Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Book Reviews With Idiosyncratically Selected Book Covers
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2015 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
More book reviews from the past year or so! I believe this catches me up!
Government Brahmana by Aravind Malagatti. I am a Brahmin, which is to say, I have high-caste privilege. I have a lot of work to do understanding where this situates me as an Indian-American, and how to be a better ally to South Asians and desis who do not share this privilege. As part of this work I read Malagatti's memoir of growing up Dalit in Karnataka, the Indian province my family comes from. And guess what, my caste has done incredibly shitty things to perpetuate its privilege! You know that experience when you learn a specific horrifying detail, and you consider the strong likelihood that one of your blood ancestors is on the wrong side of history here, and that you personally have benefited from their complicity or abuse? Anyway, you don't have to be a high-caste Hindu to find Government Brahmana edifying (but it helps!). Malagatti does describe an angsty passionate romance where (in my eyes) he didn't act admirably, but for me that fell into "use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" territory.
Courtney Milan: the Turner Series, the Brother Sinister series, many novellas, and so on, but not quite her entire published oeuvre. After I read Trade Me, I went on to consume maybe a dozen more of Milan's romances. They're funny and loving and moving and smart. I like how she sets up and calls back to other books within series, I love that The Heiress Effect included an Indian guy, I love seeing queer characters and characters with disabilities, and -- with the exception of the rushed tempo in her novella Talk Sweetly To Me -- I find her romances believable. I'm reading her work on a Kobo, and I find her ebooks nicely typeset and easier to read than some ebooks from self-publishers or small presses. And it excites me that her upcoming books will explore more geographies and depict even more diverse characters.
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. I sallied into historical romance territory via Milan's back catalogue, and decided to try some other authors in the genre as well. I'd previously enjoyed Kowal's short pieces and her fannish writing and leadership within speculative fiction, so I picked up Shades of Milk and Honey, the first in her Glamourist series. Blurbs say it's like Austen with magic and recommend it to Austen fans, but I haven't yet read any Jane Austen, and I bought it one afternoon and stayed up till 1:30am that night to finish it. Yay, the protagonist and her eventual beau are good people who don't do creepy or irresponsible things! And, as Jo Walton did in Ha'Penny, Kowal does something interesting with the complicated bonds between sisters with very different interior lives. I've already ordered several more Glamourist books and look forward to seeing adventures, magical innovation, and characters of different ethnicities.
The King's Name by Jo Walton (probably accompanied by a reread of The King's Peace, which sits before it in the trilogy). I do not know the details of the Arthuriana that Walton is messing with in this series but I nonetheless enjoy as I always do Walton's depiction of competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances.
The Just City by Jo Walton. It's no surprise that I liked yet another Jo Walton book! It's an immersive and fascinating story, and since I have participated in a massive androgogical experiment recently (the Recurse Center) I particularly love reading thought experiments around pedagogy! As I write this I am wearing an Action Philosophers shirt featuring wrestler Plato shouting "Plato smash!" I richly enjoyed the Action Philosophers edutainment comics, super thinky and super fun. If you enjoyed Action Philosophers you will probably also like the combination of adventures and arguments in The Just City. Or: I once retweeted the message "RT if you're still angry about the Library of Alexandria." If you have related feelings you may find this book particularly interesting.
Strength In What Remains by Tracy Kidder. Competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. But nonfiction! And I still have yet to read a Kidder I don't like.
The Entry Level: Approaches to getting used to the idea of talking about class zine by several contributors and edited by Chris W. (reread). I reread this as part of my effort to spark discussion of classism at Open Source Bridge 2014; thanks especially to Lukas Blakk for making more copies of the zine to share, and to Chris W. for making the PDF available and coming to the conference for one of the discussions. Entry Level continues to serve its purpose ably, and I found it helpful as a jumping-off point for the OSBridge session. Distributing well-made physical artifacts often helps engage discussion participants on more levels than a voice-only meeting. And Entry Level provides frameworks and vocabulary to help us talk about our own experiences, and about the changes we might need to instigate.
Indigo by Beverly Jenkins (did not and will not finish). I wanted to love this romance between two black characters in 1859 America. The heroine is a conductor on the Underground Railroad! But the exposition started bothering me -- hella infodumps about, e.g., the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. I loved learning this stuff, but the segues from "Hester experiencing her life" to "Hester's POV is suddenly indistinguishable from that of an encyclopedia" did not work, on a character and a prose level. And then the guy's behavior started bothering me and didn't stop. SPOILERS AHEAD. He's creepy -- he trespasses, he lies, he breaks promises, and he doesn't respect "no." She tells him to stop giving her gifts, and he keeps giving her luxury goods. After the dubcon sex scene I started skimming, faster and faster, until I was finally reading it entirely for the infodumps about the nineteenth-century black experience. We find out he comes from the black aristocracy of New Orleans. And then he tricks her into marrying him, and she gets dubcon pampered by servants who won't even let her say no to the salts they're adding to her bath water, and I realized: Oh! This is a billionaire romance! (1850s, so, thousandaire, but still.) My discomfort with Galen's behavior is (probably) not unconscious racist bias; it's an aversion to the tropes of billionaire romance novels. I stopped reading Indigo, and in its stead I welcome recommendations of your favorite fictional or nonfictional texts on free black communities in the antebellum North.
Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Laura Tavishati, Roc Upchurch, and Ed Brisson. This comic grew on me over the course of the trade paperback. Snappy banter, heists, easy-to-follow fight scenes, hella women whom the story treats as first-class citizens, various kinds of diversity. If you like Firefly or Alexandra Erin's Tales of MU, check this out.
