Mexican Gothic

mexican gothicMexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: Gothic fantasy

Setting: 1950s Mexico

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 301 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Noemi Taboada is a young socialite in 1950s Mexico City. Her father is a wealthy merchant and the head of the family. As such, he is concerned about image and avoiding scandal. So, when his niece Catalina sends a letter to him that sounds completely unhinged, he wants to get to the bottom of that and fix whatever needs fixing before it hits the society pages in the newspaper. He sends Noemi to visit Catalina in her husband’s home manor of High Place in the remote Mexican countryside. Things go downhill from there. 

I really loved the first part of this novel. It was everything a proper Gothic novel should be – eerie, mysterious, dark, neglected, and so on. Very much felt like a Mexican Jane Eyre. I kind of lost the Gothic feel around 2/3 of the way through, when I think it felt more like a straight horror novel than Gothic. That said, I still really loved all of it, it just felt like it switched genre a little bit in the middle there. I wouldn’t even care that much except I’m not a huge fan of horror. 

I thought Noemi was a very believable character. She was sort of shallow and vain at first, but then we learn she wants to go to university to get a master’s degree in anthropology. She is something of a flirt and prefers the chase or courtship to being caught in her relationships, but she is self-aware enough to know it. She had hidden depths that reveal themselves nicely throughout the novel. She was a really well-developed character.

I didn’t think that so much about Catalina. I know that her flat personality was actually a part of the plot, but the glimpses we got from Noemi’s perspective about her were not really enough to give her much depth or make her into a fully-fleshed person in the story for me. She felt more like a prop than a person. 

The rest of the characters – Virgil, Francis, Florence, and Howard – were suitably developed for the roles they played in the novel. I don’t think they were super deep but they all did have certain nuances to their personalities and were fine for the purposes they served.

I especially loved how the house, High Place, was described. It was in the tradition of the best Gothic manor homes, like a cross between Thornfield Hall and the Haunted Mansion. Old, dusty, neglected, falling apart, mouldy, and of course it had a cemetery! Minus the mould, I would love to have a house like that. I’d put just enough money into it that it had proper amenities but keep the abandoned Gothic feel. 🙂 

Overall, I thought this was a fun read. Didn’t blow me away, but it was fun. Would certainly recommend.

Armchair Traveler, pt 2

still-life-379858_1920As I had mentioned in my earlier post on this topic, literature is a fantastic way to get to know a new culture and get to travel a bit without leaving the comfort of your own home. If you can’t travel for whatever reason – health, safety concerns, finances, etc. – literature can provide a means of escape without actually going anywhere. Through literature, we can learn about new cultures through food and cuisine and then make an adventure for ourselves by trying to track down those cuisines in our own locations. Because of my own armchair tourism, I have discovered restaurants (ranging in definition from actual sit-down establishments to hole-in-the-wall joints that barely have room for a folding table and a couple plastic chairs to sit at while waiting for our food to be prepared in a mysterious and highly suspicious back room) which serve traditional Hawaiian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Szechuan, and Middle Eastern dishes. I had to do a bit of research and driving to get to some of them, but the experience was worth it, and helped bring to life some of the books I’ve read which referenced specific dishes.

Continuing with my armchair tourism for physical locations is, I find, easier even than with food. Living in Arizona, there are only so many places I can go physically that are nearby that even remotely resemble the locations I read about in books. We don’t have jungles in Arizona. It doesn’t look like England (woe!) or Africa, and certainly not anywhere Arctic. The culture, such as it is, is entirely different from any of those places. Giving up on physically taking myself to experience some of the places I read about, rather than stymying me, frees me to read liberally from around the world. I know it is unlikely I will ever get to go to Beirut, Jerusalem, Dubai, Tehran, Istanbul (maybe I’ll get to go there one day), Petra, Morocco, Egypt, the Congo, the Amazon, so I take it as a challenge to read as much as I can about the places and cultures there now. Oh, the places I’ve gone…

I’ve traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and witnessed how one person learns to handle being simultaneously young, female, and live in a place where there are religious police. Such is the story of Zarin Wadia in A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena. Zarin moves from her home in Mumbai to Jeddah after the death of her parents. She deals with bullying at school, an abusive aunt at home, and an uncle who won’t defend her. Until I read this book, I had never known where Jeddah was exactly, though I knew it was a major stop on the route to Mecca for devout Muslims making their hajj. I had never heard of the languages of Gujarati or Avestan. I had never known about the minority of Zoroastrians living in Saudi. This book helped me see those places, feel the coastal breeze coming off the Red Sea, and feel the hot, spice-laden air. Not that I ever need an excuse to eat Middle Eastern food, but while I was reading this book, I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in take-away dolmas, manakeesh, and shawarma from my favorite local hummus spot. Also, I cried my eyes out because of this book as well. It was an utterly, beautifully devastating book.

