Currently Reading: September 2017

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to format these posts, given that I feel somewhat limited when I only talk about things I liked (as opposed to the things I didn’t) and the fact that I don’t always read books I really want to recommend every month. Consequently, I’m shuffling things around and trying something new where, while I can’t (or won’t) cover every book I read in a month, I focus on a those that stood out to me for one reason or another. Hopefully this will help me be more consistent and give me a chance to talk more about the range of books I’m reading.

I don’t like falling behind on things, and I’ve definitely fallen behind on keeping up with this blog. Here’s hoping that this marks the beginning of a return to form. (We can only hope.)

The Good

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

I usually refrain from reviewing later books in a series, but this conclusion was so powerful, and the series as a whole so compelling, that I couldn’t resist.

N.K. Jemisin remains a perennial favorite – I’ll probably read anything by her that she may choose to produce – and The Broken Earth trilogy has been an experience from start to finish. The Fifth Season shook me to my core, and while I was less enthralled by The Obelisk Gate it was still a cut above a lot of what’s out there in the fantasy market. I wasn’t sure that anything could match what I felt for The Fifth Season, but this book managed it.

So much of this series, while also being about environment and magic and disaster, has been about family, and especially about motherhood and trauma. The ending of The Stone Sky is one of the most beautiful, and also the most painful, conclusions I have read in a long time.

And yet ultimately it was also about healing, and about becoming whole.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

I don’t often listen to audiobooks, but I did listen to this one – and while it means I missed out on the pictures, I did really enjoy it. The framework of this narrative nonfiction is about the explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a near-mythical great civilization in the Amazon in 1925, and the journalist David Grann’s search for answers about his fate (following the footsteps of others, many of whom have disappeared and died).

However, it also explores the history of exploration in the Amazon, dips into scientific questions about the viability of great civilizations, and explores the life of a complicated man who ultimately died pursuing what many considered a fantasy.

I can’t say more than that, except to note that the descriptions of attempting to travel in the Amazon interior are deeply terrifying to me. Too many bugs. Too many parasites. Too many flesh-eating maggots.

The Disappointing

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

This was one of those books that came highly recommended from just about every direction – which always makes it more disappointing when they fall flat.

The Cloud Roads is about a young man named Moon who is able to shift into a dragon-like form. He has never met anyone else like him, and has no idea what he is – until he suddenly encounters another of his kind and is swept away to live with a people he barely knows, and embroiled in a war with the evil Fell.

There was just nothing particularly impressive about this book. The prose was workmanlike, the characters were not particularly complex, and the plot felt dull and rote. The worldbuilding was the most interesting part, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the shortcomings of plot and character.

I’m half tempted to read the later books in the series to see if they improve, but ultimately there are too many other books on my list to indulge that curiosity.

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Good mythological retellings – or perhaps more accurately mythological retellings that I, personally, like – are hard to come by. I pick them up relatively often, but rarely find myself satisfied with them – and yet I keep doing it. Hope springs eternal.

There are certain stories that have always seemed ripe for retelling to me, that I’ve been astonished not to see adapted in contemporary literature. The story of the House of Atreus, and more specifically of Clytemnestra, is one of them. Clytemnestra has all the makings of a character who could easily drive a compelling novel – the woman whose daughter was murdered by her husband, and who in turn murders her husband in retaliation, she is a complex character who, even in Greek literature, was a source of contention and difficulty, who challenged gender norms and generated revulsion for patriarchal Athenian writers. She is, as you might be able to tell, one of my favorites.

And yet she is largely absent from modern explorations of ancient stories.

So I was thrilled to stumble across the synopsis for Colm Toibin’s House of Names, which described itself as “a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra.”

Reader, it was not.

While the first portion of the book did explore Clytemnestra’s character between the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis and the death of Agamemnon, the vast majority of the book was focused on Orestes, her son, and was told from his point of view. While I enjoyed the sections focusing on Clytemnestra – showing her complicated, conflicted nature – this wasn’t really her book. I’ll continue to wait for one that is.

(As far as “retellings about difficult mythological women”, I found Bright Air Black by David Vann far more satisfying.)


One thought on “Currently Reading: September 2017

  1. The frustrating part of the Lost City of Z was that after writing this whole book about Fawcett and all the maggots he plows through, Grann then ends with a few pages about a guy who has started discovering information and evidence about an actual ancient civilization that apparently was right there. So Grann ponders how ironic this is, and I’m left going “THERE’S THE STORY! TELL ME ABOUT THIS CITY”.

    I mean, the book itself was fine (the pictures were no great loss) but it’s never a good idea to end with “and there is this much more interesting thing that I didn’t have time to find out about, so I hope you enjoyed this story about this relatively dull guy.”

    I’m still a book behind with Jemison because I buy them and then library books push themselves in front of the things on my shelf. Also because I expect it to be powerful and devastating.


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