Books I Read In September
45. The Oleander Sword, by Tasha Suri
Pre-ordered this, and I’m entirely happy with what I got. I mean it’s got intrigue and angst and the literal and metaphorical selling of souls and lesbians and eldritch horrors and war crimes, what’s not to love?
But really, I’m pretty sure I already made the joke, but SFF lesbians and weird power dynamics around fealty and martyrdom sure are a pair, huh? (Or maybe that’s just a random bit of selection bias in the books I read/see talked about, but eh. I should catch up on Montress.)
Anyway, Malini is a joy to read, and the Yaksha are absolutely gorgeous and come across as rather believably alien, though I really do wish they weren’t quite so straightforwardly malevolent, and the temple/palace intrigues with whatever the asshole emperor’s name was and his priests was great. Can’t wait for book 3.
46. None the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
My other pre-ordered book of the year. And look, I am largely outsourcing my opinions on this book to the ongoing 24/7 symposium digging into every bit of symbolism and possible reference in these things going on here in the tag. But, like, book good.
Also Pal and Cam, my beloveds. And Nona is adorable.
I need to go scream in the wilderness a bit again.
47. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
This month’s attempt to acquire some Culture, via what was apparently the most influential book of 2007 (literally recommended to me because a coworker’s book club is doing it).
But no, this was good! Very much of it’s time, though less in a ‘dated in a bad way’ way, and more in a ‘future generations of college students will get assigned this and told to write an essay about the cultural fallout of the War On Terror.’
It really, really committed to the whole ‘life story told in a conversation over dinner’ framing device, to a degree that books basically never do - the prose of the whole thing still felt conversational and like it could actually be said by one person to another. The constant asides to the cuisine being served and the order of the courses and everything did eventually start to grate, though.
The big central twist is, well, barely a twist - except that the title gives you a very definite idea of where the protagonist’s arc is going to end up that you bring with you into the book. Still, really well done.
I’m surprised you don’t see the janissarya analogy made more often in modern polemic. Shoe doesn’t exactly fit, but close enough that you’d think it’d get some use.
48. Exit Strategy by Martha Wells
I really do adore Murderbot stories. They’re just perfectly sized for a lazy afternoon or two of reading, they’ve got the plot structure of a tightly edited 40-minute tv episode, and they’re just great fun comfort reads. Perfect book pringles. (Also Murderbot is one of the greatest protagonists of all time).
This one in particular would have honestly worked pretty well as a finale to the series? Or, since it clearly isn’t, I guess ‘works as a season finale’ is the better way to put it? It resolves the central underlying plot thread that’s been running through the books so far quite nicely, anyway.
I totally admit that aside from Murderbot only, like, four characters have made a sufficient impression that I can reliably identify them by just their names, though.
49. Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Hey, I finally finished the last Hugo nominee! Now to start feeling properly guilty about failing to answer that ask about my ranking/opinions from a month ago.
But no, this was good. The only Tchaikovsky I’d read before was Children of Time/Ruin, so this was definitely a change of pace (obvious similarities in setting aside). The whole central conceit of ‘fantasy setting is actually the result of an apocalypse destroying a technologically advanced civilization and the descendents of the survivors viewing the remnants as magical relics and sorcery’ is so thoroughly cliche I think people just stopped writing it for a couple decades, but the execution is really well done.
Nyr and Lynette are both fun POVs, anyway, and I absolutely adore anything that has multiple POVs seeing/taking part in the same events and interpreting them wildly differently. The one chapter that had two columns with Nyr providing exposition on one side and what Lynette&co actually understood him as saying on the other was great.
Tchaikovsky also did a really excellent job of capturing the whole horror and grief and ennui of being the Last Of Your Kind better than I usually see, and also saying Fuck the Prime Directive, which is always appreciated.
Also incredibly endearing that Nyr’s whole transhuman civilization gave themselves giant badass horns and then collectively decided to pretend it was for pragmatic utilitarian reasons.
50. Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells
Because it’s 2 murder 2 bot month, I guess (but no all my holds on these really did just come in at once).
So apparently this was actually written after the novel, which I only found out after finishing it, but chronologically it seems to have taken place before? Which conveniently means I didn’t accidentally ruin any big twists for myself.
