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Assassin’s Orbit, by John Appel

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a convention/online buddy for the last few years (and his wife and one of his kids as well).

John Appel is having a good time.

I am often dubious about the advice to write the books you want to read, because there are loads of reasons why a particular person might not be able to do that. (Let’s start with: not everyone is a writer.) I’m pretty sure that John, however, wanted to read a book that was an action-packed space adventure full of older characters (mostly women from non-European cultural origins) who had to use their lifetimes of experience as their situation spiraled from a multiple-murder crime scene into riots and beyond to a coup attempt with interplanetary implications.

And that’s what he did.

For the moment, at least, John is not going to make the list of lapidary writers crafting perfect gems of sentences. Luckily for all of us, he doesn’t pretend that that’s what he’s after, instead of focusing on getting his readers as many varieties of action as the plot can bear, leaning on research and personal experience for the bits that go biff-bang-pow and imagination for the bits that are interplanetary spies and nanotech mind control.

(Uh. We hope.)

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Books read, early May

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. Reread. This is for a panel I’m doing for virtual Fourth Street this year, “Choosing What Matters: Concepts of Heroism in The Curse of Chalion,” so I’m going to save most of my thoughts for the panel–I hope you’ll join us! But what I will say is: Lois is one of the people who grows most as a writer, year over year, in this whole damn genre. She grows and grows, and the way you can see it all the time if you keep reading her is amazing.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the City of Gold. I love this series. It is so much fun. Don’t start here, start at the beginning. (This is the fourth one.) I got to this one after my younger godchild did, so I could squee on the family Discord about the marmots and other choice sections without fear of spoilers, and it was lovely. I am so happy every time there is more of Aru and Mini and their friends. (I am a huge Mini partisan.)

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. Beloved every time I read it, but this time was for a project that is not yet public, so I’ll mostly save the thoughts for that context.

Elizabeth Enright, The Saturdays. Reread. This was not the success that some of the other rereads this fortnight were. Specifically, a lot less of the book was “kids running around having independent adventures” than I remembered–that was the part I liked, so I think this was an example of the reader’s 50% being 80% for kids’ books (more on which in a bit), while there were lots of other kind of weird elements that I sort of skimmed over as a kid because I didn’t understand what they were doing there. And now I understand that mostly what they’re doing there are things like: reinforcing nasty stereotypes about Roma people solely to provide an adult character with a colorful past. Uh. Wow. Not really great, no longer really worth it. Sigh.

Siân Evans, Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth Fair, A Winter Away. This was a nice, light book in which a young woman gets a job setting an old man’s library to rights and generally serving as his secretary, and various amusing things ensue. She lives with her cousin and her cousin’s companion, and it’s one of those midcentury books where nobody actually says BECAUSE THEY ARE LESBIANS WHO LESB but basically yes, they are nice middle-aged lesbians who take in a young cousin while she is finding her way in the world, which she does.

Elizabeth Lim, Six Crimson Cranes. Discussed elsewhere.

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things and The Carrying. The latter was the one I read first, and it knocked me over completely in the best possible way. It deals unflinchingly with having vertigo, with wanting a child and not having one, with all sorts of horribly difficult things and also mundane things and beautiful things. I want to read all her work. I love this. I was so happy that I had gotten both volumes from the library at once so I didn’t have to wait even a minute between finishing The Carrying and starting Bright Dead Things, and if these two are an indication, she is still getting better. Wow.

Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witness and Whose Body?. Rereads. A friend’s discussion of Antisemitism and depictions of Antisemitism in these books finally pushed me over the edge into the reread I’d been toying with all pandemic, and they are just what I wanted this week. Bunter remains the best. These two are fine enough for what they are, but they’re a lead-up to my actual favorites.

