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Mammoths at the Gates, by Nghi Vo

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is another in the series of novellas about Cleric Chih, and this time they’ve returned home, home to the Singing Hills abbey. But home is not as they expected to find it, because there are two intimidating war mammoths with two cranky mammoth handlers at the gates of the abbey, and inside the abbey–well, inside, one of the clerics they most wanted to see has died, and one of their oldest friends has become mature and responsible in their absence.

And that’s just on the human side. Because at the Singing Hills abbey, the hoopoes must always be considered–sometimes considered first. And Myriad Virtues, beloved hoopoe of the deceased Cleric Chien, is grieving in the way that only a neixin hoopoe with perfect recall can–and none of the humans can anticipate quite what that means. Or quite what it will mean to the angry mammoth riders.

If your favorite part of this series is the hoopoes, as it is mine, this is an incredibly hoopoe-heavy novella. It is, as the saying does not go but ought to, hoopoes all the way down. With some mammoths thrown in. The cover copy indicates that the novellas may be read in any order, and I think that’s probably true? true-ish? I think I enjoyed coming into this knowing the characters (good news, this one comes out in September, so you have plenty of time to read three other novellas, or even just one if you like), but also I think it would have been fun and compelling if I’d picked it up cold. I am still happy to be along for Cleric Chih’s rambles, even–especially–when they ramble home for a minute.

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Books read, early May

Charlie Jane Anders, Promises Stronger Than Darkness. The conclusion of its trilogy, so please don’t start here, they’re all in print, there’s no reason to start here and every reason to have the full effect of the thing. I particularly like what happens with the universal translator, but there are lots of satisfying conclusion-y things going on, lots of people managing to pull up their socks despite quite a lot of trauma from earlier books and do the things that need doing, with glitter and panache and determination.

Erin Bow, Simon Sort of Says. This is a middle grade mainstream novel about a kid who’s come out the other side of the kind of traumatic event that is all too common right now in the US, and would like to be out the other side. He would like to not be that kid. He would like to just be normal. Do we ever get that? We do not. Sometimes what we get instead, with new friends and experiences and Lego and halo-halo is pretty great, though. As a side note, Bow gets the speech patterns of Nebraskans absolutely spot-on in this book. Chef’s kiss. It’s never the point, but it’s also never, ever not perfectly done. I ugly cried in a couple of places. It’s not an easy book just because it’s for younger readers. But it’s worth doing.

Roshani Chokshi, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride. Lots of fairy tale tropes made to resonate here in what does not turn out to be a very fantastical novel but a very pressed-flower sad one, in two points of view.

Agatha Christie, 4:50 From Paddington, A Murder Is Announced, and The ABC Murders. I needed a break from the other things I read, and not reading will not do, so this is what happened. I was not outstandingly in love with any of these, but they’re reasonably charmingly well written, and while I’ve listed them alphabetically, they’re also probably in order of preference. If you want to read an Agatha Christie, gosh, these sure are some.

James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914. The social structures both of artisan groups internally and of artisans relating to their larger societies. Interesting, right up my alley. Journeymen relating to masters! Religious aspects of the question! Small artisanry and when and how there was a segue into factory work! Yes good.

Meg Howrey, They’re Going to Love You. I absolutely loved the sentences in this book, and I loved the protagonist’s relationship with her work as a choreographer, the place it occupies in her life. I wish there were better ways to signal what a book’s main cultural frame of reference is without sounding snooty, because if you’re not comfortable with using different composers for the piano as characterization, you’re probably not going to love this book as thoroughly as I did, and I don’t mean that as “you are not as smart and amazing as me, you peon,” but it’s hard to not make it sound like that given the hierarchies of art we live with. Sigh. Anyway, there is a substantial portion of misunderstanding plot, so if you have low tolerance for that, this is not your book, and there is also a substantial theme of a young girl growing up with her dad and his partner as gay men in the ’80s in New York, so if you’re going to struggle with a portrayal of grief and the AIDS crisis and how that affected people’s sense of the world and communication, this is not your book either. But I went and added the rest of her stuff to my reading list.

