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Books read, late October

Blue Balliett, The Calder Game. The third in a series of kids’ books that are nominally mysteries. The plots basically don’t work–there is handwavium and then something falls into their laps–but that’s not the point of these books. The point of these books is to talk about things Blue Balliett thinks are cool in a way kids can understand. They’re factually rather than morally didactic–hey, kids, let’s talk about mobiles! let’s talk about modern art!–and honestly they work just fine that way.

Colin Cotterill, I Shot the Buddha. The most recent Dr. Siri book–we’re into double digits, and he’s showing no signs of stopping. We have hit the part of the series where the books get written whether Cotterill has really cool inspiration for one or not. In this case it looks like not. So this is in the category of “if you like this series, here’s another one!”, but for heaven’s sake go back and start with The Coroner’s Lunch if you don’t know whether you like the series.

R. F. Delderfield, To Serve Them All My Days. A gigantic mess of a book. It was pitched to me as “man home from the trenches of the Great War heals from shellshock as a classroom teacher in rural Devon,” and that’s true for as far as it goes, and then there are something like 500 pages more of various things. The protagonist comes right out and cheerfully states that the ups and downs of his life have paralleled those of Britain in the interwar period, and that’s true…and less interesting because it’s both fictional and stated aloud in words. Also the last third or so of the book is weirdly sketched in, in terms of character motivations, and covering 20+ years of being a teacher means he’s constantly feeling the need to remind you which boy is which when they show up again later. Which is better than asking you to remember ten gajillion British surnames, but…yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sorry I read this. It was very episodic, and the episodes were entertaining. But 600 pages was a lot of this type of episodes, and the overall arc plot got less and less satisfying as it strayed from the initial premise.

Rita Dove, Collected Poems, 1974-2004. One of the things I’ve been loving about reading large collections of poems by one poet is seeing their breadth and range. Rita Dove has quite a lot of it. Lyrical poems, prose poems, persona poems and personal poems, history poems ranging through time and space, linked series of poems…she does it all, or at least quite a lot of it. I really liked “November for Beginners”–good timing there–and “Arrow” went straight through me in a way I don’t think it would have before I hit my mid-thirties. Which is not to say there wouldn’t have been plenty to read here earlier, just–different pieces would have jumped out, I think.

Maija Gimbutas, The Balts. This is an old book about the prehistory of the southern Baltic and the people who spoke Baltic languages there–Latvians, Lithuanians, East Prussians. Lots of stuff about potsherds and axeheads, which I find interesting, and it’s a region of the world that’s hard to read about in English. It wasn’t one of those nonfiction books that transcends individual interests, but if you’re interested in this place-time, it does what it can. And the last section about the pre-Christian religion of the region is worth the price of admission. Or at least worth the price I paid for admission; hard to say what a used book might cost elsewhere.

Linda Hirshman, Sisters in Law: how Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World. Basically a joint biography of these two Supreme Court justices, and Hirshman really gets the bit between her teeth when she gets a chance to talk about their working relationship. I love working relationships, and it seemed clear to me that Hirshman found them more interesting because they worked together than she would have if they were personal besties. Also, if you’re feeling like we’ve had no progress in the last fifty years, read this book. Some of the court cases will curl your hair. Some of the ones you were alive for will make you say, “They didn’t get that settled until [year]???” and pace and rant.

James Laxer, Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812. This is also something of a joint biography, but more an exploration of the role of the War of 1812 in building Canadian national identity. Which is a weird thing to do, but okay. Also taking the Native American/First Nations front in that war seriously is a good thing to do and far too rare.

Ken Liu, ed., Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation. Discussed elsewhere.

Garth Nix, To Hold the Bridge. Most of the short stories in this were not to my taste. The title story was set in his most famous world, the world of Sabriel et al, and as a story its structure was very weirdly balanced. I keep saying, ruefully, that nerds love training sequences. This story was almost all training sequence. One of the common failures of novellas is to have the setup of a novel and the payoff of a short story. This did that. But the individual sentence-level and page-level reading experience was fun.

Katherine Rundell, The Wolf Wilder. A brutal and beautiful children’s book about Russia under the last days of the tsar, a girl who helps aristocrats’ pet wolves learn to be their wild selves again, a boy whose dreams don’t fit the military mold he is pushed toward, and more. I’m going to be very careful which children I give this book to, because there are sad and angry parts that will not be right for every kid who is skilled enough to read the words. And yet it’s so good.

David Salsburg, The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century. And speaking of having the idea of progress reinforced–reading history of statistics basically gives a clear picture of how little we knew in the 19th century and how we had no idea how well we knew it. This is a pop math book, so Salsburg is careful how he handles technical subjects for the amateur. A bit more careful than an amateur with a physics degree probably needs, but–dive in, the water’s fine.

Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen, et al, Lumberjanes: Out of Time. I love the Lumberjanes and their relationships. I am not very coherent about these comics because they hit both my “I loved Girl Scouting and 4H” buttons and my “fantasy writer and modern weirdo” buttons, all at once. Start at the beginning, not here.

Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. I really enjoyed this author’s book about Belarus. This history of Ukraine was not nearly as vivid. More dry, more downbeat. Still interesting, still glad I read it, but there just seemed to be less spice–it’s more in the “recommended if this is an interest of yours” category than the “recommended for all” category.

Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, eds., Press Start to Play. I feel like there are a lot of really cliched things to be done with a speculative anthology with a video game theme. For people who like these particular tropes, they’d probably be described as “tried and true,” but I ended up feeling like a lot of the stories were rote and familiar. One exception was Holly Black’s “1Up,” which handled video game playing relationships as well as other tropes, did it well, and wrapped the story up while I was still enjoying it rather than dragging on.

Yoss, A Planet for Rent. Add another entry to the list “works in translation I wanted to like.” Yoss is Cuban, and this hits the humans in the galaxy as a metaphor for Cubans in the world note early and often. I totally get why people under regimes with a lot of censorship often use that kind of correspondence to say what they can’t say out loud, but it meant that the book got fairly tedious fairly quickly. And also…also I am kind of a tough sell on sex workers as metaphors. I feel like sex workers are handled badly enough often enough in fiction that if you don’t have a really really good reason why you need to use them as a metaphor…probably don’t. Let’s go with don’t. Even if you think you have a good reason, actually. Probably just no. Sigh.

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