Category Archives: Novel

Anthology ~ In Our Own Worlds

Cover for In Our Own Worlds, an anthology of LGBTQ+ novella published by Tor.

In Our Own Worlds is a four novella anthology featuring LGBTQ+ characters. It was a freebie I picked up from the publisher, Tor, in late 2019.

The first novella is The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy. Welcome to Freedom, IA, where the peace is kept by a demonic deer! Not everyone in town thinks a demon who brings retribution on “predators” is a good idea. I like the play on philosophy here, but the story seemed dependent on the reader just going along with character actions when those actions don’t have much reasoning behind them. It wasn’t that characters did outlandish things, but there was the occasional leap of logic that seemed to come out of nowhere.

I had high hopes for the second novella, Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. I have read and enjoyed Klages’s short stories in the past. In fact, this novella is why I picked up the anthology: Klages’s magical realism in 1940s San Francisco seemed like a slam dunk. Alas, as with Nebraska basketball, Passing Strange didn’t do as well as I hoped. I’ve become a bit aware of how authors present exposition and there were a lot of As You Know, Bob going on. Also, the use of magic in the story was very minimal. It almost felt like an overlay on straight (no pun intended) historical fiction.

The third novella was A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson. I enjoyed this novella the most*. Okay, I’m not sure I entirely followed chronology, but that’s fine. Aqib and Lucrio are compelling main characters and I was in it for their story/stories. I also enjoy world-building that isn’t spelled out for me; I don’t need every thing explained. In a way, this is an interesting contrast to Passing Strange. Both could tell straight-up stories of forbidden romances, but use magic to solve problems for their lovers (though with consequences). A Taste of Honey just infuses the whole narrative with that magic/science.

* I decided not to read The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang. It really didn’t seem like my kind of story. Political machinations =/= A book for Katherine.

Book ~ Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley cover

Published: 1946
Audio book read by Adam Sims
Library check-out.

Considering its carnie characters and a plot involving fraudulent mediumship, I’m surprised that I hadn’t crossed paths with this novel sooner. It wasn’t until I heard that Guillermo del Torro was releasing a movie version (a remake, in fact) that I put Nightmare Alley on my TBR pile.

I didn’t care for this book, honestly. I wanted to like it more than I did. Most of this is because I really don’t enjoy the noir genre in print. Noir movies have the benefit of being stylistically interesting: the sparseness of character and setting is translated visually. In print, I feel like I’m left with a handful of miserable characters being miserable to each other. And Nightmare Alley is pretty much that.

I did enjoy the details of Stanton Carlisle’s cons. I haven’t read much on the techniques used in mentalism acts in the 30s and 40s, probably because many of the texts haven’t entered the public domain.

I don’t listen to many audio books, but Adam Sims’ reading was one of the best I’ve heard. I first checked out the movie tie-in version and didn’t care for the audio at all. Adam Sims pretty much kept this book from being a DNF.

Danse Macabre Around the Sundial Tonight

A couple reviews of books I finished a last weekend during Readathon:

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

Back in the late 70s, after Stephen King had become the go-to horror guy, he was approached to write a book about the phenomena of horror: why some people like it, why some writers write it, and why horror works. King decided, judiciously, to focus the field and write about horror between 1950 and 1980, both written and on film.

I first read this book back in college. At the time, I hadn’t read or watched much horror at all. Much of what King discusses was not really in my realm of knowledge (though weirdly, reading about horror media has always been almost as fun for me as consuming it). This book was, in fact what turned me on to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rivers Siddon’s The House Next Door, both of which I happily found in UNL’s library. It was definitely interesting to revisit Danse Macabre now that I’ve read and watched more of the titles mentioned.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

Speaking of Shirley Jackson . . . A second reread for me this month. This isn’t decreasing my “# of owned and unread books”.

I have in the past confused this book with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Not hard to do, I feel. Both involve a very insular group of people living in big old house. The difference: Merricat (from Castle) knows the world isn’t ending because she’s not lucky enough for all the people she hates to be so quickly wiped out.

This book is wild. As I mentioned the first time I read it (in 2006), I’m pretty sure there’s a satirical element, but, other than pointing out the lunacy that can come from classism, I’m not sure I’m neurotypical enough to puzzle it all out. It is a very funny book with moments of WTF and a dollop of terror when Julia tries to break for town.

