Currently Reading: June 2016

June was another fairly slow month as far as fresh and exciting new books went, but there were a few stand outs in the bunch. I’m pretty sure that I can blame the drastic slow down in reading pace on my newfound addiction to the X-Plain the X-Men podcast, though, which is both hilarious and informative.

Got to love that combination.

Comics aside, though – the top three books of June, including two new releases and one older book I’ve been meaning to read for over a year.

The Girls by Emma Cline. This debut novel was one of this years “buzzy” books – partly because of the large advance, which some people took umbrage with. Admittedly, the plot here is tailored to my particular and weirdly specific interests – true crime, teenagers who kill people, and dysfunctional friendships – but it was excellently done on the whole. Following Evie Boyd, a disaffected young woman in California in the 70s, as she finds herself drawn into a cult through her attraction to Suzanne. (Oh, yes, there’s at least heavy queer subtext here, too. If I needed more specific interests catered to.)

Dark and luscious and very much about the struggle of teenage girls to create their own identity in a world that wants to tell them what to be, the weakest part of this novel were the flashforwards to Evie’s present, although there is probably an essay to be written about that particular narrative choice.

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano. This was a book I badly needed to read, and honestly an antidote to almost all of the discourse on social justice and activism that I have been involved in. Julia Serano writes a clear and readable discussion of the ways in which feminism and queer movements have limited themselves, and how movements have designed new hierarchies that can be as exclusive as the old. She advocates a complex approach to activism that she calls “holistic” – moving beyond simplistic notions of privilege and oppression. Instead, Serano pushes for an understanding of the complex experiences of women and queer people and the essential heterogeneity within those groups. This was a book that made me whisper yes in a coffee shop while reading.

The Devourers by Indra Das. Another debut novel, this one was previously published in India but is just now being published in the United States. A college professor named Alok meets a man who introduces himself as half-werewolf, and finds himself drawn into a project of transcribing a series of scrolls that reveal a parallel world of shapeshifters living alongside humanity.

This book was visceral, often brutally physical. I’m always easily drawn in by stories about folklore and shapeshifters, and this was a new, fresh take on the genre that delighted me. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart – there’s a great deal of graphic violence – but in my opinion its well worth the reading.

That finishes out another month, and three more books to add to your reading list (or not, as the case may be). I’ve just started a collection of female-authored female-centric Lovecraftian stories called She Walks in Shadows that I’m pretty excited about; I’m also looking forward to reading The Winged Histories and Julia Serano’s first book, Whipping Girl.

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Currently Reading: May 2016

For various reasons my reading pace has somewhat slowed since last year (alas), which means I may have to reduce my Currently Reading list from five top books to three. (For comparison, in December 2015 I read fourteen books; this month I read…okay, twelve. So maybe I just haven’t been reading as many good books lately.)

But! I am still reading, and I’m still reading good stuff, and cutting the list down lets me only recommend things I really liked, rather than stuff I sort of did.

Without further ado, then, this month’s best books.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This book is actually forthcoming in June, but working in the book industry means you get previews of such things, and boy am I happy I did. This book has been generating a lot of buzz, and having read it I can sincerely say it deserves it. Beginning with two half sisters, Effia and Esi, born into different villages in eighteenth century Ghana, one marries a British colonial officer and one is sold across the Atlantic into slavery. From there, the novel follows their separate but parallel families, generation by generation, showing the history of the African diaspora through intimate portraits of distinct individuals. Truly a lovely, exceptional book.

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney. A friend recommended this comic to me years ago, but for some reason I only just read it now, and I’m a little sad I didn’t get to it beforehand. Ellen Forney’s memoir of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her long and difficult journey to reaching equilibrium is woven throughout with questions of creativity and mental illness, and whether being creative means having to sacrifice your health. Questions of diagnosis, creativity, and medication are addressed with a sensitive touch and playful, engaging artwork that made this work a joy to read – and for me, personally, highly relatable. I wish I’d come across this book as a teenager: I think it would have done me a world of good.

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. A thought-provoking, relatively brief analysis of the photographs of atrocities and the role of photography in mediating tragedies. Sontag addresses questions about whether exposure to photographs of violence desensitizes the viewer, and where the line between sympathy and voyeurism might lie. While it isn’t very long, Regarding the Pain of Others made me think about how I view photography, particularly as someone with a tendency toward the morbid.

