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Books read, late September

Daniel Abraham, A Betrayal in Winter. Reread. One of the things I notice about Daniel’s stuff is that he has actual witty lines in the place where lesser fantasy writers really hope that their lines are witty. The pacing of the wit is exactly the same, but the success level is so much higher. I feel like on the reread, the andat are a huge slow-moving backdrop against which the humans dart about. But slow-moving is not the same as stationary, and that’s fun to watch knowing where it’s all going, how he put it together.

Bae Myung-Hoon, Tower. Short science fiction satire, translated from Korean. Good if you like that sort of thing, which I do.

Casey Blair, Tales from a Magical Teashop. Kindle. Most of these are vignettes rather than stories, and I think Casey’s thinking about what kind of magical teas and tisanes would need clear consent evolved as she was writing them. To me, this is a side work compared to the trilogy, but if what you’re looking for is vibes, this is very vibesy.

Amy Brady and Tajja Isen, eds., The World As We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate. An essay collection with a successfully diverse set of viewpoints on current observations of changing climate, not just “there’s my best friend and my next door neighbor, that’s diverse!” Lots to observe here, and most of it quite well-observed.

Octavia Butler, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Bloodchild. Rereads. Short stories first: I tell myself, when I pick out a short story collection, that I can’t just reread Bloodchild every time. Which results in me not rereading Bloodchild very much at all, it had been years and I had forgotten how much the collection rests on the first two stories. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the rest, but they’re less substantial. But then, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is a story of my heart, so everything is going to pale next to that. Still love it. So much. I’m going to finish the Lilith’s Brood series, I just haven’t gotten to it yet. The first two are…a lot. Gosh they are a lot. Major consent issues–deliberately so, but still–and most characters are jerks, in ways that, again, are deliberate and understandable, but there’s only so much time I can spend with that before I need a break.

C.J. Cherryh, Angel With the Sword and Forty Thousand in Gehenna. The latter a reread. The former was slight and dated–I can see why it’s not one of hers that has stayed well-known–but still a fun read. I’m not sure I would describe the latter as a “fun read” at all. I nearly quit at the first gang rape. I’m still not sure that wouldn’t have been a better life choice. Damn there was a lot of casual sexual violence in the SFF I grew up on. I found the abandoned colony/symbiotic alien relationship theme interesting to read next to the Butlers for several reasons, and the ending is not as hopeless as I thought it was when I was a teenager, but…it’s still some pretty grim stuff. I also think that we’d handle the nonverbal characters completely differently today, but Cherryh’s version was probably considerably above the average for its era.

Davinia Evans, Notorious Sorcerer. I read this in a previous manuscript form, and it’s such a delight to see its final incarnation, full of travel between planes and magical ingredients and complicated relationships. Highly recommended.

Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. There was more of the stuff I didn’t want and less of the stuff I did, in this book–less of “here’s what happened to the people who were on the hook for killing Charles I” and more of “here’s the backstory about killing Charles I, which…since I already possess a book called The Trial of Charles I, thanks, yes, am on board. But not everyone is; it’s probably useful.

Elizabeth Lim, The Dragon’s Promise. Sequel, and it’s worth starting with the first one, because this is definitely its consequences exploding in all directions. Great fun, though.

Hugh Ryan, The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison. Prisons: they’ve basically never been good! But sometimes knowing the details of how and why something has gone horribly awry is really socially useful–especially for social context on what the penalties have been for not conforming in various ways. A hard read but worth knowing.

Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner, eds., Apex Issue 133. Kindle. My favorite story from this issue was one I’ve used the most content warnings with in any short fiction I’ve recommended. This is a hard issue. This is a very emotional issue.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 48. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing things I’m in, and I’m in this.

Ruth Ware, The It Girl. This is a combination college novel and thriller. It does really well at the shaky uncertain social ground that is the beginning of one’s first year at university, and the juxtaposition of that with the thriller element is excellent if you like that sort of thing. I occasionally do like that sort of thing. So.

Django Wexler, Blood of the Chosen. Second in a series, and I don’t recommend starting with it, but there’s a lot of page-turning action going on here–if you already read the first book, there’s more.

F. C. Yee, The Dawn of Yangchen. I don’t read a lot of tie-in fiction, but I am still all-in for Yee’s Avatar: The Last Airbender books. This one introduces us to a new past Avatar, an Air Nomad with an extremely strong connection to her past memories. Good times, fun use of the preexisting worldbuilding and enough of Yee’s own elements to keep it interesting.

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Books read, early September

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 1. Kindle. Strange place to start, with a very long poem on the same theme as Paradise Lost, but fortuitous for me because I’d just reread that and could appreciate EBB’s version even more for its genuine liking of nature and humanity. Contrary to Milton’s ideas, EBB decided to write about an Adam who deeply loved and valued Eve–in context even more touching. There are other poems in this volume, a long Prometheus followed by gradually shorter versions of Greek texts and paeans to other poets. If you’re not sure how much EBB you want to read, there are probably “selected works” volumes that do a better introductory job, but if you are sure, it’s free on Gutenberg to just dive in and keep going.

