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Books read, early August

Brian R. Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography. This is, thankfully, exactly what it claims to be. Dott goes through 16th and 17th century rural gazetteers to trace when and where surplus peppers are offered for sale and what they’re called; he looks into when folk heroes are given chili-related nicknames. It’s a study of how and how quickly the pepper pervades a culture and its food and (inextricably in this case) medicine, and it’s brief and interesting.

John M. Ford, The Scholars of Night. Discussed elsewhere.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China. Gentle fabulism with different humanoid “beasts” focused on different emotions in each section. This is not, as I initially thought, a series of vignettes about them, in travelogue style, but instead an exploration of a city, a culture, some people who study “beasts” and how they feel, what they think. Poignant and interesting.

Rachael K. Jones, Every River Runs to Salt. Novelette I think? perhaps very short novella. Anyway it has the offspring of glaciers kidnapping the ocean and trying to hide under the protection of a university, and it is fun and interesting and does not do more than its length can support.

Kim Bo-Young, I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories. Three melancholy, romantic science fiction stories translated from Korean. I mean both romantic and Romantic, I think. Each story comes in multiple parts, two of them epistolary stories that are each other’s counterpart and the third something else completely, something a great deal more metaphysical. I’m interested in what else Kim does.

Ross King, The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance. This is about that point in time when some books started to be printed and others were still hand-copied, and about the people who sold books then and what they sold and to whom and how. I don’t think it’s the strongest of King’s works, but it’s full of fun digressions and generally worth the time, very much the sort of angle on history I like to have.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Strength. Kindle. Not a very direct sequel to Paladin’s Grace, but it nevertheless features the paladins of the Saint of Steel in their lives after the death of that Saint, in their collective life as an order as well. And it also features the Sisterhood of St. Ursa, whom I love, who are lovely and varied and…I want to keep them all, I want to visit them on a trading route, yes please, more of St. Ursa’s sisters. There were some moments of unusual recoil for me–when Kingfisher (Vernon) goes creepy with a villain, she goes all out–but it stayed firmly on the side of fantasy rather than horror. I enjoyed this a lot.

Erik Loomis, A History of America in Ten Strikes. This does not do what it says on the tin. It’s really more of a general history of labor and strikes in America; it goes into far more than ten strikes rather than doing a careful detailed history of ten. I felt like it would have been better served by either being longer or by sticking to its stated focus, but you could do worse, as introductory US labor histories go.

Katharine Norbury, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. I feel like the worst kind of nerd about this book, because it is a lovely memoir about finding your roots, figuring out who you are, and yet I…I thought it would be about fish. I like fish. I rallied, I enjoyed it for what it is, but do not be like me, do not go into it looking for fish, it is about a woman who was adopted looking for her sense of self, she does go upstream a little bit literally but that is hardly any of the book and there are hardly any fish at all.

Shelley Parker-Chan, She Who Became the Sun. The way this book sets reader expectations with the opening chapter is so beautifully done. This is historical fantasy; bad things happen in it, including bad things happening to children. The protag will try to fight past them, but: they will happen on the page, and Parker-Chan just does such a great job of laying out what tone and what range of consequences you can expect in this book. Which…is a mildly fantasy version of the rise of the Ming Dynasty. It was incredibly gripping, any time I was not reading it I wanted to be reading it again, and I can’t wait to see what Parker-Chan does with the sequel. But this is very much a case where the beginning is doing exactly its job, and if the tone is too dark for where you are right now, wait for when you’re in more of the mood for it, because there is not a part in the middle where the future Hongwu Emperor and the teddy bears have a picnic together.

Amy Stewart, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit and Kopp Sisters on the March. This is further catching up on this series as the US moves toward WWI. This series is based on the exploits of a real-life family of sisters, and the perils faced by the women in the books are quite real, including but not limited to forced incarceration on trumped-up mental health issues and threat to livelihood due to sexism. The ways in which women were badly treated historically are on parade through this series. There are fun things but also there are extremely upsetting things. Be aware as you go in. I do think that they stand reasonably well alone, though, as evidenced by the fact that I accidentally skipped from book 1 to book 7 with no loss of enjoyment. I only have one left at this point.