Honorable Mention to Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter by Tim Hanley. I have read a great deal of comics scholarship, almost all of it very disappointing. This is the best piece I’ve read so far, examining the role Lois Lane plays in Superman comics from the beginning through to the modern day, interspersed with discussion of her portrayal onscreen and on the radio. While the analysis remains fairly shallow, Hanley does a decent job of discussing how the way Lois is written compares to gender attitudes and norms of the day, and maintains the sense of her complicated and contradictory history without flattening it into “feminist” and “not-feminist” moments.

June is starting promisingly with Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls. Other books I expect to be picking up next month include The Devourers, Age of Myth, So Sad Today and Helter Skelter.

 

Currently Reading: March 2016

You may have noticed that I did not post a Currently Reading post for February 2016. This is because February was so incredibly disappointing books-wise that I could not come up with five books I felt deserved recommendation.

So – I bid a relieved farewell to that month-long book slump and enter March, which held several fun surprises and an easy five books to recommend here. No particular theme to this month’s picks, though three of them are based in some way on other stories, whether that’s folktale like Redemption in Indigo or H.P. Lovecraft like The Ballad of Black Tom.

If anyone is curious about how much I read, my Goodreads 2016 shelf has 34 books on it as of today, which works out to a little over ten books a month.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I picked up this book for two reasons – I’d heard good things about two of Jon Ronson’s other books (The Psychopath Test and Them, both of which I’d like to read) and the subject matter is somewhat personal to me, as I spend a fair amount of time online and have witnessed some of the frankly vicious behavior Ronson describes.

While the critics of this book have a point – that it is more about Ronson than about the victims (and perpetrators) he encounters – I see that as one of the book’s virtues. At no point does So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed feel like a morality tale, or like Ronson is an outsider condemning a community he is not part of. He frequently acknowledges that he has participated and even enjoyed the kind of behavior the book explores – and that he gradually comes to find worrying. More valid, in my opinion, are the critiques that he sometimes betrays a certain cluelessness about sexism, touching only lightly on the disparity of the response to Adria Richards and the “Donglegate” perpetrators. However, while it was a light touch, the awareness still seemed to be there, and I felt that Ronson did acknowledge the more severe responses to women (in public shamings) versus men.

Ronson’s light, humorous voice made what could be – and sometimes was – a terrifying account of how our worse impulses come out on the internet still a compelling read.

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham. Gorgeously illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, this collection of retold fairy and folk tales brings old stories to life, from the heartbreaking Rumplestiltskin story from his point of view to the lyrical metaphor of a marriage told through the story of the Tin Soldier. Cunningham’s craft spins beautiful stories where the language is as important as the story being woven.

Full disclosure: I am always a sucker for fairy tale retellings. All the same, this collection stands out. The black and white ink drawings by Shimizu are especially delightful, by turns lovely and eerie, and frequently both – just as fairy tales should be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. This novella has gained a fair amount of buzz  for the way it confronts and plays with the work of famously racist horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Based on one of his stories, “The Horror of Red Hook”, LaValle tells the story of a black hustler in early twentieth century Harlem, Tommy Tester, who finds himself entangled in the dark world of cosmic horror that is Lovecraft’s trademark. LaValle confronts police brutality and systematic racism, contrasting the mundane horror of the life of a black man in a racist society with the horror of what lies beyond human comprehension.

In one remarkable line, after [SPOILERS] Tester’s father is shot by a police officer, he observes that:

a fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve… he saw the patrol cars parked in the middle of the road like three great black hounds waiting to pounce on all these gathered sheep. What was indifference compared to malice?

This is the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation we deserve – one that is not afraid to confront and wrestle with the racism of its source material while at the same time working with it to create something new: in NPR’s words, both tribute and critique.

Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord. Another retelling, this short novel doesn’t base itself off any particular story, rather drawing on motifs and themes from Sengalese folktales to spin a story that carries you along from start to finish, somehow feeling both familiar and fresh. Paama leaves her gluttonous husband to return to her family and finds herself in possession of the powerful Chaos Stick, an artifact of the immortal djombi with the ability to manipulate reality. However, the original owner of the Stick, the powerful and cynical Indigo Man, is determined to get it back.

What follows is an adventure that is light-hearted and humorous without being frivolous, showcasing the deft hand of a natural storyteller.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This book came highly recommended, not only by its sweep of the major sci-fi/fantasy awards (it won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award and Locus Award) but also by a number of friends. I should note that I was not blown away by it – at least not for the first half, and having started the sequel (Ancillary Sword) I can say that I am enjoying the second book right from the start. The flashforward-flashback setup of the first half of Ancillary Justice weakened it, I think, as events in the past caught up to the present – once the two connected, my enthusiasm increased markedly.

