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Books read, early August

A ton of books, many of them not book-length but on my Kindle so I keep track all the same…so you can tell that I was traveling in this fortnight, and indeed I was.

Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters. The friend who recommended this collection said it was dark, and it is. It may be the darkest thing I’ve finished. I have no idea why Maureen McHugh’s blurb describes it as Lovecraftian, because there’s very little unfathomable horror here: most of the horror is entirely fathomable. It is substantially characterization horror–while there are elements of supernatural, the tone is consistent throughout the stories, never a moment where you’re surprised that the supernatural thing is not a sparkly friendly unicorn for these nice happy people. It’s also a very blue collar set of stories, and I am having feelings about how easy it appears to be to find a horror writer who wants to write about blue collar people as opposed to an optimistic science fiction writer. I think it’s probably easier to write about a broad spectrum of people than to change fundamentally what metaphysics your stories have, so I am not upset with Ballingrud about this, but…still. Many feelings in other directions.

Chaz Brenchley, The Crater Girls in Camp. Kindle. While I wait for enough of the serial to stack up that I can read it, this is a stand-alone from the same project. It has the “school story/camp story” nature, but set on Mars, so if you read that kind of thing as a kid, it’s quick and fun and full of spunky girls.

Marie Brennan, The Bottle Tree. Kindle. A motivating prequel story, a “how they got there” for her Chains and Memory/Lies and Prophecy universe. I think it works better for having read the books than it would on its own, but since the books are available, that’s entirely possible.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric and the Shaman. Kindle. This is another in the Chalion universe, a sequel to the earlier novella Penric’s Demon. This features ghosts and hedge shamans and trying to figure out which gods will want which souls. It doesn’t have the personal/interpersonal depth of Paladin of Souls, but it’s a fun read all the same, and that’s a pretty high bar to expect to clear. If you liked that universe and want more, here’s some.

A.S. Byatt, Possession. Reread. This was one of the first things I read of Byatt’s. Looking back having read pretty nearly everything of hers, I find the passionate fight for one’s own proper work to thread through it, and it’s definitely here, both in the flashbacks and in the contemporary chapters. I’m also fascinated with how this book was written, in what order, because of all the pieces of Victorian-esque poetry and prose she had to do for it. I’m a non-linear writer myself, and I’m looking at the construction of it, trying to turn up the hems to see how they’re sewn.

Blake Charlton, Spellbreaker. Discussed elsewhere.

Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, eds., Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. This was a series of essays that was purportedly about ecology and SF. And…I think how you feel about this book is going to depend on how you feel SF, as a genre, is doing at dealing with the environment, climate change, ecologies, etc. Do you feel that it’s doing a bang-up job and nothing more could really be asked? If so, the self-congratulation of this collection (“yay! someone is dealing with any kind of ecology at all ever!”) will probably not grate on you. And the stretches the critics in it require to make connections with ecology will not, and the moments where they let gigantic social movements outside the field go completely unmentioned when relevant. Yeah. All that will be fine, if you think that environmental SF is in a state that’s just peachy keen and doing all that could ever be asked of it. So.

Jan Golinski, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science. This is not a traditional biography so much as a character study. It goes through different personae Davy may have been considered to have adopted or had thrust upon him, in the context of what his era made available–“scientist,” for example, was not something young Humphry knew about to aspire to or shun. Remarkably, it goes into quite a lot of gender identity and sexuality for its era, and does so without imposing on Davy any modern identities that his writings don’t support him taking on personally. So go team on interesting and useful context that doesn’t push farther than the documentation.

Bill B. Hayes, Five Quarts: A Natural and Personal History of Blood. I found this book unexpectedly touching. There were interesting facts about the way that blood has been studied and known and considered–I expected that. I didn’t entirely expect how much there would be personal stories from Hayes about his family and his partner, and they were sweet without being treacly. It’s a quick read, and, well, heart-warming.

Kat Howard, Roses and Rot. A modern Tam Lin story with sisters, both artists, daughters of an abusive mother. One is a dancer and the other, the protag, is a writer. The main weak spot for me was that Kat Howard is a better writer than her protagonist, so whenever we saw flashes of Imogen’s work, I didn’t really buy that it was supposed to be wonderful. The other art, described but not shown, was far more interesting, as were the discussions of people’s varying attitudes toward their art, its inspiration, and its influences.

Ayize Jama-Everett, The Liminal People. An American superhero in Africa and London, in a not-at-all-typical situation but possibly a much more realistic one…until the last third, where the structure becomes a lot more formulaic/predictable. I was interested in this very very non-Justice League superhero and not so disappointed with the ending that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it gets dark, considering that the main character works for a warlord. Heads up. Still worth the time if you’re in the mood for it.

Eeva Kilpi, A Landscape Blossoms Within Me. Kindle. A wry, witty, earthy Finnish poet. This volume gave the poems in Finnish and English, first the one and then the other. Some of the shortest poems were the best. I could have read dozens more if there had been more here. Runs a large emotional range.

