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Books read, early April

Tobias S. Buckell, Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance. Discussed elsewhere.

Romilly Cavan, Beneath the Visiting Moon. This is a book in which things fail to happen. Sometimes their failure to happen is entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but mostly things do not change a great deal over the course of this book, and things do need to change for these characters. As a result there are entertaining bits that don’t really add up to anything satisfying–there’s a relief in a few metaphorical bullets dodged, but not a lot of it.

Heid E. Erdrich, The Mother’s Tongue. Loved these poems. Far-ranging, thoughtful, striking, personal, yes, absolutely. I immediately went to the library website to request more of Heid E. Erdrich–I had read her sister Louise but not her, and she’s definitely worth the time.

Daryl Gregory, The Album of Dr. Moreau. Genetically altered boyband plus murder mystery. I tore through this one in a very short time, because it’s good fun and also not particularly long.

Frances Hardinge, Unraveller. I love Hardinge’s sideways thinking about magic and worldbuilding and fairy tales. This is a world full of curses and some very cranky teenagers dealing with them–realistically and endearingly cranky.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Last Light of the Sun. Reread. I hadn’t read this since it came out because my impression of it was “but no” and I stand by that. It is one of my least favorite of Kay’s works. Is it still readable, absolutely, I shelved it and will probably read it again in another almost-20 years, or possibly even before then. He’s a good writer and I enjoy reading what he’s written. But also: Kay and I have very fundamentally different takes on Norse culture in the Viking age, and that interferes with the kind of immersion I usually want from his books. Some of this is trivial: if you change the names of the gods you have changed many of the names of the people, because Norse names go like that, you have lots of people whose names are things like Thor’s Bear or Brightness of Freya, right? Norse names are plug and play. You unplug half of them and things go completely awry. But some of this is much deeper: you cannot take the mortality of the gods away from the Norse and end up with the same culture. It’s emotionally and interpersonally fundamental. If you’re going to quote “kin dies, cattle dies”–which he does, twice that I noticed–you cannot have your version removing the gods themselves must one day die and end up with something with the same weight. As a result this is the only Kay book that doesn’t give me those moments of “oh, OH” where the book rings like a bell. But at least I’ve verified that I feel that way, and why.

Patricia Kirkpatrick, Odessa: Poems. A local poet–the Odessa in question is within a few hours of my house, not on the other side of the planet–working with local images but also things like major illness, in interesting combinations.

Madeleine L’Engle, The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, A House Like a Lotus, Meet the Austins, The Moon By Night, A Ring of Endless Light, A Severed Wasp, The Young Unicorns. Rereads. Wow, okay, wow. There’s a lot here. I decided to reread the non-Time Trilogy (what do you mean Quartet, I don’t know what you’re talking about, la la la) L’Engles I had on the shelf to see which ones I still liked. And wow, the answer is definitely not all of them. A Severed Wasp is the only adult novel here, and it’s absolutely appalling about bisexuality and also, separately, about having sex with Nazi prison guards who were your own personal Nazi prison guard. What. Madeline seriously what. Also it goes so far along the line of “Jews were not the only people to suffer under the Nazis” as to focus almost completely on what random able-bodied rich straight people suffered under the Nazis. Madeline stop it. It’s also weirdly heartbreaking in historical terms because we know that the AIDS crisis is already happening–she’s writing about a bisexually active New York community in 1982, and one of the Cathedral staff has a weird pneumonia that won’t go away…and when I read this for the first time as a kid somewhere between 1988 and 1990 it didn’t occur to me that she didn’t already know what that was, but she didn’t.

Was that the worst of them, haha no, that was A House Like a Lotus, which is a completely prime example of kids getting different things out of a book than adults. When I was 8 and I read that, what I got was: some ladies like other ladies in a kissing way, that’s called lesbians and it’s fine. Good take-home message, 8yo Marissa! News you will be able to use (though not, in my case, firsthand) for the rest of your life! What I got out of it as an adult was: you have 5.2 seconds to forgive people who sexually assault you before you’re the problem, and also you’re probably the problem anyway for thinking they might be a good person in the first place; your own uncle will start hassling you to this effect but also the partner of the person who assaulted you will drag you back into the house and drug you after the assault; when you, a 16yo, turn to an adult friend who is a literal doctor at the literal only hospital near your home for help in injuries sustained, he should take this as a good opportunity to have sex with you. Also some stuff about sexy rich boys negging you later. WHAT. MADELEINE WHAT WERE YOU DOING. And then there’s the fact that Meg Murry O’Keefe is feeling “restless” doing nothing but raising children so she gets to go to the theater once for fun, and she has become a bland generic mother figure who doesn’t show her kids any of her interests. NOPE. I strongly, strongly anti-recommend this book.

Also anti-recommended: Dragons in the Waters, fairly badly constructed and centering on White Savior and Noble Savage narrative. No actual dragons harmed in the making of this book. Meet the Austins and The Moon By Night: zero of Madeleine’s batshittery around science, leaving you with just “isn’t our totally normal family totally great,” which works far less well when a huge amount of the narrative is the kids being outright nasty to each other with no resolution and an absolutely staggering amount of pro-violence narrative. How great it is to hit your children, how wonderful, what a sign of a good family, how much happier and better off kids would be if only their parents were of a social class acceptable to Madeleine and also “walloped” them. BIG NOPE HERE.