Catherine Ceniza Choy, Asian American Histories of the United States. This is so short as to be almost vignettes–if you’re not familiar with the topic it will be a whistle-stop tour–but it’s vivid enough and passionate enough that it’s not a bad place to start–and introduced me to some anecdotes I (not a beginner) didn’t know.

Danielle Clarke, ed., Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, and Aemilia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets. Mostly Elizabethan poets here, a tiny bit of the early reign of James I. These three are economically more diverse than one might expect, and their topics even more so. One of the fascinating things to me was that “translating” a psalter meant, for Mary Sidney and her brother, writing an English poem with the same theme and dominant imagery, rather than a more literal and direct translation. The thing that made this interesting was that Biblical locations were very culturally familiar, so those were as they would appear in the original, but the theology was immensely early-Protestant in its focus rather than Jewish–superficial similarities in the poems but deep differences.

H. A. Clarke, The Scratch Daughters. Discussed elsewhere.

Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC-1000 AD. I was disappointed in this, and the fact that it was published in this millennium with AD/BC terminology right in the title should have been a clue. Cunliffe had extremely bizarre areas in which he was over-willing or under-willing to attribute motives to people known only through archaeology, with inherent ethnic imperatives being my least-favorite.

Kate Elliott, The Keeper’s Six. Discussed elsewhere.

Seb Falk, The Light Ages: the Surprising Story of Medieval Science. This was lovely, discussing things like how to construct a water clock to have an alarm. I think this is particularly useful for fantasy writers, but it was such a joy to read that I don’t just recommend it for purely utilitarian purposes.

Caleb Gayle, We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power. Gayle brings a passion and a history of reporting to the story of Black Creeks who were stripped of their Creek identity in 1979. His prose is fast and punchy (there’s the reporting background), and he lays the issues out very clearly here.

Linda LeGarde Grover, Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong. This is a mixture of memoir, stories of the Duluth area’s recent history, and Anishinaabe legends. It’s short but charming, especially if you know Duluth well and would like to know it better.

Frances Hardinge, Deeplight. Deep sea creatures and pirates and corruption and magic and all sorts of good adventurey fantasy stuff in this one.

Christopher Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution. Probably a fairly good first history of the French Revolution, focused on particular vignettes that are fairly consistently the ones you’ll find embedded in longer histories rather than weird outliers.

Emmi Itäranta, The Moonday Letters. Enchanting, immersive, acutely suspenseful, Solar System-spanning science fiction but also fantasy about healing and environment.

Sim Kern, Seeds for the Swarm. Discussed elsewhere.

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. It would be more accurate, I think, not to give this book a subtitle that ends with “in Occupied France” when more than half of it takes place not in Occupied France but in concentration camps. It’s a really well done discussion of the fates of French women political prisoners under the Nazis. But as such it spends a lot of time in camps being very clear about their horrors, so: be prepared.

Louis Sachar, Holes. Reread. I wanted this fresh in my head to discuss with a friend who was reading it with their kid, and I was reminded that it falls into a weird middle ground to me, where it’s too surreal to be successfully mimetic and too realistic to be successfully surreal. Ah well.

Caroline Stevermer, The Serpent’s Egg. Kindle. Absolutely delightful. If you like The Goblin Emperor or Swordspoint or the Secret Country books, this is the thing for you. Magic and political scheming and not-very-obtrusive snippets of English verse reference. Loved it.

Sonya Taaffe, As the Tide Came Flowing In. This is a collection of thematically linked poems with a novelette to follow, and I love that Sonya did that and wish more people would do similar mixed form/thematic unity projects. This is full of the sea and its strangeness. Hurrah.

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons. “Remember that really obnoxious guy in your first-term philosophy seminar?” says Turgenev. “We had him in 19th century Russian too, isn’t that a gas?” and you say, “nobody really uses ‘gas’ that way any more, Turgenev, but yeah, it sure is striking.” And he’s like, “oh well, I’m from a different generation I guess.”

Valerie Valdes, Fault Tolerance. The third and possibly last in its series, pulling all the threads together for a stunning conclusion–if it’s not last in the series, there will have to be a tone shift of some sort, because that sure looked like a successful ending to me. Should you start here? No, probably not, the others are still available, go ahead and start at the beginning knowing that there’s a complete arc waiting for you if you want space opera hijinks.

Iona Whishaw, A Killer in King’s Cove. A Canadian murder mystery set in the aftermath of WWII. I was hoping this would be the beginning of a long series I wanted to read, and it’s the beginning of a long series, but…eh. In the category of “fine I guess.”

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The Keeper’s Six, by Kate Elliott

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Esther isn’t supposed to go into the Beyond any more. She and her Hex broke the rules–even if they broke them in the best possible way. But when she wakes up to find that someone from the Beyond has kidnapped her adult son Daniel away from his family, her conflict-ridden Hex has to reunite to get him back–and Esther is the one who has to do the reuniting. Blues Brothers this ain’t–but they are definitely getting the band back together.