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes and Traveling Shoes. Rereads. The bits about ocean liners, above, made me think happily of the bits in Traveling Shoes where they’re sitting in Myra and Ethel’s cabin talking about various family things, which turn out to be entirely in my own head. A friend has suggested that I may have conflated with another Streatfeild; I’ll check. But there was a lot of reader’s 50% here too. On the other hand, there’s a staggering amount of stuff that I took for granted when I read and reread these as a kid–the way that there’s a ton of dancing with basically no fat-shaming, for example, or the way that there are women with a startling variety of professions and that everyone, absolutely everyone, takes it for granted that it is entirely needed for girls to be prepared to earn their livings. Look: there is a woman with a math PhD in Ballet Shoes. I took it for granted as a kid. But there she is, and she always was, I just…didn’t know how extraordinary that was on the first twenty-million times through. There are some very weird things that Streatfeild completely does not understand (ballet dancers do not have beautiful magical feet; ballet dancers are not a magical species apart from other people who have no need to learn about learning or humility) but in general they were still interesting and fun and the suck fairy had been at them remarkably little. (I still wish Petrova, dear awesome Petrova, had gotten an actual first name. Poor Petrova.)

Jesse Q. Sutanto, Dial A for Aunties. This was just what I needed the day after my second vaccine. I had no energy, and I just curled up in bed and read about the antics of this wedding catering family and was relieved to the point of tears when they had the good kind of pear at a really crucial emotional moment. And I giggled a lot. A lot.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 40. Kindle. Another very satisfying issue, with standout stories from Fran Wilde and Rachel Swirsky.

Kate Wilhelm, Defense for the Devil. Reread. It was very strange to read this in close proximity to a friend’s actual mystery manuscript (which is a category I don’t discuss in these posts), because this, a published piece of prose by a writer who taught writing for decades, felt more like a manuscript to me. Is this because the field has moved on so much in the intervening years? (But then Sayers. So perhaps not.) Is this because Defense for the Devil was a lesser work of Wilhelm’s? I’m not sure, and I feel a little uneasy about finding out, because I remember enjoying the Barbara Holloway mysteries, and yet a lot of things about this felt rushed to me–the characterization, the prose, the balance of what was shown and what summarized–and I could immediately tell how I would write the critique for this promising piece if I was handed it in draft. But it wasn’t a draft, and it had so much scaffolding, so many places where the writer did not trust the reader to feel or think or draw the desired conclusions without joggling their elbow without the authorial voice saying, “he was right,” sometimes literally. Rereading this at a time when I was repeatedly interrupted by life rather than racing through it all in a go didn’t help…but very few people can rely on reading books in even two or three gulps. So. We’ll see about the rest of this series, when I can face it.

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Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them, by Siân Evans

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book had some amazing material that’s much easier to find here than a lot of other places and was generally a lot of fun to read in most chapters, and also it was a disorganized disaster and included a lot of tacked-on extraneous stuff for fairly shaky reasons! It’s both! Life is a glorious tapestry and so is this book!

The good: a lot of in-depth detail about what it was like to work as a conductress, a stewardess, or other ocean-going professions in the first half of the twentieth century. What their housing was like, their duties, their meals, their pay, how they were treated by various individual passengers and types of passengers, how their jobs first appeared in these ocean liners and how they developed. Side notes about women shipboard engineers, seagoing nurses, and so on. Details of how metallic threads and sequins on evening gowns would rust; details of how female staff on sinking vessels were actually treated. The intrusion of each of the World Wars in their very different ways, and their effects on women’s maritime employment thereafter. This part is a book very much worth having.

The bad: I’m not sure why, exactly, Evans felt that this was insufficient, but possibly she felt that more popular and well-known figures were needed. Some of them even did have a relationship with ocean liners that would justify their appearance here. Others…used an ocean liner I guess? Not notably except that they needed to get from Point A to Point B, but they sure…did that? Such as: Donald Trump’s mother, whose life story rambled on in these pages for no reason particularly germane to ocean liners. I’ve really had a great deal more of Random Trumpage than I care for, and I don’t need it intruding on Tallulah Bankhead (who is not actually in these pages to great effect either, but at least is mildly entertaining here).

Evans also seems to believe that history began with James Watt, making sweeping statement about women never having worked away from home before in all of history, which is tiresome but usual from a certain kind of modern historian who never looks up from their own period. This could be spun more positively into staying in their own lane, so: I wish that Evans had stayed in her lane with this book and just written about the colorful, interesting work and lives of the women who staffed the ocean liners of the early twentieth century. It would have been a much easier book to get through, and to recommend.

