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Books read, late November and early December

Combination post due to travel at the end of last month.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs. This is some of what I want in secondary world fantasy: weird post-colonialism and interesting magic things and plot plot plot, with room to grow but self-contained. Creepy and horrible in spots (that part is optional for my taste but wants flagging for those for whom it’s either a very good thing or a very bad thing).

Jim Butcher, Working for Bigfoot. Kindle. I had given up on the Harry Dresden books, and I still mostly have, but I got given this collection of three stories earlier than the part in the main sequence where I quit, and they were reasonably entertaining. They center around a set of characters who are not the main set Harry usually interacts with, so if you read the Harry Dresden books for the Molly-Mouse-and-Murphy Show (as I used to when I read them), these will disappoint dreadfully; as it was, the fact that they had self-contained entertaining-enough plot in a series I have quit on was fine with me.

Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Lots of interesting bits about a part of history I don’t know much about. More influenced by the Seven Years’ War than you might think. More complicated racial history than people really want to talk about. Well worth reading.

Francesa Forrest, Pen Pal. Kindle. A kind of science fiction that is not much like much else. This is the story of a young girl on the Gulf Coast corresponding with a political dissident in Southeast Asia, how their lives twist and turn and come together, and while it takes a bit of suspension of disbelief to get them into writing letters in the first place, the story is well enough told and interesting enough in its details of two slightly-future cultures that it was worth the leap it took to get there. Recommended.

Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History. (Now a decade old.) Another piece of history I did not have as much of as I felt I should. Gott succumbs a bit to the tendency to think of his own subject as the most central and interesting of all things, which only historians of the Seven Years’ War should do, and some of his explanations are less convincing than they could be with some poking, but in general Cuban histories are not long on the ground in this part of the world, so still worth having. (Also, etymology of “buccaneer”! So thanks, that guy.)

T. H. Huxley, Mr. Gladstone and Genesis. Kindle. An essay continuing to hone my sense of Huxley’s voice for future fantasy projects. Not about Max.

Diana Wynne Jones, Deep Secret. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Lady Astronaut of Mars. Kindle. (Usually I don’t talk about the short fiction I read, but when I read it as an ebook on Kindle, it gets counted as an ebook, so here we are.) Brief, engaging tale of Mars and exploration and the passage of time. Recommended.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword. More space operas should be about tea. The small-scale focus of this compared to the first one in its series was welcome to me–I’m glad that Leckie is willing to demonstrate range. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door. Reread. One of the books I imprinted on at a very young age. I hadn’t gone back to it in awhile, and I notice a different set of things each time–how she was developing how she wanted to handle the twins, this time, and how Calvin and Meg’s knowing/not knowing each other doesn’t really quite work for me in the context of A Wrinkle in Time–but mostly I just like the focus on the work of love and loving people for the unlovable people they are.

Garth Nix, Clariel. I was looking forward to this, and I didn’t really enjoy it much. The various characters’ idiocy was not unbelievable by any stretch, but one spends enough of one’s own life saying, “God, what an idiot,” without wanting to spend books that way too. And the titular character’s arc was…um. Well, let’s say that if this was not in a series I liked, I would be doing even more metaphorical wall-flinging than I was, and I would be happy to discuss it on email with anyone who doesn’t mind spoilers.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon. African-setting first contact SF. I love first contact stories, and this one was good fun and chewy and interesting with its different assumptions and touchstones. Being my favorite Okorafor book would be a high bar to clear, but this is still a good one.

Luke Pearson, Hildafolk. The first of the Hilda books, paperback and less substantial than the others but with the same art style and ideals. The kind of lovely setting where the strange is taken for granted and introversion has a place. I like these very much.

Colin Powell and Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey. Grandpa’s. In retrospect, this simultaneously was positioning Powell for a presidential run and contained the reasons why he would not be a viable candidate. Mostly interesting, with flashes of totally appalling.

Jose Saramago, Journey to Portugal. This advertised itself as being history, legends, and travel guide. Ha. It was a highly literary-ized travel guide, with Saramago referring to himself in the vague third person constantly, and history and legends were scarce on the ground. What they really meant by that blurb is that it was not the sort of travel guide that would tell you where you could get good cod balls in Lisbon on bank holidays or what the best museum deals for children under ten were. Which: fair enough, except that histories and legends of Portugal are hard to come by, so I was quite frustrated by this book.

Elizabeth von Arnim, In the Mountains. Kindle. A contemporary novel at its time. A young woman is recovering from grief and loss after the First World War, returning finally to her beloved Swiss vacation home. The ending plot is very predictable, though not upsetting for that, but for whatever reason this is not a setup/period/situation we see much of in books that get recommended into the present day as classics, particularly in its effects on young women’s lives. Engagingly written, interesting stuff.

Charles F. Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru. Not a good first book on the topic, because it focuses on the provinces and periphery, but that’s an interesting space to have filled all the same.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Gold Bat. Kindle. One of the school stories, not particularly outstanding among the school stories but a reasonably entertaining thing to read when exhausted in airports and doctor’s offices, which is where/when I read it.

Tobias Wolff, ed., Writers Harvest 3. Reread. This was a gift, years back, when my extended family discovered that I wrote short stories and were pretty surprised by it. It’s a random book of literary short stories, and there was not one that caught my interest for character, situation, or even language. Frankly the language all seemed very pat and stilted. I had been keeping it as a memento of that milestone in my life, starting to be published as a short story writer, but I’m far enough along that I don’t really need that, I can just say, eh, bunch of slice-of-life stories, not really doing it for me, and move on.

Evan Wright, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War. Wright was embedded with a unit going into Iraq, and like many embedded reporters, he ended up buying into some of that unit’s assumptions without many apparent questions. For example, he regurgitated the internal explanation of racial dynamics and composition without a murmur, without analyzing how some of the training exercises described might have a differential effect on different groups of people going through them, and not because one group was inherently better suited for the job or was better trained for the actual job. It’s interesting to read the up-close accounts of modern warfare, but it’s troubling that there seems to be an insistence on splitting them into the people who, like Evan Wright, are willing to be mouthpieces for their subjects, and those who are active opponents of the US military as an entire system, with a complete elision of the many potential nuanced positions in between.

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