Sabrina Imbler, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Personal/memoir essays centered around, as the subtitle tells you, sea creatures. I found this delightful, though it is not always, shall we say, perky. If you know someone who is interested in queer memoir, biracial memoir, nerd memoir, sea creatures, and/or the intersection of these things, and who does not insist on relentlessly inspirational reading material, this is really well done and not much like anything else. Or if it is please do tell me, I would absolutely not mind having two.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Now You See Us. Mostly a novel about the lives of Filipina maids working in Singapore, but the core plot hook is that one of their number is framed for murder of an employer, and the others have to use what resources they have in their current circumstances to free her. Jaswal, from the author’s note, did a lot of research from people in that situation and tried to make sure that her characters’ solution was one that the women who work those jobs could actually access, so this is not a fluffy girl power narrative, but in some ways is more optimistic and respectful of the strength of the people involved.

Katherine Larson, Radial Symmetry. Poetry with a strong sense of nature and grounding in self, very much enjoyed.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Arabs: A 3000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires. Who exactly is this book talking about: that’s inherently going to be a complicated question, but I felt like Mackintosh-Smith used the complication to never really settle, not to the strength of the actual book he was writing. It was not a history of Islam, fine, good, Arabic peoples started before Islam…but that made it a less ideal book for people who did not know, for example, the rise of Sufism in detail. Is Yemen included in this history? Definitely yes. Also definitely no. How about Iraq? Obviously. Also, obviously not. What about the people who lived very much in the middle of the Arabian peninsula and briefly converted to Judaism just before they converted to Islam? Let us mention their existence and never discuss why or how any of that happened. In short this book served mostly to make me want other books that did a much better job of a million things that it waved at with vague impatience.

Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane, eds., The Other Side of Never. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, The Library: A Fragile History. This is one of the kind of books that is attempting to be global but doesn’t quite get there: specifically I was really looking forward to more about the libraries of the Himalayan peoples, which these authors do not seem to know existed. Ope. But as far as the western world they are really detailed and go quite far back and it’s very satisfying, basically as relaxing as an Agatha Christie novel in terms of taking a break from a lot of other things in life.

Seirian Sumner, Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. There are some really interesting things about wasps in here, which is good, that’s what you show up for if you get a book with this title. Sumner is also very defensive about how wasps are just as cool as bees, at least as cool, probably cooler, clinging to a description of bees as “only vegetarian wasps” to the point that it comes up at least six times. Probably more. There is also an extended scene where Sumner wants to serve supper to Aristotle so they can talk about bees and wasps and how Aristotle should have appreciated wasps more (and bees less, presumably). This features Sumner showing off research about what food Aristotle would already have eaten rather than just serving him pho and chocolate like a good host. Sigh. Whatever.

Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. A short prison memoir from an Argentinian Jewish journalist who was tortured during the Dirty War. Really detailed and very much a personal perspective, and also very clear on some of the endlessly stupid places Antisemitism can take people.

Marissa van Uden, ed., Strange Libations. Kindle. These flash pieces take the form of recipes. They’re as likely to call for gin as despair, as likely to mix a draught as a spell. Easy to page through, likely to be over before they grow tedious.

Lise Waldek, Julian Droogan, and Catharine Lumby, Feeling Terrified? The Emotions of Online Violent Extremism. Kindle. This is a short monograph about a study of young Australian adults and their attitudes toward online violent extremism they’d personally encountered. It went into the methodology of the study and how they’d attempted to keep it open-ended rather than giving examples that would shape the respondents’ ideas of what things constituted violent extremism and how they ought to respond to it. Some interesting stuff here, went into things like uses for humor and bravado–and also how people who thought they would be preparing themselves to face violence in their real lives volunteered the information that found that they had not actually prepared themselves. The fact that they were Australian was really relevant because they could feel that they were very much at a remove from things like school shootings–this kind of violence could feel impersonal to the people being surveyed in ways that it would not to an American population.