[Tentatively titled in-progress novel] by Leonard Richardson, interim drafts. Oh oh oh oh when you all get to read this and see how he subverts redacted and parodies redacted and the Indian stuff and oh no what happens to redacted and redacted and redacted! This novel is going to be to redacted what Constellation Games was to redacted.
Torn Shapes of Desire by Mary Anne Mohanraj (partway). This is an erotica collection. It is good and I like it, and it rewards a piecemeal reading style. (Fun fact: when I first read Cryptonomicon I did not read it linearly. I picked it up at arbitrary pages and read completely out of order, and then eventually opened to page one and began a traditional-style readthrough. I think I used to do this a lot with short story collections, but I have no recollection of why I did this with a novel, or what caused me to stop sampling and go linear.)
Saga, Volume 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Come to think of it, I like Saga for many of the same reasons I liked Rat Queens. Also Saga includes metafiction that I find less portentous and more "wheee!" than the metafiction in The Unwritten, which I read for a while.
The Middleman, Volume 5: The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation, by Javier Grillo-Marxauch, Armando Zanker, and Les McClaine. Did someone mention metafiction?! Fun and spirited. I now want to actually read volumes 1-4 and then reread this one, to appreciate it better.
RESTful Web APIs by Leonard Richardson and Mike Amundsen. I read this as Wikimedia engineers discussed whether and how to revamp the MediaWiki API, and referred to it during my fall 2014 stint at the Recurse Center. I thoroughly appreciate its thorough coverage of HTTP and hypermedia, the authors' attention to the user experience of APIs for the developers of clients, and the opinionated appendix of HTTP status codes. I started to use the suggested API design procedure while working on the static analyzer, then realized my functionality was so simple and limited that I didn't need the multistep HOWTO. But I intend to use that design procedure when I work on APIs in the future, and I recommend it to your attention as well.
Secure Beneath The Watchful Eyes by GroteskBurlesque. Fanfiction, based on The Thick Of It, features competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. With lots and lots of canon-appropriate swearing. I am not particularly interested in shipping Malcolm Tucker with anyone, but this author made me believe Malcolm/Jamie enough to enjoy the rest of the tale. It was tremendous to see Malcolm and the rest of the crew in a situation where their utter gruff cynical bastardry was actually called for. Malcolm Tucker considers very little sacred, and this story shows what and why, and shows us something redeeming about Ollie, and shows us Nicola coming into her own. It's touching.
Moonshine by Alaya Dawn Johnson. I love reading fiction about energetic women fighting evil, be that evil structural kyriarchy or bitey monsters. And I love reading about competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. I am a little befogged with confusion in terms of self-assessing my reaction to this book. You see, years ago, I read an passage of fiction, an excerpt of a novel by a black woman about a vampire-beset woman in an alternate 1920s New York City. And I loved it! And then I forgot who wrote it, and asked Astoria Bookshop for help, and got Moonshine, but I am still unconvinced that this is the book I was seeking. Perhaps forty-five years from now I will come across the book I sought. Will I read it? Via what medium, and in what language? Will I remember that I wanted to read it? Will this blog still exist so I can link back to this post? Anyway, I don't want to blame Moonshine for being itself rather than whatever other fantasy I fantasized. It's good.
Update a few hours after writing this paragraph, and probably 6 months after reading Moonshine: I have just looked at Johnson's site and found an excerpt from Wicked City, the sequel to Moonshine. I think this is the excerpt I liked. It is not 2060 A.D. I am still blogging and I will read Wicked City in English and on paper or a Kobo. Oh past Sumana, you worried your imagination couldn't stretch far enough to encompass the truth, but lo! The twist! Your imagination couldn't stretch NEAR enough!
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger (reread). This is a short 1986 scifi novel aimed at, um, young adults? middle grades? you know, whippersnappers. I read it in my youth and still love it. The different levels of sex ed videodiscs! Not being able to play hooky because every adult in your tiny moon colony would know you ought to be in school! Putting on a production of Our Town as a means of engaging with your new moon life! This remains the best story I've ever read about reconciling yourself to leaving behind your Earth friends and getting used to your new life as an adolescent extraterrestrial. (Zen Cho's "The Four Generations of Chang E" comes really close though!) In retrospect, This Place Has No Atmosphere particularly spoke to me because my family moved around dozens of times during my childhood. In case you have ever wondered why I am less well-adjusted than that other Indian-American woman you know, this is like 80% of the reason why.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's a classic, it's as good as everyone says it is, it has fun illustrations.
Black Science, Volume 1, by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera. It's a scifi comic and I bought a trade paperback collecting the first few issues. I don't think I finished it. Superviolent, not enough interesting women characters, art didn't speak to me.
Hackster: The Revolution Begins by Sankalp Kohli and Paritosh Yadav. Oh goodness what do I even say about Hackster. So, when I was visiting India in November, I bought a few books by desi authors. Three looked great: Complications by Atul Gawande, The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran, and Government Brahmana by Aravind Malagatti. And indeed they were good. And then I saw the cover of Hackster, which features a black helicopter, the Mumbai skyline, and an exceedingly wide-stanced person in a black hoodie. And the back of the hoodie has code-y looking green text, like
/usr/src/. And above the title: "FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF 'Because Every Raindrop is a Hope' and 'When I Found You : I Found Myself'".
You know what, I am going to save my comments on Hackster for another time when I haven't just spouted 2400 words on other books. OK, so I am not entirely caught up. Think of my Hackster review as the sourdough starter for my next roundup.