That being said – as someone who hardly ever reads science fiction, this book made me feel excited about science fiction. The main character, going by the name of Breq, is the sole remnant of what was once the AI of a ship, occupying several bodies (known as ancillaries) and now trapped in a single human form. Leckie plays with the possible effects of such an existence even as she toys with ideas of gender – and alongside consideration of the consequences of empire. The climax of the book is a little chaotic and confusing, but this book merits a recommendation just the same for the cleverness of the idea and the promise I feel about the continuing series (completed this year with Ancillary Mercy).

For all February’s disappointments, there are two books from the month that do deserve mention:

  1. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, another Lovecraft-influenced novel playing with race, is also excellent, if a little less horror-tinged than I would have liked.
  2. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar is almost more a meditation on literature and language than it is a novel, but the writing is so dense and intensely lovely that I found myself rereading sentences, which isn’t something I do often. Not exactly an easy read, but absolutely rewarding – I look forward to reading her Winged Histories set in the same universe.

And with that, I conclude another month of reading. See you at the end of April for another round.

Currently Reading: January 2016

One month of 2016 down, and despite my feeling that it was relatively lacking in book knockouts, it turns out that there was some good stuff in there. Not much that merited five stars on my Goodreads account, mind, but still some worthwhile, edifying books to take note of.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I feel the need to note that I personally disagree with a lot of Mary Beard’s politics – for instance, the memorable statement in one of the essays in her Confronting the Classics that some female academics might be pining for the days when sexual harrassment was part of the educational experience of women in universities. However, she is an excellent historian, and her comprehensive history of Rome from its legendary beginnings to Caracalla’s granting of citizenship to all freemen across the empire. Beard never settles for easy answers or ignores gaps and elisions in the historical record, careful to acknowledge uncertainties and ambiguities – a vital part of classical histories for me. (Too much of taking biographers at face value tends to make my teeth itch.)

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. The sequel to City of Stairs, which I recommended in July last year and recently put on my Best of 2015 list, lived up in every way to the first book. Following retired General Mulaghesh, haunted by her past and wartime atrocities committed during the Saypuri attack on the Continent, she finds herself stationed in the city known for its violence: Voortyashtan, former stronghold of the goddess of war and death. While it appears that she is there to live out her last months before retirement, she is in fact investigating the disappearance of a spy that seems linked to a mysterious, metallic substance recently unearthed. Of course, there’s more than simply murder going on here. Bennett, once again, deals with issues of empire and its afterlife, the cycle of violence and vengeance, and the interconnectedness of gods and mortals in his constructed world.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Jamison’s collection of essays, broadly speaking about human pain and how we relate to others, may be one of my favorite essay collections I’ve read in a while. Her titular essay is especially striking, dwelling on what empathy means and how we practice it in our lives. Jamison looks at voyeurism and poverty tourism, closing with an essay on how to balance acknowledgment of female pain with the tendency to fetishize the suffering woman. Frequently moving and thought provoking, while there were a few essays that interested me less or felt weaker than others, pieces of some lingered in my head for hours.

This Census Taker by China Mieville. Oddly enough, this novella of Mieville’s – who is one of my favorite authors – reminded me most of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not a comparison I would ever have expected to make. Dwelling on childhood, loss of innocence, and memory, with a hearty dose of Mieville’s particular brand of darkness and strangeness, this tale of a boy trapped with his father, is beautiful and haunting.

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. This one was one of those random and fortuitous picks, brought to my attention through a combination of the cover art catching my eye and a single praising mention by someone on Tumblr, somewhere. I was sucked in enough by this book – though I had a slow start – that I almost immediately picked up Full Fathom Five, set in the same universe and with some overlapping characters. (Also very good, in my opinion even better than this one.) Tara Abernathy, a necromancer in a world where so called Craftspeople warred with and overthrew the gods, is recruited to help with the resurrection of one of the few survivors of that war: Kos Everburning. Of course, it’s never that simple, and when Tara discovers that the god was murdered, the case gets complicated. Not only is Gladstone’s worldbuilding fascinating, he weaves a cast of complex characters together racing toward a climax that will have you flying to the end.

