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Books read, early February

Moniquill Blackgoose, To Shape a Dragon’s Breath. Discussed elsewhere.

Cynthia A. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Regime French Society. Lots of in-depth analysis about the different riots that arose in the mid-18th century over the price and availability of bread in various French cities. Bouton looks into what professions the rioters belonged to, what punishments they received, all kinds of interesting information. I think one of the elements of this book that made me think the most was how thoroughly people believed in natural rights that were in no way covered in any form of any legal code–to the point of ascribing opinions to the king that he had at no point expressed, simply because they were such obvious natural rights to the people in question. This…seems like it might have applications elsewhere in spacetime. Just spitballing here.

Emma Mieko Candon, The Archive Undying. Discussed elsewhere.

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye and Murder With Mirrors. Two more books that had passed through the filter of “my friend who is reading a bunch of these said they were reasonably fun and didn’t have an unbearable amount of Christie’s personal bigotries.” Fascinated to watch Christie allow people to be wrong about mental health stuff even by the standards of the time. Quick library reads.

Pamela Dean, The Hidden Land and The Whim of the Dragon. Rereads. I love these so much, particularly The Whim of the Dragon. Oh, particularly that. Because of the way it sticks the landing, and because the landing Pamela chose is not one I recall seeing anywhere else. Love it, love them. Every time I read these they make me happy. I know portal fantasy is not cool right now but…I love it anyway.

M.K. England, The Disasters. Have you been complaining that not enough YA SF is like Heinlein, full of teenagers who want to be space pilots? Well, this is about that. Except uh. Very modern and queer and mental health aware and voice-y. So not really what a lot of people who make that complaint mean–but probably still a fun thing to give them just to see. Me, I’m giving it to a teen in my life for whom “Space Disaster But Make It Gay” will provoke an emoji-like set of heart-eyes. (Note: when I say “gay” I do not mean “sexually explicit.” Should I have to specify that? absolutely I should not, but this is the world we live in, so.)

Julie Flavell, The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America. I am a sucker for the Seven Years’ War, and if you want Howe brothers, boy does it have Howe brothers. Howes as far as the eye can see, that war. But the strength of this book is, so far as I can see, that it treats the Howe sisters as interesting and worthwhile in their own right. This also gets you some different and useful perspective on the brothers. Funny how that works. Flavell is definitely a Howe booster, but not to the point of being obnoxious.

James L. Flexner, Oceania 800-1800 CE. Kindle. Another very short monograph on a very large topic, very much walking the boundaries of archaeology and history here. Mostly good as an introduction to the topic.

Jaymee Goh, ed., Don’t Touch That! A Sci-Fi and Fantasy Parenting Anthology. Really lovely stand-out stories from K.A. Doore, Melissa Caruso, and Karen Osborne. I wish there had been more stories of parents and children having adventures together rather than figuring out that they could/should, but I often want the former, and it doesn’t make the latter bad.

Adam Hochschild, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis. Want to know how rich white Americans were particularly jerks in 1919? This is your book. Seriously this is useful historical context, and yet also…not a pleasant read.

Ed Bok Lee, Mitochondrial Night. Local poet with some interesting perspectives. Not as sciency as I’d hoped, oh well.

Sally McMillen, Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life. McMillen is clearly passionately interested in Lucy Stone’s life. If you’re also interested–if you want to read a book about social justice movements in 19th century America, or about Stone in particular–this is useful and good. She does not, however, get to the point of being a biographer I would recommend regardless of prior interest in the subject.

Jim Moore, Prognosis. Local poet, from the perspective of an older person who is, and whose friends are, going through a lot. Not going to be my favorite but worth having.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.

Janika Oza, A History of Burning. Discussed elsewhere.

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. One of the categories listed for booksellers on the back of this book is “lyric essay.” (The other, of course, is poetry.) And I keep thinking about that, lyric essay, sure, yes, why not, let’s do that. I also keep thinking: this is probably a fallacy, but from the reader perspective it looks like this book is doing exactly what Claudia Rankine wanted to do with the material and not what might have been dictated by outside forms. And that’s kind of amazing. It’s about loneliness, of course, and death and race and America and politics and families and all sorts of things. It’s a very weird little book and will not take you very long to get through (but to think about, though…).

