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Books read, late January

Chaz Brenchley, Rowany de Vere and the Traveler in Gin. Kindle. A short work in the Mars-that-wasn’t that Chaz is having such fun playing with, juggling genres, and this is in Rowany’s spy genre rather than the school stories.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Knot of Shadows. Kindle. The Penric series returns to where this world started: death magic. But as one might expect, not at all a tidy kind–the title is extremely appropriate. Not all is happy here, but for once the gods seem to be paying a bit of attention to justice at a human scale…eventually.

Robert Chaney, The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West. Every year I buy myself a book for my late grandpa’s birthday that the two of us might have enjoyed sharing. This one is about the rocky coexistence of humans and bears and how that’s changing with development of the American West, its recreations and economics. Chaney not only makes a really good case for giving bears the space to be bears, he also acknowledges a lot of places where he has an easier time selling readership on charismatic megafauna where other species face similar problems without the easily marketable face. Interesting stuff, glad I chose it.

Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places. A series of essays about white expectations vs. Native realities in cultural areas such as music, early movies, technology, etc. Deloria’s family is extremely prominent in Native activism and scholarship, and he easily earns his place among them with this work, although if you are not–how do I put this delicately–a racist shithead, at least some of your education from this book will be in what horrifying things white people used to expect of Native people.

James A. Estes, Serendipity: An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature. Quite often I will say that a book I’m talking about in these book notes does what it says on the tin. This emphatically does not: if you pick it up expecting a broad ramble about serendipity as a concept, understanding nature as a philosophical generality, this will definitely not be the book for you. This is a book about one ecologist’s specific career studying the balance of predator-prey relationships among sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp, with orcas later considered in the mix. There are some comparisons with other predator-prey relationships for reference, but it is toward the technical end of popularizations and is very much a retrospective of his career specifics. Am I interested in this topic, absolutely, but if you are looking for more of a general approach and are likely to be bored with how such studies are performed in the field, this is not the book for you.

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. Oh, this was a romp. Gabriele and Perry (the latter of whom is a personal friend) absolutely danced through the Middle Ages. Their thesis–that this was by no means a Dark Ages but a time when Europe was in high contrast, when things were illuminated from various directions and were a great deal more diverse than they get credit for–is beautifully illustrated. If you’re deeply familiar with the history of the Middle Ages this will be less new information and more different–often deeper–ways of thinking about what you already know.

Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Ellen Harrison, Ancient Art and Ritual. Kindle. Oh, the Edwardians. There is absolutely nothing like the Edwardians for being elegantly, confidently wrong. Harrison, for those of you who don’t know, was Hope Mirrlees’s housemate, chosen family…something. And she has all these theories about art, and it’s fascinating to watch what is so obvious to her that it isn’t even worth constructing an argument about it, she can just assert it (textile arts, for example, are not art, obviously…oh Jane). And then, of course, there are the things where she is constructing her beautiful theories on completely wrong data and cannot help it–they didn’t know, when she was writing this, that ancient Greek statuary was brightly painted. This is less interesting to me for its thoughts about its topic than for its reflection of what people were thinking in its time, especially a passionate, vigorous, educated woman like this one. I found it so very readable. Disagreeing with her at every turn was no problem really.

Hebi-Zou and Tsuta Suzuki, Heaven’s Design Team Volume 4. If you like this thing, it’s more of this thing! The joke is: various design constraints have to go into making animals. Real animals result in the strangest ways.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. Another book that really does not do what it says on the tin. I’m very glad a friend recommended it, because I would not have picked it up based on the title. It’s actually about a young woman finding her path in life through teaching English at various levels in her community and finding connection with the older, more traditional women in it–who have quite different life experiences. There is a thriller B-plot and a romance C-plot that tie in with the main plot of these women connecting, sometimes through racy fiction, and figuring out what they really want in their lives and how to get there from where they are.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Hope. Kindle. Third in its series. Having now read one of Kingfisher’s (that is, Ursula Vernon’s) horror novels, I keep noticing how much creepier her fantasy villains are than the average of the genre. Not necessarily more evil–hard to be more evil than Sauron–but scarier, nastier, more…skin-crawlingly real, even when what they’re up to is entirely fantastical. In any case, this is another paladin from the order of the Saint of Steel finding love with another weirdo, in this case the city’s lich forensic pathologist. Gnoles abound.

Lucian of Samosata, The True History. Kindle. Some people call this the first science fiction novel(la). It does not have novel structure. It is very much like talking to a four-year-old but less sticky. I like four-year-olds a lot. I find the part of talking to four-year-olds that goes “and then those guys flew on giant bugs and then there was a whole island full of owls and then me and my friends fought with the mean ladies and they ran away and we ran away and um and um and um we met ODYSSEUS” to be amazing and great. Especially if there is not that much of it total and you take it in small bites. And there really is not that much of this total, and I took it in small bites.

Naomi Mitchison, Anna Comnena. This is a very short biography, and it in no way pretends objectivity. It is like sitting down with a dear and very nerdy friend who has been reading a lot of history and takes sides, and then she tells you all her opinions about her favorite historical figures and what they were up to, and if you make yourself tea and remember that she probably drank a lot of tea while she was writing it, it’s approximately the coziest thing you can get in biographical or historical reading. You all have friends like that, right? well, you have me. And several of you are friends like that. So Naomi: she is another one. And death and time and space cannot stop you having her over for tea to gossip over the late Byzantines if that’s the sort of thing you want, because she wrote this down.

Polly Morland, The Society of Timid Souls, or How to Be Brave. This one is what it says on the tin. Contrary to trends in novel titling, this is not a novel. It is nonfiction about the topic written right there on the cover: bravery. Morland has gone around interviewing people about various kinds of bravery and what they feel like and whether they are inherent or developed and if developed, how, and so on. Odds are very good it will make a change from most of whatever else you’re reading.

Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Woman. A very breezy end to its series, but for heaven’s sake don’t start here, this is all conclusion, start at the beginning so the characters and their setting make sense.

Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good. This is a tiny volume of stories about an old lady who solves her problems by murdering the deserving and getting away with it. Do you want that? because that is 100% what this is. I admit that when I saw the title, I had hopes that she would have more variation in her up-to-no-goodness. I have read other books where the protagonist unapologetically kills people the author has constructed to be more or less deserving (I’m thinking particularly of Bradley Denton’s Blackburn), and I read this one, and I will need a pretty good reason to read another.

Matt Wallace, The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid. Max is not thrilled with the damage done to his community by the superheroes it lauds, and he feels like he needs guidance in his life, so he reaches out to the least likely source: a supervillain named Master Plan. Who is, like Max, a fat guy, and who has some theories about how Max can deal with bullies without running afoul of the authorities as Master Plan has. Do things unfold seamlessly? Well, Master Plan’s master plans seldom do…. Charming, fun, a very warm and fast-paced read.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Hero’s Choice. Kindle. A novelette satire on destiny, chosen ones, and high fantasy. Good times with fluffy doom ponies, swords, and evil wizards.

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