That’s all for this month. February’s a short one, so we’ll see how far I get into my reading list moving forward, but I’m certainly not short on things I’m excited about – currently my priority reads are The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.

Reading Roundup: Best of 2015

It’s the new year! Otherwise known as the time for “Best Of” lists of everything from “best memes” to “best essays”. It’s not a bad time, because I do love lists.

Since I had a rather disappointing December in terms of books, in lieu of a Currently Reading post for the month I’m writing a recap of the overall best books I read this year (a little late, as usual). Some of them I’ve reviewed previously on this blog; others I read earlier in the year and (unless you follow my Goodreads) I haven’t mentioned them before.

I bid 2015 a medium fond farewell, and hope that 2016 is full of a new crop of awesome books.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Jemisin’s work is a consistent pleasure, and her newest series is no exception. I’ve seen this book break what I think of as the “genre barrier” on Best Books of 2015 lists, which it definitely deserves. Another fresh world populated with complex and fascinating characters. The only drawback is that as the first book in a series, it definitely left me craving more right now.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. I am still gushing about this one, and probably will be for a while because I still have not found anyone else who has read it and I desperately need other people to read it. A fascinating story about empire and power, following a young woman’s rise to prominence as she attempts to subvert the tactics of the conquerer to save her homeland. One of the most original fantasy books I’ve read in years, brimming with politics and intrigue but also genuine emotion. Apparently there is a planned sequel. I am waiting intently to hear about a release date.

Augustus by John Williams. I have been saying for years (okay, since first reading the Res Gestae and Suetonius) that there should be fiction about/centered on Caesar Augustus. Apparently there was at least one and nobody told me. John Williams’ book, styled as an epistolary novel (with smatterings of field reports, diary entries, and public proclamations) is a stunning writing of the chaotic early days of the shift from the Late Republic to the Early Empire in Rome. Augustus both captivated me as a novel and delighted me as an (amateur) classical scholar. Highly recommended.

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb. Robin Hobb is an old favorite of mine, so going back to this series was like returning to an old friend – and finding that friend not only unchanged, but matured and deepened by the years. Robin Hobb hasn’t lost her touch in the least for writing tightly plotted, multi-layered works that nonetheless evoke powerful emotion for their flawed characters – especially the middle-aged FitzChivalry, who has found a little bit of peace and quiet after years of strife only to find the drama of the wider world encroaching on his life once again. The first and second book in the planned trilogy are out, with the third on the way in 2017.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. A mixture of horror, suspense, and mystery, Beukes’ novel about a murderer in Detroit creating grotesque works of art out of human bodies winds several threads together to create a story both mezmerising and horrific, with touches of the surreal. The (only slightly heavy) commentary on the “ruin porn” surrounding Detroit adds a thought-provoking layer to this book.

Missoula: Rape in a College Town by Jon Krakauer. This book, centered specifically on a few rape cases at the titular university, is about a subject that isn’t unfamiliar to me. I recently graduated from college, after all – one deeply embroiled in reconsidering its own policy of dealing with sexual assault on campus. Nonetheless, Krakauer’s powerfully written analysis reminded me all over again why we are still talking about this, and why we can’t stop talking about this. The issue is still very relevant, not just in terms of college and the extra sympathy for high-value athletes, but also the ways in which the legal system stymies and frustrates even those victims who do come forward – and the even fewer who manage to get their attackers charged. Rape culture is real, kids. You might be tired of hearing it, but as long as it exists it’s still worth talking about.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This book came out of nowhere and became one of my surprise favorites. I’d been interested in it for a while and finally got around to actually reading it, and discovered a lovely, heartfelt story reminiscent of a folktale and centered around two of my favorite literary characters of the year. The meticulously researched New York of immigrant neighborhoods was an extra bonus. This was Wecker’s first book: I really hope to see more from her soon.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. The book everyone was talking about this year – and with good reason. I reviewed this one previously, but it remains a stunning read, brimming with powerful emotion and hitting like a punch. Coates is a powerful writer. I try to avoid calling books “necessary” but this one might deserve the label. (I mean, Toni Morrison called it “required reading”; maybe if you won’t listen to me you’ll listen to her.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Apparently I’m on a “fantasy that deals with empire and power and also heavily into religion” kick, or maybe that has always been my thing and it’s only recently that I’ve found the books to fit it. City of Stairs is half fantasy and half mystery, set against the backdrop of a city ruined by the destruction of its empire – and the death of its gods. Into this enters a spy looking into the murder of an official who finds herself rapidly embroiled in a conspiracy that runs deep into history. And more than that I dare not say.

Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel examines what he calls the “aggrieved entitlement” of white men in America, tracing its sources and following several threads of how it is expressed, frequently with violence. Kimmel sympathizes with the struggles of these men without endorsing them, noting that much of the anger has real causes but is misdirected – for instance, directing anger at lack of jobs to women and minorities rather than the pressures of capitalism and mechanization carving away chunks of labor opportunities. A work that gives clarity to the often incomprehensible positions of lower-middle class white men.

Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. This series, beginning with Annihilation and continuing in Authority and Acceptance,  is a trilogy of three fairly short books centering around a peculiar phenomenon known as Zone One. Like Vandermeer’s other fiction, this series is weird, surreal, and touched with a strange, unique beauty. I have been delighted to see this series get the attention it has – Vandermeer is a writer I’ve liked for several years and it’s great to see other people picking him up.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Everyone and their mother recommends this book – with good reason. An eloquently written, painful-to-read account of the prison/justice complex and the ways in which it has developed to keep black people – particularly black men – as a nearly permanent underclass. A convincing and comprehensive book, and I think it is impossible to read without changing the way you think about the justice system in the United States – and how fundamentally it needs drastic reform.

Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I was very late jumping on this series. I debated whether I could in fairness include them both on this list, since technically I read Wolf Hall at the end of 2014, but since I read Bring Up the Bodies this year I decided it counted. The third book in this series following the life of Henry VIII’s notorious advisor Thomas Cromwell is forthcoming, but don’t wait until it’s out to pick up the first two. Mantel’s writing is beautiful, and while books on the Tudor period are a dime a dozen, her writing from Cromwell’s perspective lends a fresh gloss to familiar events. A delight for historical fiction and literary fiction fans alike.

Currently Reading: Best of November 2015

Oh boy, am I getting behind on these. But it’s okay! December hasn’t been a thrilling month book-wise, but at least I get to look back midway through at five fantastic November reads – including on that just might be my book of the year.

(Will I be doing a best of 2015 list? Probably not, to be honest – it wouldn’t be fair to the books I read all the way back in January. Rest assured that it would look pretty different from most of the best-of lists that are being published now, though: more fantasy, for one.

Although I was vindicated somewhat by a few best of fantasy/sci-fi lists including some of my favorite books of the year on them. I always like it when my tastes are affirmed by bigger names than me.)

Without further ado.

The Secret Place by Tana French. Why yes, I did previously recommend another Tana French book. It’s not my fault she’s that good. I freely admit that this book caters to my very specific interest in young people murdering each other and codependent friend groups (see also: The Secret History, The Lake of Dead Languages) but it’s also just beautifully written, like all of Tana French’s mysteries, and keeps you hooked until the very end.

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz. I’m the first to admit that sometimes it takes very little to sell me on a book. Such as, in this case: “there’s a bisexual protagonist.” Sold! (Unfortunately, this particular pitch is actually rare enough that I’ve only ever picked up two books because of it.)

Simple though the selling may have been, this book was a delight from start to finish. The narrator ( )’s voice was unique and entertaining, and her struggle with her “in-between”-ness was both touching and emotionally wrenching – almost as much so as her relationship with Becca. It’s a young adult book, true, and it feels like a young adult book – but that’s not a bad thing. If half of the adult literature I read dealt this sensitively with mental illness, sexuality, and self-image…well. It doesn’t. Hannah Moskowitz does.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. This might be the most “problematic” horror novel I’ve read in a while; it is also one of the most interesting, and I would love to do a detailed literary analysis on the way it is framed in terms of form: half a recounting of childhood events to a journalist, half blog posts reviewing a reality TV show of those childhood events, written by the same narrator.

This book is nominally about the performance of an exorcism on a probably mentally ill teenager, but also about the disintegration of a family, and the possibility of possession is never completely ruled out. The horror in this story isn’t really in the presence of paranormal occurences, however: it’s in the ways in which the suffering of the characters pulls each of them apart.

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. Bear’s Mongolian-inspired fantasy has some of the most interesting world-building I’ve seen in years. It took me a while to get into it, though I was never not enjoying it, but when I really hit my stride with this book I was running. Very quickly I was swept into the interwoven stories of Temur, unexpected survivor of his brother’s coup and Samarkar, recently inducted wizard and former princess, and their discovery of the tendrils of a plot that threatens to shake the world.