All This I Will Give to You by Dolores Redondo took me to Spain. In this book, author Manuel Ortigosa’s husband Alvaro dies in a car crash, and Manuel learns that Alvaro has kept secret the fact that he is Spanish aristocracy. This novel, set in the Galicia region of Spain, is redolent with the scent of gardenias, vineyards, and lush greenery. The rolling hills tumbling down to the sea, the air carrying the sound of the bells from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, all mingle into a miasma of history and intrigue throughout this novel, carefully crafted by Redondo and faithfully translated by Michael Meigs. The cathedral at Compostela has long been a destination for pilgrimages and remains a source of interest for medieval scholars for its importance during the Crusades in particular. When reading this book, I sampled a few local Spanish restaurants, discovering in the process that I love tomato jam but, surprisingly, do not love paella, even though it looks an awful lot like risotto.

Small Country by Gaël Faye took me to 1992, Burundi, and showed me the genocide from the perspective of a child. Gabriel, living with his friends in a wealthy neighborhood for ex-pats, is sheltered by his French father from politics and is entirely ignorant of the instability and poverty the rest of the country is subject to. He never understood that he was more protected than many others around him, including their own household staff, some of whom disappeared and were never seen again. Throughout this novel, amid the bougainvillea and plantain, the damp air hangs heavy with blood, sharp with gunpowder. The traditional foods of red kidney beans, onion, chili powder, and plantains cooked in palm oil waft across the page, ubiquitous and soothing amidst the turmoil of a lost childhood. I tried this recipe for kidney beans and plantains from Global Table Adventure and it was delicious.

I’ve also been to Saigon and Hanoi, Vietnam, with Mai, a girl of Vietnamese heritage from California in the middle grade novel Listen, Slowly. Her Vietnamese grandmother is going back to her home village after receiving word that her husband, long thought to have been killed when they had escaped the country during the Vietnam War, may still be alive. Mai does not want to go, doesn’t care about her heritage, and doesn’t want to play caretaker to her grandmother for the summer, and yet she gradually falls in love with the culture, people, and location. As with many other kinds of cuisine, I really don’t need an excuse to eat Vietnamese food, yet while I was reading this charming little book, I am certain I ate my weight in pho, which is just about as perfect a comfort food as I can imagine.

Pairing food with literature is certainly nothing new. As mentioned earlier, food and travel writing remain popular genres in publishing. My love for these kinds of literature stems entirely from their ability to teach me about new kinds of food to try, because it is through food and shared meals that so many people learn to become friends, sometimes even against their own desires. We learn about new places, values, and cultures and, through them, we learn greater empathy. After all, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture” (Pollan 192). Whether the meal is shared literally, with people at the same table as you, or metaphorically in the pages of a book while you eat the same food the characters are eating, food is a unifying force the world over.

Have you been inspired to try new foods based on books you have read? Please share the experiences (and the recipes, if you have them!)!

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin, New York, 2008.

Interdependency

The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox (The Interdependency) by John Scalzi (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaace! And various habitats, space stations, and occasional planets

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:24:00, 8:19:00, and 8:07:00, respectively

Published by: Audible Studios

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars, both for each book and for the series as a whole

In Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, humans have managed to colonize a lot of the galaxy. They do not do this, however, through the use of any sort of FTL or warp drive. The laws of physics prevent that. They do, however, have something called the Flow, which sounds a little like wormholes through which a ship can travel and arrive at a location in a matter of days, weeks, or months, depending on distance. Ships can only enter or exit at Flow shoals, and the Flow streams only go one direction. So if a Flow stream goes from Hub, the Capital of the Interdependency, to End, the one planet that supports human life and which is at the farthest reach of the Flow streams, then they need to use a different stream from End to get back to Hub. 

Oh, and the streams are beginning to collapse.

This is a problem because, as the title implies, every human habitat is interdependent upon each other for survival. The places where humans settled are all, with the exception of End, not compatible with human life. They’re either on tidally locked moons and planets, too hot or too cold to survive, or on space habitats in orbit somewhere. The Interdependency is organized around Guild Houses, each of which have a monopoly on a certain aspect of manufacturing things needed to sustain life. Once the Flow streams collapse, everyone will be well and truly fucked. 

Enter an inexperienced Emperox, Cardenia Wu Patrick (Imperial name Greyland II), a young woman who was never supposed to be Emperox and only became so when her half brother the Imperial heir died in an “accident.” The various noble Houses think this will be a good thing because they expect to be able to manipulate her. The main houses of Wu (the hereditary Imperial house as well), Lagos, and Nohamapetan, are the political powerhouses and are out for blood and profit. Also, I listened to these, so I may be WAY off on how the names are spelled. Just saying.

