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Books read, late February

M.A. Carrick, The Liar’s Knot. I wanted to immerse myself in secondary world fantasy, and this fits the bill. Complicated clash of cultures! Deception, magic, familiars, secret societies! This is the second in its series, and I think you’ll do better for having read the first, but good news, it’s in print.

Susan Cooper, Greenwitch. Reread. An interesting note as the middle book of this series, allowing the kindness of a human girl to hold sway after the general internalized misogyny of the first two. I thought of this as “the girl book” in the series when I was a little kid, and I don’t think that was wrong–the place where Jane is allowed power is still explicitly fairly feminized and held as a sphere apart from the rest. But as I said rereading the ones before it–I see the flaws in these and still love them anyway, or in the case of this one still like it, this was not one that I loved. As an adult I see how I appreciated that the kids were not instant friends, that they could, amidst a fantasy plot, have ordinary kid resentments and assumptions and annoyances. That’s a lot more typical of fantasy writing for kids than it was when this was written, and this series is part of why.

Alex Danchev, Magritte: A Life. Well, it was bound to happen. You read enough biographies of people, and you’ll get to one where all the interest of the person was in their work. Danchev wrote quite well about Magritte–you can tell he’s good at this–but Magritte, at the end of the day, was a fairly tedious subject. Because of that I can’t recommend this biography even though Danchev did a good job with it.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku, The River Where Blood Is Born. This is a generational novel about nine generations of Black women in a family that spans Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. I read a lot more of this type of novel when I was a teenager (and in fact that’s when this one came out), and voice is completely crucial to whether I’ll enjoy it–voice and variety of character, which this one definitely has, from country quilting grandmas to city party girls to globetrotting seekers after their roots.

Kathleen Jamie, ed., Antlers of Water. This is an anthology of Scottish nature writing and art, with essays and poetry and photos included. It’s very much in the “if you don’t like this one the next will be quite different” school of anthology, and Jamie has made sure to reflect the diversity of modern Scotland with her choices of authors. The main voice I missed here was, of course, hers.

Abir Mukherjee, The Shadows of Men. Do you like chase scenes? because this book has chase scenes. This book has enough chase scenes to make me wonder whether someone in Mukherjee’s writing group challenged him to fit the maximum chase scenes per word count and whether there’s another book out there in competition with it for that prize. What it also has: a murder mystery set in Raj-era India, with the characters thinking quite hard about religious issues and Indian independence. This is fifth in its series, and the characters are allowed to grow and change, and I like that.

Naomi Oreskes, Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean. She is so good, she is so extremely good, as thinkers about how modern science is done she is just so hard to beat, I just love her work. By which, of course, I mean, I am depressed and appalled by her work. But also wow, just wow, watching how sharply Oreskes zeroes in on places where people completely fail at epistemic neutrality–she just lays it out for you, here is how the way this experiment is designed is presupposing the results it wants, here’s what they didn’t even bother to investigate, here’s the entire field that was considered crucial to oceanography in the 19th century that was sort of shoved away in the 20th and a pretty clear indicator of why. And further, she’s really great at getting into why people would behave in the ways that they did–the places where researchers would be lying to themselves about some forms of influence, not just to us–and she’s so good at advocating for transparency and yes, this is 500 pages plus notes but it went so fast.

Erica L. Satifka, How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters. The “disasters” in the title is not an accident, and it’s not an indication of bad craft–Satifka does her work very well here, but almost all of the stories have a disastrously grim view of humanity and any other intelligence it might ever encounter. If you’re a person who deals with hard times by going dark, this is a very well-done collection and probably for you. If not, maybe save it for brighter days.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 45. Kindle. For me the absolute hands-down stand-out of this issue, the story I needed right now, was the Maureen McHugh story that opened the issue. It’s dealing head-on with a great many things at once, homelessness, addiction, the pandemic, none of them “fun escapist things,” but the way it makes science fiction of them is humane and human and lovely.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, eds., The Deadlands Issue 10. Kindle. In addition to the Amanda Downum column, which is always a pleasure, my favorite thing in this issue was the haunting story from Fran Wilde.

Sarah Tolmie, All the Horses of Iceland. Discussed elsewhere.

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen. Tomalin is such a pleasure as a biographer, sympathetic without making excuses, able to see her subject’s point of view without shutting out that of others. I actually did not read this because I had a passionate curiosity about the life of Jane Austen but rather because Claire Tomalin is so good at her work, and I intend to keep doing that with other authors. That said, she really did so well with things like Austen’s long depression/writer’s block/whatever it was. It was all beautifully handled. What a good book.

Piers Vitebsky, Living Without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos. This is about a culture in India that shifted, over the years Vitebsky visited them, from shamanism to a mix of missionary Baptist and orthodox Hindu, and he talked about how and why and when that happened. The structure of the book is a little dry at first but you can see academically why he wants you to have the groundwork in who is what to whom, and it picks up a great deal after that. One of the things I found most interesting about the entire process is that some of the very social functions that this particular instantiation of Christianity destroyed for this particular group are social functions it has served perfectly well elsewhere–but were not the focus of the missionaries who came to this group for various reasons. So people who wanted to argue the benefits of the different religious approaches would need to look at the local versions, not their preconceptions of What Christianity Means To Me or What Shamanism Means To Me or etc. Vitebsky does a really good job of making it specific and real and human.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Friends for Robots. This is such a warm and friendly and loving collection. There are old favorites here, there are things I’ve never read before, there are things to make you laugh, this is…if you’re a person who deals with hard times by trying to reach out to others and build something good, this is the collection for you.

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