Book Review: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Those who love speculative fiction and are looking for something new and well-written, should run to get a copy of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. In her debut novel, most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of climate apocalypse, and Dinétah (the Navajo Nation) has arisen. A magical wall has been built to keep the Diné safe from the outside madness but it can’t keep them safe from the monsters and witches who have awakened. Maggie Hoskie survives in this harsh world using her skills as a supernaturally gifted killer, nicknamed monsterslayer. When Maggie is called to find a girl taken by a monster, she finds she has taken on more than she bargained for. Reluctantly partnering with Kai Aviso, who has powers of his own, they travel the rez in search of clues, battling monsters and more.

Roanhorse creates a wonderful magical world, one obviously based on Native American mythology. I, being completely ignorant of that mythology, found it enthralling and I found myself constantly looking things up on Wikipedia. Her sharp writing and dynamic characters kept me glued to the book until I was done. There’s definitely strength in the book and it’s great to see Native American representation in the fantasy world. Roanhorse is the first Native American to win a Nebula! Unfortunately now, dear Reader, I have to wait until next April for the next book, Storm of Locusts. Argh!

I’m Back!

A few weeks back, some asshole broke into the server hosting this here blog and it got deleted almost entirely. Fuck. Luckily the server had back up and I’ve managed to put it mostly back together including over ten years of reading lists. In having to put the humpy dumpty back together, I realize how much fun I used to have writing about books (and sometimes food). The more I wrote the more I began to worry about sounding professional, as if I was writing for the Times Book Review or The New Yorker. Do I like those publications? Hell yeah I do but I don’t need to sound or write like them.

My other concern is my kind of dumb blog name. Back when AOL IM existed and I signed up, I joked with a friend about picking the nerdiest sounding name, something that included D&D and books. Bookgnome was taken. So I became Bookdwarf. Does this name still serve me well? Is it offensive in any way? It’s meant to refer to LOTR and D&D so hopefully not. I’m keeping it for now. I’ve had it since maybe 2004? Remember the Lit Blog Coop? I was part of that too.

I’m writing all this to say that it’s time to get back to what I do best: talking about damn books. Yes, I work for a publisher but those that know me know that I wouldn’t recommend a book here that I hadn’t read and loved so I’m going to stop worrying about coming across like a shill for Penguin. They do publish some really fine books (read Whiskey When We’re Dry please). So time to resume especially as it might serve to distract me from our crumbling democracy. I’ll try to write something once a week, okay? We’ll see where this goes. Thanks for reading!

Books I Loved in 2017

I thought I’d mention some of the amazing books I read last year. Some I read in 2017 but will be out in 2018, One of best novels I read coming in just one week is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. She’ll be at Harvard Book Store on 1/23. I won’t shut up about Danielle Lazarin’s story collection Back Talk coming in February. I don’t normally like short stories (I know) but I loved loved loved this book. And she’ll be at Harvard Book Store on 2/13 and I can’t wait.

Other novels I loved were Peter Heller’s Celine, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett,  Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s  Here Comes the Sun, Eka Kurnlawan’s very strange but absorbing Vengeance is Mine All Others Pay Cash, and the novel that people couldn’t stop talking about Jessmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing.

I’m currently on the last book in N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, and I’m loving it all.

Welcome 2018 – Musings on Reading & Writing

I haven’t disappeared I promise! I still read a ton (even when brushing my teeth) but found myself feeling less excited writing review after review. But after a year or more off, I’m going to start back up again. Some things might be short, some might be long. And I won’t pressure myself to write about a book if I don’t want to at all. Most of all I want it to be fun again.

I’m what I call a ‘completist’. I usually try to finish a book, even if I’m not enjoying it. I don’t do that 100% of the time but I will more likely finish a book that I’m not liking just to see where it goes. Occasionally the last 20 pages can turn a book around.  I’ve definitely hate-read a few books (looking at you Magpie Murders) if nothing else to  fend off those who might say, ‘well the ending makes it better, you should have read it to the end’. Sometimes you just have to suck it up, keep on reading that crap book, and just throw it against the wall  when done.

Part of my reluctance to review was because of my job. I’m a sales rep representing Penguin books hence I read a lot of Penguin books, many of which I really enjoy (everyone should read Danielle Lazarin’s wonderful Back Talk coming in February). But I don’t want to come across as some sort of cheerleader for Penguin books simply because it’s my job. It wouldn’t feel authentic if I did that, I felt. Then I realized that’s dumb. I read a ton and have been for years. No one is going to respect me less (I hope) for talking up a Penguin book that I love because I work for them.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

A fantastic debut, that strides the line between adult and YA fiction, Rabbit Cake tells the story of 12-year-old Elvis Babbit, whose mother recently drowned while sleepwalking. Elvis loves facts and studies phenomena almost obsessively, yet when her school counselor convinces her she needs 18 months to properly grieve, she finds out all kinds of things she doesn’t know yet. How to keep her older sister who also sleepwalks from poisoning herself while sleep-eating or why her father has started wearing her mother’s silk robe around the house? And how did her mother, always a strong swimmer, manage to drown?

Hartnett manages to effortlessly capture Elvis’s voice, her bewilderment and her love for her family and friends in Freedom, Alabama. There’s something special about Elvis that makes the reader want to throw your arm over her shoulder and tell her everything’s going to be okay.

Food Post: Beef Carbonnade

If I haven’t mentioned, Mr. Bookdwarf and I bought a house last year that needed to be completely gutted. We finally unpacked most of our cookbooks a few weeks back and start cooking, but now is the time to finish the kitchen, so we have no kitchen sink for a while! Before that, however, we did cook a delicious beef stew from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. This is a classic cookbook, one we turn to time and time again. It’s a straightforward beef carbonnade made with beer. We cheat and add potatoes and carrots. Yum!

