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Mammoths at the Gates, by Nghi Vo

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is another in the series of novellas about Cleric Chih, and this time they’ve returned home, home to the Singing Hills abbey. But home is not as they expected to find it, because there are two intimidating war mammoths with two cranky mammoth handlers at the gates of the abbey, and inside the abbey–well, inside, one of the clerics they most wanted to see has died, and one of their oldest friends has become mature and responsible in their absence.

And that’s just on the human side. Because at the Singing Hills abbey, the hoopoes must always be considered–sometimes considered first. And Myriad Virtues, beloved hoopoe of the deceased Cleric Chien, is grieving in the way that only a neixin hoopoe with perfect recall can–and none of the humans can anticipate quite what that means. Or quite what it will mean to the angry mammoth riders.

If your favorite part of this series is the hoopoes, as it is mine, this is an incredibly hoopoe-heavy novella. It is, as the saying does not go but ought to, hoopoes all the way down. With some mammoths thrown in. The cover copy indicates that the novellas may be read in any order, and I think that’s probably true? true-ish? I think I enjoyed coming into this knowing the characters (good news, this one comes out in September, so you have plenty of time to read three other novellas, or even just one if you like), but also I think it would have been fun and compelling if I’d picked it up cold. I am still happy to be along for Cleric Chih’s rambles, even–especially–when they ramble home for a minute.

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Books read, early May

Charlie Jane Anders, Promises Stronger Than Darkness. The conclusion of its trilogy, so please don’t start here, they’re all in print, there’s no reason to start here and every reason to have the full effect of the thing. I particularly like what happens with the universal translator, but there are lots of satisfying conclusion-y things going on, lots of people managing to pull up their socks despite quite a lot of trauma from earlier books and do the things that need doing, with glitter and panache and determination.

Erin Bow, Simon Sort of Says. This is a middle grade mainstream novel about a kid who’s come out the other side of the kind of traumatic event that is all too common right now in the US, and would like to be out the other side. He would like to not be that kid. He would like to just be normal. Do we ever get that? We do not. Sometimes what we get instead, with new friends and experiences and Lego and halo-halo is pretty great, though. As a side note, Bow gets the speech patterns of Nebraskans absolutely spot-on in this book. Chef’s kiss. It’s never the point, but it’s also never, ever not perfectly done. I ugly cried in a couple of places. It’s not an easy book just because it’s for younger readers. But it’s worth doing.

Roshani Chokshi, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride. Lots of fairy tale tropes made to resonate here in what does not turn out to be a very fantastical novel but a very pressed-flower sad one, in two points of view.

Agatha Christie, 4:50 From Paddington, A Murder Is Announced, and The ABC Murders. I needed a break from the other things I read, and not reading will not do, so this is what happened. I was not outstandingly in love with any of these, but they’re reasonably charmingly well written, and while I’ve listed them alphabetically, they’re also probably in order of preference. If you want to read an Agatha Christie, gosh, these sure are some.

James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914. The social structures both of artisan groups internally and of artisans relating to their larger societies. Interesting, right up my alley. Journeymen relating to masters! Religious aspects of the question! Small artisanry and when and how there was a segue into factory work! Yes good.

Meg Howrey, They’re Going to Love You. I absolutely loved the sentences in this book, and I loved the protagonist’s relationship with her work as a choreographer, the place it occupies in her life. I wish there were better ways to signal what a book’s main cultural frame of reference is without sounding snooty, because if you’re not comfortable with using different composers for the piano as characterization, you’re probably not going to love this book as thoroughly as I did, and I don’t mean that as “you are not as smart and amazing as me, you peon,” but it’s hard to not make it sound like that given the hierarchies of art we live with. Sigh. Anyway, there is a substantial portion of misunderstanding plot, so if you have low tolerance for that, this is not your book, and there is also a substantial theme of a young girl growing up with her dad and his partner as gay men in the ’80s in New York, so if you’re going to struggle with a portrayal of grief and the AIDS crisis and how that affected people’s sense of the world and communication, this is not your book either. But I went and added the rest of her stuff to my reading list.

Sabrina Imbler, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Personal/memoir essays centered around, as the subtitle tells you, sea creatures. I found this delightful, though it is not always, shall we say, perky. If you know someone who is interested in queer memoir, biracial memoir, nerd memoir, sea creatures, and/or the intersection of these things, and who does not insist on relentlessly inspirational reading material, this is really well done and not much like anything else. Or if it is please do tell me, I would absolutely not mind having two.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Now You See Us. Mostly a novel about the lives of Filipina maids working in Singapore, but the core plot hook is that one of their number is framed for murder of an employer, and the others have to use what resources they have in their current circumstances to free her. Jaswal, from the author’s note, did a lot of research from people in that situation and tried to make sure that her characters’ solution was one that the women who work those jobs could actually access, so this is not a fluffy girl power narrative, but in some ways is more optimistic and respectful of the strength of the people involved.