Carole Rawcliffe, Leprosy in Medieval England. And how it wasn’t what you think. Specifically the images of the community shunning and isolating lepers mostly come from the 19th century and were very much politically motivated. “Victorians Wrong About Medievals: News At 11” is once again our headline. Welp.

Bernard F. Reilly, The Medieval Spains. All the weird bits of Visigoths becoming Spaniards as we understand them, all the in-betweens and nubbly bits. Still much shorter than I would like for its topic; I’ll keep looking. Very solid on the geographical inputs to the whole thing though.

E. Catherine Tobler, The Deadlands Issue 20. Kindle. Enjoyed reading as I generally do, but this felt like a shorter issue, and I don’t know if that’s a trend or not.

Eugen Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. “Exactly how bad was a lot of rural France, and why, and also what were some of their weirder folktales and funnier bits of folk wisdom.” That’s this book. It was staggeringly depressing in spots, when you consider that I not just knew but knew well several people who were alive in the latest section. Really super-interesting for all that, though. I feel like what I want is a sort of…sense of the middle ground? the richer farmlands and the mid-sized towns, what was life like there. Because I have this, and I have a fairly good sense of Paris in this era. So. More to look for. Oh, caveat: he does not translate a lot of the French, and he does not translate a lot of the patois. So if you’re not comfortable in French (which means you’re probably really not comfortable in most 19th century rural French patois) there will be some things where he’s talking past you. If that annoys you a lot, dodge this.

Fran Wilde, The Book of Gems. Discussed elsewhere.

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To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, by Moniquill Blackgoose

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Sometimes you start reading a book and realize that it is the thing you most want to be doing at that moment. There’s just that sense of “oh yes, this, this is what I wanted.” And To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is absolutely one of those books for me.

Have you read some of the magical academy books published for adults in the last sixty years? Brilliant, so has Moniquill Blackgoose, and she knows where all the beats in them go. However, Blackgoose is an enrolled member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, and she brings every bit of that perspective to this book. And it is delightful. There are so many places that Anequs, the heroine, has very little patience for colonizer bullshit. In our world where the “correct a character flaw” arc plot is some people’s idea of How You Tell A Story, Blackgoose has the vision and the courage of her convictions to give Anequs the courage of hers. She’s a teenage heroine who knows where she comes from and where she wants to go, and she doesn’t have to have that shaken to have a compelling narrative.

And compelling it is. I had so much trouble putting this book down to do silly things like eat and sleep. The narrative is flowing and assured, and the characters are compelling enough that a glance at the first line of the chapter was often enough to draw me in for “just one more.” Anequs makes friends, loves her family, has a great relationship with her dragon, messes with magical chemistry, fights stupid rules, does all sorts of things. It’s so much fun, it’s so fierce, I’m so very glad there is this book.

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The Book of Gems, by Fran Wilde

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend.

This is that rare but lovely thing: a book that does equally well as an entry point to a series as it does for readers who’ve already read the others–in this case, as one might expect from the title, the Gemworld series.

Dev is a young scientist whose study of gems, their past, and their properties is her great passion. Unfortunately the man who was supposed to be her mentor has stolen her work and left her to the part of their work that is drudgery without credit. He’s gone off to the valley, where Dev’s family is from (though she is careful about who she tells that information)–the home of the gems that present such fascination to scholars.

And now he’s disappeared, and Dev has to go after him if the work is to be completed. She has a plan that will allow her to speak at the Symposium–which should make her academic career–if only she isn’t caught for going into the valley completely without permission. As long as her limited funds can get her where she needs to be. Provided that her long-lost family is welcoming or at the very least indifferent. And then, of course, there are the dangers of the gems themselves. She’s swamped. And the mysterious messages she starts receiving certainly don’t help….

This is a perfectly sensible place to start reading this series or continue it, a pageturner that I read in one sitting. Recommended.

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The Archive Undying, by Emma Mieko Candon

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Sometimes you start a book absolutely knowing you are not its target audience. “Disaster gays plus mechas”: that is absolutely the jam of several people I know, and I am not them. (If you are them, go ahead and stop reading here if you want to, go forth, and pre-order. It is absolutely that thing.) But not being the target audience doesn’t have to mean that you can’t tell when something is well done, and Candon does a very good job of this chosen thing.