Anyway, this was a fun detective story sort of thing. Murderbot being continuously annoyed at how much harder the lack of a dystopian panopticon made their job was a great running gag.
51. The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood
Because it’s magical lesbians month, I guess.
But no, this was a fun read. The whole setting and tone were very, hmm, D&D? Like a real mixture of super fantastical elements and generic fantasy things given different names (there are elves, and orcs, and for some reason specifically yuan-ti) and then the vision of society and the economics and the mindset and vocabulary of everyone who hasn’t been asleep in a ditch for ten thousand years is just incredibly modern. Not a complaint, it’s just very much a thing.
My actual complaint is that this was like four different discrete stories stacked on top of each other and put into a compactor until they all fit in one book. There were a lot of times where I was kind of left feeling that Larkwood was relying on me knowing how a given story/character arc goes so she could just skip through the high points and then resolve it without necessarily building it up beforehand.
(I also have a perpetual dislike for the plot beat of ‘oh no, the abusive cult who raised you was just doing their religion wrong. We’ve got a direct line to your/their god and he’s actually a great guy!’)
Interesting how minor a character Csorwe is in this one compared to Unspoken Name, really, but Shuthmili and Tal are both incredibly fun POVs so can’t say I really mind. Tsundere dragon goddess of betrayal and destruction was also a great time.
I've finished reading "I'm glad my mom died", by Jennette McCurdy. it was an insightful and painful read. I've learned more about eating disorders than I ever knew before, and some distressing facts about the entertainment industry. The book deals with the topics of child abuse, eating disorders, childhood sexual abuse, toxic relationships, sexual coercion, childhood exploitation and overall exploitation of children in the entertainment industry, so take these as trigger warnings if you're going to continue to read this review.
The book starts in the author's childhood, showing us the bond between her and her mother. They're doing everything together, the mother extremely invested, the child eager to please. Then we learn, that in order to please the mother, the child has to not only violate their own comfort and bodily boundaries, but also pretend that it's what they want as well. Showing any kind of dissent from their mother's decisions, even a wrong type of face expression, will bring out something extremely painful to any child – having to see their own mother cry. So the child learns to act happy even when she's reluctant, resistant, sick, tired, worried, opposed or completely nauseous with what she's being put thru. Most of interactions are about putting a performance to please the mother and make her happy, all while the child is being sexually abused, forced into career of acting they didn't want, forced to deal alone with pain and mental illnesses, never getting a relief from pleasing.
No matter how much the child has to endure, she is always assured that if she refused to do what is asked, the consequences would be much worse. If she didn’t consent to be touched in the shower - she would get cancer. If she didn’t use up her birthday wish to ask for her mother to keep being alive, her mother would die. If she refused to act, her mother’s dreams would be dead. If she had her own favourite color, her mother would cry.
The mother only wants this obedient, pleasing, easily manipulated and controlled version of the child, so she keeps expressing pain at the mere idea of the child growing up. The child picks up on this, and in order not to break her mother's heart, attempts to stop growing. Mother is delighted with this extreme act of pleasing and obedience, and promptly teaches the child to restrict calories to stop their body from development, purposely throwing the child into anorexic disorder. She also witnesses the child's introduction to ocd, and decides to hide it, even reprimanding anyone else who brings it up and attempts to get it diagnosed.
Mother is the child's center of life, and she demands to remain so. The child knows nothing but pleasing; she had to learn insight, and study every mom's mood, desire, whim, face expression, speech patterns. She can recognize from the tone of voice what her mother is demanding at the moment. But she's never allowed to learn about herself. All of her tones, behaviour, speech patterns, smiles, desires, it's all an act she has to put on, not to make her mother cry. Her actual self is being buried further and further down, at the immense pressure of the mother's demands for it to not be existing in the first place.
Reading this book while knowing about the effects of child abuse and child neglect, will make you extremely uncomfortable. Because you already understand that having a child's boundaries violated and broken, will leave long lasting consequences, and it's not an innocent act of 'forcing child to do what adults think is best'. But to take it a step further, to make the child act like this is what they also want, that they actually have no boundaries, no desires, no identity or will of their own, that brings devastating consequences. It creates strain that doesn't end, neverending shame for feeling, for needing, for wanting anything. Guilt for being human, shame for feeling pain after being completely neglected. Not being able to see your own narrative anymore, because anything you think or feel needs to submit to a single goal – making the parent happy, making the parent look good.
