Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Black God's Drums, by P. Djèjí Clark

This novella, the story of a 13-year-old orphan named Creeper living on the streets of New Orleans, just blew me away. To start with, it's 1884, and the American Civil War has paused (after eight years) with an armistice that divided the country and left slavery in the South. I do love alternate-world history, though I prefer ones where the Confederacy died the death it deserved. However New Orleans, as Creeper tells us,
"been free now going on more than two decades - ever since the slave uprising in that first year of the war. Caught the Confederates by surprise. They got so scared, they let the Free Coloured militias join up to help put it down. Only the militias switched over to the slaves and both of them took the city."
And in this world, airships have been developed, for which New Orleans has become a major port, a neutral and open one. When we first meet Creeper, she is settled in the hideaway she has established at the airship docks, where she can scout out "folks too careless with their purses, luggage, and anything else for the taking. Because in New Orleans, you can't survive on just dreams."

Creeper also prefers to be high up over the city. Her mother, who died from yellow fever, told her that she "was Oya's child - the goddess of storms, life, death and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik..." Creeper, named Jacqueline at birth, can feel Oya in her mind, hear her voice, sometimes warning of dangers or calling her to some action.

When Creeper overhears a group of men plotting to kidnap a Haitian scientist due to arrive on an airship, who will be bringing "the Black God's Drums," she knows she has found something "Bigger than any marks I was going to pinch tonight . . .that's gonna be valuable to somebody. I just need to figure out who'll pay the highest price." What Creeper wants, more than money, is a place on an airship, to join a crew - and she has her heart set on a particular ship, the successful smuggler Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine's Midnight Robber. What she doesn't know until she meets the Captain is that the woman also carries a goddess's touch, Oshun, "The Bright Lady! Mistress of Rivers! Oya's sister-wife!" Creeper tells us "The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land."

P. Djèjí Clark packs so much action and excitement into his story, which takes place in the days before Mardi Gras (called "Maddi grà" here). I was particularly tickled by Creeper and Captain's visit to the convent of the Sacred Family, a gloss on the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded by Henriette de Lille in New Orleans as the first congregation for African American women in the United States (barred by racism from entering white orders). Sisters Eunice and Agnès who agree to help them are hilarious, but they are much more than comic relief, with more than one trick up the sleeves of their habits. As Creeper says, "Everyone knows the sisters help smuggle in runaways from the Confederacy." Those still enslaved are kept docile and helpless with chemical warfare, a gas called drapeto - a particularly chilling touch in the story.

I enjoyed this story so much. I loved the magic, and the technology, and the triumph of freedom in New Orleans (and Haiti). I hope there will be more of Creeper's adventures to come, especially if she talks her way on to that airship.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

    For one of us, it was the first book a librarian gave to her when she finally summoned up the courage to ask for a book recommendation - The Pink Fairy Book, by Andrew Lang. For the other, it was the one book she ever stole from her elementary school library - a book on mythology. (Not that it was okay to steal the book, but she will finally admit to it now, more than thirty years later, with the school shut down for good, and said thief living on the other side of the world from her hometown.)
    We both went on to devour other mythologies: Greek and Norse, from Ares to Danae to Thor to Odin. We fell in love with all those myths about powerful gods being vulnerable, about humans becoming heroes. Such stories taught us about mythology, about the beauty of folktales and legends, and about how stories of gods and goddesses are also stories about the human heart.
    But we never found similar compilations that were distinctly Asian. And so many times when we found Asian stories, they were ones retold by non-Asians that never felt quite right. They were always missing something. The stories felt superficial at best and at worst, quite hurtful. We longed for nuance and subtlety and layers, the embedded truths about culture that - more often than not - can only come from within.
    That's why this anthology is important to us. Here, diasporic Asians reimagine their favorite Asian myths and legends from their own viewpoints. We would have been overjoyed to have found this anthology, filled with characters with skin and hair and names like ours, in our beloved libraries. It's the book that was missing in our lives for far too long. ("From the Editors")
I loved mythology and folktales as a child. Looking back, I read mostly Greek and Roman mythology, and European-centered folktales. It is only recently that I have begun to diversify my own reading in those areas. When I saw this book listed in a Book Riot post, I was happy to find that my library had a copy.