Food Post: Cookbook Challenge

We started unpacking cookbooks that had been in storage for over a year in our new house. I forgot how many I have! Mr. Bookdwarf and I decided to make a recipe from each cookbook, as a way to try new recipes and to test that they’re worthy of keeping. Last night, we cooked this Winter Minestrone from David Tanis’s One Good Dish.

As an aside, you should also know is that I got an Instapot for Christmas this year. Did I (or you) need another kitchen appliance? Honestly, after living in a temporary apartment with not much of my kitchen stuff, I realized there was a lot I didn’t need could get rid of. But this device is many things in one—pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice maker, yogurt, and more. I’ve used it a few times and had fantastic results.

Tanis’s recipe is quite simple. Sauté some aromatics,  add pancetta or bacon and cook for a few minues. Then cook cannellini beans that have been soaked overnight in 6 cups water for 1 1/2-2 hours. Meanwhile, you roast some winter squash to add to the beans at the end. I simply adapted the recipe to use non-soaked white beans with water in the Instapot on the pressure cooker bean setting after sauteing the aromatics and bacon on the sauté setting. It took about 45 minutes until the beans were tender and creamy. And we used acorn squash—a complete pain to peel FYI—roasting it with olive oil, s&p, and a dash of red pepper flakes for 35 minutes. I also threw some bacon to crisp up toward the end of the squash cooking for garnish because I’m fancy like that.

This was both easy and delicious and I would definitely make it again! I can’t wait to pick another cookbook to try.



Mr. Bookdwarf Reviews: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library had me at “interdimensional secret agent librarian” but it turns out to also be a charmingly-written novel with a wry awareness of literary tropes and their permutations. Published last year in the UK, this is a book The Guardian noted as some of its favorite science fiction, saying “it’s a breath of fresh air to discover a fantastical world that defies easy provenance and brings something new to the genre.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and was gratified to see that two sequels are already written, and due out in the US in September and December, respectively.

From Mr. Bookdwarf: Two by M. J. Carter – The Strangler Vine and The Infidel Stain

I like a lot of historical novels but for a lot of them I have a similar objection: The narrator or protagonist has anachronistically modern views. This, of course, makes it easier to identify with and easier to enjoy, but it’s sort of a cop-out. For example, the otherwise excellent Imogen Robertson runs into this problem with her protagonists, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. They manage it because she’s a widow used to running her own household and he’s an eccentric, and the minor characters react with appropriate alarm at their breaches of decorum. But the people we empathize with most are people who think a lot like we do today.

M. J. Carter avoids this trap in The Strangler Vine with her narrator, William Avery, a young officer with the British East India Company in 1837. Avery truly believes he’s doing good work bringing order and Christ to the “Hindoos” and “Mohammedans” in Calcutta. He’s the youngest son of provincial gentry, brought up to be dismissive of the poor and awed by the aristocracy, and he follows through on it. Shown the worst of colonialism, he cannot believe that the system is rotten, but blames a handful of bad actors. Independence isn’t even a dream or a rumor: it’s completely inconceivable.

At first, his arrogance and confidence in his innate British superiority makes it harder to like Avery, but it also makes his portrayal more lifelike. On page 1 of The Strangler Vine, he’s a naïve young man trapped in his assumptions, but he grows and learns with realistic slowness that many of his assumptions are false. As he does so he takes shape as a genuinely interesting person. His tutor in this endeavor is an outcast former Company man, Jeremiah Blake, who gets roped into work as a “Special Inquiry Agent” from time to time.

Because Blake speaks the local languages, understands and sympathizes with the grievances of the natives, and is keenly aware of the downside of the Empire, the Company men don’t trust him. But for the same reasons, they need him. He and Avery are sent off on a quest to find a missing poet of significant political importance, meanwhile getting involved in the courts of semi-independent Indian states and persistent bands of dacoits… or are they sinister cultists?

The tension between Avery’s blind belief in the glories of Empire as he’s been raised to understand them and the reality he sees with Blake will take a lifetime to resolve, or at least several excellent novels. Midway through The Infidel Stain – several years later, London, radical Chartists demanding suffrage for all men – Avery is somewhat wiser. But he still hesitates when Blake hands him some unwashed second-hand clothing before taking him into a lower-class pub. “I’ll look like a laborer!” he objects. Then he catches himself: that’s the point, of course, if you’re going to be chatting up someone from a militant labor movement. It’s a tiny moment, but a brilliant one.

The Strangler Vine wasn’t a blockbuster sales hit when it came out in hardcover, but it got good critical buzz: lots of favorable reviews, the longlist on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a Washington Post Notable Book and an Edgar Award finalist. It’s now available in paper, and I’m willing to bet that plenty of people who read it this month will be more than willing to pick up The Infidel Stain in hardcover when it arrives on March 29th.

From Mr. Bookdwarf: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The exonerated suspect in a notorious kidnapping case is suddenly dead. Journalists and police descend upon Joanie, his widow, to try to get her to share the real story behind what went on when 2-year-old Bella disappeared.

Fiona Barton’s The Widow is hard enough to put down that I missed my stop while reading it on the train. The unreliable narrators and creepy sex crimes are sure to earn it recommendations to anyone who liked The Girl on The Train, although it’s certainly not one of those “me too” novels snapped up to try and ride on its coattails.

The psychologically damaged Joanie is captivating as she slowly reveals her escape from her manipulative husband, but we particularly liked the the portrait of the tabloid journalist, who truly loves her subjects, even as she’s monetizing their tawdry stories. Barton’s experience in journalism is evident in her feel for human interactions and the slow build and missed directions of an investigation. I imagine a newspaper editor would fault her for burying the lede, but the fact that she saves the truly earth-shattering details for the end works to great effect in her novel.