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Books read, early July

Kalynn Bayron, This Wicked Fate. The second of a pair, and you really don’t want to read it as a stand-alone, as it’s very much the kind of duology where the story just dives in and keeps going as soon as the second book begins rather than trying to ease you in. Poison mythologies and family relationships, YA fantasy, very fond.

Rebecca Campbell, Arboreality. Discussed elsewhere.

Julie C. Day and Ellen Meeropol, eds., Dreams for a Broken World. This was a very mixed bag. Day and Meeropol were trying to bring two different genre sensibilities to this fundraiser anthology, and for me, at least, the genre stories were immensely more successful than the mimetic ones. (And as you all know from reading this blog, I do read mimetic fiction avidly, so it’s not just that I’m more accustomed to the speculative stories.) There was a nice reprint from Sabrina Vourvoulias in this, and Zig Zag Claybourne (“Finding Ways”) and Marie Vibbert (“Subscription Life”) had the stand-out new stories.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters. Kindle. Famously unfinished, but just barely: you can see the shape of the ending they are barreling towards, and I believe it’s only the very last chapter she didn’t get to complete. A Victorian novel focused on the life, particularly the loves, of one provincial doctor’s daughter. This is not my favorite nor yet my second favorite Gaskell, but I’m glad I read it all the same.

Louise Gl├╝ck, American Originality: Essays on Poetry. I was more interested in the things that actually were essays on poetry than on the introductions written for other people’s collections–but those felt more satisfying to me than the Jhumpa Lahiri versions of the same genre in last fortnight’s reading.

Roger T. Hanlon and John B. Messenger, Cephalopod Behavior. Very much a textbook rather than something structured as a smooth prose read, but I wanted to find out about cephalopod behavior for a project, and boy, did I.

Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Discussed elsewhere.

Fady Joudah, Tethered to Stars. This is one of those poetry collections where the astronomical theme is very loose/metaphorical, rather than mostly writing poetry about astronomy. I liked it for what it is, but do not mistake it for the other thing, because it definitely isn’t.

Christopher Kemp, Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation. Kemp walks the fine line of a modern nonfiction writer telling you about himself, but in this case it’s mostly anecdotes about how completely bad his navigation skills are, how he was fascinated with this topic due to his own shortcomings rather than his own skills. I learned interesting things about which parts of the brain are doing what. Unfortunately the section at the end about getting better at navigation was all the stuff I’ve already done to compensate for having a balance disorder–it seems that this is not an entirely surmountable problem. Well. Sigh. Still good stuff to think about, though.

Dana Levin, Now Do You Know Where You Are. Short answer: no. I think these poems are probably quite good for someone who is not me, but I felt un-grounded in them, un-rooted, and not in a deliberate and systematic way. I didn’t hate them, I just…did not orient myself to them successfully.

Philip Mansel, King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV. Okay, so I’m not entirely clear why Mansel feels that someone will be interested in reading 450+ pages of Louis XIV bio and have no knowledge of what happened in France before or since, but he does seem to hold that belief, starting the book with Clovis and carrying on to the present day. Those sections are short but kind of baffling in their existence. But otherwise it’s an interesting look at not just Louis XIV himself but also the institutions surrounding him from earliest infancy.

Margery Sharp, Something Light. Wow is this title ever accurate. This is a frothy, fun, funny book from 1960 about a career woman deciding to methodically seek a “good” husband only to find that she can’t go through with it in a number of the obvious places. The ending is a little abrupt but the entire thing is entertaining. (Caveat: I remember at least one moment of casually Antisemitic language toward the end.)

Dana Simpson, Unicorn Selfies. This is the most recent Phoebe & Her Unicorn collection. You can pick it up basically anywhere–it’s a daily comic strip from the contemporary era, so while there are plot arcs, they’re all pretty bite-sized. Still fun, took me only a minute.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 47. Kindle. Another very satisfying issue of this magazine. John Chu’s “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” was my favorite of the issue.

E. Catherine Tobler et al, The Deadlands Issue 14. Kindle. Also another good offering of this magazine, in which I felt that Iona Datt Sharma’s “Give This Letter to the Crows” was particularly fine.

Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. Now look. Nobody made him make this book stretch to 1931. I don’t know why he did it, except that he wanted to put in a slapdash chapter about the beginning of the Great Depression. Frankly he would have been much better off if it had been 1916-1922, and no one would have stopped him; that’s clearly what he wanted to write about and was the bulk of the book. So if you decide you want to read about global geopolitics in the late-Great War/immediate post-Great War period, that’s all very well, but if you want to read about global geopolitics in the 1920s, don’t blame me if you pick this book up and are disappointed.

Hannah Whitten, For the Throne. Another completion of a duology where I do not recommend reading it without the one that comes before. Echoes but does not directly follow several fairy tales, makes its own space in the dark woods.

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Arboreality, by Rebecca Campbell

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Oh, this is gorgeous. It’s a novella about the world falling apart and being put back together again, all at once–there’s no stage of the novella where people are not trying to hold the world together for each other. There are people saving library books from flood, planting seeds, teaching each other, making musical instruments. There are so many people going about the work of the world as best they can under difficult circumstances.

It’s the shape of piece that has different characters threaded throughout, one section leading into another by theme and other elements less than by continuity of character, so even at novella length you get different angles on the same places and problems. Some of it is generational difference but some is just personal–Sophie is a different individual than Kit or Benno or any of the others, as it should be. But themes keep coming around, themes keep coming back. This is a novella that looks climate disaster in the eye and does not flinch from the harm it will do, is already doing, but also speaks to the resilience of human hope and beauty in the face of it.

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Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I haven’t revisited this fantasy classic in this millennium–which is to say, not in my adult life. But here’s a new edition, so it seemed like the right time. Holdstock’s prose is clear and sure, a pleasure to read, and at the time this came out I think he was doing something really new with the echoes of legends and archetypes resonating through both the land—in this case Ryhope Wood in England–and the men who inhabit it. The way he’s chosen an archetypal brother-against-brother plot redoubles and resonates with the speculative conceit that way.

The down side is that this is one of the 20th century books that has not really thought through treating women as anything but adjuncts to men. Guiwenneth, the only woman who gets really any degree of page time at all, is defined by her sexual potential and/or as a love interest–she wants to stay with Steven but is under threat from his brother, Christian, whose violence and anger are (not very explicably) heightened to fever pitch with his time dilated stay in Ryhope Wood. This is not a book that cares about how that threat hits Guiwenneth at all: she exists as a token, more or less scorekeeping between the brothers. Nor are there any substantial female supporting characters who can balance this problem out. This is not uncommon for a book from 1984–but given that Chanur’s Venture came out in 1984 as well–and Native Tongue, and Clay’s Ark, and The Hero and the Crown, among other things–it’s definitely not obligatory.

So do I recommend Mythago Wood. Hmm. It’s certainly historically interesting, and once you’re braced for it being wall to wall dudes plus the token GIRRRULLL WHO LOVES HIM, there are things happening here with how we process the power of story through time. Not a favorite, but worth keeping around, I’d say.

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Books read, late June

Sophie Anderson, The Castle of Tangled Magic. A sequel, one finds out late in the book, but not one for which the earlier work is at all crucial–more a related work really than a sequel, except that the time sequence between the two is very clear. There’s a strong use of Russian and Slavic myth types in this, which I generally enjoyed, but more so in her previous work. This one suffers from having a really strong emphasis on belief over…substance of belief. “Belief is stronger than magic” as a message makes my teeth ache and also makes me worry, as we have loads of people believing in all sorts of horrid things just now. Not the best time to be preaching the virtues of faith unrooted to content for my tastes.

Alex Beam, Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece. Wow was van der Rohe bad at his job. Wow. Wow. I knew this house was a disaster, but…it was really a disaster. “Masterpiece” seems a bit strong under the circumstances. Poor Dr. Farnsworth. (Yes, she was prickly and difficult. Also she was right.)

Casey Blair, A Coup of Tea. The first in a trilogy that was originally serialized, and I hate reading serials through no fault of any individual serial’s own, so I’m really glad to have it in collected book form now. Tea ceremonies, finding one’s own way in the world, magic in more abundance than anyone in that area wants.

Christoffer Carlsson, Blaze Me A Sun. Discussed elsewhere.

Franny Choi, Soft Science. These were poems with a cyborgs-and-sex focus that I understood but didn’t mostly connect to. You may well have more interest in that particular vein than I do.

Tim Clarkson, The Picts. Steered entirely clear of the woowoo that sometimes surrounds the Picts, thank heavens, and looked at documentation and (later) archaeological research about peoples of the far north of Scotland, what we know about them and how we know it. Sensible and useful.

