Discontinued books — Anathem and As Meat Loves Salt (34,35/107)

Back in August I was telling one of my random hookups about my 107 books project and he asked, “Which one are you least looking forward to reading?” And my answer was, “Uhm… none of them?” Because I wouldn’t have bought them if I didn’t want to read them, right.

New answer: these two.

Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo (22/107)

In brief: weird little book, very fast read, interesting ideas but I don’t think I particularly liked it.

Set in Finland, the main character is a gay photographer called Angel (real name Mikael) who comes across an injured troll cub being picked on by some teenage hooligans. He is immediately taken with the troll, and after the hooligans have been chased off, takes it back to his apartment even though this is self-evidently a Very Bad Idea. Trolls, in this world, are a species of wild animal in Scandinavia, reclusive and rare but well-documented as fact, so the greater question is what the hell was it doing in the city. Angel names the troll Pessi and becomes increasingly obsessed with it, layered heavily with sexual overtones even though it’s very young and an animal, and it all ends badly.

Troll lost me with the characters, really, because I could have been onboard for much weirder if I’d liked the people in it. Unfortunately all of Sinisalo’s characters fall into one of two categories: actively unlikable, or just pathetic. I see that in general fiction a lot, as if authors think that dreary characters will make their work more ~realistic~ when really they just make it tedious. Angel is a manipulative narcissist; the guy he has a crush on is the same, only worse; the guys who have a crush on Angel are pathetic; Angel’s Filipina neighbor is irrelevant to the story and also pathetic. And maybe that’s realistic, but it set up a narrative distance that kept me from becoming the slightest bit invested in anyone, and from giving any sort of fuck about what happens to them.

Which is a shame, because I wanted to like this book — I like Finland (my father’s side of the family is Finnish) and I really like the “monsters as love interests” trope. But Pessi is not a love interest or even a character, he’s more like a really weird feral cat that the main character gets an inexplicable hard-on for. If Pessi had been slightly more human in his intelligence, then it could have been about the two of them, the human trying to relate to the alien and vice versa; as it stands, it’s all about Angel, and Pessi is interchangeable with anything else that Angel could project his obsession onto.

Ascendant Sun, by Catherine Asaro (21/107)

Space opera, starts out well enough — likable character with believable reactions, cool level of thought and detail put into the world-building. Then it didn’t exactly stall, but I put the book down around page 50 and found that I was resisting picking it up again. If I’d started this when I was fifteen, I expect that I would have plowed through it in a day without a second thought, but right now I have too much other shit to do. Books that are “not bad” are not going to make the cut, and this is going to remain unfinished.

Stigma, by Erving Goffman

So there I am in my favorite gay dive bar, and I turn around and there is this fantastically hot guy standing there. Who’s seen Leverage, show of hands? This guy looked like Eliot when Eliot is doing his geek-chic disguise, with the glasses and his hair back in a ponytail. Commence gnawing on table.

Guy-who-looked-like-Eliot had been chatting animatedly with an obviously-straight girl, then at one point reached over to stub out a cigarette in the ashtray next to me. He glances up, our eyes catch, and I say,

“Hi.” :)

Which is apparently as good a pickup line as any, because he stayed and we got to talking. Got to talking about ~books!~, I don’t even know how, first about Fantasy That Doesn’t Suck, and then he said he tended to read more nonfiction, and I asked about his most recent reading and he said,

“Oh! Ah — yeah, it’s called, uhm, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

Sir, can I marry you? Like, right now?

Cuz usually I’m the one busting out shit like “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in bar chat, and then watching the other person’s eyes glaze over, sometimes accompanied with a vague, “Wow, so you must be really smart, huh? o_o” To which I’m so tempted to say, I KNOW I AM, BUT WHAT ARE YOU?

…Which is why I rarely get laid. And I am okay with this.

“Oh oh oh!” I said. “If you’re interested in that sort of thing, then you should read Stigma, by Erving Goffman — it’s about how stigmatized minorities control perceptions of their identity. It’s a bit dated in its language, but still extremely insightful.”

Which is how I got his number, and a date a couple days later.

So let's talk about 'Stigma: Notes on a Spoiled Identity'

Life in a Medieval City, by Frances & Joseph Gies (14/107)

So finally I was like, Being busy is no excuse — if you have time to surf the internet for a few hours, you have time to read.

And so I did.

The Gies’ Life in a Medieval City was a fun and fast read, absolutely crammed with useful details and indispensable for world-building. I recommend it as a jumping-off point to anyone doing research for medieval or fantasy fiction — it has enough information in itself for people who just want a period feel and don’t require strict historical accuracy, and it also has a comprehensive bibliography for people who do.

This book focused especially on the rise of commerce and the merchant class, which is particularly relevant to my interests, since the protagonist in one of my books (the book that is Most Likely To Be Publishable, should I finish it) is the son of an urban merchant/trader, and money & politics (& magic!!) is the backbone of that plot.

Breaking my books diet! Rope of Thorns, by Gemma Files

I’m going to hold off from any extended analysis until I’ve read the last one, because there’s still a lot of plot stuff to get wrapped up, but Rope of Thorns was a worthy successor to Book of Tongues. A number of the things I’d said were vague in the first book get explained better here (re: the Aztec mythology and Rook’s motivations), Ed Morrow gets more developed as a character, and some kickass ladies join the cast.

There’s less of what I enjoyed the most about Book of Tongues — Chess and the Reverend being crazy about each other, all over each other — but my worry that their relationship would drop off the map was premature. Despite spending most of the book a couple hundred miles apart, they are still at the center of each other’s universes, for good or for ill.

And Chess Pargeter — brutal, callous, contrary Chess Pargeter — is shown to be that rarest of things: a character who can change.

The tragedy will be if Rook can’t do the same.

***

In other news, I’m also reading John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, which is enormously intellectually stimulating, but also very slow going, since his style makes the process more like gymnastics than reading. Hint: brush up on your Greek. (And Latin, and Slavic, and French, and Aramaic, and…)

I think a Guy Gavriel Kay would not go amiss for my next fiction book.

Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West, by Anne Seagraves (11/107)

After finishing A Book of Tongues, I looked at Soiled Doves and went, "You know, I bet Gemma Files read that in her research."

NAILED IT.

That said, it's one of the worst pieces of nonfiction I've ever goddamn read. Not particularly nuanced or well-written to start with, it is staggeringly judgmental (perhaps the title should have tipped me off) and in desperate need of a proofreader. Rather than presenting the information and letting the facts speak for themselves, Seagraves feels the need to sprinkle her prose with language that would sound amateur even in fiction — despicable! sordid! degrading! — and enough references to "iniquity," "sin," and "the ugliness of raw, naked vice" to make it clear that she's not just offering sympathy for the prostitutes' bad working conditions, but also judging the hell out of them for it.

In conclusion: lousy writing, and so badly biased that it makes the content suspect.