Humanity has a long history of creating gods in its own image, and the people of the future have the artificial intelligence technology to do it that way. Each god a city, each city a god…which works until the artificial intelligences that were those city-gods become corrupted. The corrupt gods destroy themselves and their inhabitants…but never completely. Fragments remain–roam–endanger those near them. Including themselves.

Sunai, made regenerating by his former city, might not have made great decisions if he hadn’t been touched by one of those mad, dead gods–but he’ll never know. As things actually stand, he has a proclivity for drink, drugs, danger, and men who are bad for him. But the robot fragments of his past have no intention of just letting him figure his shit out in peace. Instead there are murderous mechas and treacherous human friends everywhere he turns. Can he trust anybody? will he have to anyway? How many times can one guy get killed in one book? This is labeled the first volume of the series, but enough happens in it for two or three books.

(Just a side note for the librarians: this is the second title in recent SF (Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp, which I really liked!) where a reference to archives in the title does not result in a lot of archives in the book. The archive here is a cyberpunky deal, not a location characters are running around. Go in prepared, don’t be disappointed by lack of actual archive.)

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A History of Burning, by Janika Oza

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a gorgeous family saga, the kind of book that gives you a hundred years of one family, following from one generation to another including in-laws (but not friends/peripheral characters as POV). It’s about an Indian family that immigrates to Uganda while both are still under British rule, and…the twentieth century plays out from there, the Partition, independence for both regions, the rise of Idi Amin, another round of immigration (hello, Toronto!), all of it. It is harrowing but not only harrowing; it is heartbreaking but not only heartbreaking. There’s joy, there’s hope, there’s camaraderie, there’s all the emotions of family and community life.

I don’t want to say “one doesn’t often see” because perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps there are loads of books about this and my white American self has just not found them. But. I don’t often see books that are about the fraught ground that comes of being a colonized people that is then part of colonization for another people. And that complexity is beautifully handled here–the characters have a wide range of reactions to each other, and being someone we care about does not mean that you’re necessarily right about any one thing–or that rightness is achievable in your circumstances. These characters are all doing the best they can, but their bests vary wildly–as people do.

This is a warm and rich and compelling book, and I’m so glad that it’s coming soon so the rest of you can read it too. Read it when you’re in a place to deal with difficult things, but absolutely read it.

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Books read, late January

Daniel Abraham, The Price of Spring. Reread. I remember now why this is my least-favorite of this series (that I still quite like). Despite the subject matter of the plot, it’s still entirely centered on the priorities and reactions of powerful men–to the point where I feel like it’s detrimental to the worldbuilding, as much of the world is neither powerful nor male. Ah well. Still glad I reread it.

Jack Ashby, Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals. Jack Ashby is really defensive about monotremes and only slightly less defensive about marsupials. And he does a good job of making it clear why he feels that way! Lots of interesting facts about Australian mammals and their interactions.

Leigh Bardugo, Hell Bent. A sequel that I think really requires the first one to appreciate what it’s doing. The college setting feels a little more incidental in this one, but that’s appropriate to the passage of time–sophomores have more sense of how to handle the demonic magics college throws at them, having had a year of experience under their belts.

Patrick Bixby, License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport. Bixby repeats commonly misleading ideas about a few contemporary cultural figures in politics and business toward the end of this to no real benefit, leaving a sour taste in my mouth. Mildly interesting, not as interesting as I hoped.

Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain, Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life. Do you want a bunch of pictures of sled dogs? because this is a bunch of pictures of sled dogs.

Roseanne A. Brown, Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting. The “vampires” in question are monsters from Ghanian folklore, and the titular Ghanian-American kid is a great deal of fun as she figures out her world. The ending is a real cliffhanger, so I will definitely be looking for the sequel to this MG fantasy.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 2. Kindle. This was unexpectedly hilarious, and not because she meant it to be. Oh wow, her utter focus on Louis Napoleon. And Swedenborgianism! Oh gosh. Fascinating, delightful, very very funny, much better from this distance than if one was living through it.

Elaine Castillo, How to Read Now: Essays. Includes a couple of absolutely glorious magisterial takedowns (Joan Didion! Peter Handke!) with deep analysis and knowledge of their work and of other things. I think she misses a step when she doesn’t recognize how extremely Jewish some of comics history is (instead treating it as generically white), but generally a really fascinating perspective and well worth the time.

