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Books read, late January

Daniel Abraham, The Price of Spring. Reread. I remember now why this is my least-favorite of this series (that I still quite like). Despite the subject matter of the plot, it’s still entirely centered on the priorities and reactions of powerful men–to the point where I feel like it’s detrimental to the worldbuilding, as much of the world is neither powerful nor male. Ah well. Still glad I reread it.

Jack Ashby, Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals. Jack Ashby is really defensive about monotremes and only slightly less defensive about marsupials. And he does a good job of making it clear why he feels that way! Lots of interesting facts about Australian mammals and their interactions.

Leigh Bardugo, Hell Bent. A sequel that I think really requires the first one to appreciate what it’s doing. The college setting feels a little more incidental in this one, but that’s appropriate to the passage of time–sophomores have more sense of how to handle the demonic magics college throws at them, having had a year of experience under their belts.

Patrick Bixby, License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport. Bixby repeats commonly misleading ideas about a few contemporary cultural figures in politics and business toward the end of this to no real benefit, leaving a sour taste in my mouth. Mildly interesting, not as interesting as I hoped.

Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain, Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life. Do you want a bunch of pictures of sled dogs? because this is a bunch of pictures of sled dogs.

Roseanne A. Brown, Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting. The “vampires” in question are monsters from Ghanian folklore, and the titular Ghanian-American kid is a great deal of fun as she figures out her world. The ending is a real cliffhanger, so I will definitely be looking for the sequel to this MG fantasy.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 2. Kindle. This was unexpectedly hilarious, and not because she meant it to be. Oh wow, her utter focus on Louis Napoleon. And Swedenborgianism! Oh gosh. Fascinating, delightful, very very funny, much better from this distance than if one was living through it.

Elaine Castillo, How to Read Now: Essays. Includes a couple of absolutely glorious magisterial takedowns (Joan Didion! Peter Handke!) with deep analysis and knowledge of their work and of other things. I think she misses a step when she doesn’t recognize how extremely Jewish some of comics history is (instead treating it as generically white), but generally a really fascinating perspective and well worth the time.

Samuel K. Cohn, Paradoxes of Inequality in Renaissance Italy. Kindle. Interesting analysis of multiple kinds of inequality in the wake of the Black Death. I particularly liked Cohn’s analysis of how poor people, artisans, would leave commissions in their wills just as the wealthy would, and then that stopped–poor people wanted to beautify their communities with a painted candlestick, if that’s what they could afford instead of a Giotto altarpiece, and they got pushed out of doing it. Fascinating.

James Crawford, The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World. Crawford is not pulling punches here about politics, as well he should not. Lots of different borders considered here firsthand, or as close to firsthand as the timing of the pandemic allowed–which was itself useful for insight into borders.

Pamela Dean, The Secret Country. Reread. I read this because I was in a mood to enjoy something. I continue to marvel at how well the kids’ relationships are drawn, how very real they are to that kind of pretend game that is now no longer pretend. One of my favorite portal fantasies of all time.

Erin M. Evans, Empire of Exiles. Secondary world fantasy full of archivists and scribes. Really good fun.

Caroline Graham, The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This is a reasonably well-written mystery novel from the 1980s. The thing I ended up feeling like it was lacking was compassion. We’re all flawed humans, but the kinds of flaws this book lingered on ended up feeling petty, silly to focus on. It’s a British small town mystery novel with old ladies and neighbors walking their dogs, neighbors painting, neighbors planning weddings…and the only person who gets to be solid and worthwhile is the detective. I’ll read more of this series because I already have them on hand, but otherwise I really wouldn’t.

Matti Kilpio, Leena Kahlas-Tarkka, Jane Roberts, and Olga Timofeeva, eds., Anglo-Saxons and the North. A collection of essays from a conference. Do you like analyses of meter in old Finnish and Germanic verses? That is my jam and here it is, and more that’s basically that level of abstruse. Hurrah.

Graci Kim, The Last Fallen Moon. Very much a middle book in its MG fantasy series, delving into all sorts of Korean afterlife folk belief in ways that its young characters can explore and illuminate–but don’t start here, and don’t expect it to be the last one.

Robert E. Lerner, The Feast of Saint Abraham: Medieval Millenarians and the Jews. Joachim of Fiore was a countervailing voice to the dominant (violent) attitude toward Jews in his time and region, and Lerner wants to talk about that and how its influence reverberated down the years as an alternative. At the same time, go in braced that “he, a Christian clergyperson, had a more peaceful attitude toward the Jewish people and what he expected their fate would be” does not map to “he actually respected their religion in a contemporary sense.”

Marina Lostetter, The Cage of Dark Hours. Discussed elsewhere.

Hilary McKay, Straw Into Gold: Fairy Tales Re-Spun. If you’ve been reading short story fairy tale retellings in the last fifty years or so, this is not going to be a revelatory book. None of the retellings are particularly novel or original. What they are is reasonably well-done for the middle-grade audience. Entertaining, fine enough. Not where I’d start with either McKay or fairy-tale retellings.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows. Okay so yes, I realized I had not kept up on the recent releases from Rick Riordan Presents and ended up reading three of them in one fortnight. I feel fine about my life choices. To round out the group, this is very much a last book in its series–Triumphant Conclusion etc. This one is Mexican-American folklore. Sorting out middle school relationship stuff in various shapes. Characters who don’t know every facet of their own identity from the jump and still have things to learn about themselves and their world.

Margery Sharp, Rhododendron Pie. Sharp’s first novel. She was not yet at her full powers of light comedic prose, but it was still worth having, a romp through the 1930s and figuring out one’s own way in the world.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Eyes of the Void. Space opera sequel, definitely don’t start here, loads of aliens and alien perspectives, hurrah.

Jenny Uglow, Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense. Edward Lear did a bunch of interesting things (so many poems! so many paintings of parrots!) but was not, overall, a very happy man. Very much up to Uglow’s usual high standard but rather more melancholy than I realized it would be.

Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes* *The Official Biography. This is very much a book in two parts. The first and somewhat longer part is: Rob Wilkins tells fun stories about his dear friend, who (he very much wants you to know) was a great guy. The writing here is workmanlike and there are no particularly deep revelations. Then the last hundred pages are something else entirely. The last hundred pages are a memoir of the slow loss of a friend, in the kind of detail that Pratchett made it very clear he wanted people to understand about this kind of disease–including Wilkins struggling with some of that openness. It’s a much better book–and a much more harrowing one thereby.

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