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A Barricade in Hell, by Jaime Lee Moyer

Review copy provided by Tor. Additionally, Jaime is a personal friend, and we share an agent.

As I read A Barricade in Hell, I kept thinking, “Why can’t I have a TV series like this?” Jaime does the research into her visual cues meticulously, from the flowers to the furriers to the Chinatown streets. They’re touchstones, jumping-off points for the narrative, grounding the fantastical in the historical. And the two main characters fit together so well: Delia’s work with ghosts and poltergeists meshes so well with her husband Gabe’s police work, each complementing and balancing the other, that I keep thinking, “This is such a good place for a scene break in a book…and it would also be a good place for a scene break in a TV show…if I could have a TV show in which a married couple had work strengths that complimented each other like this!” But honestly, it’s not that common in the written side of things either.

And 1917 in the US is such a volatile setting, such a fascinating time, with “modern” technologies just introduced but not ubiquitous (cars, telephones–present but not to be relied upon), and also of course with the US poised on entry into the First World War. A Barricade in Hell uses that and all its attendant tensions without being directly about the politicians in Washington, and without forgetting that even a country that’s been isolationist can’t be isolated. I was so pleased with this, so very pleased. Highly recommended. It doesn’t come out for awhile, which makes now your perfect time to catch up on Delia’s Shadow if you haven’t already.

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Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson, by Mark Siegel

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is a graphic novel with a very distinctive style. The art is all charcoal drawings, not at all period (the setting is 1887) but evocative of period, and when I saw the stag rising up from the Hudson River, I went, “Oooooh,” and wanted to fall in love.

I wish the stag in the Hudson had been, y’know, a great deal more important. Or that the references to Twain and Lafayette had gone somewhere interesting. Or that the two little boys had, or the black boiler workers or…or…something. This was a book of loose ends and missed opportunities. If you’re the sort of person who finds that graphic novels usually have entirely enough story to be satisfying, possibly you won’t feel that way, but if you often feel that there isn’t quite enough there in the best of times, then maybe give this one a miss.

Also…I have been trying to think how to say this tactfully. Some people are in a place personally where “protag is a jerk to disabled spouse” is a perfectly fine narrative component for them and doesn’t really interfere with story. “Oh, jerk to disabled spouse, okay, cool,” they might say, I guess? I don’t really know. I am not those people. I am not in that place. And this is a book with that narrative device, and it is not handled in a self-aware enough way that makes me think, “Well, at least there was the part where….” There is not that part. No. It’s just kind of jerkish. And I wonder if I’m supposed to be using the potential spaces in the narrative to make excuses for the protag? But the other narrative devices (the “cure” for mermaid “affliction” is…what, really? really?) did not really incline me to be in an excuse-making mood.

The acknowledgments thank Pete Seeger and the Clearwater gang, so that’s kind of awesome.

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“I’m so mad, I’m not going to sing my aria!”

(Supernerd points to those who get that joke.)

My story The Suitcase Aria is up at Strange Horizons! Go, read, enjoy! There is also a podcast that I will confess I have not listened to, because I am terrible at listening to podcasts and I have not been well enough to put energy into extra things like, um, listening to podcasts, so please tell me how it is, those of you who are good at podcasts.

The things I find strangest in this story, the dual-purpose canals under the Berlin Opera House, are absolutely true. I made up several other bits, but that was not me, that was history.

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Books read, early February.

Things are really quite bad here. Lots of time on the couch with a book. Hoping for it to ease up…any time now, really. Any time now would be good. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Jesse Bering, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. I cannot think of any reason you might want to read this book. Bering has a breezy, jokey tone, but he’s very patchy on documentation vs. blathering on with his opinions. There are several interesting books to get written on how we know what we know about sexual response and hard-wiring vs. experiential wiring and how knowledge of taboos and accepted practices gets passed along culturally. This is none of them. Also, Bering starts early on with the assumption that harm should be a gold standard for what is and is not tolerated by a wider society, though individuals and groups may have additional standards for what they personally cannot or will not do or stand for; sounds reasonable enough to me, but he never makes the argument for why–and then halfway through the book says that he hopes he has demonstrated why. Well…no. He didn’t even try to demonstrate why. (Seriously, it was: “I hope I demonstrated the thing I asserted.” “No, you just asserted it.”) And that kind of shaky logic underpins all sorts of discussion here, on a set of topics where it is least helpful and most fraught. NOT recommended, and this is the second book in as many months I’ve gotten on New Scientist’s recommendation only to find it shallow and disappointing.

