Monthly Reads: April 2021

Book of the Month is going to be Cassandra Khaw’s The All-Consuming World, although I also quite enjoyed The Unspoken Name and Incendiary is showing some serious promise. Left out of the picture accidentally is Amanda Joy’s The Queen of Gilded Horns; under normal circumstances I’d retake the picture but I’ve already put all the books back and I’m feeling lazy.

Unread Shelf: April 30, 2021

Kind of a boring update, because I did pretty good on my “don’t buy any new books in April” pledge; I think the only books that are new to this month are the Nicky Drayden book (because I can’t pass up a new Nicky Drayden book) and Amanda Gorman’s speech.

I will probably allow myself to buy some books again in May, but only after I’ve worked my way through at least four or five more of these.

#REVIEW: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

First, the obligatory “My God, LOOK AT THAT COVER” moment. Go ahead, take a few, they’re free.

DISCLAIMER! Cassandra Khaw’s new novel The All-Consuming World does not actually come out until August 21. I found out that copies of this and her other upcoming book were available through Netgalley the other day and jumped, immediately, and got lucky, and then rearranged my reading schedule so I could get to it as quickly as I could. I have read three previous works by Cass Khaw, including her Hammers on Bone, which was #3 on my Top 10 list for 2016. I think that The All-Consuming World is her first novel; it’s definitely the first novel-length work of hers that I’ve read.

I’ll not bury the lede: my favorite thing about Cassandra Khaw is not her characters or her stories, but her writing. Of all the writers I currently consider myself a fan of, and there are dozens of them, she is the one whose writing abilities I would most like to completely absorb and use for my own dastardly purposes. Her writing is gritty and visceral and verbose in a way that is perfect for either Lovecraftian body horror or what we used to call cyberpunk, and All-Consuming World has elements of both, and my God was this book a joy to read.

Now, that’s kind of a problem as a reviewer, because it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to dislike anything Khaw writes because what she’s writing about is almost irrelevant to me. I’d read a recipe book cover-to-cover if Cass Khaw wrote it. But precisely because she is so stylized an author, I can easily imagine my opposite as a reader out there; I’ll read anything she writes because of how much I like her writing, but there are going to be people out there who are going to bounce off of her style, hard. Toss in the legitimate body horror elements (one character keeps a gun in her ribcage for part of the story) and the fact that the word “fuck” is at least a quarter of one particular character’s dialogue and this becomes a “not for everybody” book. But for me? My god, smear it on my face.

Right, the plot. As if that matters. Here’s the blurb, it’s as good as anything:

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade… but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir. The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. 

And, like, okay, that’s what it’s about, I guess? But this book is more about how it tells its story than the story it tells. The description leaves out that all of the members of the team are at least nominally women (one of them is nonbinary in a way that is either immensely sloppy or really interesting, because I could not figure out what the deal with … that person’s pronouns was at any point in the story*) and most of them are immortal and several of them die during the book and that’s not a spoiler because it’s also not a problem. I think Maya alone goes down at least three times. I think one of them is technically dead for the entire book? Maybe two? No more than two characters are dead for the entire book.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. Pre-order this book and read it immediately when it comes out. If you like good things you will like it.

*The character is sometimes he and sometimes she, and will bounce back and forth between both sometimes in a single paragraph, and I either missed the explanation or just couldn’t figure out what the rules were.

On translations

Let’s put a quick trigger warning for sexual assault here; it’s an unavoidable plot point of a book I’ll be discussing several paragraphs into the piece, and it won’t be dwelled upon.

I’m on my third book in a row that I’m reading in translation, and my fourth in a row that wasn’t written in especially modern English, since the Ernest Shackleton book was published in 1909. I haven’t loved any of the three that I’ve finished, but I’m not far enough into the fourth one to really have an opinion of it yet– maybe 40 pages deep on a 600-page novel. And the bit that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is that I’m not sure how to discern between a book that I didn’t enjoy and a translation I didn’t enjoy. I can think of one particular series where the first book was translated by one person was great and the second was translated by someone else and it was so bad that I couldn’t get even a third of the way through it; that I can blame on the translator. But when it’s the only book I’ve read by a given person, or sometimes the only book by that person available in English, it’s a lot harder to tease that apart and it may actually not be a difference worth bothering to tease apart in the first place.