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order–and What We Can Do About It. Interesting, well-written social analysis about how and when people feel that they have gotten bad deals that they “should have known better” about and what they do about those feelings, especially the bad decisions they make about those feelings. Brief, breezy, worth the time.

Kate Zernike, The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. Do you like feeling like screaming and throwing things? Is your blood pressure chronically low? This is a lovely book for you! Especially if you were a young woman studying science in the 1990s and want to see how little things changed from the 1960s, when this book begins, to the 1990s, when it ends, and worry about whether things have changed much to now! Hooray! Seriously, this is interesting and well-researched, but it also covers a lot of the “surely we’ve fixed that already and it’s all a coincidence” nonsense and how incredibly hard it is to dislodge.

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The Other Side of Never: Dark Tales from the World of Peter and Wendy, edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also some of the authors are personal friends.

This is a fairly narrow topic for an anthology and thus a dangerous one: there’s a risk that a narrow anthology topic will result in stories that are on the one hand repetitive and same-y or on the other hand very tentatively connected to the theme. And this one brushes those guardrails on both sides while not crashing: there’s a bit much of yes, we know James M. Barrie was a creepy so-and-so whose ideas of gender and sexuality were pretty gross, and also there are a few stories that are just barely Peter Pannish at all. But on the whole it’s pretty deftly handled with enough of a spread to keep me from going “ugh not again” or “why this one though”–especially as I am not the world’s biggest fan of the story. (See above re: creepy so-and-so, ideas of gender and sexuality etc.)

I particularly want to shout out A.C. Wise’s story, “Manic Pixie Girl.” Many times when you see an author who has successfully published multiple books related to a theme (Hooked and Wendy Darling, available from booksellers near you!) publishing a story in an anthology about that theme, their story is an offcut from those books, a chapter that didn’t quite make it into the final version and has decent prose but doesn’t really stand on its own as a story. The Gym Shoes of Shannara, we call those stories in my house: if you wanted to know every single unmagical detail of my magical world, step right up for some baaaaaackstoryyyyyy! Well, not only did Wise give us a complete and satisfying story rather than an offcut, she took an entirely different run at the Peter Pan concept with it than her novels did. That’s artistic integrity, is what that is, and my favorite story of the volume to boot. No gym shoes here.

Other notable stories include Lavie Tidhar’s “A Visit to Kensington Gardens,” “Never Was Born His Equal” by Premee Mohamed, and “A House the Size of Me” by Alison Littlewood. I was a bit surprised that my favorites all tended to deal fairly directly with the subject matter rather than glancing off it, because I have no objections to a glancing inspiration, especially in this case, but that’s how it happened to fall out this time. Those whose taste skews more firmly in the horror direction will find other stories appeal to them more, and that’s how anthologies are supposed to work: different strokes for etc. etc.

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Books read, late April

Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam. Reread. This wampyr and sorceress are among my favorite iterations of “together, they fight crime,” and it was time to revisit their cases together, which hold up extremely well.

Rita Chang-Eppig, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Oliver Darkshire, Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller. Breezy anecdotes about a job that is exactly what it says on the tin.

Heid E. Erdrich, National Monuments. I don’t think anybody had to tell Heid Erdrich that the personal is political, I think she already knew, and these poems definitely do know.

Winifred Holtby, The Crowded Street. Kindle. Not as funny as The Blue Castle but a similar take on the superfluous woman problem of the 1920s, more consciously so, and with an interesting ending as well. I like Holtby, I like spending time with her sentences.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan. Reread. This is another reread that is approximately where I left it; it is appropriately bloody and sad for a book about an alternate world version of the Reconquista, so go in forewarned. A friend mentioned seeing Dorothy Dunnett’s influence on Kay just as I was starting to read this, and once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it, but not in a bad way, at least not for me.

Fonda Lee, Untethered Sky. Vivid fun novella of rocs and their hunting handlers. Monsters monsters rawr yay.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. Does what it says on the tin, extremely cozy.

