Recently I graduated college – even more recently, I made the cross-country move to New York City, and suddenly found myself with an abundance of reading time. Time on the subway to and from destinations, time during lunch at work, time in the evenings or the mornings. My reading list never seems to shorten, but in the last month (since June 20th) according to my Goodreads I’ve managed to chomp through 19 books.
Using Goodreads lets me keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read, and when I’m not feeling too lazy to just slap a rating on something and call it a day, even lets me talk a little about what I liked. However, I want to go a little further and try to pull out five books every month that stand out to me for one reason or another. It’ll be a way of highlighting what I read and love, and also giving myself some practice in talking a little more precisely about just what makes a book good for me.
So – starting here, at the end of the month: the short list for Elise Reads, July 2015.
1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This month was a good month for reviving my interest in sci-fi/fantasy as a genre, and remembering why I love it in the first place. The Golem and the Jinni is fresh and inventive, set in 19th century New York City, primarily in the Jewish and Syrian immigrant neighborhoods. The main characters are a golem, Chava, whose master dies unexpectedly in the crossing, and the jinni Ahmad, unexpectedly freed from his prison (in a lamp, of course) after centuries. The unlikely pair cross paths and forge a peculiar friendship.
The relationship between Chava and Ahmad was one of the highlights of this book for me. It develops organically, a true “opposites attract” situation that never feels contrived or forced. Both Chava and Ahmad have distinct characters, and I got very attached to them both. At the same time, Wecker’s meticulous research and attention to detail brings the setting to life. While the changing points of view can be a little jarring at first, before long I barely noticed them. I hope to see more from Wecker – the end of the novel leaves it open for a sequel, though I’m not sure if I’d want one. There’s something satisfying about the lack of complete resolution.
2. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. This was another pleasant surprise. I picked this book up more or less on a whim, and found myself quickly sucked in. The premise sets the story in a city that was the former abode of six “gods” – all of whom were killed, precipitating the fall of the empire that they protected. In the modern day, a scholar has been murdered, and the spy Shara Divani is sent to investigate.
The highlight of this book is definitely the plot and the worldbuilding. Bennett’s writing is workmanlike, made for suspense and motion rather than beauty, and his dialogue sometimes feels clumsy. However, the joy of reading a genuinely inventive story set in an unfamiliar world, with the bonus of mystery, intrigue, conspiracy, and a crumbled empire (I’m a sucker for decaying and fallen empires) makes up for these shortcomings. Other readers might find the introductory “historical” passages at the beginning of each chapter gimmicky, but they were one of my favorite parts – along with the way the gods, and the relationship of the gods to their worshippers, were gradually revealed and explained.
3. Huntress by Malinda Lo. My review on Goodreads for this book was short and a little flippant, gleefully celebrating the combination of fairy-tales and lesbians, two of my interests which seldom intersect here beautifully combined. Unlike in Ash, Lo is not here obviously reworking a specific myth or folktale, but rather drawing on motirfs and pieces of a variety of familiar stories. The plot centers on two women, Kaede and Taisin, who find themselves on an expedition to the court of Faerie in the hopes of fixing a blight that has befallen their country.
Lo does a good job of reworking fairytale tropes and motifs in such a way that they feel new, and the developing romance between Taisin and Kaede was sweet and natural. This book was a genuine pleasure to read, although the concluding pages felt a little rushed. People like to mock young adult fiction, but I honestly think that mockery comes from a lack of familiarity with the possible range of the genre.
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. This is the book everyone is talking about right now, and with good reason. I can’t say it was a fun read – in fact, in places it was massively uncomfortable for me, as a white person. At the same time, however – it felt neccessary. The premise, for those who are not aware, is that the book is written as a letter to Coates’ son, and goes through Coates’ own life experience from childhood to adulthood.
I can’t hope to understand Coates’ experience in the visceral way of those who live it, or variations of it, every day, but this book is a heady emotional expression about being black in the United States in the 21st century, in a time that too often reduces discussion of race to impersonal academia, a litany of abstract concepts, or simply the declaration that we live in a “post-racial age.”
Read it. I can’t say you’ll necessarily like it, but I hope it at least starts a conversation.
5. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente. I’ve been meaning to read something by Catherynne M. Valente for a while, and finally got around to this one after hearing a few friends gush excitedly about it. I found it well worth the hype. The story is based on the Russian folktale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”, centered on the young Russian woman Marya Morevna.
Valente’s style is lyrical and truly beautiful, evoking the best of fairy-tale rhythms. Valente intertwines the magic of the story with the brutal history of early 20th century Russia, weaving the two together so that she seems to craft two worlds that exist side by side, uneasily and yet intimately familiar. This is a book that combines the best of oral storytelling – at times I wished I could hear this book, and I think listening to it might be a great experience – with a “literary” prose. Valente also plays with the notion of “story” itself. Deathless is a richly imaginative and gorgeously realized novel. Fairy and folktale retellings are a dime a dozen these days, but the truly quality ones stand out, and Deathless is one of them.
And a bonus, the book that I wanted to like more than I did: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris. Those who know me know that I have an immense fondness for trickster gods, and for Loki in particular. Having read a couple of Joanne Harris’s other books (Chocolat and Holy Fools), I was very excited to run across this one: a book that claims to tell the story from Loki’s point of view. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book – I absolutely did, and parts of it were truly delightful. However, Harris chose a voice for Loki that struck me as a little too much on the “sarcastic urban fantasy narrator” side, and occasionally her effort to integrate and synthesize the mythological material available felt strained. Loki’s ambiguous status felt underexploited, and the potential for playing with an unreliable narrator went underexplored.
Finishing this book mostly left me thirsty for a better retelling that pushed a little more and played a little less safe.