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Books read, early July

Anta Baku, The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland. Reread. Upbeat serialized fairy tale fantasy with contemporary twist, now collected into one volume and readable in that format, so I did. Not my Richard III but basically still always glad to see Richard III.

Victoria Bates, Making Noise in the Modern Hospital. Kindle. An interesting survey of what has made which kind of noise in hospitals over the last hundred years, how people have tried to address that and what problems they’ve created in the process. Deals with both the objective sense of how much sound there is and the subjective sense of how bothersome it is.

Peter Dickinson, The Blue Hawk. A children’s book of speculative theology and falconry, more or less–Tron (this predates the movie of that name) has an evolving relationship with his gods is not always convenient to the other humans around him. I was not as charmed by this as some other people in the book club for which I read it, nor as I have been by other Dickinson books, but it was a quick read.

Emma Goldman, Living My Life. I put off reading this because autobiographies of people who have lived colorful lives don’t always have the best prose, but I was wrong to do so, the prose is very readable and this long volume goes quickly. And man, you can see how she was willing to piss off everybody here and say basically whatever. Love to see it, honestly. You don’t read Emma Goldman to agree with every word, you read Emma Goldman for the WOW SHE WENT THERE factor, both literally and figuratively.

Isabella Hammad, Enter Ghost. This is a novel about an Arabic translation production of Hamlet being put on in the West Bank, and about a Palestinian-British actress returning to Palestine and having massively complicated feelings about her own history, family, identity, work, and everything else. I really liked it.

Alix E. Harrow, Starling House. Discussed elsewhere.

Kat Howard, A Sleight of Shadows. The consequences of trying to save a world that doesn’t want to be saved. You’ll want the first one in this series first, but for that tag-line it really isn’t a downbeat book in the end, it’s just–more implication, more ramification, more fantasy from the generations of us who are not content with “power just is, don’t worry about where it comes from” as an answer in our magic.

Jac Jemc, Empty Theatre. I was disappointed in this. I was promised “over-the-top social satire,” and for 19th century German-speaking monarchs this was…very far under the top. Nor was the satire particularly biting, and no, I am very sure I didn’t just miss it, it was just…a rather blunt instrument. I’d also like to warn that there is a lot of what I’m sure is quite historically accurate depiction of disordered eating, but it is nevertheless depicted in great detail to not a lot of purpose. Meh. Too much Wagner, not enough Bismarck, and yes, I’m aware that could also be said of Ludwig of Bavaria’s life, but really. So much meh.

Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travelers. This is very focused on the uppermost classes (not a lot of merchant travel here, not a lot of thought about economic migrants) and on the most obvious places in western Europe, so it ended up being unsurprising if you’ve done any level of thought about this topic. Not really recommended, alas.

Ian R. MacLeod, Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R. MacLeod. Kindle. Some of these short stories were absolutely gorgeous and some were not for me, and the great thing about a short story collection is that you can just stop on the ones that aren’t for you and go on to the next thing. I haven’t read any of his long form stuff in a while, might be time again.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market. This was depressing but interesting. It’s an accounting of who funded what propaganda to make the magical action of the unfettered market look like it works in ways that it doesn’t and had never been proven to do. It’s just astonishing how often economists get to make claims without backing them up. “Does it, though?” ought to be the first question every time someone says, “the market does blah de blah” and yet here we are, dammit. Naomi Oreskes is a treasure. I’m glad I know these details. Also: ughhhhh.

H. G. Parry, The Magician’s Daughter. I do like it when I can say “best yet!” about an author’s latest publication, and this is one of those. It’s an Edwardian fantasy that’s another in the sub-genre of fantasy that’s thinking about where power comes from and who pays for it, and the way it handles both familiars and family went really well for me. Excited to see what Parry does next.

Sarah Pinsker, Lost Places. An absolutely lovely collection of recent Pinsker stories, many of which I’d already read but it was nice to have them in the same place, and I had managed to miss a few all the same.

C.L. Polk, Witchmark and Stormsong. Rereads. Here’s another thing I meant by “another in the sub-genre of fantasy that’s thinking about where power comes from and who pays for it.” I really love how Cee does this. I picked up Witchmark for a book club and am just going on with the reread a bit at a time. On the second go-round I really liked what a mirror Grace is of how all of us sometimes only want to fix the parts of what’s wrong with the world that are personally inconvenient to us, how we sometimes have to grump and stumble into doing more.

James Tynion IV and Rian Syngh, The Backstagers Volume One: Rebels Without Applause, Volume Two: The Show Must Go On, and Volume Three: Encore. Comics where high school backstage crew kids at an all-boys’ high school find doors to weird stuff in their backstage areas, have theater nerd adventures together. I read these because there are teens in my life who are 100% the target audience and have birthdays coming up and yep, they’re getting them, they’re absolutely getting them as gifts.

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Starling House, by Alix E. Harrow

Review copy provided by the publisher.