Gillian Bradshaw, London in Chains (Kindle) and A Corruptible Crown. A pair of English Civil War novels about a young woman who comes to London and becomes a printer and a Leveler. They’re pretty melodramatic–the villains twirl their mustachios with great glee–and there is an element of sexual violence for our heroine to get past. But how often do I get English Civil War novels, much less novels whose plot is “our heroine becomes a printer and a Leveler”? I mean, feel free to go write me more without the sexual violence if you like; until then, beggars, choosers, you know.

James L. Cambias, A Darkling Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Betty Boyd Caroli, The Roosevelt Women. Mothers and wives and daughters and aunts and cousins of the two Roosevelt presidents, very different personalities and politics. In some places this volume went more in-depth than I’d seen, and in others it glossed over, so it was a good companion volume for others, I think, rather than a place to start. Caroli pointed out that when she’s written about First Ladies in the past, she’s discovered that it’s less that they’re interesting for the men they’re married to and more that we get better documentation of these independently interesting people because of who they married. That’s certainly the case here. I think her decision to deal with Eleanor entirely in the context of her relationships with the rest of the Roosevelt family was a good one, since there is so much available Eleanor material elsewhere, and that’s not the case for the others.

Lyndsay Faye, Seven for a Secret. This has happened twice in a row now: I have mistaken a Lyndsay Faye title and cover on my library list for a random urban fantasy thing. “Oh, I’ll try whatever this urban fantasy thing is,” I have thought. “Maybe it’ll be good.” Lyndsay Faye does not write urban fantasy, brain! (Lyndsay Faye does not write urban fantasy, cover designers!) She writes historical mystery. No fantasy elements. Try to remember this, brain! Also, you already know you like her series, brain! Seriously, brain, keep up! (I remembered the book, just not the author/title. Oh, brains.) This is the series that’s set immediately after the founding of the New York police. This volume deals with blackbirders and the evil they did, entangled with the politics of the early New York City police being funded almost entirely by the Democratic Party, which was not at all sympathetic with abolitionists. I enjoyed it. It would probably be okay to start with this volume, but there is some arc plot that will have more emotional impact if you have the first one under your belt.

Zoe Ferraris, City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers. Second and third in the series of mysteries set in Saudi Arabia, written by an American woman who married into a Saudi family and lived there for awhile. I think the third one is really the best, so I hope she keeps writing more, if that’s an indicator of how she’s learned to do it. The way that she explores what women manage to do within the Saudi strictures, and how the Saudi strictures change how a murder mystery can be solved, both make for fascinating twists on mystery fiction.

Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. A pretty good first text if you need a first text on this period. Does what it says on the tin. Also had a screamingly funny section on an extant phrase book for Korean businessmen traveling to China at the end of the period described. Every conversation included phrases like, “You’re joking! Tell me the real price!” and, “Please stop shouting!” I feel that more early language lessons should include, “Please stop shouting!” Especially language lessons for Minnesotans. Teaching us to say, “Can you please say that louder?” in Japanese but not, “Please stop shouting!” looks like a grave oversight in retrospect.

Rawn James Jr., Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation. I hope Rawn James Jr. goes and writes more books, because I liked this one pretty well, and the one he wrote on the desegregation of the US military was excellent. While it just says “segregation” in the title, the main focus was on educational segregation, with a little bit of union segregation thrown in where it was relevant. James’s legal experience came in very clearly with the relevant court cases. Good stuff, interesting stuff.

Snorri Kristjansson, Swords of Good Men. Grimdark Vikings. Such grimdark Vikings. There were a few quite good moments, but I…don’t actually like grimdark. Even when it’s done really quite well. I don’t enjoy the levels of bodily fluids and sexual violence. So if you want one of these, yep, here’s one of these. I don’t want one of these. You go ahead.