I look forward to seeing where Book 2 takes me, but based on the first entry this series is well worth picking up.

And last, but far from least:

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. I read this book in a heady rush and when it ended I wanted to scream, and then shove it at someone else and make them read it, as fast as possible. Possibly everyone I know, because I need to talk about it with someone. I described this one as “post-colonial political fantasy” on my Twitter, and I stand by that description as a 30-second pitch.

In more detail: Baru Cormorant is inhabitant of a southern land slowly being consumed by an all encompassing empire. The empire conquers less with military might than with cultural and economic dominance, gradually subsuming local traditions and replacing them with their own code of moral and physical hygeine – including the elimination of polyamorous and same-sex relationships. Baru determines, from a young age, to beat the conquerers at their own game: to rise in the ranks and turn the techniques that defeated her people into her own.

This book – and apparently there will be a sequel – is a rare delight. Inventive, intense, twisty, it accomplishes the feat of making economics interesting as Baru schemes to manipulate her masters – and everyone else. Both revenge plot and political thriller, The Traitor Baru Cormorant culminates with a twist that made me gasp (actually, out loud) and then an ending that made me want to cry.

Oh yes, and there is also beautiful sexual tension between Baru Cormorant and her lover (and general), also a woman. Because the protagonist of this book is a lesbian. Did I forget to mention that?

Seriously, you guys. I loved this book.

 

Currently Reading: Best of October 2015

Here we are, almost to the end of November and I’m just getting to this list now. Oh well! Sometimes life happens, I suppose. Better late than never.

I’m still reading up a storm, and still reading a lot of very good books. October was definitely a solid month, book-wise – though I’m already looking forward to talking about one of my November books that blew almost everything I’ve read this year out of the water.

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. This one probably doesn’t need much introduction – it did win a Pulitzer, after all, which might be recommendation enough. However, to give it my own personal endorsement: I should note that I am ridiculously picky when it comes to histories that deal with Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic/Empire, probably because I’ve spent too much time with the primary sources talking about how unreliable almost everything is. This might be the first history in the “classics” field that I wholeheartedly loved. Not only was it compellingly written – Schiff is very good at what she does – it was impeccably researched, steered clear of the weird Orientalism that so often goes along with writings about Cleopatra, and deftly dealt with the uncertainties and probabilities without either leaping to conclusions or holding back so far as to leave the reader bereft of a narrative.

Whether you’re a longtime Cleopatra fan (I am) or have never read a book about Ptolomaic Egypt in your life, this is a great read.

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb. I have a draft/half a blog post about less famous fantasy series that I recommend, and one of them is Robin Hobb’s Farseer/Tawny Man trilogies. I read and loved those six books as a teenager, cried many tears over FitzChivalry’s miserable life, and was thoroughly satisfied with the conclusion of the saga in Fool’s Fate.

Just the same, I was overjoyed to find out there was more.

There are two books out of this third trilogy, called Fitz and the Fool, with the third expected (I believe?) next year. This is, obviously, a series that requires some back-reading, but man, did it satisfy. Reading this book was like jumping back into a familiar lake and swimming around in it. Robin Hobb has only improved as a writer, in my opinion. I sank into this book with unique pleasure, read the sequel with equal eagerness, and am immensely excited for the third. Having read, now, eight books featuring FitzChivalry and his supporting cast and still feeling equal enthusiasm for them, I think I can comfortably say that is an accomplishment.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab. I’ve been reading around the genre of superhero novels (novels that take as their inspiration comic book stye superheroes, in some form or another) and I’ve been largely disappointed by the offerings on display. Vicious did not disappoint, satisfying my love of stories about people who are morally ambiguous and self aware while telling a thrilling and twisty revenge story. This was a wild ride and I loved every minute of it.

Augustus by John Williams. All these new books (relatively) and I managed to find one older book I loved. (Between this and Cleopatra – maybe I have a bit of an obsession.) I have been saying for years that I don’t understand how there isn’t a (fiction) book about Augustus, and lo and behold, there is. And it’s a…really good one.

Written as an epistolary novel composed of letters, journal entries, and formal decrees, this book managed to please me (a very picky classics nerd) in its balance of historical and literary writing. It presented a highly compelling portrait of the early years of the Roman Empire (and the very late years of the Roman Republic). Despite the title, I especially enjoyed the sizeable role played by Julia in the latter half of the book, and the fact that the majority of the text was written viewing Augustus from outside – just as in history – with Augustus’ own voice intervening only at the last.

