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Books read, late August

Peter S. Beagle, Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle. Not really. I mean, it’s got some pretty good Peter S. Beagle, don’t get me wrong. But I do like some of his longer stuff better, upon…er…further thought. (Not reflection! No! No puns here!) This volume also has an odd assortment of parts of his other short story collections and new stuff. Worth having, but not entirely convenient.

A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories. A handful of stories, reminding me that Byatt tends to go farther over the line into speculative in short form. I wonder why that is. Anyway I like them. The first one in particular was of interest, two little girls being evacuated during the Blitz, a very different fairy story than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Francois d’Humieres, France: A Sense of Place. This is mostly pictures of different parts of France and the food they eat there. It was a gorgeous birthday whim from my best auntie.

Candas Jane Dorsey, A Paradigm of Earth. Kindle. I am a bit confused by this book, because it is set in the future that is now the present, and I felt that the future setting was the weakest part. It hadn’t changed enough, and the places it had changed were the wrong way, and…honestly the main plot, an alien learning the paradigms of earth, the patterns of being human, could have been done in the very near future to when it was written. I liked the human interrelationships, and I liked the alien. But I had to peer at it wondering, “Did she feel that readers or publishers at the time needed the remove of ‘the future’ in order to care about some of the gender/sexuality themes? Was she right, did they?” It was…weirdly detached in the strangest spots, and quite warm in others. Definitely worth reading. Just odd from this distance.

Edward Seymour Forster, ed., The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was a Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman court during the reign of Ferdinand I (16th century), and he brought lilacs and possibly tulips to Western Europe. He also wrote travel-ish observations, including that Other People Certainly Do Wear Funny Hats. This is the universal travel observation, I think; throwing it into any speculative narrative will almost certainly lend verisimilitude, because really: Other People. They Certainly Do. It’s a slim volume and not very demanding.

Merrie Haskell, The Castle Behind Thorns. I read this in manuscript form and loved it then, and I love it now. (I got a little misty when I read the acknowledgments, too.) It has a fairy tale backing, but the main focus is…fixing things. Literally and figuratively, but substantially literally. Fixing. Mending. Making things work, making things better. Fascinating detail, never dragging or getting bogged down: fixing what has been torn asunder. It also has a highly positive stepparent/stepchild relationship, just by the way, which is lovely in a world peopled with Wicked Stepmothers. Highly recommended.

Charles Hitchcock, These United States. Grandpa’s. Oh, the unintentional hilarity of the mid-1960s. This is a gigantic bug-crusher of a book, and the first section is a series of maps of each state with a little essay about each one, saying what makes it wonderful and special and amazing and golly-gosh-darn keen. Until they get to Nebraska. Then the essay writers essentially give up and say, oh lordy, what those people have suffered through; well, they’ve got a unicameral. I roared. The second section is all sorts of other maps and stats: where barley is grown, where flax is grown, that sort of thing. Actually pretty interesting, and I’d like comparative maps for every 25-40 years or so, but the gee-whiz early state essays were alarming enough before we got to Nebraska. (This is the sort of book that considered itself very progressive and upbeat about racial attitudes and um. Even considering how far we have to go? HOW FAR WE HAVE COME UFF DA WOW.)

Benedict Jacka, Taken. I got this from the library because it was the next one they had in the series, and I was several chapters in and enjoying it before I checked the internet and found out that it is book three and I had missed book two. Oops. On the other hand: worked out all right. This is another of the London urban fantasy series, not the best of them but quite good enough to be worth getting from the library. Unfortunately, the library only has books one and three of a five-book series, so now it also has to be good enough to buy, but I think it is. Interesting enough things happened with different types of dueling, flavors of mage, etc. to be worth going on with.

Robin McKinley, Rose Daughter and Spindle’s End. Rereads. These two had fallen between the cracks of my McKinley buying/rereading, so it was interesting to return to them with fairly few memories compared to her older (compulsively reread) and newer (recently read) work. I really liked how the fairy tale structure was used in both of these to allow for more ramblings about character, relationship, and worldbuilding without allowing them to become completely undisciplined, because the reader had the needed framework for where they were going (and they actually did go there!). I also think that reading a lot of McKinley in close proximity highlights the places where she makes no attempt to vary some patterns that maybe could use a little variety.

Kathryn A. Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind. Kindle. Interesting examination of a Victorian-era scientist/science writer and how she managed to carve out space for her work within the expectations of women, and also how that solidified some of the parameters for where women did and did not “belong” in the sciences. Fascinating figure, very much worth knowing more about if you don’t.

Mikael Niemi, Popular Music from Vittula. Did you want a short book with an obsession with the very surface of the middle of the last century’s pop music (because that’s all that got that far north) and also Laestadian humor? Because this is that. Lots of crude humor also, but really…there aren’t that many places to get Laestadian humor, so if you want it, here it is. (If you’re saying, “What’s ‘Laestadian’?,” the answer is, nope, probably this is not for you. If you’re the other two people going, “OH GOD REALLY?”, then yes, really, seriously. Laestadian jokes at least three or four times a chapter most chapter.) (I’m not trying to be coy here, I’m just saying: this is a fairly small sect, and those of us who laugh at the humor related to what in this country would mostly get called Apostolic Lutherans is a pretty small group.) Oh, small warning: there’s also a bunch of casual sexism and two examples of the kind of staggering racism that you get when you don’t ever expect to run into people of other races, like, in your lifetime. At all. (This book is translated from the Swedish and set in far, far northern Sweden among Swedes and Finnish Swedes and Finns. Which is not to say that there are not racial issues in Sweden. They’re just not the ones that Niemi’s characters casually referenced–those were issues that were safely distant, related to US pop cultural figures. Sigh.)

John Julius Norwich, The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean. This book is so backwards I can hardly say. It’s the Mediterranean. So you can go pick up books on things like Imperial Rome in any kind of detail you like. So what did Norwich focus on? Topics like Imperial Rome, topics you could get much better elsewhere. Skimming over the parts of Mediterranean history that…get skimmed over elsewhere. SIGH NO.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. Beautifully done. Talked about things like what Dutch people of different classes had for breakfast and how they felt about other people’s habits, not just about what was in paintings. Touching in spots. Very glad to have this. Recommended, particularly if someone would like to, oh, I don’t know, use it extensively as a resource to set something fantastical in an analog of this period COME ON PLEASE.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. “Maggot” is defined on page one as sort of a whimsy or a crotchet, a weird notion. So okay: Mr. Fortune goes off to be a missionary and is spectacularly unsuccessful at it, but not in a way that involves torturing people. This book is not much like anything else except the Simpsons episode I strongly suspect it inspired, and that was a very weird realization to have.

Django Wexler, The Shadow Throne. This is a sequel, and I continued my preference for middle books by liking it much better than its predecessor (and I liked its predecessor enough to be going on with). Banking! Clever use of magical symbionts! Fomenting of revolutionary plots! Difficulties of dealing with revolutionaries along the way to same! All sorts of my buttons pressed here, hurrah. Recommended, much fun.

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