Peter H. Lee and Wm. Theodore de Bary, Sources of Korean Tradition Volume One: from Early Times Through the Sixteenth Century. What they mean here is Korean Religious tradition, which is why I ended up muttering, “too much Buddhism, not enough roller derby” at this book repeatedly, and at one point wailed, “there is no Dana, only Buddhism!” Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that Buddhism is immensely important to Korea’s history. It’s just that every time I would come upon a reference to something else–anything else–that might in the broader sense be considered part of Korean tradition, I would seize upon it eagerly. “So-and-so got on the ship to China.” Yes, ships? Tell me about the ships. Merchant fleets separate from the fishing boats in this period? How big? Made of what? What kind of sailing technology? “Here is what Buddhist texts they studied when they got to China.” Aughhhh. Or else something about mulberries and silk, and I would perk up, yes, tell me about the silk, tell me about the weaving industry, the dyeing industry, the silk trade, the mulberries. “Here is how they are a metaphor for Buddhism.” AUGHHHH. So I now have an extensive reference about how Buddhist and Confucian thought affected Korea in this period, which is good to know, it really is. It’s just…Korean history. A continuing quest.

Nancy Mitford, Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie. Two comic novels, not really upbeat but not tragic either, one in the 1930s and the other in the 1940s. The spy novel ending of Pigeon Pie had me just howling, so if you’ve read ten million non-comic spy novels, by all means go to. They’re quite short, and while there’s not a lot there, there are worse things for a day on the couch.

Chris Moriarty, The Watcher in the Shadows. I have been waiting for this sequel to The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, and then it slipped out without my noticing somehow. Definitely recommend that you start with the first one for full effect, but: magical early twentieth century New York with all sorts of class warfare and ethnic variety thought through. Very much my cup of tea.

Kenneth Oppel, Such Wicked Intent. Another of his prequels to Frankenstein. Gothy, angsty YA. Meh. Not sorry I read it, glad there aren’t more so I wouldn’t have to decide whether to keep going.

Guy Rickards, Jean Sibelius. Tolstoy was so wrong. Dozens, thousands of Finnish families of this era were unhappy in precisely this way: father drinks and everyone is miserable; father stops drinking awhile and everyone is miserable; father starts drinking again and everyone is miserable. Death of one of the children. Additionally, typhus. Seriously, the biographer was of that suboptimal kind who went around armchair-diagnosing with all sorts of things, but even so it really looks like the only interesting thing Janne Sibelius ever did was write music. If you ever think that being brilliant is enough to save you from being a crashing bore and kind of a jerk, go read a Sibelius biography. Also: I have read a great deal about a great many Finns, and Sibelius appears to be the first one who hasn’t had anything whatsoever strange and amusing happen to him. Really. Anything. Unless it’s the fault of the biographer, who didn’t seem that bad, you just would not want this man to dinner, because he would be devoid of anecdote and drink up all your booze. Go listen to the music instead and save yourself the trouble.

Marie Rutkoski, The Cabinet of Wonders. First in a middle-grade Middle-European fantasy series. Clockwork, magic globes, alchemy, plenty to like. I look forward to the rest, but the afterword made me howl with laughter, because apparently Rutkoski’s Czech relatives are my Swedish relatives in disguise.

Anya von Bremzen, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Oh, I loved this. So glad that Zalena recommended it, because I probably wouldn’t have gone and found it on my own. von Bremzen goes through the decades of the Soviet Union from a culinary perspective but with digressions into other points of interest–the fate of the 1927 Uzbek Women’s Day festivities made me cry and go put various books on Uzbekistan on my wishlist, for example, and apparently I’m going to have to make Stalin’s favorite dish this summer when the little eggplants are good at the farmer’s market. Fascinating book. Vivid, funny, sad, fascinating.

Jo Walton, What Makes This Book So Great. Discussed elsewhere.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Scenes of Childhood. Perfect for curling up on the couch while not feeling good, especially if you have an Edwardian sense of humor, which is one of the kinds of sense of humor I have. This book features The Poodle, and I kept reading bits of it out to the long-suffering Mark; it’s that kind of book. The only down side is that the rest of Sylvia Townsend Warner is not easy to get, and now I want it more.

Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. This is an extremely important book to have out there, and an extremely difficult book to read. For example, the things that the “father of gynecology” actually did with black women to figure out how to treat fistula…the details are harrowing to think of. Even if you think you’re thinking of them now, unless you actually have the details, they will be more harrowing than you think. Washington was apparently quizzed by more than one person while writing this book about whether the book would make black people distrust medicine, and I think she’s correct that the practices in it would, but the book would not. I think it’s extremely important to have this information available for people who need it for specific purposes, and also I think it’s important for some people who don’t specifically need it to know it. That said, you’ll want to consider carefully whether you want to be one of those people, because…as I said, harrowing. Carefully researched, carefully considered, really intelligent and thorough. But oh, those poor people. I told a family member that I am okay with being the one in our family who holds this knowledge. It needs knowing, but…not everyone has to make themselves deal with it. We can spread that out a bit.