Katherine Larson, Radial Symmetry. Poetry with a strong sense of nature and grounding in self, very much enjoyed.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Arabs: A 3000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires. Who exactly is this book talking about: that’s inherently going to be a complicated question, but I felt like Mackintosh-Smith used the complication to never really settle, not to the strength of the actual book he was writing. It was not a history of Islam, fine, good, Arabic peoples started before Islam…but that made it a less ideal book for people who did not know, for example, the rise of Sufism in detail. Is Yemen included in this history? Definitely yes. Also definitely no. How about Iraq? Obviously. Also, obviously not. What about the people who lived very much in the middle of the Arabian peninsula and briefly converted to Judaism just before they converted to Islam? Let us mention their existence and never discuss why or how any of that happened. In short this book served mostly to make me want other books that did a much better job of a million things that it waved at with vague impatience.

Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane, eds., The Other Side of Never. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, The Library: A Fragile History. This is one of the kind of books that is attempting to be global but doesn’t quite get there: specifically I was really looking forward to more about the libraries of the Himalayan peoples, which these authors do not seem to know existed. Ope. But as far as the western world they are really detailed and go quite far back and it’s very satisfying, basically as relaxing as an Agatha Christie novel in terms of taking a break from a lot of other things in life.

Seirian Sumner, Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. There are some really interesting things about wasps in here, which is good, that’s what you show up for if you get a book with this title. Sumner is also very defensive about how wasps are just as cool as bees, at least as cool, probably cooler, clinging to a description of bees as “only vegetarian wasps” to the point that it comes up at least six times. Probably more. There is also an extended scene where Sumner wants to serve supper to Aristotle so they can talk about bees and wasps and how Aristotle should have appreciated wasps more (and bees less, presumably). This features Sumner showing off research about what food Aristotle would already have eaten rather than just serving him pho and chocolate like a good host. Sigh. Whatever.

Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. A short prison memoir from an Argentinian Jewish journalist who was tortured during the Dirty War. Really detailed and very much a personal perspective, and also very clear on some of the endlessly stupid places Antisemitism can take people.

Marissa van Uden, ed., Strange Libations. Kindle. These flash pieces take the form of recipes. They’re as likely to call for gin as despair, as likely to mix a draught as a spell. Easy to page through, likely to be over before they grow tedious.

Lise Waldek, Julian Droogan, and Catharine Lumby, Feeling Terrified? The Emotions of Online Violent Extremism. Kindle. This is a short monograph about a study of young Australian adults and their attitudes toward online violent extremism they’d personally encountered. It went into the methodology of the study and how they’d attempted to keep it open-ended rather than giving examples that would shape the respondents’ ideas of what things constituted violent extremism and how they ought to respond to it. Some interesting stuff here, went into things like uses for humor and bravado–and also how people who thought they would be preparing themselves to face violence in their real lives volunteered the information that found that they had not actually prepared themselves. The fact that they were Australian was really relevant because they could feel that they were very much at a remove from things like school shootings–this kind of violence could feel impersonal to the people being surveyed in ways that it would not to an American population.

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order–and What We Can Do About It. Interesting, well-written social analysis about how and when people feel that they have gotten bad deals that they “should have known better” about and what they do about those feelings, especially the bad decisions they make about those feelings. Brief, breezy, worth the time.

Kate Zernike, The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. Do you like feeling like screaming and throwing things? Is your blood pressure chronically low? This is a lovely book for you! Especially if you were a young woman studying science in the 1990s and want to see how little things changed from the 1960s, when this book begins, to the 1990s, when it ends, and worry about whether things have changed much to now! Hooray! Seriously, this is interesting and well-researched, but it also covers a lot of the “surely we’ve fixed that already and it’s all a coincidence” nonsense and how incredibly hard it is to dislodge.

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The Other Side of Never: Dark Tales from the World of Peter and Wendy, edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also some of the authors are personal friends.

This is a fairly narrow topic for an anthology and thus a dangerous one: there’s a risk that a narrow anthology topic will result in stories that are on the one hand repetitive and same-y or on the other hand very tentatively connected to the theme. And this one brushes those guardrails on both sides while not crashing: there’s a bit much of yes, we know James M. Barrie was a creepy so-and-so whose ideas of gender and sexuality were pretty gross, and also there are a few stories that are just barely Peter Pannish at all. But on the whole it’s pretty deftly handled with enough of a spread to keep me from going “ugh not again” or “why this one though”–especially as I am not the world’s biggest fan of the story. (See above re: creepy so-and-so, ideas of gender and sexuality etc.)