Review ~ Slewfoot

This book was provided to me as an eARC by Tor Nightfire via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover: Slewfoot by Brom

Slewfoot: a tale of bewitchery by Brom

Connecticut, 1666.

An ancient spirit awakens in a dark wood. The wildfolk call him Father, slayer, protector. The colonists call him Slewfoot, demon, devil. To Abitha, a recently widowed outcast, alone and vulnerable in her pious village, he is the only one she can turn to for help. Together, they ignite a battle between pagan and Puritan—one that threatens to destroy the entire village, leaving nothing but ashes and bloodshed in their wake.

“If it is a devil you seek, then it is a devil you shall have!”

Summary via NetGalley

It’s my understanding that the published version of this book is illustrated. My eARC was not. If you’re familiar with Brom’s art, you know a little about what such illustrations might entail. If you’re not familiar, there are few pieces shown at his website. So, this review is based only on the text…and that’s just fine. The story stands perfectly well on its own two cloven-hooved feet.

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the setting or of Abitha’s attitude. I would like to think that there was a give and take between Puritanism and old superstitions and cures, but this isn’t something I know much about (yet). It didn’t bother me too much if there are inaccuracies. While Abitha is a vivid character, this is more Slewfoot’s story (I’ll stick with that name for him).

Brom’s take on the “devil” is one that I hadn’t really encountered. In this case, Slewfoot is a spirit, though powerful, who is vulnerable to being manipulated. The wildfolk want him to be one thing, the Pequot people want him to be something else, and the Puritan settlers believe he is the Devil of Christianity. And maybe he’s all these things. For Abitha, he’s both compassionate and a tool for vengeance. While theology often gives the Devil (and God) many names, we don’t often think about the ramifications of this, or the identity crisis it might cause.

There are moments of horror in his book. Women, taken for witches, are tortured for confessions. From nearly the beginning of the book, men meet pretty grim fates. And that’s beside the scheming and wrong-headedness. Still, I didn’t any of this particularly gratuitous. Despite the concepts and depictions, Slewfoot went down very easily.

Recommended reading for the autumn season!

Reading Notes, 8/12/21

Finished Reading

Cover: Heretics of Dune

Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

After making it through God Emperor of Dune, I have to say, Heretics is where Herbert lost me. The plot is my least favorite kind: factions scheming against each other. That can work, but I need some characters that are compelling enough to me to be hooks. And I’ve lost interest in the setting/world building. I had enjoyed the interplay between “female” knowledge and “male” knowledge (and how those two things were embodied in the Kwisatz Haderach), but now it just comes down to using seduction and sex as power? Maybe that’s the natural continuation of things post-Leto II, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

Chapterhouse: Dune is more a direct continuation than the previous books and that doesn’t bode well. In fact, I think I’m done with the series. I’ve given it go and maybe in the future I’ll read the whole thing again, but for now, I’m just going to wait for the movie to come out and move on with other reading.

Currently Reading

Cover: The Flight of the Eisenstein

Some people might take exception to my eschewing a classic of science fiction for a Warhammer 40K tie-in, but that’s what’s happening here. I plan on finishing The Flight of the Eisenstein before settling into The Mysteries of Udolpho and some shorter works during Bout of Books next week. I have a few short stories/novellas I purchased over the past year that I want to clean up before “fall” reading. Since I’m still doing 80s in August, my BoB updates will be on Twitter.

Reading Notes, 6/10/21

Finished Reading

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

According to my blog archive, I finished my first reading of Children of Dune in 2006. I then tried to read God Emperor of Dune. Eric had warned me that it was a tough read. I don’t know when I gave up on it, but it made a reappearance on my 2011 TBR. I don’t think I ever got to it in 2011. Around the internet, the general advisement for God Emperor was, read the Wikipedia entry and the Fandom article and move on. When I set up my Dune “challenge” for this year, I allotted one month each for the first three books (these were rereads) and two months each for the last three. Which meant that I needed to finish God Emperor around the end of May. I decided that if I didn’t finish it by then, I’d give in and read the summaries. I planned a chapter a day; classic “eating the elephant” strategy. And it worked! So, fifteen years after my first try:

God Emperor of Dune is sort of an awkward book. Without delving into too much research about the matter, it feels like Frank Herbert had a good idea for the first three books, which were marketed as a trilogy at the time. The books were successful and Herbert had more ideas—why not write more Dune books? Well, the next phase of the story really required some set up. More set up than could be handled in exposition. So, God Emperor ends up being this weird bridge book. All the characters that you’ve come to know in the first three books are gone or very changed. Except for Duncan Idaho, who has really been more of a background character until now. Things happen, there are some important events that set up Heretics of Dune, but there is also a lot of philosophy and a lot of people scheming in rooms to not much avail.