Most of the authors in the collection are new to me, except for Aliette de Bodard (I have collected a couple of her ebooks but not yet read them). Some of their stories bring myths or folk tales into a modern setting, like E.C. Myers "The Land of Morning Calm," which translates the epic Korean myth the Chasa Bonpuli into an on-line gaming world; or Alyssa Wong's "Olivia's Tables," which brings the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival to a small town in Arizona (including the ghosts of Chinese immigrants brought in for mining work). Others take place in the mythical past, such as Rahul Kanakia's "Spear Carrier," where a young person is transported back to the epic battle that ends India's classic the Mahabharata (without ever quite understanding what they are doing there). Each story includes a note from the author, explaining the context and the background for the story she has chosen.

Some of the stories feel complete in themselves. With others, I was left wanting to know more, what happened next. "Olivia's Tables" is one of those, and also my favorite story, "Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers," by Preeti Chhibber. It's set at a community celebration of Navratri, a Hindu holiday that I hadn't learned about before, one the author explains "represents a few different myths in Hinduism," but "at its core, Navratri is always about good defeating evil."

The stories were as new to me as the authors, though I have recently learned about kitsune, the Japanese fox ghosts. The collection included the first story I have read by a Filipino author, Melissa de la Cruz. There is a handy "Author Biographies" section at the end of the book, which lists their other books.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

When it comes to tides, I'm all at sea

Inspired by Gladys Mitchell, I picked up The Floating Admiral from the TBR shelves. This is the first collaboration by members of the Detection Club, published in 1931. I had expected it to be a spoof, but it's a serious work, and one I'm enjoying very much. There are twelve chapters, each written by a different author, many of whom I've met in Martin Edwards' short story compilations. Dorothy L. Sayers explained how the idea of the collaborative story came to be in an Introduction, and she also explained how it was written.
Except in the case of Mr. Chesterton's picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. Two rules only were imposed. Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view - that is, he must not introduce new complications merely "to make it more difficult." He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution to the mystery. These solutions are printed at the end of the book for the benefit of the curious reader.
In her Introduction Sayers also gives some of the oath that members of the club take at their initiation, regarding their work. I think their rules are good ones!
The author pledges himself to play the game with the public and with his fellow-authors. His detectives must detect by their wits, without the help of accident or coincidence; he must not invent impossible death-rays and poisons to produce solutions which no living person could expect; he must write as good English as he can. . . If here is any serious aim behind the avowedly frivolous organisation of the Detection Club, it is to keep the detective story up to the highest standard that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, clap-trap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.
Considering the round-robin way this book was written, I find it a very cohesive story. Without the authors' names at the head of each chapter, I would never have guessed there were twelve writers. There are no real shifts in tone, and I couldn't have picked out the chapters written by Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie from the rest. The Floating Admiral of the title, Admiral Penistone, is found dead and drifting in a boat on the River Whyn, early one morning. He was stabbed to death sometime the previous night, after dining with his niece at a local vicar's home. Inspector Rudge from Whynmouth is called to take the case. I was happily following his investigation, until the question of the River came up. It's a tidal river, which may be a factor in when and where the Admiral's body was discovered. But I was reminded again how little I understand tides, and how little the explanations in books help, even when made to people as confused as I am. (And there's a whole chapter titled "Bright Thoughts on Tides.")
    "You want to know about the tides in the river?" [Neddy Ware, who found the body] replied, in answer to the Inspector's explanation of the cause of his visit. "Why, they're simple enough, so long as you remember that it's high water, Full and Change, at Whynmouth at seven o'clock."
    Rudge laughed. "I haven't a doubt it's simple enough to you," he said. "Personally, I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about. What on earth do you mean by high water, Full and Change?"
    "Why, merely that it's high water at Whynmouth at seven o'clock nearabouts, on the days when the moon is full or new," replied Ware. "Now, take this morning's tide, for instance. To-day's Wednesday, the 10th. It was new moon on Monday, that's to say it was high water at Whynmouth at seven on Monday evening. It would be about eight yesterday evening and half-past this morning. You can allow about six hours between high and low water, making it low water at half-past two this morning. The tide up here begins to flow half to three-quarters of an hour after low water at Whynmouth, or say soon after three. And that's when I went out fishing."
Maybe it's the math involved that throws me, as much as the science. As soon as I see "neeps" or "springs," I know I'm lost, even when (as here) the timetable is crucial to the mystery.

