Monthly Archives: July 2020

{Books} The Westmark Trilogy

Westmark (Westmark, #1)

Theo, by occupation, was a devil. That is, he worked as apprentice and general servant to Anton, the printer. … Accidentally, he had learned to read, which in some opinion spoiled him for anything sensible.

So begins Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen).

Alexander is more popularly known for the the Chronicles of Prydain series, of which The Black Cauldron is part. Prydain is based on Welsh mythology and has a good helping of oracular pigs, rhyming beast-men, dark lords, and young chosen heroes.

Westmark, while not precisely somewhere in Europe, is set in a non-fantastical world, circa 1800. The crux of the plot involves the gradual abolition of a monarchy and the civil and international struggles of a budding republic. What more can you want in a YA series?

Theo, our main character, is not of secret noble birth or any thing spectacular like that and struggles with the actions he’s taken to become a “hero.” Mickle, our female character, is actually a really great character. She’s smart, competent, and self-sufficient. She and Theo become a couple and just… stay that way. There’s no love triangle, or “how can I be worthy of you,” or any other nonsense. They’re just two young people that would like to live their lives, but there’s this pesky revolution mucking things up.

I harp a little on the romance aspect because I find its lack of complication to be refreshing. By no means are these books romances: they are adventures! There are harrowing rescues, treacherous bad guys, plots and counter-plots. Enemies become allies and the good guys aren’t always right. The characters relationships are complex without being over-dramatic. And, while the first book Westmark won the 1982 National Book Award for Children’s Books, I can see how its lower key has possibly hurt its longevity.

Still, the writing sparkles and Alexander has a good eye for when to add some ridiculousness. They’ve been the perfect books to read a chapter of every morning for the last three months.

Side note: I collected all three of these books over the years in the above hardback editions. All three are discarded library books. From three different libraries. Westmark was purchased first, probably in Lincoln, NE; it had previously been part of the Springfield (NE) Public Library system. I’m pretty sure I came across The Beggar Queen next, at the Tempe (AZ) Public Library book sale. Later, I ordered The Kestrel through Paperback Swap. The sender removed any locational information, but it still has the shelving label on its spine.

Sunday (Monday) Salon, 7/27

Reading

Past

Cover: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic had to go back to the library before I was finished. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but it hadn’t caught fire for me either. Plus, I’m in a little bit of a reading slump. I’ll probably give it another go someday when other people aren’t waiting to read it.

I’ve been taking part in the July Page-a-thon, but only in the “well, I read 7 pages today” kind of way. I’m also behind on Deal Me In stories and haven’t made much progress on my Classic Club list this month.

Future

Cover: The Beggar Queen by Lloyd Alexander

To read this week?

  • It’s possible I’ll finish The Beggar Queen tomorrow morning since morning reading is the only reading I’ve been doing. I’ll probably review the Westmark trilogy sometime during the week.
  • Deal Me In story for Week 29: “Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by JY Yang
  • Deal Me In story for Week 30: “Soft Monkey” by Harlan Ellison

Watching

Movie of the week was Free Solo, the Oscar award-winning documentary about climber Alex Honnold, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. If you have a problem with heights, this is probably not the movie for you. Actually, if you have problems with tight spaces, probably not the movie for you either. But it is a beautiful movie and a meditation on why someone would climb without a rope and why someone would want to film it.

I’ve always thought I’d like to try climbing, but I realize I mean climbing with ropes in a gym. I don’t really like being outdoors…

ROW80

Past

I logged 18hrs 20mins of work, which is pretty good considering Friday was derailed by a gaming session on Friday.

So, what I’m doing is looking at the case of a woman named Ada Swanson who was murdered in 1915 in Omaha. The story was a sensation in the newspapers and my thesis question is, “Why Ada?” Not just why was this woman murdered (the case is unsolved, as far as I know), but why was she front page news when, for example, the story of a naked man attacking women in a cemetery isn’t.

Last week, I finished transcribing the newspaper stories about Ada and the women getting attacked.

Future

This week, I’m going to read though my transcript and put together a list of names and addressed mentioned in case. I’ll probably do more Google-fu-related research and maybe read some of the interstitial issues of newspapers that I’ve skipped over. And I think I’ll start writing whatever it is I’m writing.

Sunday Salon, 7/19

Reading

Mexican Gothic

Before I got too far in Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia came off-hold from the online library. I placed the hold back when it was still pre-release and I was a few down the list. I figured I wouldn’t get a shot at it until sometime next month. So far, I’m enjoying it.

Watching

I have a liking for not-well-regarded occult action movies (see also Legion (2010)). The involvement of angels is only a plus. Constantine isn’t that bad, really. The cast is rather good. The story is a little convoluted, but that’s par for this course.

Listening

I’ve pretty much had Erasure’s The Innocents on replay in my head for two weeks now…

ROW80

I logged 13hrs 47mins during last week. Below goal. I wasn’t feeling good on Monday and flailed around a bit on Tuesday and Wednesday. Still, it wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful week. After a long chat with Eric (my husband), I realized that I really needed a thesis for this book. We also discussed some ways of him helping keep me motivated. I’ll probably post more about this in the future.

