Books, March 2019

The Hugo and Nebula award nominees are out this month! In addition to the many nominees I have read this year, I also am a HUGE fan of nominee Lindsay Ellis‘s video essays, and am just as much NOT a fan of the Hobbit movies as she is and extensively explains in her nominated piece.

Remember: I re-centered my ratings last month. No more grade inflation!

Book of the month: The Widows of Malabar Hill, Sujata Massey

Heroine Perveen debuts in this story about first big case as the first female lawyer in 1920s India. Besides being a cracker of a mystery, it fundamentally revolves around her wielding her gender to find ways to circumvent systemic sexism. She’s also a fantastic portrait of how privilege in some areas – in her case, a well-off family that not only supports her career but actively pushed her towards it, and who also stood by her through an abusive relationship – does not mean her path is smooth. She has to fight for her education, for her right to practice law (which she does not yet have, she can’t go to court), and just to walk down the street safely. But she recognizes and uses the power she has to advocate for women without her advantages. She is a unique position to help her clients, Muslim women who have taken a vow of seclusion (meaning, among other things, they can’t interact with unrelated men), and her best friend, who is being tightly controlled by her strict family on account of being a lesbian and suffragette. Much of the story focuses on Perveen’s history through extensive flashbacks, and while it’s critical to her character to establish her backstory, I’m looking forward to her starting to look towards her future instead of her past. Book two comes out in May – I’m very excited.

Genre: mystery, commentary, character study. Setting: historical realism. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Runner up (because I couldn’t pick just one): An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good, Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy from Swedish

Little old Maud is 85, lives in an inherited rent-free apartment in a newly revitalized building, and saves her money carefully. She devotes her time to researching months-long trips to see the world and escape the Swedish winters. And when her neighbors and acquaintances are greedy, unseemly, or otherwise inconvenient to her, she murders them and makes it look like an accident. After all, who would suspect a little old lady? The spare writing style and Maud’s aggressive innocent facade provide a delightfully macabre mood. Her simultaneously careful and impulsive MO is nicely consistent with the rest of her personality (her travel planning that then regularly gets altered on the fly, her frugal life, her backstory with her sister leading her to need to have control), which is a nice touch – many fictional killers’ acts are too separate from their personality otherwise, which makes it hard to see them as fully developed characters and flattens their motives.

Tursten is best known for a series of detective novels, the protagonist of which ends up investigating Maud. She knows Maud is guilty, but can’t prove it – and in the next story we see how Maud did it. I do love a good crossover.

Also, the print edition is this twee little 3×5″ hardcover with a cross stitch-themed cover, and I am obsessed.

Genre: character study, mystery. Setting: realism. Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3

Tulipomania, Mike Dash

The Dutch tulip boom was much smaller in scale than in the popular telling, but also a whole lot weirder. When introduced to an exciting new commodity, they promptly invented the worst economy to support its trading. The anarchic futures market for meaningless commodities bears a striking resemblance to the Pokemon trading craze of my childhood, which is to say, it wasn’t exactly a functional economy. The writing is a little idiosyncratic and dry, but benefits from having such a fascinatingly bizarre subject.

Subject: history, economics. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 2/3

Ruled Britannia, Harry Turtledove

I was given this book as a gift the year I asked for alternate histories at the annual book exchange party. I didn’t look too closely at the cover or read the back, and I somehow got it into my head that it was a “Nazis win WWII” story, and decided that I was just not up for that right now. Turns out it was actually “the Spanish Armada wins the war between Spain and Britain and brings the Inquisition with them.” Truly, NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Also Shakespeare is the protagonist, and he accidentally becomes a double agent/leader of the rebellion. His great rival is a IRL contemporary Spanish playwright/poet, Lope de Vega, who in this alternate world is just another Spanish officer who happens to have a passion for the theater.

One of the major struggles with writing a work set in a world with a specific writing style already – that is, the Elizabethan English that Shakespeare really spoke and wrote with – is how to balance that expectation with the reality that no author is going to write a 600 page novel entirely in that style. (Not least because even I don’t want to read a 600 page novel entirely in Elizabethan English.) The compromise here was that dialogue is in the era (and liberally peppered with quotes from the plays, almost too many), but the narration is modern English. And it pulls it off far better than it has any right to do. I wish it had packed the same amount of plot into 1/3 less space – the middle portion dragged pretty severely – and given the female characters the faintest shred of dignity. (It particularly drags the off-screen Anne Hathaway quite unfairly.) I wouldn’t recommend this doorstopper unless you’re already an alternate history and/or theater nerd, but if you are, it’s a strong example of both genres.

Genre: thriller, quest. Setting: alternate history. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders

When I describe a piece as “science fantasy,” I usually mean things like Star Wars that look like scifi but are actually fantasy. (Best definition I’ve ever seen: in fantasy, there are “chosen” or special people who can do things others can’t. In scifi, the plot could happen to anyone.) But in this case, it is literally science fantasy, in that the plot revolves around a battle for the philosophical future of the planet between tech-startup obsessives and cultish mages. The two protagonists fall in opposite camps, of course, and we follow them as their relationship waxes and wanes over the course of decades. They rise in their respective ranks and both sides literally almost end the world in competing efforts to save it. In the end, it’s not a global overhaul but a personal sacrifice that really makes a difference.

My big wish was that the environmental and social devastation constantly lurking in the background (local food because industrial agriculture seems to have collapsed, AI that engineers an “effortless” social life) was brought forward louder and sooner in the story. It was not immediately clear why either camp was attempting such drastic strategies to fix what they see as the world, so everyone just looked generically reckless and blinkered – which they definitely are. But the motivation for their “solutions” in the first place was unclear until too late, which undermined the extreme solutions (literally ending the planet and/or society). This is especially true because the the wild animals and local woodland are so important early on that the environmental motivations were buried under that setting of the scene.

Anders just had another book come out a few months ago – I have it coming up the queue eventually.

Genre: allegory, commentary, speculative, quest, relationship. Setting: science fantasy/specfic. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

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