts of home from nothing. This one has a fun gimmick: it’s been found embedded deep within rocks, and it claims to be the repair manual for a time machine. Since you can’t repair the time machine, instead here’s how to create the comforts of civilisation that you’re used to by accelerating technological progress. To that end, it has some flowcharts for figuring out what time period you’ve ended up in, and technology trees to help you trace out what you need to do to get particular results.
It’s also packed with information, which it delivers in a pretty light style, keeping to the basics. It’s all easy to understand, and the unfortunate thing is that for me the jovial tone got old. Yes, I know, we need XYZ invention to eventually have pizza. I get it. The pizza joke is old now!
The lists for me were kind of… I didn’t like dipping in and out, but it’s also not a great experience to just sit and read it all the way through, either. (For one thing, I think that’s why I got sick of the jokes.)
It’s a really fun gimmick, and there’s a lot of information in here and plenty to pique your curiosity, if a) you know a bit less about science than I do and b) you’re a dip-in-and-out sort of reader. I am just a curmudgeon.
This British Library Crime Classic is from later in the development of the genre than some others, with half the book consisting of the rambling story a man tells to a psychologist after being accused of a murder he can’t remember committing. It’s powerfully cringy, as you can see the narrator deluding himself, and pitiful too, because he’s half-aware of himself, and there’s (as someone later remarks) a sort of innocence about him. He seems to have ended up where he is by accident, and without quite understanding, and his mind seems to be gently unravelling… even though now and then he shows insight.
As a piece of writing, it’s excellent; it makes for discomforting reading.
The latter half of the book pulls back, finally admitting just who has been killed (it was one of the two characters I would’ve predicted), and showing the preparations for the trial (and finally the trial itself). This bit is more of a sketch, lingering on details here and there… but mostly just wrapping up the story implied by the opening narrative, which I found a lot stronger.
The ending is sort of predictable once you’ve seen all those details. It makes sense that the story needs wrapping up — you can’t leave that narrative on its own — and yet it all rather weakens and cheapens the effect. A bit of a mixed one for me, now I think about it in that light. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the Crime Classics series, though; this is definitely a stand-out for that narrative voice.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I normally try to join in with a series of challenges on Habitica called the “Keeping It Real” challenges. Each month, the creator picks a Dewey Decimal category and the participants get to pick any book they want from within that category. I did try a different book first this month, but I didn’t make much headway with this, but then I bethought me of Haggard Hawks. I know of that Twitter because Thea Gilmore’s gorgeous “Grandam Gold” (featuring vocals from Cara Dillon as well!) was based on one of those tweets… and I knew there were also books. Aha! I thought.
And lo and behold, Scribd had this one, so I downloaded it and set to work. I’ll admit, reading it straight through would not be my recommended way of reading this book: it’s more of a dip in-and-out book, one to read during odd breaks and at the bus stop (provided your buses are normally punctual). When you try to read it all in one go, it starts to pall rather.
The thing is, it feels a little random. There’s the theme of going round the world, but the countries that are chosen do often feel like afterthoughts, while there are several different entries for the UK (and I’m not just talking about one from Wales, one from Ireland, one from Scotland, etc — in fact, I don’t think there’s any mention of Wales whatsoever, and we could’ve managed at least cawl or even hiraeth!).
Anyway, some interesting facts, but not a total winner for me.
I was feeling fidgety, so I decided to read for a book by K.J. Charles I hadn’t read yet. Unfit to Print is a standalone, following Gil Lawless and Vikram Pandey, the owner of a dirty bookshop and a high-flying lawyer, respectively. They knew one another at school, but have been separated for quite a long time, with Vik believing Gil to be dead. He’s looking for the son of a local Indian family, though, and that takes him to the street where Gil keeps his bookshop… and there they run into one another again.
