Books read, early August

Brian R. Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography. This is, thankfully, exactly what it claims to be. Dott goes through 16th and 17th century rural gazetteers to trace when and where surplus peppers are offered for sale and what they’re called; he looks into when folk heroes are given chili-related nicknames. It’s a study of how and how quickly the pepper pervades a culture and its food and (inextricably in this case) medicine, and it’s brief and interesting.

John M. Ford, The Scholars of Night. Discussed elsewhere.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China. Gentle fabulism with different humanoid “beasts” focused on different emotions in each section. This is not, as I initially thought, a series of vignettes about them, in travelogue style, but instead an exploration of a city, a culture, some people who study “beasts” and how they feel, what they think. Poignant and interesting.

Rachael K. Jones, Every River Runs to Salt. Novelette I think? perhaps very short novella. Anyway it has the offspring of glaciers kidnapping the ocean and trying to hide under the protection of a university, and it is fun and interesting and does not do more than its length can support.

Kim Bo-Young, I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories. Three melancholy, romantic science fiction stories translated from Korean. I mean both romantic and Romantic, I think. Each story comes in multiple parts, two of them epistolary stories that are each other’s counterpart and the third something else completely, something a great deal more metaphysical. I’m interested in what else Kim does.

Ross King, The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance. This is about that point in time when some books started to be printed and others were still hand-copied, and about the people who sold books then and what they sold and to whom and how. I don’t think it’s the strongest of King’s works, but it’s full of fun digressions and generally worth the time, very much the sort of angle on history I like to have.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Strength. Kindle. Not a very direct sequel to Paladin’s Grace, but it nevertheless features the paladins of the Saint of Steel in their lives after the death of that Saint, in their collective life as an order as well. And it also features the Sisterhood of St. Ursa, whom I love, who are lovely and varied and…I want to keep them all, I want to visit them on a trading route, yes please, more of St. Ursa’s sisters. There were some moments of unusual recoil for me–when Kingfisher (Vernon) goes creepy with a villain, she goes all out–but it stayed firmly on the side of fantasy rather than horror. I enjoyed this a lot.

Erik Loomis, A History of America in Ten Strikes. This does not do what it says on the tin. It’s really more of a general history of labor and strikes in America; it goes into far more than ten strikes rather than doing a careful detailed history of ten. I felt like it would have been better served by either being longer or by sticking to its stated focus, but you could do worse, as introductory US labor histories go.

Katharine Norbury, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. I feel like the worst kind of nerd about this book, because it is a lovely memoir about finding your roots, figuring out who you are, and yet I…I thought it would be about fish. I like fish. I rallied, I enjoyed it for what it is, but do not be like me, do not go into it looking for fish, it is about a woman who was adopted looking for her sense of self, she does go upstream a little bit literally but that is hardly any of the book and there are hardly any fish at all.

Shelley Parker-Chan, She Who Became the Sun. The way this book sets reader expectations with the opening chapter is so beautifully done. This is historical fantasy; bad things happen in it, including bad things happening to children. The protag will try to fight past them, but: they will happen on the page, and Parker-Chan just does such a great job of laying out what tone and what range of consequences you can expect in this book. Which…is a mildly fantasy version of the rise of the Ming Dynasty. It was incredibly gripping, any time I was not reading it I wanted to be reading it again, and I can’t wait to see what Parker-Chan does with the sequel. But this is very much a case where the beginning is doing exactly its job, and if the tone is too dark for where you are right now, wait for when you’re in more of the mood for it, because there is not a part in the middle where the future Hongwu Emperor and the teddy bears have a picnic together.

Amy Stewart, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit and Kopp Sisters on the March. This is further catching up on this series as the US moves toward WWI. This series is based on the exploits of a real-life family of sisters, and the perils faced by the women in the books are quite real, including but not limited to forced incarceration on trumped-up mental health issues and threat to livelihood due to sexism. The ways in which women were badly treated historically are on parade through this series. There are fun things but also there are extremely upsetting things. Be aware as you go in. I do think that they stand reasonably well alone, though, as evidenced by the fact that I accidentally skipped from book 1 to book 7 with no loss of enjoyment. I only have one left at this point.

Giles Whittell, Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration. This is such a strange book. It’s about snow, just as it says, but it’s by an Englishman who seems to treat snow as something that you visit, mostly to ski on, or else something that you witness through your window before it disappears. And while he seems upset about the prospect of snow dwindling with global warming, he does very little to immerse himself in the mindset of any of the cultures for whom that would be…more overarchingly meaningful. Canada, the northern (non-skiing-focused!) US, and the Norden are all equally neglected here. He has lots of interesting scientific facts about snow and ideas about downhill skiing…and almost none about cross-country, sledding sports, snow sculpture, or any of a number of other things that someone actually culturally exploring snow might want to go into. Russia…is mostly in this book as a place that has skiing in inappropriate places, manufactured in Sochi, not a place that has snow in appropriate places. So what’s here is interesting, but what’s not here is just weird.

Isabel Yap, Never Have I Ever. Short stories, many of which draw on Filipino stories for their context and speculative elements. There are stories here that are beautiful, horrifying, tender, angry…basically Yap demonstrates that she has range, that if one story is not your sort of thing the next one very well might be. Will be glad to see more from her.

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