Samuel K. Cohn, Paradoxes of Inequality in Renaissance Italy. Kindle. Interesting analysis of multiple kinds of inequality in the wake of the Black Death. I particularly liked Cohn’s analysis of how poor people, artisans, would leave commissions in their wills just as the wealthy would, and then that stopped–poor people wanted to beautify their communities with a painted candlestick, if that’s what they could afford instead of a Giotto altarpiece, and they got pushed out of doing it. Fascinating.

James Crawford, The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World. Crawford is not pulling punches here about politics, as well he should not. Lots of different borders considered here firsthand, or as close to firsthand as the timing of the pandemic allowed–which was itself useful for insight into borders.

Pamela Dean, The Secret Country. Reread. I read this because I was in a mood to enjoy something. I continue to marvel at how well the kids’ relationships are drawn, how very real they are to that kind of pretend game that is now no longer pretend. One of my favorite portal fantasies of all time.

Erin M. Evans, Empire of Exiles. Secondary world fantasy full of archivists and scribes. Really good fun.

Caroline Graham, The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This is a reasonably well-written mystery novel from the 1980s. The thing I ended up feeling like it was lacking was compassion. We’re all flawed humans, but the kinds of flaws this book lingered on ended up feeling petty, silly to focus on. It’s a British small town mystery novel with old ladies and neighbors walking their dogs, neighbors painting, neighbors planning weddings…and the only person who gets to be solid and worthwhile is the detective. I’ll read more of this series because I already have them on hand, but otherwise I really wouldn’t.

Matti Kilpio, Leena Kahlas-Tarkka, Jane Roberts, and Olga Timofeeva, eds., Anglo-Saxons and the North. A collection of essays from a conference. Do you like analyses of meter in old Finnish and Germanic verses? That is my jam and here it is, and more that’s basically that level of abstruse. Hurrah.

Graci Kim, The Last Fallen Moon. Very much a middle book in its MG fantasy series, delving into all sorts of Korean afterlife folk belief in ways that its young characters can explore and illuminate–but don’t start here, and don’t expect it to be the last one.

Robert E. Lerner, The Feast of Saint Abraham: Medieval Millenarians and the Jews. Joachim of Fiore was a countervailing voice to the dominant (violent) attitude toward Jews in his time and region, and Lerner wants to talk about that and how its influence reverberated down the years as an alternative. At the same time, go in braced that “he, a Christian clergyperson, had a more peaceful attitude toward the Jewish people and what he expected their fate would be” does not map to “he actually respected their religion in a contemporary sense.”

Marina Lostetter, The Cage of Dark Hours. Discussed elsewhere.

Hilary McKay, Straw Into Gold: Fairy Tales Re-Spun. If you’ve been reading short story fairy tale retellings in the last fifty years or so, this is not going to be a revelatory book. None of the retellings are particularly novel or original. What they are is reasonably well-done for the middle-grade audience. Entertaining, fine enough. Not where I’d start with either McKay or fairy-tale retellings.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows. Okay so yes, I realized I had not kept up on the recent releases from Rick Riordan Presents and ended up reading three of them in one fortnight. I feel fine about my life choices. To round out the group, this is very much a last book in its series–Triumphant Conclusion etc. This one is Mexican-American folklore. Sorting out middle school relationship stuff in various shapes. Characters who don’t know every facet of their own identity from the jump and still have things to learn about themselves and their world.

Margery Sharp, Rhododendron Pie. Sharp’s first novel. She was not yet at her full powers of light comedic prose, but it was still worth having, a romp through the 1930s and figuring out one’s own way in the world.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Eyes of the Void. Space opera sequel, definitely don’t start here, loads of aliens and alien perspectives, hurrah.

Jenny Uglow, Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense. Edward Lear did a bunch of interesting things (so many poems! so many paintings of parrots!) but was not, overall, a very happy man. Very much up to Uglow’s usual high standard but rather more melancholy than I realized it would be.

Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes* *The Official Biography. This is very much a book in two parts. The first and somewhat longer part is: Rob Wilkins tells fun stories about his dear friend, who (he very much wants you to know) was a great guy. The writing here is workmanlike and there are no particularly deep revelations. Then the last hundred pages are something else entirely. The last hundred pages are a memoir of the slow loss of a friend, in the kind of detail that Pratchett made it very clear he wanted people to understand about this kind of disease–including Wilkins struggling with some of that openness. It’s a much better book–and a much more harrowing one thereby.