I started with three of the above five in a row and was really upset. Madeleine L’Engle was formative to my childhood! Didn’t I love any of her books any more? Thankfully I do, and the answer is: the more batshit the better. Possibly this is also because the more metaphysical the better? The Arm of the Starfish is not a coherent spy narrative, but I imprinted on it before I could care that it wasn’t, and I still don’t. A Ring of Endless Light is wrong about dolphins in ways that I do not blame her for, because we didn’t know the things about dolphin behavior that we do now, but it’s substantially right about slowly losing a grandparent and worth having for that. (Many of the Austins remain jerks, but less so than previously, and she doesn’t advocate for intrafamilial violence here.) And then there’s The Young Unicorns, in which the Austin family is the nicest it ever gets and the plot is the most off-the-wall randomly what-is-she-even and…I love it anyway. There are lasers and impersonations and the least plausible street gang ever in the world, and I am absolutely on board for it, sure, yes, do your batshittery, Madeleine, think about redemption and community and all of that, think wrong things about science if you have to get there, I don’t care. So the moral of the story for me seems to be: weird stuff made her a much better writer, always go for the weird stuff. Fair. Enough.

Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. I did not know that some political prisoners in Italy during Mussolini’s rise were internally exiled rather than jailed. This is the novel one of them wrote based on his experiences of being sent to a small, isolated village in the south of Italy. I read it for the political prisoner narrative, but it’s much stronger as regional observations.

Kelly Link, White Cat, Black Dog. I think the last story of this volume was my favorite, which is a great way to structure a volume of short stories. Everybody goes home happy! Where by everybody of course we mean me. Each story had some connection with a fairy tale, but the connections were tenuous at best–which is fine, that kind of leap is what makes Link who she is, and you can read straight retellings pretty much anywhere. This is not the Madeleine L’Engle kind of “strap in we’re going to be very wrong in five directions at once but you’ll have fun with it” kind of off-the-wall, it’s a much quieter and more focused kind. And uh. Less wrong. And more consistently enjoyable for me at this point in my life.

Shion Miura, Kamusari Tales Told at Night. Gentle small-town Japanese fantastica, volume two. I would start with the first one if I were you. This one is somewhat more focused on the character’s romantic relationship, but there’s enough satisfying dog and gods that I enjoyed it and would read more if there was more.

Abdi Nazemian, Only This Beautiful Moment. Discussed elsewhere.

Vivian Shaw, The Helios Syndrome. This novella was an absolute banger. If you want to see someone nail novella pacing, this is it. If you don’t care about that sort of thing on a conscious level, consider that it is about a consulting necromancer for the NTSB, dealing in airline disasters. Interesting, different from other stuff out there, quite good.

Jonathan Strahan, ed., The Book of Witches. Discussed elsewhere.

Noel Streatfeild, Gemma, Gemma Alone, Gemma and Sisters, Good-Bye Gemma, Tennis Shoes, Theatre Shoes. Rereads. Regular readers may remember that I tried Circus Shoes last month and was appalled, so I was relieved that all of these held up reasonably well. Three of the four volumes of the Gemma series (all very short and written in quick succession, I wonder what happened there to make them four rather than two) were in absolutely dreadfully Americanized versions. I do not approve of changing books to make them fit the country they’re being sold to rather than the country they’re set in. Detail is characterization. A British man who only watches television when baseball is on is a very different person from one who only watches it when cricket is on–the former is a giant weirdo who watches way less television, but you know very different things about him than you do about the latter. Also what people call their mothers matters, and it doesn’t always matter in the same way. The distinction between Mom and Mommy is not the same as the distinction between Mum and Mummy, and what people call their mothers is, again, characterization. Ah well. Theatre Shoes has a bit of war-encouraged racism in references to the Pacific theatre, fair warning. It also has a Jewish uncle and cousin who are some of the most positive characters in the book or indeed in all of Streatfeild. (We stan Uncle Mose Cohen.) Also it has quite a lot of Making Do In Wartime, in this case written while the war was still on, which I found really interesting as a kid and still like. Meanwhile I completely did not spot how much Tennis Shoes, of all things, is a book where the author is coping with the loss of empire, and so are the characters. The father’s desire for the children to find ways to be champions is specifically because he feels that Britain has declined and continues to decline, and he wants the children to find ways to excel so that people will respect Britain–not for conquest but for having quite good tennis players, swimmers, singers, and so on. There are far worse ways to cope with this cultural shift.

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. An old woman goes to live out her life in a little hotel with other old people in similar circumstances. The characters are very well-drawn, but it is fundamentally not a very cheerful book; very few of the people one encounters in it are actually interesting people, as opposed to people with distinctive quirks, and this makes me sad as most of the people I encounter are interesting people, so it’s a very large difference in worldview.

Wenfei Tong, Understanding Bird Behavior: An Illustrated Guide to What Birds Do and Why. This is another of the category of books I keep saying I’m liking: interesting facts about a particular area of natural history, for grown-ups. I find them very relaxing, and this one is a visually beautiful example of the type.

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