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Books read, late February

Tina Connolly, Seriously Wicked. Connolly’s previous book, Silverblind, was one I felt was a serious level up for her, and so I had high hopes for Seriously Wicked. But it was aimed in a completely different direction from her previous work, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we really like something an author has done, sometimes the best thing they can do with their next book is something different. Compared to Silverblind, this is frothy, bubbly fun. I felt like the resolution was somewhat obvious, but its teen target audience very well might not–and writing things that are genuinely fun is harder than it looks and generally underappreciated.

Laura Esquivel, Malinche. The prose of this is beautiful, particularly the places where it’s talking about pre-Columbian Mexico. There are several places where Esquivel skips over some of the most emotionally difficult stuff–where her heroine decides to accompany Cortes and leave her infant son with a nanny, for example, that decision is summarized in a paragraph. She’s allowed to talk about what she wants to talk about, but a book that’s about Cortes’s translator could have been more powerful if she had been less willing to flinch. That wasn’t her interest, though, and the lyricism is gorgeous. Also it’s very quick, so if you start to get annoyed at the places where Esquivel looks away, it’ll soon be over.

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. Exhaustive detail. Exhaustive. Really. There is an entire chapter about what the roads were made of, advantages and disadvantages of the different materials. If you’re writing a book set in Victorian London or similar city, you really do want this. There are a few missteps–mostly not related to her period but to ours–but in general Flanders is someone to follow if you’re at all interested in her period, and even if you’re not.

Christine Ingebritsen, The Nordic States and European Unity. This says a lot of things about the Nordic states and their relationship with the EU and its predecessor, and it’s one of those books where if you know a reasonable amount about the differences in the economies of those countries, it will all seem a tiny bit obvious. But here it’s laid out with graphs and charts and numbers, so you can quote the things that seem obvious if you need them later, so there’s that, I guess.

Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Reread, twenty-five or so years later. This was a favorite when I was little, and revisiting it after a hiatus of my entire adulthood does not make me love it any less. If anything, I love it more now, because I see the things it’s doing clearly from a different angle. Lindgren writes with clear-eyed love about childhood friendships and time in the Swedish wilds. Death, dirt, illness, hunger, and prejudice are all here, but none of them win–none but death, because in a Swedish children’s book you’re allowed to tell children that the people they love will someday die. Which is one of the reasons I love them. The horses, the forests, the snow and the river and the rocks, Ronia and Birk together in the summer, oh how I love this book.

Jan Morris, Hav. This was the perfect book to read while planning a trip. It’s a travel guide to a Mediterranean city that doesn’t exist, and it’s chatty and wonderful. It feels real. It feels like, oh well, we chose to go to the Baltic in May, but if we hadn’t, we could have gone to the Mediterranean instead and gone to Hav. So it was like having a friend talking about her own vacation while I was planning mine. And the bits that loomed, the bits that were plotty around the edges–the bits that smelled like plot in the corners of your brain without coming right out and being plot–those were fascinating.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient. This is such an encapsulated world book. Onddatje wanted to be telling such a very particular kind of wartime story, and the places where he’s playing with other pieces of English literature keep fascinating me. Kim and A. A. Milne, I keep going back to pick at what he was doing there, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got it. I do know that if I had charge of him for the week I’d make him read a lot about Gertrude Bell until he apologized for the idea he had about the desert being a men’s world. But never mind that, there was stuff about love and choices and pieces of English literature, and I’m not sorry I took the time. Even if I get stern about Gertrude Bell sometimes.

Diriye Osman, Fairytales for Lost Children. Short stories, queer Somali surrealist immigrant experience, and if that doesn’t make you want them, then you don’t want them. Family relationships around all that. Not like anything else, like itself. I think many of you do want them, though. I think many of you were waiting for queer Somali surrealist immigrant family experience short stories in this kind of illustrated prose and didn’t know you were.

V.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows. Discussed elsewhere.

Wade Shepard, Ghost Cities of China. This felt very much like expanded magazine articles. It did not, at the end, feel like it had enough insights to be a book instead. So: China pre-plans and pre-builds its cities, intending to fill them with people, and they don’t always fill as quickly as the west would expect, since we don’t do things that way. Okay. And the environmental destruction involved in China’s building industry is staggering, but is it more so with the pre-planning than it would be if they were waiting until the people were clamoring to get in? Do we have any indication that the cities in this book will stay ghost cities? Well. Not really. Disappointing, written probably ten years before there’s book to be had, meh.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Apex Book of World SF, Volume 2. A varied volume in location, style, theme, etc. In such a volume of course there will be some that appeal far more than others. For me the two standouts were Anabel Enriquez PiƱeiro’s “Borrowed Time” and Shweta Narayan’s “Nira and I.” Shweta is a personal friend, and I had never even heard Anabel’s name before. Very divergent topics and styles also. I look forward to finding gems like these in the rest of the volumes in this series.

Charles Watkins, Trees, Woods, and Forests: A Social and Cultural History. In an email to a friend, I compared this to being the more informative, intellectually stimulating version of looking at puppy pictures on the internet. Because it was calming. It was so pleasant. And yet: informative! Not mindless in the least! I think I need more things like this, full of scientific and social facts about a topic of interest and yet not at all likely to make me fume and want to punch things. Forestry may be fertile ground here. So to speak. But this volume in particular is great, many lovely facts about trees, almost as good as trees themselves. You can even combine the two when the weather is a tiny bit nicer.

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