The entertainment industry the child is exposed to brings one painful and toxic thing after another. To a child, being forced to compete in an industry where they declare your value based on how well you fit an imaginary role they set out for you, is poisonous. Being informed you're "not good enough" over and over again, having to try again, having to see someone else being special enough, wondering why you're not chosen, that is painful even for an adult to take. Not being allowed an identity because she was acting to be her mom's projection was bad enough, but now she was being judged and projected on by multiple people, expectations of her only bringing her further anxiety. To the author, it was almost natural, because it's all she ever knew. She had to smile and pretend it's okay to submit her to appearance changes 'because she might fit the role better', okay to starve herself to remain smaller looking, because it's easier to take advantage of a young-looking actor. At one point she manages to cry on cue, and these adults around her are so fascinated by it, they ask to see it again and again. And this wasn't acting. The child was bringing up the most traumatic, most devastating scenarios in her head, and she cried for real. She cried in real pain, and the adults were telling her to do it again and again, just so they could look at it more. I felt sick reading that.
The author's childhood revolves around mother's desired career, but also mother's cancer – which mother uses as a tragic backstory and a bargaining guilt-trip on every person she wants to use, and as a satisfying torture for her children. Having a child deal with the fact that their mother might die, is a terrifying and painful ordeal, and as much as possible, parents try to protect their kids from re-living that type of fear. The author's mother, however, recorded the experience and forced her children to watch it over and over again, praising them for breaking down and crying, suffocated by the pain of it. The author gets reprimanded for not having the pleasing-enough reaction, when she's only two years old. The cancer, once resolved, manages to come back, and ultimately creates the biggest turn-around in the author's life – her mother is now dying.
At this point the author is a young adult, trying out her first relationship, and immediately we see exactly what her childhood had set up for her – she doesn't notice her relationship is abusive. Having been sexually abused all her life, it's completely normal for her to dissociate and do anything to please, because she knows that to do anything other than that, would bring immeasurable pain and guilt and loss of the connection. The relationship was against her mother's wishes, and when her mother finds out, the author is subjected to the most vile tantrum of hatred, contempt, insults, slurs, threats, revenge, and is told she's now cut off from the entire family, and also urged to send them money for the new fridge. The author, terrified and devastated, does everything to fix the relationship with her mother, under severe pressure of guilt, shame and self hatred for "hurting her sick mother" – her mother even accuses her of causing the cancer.
It becomes very clear why the author had to deny herself everything in order to please the mother – this was the threat, hatred and pain that was expecting her the second she stopped. Seeing what her mother was ready to put her thru is eye-opening and scary to be aware of, nobody alive should want to cause that amount of pain to their own child, for making a choice, for trying to make a connection with another human being.
Another set-up we see from the traumatic childhood, is the author's relationship with food. Being subjected to starvation, at the hands of her mother, caused the author to experience severe shame and pain while eating, causing her to develop bulimia. She could no longer continue the starvation, once she was away from her mother's side, and the most natural thing for a body who was starved, is to demand food, to increase the instinct until it can no longer be controlled or repressed. Her body was trying not to die. This is where I learned that eating disorders are terrifying in the way they bring out a relief from feelings, relief from trauma, they can stop guilt and shame and can be used as a coping mechanism. Reading about this, I felt lucky I was spared from that type of self harm, because it was absolutely devastating for the author's life and health, but the worst thing about it was just how much the author blamed herself for all of it. The author did not do this to herself, she was set up to experience this from the start. Processing her feelings was not even an option – she wasn't aware she was even allowed feelings in the first place. Her feelings were never allowed to surface, or to be seen on her face, she was allowed only to feel what her mother approved of, only act on impulses that were pleasing. There was no way for her to recognize or feel the trauma, the amount of feelings were unsurvivable for someone whose body was not used to experiencing a single non-pleasing feeling.