The Houses of Lagos and Nohamapetan are particular enemies. On one run between Hub and End, Kiva, the Lagos representative to the Guilds, learns that her House’s entire crop on End had been sabotaged and she naturally suspects the Nohamapetans. Having just spent 9 months in the Flow traveling to End, Kiva is righteously pissed because now she will have spent the best part of 2 years on a trip that is profitless. Kiva soon learns, however, that there is something wrong with the Flow and she ferries a young noble and Flow physicist, Marce Claremont, back to End to meet with the Emperox and come up with a plan to save the billions of people dependent on the Flow for survival. She also comes up with a way to make money on an otherwise failed venture, as one does. 

There’s a lot of politics in this story, but Scalzi makes it fun! Kiva is definitely my favorite character. She’s so thoroughly outspoken and rude and it’s just delightful. She’s also crazy skilled at strategy and politics and is the best person the Emperox could possibly have in her corner. Cardenia is sweet – on the outside. Then she manages to deflate the machinations of everyone conspiring against her, which is especially fun when she hamstrings the Nohamapetans. Really, the characters in this series are the best thing about it. Yes, the overarching story is bomb, and is very Scalzi-ish. But, as Renay Williams wrote, the central characters are all women, and they’re all truly awesome in their own ways. 

Also, the trilogy covers a lot of ground that lovers of sci-fi space operas will appreciate seeing, happily updated with a lot of modern thought, because actual colonialism is gross. There’s far-flung human colonization, empire, the ways in which all these things are connected and, like, interdependent on each other. It is really a good commentary on a lot of our actual current events and politics. I have screamed for years that sci-fi is the ideal medium in which to discuss and analyse current events; Scalzi’s trilogy is further proof. 

As I mentioned above, I listened to The Interdependency trilogy on audiobook. Wil Wheaton did a phenomenal job narrating. I honestly think it is one of his best performances. His timing and tone were spot on and turned elements of the book that were already amusing into laugh out loud hilarity. I loved listening to these books so much that when the third one ended, I wanted to start the series all over again. I didn’t, only because I have so very many audiobooks to listen to that I haven’t even touched yet. But I did go and buy the trilogy in paperback, even though I swore I wouldn’t buy any more books until I get through more of my TBR and cull ones I know I’m not going to read ever again. 

I can’t wait to read these again, and I can’t wait to see what Scalzi publishes in the future. If you haven’t read, or even better, listened to, this series yet, you are really missing out!

2020 Read Harder results and year-end wrap-up

2020 is finally coming to an end. This was one of the most miserable fucking years ever and it can piss right off. While my life wasn’t really impacted all that much by any kind of quarantine – I’m practically a shut-in in my daily life anyway – I did miss traveling. I am incredibly lucky and grateful that I have a job that allows me to work from home and that my daughter and I have remained healthy. So has my mom, though the rest of my family didn’t come through the pandemic unscathed. Everyone is doing ok so far, though, and I am happy for that. I feel terrible for the many millions of people who have lost their jobs, for the over 300,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 (and the more than 1.6 million worldwide), and everyone who is struggling in ways large and small during this very strange and awful time. My grandmother would have said, “This, too, shall pass,” and I know she is right. Sometimes it is hard to see that, though, in the middle of events.

Of course, even the worst times have some bright points. Or, as Emperor Georgiou quoted in “Terra Firma part 2,” “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” The BEST thing has to be Biden kicking Idiot Hitler’s fat ass. A related bright point to Biden’s election is that we also get Kamala Harris as our first Madam Vice President. I can’t wait! Having a compassionate, intelligent, engaged, literate President and Vice President in office will surely be a sea change after the past obscene four years of the sub-literate, cruel, anti-science, racist, misogynist, corrupt excrescence currently squatting in the Oval Office. Can’t wait for that creature to become irrelevant again, and likely imprisoned. 

For me, books and reading are always a refuge and solace. I can travel by way of books, even if I am physically stuck in Arizona. I can go to other parts of the world or to new worlds entirely. I can encounter people who are facing the same struggles I face, or I can learn more about others who face completely different challenges in their life. I always aim to read 100 books a year. According to my Goodreads Year in Books, I didn’t get to 100 this year, though if I were to add up all the articles I read for research, I would probably get to 100 books total easily. But I didn’t count articles. I’m done researching now, though, and my manuscript is in to the publisher and I hopefully never have to think much on it again! Never thought I would be sick of medieval Europe, but here we are.