I'm glad to find this book so enjoyable, since last year I read about three more collaborations in Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder, and rushed to order them. They're still on the TBR stacks. Ask a Policeman has the authors swapping characters, writing each other's detectives. In The Anatomy of Murder, the fiction writers take on real-life cases. And in Six Against the Yard, the authors match wits against an actual policeman, a Superintendent from Scotland Yard. Dorothy L. Sayers joined in each of these, but the last is the only one to include Margery Allingham.

Edited to add: I should have noted that Orientalism that runs through the book, starting with G.K. Chesterton's Prologue, set in Hong Kong. It unfortunately includes derogatory references to the Chinese, as well as the usual casual use of the N-word.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Glamour" series. Murder by the Book sold the series to me as "Jane Austen with magic." I'm usually a little leery of Austen pastiche, but after reading The Calculating Stars I was very ready to try her other books.

The first in the series, Shades of Milk and Honey, hits all the right Austen notes. It is the story of Jane Ellsworth, as the back cover blurb says,
a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester's society are not that different. The lives of Jane and her sister Melody still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
(Melody does not feel like a Regency-era name to me. I didn't find it listed in Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Names.)

Jane and Melody live with their parents, a couple who reminded me more than a little of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Melody is the beauty of the family, while Jane is the more skilled at glamour, which (as Ms. Kowal explains in a helpful Glossary) "is a magic that can be worked by either men or women. It allows them to create illusions of light, scent and sound." It usually has to be tied to something in the physical world, which limits its applications. It also takes a toll on the person casting the glamour.

I think I was expecting a more active and more exciting magic in the story. I found the first book a bit slow, though it came to an exciting conclusion. I enjoyed this second book more. Jane is married to a fellow glamourist, and after completing a commission for the Prince Regent, they travel to a village in Belgium, where Jane's husband Vincent once studied. He is working on a particular type of glamour, the sphere obscurie, "a bubble of magic to make the person inside invisible." He hopes to find a way to make the glamour portable, tied to a physical object that a person can carry around. Jane, who worked with him on the Prince Regent's commission in London, wants to make their marriage a partnership in work and in love. As they adjust to their marriage and their shared interest in glamour, she realizes that Vincent is hiding something from her, locked away in his traveling desk. When she becomes pregnant and is forced to stop working with the glamour, the distance between them grows. Meanwhile, signs of support for the exiled Napoleon are popping up. As an Englishwoman abroad, Jane meets hostility, adding to her sense of isolation. But when Vincent suggests she return to England, she refuses, even as rumors of Napoleon's return begin to spread.

At one point, I had to Google the timeline of the Napoleonic Wars, to see where Jane and Vincent's adventures fit in. (Ms. Kowal explains in an afterword where she altered the timeline to fit her story.) I found that part of the story exciting and interesting, and Jane proved to be quite the heroine. But I also enjoyed the quieter parts of the story, as their relationship deepens and they work together on glamour. I admired Jane's determination to be a partner, to use and strengthen her talents, not to be constrained by the expected roles of women of her class. There are three more books in the series, and I'm looking forward to more adventures with Jane.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"A Very British Murder" and Gladys Mitchell

Last night I watched all three episodes of Lucy Worsley's "A Very British Murder" - a decision I started to regret all alone in a quiet dark house, with three cats staring off in the direction of the hallway.

The first episode looked at how, beginning in the Regency period, the British public became fascinated with accounts of murder, starting with the "Ratcliffe Highway Murders" in 1811. I was familiar with that case from P.D. James's The Maul and the Pear Tree, written with T.A. Critchley. Dr. Worsley argues that the proliferation of inexpensive publications including newspapers, combined with rising literacy rates, created an audience for stories particularly of murder. She talks about the rise of "murder tourism" and the collection of souvenirs. I was tickled to see a china keepsake replica of one murder site, the "Red Barn" case in 1827. A similar china memento plays an important part in Margery Allingham's The China Governess.

