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Books read, early June

Balak, Sanlaville, and Vives, Last Man: The Royal Cup. Discussed elsewhere.

Blue Balliett, Chasing Vermeer. This is a children’s book with mysteries, puzzles, codes, and capers. I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did The Westing Game all those years ago, or even in strong like with it the way I did The Mysterious Benedict Society more recently, but it’s still a fun and worthwhile read, and I’m going to look for more of Blue Balliett’s stuff.

Colin Cotterill, Six and a Half Deadly Sins. The latest Dr. Siri book. It is a terrible, terrible pun, and there are a few places where Cotterill seems to feel that he is engaging in clever deception, and I…was less impressed. Also the very ending made me harumph a bit. But if you like the Dr. Siri books, this is another one, and worth reading if you enjoy them. Probably better to start earlier in the series, though.

Douglas Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. If ever there was an argument for an introductory note, it was this book. Egerton quoted a lot of primary sources for the period, which tend to be white. And which tend to phoneticize African-American dialect in ways that I feel are distancing and patronizing. Among other things, the question of whose dialect is pronounced “as the standard spelling” is one that somehow never gets resolved in favor of people phoneticizing people with my accent–and yet I have a very distinct regional accent. Which I guarantee is not the same as the white Southern planters of the time who were presenting their own words as the unmarked state. And yet…if you’re quoting somebody, you quote what they said. That’s what quoting means. So you can’t really say that Plantation Owner So-and-So said that an African-American freedman said, “I’m going to see that day!”, because that may have been what the freedman said, but it is not what the plantation owner said he said. Sigh. So: author’s note sorely, sorely needed. Other than that, I felt that Egerton got caught up in which 19th century personalities he really enjoyed and felt people should know about…regardless of whether they were really relevant to the Reconstruction. Robert Gould Shaw, for example, died in 1863; nor was he such an extensive thinker that he could be said to be a major influence on policy for the Reconstruction. He was definitely an important Civil War-era American, but…this book was about the Reconstruction. So the lengthy digression about Shaw seemed like not the best use of space, not the best organization. Nor was he the only such figure.

Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. Light, entertaining, not earth-shaking if you’ve read/thought about this before. Fast read, some good tidbits.

Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I really like Lepore’s work in general, but in this case I felt she missed an opportunity to actually talk about Wonder Woman and possibly female superheroes in general in much more depth. She was more concerned with the family life of Wonder Woman’s creator, sometimes exoticizing it weirdly even in the places it was utterly usual.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. In some ways I’m sorry I saw the play “Mr. Burns” before reading this book, because almost everything it’s doing was done better in “Mr. Burns,” which did some other things as well. The prose is quite readable, and although the worldbuilding has some points of nonsense in service to creating the emotional situation Mandel wants to write about, there are fewer of those than in the average post-apocalyptic book, and the emotional situation is then actually well-portrayed. There’s a lot of pre-apocalypse, basically our world stuff about the characters, how they got to that point, which is fine, readable, but in such a short novel it means that she’s not actually doing very much that’s interesting with the motivations for the traveling theater and its players, nor with how that group evolves. Which absence is particularly striking when you’ve just seen “Mr. Burns.” The thing is…”Mr. Burns” is a high bar to clear. It made me weep in more than one spot. Station Eleven was a book I read through to the end, but while it took “survival is insufficient” as a tagline, it didn’t really go anywhere interesting with that tagline. And this is one of the places where good worldbuilding actually would have helped: a sense of how the characters ate, just literally how they ate–just to take one example–might have helped with the sense of what they were giving up to get past mere survival, and how.

Cherie Priest, I Am Princess X. A YA thriller about girls who write comics. Incredibly fast read, generally a good time. Pretty standard plot, but mixing in the elements of the comic made it stand out in a fun way.

Marguerite Reed, Archangel. Science fiction with varying levels of engineered humans interacting with each other (and with alien fauna, hurray!) with varying levels of trust and hostility. Fun read with a strong love story component–for me the love story is not a strong plus or minus, but I know some of you find it to be a strong positive, so I thought I’d say. There is also a really well-drawn depiction of a toddler/parent relationship.

Charles Slack, Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech. About the Sedition Act, and about the newspaper writers, printers, and owners who had to deal with it. Not very long, not very much on Adams and Jefferson, but at least moderately interesting. Definitely worth reading if you have an interest in the early parts of the American experiment. At times I roll my eyes when historians seem to be acting like historical people didn’t have a grasp on some particular principle when it turns out modern people aren’t so great at it either. In this case, “free speech includes people whose speech you dislike” was the bit that was hard “back then,” sigh.

Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. I’m really glad this is not the first Spence I’ve read, because it is “too much Jesuit, not enough China,” and it’s nice to know that that’s not generally a problem he has. Some of the stuff about how the missionaries decided to present Christianity in a Chinese context is pretty interesting, but I generally prefer his other books.

Arthur Tourtellot, Life’s Picture History of World War II. Grandpa’s. This is from 1950, so the image reproduction standard is very low, and the standard for what kinds of racism are allowed in the text are also quite low. The Japanese are more often referred to by their most common English-language slur than by their full nationality. This is very much a book where the war is still fresh for the people compiling it, in more ways than one.

Ursula Vernon, Castle Hangnail. A romp through wicked witchery, turning things into dragons, and the capabilities of hypochondriac goldfish.

Dan Wells, The Devil’s Only Friend. Discussed elsewhere.

Patricia C. Wrede and Pamela Dean, Points of Departure. Disclosure: I read this in manuscript because Pat is in my writing group. It’s a set of stories that fit very well together, most of which were originally published in the Liavek collections back in the day. You don’t have to have read any of them for these stories to work well and make sense, though–the collection is a lovely introduction to Liavek, and to these two writers’ work. Highly recommended.

1 thought on “Books read, early June

  1. Thanks for the news about Liavek.

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