RH 2020 complete

Also, as anyone who spends any time with me at all knows, I love reading challenges because they stretch my comfort zone. I love learning about authors and cultures I’ve never been exposed to before. I am passionate about supporting and amplifying the voices of women and authors of color. So to try to do all of these things, I always participate in Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. I don’t always get through the whole list, depending on what all is happening, but I did this year! I even reviewed almost all of them. I try hard to write a review for every book I read, but sometimes I don’t get around to doing it. But at least I finished it, even WITH all the research and work I was doing to write my own book. I’m pretty proud of me. How did you do on your various reading goals this year? Mine are below the cut.books

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Read Harder 2021 is here!

For the past several years, I have eagerly awaited the posting of the new Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot. I think it was posted earlier than usual this year, which is awesome, or maybe my sense of time is just thoroughly fucked up. Either way, it’s here! And also as usual, I am going to try to complete the tasks by reading books by women and/or authors of color. Half the fun for me is to see what books are out there that can cover one or more of the tasks and make my list. Then I like to see, at the end of the year, what I actually read. 

Here is what I’ve come up with for my 2021 RH list. What books do you have on your list?

  • Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read: OK, so I don’t quite understand this. I don’t think there are any books that intimidate me. So I will read a book I have put off because it is very long and I didn’t want to take the time to read it before. I’ll go with Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Or 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Or I could actually start AND finish Possession by AS Byatt. I’ve lost count of the times I have started and then DNF’ed that book!
  • Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism: The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander; When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; or How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
  • Read a non-European novel in translation: Untold By Night and Day by Bae Suah; or The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha (this one looks super interesting: an Indonesian sci-fi choose your own adventure!).
  • Read an LGBTQ+ history book: I’ve wanted to read Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen for a long time, so I’ll probably go with that one. 
  • Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author: This task was made for Stephen Graham Jones’s novels! I’ll probably read The Only Good Indians. Or the Indigenous SFF anthology I have will also cover this.
  • Read a fanfic: hello, fanfiction.net, my old friend. 
  • Read a fat-positive romance: There are more books that check this box off now than there were even just a couple years ago, which is great. I will probably do either Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade (heroine who is into fanfic and cosplay, yassss!) or There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon. Or Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert.
  • Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author: This one is kind of hard to track down a book that is even remotely appealing to me – I really don’t like romance. There are plenty of books by trans or nonbinary authors, and TONS of LGBT romance books, but I don’t see as many written by trans or nonbinary authors. Maybe I’m not using the right search terms. In any case, I will pick up Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston for this task. At least it’s sort of British.
  • Read a middle grade mystery: I mean, I could read Bunnicula for the millionth time. I read the fuck out of that book when I was little. And maybe I will still go ahead and read it since it has been about 30 years since I last read it. Or I could read Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty. Or Dr Who: The Secret in Vault 13 by David Solomons. Or Top Secret by John Reynolds Gardiner, another childhood favorite.
  • Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color: Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe tribe). This will also work for the genre novel by an Indigenous etc task.
  • Read a food memoir by an author of color: Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson, or The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty.
  • Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color: I’ll probably do Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry or How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi
  • Read a book with a cover you don’t like: WTF? I think this is a repeat from a previous year. I still think it’s a weird task. I’m sure there will be one cover from the other books on my tentative list here that I’ll hate.
  • Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Iran). Or Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (New Zealand)
  • Read a memoir by a Latinx author: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Read an own voices book about disability: On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (autism) or Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz (eating disorder)
  • Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain: The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow. Not sure how Own Voices that can possibly be since it’s SFF. Maybe American Street by Ibi Zoboi would be better. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, though I don’t think that’s YA.
  • Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney. Or Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Madame President by Helene Cooper, Nefertiti by Michelle Moran, or The Accidental President of Brazil by Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
  • Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist: I’ve never read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Or Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley.
  • Read a book of nature poems: I mean, lots of things by Mary Oliver. Also intrigued by Dear Midnight by Zack Grey, so I’ll probably go with that since poetry really isn’t my jam. At least that one is about the night and darkness, my favorite.
  • Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability: So here’s the thing. I don’t know that you can write a book about a disabled person without their disability being part of it. It’s part of their identity, like a person’s race is. I feel that ignoring a disability or race – saying you’re blind to color, for example – totally invalidates a person’s experiences and identity surrounding that part of themselves. No, of course I don’t think a disability is the only way to define a person. But I think it’s also rude to ignore it, so I’m not going to. There are plenty of books that have disabled characters who are strong and amazing characters who are not defined by their disability. I think Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin will work. So will Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. This site has some excellent suggestions, though, as a note to myself in case I change my mind.
  • Read a book set in the Midwest: The Round House by Louise Erdrich, which I’ve had forever and haven’t read yet. I suppose I could also read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and see what all the fuss was about, but multigenerational sagas tend to bore the hell out of me. Yeah, I think I’ll stick with Erdrich for this one. I love her writing.
  • Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. Apparently, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is also about mental illness. I own that one, so I’ll use this as the excuse to finally read it.
  • Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die: Let’s see. Maybe The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, The Lady by Anne McCaffrey, Dirt by Denise Orenstein, or a million other horse books for adults, please. 

