The Tuesday List: American Heart

No, this isn’t about that horrible-sounding YA novel built on white guilt and Islamaphobia, it’s about books that really get to the heart of “America,” America being the United States and what it was built upon.

  1. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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2. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

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3. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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4. Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

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5. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Bonus # 6!

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.

 

 

 

 

Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.

Pub Day Excitement: Stone in the Skull

Weee, it’s pub day for one of my favorite authors!

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Stone in the Skull lives in the same universe as the Eternal Sky trilogy, but takes place over in the Lotus Kingdoms, where a few of the supporting characters either come from or have lived.  I’m super exicted that  Elizabeth Bear chose to expand this universe and write more!

Fast Fiction: Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse

From Issue 99 of Apex Magazine, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” is a story about settlers, written for Natives.  But also the kind of story that settlers need to read.  I say written for Natives because although it’s a story, with a beginning, middle, end, climax, etc, it’s also an experience in itself, and probably cathartic in a “finally someone gets it” way.  But of course Roanhorse would, being that it’s part of an own voices “special” issue.

Written from the point of view of an Indian (using this terminology because the story does), but in second person present, it walks the reader through a metaphorical (and yet all-too-real) journey through appropriation–not only of cultural accouterments, but of land, life, peace of mind, happiness.  It’s a story of what happens when those outside a culture get to define that culture, and is written with the world-weary feeling that accompanies knowing it’s happened over and over, for so many, and will go on happening.

Personally, I look forward to reading the rest of the stories in Apex 99 and wish they’d go out of their way to publish more like it.  But being the kind of magazine that attracts submissions like this might be something Apex isn’t up to.  I don’t know yet, as I’ve only had a subscription for a few months.  But we’ll see.

 

September Library Checkouts

I felt like a read a fair amount this month, but my library checkouts were relatively low.  I also read some ARCs, and try to throw in some stuff off the “purchased” pile.  Here’s what I (can remember that I) checked out.

 

The Reluctant Queen, by Sara Beth Durst

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The Strange Case of the Alchemists’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

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Prudence, by Gail Carriger (overdrive audiobook)

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An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir (overdrive audiobook)

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Companion Pieces: The Wanderers and Packing for Mars

This past year I read The Wanderers, Met Howrey’s imagining of a near present in which an international team of three undergo a year long simulation of a trip to Mars, in which they are completely isolated and get to talk to other people besides themselves only through digital/radio communication.  It was in many ways more of a thought experiment than a full-fledged climactic novel, but it still pushed a lot of buttons.

I decided to make Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars the staff pick at my library for October, and it again got me thinking about The Wanderers.  Though Roach’s exploration of the history of space entry and travel covers a lot of ground considered the distant past in Howrey’s novel, it is still essentially about the human aspect of space travel, which is what any long-term space voyage simulation is really trying to figure out.  Engineers can calculate fuel and weight and trajectories, plan for when certain parts will fail and how many extra toilets will be needed, you never know when a human mind will fail the test of time and isolation.

I don’t read much non-fiction, but these two books go together well, and are a great companion read for anyone steeped in the traditions of spacey sff.

The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

The world of Renthia is a terrifying place.  Beautiful, but terrifying.  Daleina, who lived through an attack by spirits as a child, knows this better than nearly anyone, and has dedicated her life to making sure that what happened to her village never happens to anyone in Renthia again.  Spirits–air, water, ice, wood, fire, and earth–are what make the world live, but they are also the forces of death and destruction, and keeping the balance is the queen’s responsibility.

So what happens when the queen’s strength seems to be slipping?

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the ways in which it doesn’t bow to conventional narrative.  The main character, Daleina, is not the best at everything, does not succeed in every venture and go on to save the day because of it.  She’s a complicated character, to be sure, and it is the ways in which she responds to the actions of others that drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged with her quest to not only succeed at the academy, but to become an heir to the crown of Renthia and serve her people, in her own way.

The narrative is at times merely workmanlike, the consistent point of view of Daleina occasionally overly navel gazing, but more often than not the very imagination at the heart of the story is stunning and part of an overall feeling of simultaneous dread and wonder.  This is a novel that doesn’t skirt the dangerous aspects of its fantasy elements, or couch the narrative in heroic imagery to such a degree that the reader is removed from the immediacy of harm.  The fact that Daleina is part of a close-knit group, rather than the competent loner women protagonists often end up being, means that violence or tragedy cut doubly–the terror of an attack and the loss of a friend.

Ultimately, imagination and strong group dynamics carry the narrative, and make it an engrossing read.  It has aspects of found family and the draw of having a magical academy as the main setting for Daleina’s story, with fun additions of the loner-mentor and a more casual approach to romantic relationships than is often seen in stories utilizing the “pre-modern” society standard.  The novel does suffer a little from the “assumed white” manner of describing characters, where the skin color of a new character is given more attention if it is not white (though Durst includes not just the white-to-brown spectrum of Earth, but shades of green as well).