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Books read, late December.

Barth Anderson, The Book of Seven Hands. Kindle. Honestly I would not have read this if I didn’t know Barth, because we got to talking somewhere on social media about this era of Spain, and he said he had a novella out set then and there, and I said hurrah and plunked it down on my list. If had heard about it from a different angle, it would almost certainly have been as a side project from the Mongoliad, which larger project I find completely off-putting, so I would have missed this. But honestly it did not seem that you needed to keep up with the Mongoliad stuff in any way to get what was going on in this Renaissance Spanish thriller. So I’m glad we had that conversation, because otherwise I would have missed this, and I don’t get enough Renaissance Spanish thrillers to miss any.

Madeline Ashby, vN. The first of my Christmas books to make me go put the author’s next work on my list. It was in some ways a classic piece of robot SF, engaging with previous works in that sub-genre, while retaining a distinctly modern sensibility/jumping-off point. Do want.

Jo Baker, Longbourn. This is the belowstairs version of Pride and Prejudice. Unlike many “other side of famous book” books, this one had what I felt was a plot and characters that would stand alone without the “literary classic” connection–although to the best of my knowledge Baker did not anywhere contradict P&P. I found the prose quite readable and the servants’ stories interesting and endowed with a sense of proportion/perspective. I definitely recommend this, and not just for Jane Austen fans. (Although if “servant novel early 19th century England” makes you go “ew,” probably not for you.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Lost Continent. Kindle. I had grabbed this while working on Atlantis fiction, and…this is not that. This is “Europe has fallen into barbarism” future SF. Fine, readable, not amazing. No more sexist than most other things its age, and one of the notable points was that while Europe had sunk into barbarism, Africa and China were perfectly well civilized for our American heroes to deal with. For 1916 that’s not too shabby.

Rae Carson, The King’s Guard. Kindle. Hector! And backstory for Rae’s trilogy, but backstory that’s interesting and plotty enough by itself to be worthwhile. I would say that you could start with this one and not have the series spoiled for you, maybe get a taste of what the worldbuilding is like and how readable the prose is. On the other hand, if you’ve already enjoyed the trilogy and are impatient waiting for Rae’s new whatever-it-will-be, here you are, methadone.

Greer Gilman, Cry Murder! in a Small Voice. Kindle. Entirely diverting murder mystery both set among and steeped in Elizabethan dramatists. Probably a little opaque if you don’t have some kind of grounding in that group, but for those who do it typified a favorite concept of mine: that fun and smart are not at all opposites in fiction.

Jessica Day George, Wednesdays in the Tower. Whimsical and gryphon-endowed sequel to Tuesdays at the Castle. Not quite as suspenseful but still fun, with the magically shapeshifting castle.

Nicola Griffith, Hild. I wanted to love this book! I did love this book! Hooray! It’s the beginning of the story of St. Hilda of Whitby, a 7th century saint. There is a glossary in the back, I realized only after I’d used Viking-era Scandinavian cultural/linguistic knowledge to decode several things. But it’s very sensible and full of beautiful things and the experience of reading it is lovely and MY BUTTONS THEY ARE PUSHED. But I really think it is a quite excellent book in addition to pushing my buttons. Hild’s observations, Hild’s attempts to be a seer–they are so well-observed. I will be clamoring for more until we get it.

Peter Hoeg, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. I loved the experience of reading this book. It was one of those books where I just wanted to sink into it and keep reading indefinitely. I spent the first rather large chunk with no idea where it was going, because it was as though Hilary McKay and Daniel Pinkwater got together and adopted a Danish baby. But I didn’t mind not knowing where it was going, because it was such fun getting there. The only caveat I would have is that there are no actual elephants in this book. The elephants are a metaphor. This is one of the hazards of reading literary fiction, is a book like this with no elephants. But if you are not attached to elephants, the wacky children of Danish clergy are quite the thing.

T. H. Huxley, The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science. Kindle. Part of my “get this voice down for later use” reading project in odd moments. I think the thing that’s most illuminating about this essay (yeah, I know, sorry) is what exactly he felt had to be defended, at that point in history and culture.

Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll. Reread. I do love Thingumy and Bob. I often forget how I love Thingumy and Bob, because I love so many Moominy things. But they remind me of my grandfather.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice. So. It turns out I am no more capable of treating the feminine as a generic unmarked state than I am the masculine–gendered pronouns are gendered, news at 11. However, the thing I really liked was that Leckie got how people screw up languages they don’t speak natively exactly right. Most SF attempts at that have been just wretched, completely inverting the logical structure of what people do and do not remember. (Short version: you remember hello and thank you and one two three. You do not necessarily remember every piece of technical vocabulary outside your own technical field. And you do not necessarily remember when cases or genders are marked in the new language and not in your native one. English speakers are far more likely to call the cake by the wrong gender in French than to forget how to say please for it.) I also liked the structure of the ancillaries, the way the concept was developed. Would definitely read more.