Star Trek Discovery: Dead Endless

ST Disco Dead EndlessDead Endless by Dave Galanter (Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: the mycelial network, mostly

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 342 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (17 Dec 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

**Spoilers abound!**

Discovery receives a distress call, which is not anything out of the ordinary for a Starfleet vessel. What is unusual is that it originates from within the mycelial network, the subspace domain Discovery can navigate briefly, but not endure for long, thanks to Lt. Paul Stamets and the spore drive he created. The crew responds to the distress signal and gets stuck in the mycelial network as a result. While there, the ship’s store of spores and the forest from which the crew harvests them disappears. Without the spores, there is no way for Discovery to return to normal space, and staying in the mycelial network will kill them sooner rather than later. The crew has to decide whether or not to trust someone who seems to be a human even though he was living in the network, or figure out if he’s an alien who intends to use Discovery’s spores to escape from the mycelial network at any cost.

This was a really unique story. At first, I was totally lost because the earliest references to “the captain” were vague. Is it Gabriel Lorca? Christopher Pike? It is only quite a bit later that we learn the captain refers to Michael Burnham. Of course, that sets off a whole other host of confusions because Burnham was never a captain, of Discovery or any other ship. Eventually, we learn that it IS Burnham but the setting is an alternate universe from either the Prime timeline or the Mirror Universe which we have seen in the show itself. I thought this was a great way to tell this story since it places the narrative within familiar territory – the ship itself with all the same characters – but in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with potential future canon. 

I enjoyed the mystery of how the spores were disappearing. Often, I don’t care one way or another for new aliens we meet in the books, but I really liked the Maligonq folks in this story. It was fun to see the Starfleeters knocked down a peg or two by being considered the far less advanced society of the two! 

Yes, a fun plot (once you figure out what the hell is happening) and fun aliens, but what really shines about this novel is the relationship between Stamets and Culber, and the interplay of those two characters with the rest of the crew. Galanter nailed their voices, especially Stamets’s. The whole idea of their relationship is beautifully written and shows a side of these men we can infer but do not always see in the show. It is a love story like any other, which is partly the point. In the future which Star Trek envisions, straight, gay, nonbinary, whatever is all fine, it just is love between people and that is all that matters. 

There is also an underlying theme about missed opportunities and the roads not taken. I thought it was so bittersweet that the Stamets we see in this story is NOT our Stamets in the Prime timeline. It IS Prime Culber who was trapped in the network, and who is eventually rescued in the show. But here, he encounters Stamets as he was early in their marriage, not a man who became bitter from watching his life’s work get conscripted into wartime use. The other Stamets is a kind and funny person, if somewhat irritable, partly because in his universe, there was never a Battle of the Binaries, no Klingon War. Burnham didn’t mutiny but instead became Discovery’s captain after Lorca moved on. Culber is trapped, he thinks, in this new alternate timeline and is torn because this new Stamets is more like the man he originally married and he wants to stay with him. But there is already a Hugh Culber in this timeline serving on another ship, and he feels too that staying with this Stamets would be the same as cheating on his spouse. Of course, Stamets recalls his universe’s Culber because their initial encounter with Hugh humming Casseelian opera ended with them calling each other an asshole and never meeting again. Stamets learns what he was missing out on for all those years he and Hugh could have been together. By the time he realizes it, it’s too late and Culber is drawn back into the network and is beyond reach. Like I said, missed chances. It ends on a very hopeful note, though, not as melancholy as it could have been.

I definitely recommend this one. It’s funny, too, that it is the first Discovery novel that’s actually set primarily on the titular ship. All the other ones before it were prequels and had nothing, if anything, to do with the ship itself. Those focused all on the characters, which is also just fine with me. The ship doesn’t have to be the setting to make a Disco novel, though I get why some readers were a little put off by that. ANYWAY. Read this book. Some of my favorite lines are below. It will be interesting to hear what some of your favorite lines are.