The second episode focused on Victorian crimes and the rise of both fictional and real-life detectives. I am most familiar with the Constance Kent case, through reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Dr. Worsley interviewed Kate Summerscale about the case, and also included a picture of Mr. Whicher. I thought she focused a bit too much on Charles Dickens and his interest in detective work, even if it meant interviewing Simon Callow.

In the third episode, Dr. Worsley turned to fictional detectives and the crimes they investigate, particularly in the "Golden Age" of crime between the wars. I expected that Agatha Christie would have a prominent place, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Dr. Worsley prefers Dorothy L. Sayers' books and thinks Harriet Vane an amazing character (as she is). I particularly enjoyed the segment where she met Simon Brett to discuss the Detection Club that Sayers and Christie founded with other authors. It even included "Eric," the skull on which new members have taken their oaths back to Sayers' day. But the episode ended with Graham Greene, ignoring all the other wonderful authors of the Golden Age.

The British Library reprints and Martin Edwards' books have introduced me to so many of those authors. After I finished watching, I went browsing through the TBR shelves to find one of them. I settled on When Last I Died, by Gladys Mitchell. I came across this on the library sale shelves a couple of months ago, in a Hogarth Press edition. Mitchell, a member of the Detection Club, taught English and history while also producing over 70 crime novels. The central character in most of them is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a psychologist. In When Last I Died, from 1941, she has been called in as a consultant as a boys' reform school. Two of the boys have run away.
    Her own methods with the boys were characteristic. She thought they needed stimulating, and applied psychological treatment, to their astonishment and her own amusement. She discovered very soon that they were afraid of her. One even went so far as to ask whether she was there to pick out the "mentals."
    "We are all 'mentals,' my poor child," she remarked.
    Nevertheless, at the end of two days she could tell the Warden where to lay hands upon his missing boys, for it was common knowledge where and how they had gone, and this common knowledge she soon shared.
The Warden, while grateful, informs her that two other boys had previously disappeared and never been found. I expected Mrs. Bradley to start looking into that. Instead, she asks the Warden if she can rent a house and have boys to stay with her, as a break from the school (and for the staff). He refuses. She takes a house by the sea anyway, and invites her seven-year-old grandson Derek to stay with her. Mrs. Bradley knows that there have been some recent deaths in the house, but she is unprepared for Derek's question one night: "Gran, what lady was murdered in this house?" Derek also tells her that the house is haunted by the victim's ghost. He has been talking to the postmistress, Peggy Peeples. Mrs. Bradley asks her about it the next day. Peggy's response is a perfect tangle:
"It was never brought in as murder, that wasn't. Oh, no! It's only people's wickedness to talk the way they do, but of course she did come in for the money, Miss Bella did, and then she was tried for murdering her cousin, and that set people off again. But the poor thing committed suicide in the end - drowned herself, so I heard - and some thought it was remorse that made her do it. But all that talk about her aunt, there was nothing so far as we knew, though they do say no smoke without fire."
Now we'll see if Mrs. Bradley is drawn into investigating the murder of Miss Bella's Aunt Flora, or the earlier disappearance of the two boys - or maybe both. I am quite taken with her already, both as a psychologist and a grandmother. I think Gladys Mitchell could be very bad for my TBR resolution, even if all 70 of her books are no longer in print.

(I've already started my 2019 TBR list. Yesterday I found a pristine Penguin edition of Anna Katherine Green's The Leavenworth Case on the library sale shelves. This 1878 novel is considered "the mother of the detective novel," as the back cover puts it. I have an ebook version but was happy to find such a good copy for only $1.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My favorite books of 2018, and reading in the new year

Happy New Year! I love the end-of-the-year book posts, which always add to my reading lists. Last night I was switching back and forth between blogs and my library's site. I was also looking back over my book log, to choose my own favorite books. Here is my list for 2018:

Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie. After my accident, I turned to e-books, convenient to borrow from the library when I couldn't easily get there. Remembering Jennifer Crusie's name from Claire at The Captive Reader,  I was happy to find a long list of her books available, and I tore through most of them. Fast Women is one I added to my shelves. It's the story of three friends, starting with Nell Dysart, beginning a new job at McKenna Investigations after losing her husband and her business in a divorce. I'd love more stories both about the women and the work at the detective agency.