It’s hard to think of something that’s less “my jam” than very Gothic, very Southern fantasy. (Is it Southern Gothic if it’s Gothic in the sense of a doomed romance between a girl and a creepy house, and also is Southern? I am not clear on that part. It’s sure got the decay and the poverty and–fantastic nightmares, they say? Yes, it has those. Okay. Southern Gothic turned up to eleven.) And yet this is so beautifully done. I kept running around telling people, “I have never seen a better use of Tractor Supply in a fantasy novel.”

Opal has been raising her brother Jasper the best she knows how, out of a shabby motel room in a town that has seen better days but honestly not that much better. She manages to get a job cleaning the enigmatic Starling House, which is beyond filthy and beyond mysterious. Its sole inhabitant, Arthur Starling, is a little bit Byronic hero, a little bit college junior living in way more squalor than he wants to admit to. The rumors about him are intense, the rumors about the house even more so. And rightly so, because this house wants Opal. What Opal wants is tuition to get Jasper to school somewhere far away and better than this. This is the town that killed their mother, and she doesn’t want it to eat her brother too.

She’s not paying a lot of attention to whether it gets her.

Luckily, Jasper and Arthur are. And they’re not the only ones. Over the course of the book, the secrets of Starling House reveal themselves a little at a time, and so does the siblings’ place in the community, which is not quite what Opal had always assumed–except for the places where she’s absolutely, belligerently right. This is acutely observed about small town relationships, families, and the ways we sometimes take care of each other better than we take care of ourselves. Its squalor is purposeful, its decay sure-handed. If ever you want a creepy magic house story from the near South, oh, this is the one. If you think you don’t…you still might.

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Books read, late June

Jess Armstrong, The Curse of Penryth Hall. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. Reread, Kindle. I say reread because I know I read this as a teenager sometime before I started the booklog, but I don’t know precisely when, and my memory of it was rather more general than specific. I like that it was a novel of close calls, and I particularly like Susan at the ending, I like that one of the close calls was that of becoming the sort of person her aunts were, who just forgot what her poor relations were like. Susan was the part that made me happiest.

Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, eds., The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. A friend slipped this into my hand as a random gift, a used copy of a mid-century compendium. The translations held up remarkably well, and it contained a surprising number of contemporary-to-its-publication poems, a surprising number of poems that were not on “nice” topics. The editors seemed a bit bemused by them in the introduction, but they pressed on all the same, bless them. Useful to have about the house.

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapters 15-17. Kindle. Some things being wrapped up and others started, catching up on the installments of this serial as I was doing a lot of Kindle reading.

Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War. Analyzes a particular uprising in Jamaica through the lens of the pre-enslavement military experience of the enslaved persons in their lives in West Africa, particularly in the Bight of Benin area, really interesting about how those experiences likely informed the way they resisted enslavement intelligently and strategically.

Deva Fagan, The Mirrorwood. A fast, fun children’s fantasy whose heroine considers herself under a curse (and so do the people around her). Her allies and enemies are not always who they seem, and neither are the monsters, necessarily–but there sure are curses and monsters to travel around figuring out.

E.M. Forster, A Room With a View. Kindle. What I really like about this–and what really contrasted to reading Edith Wharton the next day–was that Forster’s characters could see that their social strictures weren’t working for them, and they did something about it. They were willing to make a total mess of things–to run off to Greece, to make mistakes, to make themselves miserable, to play the piano badly in a mood–in hopes of something better, or even not in hopes of something better, but to dodge something intolerable. I don’t know if I was supposed to think that the clergyman and another gentleman were gay from the remarks about people who were better off without a connexion? (perhaps, because I am a sophisticated married woman artist rather than an innocent young girl who knows not of life?), but I’m just going to go with that all the same, nice gay clergyman who only likes young girls if they’re interesting musicians, sure yes, swimming naked in a suburban pond with random young Socialists you’ve just met, honestly how did people ever think this era of literature was stuffy…well, read on, it’s because Edith Wharton convinced them. I’m going to sit over here by Ed.

Cyril Hare, With a Bare Bodkin. Kindle. Wartime workplace mystery, somewhat fluttery, not particularly outstanding to my mind.

Gulchehra Hoja, A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope, and Survival. This was a very strange thing to read, because it was clearly propaganda, and its position was not particularly nuanced, and also…also I didn’t really feel like its position needed to be more nuanced, and I agreed with its propaganda claims, which are that genocide is bad and attempting to wipe out the Uyghur people and their culture is bad. For all that we incline toward nuance, professionally, I feel like when someone points out genocide, “let’s hear whether this might be fine actually” is not actually where we need to go. Hoja manages to also talk about some of the Uyghur cultural traditions she particularly values, which is nice in context. I hope this gets attention among people who don’t know much about the Uyghur people. It’s not very long and quite personal and readable.

S.L. Huang, The Water Outlaws. Discussed elsewhere.

T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge. Discussed elsewhere.

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Flight and Anchor. Max’s blurb on this book compares it to the Boxcar Children, I think amusingly but fairly. Two military-industrial-complex-modified children break out of their complex and try to make a life for themselves, in a novella prequel to Firebreak. Cat-and-mouse with their captor ensues.