I’m glad I got through it, but I probably didn’t gain a huge amount by reading the book instead of reading the summaries.

All the Flavors by Ken Liu

All the Flavors was a novella originally published by GigaNotoSaurus. I ended up with a copy of it on my Kindle and, while cataloging titles, I decided to impulse read it. I haven’t read much of Ken Liu’s works though The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is very well regarded among people I know.

This story is subtitled “A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America.” It’s sort of a take on the Yellow Peril stories that became a thing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America. Based on history, somewhat, it involves Chinese workers in Idaho. Very good; I liked it a lot. Also, my first Book of Summer!

Currently Reading

  • The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism, edited by Donald K. Hartman – So far, it’s a little slow. To be fair, Hartman warns of this.
  • Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert – I’m reading a chapter a day.
  • Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury – A book I keep mis-titling. Reading an essay or so a day.

Reading Challenge Check-In

The Classics Club
Goal: 10 Books by 12/14/21
Progress: 5/10
✅ Read Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathanial Hawethorn

#ShelfLove
Goal: Abstain from acquiring books; read at least 21 books from my shelves.
Progress: 1 pre-order, 3 free books, 2 very cheap books, 4 ARC/review copies; 5/21+
⭕ On one hand, I’ve read a few of my own books. On the other, I’ve still acquired a few too many ARCs/review copies…

I Read Horror Year-Round
Goal: Read 6 books from 6 categories.
Progress: 2/6
⭕ No progress here at the moment, yet I don’t feel behind.

Nonfiction
Goal: Read at least 30% nonfiction.
Progress: Currently 35%
✅ Back up after The Haunting of Alma Fielding and finishing up some nonfiction “morning” books.


Review ~ A Master of Djinn

An advanced reading copy of A Master of Djinn was provided to me by Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city—or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

Summary via Goodreads

When I reviewed The Haunting of Tram Car 015 last year, I stated that I would definitely be willing to spend more time in Clark’s supernatural/steampunk Cairo. I didn’t realize at the time that a novel was forthcoming!

A Master of Djinn scores high in my three fields of “what makes enjoyable fiction according to Katherine”: setting, characters, and plot.

Obviously, I think very highly of the setting. I love the notion of steampunk, but I think it requires a light touch, especially when magic is also involved. Perhaps 1912 is a little late to be honest-to-goodness steampunk. We have, I suppose, entered the “cog age” by then. The magical elements end up giving the era a technological boost. I’m also a fan of mythical entities that don’t get a lot of play like djinn. (This is what led me to Clark’s fiction in the first place.)

Agent Fatma is possibly one of my favorite characters in fiction. She’s smart, tough, and has a very particular fashion sense. She’s also not perfect and knows when to ask for help, which is kind of important for an investigator. The supporting cast of character are fun and competent but also have their flaws.

The plot is a solid police procedural, though one with trips to djinn-run libraries and interviews with deity-touch informants. There are a few twist and turns (one of which I saw coming) and the conclusion is much bigger than the inciting incident, which is fine. There are of course themes of Fatma being a woman in a man’s world, though for the most part she’s proven herself. More vital to the plot is the casual hypocrisy that happens when an institution says “we’ve hired *a* woman; we’re progressive now!” and how that leads to people in power who believe that their society too is so progressive that there are no more problems of race or class. These aren’t issues that are harped on; Clark doesn’t preach at his reader. But these are issues that are in play and direct certain aspects of the story.

A Master of Djinn is set in the same world as Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili,” and, aforementioned, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. While events from those plots are referenced and there are shared characters, they are not needed to enjoy A Master of Djinn. But then, I’ve read all of them, so it might be hard for me to tell. (The links above will take you to Tor.com where those stories are currently available for free. A no-risk taste, if you are still undecided.)