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Being imperfect, together

In my internet wanderings, I ran into this open letter to lung cancer patients who smoked. And…I feel pretty strongly this way. I run into obits sometimes where they specify that someone died of lung cancer even though they never smoked, and I think to myself, because if they had, their families wouldn’t have permission to grieve? My grandpa smoked, back in the day, and he quit before I was born, but his COPD contributed to his death. He didn’t have to earn my grief with perfect lung-related behavior. He didn’t even have to earn my grief with perfect Grandpaing. Not a one of us is perfect. Not a one, though some of us are amazing. Sometimes we get a chance to do better. We try our best, except sometimes we don’t. We try our best at the things we can manage. Except sometimes we don’t. And we love each other anyway. And then we’re gone, and we’re allowed to grieve. We don’t have to justify our grief with righteousness.

I get upset about this in the fundraising letters from the charities I support. Habitat for Humanity sends me these letters about these families in trouble, all the good choices they’ve made and how they’re in trouble anyway, the virtuous poor, and I think, okay, yes, I believe in those virtuous poor, I believe that happens sometimes, but. But. I also believe in people who didn’t make perfect decisions and still need a place to live. It’s all right to say, “We believe that it’s not okay for people to be homeless.” It’s entirely fine to say, “We are people who think that other people should have a safe warm place to sleep. Is that who you are too? Join us. Be people who think that too. Be those people, together.”

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Small screen suggestions?

I watch a bunch of TV to get me through my workouts, and right now I don’t have a default thing of the right length that I’ve got momentum on, so I thought I would take the opportunity to ask for recommendations. I’ll list a bunch of things I’m in some sense “currently in the middle of,” and you can either suggest other stuff you think I might like or else ask what I like about the things I’ve listed. I am not current on anything: I watch DVDs or Netflix, so “current season” stuff will be spoilers for me.

Oh, and: I am a tough sell for sexual violence. It’s not a hard, fast line for me–for example, I watch Criminal Minds–but it’s pretty easy to hit my “this is no fun any more and I’m taking my marbles and going home” threshold on things like a certain popular soapy historical drama this season.

Shows I’m watching: Arrow, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, The Bletchley Circle, Elementary, The Good Wife, House of Cards, Inspector Lewis, The Killing, The Mentalist, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Ripper Street, Scandal, Sherlock, White Collar.

I am not at all limited to English language stuff, but the pacing of 22-minute episodes has to hit me right–some anime does and some doesn’t. Almost no live-action English-language stuff does. 55-minute shows can work, but they frustrate me because they’re pretty much exactly the wrong length for what I need for workouts. 40-to-44 are great, as are the 80-to-90 blocks.


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Hardest thing to understand

So the hardest thing for me to understand about the Beatles’ arrival 50 years ago, from a firmly post-Beatles lifetime, is not any of this stuff, because whatever, critics don’t get things all the time, and particularly adult critics don’t get teen culture all the time. “Adult critics don’t get teen culture” is right up there with “something something teens sex oh noes” for stories they could recycle endlessly to keep newspapers running forever without having to think about it.

No, what I don’t get is: people thought their hair was long. Go look at the pictures, they’re all over major news outlets. That is what people in February of 1964 thought was “long hair” on men. That. It’s like, maybe a couple inches longer than Ed Sullivan’s hair? It was cut with a scissors instead of a clipper? Therefore “long hair”?

This was a world that had seen ten million portraits of Jesus as a white dude with shoulder-length hair. This world had seen the Founding Fathers, the Cavaliers, Confucians, Little Lord Fauntleroy. And circa 1964 Beatles hair was long?

The thing that is so profoundly weird about the 1950s and 1960s in America, fashion-wise, is that there was this historically bizarre confluence of affluence, female skill with needlework, and expectation of conformity. That exploded after–yes, there’s “this year’s style,” “this year’s colors,” we may grumble if we have a hard time finding shirts as long as we want or pants as narrow, but the range of choice is stunning, and the amount that’s accepted–sometimes accepted as mildly dumpy or unfashionable, but accepted all the same–once you’ve left the world of high fashion is staggering. Before that period, mass communication and mass affluence just had not reached that peak where very many people had more than a few things to wear.

