As happens every year, there is always a set of books that, for various reasons both valid and not-so-valid, I have chosen not to review at length. However, some of those books can be rather good – or rather bad, as the case may be – and it would not be right not to at least say something about them.
I am certain that the reader has also noticed that this post is coming rather later than it should, since it is coming out in August instead of July. To that, I can only plead the pressing business of work, and the oppression of a reading and writing slump. The latter also explains why there are more books on this list that usual – so much so that I had to split it into two parts – because right now I have no energy to write nonfiction reviews, largely due to some self-doubt I need to work out.
Nevertheless, here they are: the books that fell through the cracks, honest reviews and all – Part 1:
Butterfly Swords (Tang Dynasty #1) – Jeannie Lin
I was drawn to this book expecting wuxia action, filial piety vs. personal desire conflict, high drama, and of course, a romantic plot to hold everything together. And I did get those, after a fashion: there was plenty of drama to go around, and the central conflict for the female protagonist did lie in the issue of whether or not she would obey her family’s wishes, or follow her own desires. There were also enough fight scenes to make me happy, though I think I would have been happier watching them instead of reading about them, because there is something about the way the fight scenes are written in this boo that don’t make me entirely happy.
But what really bugged me about this is the fact that the male lead is white. I read this early this year, when there was buzz about the movie The Great Wall, and I simply could not unsee Matt Damon as the male protagonist in this novel. It was a very disruptive experience, to say nothing of disappointing: after all, I went into this with images of the leading man looking like Jay Chou or Chang Chen, not Matt Damon.
Despite this disappointment, I think I am willing enough to give the other books in this series a shot – but not right now. It may take a while for the disappointment – and Matt Damon’s face – to fade from memory.
The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science – Justin O. Schmidt
I have never been stung by any insect before, and I am aware that I am one of the very lucky few who can make such a claim. This lack of experience may be one of the reasons why I am fascinated by stinging insects – from a purely theoretical standpoint, of course, as I would never want to learn just how painful a sting can be from firsthand experience.
Fortunately, there are people braver – and crazier – than myself, and Justin O. Schmidt is one of those people. In this book he talks about how he created what is now known as the Schmidt sting pain index, which describes in precise words the quality and intensity of insect stings, with the Southern fire ant at the lowest end of the scale to the infamous bullet ant at the highest. in this book Schmidt describes what he had to do in order to build that scale, as well as his love for science, entomology, and conservation.
One small caveat: Schmidt can be funny at times, but there is something inconsistent about his narrative flow. There are times when the story flows easily, but there are times when it gets kludged up or slows down loses its momentum. Otherwise, though, this is still an interesting and entertaining read.
Sin du Jour, Vols. 4-5 – Matt Wallace
I fell in love with Wallace’s novella series when I picked it up last year, mostly because it combined two things I love: food and urban fantasy, with a dash of humour on top. And Wallace continues to deliver with these two novellas, which follow the Sin du Jour crew as they try to live up to their name as the best catering service in the supernatural world.
However, what makes these novels a touch different from the others that have come before is that they are somewhat less funny than their predecessors. This is not, however, a bad thing; it is merely an indicator that the stakes are much higher than they used to be, and as a result there are fewer laughs to go around. To be fair, there are still chuckle-worthy moments throughout the novels, but it’s kind of hard to go all-out wheezing-under-the-table-because-I’m-laughing-so-hard when very bad things are happening to the characters I love.
Either way, I’m definitely looking forward to the last two books in this series; Wallace has projected this as a septology, and the second-to-last novella will come out at the end of this year, while the last novel will come out earlier next year. Considering the events that have just come to pass in these two latest novellas, I am very much eager to find out what happens next – and the subsequent fallout.
The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance –
Though the Borgias were and still are my favourite Italian Renaissance family, the Medici come in at a very close second. Part of it is because the sponsored some of my favourite Italian Renaissance artists, or at the very least helped launch their careers. The other part is because of the way they wielded the power: with violence, to be sure, but more often with diplomacy and money. In this book Strathern links the arts and political power together, and how the Medicis, as the tastemakers of Renaissance Italy, used their cultural patronage as well as their wealth to gain power – even though they would also eventually lose it. It is a little dry in places, but it is otherwise an enjoyable read, and offers great insight into one of the greatest (and perhaps most notorious) families of the Renaissance.
Hammers on Bone (Persons Non Grata #1) – Cassandra Khaw
I jumped onto this novella because it smashes together two things I thoroughly enjoy: hardboiled detective fiction, and Lovecraftian horror. To be sure, Khaw is not the first one to make that sort of combination, as it is something Lovecraft himself played with (sort of) in his own work, but any new take on the Mythos is always welcome.
