Welcome to another week of lookit-my-new-shinies, aka Tynga’s Reviews’ Stacking the Shelves. I’ve been fairly good this week: I did go shopping in Leuven’s bookshops, but I set myself a goal: only get books that you’ve never heard of before, preferably by authors you’ve never heard of. This took me some time and deliberation and paging through reviews on Goodreads, but it was pretty fun. The dead tree books below are the result!
Dead tree books
Obviously I’m pretty excited about my ARC of A Burnable Book, since that was the book I picked for Waiting on Wednesday. Of my dead tree books, I’m most interested by Bear Daughter — it’s based on West Coast mythology, if I remember rightly (I’ve packed the book in my suitcase, so I can’t check), and sounds pretty good. I’m also excited about Emilie & The Sky World; I haven’t read the first book yet, but that may well be what I read on the Eurostar today. I’ve loved what I’ve read of Martha Wells’ work.
What’ve you all been getting?
Red Sonja, Gail Simone, Walter Geovani
I’ve heard of Red Sonja before, though only as a really sexist comic character that didn’t sound at all appealing or interesting. I remember the arguments and debates around the SFWA Bulletin cover that was a tribute to Red Sonja in all her chain mail bikini glory: looking at it now, the cover itself seems less offensive, but the defence of it by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg remains completely offensive. Gah. Need to get that bad taste out of my mouth.
So I’ll talk some more about Gail Simone! I’d heard of her work on other comics, but I hadn’t read anything she’d worked on yet, so I was very curious about this. I love that she’s taken this sexist character and surrounded her with other women, peopled the world with strong women who in various different ways support each other and make the world a better place. There are some good male characters, too, but the focus is definitely on women — and women as protectors, as fighters, as able to fight for themselves.
Sonja herself isn’t the most likeable character in some ways: if she chooses to wear that chain mail bikini, for one thing, her taste has got to be terrible. She’s uncouth and she drinks a lot and she glories in violence. But… she’s also honourable, brave, capable of love. Her origin story isn’t anything particularly special, and maybe I wouldn’t find this book so good if I wasn’t so well aware of the sexist past behind it, but I did really enjoy it, and enjoyed seeing the range of female talent that went into making it.
Received from Netgalley!
Silhouette of a Sparrow, Molly Beth Griffin
Silhouette of a Sparrow is a quiet little LGBT coming of age story, set in… the 1920s or so? Garnet, the main character, has a passion for birds, a vague hope of going to college, and a summer to spend away from her family. She falls in love with a flapper, decides not to marry the boy who’s waiting for her back home, and sets her sights on going to college.
While there is drama in the story — Hannah’s outburst at her mother, thunder and hail storms, even a fire in the hotel where Garnet is staying — none of it really did much for me. It’s an introspective story, and that kind of thing didn’t seem to fit; I was much more interested in the quiet parts, Garnet cutting out bird silhouettes and thinking of her father, trips out on the lake, the quiet triumphs in Garnet’s life like getting a summer job and convincing her employer not to sell feathered hats anymore, etc.
The relationship between Garnet and Isabella is almost unnecessary, when you view it that way: a friendship between them would be enough. But then of course you remember how little there is in the way of LGBT fiction and especially teen LGBT fiction — I at least felt much less inclined to go bleh at the inclusion of an “unnecessary” romance when I thought about that.
The ending fits the story well — a mixture of the bitter and the sweet, some hope and some disappointment, maybe even some fear. It leaves a lot open, but that’s alright.
A quick post!
What did you recently finish reading?
I finished The Female Man (Joanna Russ) yesterday. I wanted to think so much better of it, but it felt like one of those stories where the message overruns the plot. Which is to say, I’m not sure what the plot even was.
What are you currently reading?
Actively, I’m back to working on reading Silhouette of a Sparrow (Molly Beth Griffin). I’ve nearly finished that one. It’s cute, I’m wondering exactly how far it will go. I think Sarah Diemer recommended this one at some point?
What do you think you’ll read next?
Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book! I was talking to him on twitter earlier and he actually sent me an ARC, so after all that I’m moving it right up my list.
A lot of posts are going to be turning up today, I’m afraid. Like buses, post topics seem to come up all at once. (I could schedule them, but this is specifically a Wednesday meme, and the other thing I’ll post later is something I always do on Wednesdays. So!)
Anyway, this post is about Waiting On Wednesday, a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine, in which people highlight books they’re eagerly waiting for. Mine for this week is Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book. I was part of Holsinger’s Plagues, Witches and War Coursera MOOC on historical fiction, and I really enjoyed his teaching style, and appreciated the way he engaged with the students. So I’m looking forward to the book because I’m interested professionally/academically, so to speak, but also because it involves Gower and Chaucer and — well, I’ll let the blurb speak for itself, shall I?
In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White.
London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an
ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low.
Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews–and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate.
Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.