Eric R. Eaton, Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect. …honest to Pete I think this book was written by a wasp, or possibly by a council of wasps put to the task by the wasp propaganda board. The entire introduction is not just “wasps are the greatest,” it’s also “ants and bees ain’t shit.” The contents are far more like a series of brief magazine sidebars about wasps than I wanted, and also this is incredibly heavily illustrated, so…I’m keeping it in case I need it as a reference, but if you were hoping more for longform prose about wasps, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking. And also tell me when you find it, because that’s what I was looking for too.

Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America, and Other Essays. This is one of the many library books I picked up when I searched for something completely different and the library gave me an unrelated title that looked like it was worth a go. As a result, what I got was an interesting enough read about modern and contemporary poetry, and sometimes he explained to me why some people liked some things that I 100% do not like…but also hoo boy is there gender stuff Hoagland is not caught up on yet.

Patrick Radden Keefe, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks. Keefe is extremely good at writing investigative pieces about bad people. I’ve read two of his book-length works in that vein. This is a collection of his long magazine profiles/articles, and it’s interesting, and I’m glad I read it, and also I’m really, really glad to be done reading it. Because: ick. And it’s good that he doesn’t try to pretend that the ick is not…ick. But: bleh.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Reread. The reorganization of our bookshelves brought the science section into easier view, and I started rereading some of the things I had in that section but hadn’t touched in this millennium. This is a midcentury work on the ripples Copernicus left in western thought, natural historical and otherwise. It contains quite long passages from Copernicus, which is useful for people of a certain mindset, which includes me. There are also some quite sad moments when Kuhn feels that we have progressed more thoroughly and more permanently than we actually have, as a culture, but these are worth noticing for their own context.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Translating Myself and Others. This essay collection is substantially composed of introductions Lahiri has written to other works, which…is I suppose a fair enough way to make up an essay collection, but not a particularly inspiring one for me. I really liked the essay about redoing one of her Italian books in English, but the introductions to books I haven’t read and did not intend to read feel to me like they should be interspersed with more solid pieces–even essays about those books not intended to be part of their front matter would be fine. Ah well.

Vaishnavi Patel, Kaikeyi. A feminist retelling of the Ramayana from the perspective of one of its originally-negative characters, this is engaging and interesting throughout, and as far as I can tell plays fair with its source material. I really enjoyed it. (If you’re watching Shoresy, you’ll know why I have Thoughts about what does and does not constitute fair play with source material. Ahem.) Questions of good governance of particular interest.

C.L. Polk, Even Though I Knew the End. Discussed elsewhere.

Christopher Rowe, These Prisoning Hills. This is in the same universe as some of Rowe’s other stories, which I love. I found it filled in rather than expanded what there was of that universe, which is entirely his prerogative but not what I was hoping for. Perfectly readable as an introduction to this universe and possibly even the best starting point–although it’s tonally different and lacks bicycles so that really depends on why you’re here. Mecha instead of bikes? It’s a question of preference really.

Greg van Eekhout, Voyage of the Dogs. The dogs come out of this book okay. I need to tell you that, because there is a whole heap of dog peril, and you might otherwise be worried. These are very dogly dogs, and they’re in space without their humans, and you don’t find out why for most of a book, and it’s a good thing it’s a very short book, is what I’m saying, because my nerves very nearly could not take it. (A masterpiece in MG SF pacing.)

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Even Though I Knew the End, by C.L. Polk

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author and I have been friends since Fido was a pup, as my grandmother would say.

So you’ve got a noir 1940s Chicago setting. You’ve got a lesbian protagonist with a steady girlfriend she wants to move away and buy a house and settle down with–but in the meantime they go drinking and dancing in clubs that cater to the women of Chicago who love the other women of Chicago. And then you’ve got…arcane magic with demons and angels bargaining for the souls of humans. And it’s all got a swiftly ticking time clock, because if Helen (Elena) Brandt doesn’t find this arcane serial killer in three days, she’ll be both dead and damned.

You know. No pressure.

I barely stopped reading this novella to eat supper. The characters’ lies, omissions, and outright mistakes all fit their personalities achingly well and propel them toward their interlocking ending. Helen has a compelling, wry, individual voice, and the balance of introduction, action, and payoff is perfect for its length, neither a splinter of novel nor a bloated short story but wholly itself. Definitely recommended.