Robin Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Does what it says on the tin. Kimmerer, while a trained scientist who is talking a lot about moss science, is not shy about acknowledging that she has emotional and personal reactions to moss as well, which is refreshing considering that most scientists do. Lots of variety, lots of interest here, ends if anything too soon.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Ghost Talkers. Discussed elsewhere.

Leena Krohn, Tainaron: Mail from Another City. Kindle. This is a series of letters describing life in a city of bugs. It’s weird and fanciful and probably would get tedious if it was longer, but it isn’t longer, so it’s just the right length of stay in Tainaron.

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, eds., Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet Issue 34. Kindle. I liked the poetry in this. I liked the first Hazel Crowley poem, the one about the patron saint of sunken ships. I liked Molly Gloss’s “Superman, Sleepless,” and I liked Holly Day’s “People in Boxes.” I don’t know if the proportion of poetry is typical of LCRW. But it was time well spent.

Sonia Shah, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. Read this book and get mad at Aaron Burr all over again, for screwing over the New York water system for half a century and several cholera epidemics. There’s also a bunch of other stuff, most of which I already knew and you might too or maybe not. I don’t know, it’s really hard for me to gauge what the general cholera knowledge is. For a cholera book it’s only middle of the pack. But the stuff about Aaron Burr will make you steam.

Vandana Singh, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet. Beautiful science fiction stories rooted both in place and in genre. This is in some ways the opposite of what I was talking about Gerald Vizenor doing in Treaty Shirts earlier: this is the concerns of traditional science fiction, all the genre furniture, but in a context and culture that traditional science fiction ignored. I want both things. I want more of both things. I want this, though, definitely this.

Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Carolyn Nowak, and Maarta Laiho (et al), Lumberjanes: A Terrible Plan. This rambled, and I did not care. I love the Lumberjanes and their failure to earn cake decorating badges and their run-ins with the bear woman and everything. I hope it doesn’t keep rambling indefinitely. But a little ramble? Yes please gimme. Usually I don’t need an identification character. Everyone in this series is my identification character. Everyone. Even the bear woman.

Anthony Trollope, Miss Mackenzie. Kindle. I started reading this in Sweden, back in May, and it’s taken me this long to finish it partly because I don’t preferentially read on my Kindle (at all) and partly because Trollope makes me exceptionally nervous. Oh so nervous. And this book is no exception. He keeps talking about money right out loud. This is terrifying. What if the title character ends up poor and/or with a mother-in-law she hates? This happens to my friends all the time, and it’s scary stuff. My friends are pretty low-risk on the bitten by werewolves front, but poor and fighting with their mothers-in-law? Terrifying. So I basically read Trollope through the cracks in my fingers. I think the ending of this book–and in fact the structure of several key events–was far more surprising to me than it ought to have been because I share so few values with Trollope. But I liked the central character a lot.

Genevieve Valentine, Icon. This is a sequel that very much needs the book before it: you want Persona first. But if you’ve read Persona, this is just as fast-paced, just as hard-driving. Maybe more so. It takes on the aftermath of the events of that book and brings them to a logical conclusion that is not in any way formulaic. Politics, media, interpersonal questions…it’s all here, all systems go.

Gerald Vizenor, Griever: An American Monkey King in China. This is semi-autobiographical: Vizenor really is a Native American professor who went to live in China very early in the time when Americans were able to do so. That he then recast himself in a Chinese epic role…well. It’s a very, very different book from Treaty Shirts. Sometimes the intersection of American imperialism and Chinese imperialism, American exceptionalism and Chinese exceptionalism, is staggering. Vizenor’s Griever is (and sees himself as even more of) an outsider to American culture, and yet even more of an outsider to Chinese culture. Weird, weird book. Having read two of his, I have no idea what to expect of a third. Trickster myths? maybe, sure. Maybe not. Who knows.

Jo Walton, The King’s Peace. Reread. Years and years later, now that I am friends with Jo and she has written and published all sorts of things (none of which was true the first time I read this)…this still feels like a very natural book. It has a flow, a comfort level with the material. It’s been years since I voluntarily reached for an Arthurian retelling, and I think having Arthur at the remove of Urdo instead, having everyone with different names, is important to my enjoyment here, because Jo can do slightly different things–I can think, “Oh, right, that’s who Fishface is,” but I can feel that she will have her own shape of story around him, her own outcomes, where using the familiar names would close off those possibilities. Some possibilities, of course, are outside the light cone completely.

Kai Ashante Wilson, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This is like a Silver Age military science fantasy, if one of those had been built without the prejudices they’re generally steeped in. If you really love that sort of story and hate being slapped in the face with racism, sexism, homophobia, here’s Wilson doing it without internalizing those things–his characters are not perfect but are called on their flaws, concisely and to the point.

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