The Female Man, Joanna Russ
I think people are wrong when they say this book is out of date. Many of the feminist issues Russ engaged with are still with us today, the double-standards women are held to and the things men expect of them. That part of the book seemed perfectly reasonable to me: a little out-dated, perhaps, as all of this sort of thing will become in just a few decades, but not irrelevant.
The story, however… I found it incomprehensible, buried under the weight of the feminist concerns and issues raised. I would rather have read the story and the examination of the role of women separately, I think. For me, I came to this book expecting a classic of science fiction, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem like there’s much. It’s a thought experiment, which can be done in literary fiction just as well (better?).
I’m a little uncomfortable with it being relegated to the class of science fiction, in a way, instead of being read as a classic in general. So often that’s used as a way to minimise the importance of a work: oh, quaint old genre fiction, rather than oh, social commentary. Those of us in the genre know how powerful a tool it is when used to examine society (and if you don’t, may I introduce you to the works of Ursula Le Guin?), but in academic circles… we’re starting to see more work on genre fiction — part of my MA was on Tolkien, and mainly on his fiction — and there’s been some good work on fantasy and SF, but it’s not as if any of that is even approaching “the canon”.
I almost feel like rereading this in an annotated version, or a Norton Critical Edition, would help me appreciate it more. But just on the merits of it as a story… no, I can’t say it did much for me.
Mystery Mile, Margery Allingham
Didn’t expect to read this book so soon or all in one go, but I was having trouble sleeping, so I figured, why not? It’s very obviously a cousin of Sayers’ Lord Peter (Campion could, in fact, be Peter’s cousin), although in a more satirical vein. Albert Campion is a pretty close analogue of Peter Wimsey, complete with a number of idiosyncrasies, and Lugg (although of a decidedly more criminal bent than Bunter) shares some characteristics with Lord Peter’s man.
It’s still fun, even though it’s more or less mocking one of my favourite series in many ways — it manages to be a story on its own, too. It didn’t involve me emotionally, but I did read it straight through, in one go, so there’s that going for it. I did find the mystery a little bit disjointed/incoherent: it helped that I’d read a summary somewhere before, but some of the events seemed pretty random.
Overall, I enjoyed it enough that I might pick up more, but not enough that I’m going to be in a hurry. Allingham was a capable writer, but Campion’s not interesting enough to me to follow him compulsively.
Well, I’ve bought my first new books of 2014, and I’ve got a bunch of ARCs, so this post will be more exciting than I expected…
See Stacking the Shelves at Tynga’s Reviews to see what this is all about and find other people’s posts!
Of the books I bought myself, I think I’m probably most interested in Through the Language Glass, though I have some academic interest in The White Queen (I’m generally interested in the portrayal of real queens in fiction, and the interaction between their depiction in fiction and the real nobility). My partner bought me that one!
Of the ARCs, I’ve been keeping an eye on Stella Gemmell’s The City, since I enjoyed her husband’s work, which I believe she had some input on. Red Sonja is intriguing, since I’ve never read a Gail Simone comic but I’ve heard good things about her work, and I’ve never read anything about Red Sonja before.
Why Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne
This is a suggested book related to one of my current classes on Coursera, so I decided to pick it up. I already believe in evolution, so I can’t judge on whether it’s convincing — I already know that evolution by natural selection is mathematically inevitable, and I know of a lot of the supporting evidence.
Still, this is the kind of book that produces all sorts of titbits that you didn’t know before, and which lays things out so clearly it helps you understand how to explain it to other people (which, to my mind, means a deeper understanding of the theory — if you can explain it, there are fewer grey areas).
Overall, it’s clearly written, with lots of supporting diagrams and so on where it’s useful, and a good set of footnotes and suggestions for further reading. I found it interesting, too; perhaps not for a person with a science background to begin with, but for me (humanities background, science interest) it was easy but not boringly so.
Interestingly, he also touches a little on why people find it hard to accept evolution, and answers some of those objections, too — for example, why our behaviour isn’t fully dictated by our genes, why morality and ethics aren’t dismantled in any way by evolution.
100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels, Nick Rennison, Stephen E. Andrews
This is a pretty good whistle-stop tour of some important, influential, or particularly interesting fantasy novels. I’ve got two pages in my notebook scrawled full of books to try now, and reminders of stuff I want to go back to. It’s a very accessible little book; it begins with an essay about the origins of fantasy, includes a glossary of various terms which can get confusing (the differences between sub-genres, for example) and a lot of extra suggestions after each book for further reading.
Normally, this sort of book doesn’t interest me much because they always pick the same novels. Well, this one had a fair amount of the staples on it — Tolkien, of course, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Lewis Carroll, Michael Moorcock — but it did have some others which surprised me — Megan Lindholm, for example, listed under that name and not as Robin Hobb — and some pretty recent ones too. It doesn’t claim to show us the best of fantasy fiction, which is a good plan, to my mind — only books which are worth reading.
Not exactly groundbreaking, but worth a flick through at least. Excuse me, I’m off to look up some ebook prices.