A very, very good read.

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin. While I didn’t love this book in the same way I loved N.K. Jemisin’s other work – that isn’t saying much. Still an awesome fantasy, set in a world patterned somewhat on Egypt with a complex system of magic based on sacrifice. As usual, Jemisin’s themes of power and empire come into play here, and as usual, it’s fascinating and a pleasure to read.

The first book of a duology, and while I haven’t read the second, this one (like the books in the Inheritance Trilogy) can stand perfectly fine on its own.

Bonus mention: Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl. A young adult novel written in the Marvel Universe about Black Widow finding herself entangled with a girl she rescued in the past. While the writing sometimes felt a little too “young” for my personal taste, overall the book was highly enjoyable, and the relationship between Natasha and Ava was a delight. I am very much looking forward to the sequel.

That’s it for this month! I’ll be back in two days for November’s Currently Reading post.

Currently Reading: Best of September 2015

If August was a less than stellar month when it came to my reading list, September brought a number of excellent reads that I was very excited about. It’s been a good book month.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. The first book in Jemisin’s new series shows that she hasn’t lost any of her talent for innovative and exciting fantasy. Set in a world punctuated by periodic cataclysms (the titular “Fifth Seasons”) and inhabited by a subset of people able to control plate tectonics, Jemisin sets up a story that weaves together a compelling picture of a world both peculiar and familiar. As always, her female protagonists are compelling, difficult in the best of ways, and impeccably human. I cannot wait to read the future installments of this series. The gradual, masterful unveiling of the major twist of this book is one of my favorite parts – but I will avoid saying more so that other readers can have the pleasure of experiencing the dawning comprehension I did.

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. I know, I know – I’m late to the party. But having gotten there, I’m very excited to join. Eric Larson writes delicious, thrilling narrative history, weaving stories out of often little known or underexplored episodes of history. The Devil and the White City combines the story of the building of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, which aimed to surpass the World’s Fair, and the path of the man frequently called America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who preyed on women leading up to and during the fair. Larson’s talent is such that he made the architectural exploits of the fair’s builders as fascinating as the killer moving parallel to them. A stellar piece of narrative history that was a delight to read from start to finish, and left me craving more of Larson’s work.

The Likeness by Tana French. It feels like cheating because this is a sequel, technically, but this particular sequel in my opinion far surpassed Tana French’s first and more widely read book, In the Woods, and the two are loosely connected enough that I feel The Likeness could be read without In the Woods. (Although I do, less enthusiastically, recommend that one – it was great up until a rather disappointing conclusion.)

The Likeness, however, did not disappoint. It is a mystery that is beautifully written and well crafted, about a detective whose doppelganger is found murdered under a name she used for an undercover investigation years ago. Through an elaborate bit of trickery, she infiltrates the primary group of suspects in order to find the murderer. I did not see the solution to this one coming, and even if I had, the characters and prose are stellar. Would recommend especially for fans of The Secret History.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (and also Broken Monsters). These two books are not related (and yes, I am cheating) but they have certain things in common. Supernaturally tinged mystery/thrillers, both showcase Lauren Beukes as an author to watch. The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer who targets women because of their potential, following the lone survivor of his attacks and her attempts to catch her attacker. The killer is vile but never exaggerated, and the heroine Kirby is ‘damaged’ but unbroken, her determination leaping off the page. I look forward to seeing Beukes’ continued work.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. This might seem like kind of an odd one out, but while I don’t often read scientific writing I love it when it’s good, and this was good. Quammen writes on the phenomenon of zoonoses, or diseases that jump from animals to people – tracing a variety of famous illnesses from Ebola to AIDS, finding their origin points, and discussing what all this means for the future. Sobering but not depressing, and scary but not alarmist, Quammen writes clearly and concisely, creating a quality book for the layperson that illuminates both the history of the study of diseases, and where we might be going next.

That’s five for this month. I’m already halfway through Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, and looking forward to reading more N.K. Jemisin, Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin, and Vicious by V.E. Schwab in the next thirty one days. (And maybe trying to find some quality horror for Halloween.) Here’s to another month of subway reading!

Currently Reading: Best of August 2015

This “Best of” post is coming to you on September 3rd instead of August 31st because of a massively chaotic last couple weeks, primarily because of moving. However, it is also a little late because, especially compared to last month (overflowing with good books) this was a disappointing book month. Nevertheless, here are five things I read that stuck out. (And here’s hoping September is another exciting month for reading!)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. My history with Neil Gaiman as a writer is kind of complicated. He was probably my favorite writer in high school, the kind of writer whose work sent me into paroxysms of jealous glee of “this is what I want to do, this is the kind of stories I want to tell.” And then he…wasn’t.