So the Beatles showed up and everyone apparently went, “GASP LONG HAIR THOSE SHAGGY SHAGGY MEN MY GOLLY THE SCANDAL.” And it’s not that I find it hard to understand why having long hair was scandalous, although a bit of that too. It’s that they did not have long hair. It’s that I find it so hard to grasp a world where the range of permissible was that tiny.

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A Darkling Sea, by James L. Cambias

Review copy provided by Tor.

This is a sort of book I don’t get enough of: the sort of book I refer to as planets-and-aliens. (I know there are other planets-and-aliens fans out there reading this and doing a little happy dance.) There are two kinds of aliens in this one, the Ilmatarans and the Sholen, and they are in quite different relationship to each other and the humans, and everyone is trying to figure out each other and the universe. And that is just the sort of thing I miss and don’t get enough of hurrah go team. And! And and and! It all takes place under the surface of a frozen alien planet! So there is ice and lots of water and two kinds of aliens!

The down sides are fairly small. There is a small incident of sexual violence, noted for those of you who may, after the last five years or so of the field, be fed up enough to be avoiding all such. There is also a moment wherein a character asks another if he could please make his reply to a question a bit less bathetic, and this criticism could in fact be leveled at the human interactions in general. And this may be part of what makes me not attach particularly strongly to any of the human characters.

But bah, humans, who needs ’em? You can pick up nearly any book in the store and find humans. Thick on the ground, humans. Can hardly dodge ’em. This book has two kinds of aliens, one of whom is entirely blind and it doesn’t matter in the least because they understand about tasting things in the water and using sonar so thoroughly that we are most of the way through the book before it occurs to them that the funny monkeys have a silent head sense that sneaks up on them. And every time you go thinking that one of the aliens is acting awfully human, something happens that…well, no, really, they’re not.

So I am quite pleased and satisfied. More aliens, Mr. Cambias. More. Humans only if you feel it entirely necessary. But ice and water and aliens: more.

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What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor. Also I am a friend of Jo’s.

Also in personal connections to this book: Jo quotes me as saying that the physics in Anathem is no good, which it true, and which pleases me, because this is just the sort of book I would have read when I was an undergrad doing summer research and trying to find books in Library of Congress system libraries, and having the aside from me and Chad Orzel about the physics might well have saved me from diving enthusiastically into Anathem based on the rest of Jo’s essay only to find out about the physics with dawning horror. I shout through the world of letters to younger versions of myself and people like me: “You’re welcome!”

I read most of this book in its original blog post form, but for me it reads very differently in book form. I’m not sure why. Partly I think that it flows when there’s stuff to go on to: there is the sort of clear path from one essay to the next that is the sort of sensible train of thought that is the exact opposite of what my own reading does, that is how I would construct someone else’s reading if I was going to do it but is not how it actually works out for me. (I am more likely to say, “I’ve just finished Dragon, what do I want to read next, oh, I know, this photography book on the First Nations people of Northern Canada,” than, “I’ve just finished Dragon, next I’ll read Issola.” And I love Issola; it’s my favorite.) (Yes, even more favorite than Tiassa even though I am a Tiassa.) (Yes, even more favorite than Teckla even though it has barricades.) (I digress.) (But so does Jo’s book! So it’s thematic.)

Despite Issola (a graceful sweep, not a trap door!), Jo and I are quite a lot alike in the bits of this that are not about the specific books: the reading in sips throughout the day, the conviction that there are never, ever, ever enough books, and the whole thing is great fun to read. I have seen other people saying that What Makes This Book So Great is going to be an expensive book for them, and it might be that, if you don’t have a good library either in your home or close by. But for me it was mostly a book that made me have to stifle email impulses. The Cetagandans aren’t effete, they’re decadent, it’s not the same thing! And like that. There’s a lot like that. But I like doing that. Genre is a conversation; well, this is a conversation about a conversation. The last essay in the volume is about criticism versus talking about books, and how what this book is doing is talking about books. Well, most of what I do here is book posts talking about books, too. (None of it is criticism, but I reserve the right to talk about food and my dog and so on.) And if you want more of that, here’s a whole lot of more of that, all at once, with Delany and Bujold and all sorts of cool books talked about. Fun, and somehow different fun in book form.