Giles Whittell, Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration. This is such a strange book. It’s about snow, just as it says, but it’s by an Englishman who seems to treat snow as something that you visit, mostly to ski on, or else something that you witness through your window before it disappears. And while he seems upset about the prospect of snow dwindling with global warming, he does very little to immerse himself in the mindset of any of the cultures for whom that would be…more overarchingly meaningful. Canada, the northern (non-skiing-focused!) US, and the Norden are all equally neglected here. He has lots of interesting scientific facts about snow and ideas about downhill skiing…and almost none about cross-country, sledding sports, snow sculpture, or any of a number of other things that someone actually culturally exploring snow might want to go into. Russia…is mostly in this book as a place that has skiing in inappropriate places, manufactured in Sochi, not a place that has snow in appropriate places. So what’s here is interesting, but what’s not here is just weird.

Isabel Yap, Never Have I Ever. Short stories, many of which draw on Filipino stories for their context and speculative elements. There are stories here that are beautiful, horrifying, tender, angry…basically Yap demonstrates that she has range, that if one story is not your sort of thing the next one very well might be. Will be glad to see more from her.

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The Scholars of Night, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dear Mike,

Well, they’ve re-released another of your books in a lovely new edition. The cover is brilliant. I think you’d love it. The introduction to this one was easier to get through, because Charles Stross was talking about the Cold War rather than talking about you.

But then there was the book itself, and you know what you did, Mike. You know all the things you left for us to find after you were gone. The lines about grief about the loss of a mentor–knowing you would understand how that hurt just when the thing that hurts is your loss. Gee, thanks for that, friend. (I mean, seriously, thanks for that. But also, ow.)

The thing about this book is that we’re always talking about how much you were ahead of your time. But Charlie was right to talk about the Cold War in the intro, because this is the book of yours that is most of its time. This is the one that reminds me that you live in the past now, that’s what being dead means. I can’t talk to you about the gender dynamics you portrayed and what you were thinking about them, some of which is pretty strongly implied and some is a little trickier to tease out. And I definitely can’t hear what you’d think of them now, in 2021. Because this book is of its time, and that’s where you live, and I don’t live there any more, and I can’t even visit you there.

One of the things that delights me about this book is how keenly you’ve observed that one of the joys of spy novels is men’s fashion. Women’s, too, but you can find more of that in other genres. You had a note-perfect eye for what the end of the Cold War was wearing, and you juggled that in as you were doing the Christopher Marlowe and the war games and all the rest. And I smiled every time.

And then the ending. Here, this part: The children were growing up angry, without any help at all. If he could teach Paul Ogden to think through his anger–If anyone could teach that to anyone, then there was hope. Oh Mike. Oh friend. Well, we’ll just keep trying, on that front. Because I’ve got to tell you, the children have not stopped having cause for that since you wrote it. Since you left us.

It’s a book of very different battles than we’re fighting now, Mike, but the overlap is definitely there. It’s much more of a period piece than The Dragon Waiting, strange though that is to say. And yet it’s so well-constructed, it’s so well done, that I return to it again and again, for all the snapshots, all the moments, all the ways you handled tension in this book. And: this is the book that made me go read all of Anthony Price. Because it works in either order. Now it’s out again, and the people who are missing you can read it again–and the people who missed you the first time around can read it too.

I hope they do.

As always, thanks.


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Books read, late July

Cassie Alexander, Year of the Nurse: A 2020 Pandemic Memoir. Discussed elsewhere.

Andrea Barrett, Archangel. Reread. This is a bunch of short stories with loosely linked characters, historical fiction around a theme of scientific exploration of the world. Beautifully done, and they hold up very well on the second go-round.

