The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope
I wish I could remember who on Twitter mentioned The Monsters We Defy. It’s maybe a book that wouldn’t have crossed my path despite its blurb: “A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist . . . ” A heist novel? With a spiritualist (of a sort)? That’s pretty much catnip to me.
And you know what’s even better? It’s good!
The plot is well constructed, the characters are enjoyable, and the setting and world building are clean and simple. Penelope based the main character of Clara Johnson on Carrie Johnson, a seventeen year-old who was arrested (and later acquitted) during the Washington DC race riot of 1919. Of course, this is historical fiction with an overlay of the supernatural and it works for me.
The Monsters We Defy has a few loose ends and I won’t mind mind reading more stories with these characters!
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
I picked up this book, one of the few I acquired in 2021, because the concept of a post-apocalyptic-ish distopian-ish western sounded cool. Plus, the main characters are librarians! Of a sort. The librarians are tasked with distributing “approved” materials to far-flung townships, but obviously their freedom to travel allows them to engage in plenty of subterfuge—so much that I’m not sure why the Librarians would be government approved. The world building *is* pretty vague.
Our main character is probably the least interesting of the librarians and fugitives that we ride along with. Esther is pretty angsty, but also seems to overcome a particularly traumatic event with ease. I rather liked the Old West slang peppered through the dialog, though I’m not entirely sure is we’d revert back to that slang (if this book *is* set in the future). The plot was fine, but maybe Esther falling in with revolutionaries the moment she leaves town is maybe too convenient.
20 Books of Summer Wrap-Up
My summer reading started and ended with fun, but slightly unsatisfying reads and that’s okay. I read fifteen books, which might be the best I’ve ever managed for 20 Books of Summer. Six of them were from my original list and six of them counted for my Beat the Backlog challenge. Considering how hard I slumped in August, I’m considering it a win! Now if it would not be 110F outside, I’d comfortably move on to my fall reading . . .
The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
The Ballad of Perilous Graves has *so much stuff.*
Dual cities of New Orleans and Nola. Characters have the same name. Songs that are characters. Graffiti that that floats through the city (and a host of people who are sort of addicted to engaging with the graffiti). Drawing that become real. Flashbacks, dreams, near immortals, ghost, zombies, talking animal, crashed UFOs. Killer storms. Lafcadio Hearn…
It’s *so much.*
I very much enjoyed the base world building. The kinds of characters that songs are, especially jazz-blues standards, is a great concept. That the safe-keeping of these songs is vital for the preservation of Nola, an alternate New Orleans is also great. But there is so much other lore and plot going on that I felt a little overwhelmed at times.
I did also like Alex Jennings writing style, especially his use of dialect. I often shy away from works that use character dialects because deciphering dialog can take away from the actual writing. Jennings’ use of dialect comes of as natural for the characters and natural for the reader.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves was often fun, but my wish is that it were a little more trim and focused.
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
I realized about halfway through Elric of Melnibone that I had wrongly bucketed Michael Moorcock with pulp authors like Robert E. Howard. Elric felt to me like one of those very core fantasy characters. He is all over fantasy art and, being a dude with a big sword, I figured he was like Howard’s Conan.
Elric is very much a response to characters like Conan. I was surprised that almost thirty years separates the first appearances of the two swordsmen. Where Conan is a big, burly warrior, Elric is intellectual and sickly. The product of a dying, somewhat depraved culture, Elric feels that a change needs to be made and is unsure about whether there is anything he can do to bring about change without destroying everything. It’s a refreshing level of introspection.
There are of course adventures. Elric isn’t exactly the most popular leader of Melnibone. His cousin Yyrkoon sets things in motion; by trying to usurp power, putting Elric’s love interest in peril (who is also Yyrkoon’s sister), and forcing Elric into certain actions. This first volume of stories sets up Elric as a wanderer and seeker of wisdom. More adventures doubtlessly follow.
What I really appreciated was Moorcock’s streamlined storytelling. He has the efficiency of a short story writer, which is much not what I expect from epic fantasy. I can imagine other writers going on for multiple volumes to tell the same story sequence that Moorcock covers in 180 pages. Mainly, this is due to Moorcock only focusing on the titular character. No “B” plots are investigated if they don’t include Elric. I suppose this could be considered too sparse, but I liked it. I’ll probably read more Elric in the future.
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
Channeling past summer blockbuster fun, I decided that I’d kick off 20 Books of Summer with Caribbean adventure and undead pirates: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.