I hadn’t read any Neil Gaiman in years, since I had my “idol with feet of clay” moment in college and realized that, like most human beings, Neil Gaiman is problematic as hell. However, I kept hearing about this book, and seeing it at my workplace, and it was short and also the only Gaiman I haven’t read (other than the most recent short story collection Trigger Warnings) so I decided to go for it.

Absolutely worth it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminded me of why I loved Gaiman’s works so much – the blend of ordinariness and fairy-tale, of the fantastic and the mundane, the quality that reminds me of a familiar story from your childhood while simultaneously being fresh and new, drawing you in and absorbing you for the duration. A lovely little story – short and beautiful, and left me just a little breathless.

The best way I can think to summarize this book is that it recalls the magic of being a child – the darkness of it, but also the wonder – with a particular spellbinding quality that is utterly Gaiman. I can resent it, but Neil Gaiman’s work still has the power to enchant me.

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville. This second short story collection by China Mieville was occasionally a little abstruse even for me, but at the same time even when I didn’t understand what was going on it was a joy to read. Like Mieville’s writing before, he plays with the grotesque and the surreal and sometimes the downright horrifying – some of my favorite stories in this collection are also the weirdest, like “Covehithe” about sunken oil rigs coming back out of the ocean onto land, like enormous metal turtles.

While The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer is the New Weird series that’s taken off this summer (and I am delighted), and I can’t help but hope some of those people will start looking more widely at that genre and pick up China Mieville. Sometimes I feel like I have to warn people looking at his work that “he’s…really weird” – but honestly, that’s part of the joy. There’s no one else writing quite like Mieville right now, and this fascinating collection of short stories just proves it all over again.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. And now we turn to the nonfiction part of my list. Vowell’s book, taking the reader through the assinations of three US presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley) is humorous and highly readable. Vowell is both informative and engaging, and her meandering course also includes gems like the totem pole of shame dedicated to William Seward for not holding up his end of the potlatch. Vowell’s book is less a history than a travelogue, and reminded me less of a travelogue than of reading the blog of a friend. Thoroughly enjoyable book, even if you didn’t think you cared about Garfield or McKinley (or, for that matter, Lincoln).

Missoula by Jon Krakauer. I can’t call this book “enjoyable.” It was hard to read, and sobering, and at times even depressing, but nonetheless I felt like it was one of the most important books I read this month – even though I feel like I know the subject material well. The book focuses on the series of rape prosecutions in Missoula, Montana, connected with the university and the Grizzly football team there. Krakauer tells the stories of the victims with a mixture of compassion and muffled anger, and his presentation never feels exploitative or overwrought. In light of Emma Sulkowicz’s highly publicized “Carry That Weight” project, and the backlash against her, questions of how rape is dealt with on college campuses continues to be relevant, not just in the public sphere but in how legal cases are processed and prosecuted. Illuminating, but painful to read.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. I’m a true crime nut, I admit it. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve always been kind of a fan – googling serial killers, reading up on truecrime.tv, and so on. Lately I’ve been looking for some good books, and a co-worker of mine recommended this one about the Lucie Blackman case in Japan.

While Richard Lloyd Parry sometimes falls into some weird, Orientalist traps, overall this was a creepy, intense, and strongly written true crime book. Parry focuses most on Lucie Blackman’s life and the hostess culture in Japan, delving in the last half of the book into the trial and conviction of the culprit.

Obviously, this book is kind of a niche recommendation – I wouldn’t say anyone not into true crime needs to read it. But I figure in the interests of accurately presenting my reading habits – and what I enjoyed this month – it has to go on this list.

While overall I wasn’t stunned by most of the things I read this month, a special recognition does go to The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan, a book in which knights battle on dinosaurs, billed as a crossover between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones. Whatever my problems with it (a gratuitous rape scene toward the end of the book, mostly, and relatively lackluster prose) I have to say it’s some of the best executed weird concept fantasy I’ve seen recently. Bravo, Milan. You wrote political intrigue with dinosaurs, and you actually did it pretty well.

Also, bonus points for including a scene in which a man goes down on a woman. That was pretty cool too.

Currently Reading: Best of July 2015

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.