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Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the things that I feel like adult readers and particularly adult reviewers have to be careful of in reviewing books in MG and YA categories is remembering that young readers will be encountering tropes for the first time that are old hat to many adults, so the amount that one should “ding” a book for having them is quite different. And in this case I was very glad that I stuck around, because basically everything that made me say “oh this again” or “this is going to hit all these beats, is it” was expanded, undermined, or unraveled in the middle of the book.

This is a six swan brothers story, told by someone who wants her own Asian cultural heritage to inform and inflect her work. Which is, okay, pretty cool to start with. But then it’s got other things stirred into the mix–other fairy tales, from other places, and which of them you spot will depend on which kind of fairy tale nerd you are, who’s been telling you stories, whose stories you’ve gotten to hear. And it’s got…oh, some questions about the fairy tale villains, the shape of their villainy, and some interesting answers.

And the ending…this is a first-book ending. This is not a stand-alone ending. These characters, with their politics and their families and their crafting and their demands, have miles to go before they sleep. Don’t let the very genre-central beats of the first few chapters deter you from going with them.

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Books read, late April

Shadi Bartsch, trans., The Aeneid. This is a recent translation, and it reads fluently and easily. Bartsch is thoughtful about the rhythm and length of line. I picked it up to read on the theory that I already know all the bad things that happen in the Aeneid–I was unlikely to be blindsided with new bad things. This theory was correct, though it may not count as comforting to anyone but me.

John Paul Brammer, ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons. Discussed elsewhere.

Octavia Cade, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief. Discussed elsewhere.

Becky Chambers, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. This, on the other hand, is very much aimed at being comfort SF to a wider variety of readers. People from a selection of species and cultures are required to shelter at a common hospitality location and deal with their own lives and each other’s problems from there. It’s marked as the last in its series, but that appears to be because Chambers wants to write other things rather than because something has happened to end the possibility for more fiction in this universe, so take heart, nothing catastrophic will ruin the coziness of this if you’re looking for that.

Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History. You know how I often say nonfiction does what it says on the tin? This does not do what it says on the tin. It does not, in ways that frustrated me quite a lot, because if it had said Himalaya: Its Interactions With White People (Mostly British), I would have picked it up much later if at all. This is not an undocumented region. Some of the oldest printed books in existence are from this region. (I’ve seen them. They’re gorgeous.) I get that it’s hard when you don’t speak the languages the primary sources are in. But that’s the problem I have. That’s the problem I hoped that a book that purported to be a human history of the Himalayan region would solve for me, giving me access to what, generally, people in this region were up to when the white empires were not looking. And this book is utterly useless on that front, and frankly when you’ve gone out of your way to call it a human history I find that particularly offensive.

Meg Elison, Find Layla. A short and extremely intense mimetic YA. Harrowing would not be too strong a word. I’m glad I read this but also glad that it wasn’t longer, because it’s a very frank look at parental neglect of a teenager and her little brother. Layla is practical and determined and an incredibly compelling voice, but be prepared for quite a lot in the way of details about hoarding and unsafe housing.

Francesca Forrest, The Inconvenient God. Kindle. This is quite short and charming, dealing with the proposed decommissioning of the person mentioned in the title. I love the unique setting and the way we find out more with each installation about the people who populate it. Recommended.

JaHyun Kim Haboush, trans., The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea. This is nonfiction, and a lot of it is about how great the memoirist’s family is, how great the king of course naturally is, and how terrible her family’s enemies at court are. But toward the end it takes a sharp turn into the horrifying as Lady Hyegyong describes the descent of her husband, the Crown Prince, into a mental illness that no one of their era knows how to treat. She recognizes it as illness, which his father the King does not, but there’s not really anything she can do about it, particularly given the Crown Prince’s position in the power structure–the options for keeping him from hurting others are limited and ultimately rather gruesome.

Della Hooke, Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. Does what it says on the tin! Trees in archaeology, trees in orchard surveys of the time, trees in materials used and inventoried! Trees, you like ’em, they had ’em! You could do much worse than read about far off trees right now.