Yes, the book was loose inspiration for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. I haven’t seen the movie. I jumped ship on that franchise after the third film (I think), after very much enjoying the first one. That I can’t remember whether I’ve seen At World’s End is indicative of my philosophy here: I can forgive many sins for undead pirates, but even I run out of grace.
On Stranger Tides starts out pretty well. Jack, a young man bent on avenging wrongs to his father, is waylaid during a trip to Jamaica by pirates and pressed into their service. He also becomes wrapped up in the doings of a father taking his beautiful daughter to the Fountain of Youth for nefarious purposes. The first half of the book is concerned with traveling to the Fountain and avoiding the ghosts and insanities that plagues the path. It’s creepy and reminded me somewhat of Hodgson’s “The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig'”. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is mostly a chase with Elizabeth becoming everyone’s McGuffin. It’s repetitive and, after giving Elizabeth a personality earlier in the book, disappointing. (I will admit that, while this is definitely not the Elizabeth of the films, my opinion of the character is probably colored by the movies.) There are also some instances of thick exposition and twist coincidence at the end that didn’t feel very earned.
Beat the Backlog: I purchased On Stranger Tides on Aug. 22, 2017 as a Kindle ebook.
20 Books of Summer: This is book #1 of (hopefully) 20.
Katherine, how can a reread be part of #BeatTheBackLog?
For me, Beat the Back Log includes editions of books I’ve spent money on, but have not read. I don’t often buy multiple copies/editions of books, unless I’ve shamefully forgotten that I own the book in the first place. Usually, there is some reason for the repurchase/re-acquistion. My original copy of The Haunting of Hill House was water damaged during a trip to Florida. I decided to invest in a copy of Moby Dick instead of only rereading the Gutenberg ebook version because I want the experience of reading it in physical form and might decide to scribble in the margins.
In the case of The Last Unicorn, I purchased the copy on the right above in 1993 when I visited UNL’s bookstore the first time. I knew the animated movie that I had adored as a kid was a book, but that was the first time I saw it on a shelf. It had some wear on it when I purchased the hardback deluxe edition when it came out in 2007-ish. I figured, my old copy was getting worn out and this new one included the novella Two Hearts, which is a soft sequel to the original novel (which I also own in a collection). But then, every time I time I decided to reread The Last Unicorn (it’s one of my favorite books), I’d use the old copy.
At first, it was because of good college memories associated with the beat-up paperback: finding it at the bookstore, purchasing it along with a very over-priced chemistry textbook, reading it on a Lincoln–Omaha car trip. Then, it was because of negative associations with the hardback. See, in the 2000s–early 2010s, Peter S. Beagle had a resurgence as an author, seemingly sparked by his new business manager. This business manager was unfortunately a very unscrupulous man who ended up not only defrauding Beagle, but many fans of the author. His fingerprints are all over this deluxe edition. There’s an introduction by him, an author interview moderated by him, and just seeing his name by copyright symbols makes me a little sick. (If you don’t know the tale, Mr. Beagle eventually ended up suing said manager and won the suit. I don’t know how the fans have fared.)
But, I decided to finally read the deluxe hardback this month. And, honestly, I like my tatty paperback better. It has a nice font (I wish I knew what it was called) and I missed the illustrations by Mel Grant. The hardback also had some odd typography issues and was harder on my hands. As for the story? I’m always a little worried, on my fourth or fifth reading of a book, that I might this time find it boring. But I didn’t. There are always little things in The Last Unicorn that catch me, different things that resonate each time I read it.
All the Deal Me In details.
Card Picked: 2♠️ – a wild card already!
Story: “The Bottomless Martyr” by John Wiswell
List: Since deuces are wild, I had my choice of stories. I decided to pick one from Uncanny magazine’s 2020 reader’s choice list.
Thoughts: Rang is a young woman with a special relationship with Life and Death. Her sacrifices, often horrendous fates befitting a martyr, can cause miracles for others, but can’t save herself. What can she be if not a martyr? John Wiswell has a light touch when it comes to world building. This is a story that is going to hit hard if you’re one of those people who always does for others, especially if it feels like duty.
Card Picked: 8♣️
Story: “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas
List: Nebula Awards (finalist 2019)
Thoughts: This is a magical realism revenge tale set in Bengal during the era of Churchill’s denial policies—in an effort to curtain the Japanese invasion of India in 1942, food and transportation methods were removed from Bengal, despite, you know, the needs of the people living in Bengal at the time. This is obviously not a happy story. In fact, it’s rough going because the horror here is based reality. This is a corner of history I was ignorant of.