Ulla-Lena Lundberg, Ice. This is the sort of Nordic novel where all sorts of nice people have nice things happen in order that the parts that are about grief will be sharper and worse when they arrive. The cultural types of grief it goes into made me feel very seen, and the writing about high summer in the Baltic made me so happy, and then there was the rest and aaaaaagh. If you want to read this book, which is quite well done, be extremely careful about what frame of mind you’re in when you do.

David Mura, The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and Our American Narratives. I wish that people were allowed to publish books like this that were just the unique narrative analyses and not all the hand-holding for people who have not thought about race in America at all before, but I know that an unfortunate number of people really haven’t thought about race in America at all before, and Mura needed to get them up to speed before he could put in his essays about narrative structures in various types of fiction and what they reinforce racially. The middle of this book was really interesting, and the rest was done well for what it needed to be doing.

Megan E. O’Keefe, The Blighted Stars. Discussed elsewhere.

Alma Steingart, Axiomatics: Mathematical Thought and High Modernism. Oh mathematicians and your shenanigans in interacting with the rest of the culture in the early 20th century! oof. Yeah. “Let’s have a math dictator, that’s how we’ll defeat Hitler!” My pals. I love finding stuff like this out, though.

Sarah Suk, The Space Between Here and Now. Discussed elsewhere.

Angie Thomas, Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy. I was so glad to see this. It was so much fun, just an absolute delight of a MG fantasy–completely different from The Hate You Give in genre, category, and style, but absolutely reminiscent of it in writing skill. Thomas is such a major talent, and it’s lovely to see her branching out.

Wenfei Tong, Bird Love: The Family Life of Birds. This is another of the “fun facts and pretty pictures about the natural world” books that I find not outstanding but quite soothing.

Zacharias Topelius, The King’s Ring. Kindle. An historical novel about the Thirty Years War, written in the nineteenth century. I’m still not clear why there’s a framing device where the whole thing is told by a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, but whatever, I’m amiable.

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Benefactress. Kindle. Minor von Arnim, don’t start here. There are several entertaining bits, but the arc of it is pretty status quo-ward in ways that it is not charming enough to make wonderful.

Ibi Zoboi, Nigeria Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

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The Blighted Stars, by Megan E. O’Keefe

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Where’s the line between space opera and planetary adventure? “We have a whole bunch of spaceships and vast interstellar organizations and stuff but we’re gonna crash land on a dead planet and have to survive with people about whom we feel terribly conflicted and discover that we were wrong about our worldview”: I think that’s both, right? I think that’s both, but also it’s definitely The Blighted Stars by Megan E. O’Keefe.

Tarquin Mercator is the scion of one of the five wealthy families who control the known worlds. He’s more interested in geology than in politics and power, and he has named his little robot Pliny the Metal. (It is theoretically possible that you will not love Pliny the Metal, but…this does not seem to me very likely, it’s like not loving a tachikoma. Except Pliny the Metal doesn’t talk, so no one will be annoyed by its voice.) Naira Sharp is a revolutionary whose mind has been printed into someone else’s body, and she has to figure out why and what to do about it. Because yeah, this is a world where the map of your consciousness is saved and downloaded, repeatedly, into new bodies. Which sounds great, but gets much worse the more you think about it, and the book thinks about it a lot.

Also, humanity has basically trashed several ecosystems, so…is this trashed ecosystem humanity’s fault? the fault of some very specific humans related to Tarquin Mercator? a cosmic accident? What is going on with the fungus that is the only life-form covering the planet that was supposed to be full of life forms? And can two such different people as Tarquin and Naira manage to work together when they each have pieces of this puzzle?

This is the beginning of a new series, so some of these questions are not fully answered–and the ones that are only lead to more questions. But if you’re looking for planetary adventure that does not let up, this is very much in that mode.

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Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, by Rita Chang-Eppig

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Did someone declare this the year of the Pirates of the Not-Caribbean? This is not a complaint, I’m just wondering, because there’s Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi in the Indian Ocean several centuries ago and now there’s this, which is 19th century piracy in the waters near China and Southeast Asia, and compared to what there has been recently, those two together feel like a boom. Also both of them center women pirates, which, sure, yes, that’s historically accurate, more of that if you like, any time.