Gil’s been hurt a lot and is as prickly as a hedgehog, while Vik’s not been interested in anyone since Gil’s disappearance from their boarding school. They quickly fall into their old intimacies, though Gil finds it hard to offer anything other than the physical and Vik finds it hard to take the physical aspect without the feelings getting in the way. At the same time, Gil needs to help Vik find out what happened to the boy he’s looking for, while trying not to get his reputation all smeared up for him…
It’s a lovely little second chance, and I quickly fell for both characters and their silly desperate attempts not to get hurt more when they’re already stumbling along with plenty of hurt to spare from their pasts. Their interaction smoulders as usual — holding hands was never so sexy — and it was a really fun read overall. The mystery aspect was a little bit perfunctory; it felt a bit of a letdown for the answer to be that easy, but it did make sense as well.
All in all, plenty of fun, though not for all the family!
Princess Princess Ever After is a short graphic novel which features a familiar fairytale trope (a princess in a tower)… with a few additions, such as the fact that another princess comes to rescue her, and the fact that her sojourn in the tower was of her own choosing (to some degree) thanks to her sister undermining her and making her feel worthless. The prince they come across needs help from them… and in the end, the two princesses get married!
It’s really really cute, and I appreciate Sadie’s anxieties and difficulties — Amira is completely kickass, but Sadie is strong in her own sweet soft way; they’re very different people and yet both strong. The art is cute too, and I want Amira’s haiiir. (Also I don’t, because long hair is a pain in the butt, but it looks cool.)
It is a bit expensive for how slight it is, but it’s full colour and beautifully presented, and suitable for quite young readers.
I actually stumbled across this book on someone’s wishlist for a book swap, and then immediately got sucked into reading the opening pages. It took me a while to pick up my own copy, but now I have… and it’s really, really sweet, and funny as well. It’s actually a collection of real letters between Helene Hanff, a writer in the US, and a London bookseller. Starting in 1949, she wrote regularly to the shop asking them for books she wanted, and they wrote back… and slowly a correspondence developed, as they found her beautiful copies of the books she wanted and she ordered them boxes of food and sent friends round to do them favours.
It’s hard to believe that these letters were real, sometimes — it’s just so sweet, and so much like something you’d see in a movie. But it did happen — and typically of reality, Helene didn’t get quite the happy ending one would want. Frank Doel, the man whom she corresponded with, died suddenly of appendicitis before she ever went to London. When she did go to London, the bookshop itself had gone.
The original letters close after the notification of Frank Doel’s death, but my copy had another book in it: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is Helene Hanff’s journal of her time in London just after the release of the first book. It’s lovely to read how she saw England and London, and the little character-sketches of everyone she met.
Nino Cipri is one of those authors I didn’t know anything about a few months ago and then started hearing a lot about all at once, so I was very curious about Finna. It’s set in what is basically IKEA, a megastore called LitenVärld. The layout of the place is so confusing that it wears at the seams of reality, and employees (and customers) have found portals to other worlds opening — and some of those worlds are less friendly than ours. As Finna opens, Ava learns that somebody’s lovely grandmother has vanished into one of these portals… and of course, Ava has to go after her. With the help of her ex-partner, Jules, with whom she has recently broken up.
The book mostly explores a) capitalist misery caused by stores like IKEA — I mean, LitenVärld, and b) Jules and Ava’s relationship, and how they fit together, and all their faults and insecurities getting in the way of what could be a pretty cool relationship. Jules has a tendency to run away from their problems and hide their emotions; Ava has anxiety and lets all her emotions burst out all over the place. Jules is eager to go off exploring, while Ava just wants to find the customer’s grandmother and go home.
T0 say too much about so short a book might spoil it, so I won’t recount any more of the plot or the characters! (Though none of that is a spoiler: it’s obvious from the first chapter.) There are some quirky ideas about the other worlds, and I could wish for a bit longer quest story that takes us through some more worlds — but it’s obvious the focus is really Ava and Jules and how our current world really messes everyone up and is soul-sucking and boring and awful. I’ve never worked retail, but that feeling rings true to me from people who have worked retail, and some of the points about how society is set up and how capitalism can really ruin things make total sense. Jules and Ava’s feelings and messiness all ring true, too.
It’s fun, and I’m not sure the conceit would really have stretched to a long book. It ends on a note of possibility and freedom, and that works for me.