The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I first wanted to dig up my comments on reading The Night Circus, but was completely shocked to discover that I read it before I started tracking reads on this blog. Did I even really read it, if I didn’t write it down? Well, what I remember is that it was a very pretty book: shimmering, whimsical, light as a feather, with striking goth-lite imagery that reminded me of working in the French Quarter in the early aughts. The Starless Sea is cut from the same cloth, primarily driven by striking images: painted doors, bees and swords, books, snow. Half of the chapters follow a mystery with a cozy dark academia aesthetic; the other half are self-contained fables which are all told in a once-upon-a-time style, very pretty although not very memorable, and I kept having to flip back to reread them when their contents became relevant to the central mystery. But listen. I picked up this book to have a low stakes good time, and that’s what I got.
It’s just a coincidence that my library hold on The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow also came in this month. I’ve googled it, and it seems to also be a coincidence that the two books (which both came out in 2019) are preoccupied with so many of the same themes: portals to other worlds, the power of storytelling, epic romantic love and the mysterious, neglected near-orphans it produces. Ten Thousand Doors is a bit less soft and cozy than Starless Sea, not least because its primary narrator grows up at an intersection of wealth and racism that you don’t often get to see in period fiction. It’s also a bit more classically academic than dark academia usually is: there’s historical context, there are footnotes. It might be a good fit for folks who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for that reason, although I think the latter is exemplary and most comparable books fall short in the comparison. Still: this book is pretty, and interesting, and I had a good time.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Oh, I really wanted to like this book. It’s a murder mystery set in a decaying English manor, and there’s a time loop! I recently wrote a time loop story and am very interested in the genre, so I pressed on even when I felt that the writing was not quite deft enough to manage the terribly intricate puzzle it weaves. I pressed on even through several chapters in the middle which are riddled with egregious fatphobic stereotypes. I slogged through the author’s shallow vision of what the world might look like from a rapist’s point of view (which was about the point where I realized each of the character perspectives were meant to embody a sort of seven deadly sins, but the sins are “is a coward,” “is obese,” “is a rapist,” and so forth). And I was surprised by the solution to the puzzle, and I did admire how all the bits fell into place (as well as how very many fiddly bits there were). But I can’t recommend the book.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. This book was like a cool glass of water after a month of lengthy, florid mysteries. It’s a slim book, alternating four different POV characters whose stories are revealed in short vignettes that intrigue rather than frustrate, and the prose is refreshingly crisp and concise. The POV characters are all young women with who are trying to eke out a living in Seoul despite the disadvantages of not having family money or connections. They envy one another for their gifts, even meager ones, that allow them a little dignity and self-determination in the scrabble for capital, but they also help and defend one another when no one else will. That sounds a bit glib, but there’s not much plot per se. Things happen, but what drives each chapter is the opportunity to get to know the characters and experience a slice of their lives as they approach an emotional or philosophical turning point, and that made for a compelling read.
I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer with my eco-fiction book group (anyone can join the Discord serverdiscord.gg/txgJNVg! Come on in and talk about books!) and we’re a little over halfway through. I’m enjoying it immensely. Each chapter focuses on a particular phenomenon in the plant kingdom, and ties it into a larger lesson about how humankind can and should take care of the earth. I appreciate its gentle insistence that we are part of nature, not in opposition to it, and that the ideal conditions for plant growth is not “pristine, untouched by man” but “carefully, thoughtfully tended.” The structure of the book and the repetition of its thesis makes it feel very different from most nonfiction I read, but I think this style of teaching is explained and folded into her storytelling. I think it would be hard for me to stay focused if not for our weekly Discord chats, which give me a space to process what I’ve read before moving onto the next section.
Sidequest.zone is the best. They let me write about being a barrelcleaner and a completionist in games–this essay is also about Pokémon and aesthetics, bear with me–and about being able to play no other games besides Elder Scrolls Online this winter. Then on a whim I made some floral jellies based on an ESO recipe called Jewels of Misrule, and launched into a lecture on food in video games.
But they publish great stuff all the time. Some other posts I enjoyed recently include Character Creators, Fatness, Gender, Body Horror, and Me and Gamer Mom: The Steam Wall of Shame Audit.
I don’t need to explain why I love this: Mary Wollstonecraft is a Double Taurus, Or: How an Astrologer Helped Unstick My Novel
I can’t say I have read any novels that count as “adjunct lit”–and I don’t plan to, truly, it was bad enough to live it–but I wish to include this link as a nod to the fact that such a genre needs to exist.
Y’all know how much I love Lucille Clifton, both her poetry and the woman herself who spoke with great gravity and warmth to a bunch of middle-school writers, and I will absolutely be paying homage to Clifton House in Baltimore. 40 Years Ago, Poet Lucille Clifton Lost Her House. This Year, Her Children Bought It Back.
I appreciate this Polygon article which uses Brooklyn 99 as a way to examine the legacy of the original Mass Effect trilogy in light of the movement toward defending and abolishing the police. Those are both media properties that I have loved and immersed myself in, but I also agree it’s worth examining what made them so worthwhile, and to imagine how to tell stories in the future without relying on power fantasies in the same way.
We’re starting to see more and more writers reckoning with the 90s and 00s and how they shaped our self-worth. Vox’s Purity Chronicles–just getting started–is meant to do just that, and I also appreciated Anne Helen Peterson’s take on the millennial vernacular of fatphobia. Obviously the roots of fatphobia go much further back–Susan Bordo will explain it to you–and AHP doesn’t claim otherwise, but characterizes the form fatphobia took in a specific era.
This month I spent a lot of time outdoors, and it was glorious. I went to my favorite park to pick up trash, and I hugged a goat, and I was in the same space as Gritty but he is so large and prone to sudden movements that I did not get too close. I met a photographer and herbalist who taught me to make a delicious tea from holy basil, one lemon, and a bit of honey. I had some of my creative nonfiction accepted for publication, and one story won a prize. (More on this next month, when I have links.)
Oddly, writing about Elder Scrolls Online for Sidequest seemed to free me from my enchantment: I still check in on my orceress, but I finally started playing some Fallout 4 DLC I downloaded at Christmas and a couple of free games, including a grid-based tactics RPG called Armello which I find charming and fun.) I am gritting my teeth and trying to ride out the urge to acquire Mass Effect Legendary Edition and start yet another playthrough. Let DadShep be my last one! I have romanced every romanceable character and unlocked every Easter eggy dialogue option!
I turned 40. So far, I like it. I like the direction my life is going. Thank god I have a spring birthday, though–if my arbitrary measurement of time rolled over in the midst of winter depression, I think I’d feel very differently.