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Books read, late May

Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History. This is one of those wrenching books that you want to think hard about whether you want to read or not. It’s a history of the gulag system in the Soviet Union. It does not pull punches, and it’s well-researched, and…I already said it does not pull punches. Some people should hold and perpetuate this knowledge. I am glad this book exists. But it is very much not an easy book. If you think that what you’re writing is dark and grim, go read this book and find out what a piker you are compared to Stalin. Otherwise…well, think it over. (A note: Applebaum has a habit of falling into the language of the people she’s writing about, so occasionally there will be a reference in authorial voice to a “Chinaman” or a “Balt,” which, seriously, Applebaum, cut that out. But still generally worthwhile.)

Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, The Children of Kings. It’s been years since I read a Darkover book, and I fell right into this one like it was yesterday. The Dry Towns! Not enough about the Dry Towns previously. This one skimmed the surface a bit, I felt, but still, fun time, felt very retro.

Alice Cholmondeley, Christine. Kindle. Technically this was from early May but got left off the list accidentally. It was a piece of propaganda for the British during WWI, purporting to be letters from a young British woman who had been studying violin in Germany before the outbreak of hostilities, exposing the deficiencies in the German mindset. It was…interesting that way, very overt. Apparently it was not believed very long in its pen name (Alice Cholmondeley) even at the time; the real author is Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, which really gets to be a lot of names for a handful of letters to Chris’s dearest little mother.

Deborah Coates, Strange Country. Discussed elsewhere.

Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets. Discussed elsewhere.

Helen Cresswell, Bagthorpes Battered and Bagthorpes Besieged. The last two books in the Bagthorpe series, and they are not a patch on the early ones. Now there’s only one I haven’t read. I still recommend the early ones (they’re British comedic family books), but these are fairly skippable. They’re also an object lesson in setting a time period and sticking with it. William, the eldest YB (Young Bagthorpe) is a ham radio operator, which had very different characterization implications in 1977 when Ordinary Jack came out than it does for Bagthorpes Battered in 2001–having them stay “roughly contemporary” just doesn’t work. The Bagthorpes do not have cell phones and the internet. Just…no. Also, the more phoneticized Daisy dialog we get, the more it’s clear that her personal idiolect is not at all how a 4-year-old would talk or consistent or even very funny. And these are fairly extensively Daisy-filled. Should have left us with more Grandpa, Jack, and Zero. Ah well. I’m not sorry I read them, but I’m a Bagthorpe completist. They’re hard to get in the US, and the rest of you will not be missing much if you stay with the first six or so.

Gavin Francis, Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins. There was a little bit of too much monkey, not enough penguin here, proportionally, but there was enough penguin in absolute terms to keep me happy, and also I don’t mind polar monkey stories. I actually sort of like them when they’re not getting in the way of penguins, especially when they’re not a rehash of the same explorer tales. This is short and reasonably pithy. And, y’know: penguins.

Ursula LeGuin, Searoad. Reread. I remembered liking these stories about various people in the same small town in Oregon, but I didn’t remember much about them. I think it will probably be the same again in a few years–people run seaside town motels, people get into and out of relationships, and having lived in Oregon the summer before I read them the first time gave me a pleasant grounding in place for what she was trying to do, but none of it bit deep for me. Worth keeping and revisiting but never going to be my favorite LeGuin.

Sharon Kay Penman, A King’s Ransom. About halfway through I began to wonder whether it was a sound notion, basing a book around the portion of Richard the Lionheart’s life when he needed ransoming. But spoiler alert: he is not still languishing in need of ransom. Whew. More seriously, the book did pick up despite a sagging middle, and I’m not sorry I read it, but probably you won’t want to start here; there are plenty of other Penmans that are better places to begin if you’re looking for a thumping big historical thing.

Melanie Rawn, Elsewhens and Thornlost. Discussed elsewhere.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Planet on the Table and Other Stories. Reread. These sort of prefigure the things he’s done since, and they were pleasant enough to read, but none of them really jumped out at me individually. I don’t think I’d recommend Robinson mostly as a short story writer, at this point. If you’re feeling completist, there’s nothing wrong with this collection, but if you’re not already familiar and enthusiastic, this is probably not the place to start; they’re very much of an era, and the themes get better developed in novels later. Also, despite the title and his later career, it does not look from this vantage point like a very strongly environmentalist work.

Patricia C. Wrede, Wrede on Writing: Tips, Hints, and Opinions on Writing. Kindle. Pat’s blog is substantially more focused than this one. It’s about writing, and pretty much only about writing. This book, Wrede on Writing, is the refinement of years of blog posts, organized and revised for your edification and set forth to be an actual book on writing. I read it in part because I’m one of the seminar leaders for Fourth Street this year, and I wanted to be able to talk knowledgeably about it for the seminar. I expect it will be particularly useful for the beginning writer, who will find all manner of things, practical advice on actual work but also how to run writing as a business and things like that.

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