Favorite part/ lines:

    • On a scale of zero to Vulcan, it’s a Tilly, so…draw your own conclusions (10).
    • “Is sarcasm terminal?” “Yours is chronic” (36).
    • “You know,” Burnham said as they walked through, “my mother had a solution for tense situations. … She told me that there was nothing wrong with being nervous. Nerves remind us we’re alive. Nerves tell us we’re in pain, or when we’re experiencing pleasure, or when we’re in danger. It’s an important part of who we are” (78).
  • “I never want to hurt anyone. Like any living entity, I have instincts and I reacted.” “Do you know what those instincts are?” Chittering thoughtfully, Ephraim seemed uncertain. “I suppose only once they come into use.” “I guess that true of us all.” Ephraim’s mouth puckered and he radiated happiness again. “Then I am a people?” Smiling slightly, Culber nodded. “You certainly are to me.” 
  • “Is he pink?” Breytik asked Burnham. “He’s very pink.” He turned back to Stamets. “You’re very pink.” “Thank…you?” “I hope you feel better soon,” the Maligonq told him, just above a whisper.

***N.B.: As I was Googling to find the URL for Galanter’s various sites, I stumbled across an announcement from earlier this month. Galanter posted a long, beautiful, and sad note on his social media sites telling us that he was diagnosed a year ago with late-stage cancer of the bile ducts. His doctors now predict he has 3-6 months left to live, with the note that it is probably closer to three. This is supremely sad news and I wish Galanter and his family and friends a gentle time. For the full post, please view Galanter’s Twitter.

20 Books about Fire

fireI often enjoy reading groups of books that are thematically similar, or pair well together. For one thing, I find it easier to remember titles if I group them. Sometimes I even remember plots! I swear I do a memory dump every time I finish a book and couldn’t tell you a single plot point or character name, even if I loved it. I really hope I don’t ever meet an author who wants me to tell them my favorite part of a book just on the spot. I’ll be reduced to screaming, “I loved your book! I READ ALL THE WORDS!!” Then, of course, I would just melt into a puddle of embarrassed flaming goo. 

So because embarrassed flaming goo is apparently on my mind, I thought I would give a list of books that are, in some way or another, about fire, burning, explosions, etc. Maybe it’s in the title, maybe it’s related to the plot, maybe both. Who knows. No, I am not going to list any of the Game of Thrones books. Do you have any other recommendations?

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Seemingly perfect lives all go up in flames! Literally and figuratively.
  2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Necessary reading regarding racism in America.
  3. A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Three people trying to rise in life, connected by a shared catastrophe.
  4. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. A medievalist takes a job at a crematory and learns about the culture of caring for the dead.
  5. The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward. Using James Baldwin’s narrative, several writers offer essays and poems on race.
  6. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. A galactic war brought about because a person’s potential is determined by its location in space, known as regions of thought.
  7. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. A young woman at an elite university is drawn into domestic terrorism by a cult with ties to North Korea.
  8. The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan. A bomb in a market in Delhi impacts the life of a survivor in ways that may seem impossible.
  9. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao. Two girls in India find a friendship that helps them survive a life of crushing poverty, abuse, trafficking, and immigration.
  10. Smoke Signals by Sherman Alexie. Two Native American boys, Victor and Thomas, on a journey and the lessons they learn along the way.
  11. Smoke by Dan Vyleta. In an alternate Victorian England, people who are sinful are surrounded by smoke and soot while the virtuous are clean and pure. 
  12. A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. In 1380s London, a seditious book predicting the assassination of Richard II is causing a lot of problems. So bureaucrat Chaucer asks poet and information trader Thomas Gower for help.
  13. Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. A hyperbaric chamber at a specialized treatment center explodes. Layers of mystery and secrets lead readers to discover who is behind the explosion.
  14. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg. A woman loses her entire family in one horrible accident. She drives across the country to get away from the memories, and finds connection in shared heartbreak with others.
  15. The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos. The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team of firefighters, and the Yarnell firestorm tragedy.
  16. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. Lillian and Madison, best friends from college, drifted apart after they left school. Years later, Madison contacts Lillian, begging her to come and take care of her twin stepchildren who spontaneously combust when agitated. Lillian figures why not. 
  17. Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman. Short stories by Neil Gaiman. What else do you need to know?
  18. Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center. Cassie is one of the first female firefighters in Texas, she is great at dealing with emergencies. And then her mother asks her to move home to Boston to tend to a different kind of emergency.
  19. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. Astronomer Sagan discusses why scientific thinking is necessary both for the pursuit of truth as well as for the health of society. Because how can you make good decisions if you don’t know the difference between myths, pseudoscience, and actual testable scientific fact?
  20. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In the future, all entertainment is on the TV and literature and books are forbidden. Firefighters are those who seek out and burn books. One firefighter, Guy Montag, begins to question everything he thought he knew. 

Star Trek Discovery: The Enterprise War

Discovery The Enterprise WarThe Enterprise War by John Jackson Miller (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaace! 