The speculative element of Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea is the protagonist’s conversations with the goddess of the sea. They have an ongoing and very specific relationship, and while the eARC format was less ideal for this than I expect the final product will be, the novel threads through stories of different incarnations and experiences of that sea goddess that illuminate the protagonist’s experiences.

I think this book would probably still work well if you didn’t know much about 19th century European colonialism in Asia, but if you do there is a particularly well-handled element of being the audience at the horror movie shouting, “DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT! HONEY STAY OUT OF THAT CELLAR!” while the protagonists go on having their lives, not having hindsight on their side. It’s extremely effective and fits interestingly with the realistic depictions of women’s lives, medicine, and piratical politics. There’s plenty of swashbuckling, but it’s not treated as weightless, never allowed to be “just” a fun action story. Despite taking place substantially at sea, this is a book with very solid grounding.

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The Space Between Here and Now, by Sarah Suk

Review copy provided by the publisher.

If you read science fiction, or if you read YA, and especially if you read both, you’ll be able to predict all the beats of this book. If you’re an adult, that is, and that’s an important caveat. Because YA is not primarily for adults, and YA is part of how people learn what the tropes and story shapes are in the first place.

Aimee Roh has Sensory Time Warp Syndrome, a condition that makes her disappear for seconds, minutes, even hours at a time when she encounters a sensory impression that triggers a memory. No one can predict which memories will carry this baggage when–the trigger sense even varies among STWS sufferers.

Her bicultural father is opposed to her seeing a therapist to help deal with this. He also doesn’t want to tell her why her mother left, where she is now, what happened. He doesn’t seem to want to talk at all, having seemingly embraced the most taciturn parts of Canadian and Korean cultures.

Aimee finally decides that she has to seek out answers herself. Does her mother also have STWS? Could she be caught in a loop, as other STWS sufferers have been? What can Aimee’s parents’ past teach her about herself and her future? As I said to begin with, the answers to these questions are going to seem pretty obvious as you read. What will not seem obvious, though, is the verve and specificity with which Aimee as a young artist apprehends the world. She and her friends and family are extremely well-drawn, and the characterization makes this short novel very much worth the time.

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Nigeria Jones, by Ibi Zoboi

Review copy provided by the publisher.

How many plots are there? You’ll hear different numbers bandied about–three, five, whatever–but they all seem to agree that you can boil everything down to just a few plots if you try hard enough. And this is definitely one of the classics: young person strives to find her place in the world, making a start on sorting out how she feels about parents, larger family group, immediate community, and larger culture.

Other than relatability, one of the reasons this is such a classic plot is that the details matter so much to it. It may be the same plot, but it’s not the same story over and over again, not by a long shot. Especially not when a writer like Ibi Zoboi uses it as the framework for the story of a contemporary young woman raised in a Black Nationalist household with community leader parents.

Nigeria herself is beautifully drawn, complex and conflicted, frequently angry and confused but never one-dimensionally so. She makes bad decisions–and good ones; she doesn’t always have a chance to have her say when she would like to do so, but she does speak up for herself a lot. Her relationships are complex and conflicted as well: a best friend with whom she’s drifted, a cousin with whom the larger family situation has gotten complicated, a couple of new boys with very different backgrounds, assumptions, things that they want of Nigeria. And then, especially, there’s her parents. Her father, whose expectations of her don’t leave a lot of room for the things she wants for herself. Her mother, whose absence has become a defining presence in her life. The shape of Nigeria’s mother’s absence and what exactly happened is beautifully done, with the light dawning for the reader in emotionally evocative ways before Nigeria is ready to talk about them directly herself.

I’m definitely not the target audience for this book. I’m a 44-year-old white lady, and this is definitely YA–and I firmly believe that no matter how much we adults can love MG and YA, we’re not the people it’s written for. But you can enjoy things that are not primarily for you, and I definitely did enjoy this. It is full of respect for the young people it portrays, it wrings joy from the hard places, it is just plain beautifully done.

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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.