Books read, late August

Ben Aaronovitch, What Abigail Did That Summer. A side novella in the universe of the Rivers of London series. Not Peter Grant for a POV this time but his teenaged niece, complete with footnotes of her teenaged British slang (…eyeroll a bit here, but I suppose some readers will want that, and at least the footnotes are in a certain other character’s voice rather than attempting to be neutral voice). A fun read but I wouldn’t recommend starting here–I feel like a lot of what makes this setting fun and interesting doesn’t have quite the expository punch in this one.

Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance: A Collection of Chinese American Short Stories. These are stories from the turn of the last century, and I found them interesting more historically than literarily. They have the kind of sentimentality and social conservatism that they had to have in order to be published, because their very existence was in some ways radical. Watching that balance was intellectually interesting but not something I expect I’ll want to revisit.

Rivka Galchen, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. Cracklingly well written, just beautifully observed, very intimate voice novel about Kepler’s mother’s witch trial. Galchen does not take history as something distant from us but as peopled with, well, people; these are small town dynamics laced with humor and poignancy, although the humor can be extremely dark because she doesn’t take the idea of a witch trial lightly, she understands that this would upend a person’s life and a family’s life. I loved this.

Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall. Early ’70s folk rock band stumbles into folklore in the English countryside, discovers that folklore is not particularly nice or comprehensible. This nails milieu in the way that Hand very much does with that era. Novella length.

Hebi-Zou and Tsuta Suzuki, Heaven’s Design Team Vol. 2 and 3. More of where it started, lots of weird animal trivia and silliness, a fun diversion into biology.

Meg Hutchinson, Let’s Be the Awake Ones: A Month in Poems. It’s strange sometimes to read the poems of a singer-songwriter, because you hear so many poets talking about making the language sing, and this is the stuff that Meg…did not think she was going to sing in any form. So her poems are very talky, very much the things she wanted to say slowly and turn over in her mouth, very idea-heavy poems–sometimes in very short poems, but still, compared to the rest of the poetry I’ve read recently, oddly less lyrical, because her lyrics are going somewhere else.

R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin. Satisfyingly varied, honoring rather than imitating. I think my two favorites in this volume were Amelia Gorman’s “Redwood Houses” and Jennifer Mace’s “Ossify,” but there will be a lot to return to here.

Li Juan, Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey With China’s Kazakh Herders. I learned quite a lot about sheep herding in far western China from this book, how you pen them and what you eat and so on. There was a lot that I couldn’t entirely tell about how aware the author was of some cultural things–how much she was oblivious to her role in the herders’ lives as a representative of Chinese imperialism and how much she had to write it that way to get it published at all in the Chinese system. Some of that was extremely uncomfortable, but in a way that was worth having–I know that Li Juan is a not entirely establishment voice publishing in China. So I think sitting with that discomfort is good and interesting. And also I like learning about different winters, different herding.

Michael Livingston, Never Greater Slaughter. Where was the Battle of Brunanburh? If you don’t know what was the Battle of Brunanburh, it was in the reign of Aethelstan, lots of Vikings and early English groups of various stripes and Scots and Saxons and who knows what, milling around killing each other somewhere, and Michael Livingston and I are greatly interested in where. But this is perhaps not where to start if you aren’t already also greatly interested in where. For example if you don’t think, oh well, I’ll put that with my other Aethelstan books. If you don’t have opinions on how reliable Egil’s Saga is likely to be in this matter. Then this is not the book for you. If you do, though, well, dig in.

John McQuaid, Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat. This was a disappointment. He started out debunking some things that do want debunking, but after that he veered off into regurgitating various common tropes without researching them or contextualizing them in terms of class or region or known genetic variation among humans, or…anything else, really, this is not a very useful book and goes off into all sorts of things that have very little to do with taste science or in fact science at all, and if you want to hear unresearched claims repeated, you can get that online for free. Not recommended.

Jan Morris, In My Mind’s Eye. This is a daily thought journal of Morris’s old age, and…I can’t say I recommend it. Some of it is on the level of the not particularly deep thoughts of your eldest aunt: computers are a bother! Things are different than when I was young! Be kind to people! And you think, well, okay, Auntie Jan, you wrote Hav, go on being annoyed by your computer, that’s all right. But then there’s stuff like “I expect Donald Trump will rise to the occasion of being President” and “I don’t like fat people” and “the UK will never have a right-wing problem like other countries” and “wasn’t there a lot of harmless nice stuff about imperialism really” where I just…got less and less interested in sitting through Jan Morris’s ill-considered old-age thoughts, and I cannot recommend them to you. Go on back and reread Hav, that’s a better use of your time.

Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin, eds., It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility. Several favorites reprinted here despite the fact that I am not its central target audience, and I also particularly liked a new story, Kristen Koopman’s “Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank’s Late-Night Starlite Drive-In.” Also I think it’s good to read things for which I am not the central target audience.

H. G. Parry, A Radical Act of Free Magic. One of the reasons that I love sequels is that my expectations have been set. I knew that this would be a fantasy alternate history in which the fantasy elements did not make the world diverge as much from our world as I thought it really should; I accepted that going in and could enjoy it for what it is that way, for Napoleon’s relationship with vampires and dragons, for Wilberforce and Pitt the Younger and Fina and all of it. And there is a thorough conclusion here. This is not a never-ending series. Parry has told the tale and finished it.

Sarah Pinsker, We Are Satellites. So extremely compelling. This is what I want out of near-future science fiction, this kind of intensely personal, intertwined narrative of different relationships with a new technology and all the branching paths it takes. This family story, this social story, this in several ways neurodiverse story. Yes. Definitely this.

Margery Sharp, Four Gardens. A very gentle story of a life around the conceit of the four gardens its protagonist grew, keen-eyed without being either justifying or judgmental. I think one of the things that was particularly interesting is that its protagonist was not thoughtful, not very self-aware, and Sharp was clear about that without being snarky.

Amy Stewart, Dear Miss Kopp. This is not the most recent one in the series–there’s one more–but it was the last one I hadn’t read, the wartime exploits of the three sisters as told in letters by each of them to each of the others, plus various other figures. I’m afraid I wanted more out of this–some of my favorite fiction and poetry comes from World War One narratives, and it’s a high bar to clear–so in some ways I think it would have been better for Stewart to spend more time and emotional energy on it, and in some ways I think it’s clearly not her forte, and moving on in the Kopp sisters’ lives is a better call. I definitely wouldn’t start here.

Mariko Tamaki and Yoshi Yoshitani, I Am Not Starfire. Graphic novel about the teenage child of one of the formerly-Teen Titans. Now just a Titan, I guess? Adult Titans? I don’t know. It felt weirdly generic to me, it felt simultaneously like it relied on being part of the larger DC narrative (major questions like “who is the protagonist’s father” were made central in ways they didn’t have to be, then held in reserve for other works) and…didn’t really do anything strong with that. Mandy clearly knew the other Grown Titans but her relationships with them were extremely unclear and didn’t seem to give much thought to their established characters. And her own teen angst was very paint-by-numbers. Unfortunately I think it is still rare enough for some teens to see a protag who is chubby and/or forms a healthy same-sex that having one done in a mediocre not-terrible way might be enough for some readers on those grounds, but in general I wish that that audience could have, y’know, actual excellent stories of protags of their demographic, and not just “I guess you might like this because it’s not all straight waifs.”

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Best of World SF, Vol 1. A large and quite varied compilation, with some new names and some favorites, including reprints of things I’m happy to have in one easy location. Will return to this, I think.

Esme Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias. I keep thinking about this essay collection not just as a friend and family member of people with schizophrenia but…I think it has all sorts of broader social implications. I keep thinking about the things Wang writes about having to do to prove that she’s doing better that do not map to doing better even a little. Her schizophrenia is real, severe, at times debilitating, but from reading these essays it seems that the things our culture knows to do to help her find her way through it are…of mixed utility at best. And I think we all owe that some thought, and this is a very good jumping-off point for that.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Kanesha C. Bryant, Julia Madrigal, et al, Lumberjanes: Horticultural Horizons. It’s clear that the Lumberjanes run is winding up toward its end, and this is another volume that mixes Lumberjanes present and far past. At this point I’m interested in the arc plot and would like for it to get where it’s going, as much as the diversions are fun.

Fran Wilde, Clock Star Rose Spine. This is a beautiful collection–this is where I got the lyrical poetry I was looking for this month. It contains several poems I’d already read and loved as well as some completely new to me. I think my favorite is the series of non-traditional self-portraiture, but I’m glad to have it all, and it’s so beautifully put together, too.

A. C. Wise, Wendy, Darling. I was delighted to see that Wise had a debut novel coming out but a little worried at its subject matter. I should not have been: she deconstructs the heart of the Peter Pan story with a deft hand and a sure eye for the exact pieces of the early 20th century that J.M. Barrie couldn’t help but include and definitely wanted to look away from. Both the beloved and the monstrous are handled beautifully and bravely here. Can’t wait for her next work of whatever length.

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