The Magpie Lord, by KJ Charles. Jenny at Reading the End introduced me to KJ Charles. I started with her series about magical practitioners in Victorian London, and then went on to read pretty much everything else she has written, except her contemporary mysteries (the first of which is on my Nook). I'm following Ms. Charles on Twitter now not just for news of upcoming books but for her book recommendations.

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk  I see this book turning up on other "favorite" lists.

Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister, by Sheila Johnson Kindred. The book reviews in the newsletter from the Jane Austen Society of North America tempt me every time. That's where I found this biography of Jane Austen's sister-in-law, Frances Palmer Austen, married to Jane's younger brother Charles. It is a fascinating exploration of life in the Royal Navy, for a woman who (Prof. Kindred argues) might have served as a model for Mrs. Croft in Persuasion.

Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire. I am now reading her October Daye series, set in a Fairie world that co-exists in contemporary San Francisco.

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells. I read more fantasy and science fiction this year than I have in a long time. Martha Wells writes both, this being the first in a fantasy series about a community of shape-shifters facing the loss of their home. I still have her "Murderbot" books on the TBR stacks.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I had a list of people to give this book to for Christmas. I wish I could have shared it with my aunt, who died in July. She loved visiting the Johnson Space Center here in Houston, and she would have enjoyed this alternative history of the space program. I have the sequel, The Fated Sky, still on the TBR stacks as well.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. I see this on a lot of "best-of" lists as well. A colleague at work lent it to me, over my polite attempts at resistance. When I finally did sit down with it, months later, I was expecting to read a few pages and then return it with apologies for keeping it so long. Instead, I was immediately caught up in the story. I had to buy my own copy before giving his back (which he admitted having forgotten about).

Blood on the Tracks, by Martin Edwards. I cannot resist these British Library crime compilations, and this is probably my favorite (at least so far).

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole. I don't read much fiction set in the American Civil War, probably because I read so much of its history. But this is an extraordinary story, about a former slave working for the Union cause in the Loyal League. Her current assignment: posing as a slave, to gather intelligence in the heart of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. There is a second book in the series, A Hope Divided, as well as a third coming out in the spring.

Eve in Egypt, by Stella Tennyson Jesse. I enjoyed this fictional travelogue so much, and I was sorry to learn it was her only book published. I do have two of her sister F. Tennyson Jesse's books on the TBR stacks.

There are several references in that list to books already on my TBR stacks. I failed miserably at last year's resolution, to add only 12 books to the TBR stacks. Nevertheless, I am going to try that again, with the idea of acquiring books more mindfully - at least unread books. I also have to face the fact that I have run out of shelf space again. Rather than buying another book case, I think it is time to prune the shelves, both of TBRs that I probably won't read, and books already read that I can pass along.

It is clear from my reading over the past year that this was the year I finally became an ebook reader. I resisted for a long time, because I found it harder to concentrate on ebooks. I'm really frustrated by the inability to flip easily back and forth in an ebook, which I do all the time reading physical books. It didn't help that the early Nook I bought made the pages look grey, fuzzy, and generally unappealing. It was Lois McMaster Bujold who first lured me to ebooks, because she is publishing now only in that format (most recently in the Five Gods world, but a novella in the Sharing Knife world is coming this spring). KJ Charles was another, since her books are not available in print in the U.S. But it was mainly convenience, in the wake of the accident. My library has a wealth of ebooks available through Overdrive. I started buying through the Nook app as well, and the books look so much better on my phone or tablet. But it was when I found a previously-unavailable book through Kindle Unlimited that I really disappeared down the rabbit hole. I read so many books through their subscription service, so many that I stopped counting. Many of them were what I think of as "potato chip" books, quick but ultimately unsatisfying reads. I don't keep potato chips in the house, because I can't stop after a single serving, and I couldn't with these books either. This year, I want to step back, not completely from ebooks, but from that kind of binge reading. I want to focus on my TBR stacks, I want to read more non-fiction this year, and I want to continue to seek out diverse voices. I also want to read the books that I check out from the library. Far too many went back unread this year.

On the other hand, I know I'll be tempted by fellow bloggers, book reviews, the JASNA newsletter, and visits "just to browse" in my favorite bookstores. I stopped by Barnes & Noble on Sunday, to buy a half-price calendar, and came home with three books as well. I can't wait to see what books the new year brings.