It’s the most recent book that’s really got me thinking about this, honestly– and if you’re wondering why I’m not specifically naming the book, it’s because this is pretty clearly running into my Don’t Shit on Books Without a Good Reason rule, and my Goodreads is right there anyway– because this book was very clearly deliberately written in a certain way, and I’m not sure it survived translation into English very well.

(Let me reiterate the trigger warning)

The book is about a woman whose father sexually abused her for several years when she was a child, and she is, as a result, estranged from her family, most of whom don’t believe her. She is very much not over her trauma, and in fact dwells upon it more or less constantly. The book is told entirely from her perspective, and, well, she’s not in an especially mentally healthy place; the entire book is about disputes over inheritance, and her father passes away partway through the narrative. Now, I think what’s going on here is that the author is trying to mimic in text what is going on in this person’s head, and as a result the entire text is very very repetitive, constantly circling back to the same events and the same conversations, and also with insanely long sentences that can sometimes take up a page or more. The text is never pauses for breath, never slows down, and constantly loops back to retread the same material, sometimes phrased differently and sometimes repeating the exact same language several times in a (paragraph-length) sentence.

I made fun of this on Twitter while I was reading it, and the fact is this isn’t that far off from what’s going on:

So, like, I can see what the author is trying to do here, and I even appreciate the technique, but the unfortunate result is that, in English and to me at least, the book is really damn difficult to read. Imagine a book where every sentence was like that Tweet, and each sentence in the book was similar to the Tweet in a way that was very like the Tweet, and not like things that are not like that Tweet, that’s what you’re trying to imagine right now, you’re imagining a book where every sentence is like that Tweet, because the sentences in this book are all like that Tweet and you’re imagining them.

I am not kidding. Like, I’ll post examples if I have to.

And the thing is, I didn’t dislike the book, I just didn’t enjoy it at all, if that’s something that makes any sense. I mean, I finished it instead of putting it down, and I don’t think I regret buying and reading it, and it made a big splash in its country of origin when it came out so it even remains a good choice that way. But I wish I could read it in its original language to see behind the scenes, so to speak, on how the translator did her job, because this book must have been a nightmare to translate.

I need to be able to read all of Earth’s languages, is what I’m getting at here. Is that the Moderna shot, maybe?

In which The Great Rearranging may be upon us

It is not outside the realm of possibility that I have too many books. I know, it’s unlikely, and I’m not 100% sure that “too many books” is actually a thing, but it’s possible. What is definitely true is that I don’t have enough room to arrange the books that I have properly.

I am currently faced with a week off from work, and because I am an American I am viewing this less as an opportunity to relax and more as an opportunity to “get things done,” because the possibility of going a week without working or “accomplishing things” is just beyond my ability to comprehend. And I find myself casting an eye upon these bookshelves, and their current state of overpopulation, and thinking about opportunities to give myself a job that I can complete half of and then ignore for a year.

If you look at the top shelf of the middle bookshelf there (the top shelf, not the books stacked on top of the bookshelf) you will get an idea of what I’m thinking, because I rearranged that one as a test. I’m wondering what I can do if I shift to mostly vertical stacking on the bookshelves, especially the books that are currently perched on top of the shelves themselves. In theory, so long as the shelves themselves hold up, I can stack those clear to the ceiling– and if I use only completed series for them, which I’m also thinking about, I can put things up there that aren’t going to be rearranged all that much.

Understand that that is only the top half of less than half of just the bookshelves that are against that one wall alone, if you want to understand the magnitude of this job I’m contemplating.

I dunno. If I think about it long enough, I can switch over to stressing about how I had a whole week to get it done and didn’t do it. That won’t be especially mentally healthy, but it would certainly be less work.