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Books read, late November

Desirina Boskovich, Never Now Always. Sometimes knowing people gets you reading things that are outside your wheelhouse. Desirina’s novella is far more horror-skewed than I usually pick up, but the writing is beautiful as I expect from her. The children in it are trying to recover their memories, trying to figure out who they are and why they are there, what it is they’re struggling toward. The cover makes the horror look visceral, and there will be a certain amount of needle-and-blood, but the main horror element is strongly existential. Skillfully done, very much recommended to those who are fond of that…and even those who aren’t and want to push their limits a little.

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. A strange and interesting book, not entirely satisfying. Gonzales would desperately like for there to be a “true survivor” personality type and/or skillset, people who had the knowledge and grit and so on to survive fire and flood and blizzard and, well, anything. And he interviewed people who had done so, and he correlated traits. Problem: the universe was not written by Laurence Gonzales. So while there were tendencies that helped with survival, and while of course some skills are useful in some conditions, he had to keep admitting that “true survivors” sometimes died, that people who did everything wrong sometimes lived. Still, there were fascinating tales of people just making dreadful decisions, and of people managing to keep their heads when all others etc., and if you write about humans in extremis, this may well be of interest.

Tessa Gratton and Paul Witcover, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 5 and 6. Discussed elsewhere.

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing. This felt very rushed, from the title on. It’s a charming title, but it doesn’t fit all that well with the book, which…is not actually Victorian, it’s neo-Victorian alternate history near future SF. It’s the sort of title that sounds like a working title that everyone can easily fall in love with but…as fitting the actual book? Eh. There is a truly essential character for the first third of the book who completely disappears for the rest. There’s all sorts of interesting worldbuilding that is literally in the author’s note at the end, which…frankly does not count, sorry. And having talked to the author a couple of times I’m pretty sure what the shape of the ending was aiming at for a love triangle resolution, and…I think it could have gotten there with another draft or two? I was really glad that the main characters were not forced into being nasty within their private relationships, but their relationship with the public…I felt could have used some development. This was a book that was there when I needed something fun and fluffy, but the farther I got from it, the more I said, “Wait a minute.” And I wish it had waited a minute, because it’s not a book that I felt was terminally broken.

Naomi Kritzer, Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories. I had read many or most of these. I was happy to read them again. Having them collected in one place is charming and useful, and they have emotional range as well as genre range. A really great collection, highly recommended.

Fonda Lee, Zeroboxer. Mixed martial arts in space, with genetic engineering, the YA version. If that pitch makes your ears perk up, this is definitely for you. I’m not the target audience, and I still enjoyed this book. I would have liked a little more denouement, but even without it, this was entertaining and fun, and I’ll be interested in the rest of Lee’s work, which looks widely variable in topic.

Kari Maaren, Weave a Circle Round. Discussed elsewhere.

Robin McKinley, The Door in the Hedge. Reread. There is a lot of metaphor repetition here, and the characterization is often extremely shallow, and yet…and yet these stories manage not to make me furious, they manage to be interesting and gentle and fairy tale-ish and themselves. I should probably wait longer before another reread, but there was another short story collection that was a slap in the face on page one, so…this was a good antidote.

Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. I picked this up because I wanted to understand more of the roots of the Catalan independence movement, and I didn’t feel I could do that without more about the Spanish Civil War. Preston gives a master class in how to destroy both-sides-ism here, saying, sure, yes, there was violence on both sides, let’s look at how much violence, let’s look at what kinds of violence. This book was shattering to read, and he did an amazing job with intersectionality for a book that was not “about” any particular subgroup of the Spanish population. He started in the introduction talking about the anti-Semitism of the Spanish Right and went straight on from there; the complex relationship with Catholic faith, both using it and attacking it; sexual violence against women (including nuns as a specifically addressed sub-category). Harrowing. Awful. I had to take lots of breaks. Extremely, extremely well-done.

Robert Sheckley, Untouched by Human Hands. Reread. I wanted this to hold up well, and…it really didn’t. The women were nearly nonexistent, the men barely better, the satires…I think I was most disappointed in the satires, actually, because of gaping mental holes like: the satire of consumer debt had consumerism and militarism as opposing forces. What? In Sheckley’s lifetime, what? How did that even, you lived through the rise of the phrase “military-industrial complex” for a reason, dude. The prose was better than a lot of the people who are touted over Sheckley from this era, but as idea fiction goes, the ideas were…not where I hoped I had left them, alas.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Fascinating as a study of social and economic life in Maine in that era, with all its intricate concerns. Courtship customs are handled here, debt, cloth manufacture, rape trials, all sorts of things. One of my old teachers used to say, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you, it’s what you know that ain’t so,” and there’s a lot of debunking of that sort of thing here–for example, the assumption that the day that you get married and the day that you move in together are necessarily the same day. Apparently not in this culture, usually they were separated by about a month. Fantasy writers take note, this is great stuff.

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