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (30 July 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

So you know how season two of Discovery says the Enterprise was ordered to sit out far away during the Klingon War? This story fills in what they were doing during that time. 

Christopher Pike and the crew of Enterprise are on a year-long mission to the Pergamum nebula, a dense cloud of plasma that wreaks havoc on the ship. While exploring, they encounter a ship called Boundless, which is run by a crew kidnapped from various species and forced to work together in the Boundless’s war against the Rengru. The crew of Enterprise is on a survey of a nearby icy moon when they are attacked. Enterprise is damaged and Pike orders an emergency saucer separation, leaving the stardrive damaged in space and the saucer spinning out of control to who knows where. The survey crews, thought to have been killed in the Boundless’s attack, are conscripted into military duty against the Rengru. Pike and Number One have to reunite their ship and then figure out how to reunite their scattered crew before they become victims of a war that is not their own.

This was a really fun Trek novel. Some of the novels lately, across all the various series, have been a little slow. This one read like an old fashioned Star Trek episode. Lots of exploring, plenty of humor, and Battles in SpaaaaaceTM. The way the Rengru were described made me think they were space-capable pillbugs. Kinda icky and with too many legs. The crew of Boundless and all her sister ships is like the Breen, one cohesive nation made up of disparate species. 

At its heart, this novel was an essential Star Trek story – the crew overcoming obstacles, learning new things, and helping others to attain peace and understanding. The chief engineer, who is decidedly not Scotty, is a genius on paper but an absolute moron in practice, so they’re kind of screwed when the ship gets wrecked. The commander of the Boundless has been fighting a war that she inherited from her forebears and they no longer know why. 

My only quibble is that the ending was a little too tidy, but it was just untidy enough to be acceptable. I also tend to vacillate between being super lenient and super picky about my Star Trek books; sometimes I expect them to be of the highest caliber and have complex plots dealing with a shitload of ethical issues, and sometimes I just want to be entertained by characters I know and love. This fell somewhere in the middle of that. 

Enthusiastically recommended!

Favorite part/ lines:

  • I LOLed at how stupid Baladon’s crew was. For example, “You are all equally incompetent. You function together as parts of a machine that does absolutely nothing. When the end comes, I will be able to say with pride: each crewmember aboard brought me to it.” Several on the bridge erupted in self-congratulatory cheers. 
  • “Need more torpedoes.” 
  • (After a nasty battle) Raden’s eyes opened a fraction. Woozy, he does Pike and mumbled, “Did…I leave…a mark?” “Your head will be fine,” Pike said. “We’ll get you help.” “I mean…did I leave one…on the bulkhead?”
  • “We don’t even tell our own people, because it’s too horrible. The Rengru inject feeding tube into the backs of their victims’ necks – and devour their brains. Then they implant their young in the empty skulls!” “Wouldn’t it make more sense if they implanted the young first and let them devour the brains?” Pike looked around to his crew. “I mean, I’ve heard some scary monster stories in my day, and what really sells them is logic. … Now, Vulcans – you’d think they’d be great at writing horror.”

Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Diversify Your Reading – Cancel Culture

AOC banner
Louise Erdrich, NK Jemisin, Stephen Graham Jones, and Arundhati Roy. Images retrieved from Creative Commons.

I’m sure that everyone has heard the term “canceling” or “cancel culture” by now. This is the practice by which a person has their career damaged or even ended by others refusing to extend their support or patronage to them any longer. We’ve seen examples of this with Senator Al Franken, comedian Louis CK, actor Kevin Spacey, and singer Kanye West. Each of these people have, at one point or another, committed acts or made statements which are largely unacceptable to society. Certainly, there are some things that should not be forgiven or overlooked, and that absolutely must be called out. Sexual assault comes to mind. There can be no instance in which sexual assault is ever acceptable or tolerable. Other examples may be less clear-cut but still require an outcry. The world of publishing is no exception to this and has a long history of troublesome practices, just like many other industries.

Cancel culture actually has a longer lifespan than many people realize. It has its origins in the Civil Rights Movement and is related to boycotting, only instead of boycotting a business, one boycotts, or “cancels,” a person. This practice stems from a sense of powerlessness and inability to effect positive change, according to Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America at UC Santa Barbara. She explains that if a person doesn’t have the ability to take action through political means, they can refuse to participate. She goes on to say that canceling someone is “a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you. … I may have no power but the power I have is to [ignore] you’” (Romano, 2019, para. 24). This approach seems to be effective only some of the time, however. When revelations about Michael Jackson and R. Kelly came to light, the instances of people streaming their music actually increased rather than the other way around. Roseanne Barr, who was fired from her show The Connors for making racist comments on Twitter, still has a career. So does Johnny Depp, although he was accused of domestic abuse.