And to be fair to Khaw, this novel hits all the right notes: the protagonist reminds me of the best of Chandler and Hammett (without the undercurrent of machismo, thankfully);the Lovecraftian elements are all there, and used well; and the London Khaw paints in this novella is one of the finest versions of the city I’ve read in this context: there is a menace to it that echoes the London of Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. My only problem with it is that I wish there was more plot. There was so much going on here that there were quite a few questions that went unanswered, so when I got to the end I found myself wishing that there had been just a bit more to round everything out.
The House Between Tides – Sarah Maine
A part of me wonders why I picked this book up in the first place, but I suspect it was partly because of the cover (which is admittedly a very pretty cover) and partly because of the blurb. I like a good haunted house story, and since the blurb mentioned something about bones under the floorboards I decided that was good enough reason to give this a shot.
As it turned out, this was not quite what I was expecting. The house that is central to the novel is haunted, to be sure, but more by the ghosts of past sins and the undercurrents of political upheaval and conservation, which were interesting but not enough to really hold me. Interesting, too, were the breathtaking descriptions of the Hebridean countryside – enough to make me want to visit the islands, even if I don’t take too well to the cold.
However, the plot didn’t carry enough tension for me to really enjoy it. I think I had pieced together the central mystery around midway through the novel, and then just waited for everything to play itself out. Which is all right by me, since there are many mystery novels that play out that way, but the decided lack of tension and strong momentum slowed it down too much.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson
Once again, I was drawn to this novella because the blurb had the word “Lovecraftian” in it, and the cover had tentacles on it, and I honestly cannot say no to either of those things. The nomination for a Nebula Award also definitely helped clinch the decision to pick this up.
And it is a decision I most heartily do not regret. Though the Lovecraft tag might make the reader assume that this is a horror story, it is actually more accurately described as a fantasy quest story as opposed to a horror story – or at least, that’s what it felt like while I was reading it. It reimagines Lovecraft’s horrors cape as something not very different from our world, just with different rules. It is not what I was expecting it to be, but I am still very glad to have read it otherwise. Additionally, it follows in the footsteps of other works like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, in that it calls out Lovecraft’s misogyny and racism using his own Mythos and stories as a starting point.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics – Tim Marshall
While I know that geography is not the end-all or be-all of understanding global politics, it certainly helps in trying to get some kind of grasp on the situation. This book does go a little way towards helping the reader understand why global politics is the way it is – though to be fair, a lot of it can basically be boiled down to white men drawing arbitrary lines on maps of countries not their own in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It is also important to note that this book was published in 2015, which means that the information in it does not capture the drastic changes that have occurred since a certain Orange Oompa Loompa became president of the United States. But as I said, if the reader is looking for a starting point towards understanding global politics, then this book is as good a place as any to begin.
Relics (Relics Trilogy #1) – Tim Lebbon
This is another book I picked up on a whim, mostly on the strength of its blurb. After all, it made mention of “underground black market for arcane things”, which is a phrase guaranteed to catch my interest, and indeed, hold it long enough for me to want to actually read the book. Urban fantasy is one of my most favoured genres, after all, and I will pick up almost anything to do with it.
Unfortunately, this did not live up to the promise of its blurb. As a rule, I expect urban fantasy to have strong worldbuilding aspects, but this does only the bare minimum, which is far less than I prefer. Strong characters and a ripping plot might have carried this through, but those are missing as well: the characters are not very well-developed, and the plot is not very well-paced. It was mostly characters running around and getting into trouble or dying in horrific ways – which can be interesting in its own way, but without the support of solid worldbuilding it is nothing but needless spectacle. There are far better books out there than this one.
Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith – Colin Dickey
Saints are a prominent feature of my life – not personally, but they are present in a great many parts of it, living as I do in a Catholic country and educated as I was in Catholic schools. I find them fascinating, not out of any kind of religious devotion, but because of what they were: ordinary mortals raised to the status of divine (or semi-divine, anyway) because of what they did in life, what they did not do in life, or even who they were related to in life (as is the case with my favourite saint, Olga of Kiev).
Dickey’s book is about saints, yes, but not about the saints themselves so much as how they have been revered (or not) in the years after their death. What makes a saint? Much more than saintly deeds, to be sure. In large part, it appease to be more about cultural context and the vagaries of history – which makes this book even more interesting to read, provided the reader is open-minded enough not to take immediate offence, or simply not invested enough in Christianity to find such discussions offensive in the first place.