I particularly want to shout out A.C. Wise’s story, “Manic Pixie Girl.” Many times when you see an author who has successfully published multiple books related to a theme (Hooked and Wendy Darling, available from booksellers near you!) publishing a story in an anthology about that theme, their story is an offcut from those books, a chapter that didn’t quite make it into the final version and has decent prose but doesn’t really stand on its own as a story. The Gym Shoes of Shannara, we call those stories in my house: if you wanted to know every single unmagical detail of my magical world, step right up for some baaaaaackstoryyyyyy! Well, not only did Wise give us a complete and satisfying story rather than an offcut, she took an entirely different run at the Peter Pan concept with it than her novels did. That’s artistic integrity, is what that is, and my favorite story of the volume to boot. No gym shoes here.

Other notable stories include Lavie Tidhar’s “A Visit to Kensington Gardens,” “Never Was Born His Equal” by Premee Mohamed, and “A House the Size of Me” by Alison Littlewood. I was a bit surprised that my favorites all tended to deal fairly directly with the subject matter rather than glancing off it, because I have no objections to a glancing inspiration, especially in this case, but that’s how it happened to fall out this time. Those whose taste skews more firmly in the horror direction will find other stories appeal to them more, and that’s how anthologies are supposed to work: different strokes for etc. etc.

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Books read, late April

Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam. Reread. This wampyr and sorceress are among my favorite iterations of “together, they fight crime,” and it was time to revisit their cases together, which hold up extremely well.

Rita Chang-Eppig, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Oliver Darkshire, Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller. Breezy anecdotes about a job that is exactly what it says on the tin.

Heid E. Erdrich, National Monuments. I don’t think anybody had to tell Heid Erdrich that the personal is political, I think she already knew, and these poems definitely do know.

Winifred Holtby, The Crowded Street. Kindle. Not as funny as The Blue Castle but a similar take on the superfluous woman problem of the 1920s, more consciously so, and with an interesting ending as well. I like Holtby, I like spending time with her sentences.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan. Reread. This is another reread that is approximately where I left it; it is appropriately bloody and sad for a book about an alternate world version of the Reconquista, so go in forewarned. A friend mentioned seeing Dorothy Dunnett’s influence on Kay just as I was starting to read this, and once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it, but not in a bad way, at least not for me.

Fonda Lee, Untethered Sky. Vivid fun novella of rocs and their hunting handlers. Monsters monsters rawr yay.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. Does what it says on the tin, extremely cozy.

Ulla-Lena Lundberg, Ice. This is the sort of Nordic novel where all sorts of nice people have nice things happen in order that the parts that are about grief will be sharper and worse when they arrive. The cultural types of grief it goes into made me feel very seen, and the writing about high summer in the Baltic made me so happy, and then there was the rest and aaaaaagh. If you want to read this book, which is quite well done, be extremely careful about what frame of mind you’re in when you do.

David Mura, The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and Our American Narratives. I wish that people were allowed to publish books like this that were just the unique narrative analyses and not all the hand-holding for people who have not thought about race in America at all before, but I know that an unfortunate number of people really haven’t thought about race in America at all before, and Mura needed to get them up to speed before he could put in his essays about narrative structures in various types of fiction and what they reinforce racially. The middle of this book was really interesting, and the rest was done well for what it needed to be doing.

Megan E. O’Keefe, The Blighted Stars. Discussed elsewhere.

Alma Steingart, Axiomatics: Mathematical Thought and High Modernism. Oh mathematicians and your shenanigans in interacting with the rest of the culture in the early 20th century! oof. Yeah. “Let’s have a math dictator, that’s how we’ll defeat Hitler!” My pals. I love finding stuff like this out, though.

Sarah Suk, The Space Between Here and Now. Discussed elsewhere.

Angie Thomas, Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy. I was so glad to see this. It was so much fun, just an absolute delight of a MG fantasy–completely different from The Hate You Give in genre, category, and style, but absolutely reminiscent of it in writing skill. Thomas is such a major talent, and it’s lovely to see her branching out.

Wenfei Tong, Bird Love: The Family Life of Birds. This is another of the “fun facts and pretty pictures about the natural world” books that I find not outstanding but quite soothing.

Zacharias Topelius, The King’s Ring. Kindle. An historical novel about the Thirty Years War, written in the nineteenth century. I’m still not clear why there’s a framing device where the whole thing is told by a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, but whatever, I’m amiable.

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Benefactress. Kindle. Minor von Arnim, don’t start here. There are several entertaining bits, but the arc of it is pretty status quo-ward in ways that it is not charming enough to make wonderful.

Ibi Zoboi, Nigeria Jones. Discussed elsewhere.