Franny Moyle, Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. I was searching for something else with “scandal” in the title, and the library’s oh-so-helpful search engine gave me this. I still hate the way the search engine parses things, but this was an interesting read: Constance was a writer and an interesting person in her own right. There were several places where I thought the biographer let partisanship run ahead of facts, but this seems to be a common problem with biographies, and I doubt you’ll find a better biography of Constance Wilde somewhere else.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. My coping mechanisms, I show you them. (No, I don’t have cancer. Some people I care about have cancer. Answer #1: make them cookies. Answer #2: LIBRARY.) Of course a history of an entire human disease of this type would have to leave things out or be unreadably long, but this has lots of interesting tidbits in it. If you are the sort of person who finds interesting tidbits comforting in the face of a big awful disease (even a very small and quite treatable version of that big awful disease), then this might be worth a run to your library too.

Gary Paul Nabhan, Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. Aughhhh, flawed flawed so very flawed. Like most people writing pop-evolution books, Nabhan way overgeneralizes. He leaps to conclusions about things that could easily be tested. He has very weird blind spots and assumptions–for example, he manages to write about consumption of chiles/capsaicin-bearing foods without ever considering any form of masochism. I wouldn’t think anyone would suggest that he would need to get into the intricacies of sexual subcultures to notice that people react differently to “ow, that hurts” in a culinary context. The experience he describes of having a former girlfriend react with overwhelming pain to a meal he did not even find notably spicy is a relevant one–but so is the person who is sweating, turning red, and showing every sign of pain–and reaching for another bowl of the chili. He also fetishizes “our ancestors”: our ancestors’ ways of eating were shaped not only by what was best for their bodies but by what was available, what was fashionable, what was traditional, what was just darn tasty–just like ours are. (And they varied, and finding the Hesiodic Golden Age of Food for even one ethnic group is not possible, much less for the varieties of ethnic group that comprise most people’s ethnic heritage these days.) Nabhan had a good point about individual and group predispositions for how to process different foods or even macronutrient balances varying extremely, and that it’s useful to look into that, but he then wandered off into the weeds. Too bad.

Evelyn Sharp, The Other Side of the Sun: Fairy Stories. Kindle. Sharp was a late Victorian/Edwardian suffragist and pacifist who also wrote for children. The stories are of a particular Victorian mode, with character names like Princess Daffodillia, but once you’re all right with that, they are somewhat above average for the genre. I wonder if they’re not better known because she didn’t do a clear novel to latch onto or because of her other work or for other reasons entirely. Anyway, they’re free on Gutenberg if you’re interested in Princess Daffodillia’s cohorts.

Dodie Smith, It Ends With Revelations. It didn’t really; most of the revelations came in the middle. There were several striking things about this book, which was both written and set in 1967. The attitudes towards sexuality were remarkably broad-minded and kind. Kindness was actually a striking feature–almost all the characters who actually appeared (rather than lurking offstage) were people of goodwill, most of whom cared about each other. And there was still a plot and conflict and like that. I don’t think I’d like this sort of thing to comprise most of my reading material, but it was really lovely for a change.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Air War. This is another chunk of story in this universe. There were some new characters as well as continuation of old, there was lots of return to Collegium, there was stuff. I continue to enjoy, but for the love of Pete do not start here.

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. This is a narrower work than I thought, covering only the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Apparently at that point Thompson felt that the working class had been made. Anyway, it got shelved between a book on gin and a book on cant, and did remarkably little with either, so: a piece of the whole, an interesting piece of the whole. I think one of the things that infuriated me was the rich using the Napoleonic Wars to convince the less-rich to sell off village commons For Fortification Against Boney. Arrrrgh.

Jules Verne, The Blockade Runners. Kindle. Straightforward American Civil War adventure romance. Not particularly worth seeking out.

Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire. This is a sequel to Code Name Verity, but it stood alone (albeit with spoilers for the events of the first book). There’s an entirely new main character, and…okay, look, it’s about a German concentration camp. It’s wrenching and vivid and horrible and so very good. Recommended, but brace yourself first.

P. G. Wodehouse, Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories and The Pothunters. Kindle. The former is a highly mixed bag of different kinds of stories and the latter a school story. Either will do if you are in the doctor’s office waiting room or the line at the post office; neither is particularly noteworthy.

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