Carolyn Fourche, In the Lateness of the World. I kept failing to connect with these poems of global exploration. We did not meet each other the way I wanted to. Perhaps another of you will.

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Perfectly nice naturalist essays but not my favorite of her books, not where I would recommend starting with this part of her work.

Katherine Johnson, My Remarkable Journey. An autobiography from one of the outstanding “computers” from NASA’s era when that term was a person’s job description as a mathematician rather than a machine. This is labeled a memoir; it is not. It is very dates-and-places autobiography, very little internality. Both have value, but know that going in; there’s more factual material here than in Hidden Figures, but not a lot more of what was deeply personal to Dr. Johnson.

Abbie Gascho Landis, Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels. Does what it says on the tin, although it’s quite focused on mussels in North America, and particularly in the east of North America–it comes as far west as I am but really not much farther. But mussels: they’re interesting, here’s a bunch of stuff about them.

Ada Limón, Sharks in the River. This was the absolute perfect book for the day I was reading it. I kept marking poems to come back to. So many beautiful moments, start to finish. Highly recommended.

Sujata Massey, The Bombay Prince. The latest in its series, focused on the visit of the future Edward VIII to India and the protests thereof–and of course on a murder mystery unfolding around it. I think this is a series you can start in multiple places, and this is a fine enough place if you’re not attached to starting at the beginning or are having difficulty getting hold of the beginning.

James Morrow, The Cat’s Pajamas and Other Stories. Reread. Upon reread a lot of these felt shallow and self-congratulatory, and I really hope I like other things I remember liking of his better. Sigh.

Winifred Peck, Arrest the Bishop?. I didn’t find this late-1940s mystery as charming as her clerical slice-of-life, but it was still fun to read when I needed something to sort of refresh myself after one of the books below (it’ll become obvious).

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, eds. Fiyah Issue 17. Kindle. Occasionally Fiyah has an issue of well-done stories that aren’t really my jam, and you know what, I think they should, I am not the center of their target audience. This was one of those. Glad they’re doing what they’re doing.

Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Oh lord, what a difficult book. Sebba is not setting herself the task of proving that Ethel Rosenberg had zero Communist sympathies (good thing, because that’s clearly untrue) or any of a number of other things some people felt they had to do in talking about her case. She simply wants to examine: what evidence was there that she committed specific crimes, especially the crimes for which she was executed, specifically that she committed those crimes and not some other member of her family such as her husband, brother, or sister-in-law. Evidence looks pretty sparse, and there is clear and specific evidence that the people who tried her knew they were using perjured testimony, and that her brother knew that he was perjuring himself and never understood why she didn’t do the same. This is a book that is incredibly sad and upsetting in a number of ways.

Amy Stewart, Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. I’m catching up on this historical semi-fiction adventure series, and I continue to enjoy it. One of the things I particularly liked here is that a young person with a dream doesn’t have that dream magically realized on the first try, pivots, and manages to make other things work for a bit, while still trying to figure out what might work for her long-term. I think too often “follow your dreams” narratives are presented as binary success/failure rather than very weird tangents, and this is a weird tangent one, which is kind of great.

Carrie Vaughn, Questland. Some of Vaughn’s books are a perfect fit for me as a reader and some are well-written but just…fine, I guess, not special for me. This is one of the latter. It’s a love song to the segment of geek culture that’s now mass market, and many of the places where its commentary could have gotten deep or trenchant didn’t. Not sure why, since Vaughn certainly has that in her. Anyway, if you want animatronic dragons, this is that (literally, I am not being metaphorical), but I didn’t really feel like the plot threads came together into a greater whole.

Hywel Williams, Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Lots of good stuff about what was actually going on in Western Europe. If you ever feel like genre fantasy is too based on medieval Western Europe, go read up on the Carolingians and their squabbles with each other and their neighbors and find out that, lordy, does genre fantasy have a lot more to draw on. Anyway I think they’re fun, and this was fun.

Xiran Jay Zhao, Iron Widow. Discussed elsewhere.