{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.

Sunday Salon, 7/12

It’s summer in Phoenix. My least favorite season. We broke the July 12th record today with a temp of 116F! The impending week looks like more of the same. We’re on day 92 of no rain.

If I could hibernate until the equinox, I would.

Reading

Reviewed The Changeling by Victor LaValle! TLDR: I really enjoyed it.

Finished reading both The Haunting of Tram 015 by P. Djèlí Clark and Levels of the Game by John McPhee. Both were short. I’ll review one or the other, maybe both in the coming week.

The King in Yellow: With Other Classic Horror Stories [Illustrated]

Back to weird fiction for a little while with The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers.

Watching

The X-Files was last week’s background noise. I’m not watching the series straight through because, while The X-Files should get credit for ushering in the era of plot arcs in serial television, I kind of find the Mulder-UFO plot tedious.

My favorite episode of season 1 is “Beyond the Sea.” The set up is very Silence of the Lambs, but the psychic aspect of Luther Lee Boggs and Scully’s struggle with skepticism really add to the plot. Plus, Brad Dourif is always excellent.

ROW80

It wasn’t a bad week considering how sluggish I’ve been. Eric wasn’t feeling well mid-week and, with the weather as it’s been, we weren’t very motivated to get out and run. It’s been easy to split my time between napping (which is fine) and doomscrolling (when I should be working).

I logged 17 hours of research. (My goal is 20.) I paged through the Omaha World-Herald and Omaha Bee from June 1, 1915 to halfway through June 19, 1915. Noted or copied 26 articles. The primary investigation into Ada’s murder is winding down. This coming week, I’m going to take a look at my timeline of events and decide whether examining the papers day by day is worth it. Mostly, I’ve been looking at what else is going on in Omaha during this period. Things like a spate of burglaries weren’t immediately noticeable when I originally followed search results to articles directly about the investigation.

I’m also going to spend time this week rereading one of Eric’s manuscripts. I’ll probably split my 20 hours.

Logged 1.5 hours of working on the VOTS pages. (My goal is 3.)

{Book} The Changeling

The Changeling

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

Summary via Goodreads

I really enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and was looking to read more from him. I believe I put The Changeling on my TBR list when I was looking for successors to Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. As I was reading I thought that The Changeling was like a cross between War for the Oaks and the movie Hereditary, so I guess it scratched that folklore-in-the-mordern-world itch!

I didn’t know where this book was going to take me and I really enjoyed that. I don’t know how much I want to say about the crux of this book because it surprised to me and I really don’t want to spoil it. There was a really great interplay between technology/social media and old world folklore. To me, if you’re going to tell urban fantasy stories, that’s what’s needed to be more than “Hey, look! A werewolf in the streets in the year 2018!” (Note: werewolves are an example here. There are no werewolves in this book.)

But, my other comparison is Hereditary. The Changeling is definitely horror. There are some horrific things, but also a pervasive sense distrust and wrongness throughout the story which makes it tense and discomfiting. The story is slow to get going, but that’s because LaValle carefully lays a base for these characters. Their pasts matter to the story; not just in making the reader care for them, but giving them reason for acting the way they do and what situations they find themselves in.

In general, I haven’t enjoyed a horror novel this much since Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child. Victor LaValle is fast becoming one of my favorite “new” authors.

Publication: Spiegel & Grau, 2017
My Copy: Overdrive/Kindle edition, Tempe Digital Library
Genre: horror

Sunday Salon, 7/5

If you’re in the US, I hope you all had a safe and maybe introspective July 4th. Eric and I stayed in, which is what we would have done anyway.

Reading

Meant to get a review of The Changeling up, but didn’t. Aw, well. I got a draft and I should post on Tuesday.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo
The Haunting of Tram Car 015
Levels of the Game

Re-read P. Djèlí Clark’s “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” which is set in the same world as The Haunting of Tram Car 015, my current read. Next, I might read Levels of the Game by John McPhee. I really want to see how McPhee handles writing a nonfiction narrative with a tennis match, Arthur Ashe against Clark Graebner in 1968, as a backbone.

Watching

Watching the docu-series The Story of Film: An Odyssey on Hulu. It takes a broader, world-view on the history of cinema.

ROW80

A Round of Words in 80 Days (or ROW80) is a quarterly goal-setting method based around flexible goals and community support. Set a measurable goal that fits in with your lifestyle, check in twice a week. My Sunday check-ins will be part of Sunday Salon.

Monday is the beginning of the round; today, I set my goals!

I want to spend the next three months focused on one writing project: working on a nonfiction(?) book(?) about the murder of Ada Swanson in 1915 Omaha. Since much of what I’m doing right now is research, I’m setting a time goal of 4 hours per day, five days a week. (20 hours a week.)

I do have an auxiliary goal of three hours a week on the VOTS webpage. I’m working on the archive and history pages, unless I have an actual update to do.