Ken MacLeod, Beyond the Hallowed Sky. Space opera about the discovery (time loop discovery?) of FTL, Venus cloud habitats, androids and spies and differently-fragmented/differently-unified Earth politics, and…yeah, this is just the kind of immersive weird crunch I want from MacLeod. We believe in the same kind of nerd conversations, is I think one of the things that makes it work particularly for me–this is how nerds talk politics, I’ve heard them.

Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms Under the Carolingians, 751-987. A lot of ground I’ve covered before, not a bad introduction if you haven’t, different conceptual areas highlighted under different eras.

Dorothy Sayer, trans., The Song of Roland. I think one of the things that’s astonishing to me about this is how fast Charlemagne passes into the realm of weird legend. Suddenly he’s a 200-year-old man! He was around just 200 years ago! How is this supposed to work! Doesn’t matter, on with the tale.

Margery Sharp, Britannia Mews. Kindle. The plot elements that were the risk of a generation before–marrying your drawing master, oh no!–are the reality of this book, and how they unfold is hilarious in spots, poignant in spots, horrifying, an entire beautifully done range of human emotion. And it’s a book with temporal range as well, Victoriana all through the Second World War. A lot of the Sharp books I’ve read before are smaller, more lapidary, in both what emotion they mean to cover and what time frame they mean to do it in. This is a different beast entirely. Once I realized what I was in for, I liked it quite a lot.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, And Put Away Childish Things. This is an absolutely beautifully done example of how making something darker of things you loved in your childhood doesn’t necessarily mean making something nihilistic or horrid. There’s portal fantasy in this, and reference to children’s books, and it goes some pretty scabrous places–and also the pandemic is a real thing with effects on people’s lives, gasp, go figure–but it is neither hopeless nor mean-spirited, well done that man. Quite a lot of ground to cover in a novella, and he does it neatly.

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. Kindle. I was in JFK this week, okay? I was in JFK this week, and when I am in an airport going through the throes of horror that a) contemporary airports often go through and b) that particular airport sure was going through a lot this week, what I want is to not have to think about whether my book is going to get me through this trying time, I just want there to quite a lot of be long sentences that are slightly anxious about things (money! and social change!) that I am not personally going through in that very moment, but that will mostly come out okay, except where they don’t. I love reading Trollope in airports, I can’t see why they don’t have big stacks of his books next to the bottled water and the Mets shirts. If you want a Trollope novel, this sure is one. All sorts of people face financial ruin! Some of them are pure of heart! Sometimes in opposite directions! Some people are very sure of their own rightness and are wrong! Lots of people are incredibly stubborn, a bunch of them are clergy, it’s like one of my family reunions up in this thing. One of the interesting points is that Trollope has more sympathy for one of the characters, Mrs. Proudie, than he expects his readership to have, and he admonishes the readership about it. But I have more sympathy for her as well, even though she behaves spectacularly badly in places and only doesn’t ruin some people’s lives by a combination of chance and a lot of work on other people’s parts. But I see how her life options were limited by her society and so does my boy Tony. So that’s why we’re here, right? That’s why we hang with him still. Because he could see that even then. (Even if the bits where he’s scolding his other readers about it didn’t strike me as particularly likely to work at the time.) I also found this one really interesting because he had nothing like a framework for mental health and neurodiversity but he clearly understood that some people’s brains worked very differently than the standard and that you couldn’t expect it to not go like that, it didn’t make them bad parents or bad people or bad at their job, he didn’t have the words for it but he knew that they did not do it the same as the guy next to them and that was going to have to get worked out somehow. (“But WHY is he like that?” people keep asking in this book, and the answer they have at the time is, “Dunno, but he sure is, that’s how he does, and there’s no other way he can do.” Could do a lot worse, honestly.)

Martha Wells, City of Bones. Discussed elsewhere.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. Reread, Kindle. This is another reread from my teens when I remembered almost nothing about it, and gosh I hope I remember to never read it again. I feel like Wharton feels like she’s more removed from these people than she looks from this distance. She’s the one who chose to center miserable, conventional rich people; she’s the one who put the interesting women on the outskirts of a book that could have been about them. Shouting out Middlemarch was a dangerous power move here, because it pointed out how many of the same things Wharton was doing and how much worse she was doing them. And then there was the fatphobia. “Look at how convention binds us, look at how ignorance and innocence are conflated, bound, forced together”: fine yes, I’ve looked, let’s do something else now.

P. G. Wodehouse, Jill the Reckless. Kindle. This is my new favorite Wodehouse. It’s got musical theater! It’s got a parrot! It’s got all sorts of lovely shenanigans. It doesn’t have as much of the sympathetic servants as one would like, but it’s got some. And it’s got Jill herself and she’s lovely. I feel sorry for the poor man next to me on the plane, because I kept laughing and he was trying to sleep. On the other hand it was the middle of the afternoon so there was no particular reason to think the person next to you on the plane wouldn’t be laughing at her book.