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Books read, late August

Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories. Joan Aiken’s body of work is vast and varied, which makes it a bit of a surprise when an entire collection is fairly one-note. But that’s what these are, in tone and style, in length and so on: they are all of one thing. Which makes sense: they were written specifically for one magazine in one era, and Aiken knew her audience. They’re interesting, they’re just much narrower than I expected.

Jose Andres and Matt Goulding, Vegetables Unleashed. Spanish-influenced treatments of vegetables, most of which were fairly familiar to me but colorful and easily laid out for cooks who have not done a lot with Spanish cooking.

David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. Probably the most disappointing book I read this fortnight. I would still like a history of how we think and talk about civil wars, but this was not really it. Armitage mentioned four strands of thought on this matter and then did not discuss two of them (Arabic and Chinese) at all; he promised to discuss how the Western European strand dominated the discourse and then did not; he made small but important mistakes of fact in areas that I knew well, making me suspicious of his claims in areas I did not. Not recommended.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sibyl in Her Grave and The Sirens Sang of Murder. Rereads. These remain delightful, and they were exactly what I wanted. The voice and the reading experience: such fun. The ending of the series is very much a downer, and I had forgotten why (it’s a characterization thing, it’s a very dark characterization), but I still found them both very much worth rereading and am glad that I now have my own copies so that I can do so again at will.

Kirstin Chen, Bury What We Cannot Take. The gut-wrenching story of a family trying to escape the Cultural Revolution, mostly from the perspective of the two fairly young children. I’m not sorry I read it but will not want to read it again any time soon. Make sure you’re in a steady place for all kinds of child danger if you try to read this one.

Megan Crewe, Wounded Magic. The second volume in a YA trilogy about magic, oppression, and rebellion. I feel like the character relationships and the writing are better than genre-average here, even as Crewe is playing with tropes a lot of other people like to play with two.

Maggie Doherty, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. This is supposedly about a Radcliffe fellowship program for outstanding women in the early ’60s, but most of it is really about Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin’s friendship. Which turns out to be a pretty interesting thing to center a book around, especially if you’re prepared for excursions into other writers, artists, etc. I was reading this in conjunction with the Aiken above, and that was interesting timing.

Lindsey Fitzharris, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. This book is gross. Good! But gross. The “grisly” in the title is there for a reason, and as someone in my family pointed out, they have given it a horror novel cover for a reason: Fitzharris wants to make darn sure you know exactly how bad things could get before proper sterile procedure in surgeries. For many of you, ghouls that you are, this is a recommendation; I certainly found it interesting. I just don’t want it to take you by surprise, because…there are no punches pulled here.

Eleanor Fitzsimmons, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit: Victorian Iconoclast, Children’s Author, and Creator of the Railway Children. I love Nesbit’s books, and I also love AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book. This is, I think, a balanced look at an interesting and complicated person. There are a few places where the timeline shuttles back and forth a little, but that happens when you’re trying to follow multiple threads; people’s lives aren’t necessarily tidy.

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn’t See: And Other Stories. This is very well-done short fiction about generally quite unpleasant people. Not mostly genocidal criminals, just rather nasty humans. Adjust tolerance/reading time accordingly.

Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife. Discussed elsewhere.

Molly Gloss, Unforeseen: Stories. These were beautiful and self-possessed and sometimes speculative and generally a glowing volume of just what I needed, quiet, right.

Justina Ireland, Deathless Divide. Sequel to Dread Nation. Tries to do a little more with Native characters than in its sequel but still focused on questions of passing and social priorities for Black Americans, within the framework of an alternate history zombie YA. A very quick read considering the weight of its subject matter.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, Trouble the Saints. And speaking of passing and social priorities for Black Americans, this is a really intense book about ’20s New York with a lot of cultural texture and interesting magic. I liked it a lot.

Shion Miura, The Great Passage. More books should be about the construction of dictionaries. This one happens to be a novel about the quirky individuals who are working on a Japanese dictionary, and it is lovely and the stakes are dictionaries, which are quite high stakes and at the same time very little bloodshed. Hurrah.

Abir Mukherjee, Death in the East. The fourth in its mystery series, and the protagonist is making personal progress, and his sidekick is making political progress. Along with the rest of India. Since that part is the part of this 1920s Calcutta setting that interests me most, I’m very happy with the direction of the series and will keep reading as soon as there’s more.

Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. This book is very much pop history. It was reasonably fun, and it did a good job of covering the world rather than just “the world haha no really we mean England and France, maybe a little Spain for fun, the US after 1800.” If you know a lot about any area of maritime history, it’s not likely to go into as much detail as you know, but if you don’t actually already have a chapter on Viking shipbuilding (or equivalent) outlined in your head for if somebody asks for it, you might like this one.

Una L. Silberrad, Desire. Not nearly as racy as the title makes it sound–the protagonist’s name is Desire, and this is a 1908 novel that was criticized at the time because the male love interest supported and respected the protagonist in her work outside the home, and clearly that was a female fantasy. I’m not kidding. Anyway, Desire is forthright, practical, and delightful, and so is Desire. Content warning: the death of a Very Nice Dog, but otherwise just what I needed, a heroine who takes her fate–and that of everyone around her–by the horns and builds a life she enjoys. There’s more Silberrad out there, and I’m excited.

Jonathan Strahan, ed., The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Discussed elsewhere.

Tade Thompson, Making Wolf. This is the most violent Ruritanian novel I’ve ever read. It’s a thriller set in contemporary “Alcacia,” which is a heck of a lot like Nigeria but, y’know, all the benefits of being fictional. You can talk about different governmental and extragovernmental entities in ways that make sense with your plot and metaphors. I really like Ruritanian novels, and I like thrillers well enough. This reads very much like the start of a series, and I’ll be glad to have the rest of the series.

Bjorn Vassnes, Kingdom of Frost: How the Cryosphere Shapes Life on Earth. This is not highly technical, so if you’re interested in cold-dwelling life at all sizes, you should be able to enjoy it no problem. That is, in fact, my jam. So.

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