Being able to refuse participation in the works of a person who is offensive to us is a powerful tool and can hopefully be used to help effect change. It highlights bad behavior and reminds us that, yes, people might like the music of R. Kelly (or Michael Jackson, Kanye, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, apparently ad infinitum), but surely there must be others whose music (or acting, art, writing, etc.) is just as good with the added benefit of them not being a terrible person. The issue is complex and fraught with emotion across the spectrum; I definitely don’t know the right way to approach the topic. For me personally, it seems to make a difference whether the person is still alive or not. Living people have the opportunity to correct their ways and make amends, however unlikely that may be; the departed can never learn from their actions or remediate. Regardless, depending on what the issue is, I admit that I can have a hard time separating the artist from their art.

How does cancel culture impact publishing? As with every other area of entertainment, publishing is not exempt from cancel culture in all its varieties. Very recently, beloved author JK Rowling made some comments on Twitter which appeared to be trans-phobic. This sparked outrage and even caused some to suggest insanely that Rowling isn’t the author of the Harry Potter series, removing her from the picture entirely. This seems, to me, to be overkill. Of course, Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books; her posting something unpalatable doesn’t magically rescind her authorship and bestow it upon another. What is more important is how others will react going forward. As Charity Hudley might suggest, readers do not have to participate in Rowling’s works, and they can choose not to buy her new books or even to refuse to read those that are already published. Since making the offending statements, Rowling has not returned to Twitter, proving, perhaps, that a healthy dose of embarrassment might be an effective way to force a person to reflect on their actions. For other authors, I think it is important to consider when they were writing. Mark Twain, for instance, would no doubt be considered a horrific and unrepentant racist by today’s standards; by the standards of his own time, however, he was quite progressive. Yet many people try to cancel him and his books for their use of racial slurs. Since Twain has been dead for over a century, there is no possible chance for him to learn new ways or correct past behavior. We have to accept that his language was common for the period in which he was writing, learn from it, and move on. Same for Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Mists of Avalon. Bradley was a celebrated fantasy author – and horrific child abuser. She died in 1999, and her daughter came forward in 2014 with allegations of molestation and abuse. Even though Bradley was long since dead when this news came to light, I confess that I have been having a very hard time separating the writer from her writing. Since she is deceased, I am not sure I should because she isn’t here to make amends; it is still a stain on one of my favorite literary experiences, and I have so far been unable to read The Mists of Avalon again since the abuse came to light. Author G. Willow Wilson, talking specifically of Bradley, tweeted that she can forgive artists for “falling short of their ideals, but not for CHILD ABUSE. Will never recommend any of her work again” (as cited in Flood, 2014, para. 8).  I understand the sentiment and, for the most part, I tend to share it.

All this was a long-winded way to say that I have been thinking of my favorite authors and if I should still like their work and recommend it to others based on their past actions. Mark Twain, yes, I will always recommend him. He lived and wrote in a very different time and canceling him would be a detriment to literary and historical study. I also truly think that not engaging with problematic texts is often the wrong approach and doesn’t teach readers where the problems lie or how to address them in the future. But more modern writers? Do we cancel them, read and recommend them but with caveats, or shrug and figure one of the literary critics is bound to take them to task? You tell me. If your favorite author turned out to be a child abuser, rapist, domestic abuser, or something else, would you still read and recommend their work?

Below are some suggestions for read-alikes for favorite authors who turned out to be vile humans.

If you liked:

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (child molester), you might prefer instead The Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Woolley, the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick, or the Merlin Chronicles by Mary Stewart.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (racist, against Native Americans in particular), you may like to try Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Mailhot, There There by Tommy Orange, or The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (raging homophobe), you might prefer Old Man’s War, the titular first book of the series by John Scalzi, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or The Martian by Andy Weir.

The Thomas Pitt series or the William Monk series by Anne Perry (literally a murderer), you might prefer the Crispin Guest series by Jeri Westerson or the Lady of Ashes series by Christine Trent.

The Cthulhu Mythos by HP Lovecraft (racist), you might prefer anything at all by Neil Gaiman, The Only Good Indians and After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, or Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (racist, imperialist), you might prefer The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, the Broken Earth series by NK Jemisin, The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (racist, imperialist), you might prefer Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, or just about anything by Sonali Dev.

Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (who, depending on who you ask, is transphobic), you may prefer An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, the Tensorate series by JY Yang, or The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg.

References

Flood, A. (2014, June 27). SFF community reeling after Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter accuses her of abuse. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/27/sff-community-marion-zimmer-bradley-daughter-accuses-abuse.

Romano, A. (2019, Dec. 30). Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture. Vox.com, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.