Gish Jen, The Resisters. For the vast majority of this book I was confused about why I wasn’t running into more science fiction people talking about it. It’s briskly written dystopian SF, balancing the concerns of literary dystopia with those of genre-SF dystopia rather deftly. It’s got baseball and knitting and scorn for mall food and other things that SF fans love. And the ending is very sad, so there’s my answer and yours. Is it worth reading, if you like baseball and dystopian fiction? yes. But pick your moment.

Ross King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. King has a habit of examining art and power acutely, and this is no exception. There’s a focus on Monet’s very late life here that leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions that I bet other books are practically panting to answer. But this one gives me a cranky old Monet dying with Clemenceau holding his hand, which is worth the price of admission.

Naomi Kritzer, Chaos on Catnet. Just as compelling as the first in its series, but for me more stressful: the potential consequences are more immediately large-scale, and the setting has moved to the Twin Cities. Which means that Naomi is writing about people and places I know very well indeed, sometimes in quite a lot of peril. I cried over this book a lot, sometimes because of the bad things happening ([MAJOR LANDMARK REDACTED] NAOMI COME ON) but sometimes because of the good ones that haven’t happened here yet. Yet. We can hope for yet. Oh, I do love CheshireCat, but most of the good things that haven’t happened here yet and made me cry are pretty utterly human.

Winifred Peck, Bewildering Cares. This is a delight. It’s a week in the life of a clergyman’s wife during WWII, with all the concerns of the parish against the backdrop of the larger world. Peck understands pastorfam all too well (I say as pastorfam myself) and particularly the protagonist’s young adult son is clearly the notion of someone who has met many children of clergy in her time. I love him. This was just what I needed when I read it. It was so relaxing. (Also, weirdly, Peck was Dilly Knox’s sister. !!??!!?? I said to the person who recommended it to me: like lower-amperage Haldanes, gosh.)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. This is a book about physics, gender, race, sexuality, and other demographic concerns that do affect life as a physicist. Prescod-Weinstein–Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, thanks–is willing to spell things out for readers who aren’t familiar with either the physics or the history and sociology. She doesn’t want this book to go over anyone’s head. I had a moment of thinking, okay, but who will this convince who is not already convinced? and then I realized that the example Prescod-Weinstein cited of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was illustrative: sometimes you have to write it down so someone can quote you saying it. People will be able to point colleagues at this, committees, students, well-meaning relatives who don’t get one aspect of it or another. Not everyone who reads this book will have bought it for themselves. (But you can.)

Beryl Satter, Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. Satter is the daughter of a white Jewish civil rights lawyer from Chicago who died young in the middle of the struggle–and who turned out to have a more complicated past than she fully realized, with his landlordship. Satter traces the history of the laws and social actions around race and housing in mid-century Chicago and their wider implications.

A. G. Slatter, All the Murmuring Bones. This is an extremely Gothic fantasy. I referred to it on Twitter as a two-house Gothic, but a friend pointed out that it might arguably be three. Sometimes you want a Gothic, and this one leans in.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 39. Kindle. For me the standout of this issue was Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” The folk process, oh, lordy, this is my cup of tea for sure.

Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk, Pemmican Wars: A Girl Called Echo (Vol. 1). This is the first in a series with timeslip elements, intended to teach about indigenous Canadian history. As often happens with graphic novels, not much plot happens in this volume, but it’s easy to read and relatable; if you’re looking to teach young people about this topic, might be a good series to look into and see where the rest is going.

Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry. The new Murderbot, with other augmented and artificial beings doing their things and an unfortunate abundance of humans (albeit short at least one as of the beginning of the story). I tore through this while waiting for my supper delivery and appreciated the way that it advanced the overall plot while visiting characters I like already.

David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy. There were several Black police officers and government officials in Wilmington, NC, in the time this book discusses, and local racists felt incredibly threatened by it and used it to spread fear about what “they” surely intended to do…and incited riot and murder as a supposed preemptive strike. This book is horrifying, but the Reconstruction is a period I think American schools don’t cover nearly enough. It’s worth being aware that this happened, and how it happened.