The death of the mother was made as painful as possible, mother insisting until the end for her wishes to be fulfilled, for everyone to keep the role she had set for them. For her daughter to keep starving herself, to keep a job that thrived on continuing the trauma. It was painful to see.
The author attempted therapy, and after the therapist suggesting her mother could be abusive, quit instantly. The urge to preserve her childhood, her closeness and the bond with her mother, the building blocks of her life, prevailed. It was exactly what I would have done as well. It would take a lot of time before the author was ready to attempt therapy again, and to be able to talk about what her mother did to her, under the guise of 'wanting only the best'.
The traumatic aftermath of her mother's death only kept getting worse, as the author now struggled to keep sacrificing her health for her career, only to please the producers and the mother who was no longer alive, she struggled to mourn her mother when she was never taught how to mourn, or allowed to feel something so painful. She struggled with missing her mother. The eating disorder plagued her every interaction and shared meal, she was not allowed to rest and have fun. She struggled with other abusive family members, who insisted on still controlling her with guilt. She struggled thru her relationships, which were filled with so much coercion and neglect. The first time the author had a sexual experience that wasn't coerced or demanded her to dissociate from the trauma of it, she ended up breaking down, because she finally had a reference to how traumatic her past experience were. This was heartbreaking to read.
The author, thru the entire book, is the most down-to-earth person you can imagine. She states everything in facts, she informs you right away that she hates bringing emotions in her words, and she stays true to it. She takes every thing matter-of-factly. She doesn't romanticize, she doesn't indulge in nostalgia. She points out every hypocrisy and pretend she can see in others, she points out the true intentions of everyone's actions. When she's struggling with the extreme effects of eating disorders, she takes this matter-of-factly as well, it's just a thing she does. There's no other way to go on with it except for normalizing it, the extreme traumatic reactions are normal, the self harm is normal. It makes it very clear how even the most logical and factual person, can be controlled under the weight of guilt and shame, until she's not allowed to think in certain directions. Until she has to accept that impossible and extremely vicious things are normal and to be defended, in order to protect her sanity from what is going on. It proves that nobody is 'too emotional', or 'too sensitive', the author certainly wasn't any of these things. She was tough, smart, insightful, enduring, extremely invested in making other people happy, and avoiding the worst of pain for herself. And it didn't save her, it didn't make the abuse obvious. Because we're all vulnerable to it just the same.
The author manages to stay in therapy the second time, and is finally allowed to recognize her own feelings and emotions, which opens the way to processing them without using extreme self harm via eating disorders. She recognizes her acting career for what it is, a painful, traumatic exploitative deal she took under coercion, that only does harm to her life, and she quits. Her fight with the eating disorders is long and painful, and it feels like something you never completely recover from, but you improve, you manage to enjoy a cookie and it's a big victory, something you weren't allowed or able to do thru the most of your life.
At the end of the book, the author is at her mother's grave, this time aware of what transpired. The effects of her mother's death on everyone was a true proof of what she was – a detriment. The mother's husband moved on almost immediately, and was able to admit to the author that he wasn't her biological father – her mother lied into her death about it. Giving the author another betrayal, and another painful reality to deal with. The author realizes had her mother still been alive, she, the author, would still be in almost constant state of pain, still starving herself, still doing whatever would please the mother, no matter how devastating it was. She finally acknowledges, that her mother was a narcissist. That the abuse was horrifying. And that she still misses her. But, she won't be back to visit the grave.
I found the book both painful and welcome in my life. I hope that other abused children and adults will read it, and that some things will click. Maybe another narcissistic parent had tried, or is trying to starve their child into anorexia, maybe someone else has been mislead to believe their ocd is something normal and something they shouldn't get any support and help with. Maybe there's more children whose will and feelings are being taken away, who have to pretend they have none. Maybe there's other children who are forced to live without being given any acknowledgment, who aren't allowed to feel their own feelings. Who are forced to live in a hoarder house and defend this. Who are able to only see the story for their parent's point of view, who believe all of the vicious things their parents do is for their own good – I hope it helps to see the reality. I hope if you're experiencing the consequences like this, that you know you are being set up, and you didn't do this to yourself. I hope you realize that the shame cast on you is something put there to control you, and it's not your shame to feel. The shame belongs to the one who did this to you.