This is a novella, and as such there’s only so much room for development. Some of the characters are pretty sketched in as a result, and there’s a lot of worldbuilding left vague as well. Mostly this is intriguing, occasionally frustrating. The themes end up being much larger than the literal story–themes of freedom, self-possession, and what we owe each other. Would more space have given Elliott time to develop these themes or just stretched out a story that does get satisfactorily solved in the word count available? Hard to guess. There are oppressive dragon regimes going on here! It’s hard to be satisfied with just a gesture toward them, oh, oppressive dragon regimes, you know what they’re like. And yet on some level one knows enough. The plot moves on.

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Seeds for the Swarm, by Sim Kern

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rylla McCracken is a denizen of the Dust, the impoverished region that used to be known as the American Southwest before the aquifers were pumped dry. She has always yearned for something more, something better–education, but also a place to live where clean water–any water–is widely available. A place where life can flourish across a landscape, not just in narrow bands and with imported resources.

And Rylla’s activism wins her such a place: a scholarship at Wingates University. Wingates is filled with passionate young thinkers like Rylla–most of whom have far easier upbringings in places outside the Dust. But–you know there was a but, and there’s more than one–Rylla’s cultural background has definitely not prepared her for this. Even the methods of accessing online information are different in this brave new world. She misses her family, particularly her older brother and his partner. And the climate disaster she always knew existed is much, much worse than she thought. The students and faculty at Wingate are supposed to be finding ways to help the planet survive and thrive–but Rylla almost immediately stumbles on evidence that all is not as it seems.

This is a book that definitely remembers the “punk” part of solarpunk. It is not a subtle book. It is three chords and a
yell. And the stuff it is yelling about is worth yelling about. Climate change, economic inequality, species extinction…there’s a lot to hit hard here, and Kern really turns up the amp up to 11.

This is not without drawbacks. The addiction subplot in particular seemed to be very linear and handled so simply as to be nearly simplistic–which is not my favorite thing to do with a difficult topic so many people have immediate experience of. But in general, moshing around the world they’ve created gives Kern a chance to mull over a large range of ideas, through a wide-eyed and justly angry young woman. Rylla makes mistakes. Some of them are incredibly stupid mistakes. But they’re not out of character stupid mistakes; they are exactly the sort of thing a person with her personality and background would do when plunged into a tech-saturated academic environment without
support or cultural background to navigate it. There’s a seque coming, and the plot requires it–but I’m excited to see where it goes.

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The Scratch Daughters, by H. A. Clarke

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a sequel to The Scapegracers, and it is very very sequel–I strongly recommend that you read the first volume first, because a lot of the plot and character arc are directly dependent on its events.

One of the things I loved about the first book that was kept here–and even to some extent expanded—was how clearly Clarke respects teenage girls and their friendships for who and what they are–not trying to make them into adults in order to give them respect but looking at this particular stage of human life with love. In this book there are nonbinary teens in this category as well, and Clarke is scrupulous never to deadname a character who changes their name in the middle of the book, which is just lovely.

The friendships themselves are not entirely smooth sailing, as you might expect for any high school novel to begin with, but certainly for one about a coven, particularly a coven whose pet book demon is in rather unusual living quarters at the moment. The titular daughters of Scratch–who were also the titular Scapegracers of the last book–are making their presence felt around town, putting spells on violent people (especially boys and men) to make sure they can’t hurt people (especially teenage girls). And that kind of behavior is never without pushback.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting and well-done in this book is that sexuality can be a motivation without the motivation being “and then I want to have sex with this person.” Coming out stories are important, and stories where people’s sexuality just is are important, but this is neither of those things, this is a story where sexuality as distinct from sex is a plot motivator, and I don’t see that
nearly as often as I’d like.

The kids make the kind of trash decisions that teenagers are prone to, and the adults around them make the kind of trash decisions that adult are prone to—but in neither case is it universal. There are always people in both groups who shine as examples of how to human in tough circumstances, some of them in tweed blazers and some in shimmery lip gloss. And some trying out both.

How I feel about the ending depends on whether this is the last book or whether there will be another. As it stands, the ending felt a bit abrupt to me, and a bit too easily tied up in a bow. If it’s just the end of this volume, okay fine; if this is all we get in this series, ehhhh I wish there was a bit more denouement.

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Books read, late August

Jarod K. Anderson, Love Notes from the Hollow Tree. I found this volume of poetry rather didactic, focused on supposed insights the poet had without a lot of fireworks in the language or image department.

Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. This is about mammalian evolution from their first distinguishable appearance, and it has a lot of really interesting parts. I felt it was somewhat marred by the author’s tendency to talk about evolution as directed and/or directional in ways that I’m sure he felt were easily understood to be figures of speech, but…people do not actually understand that very well, it’s important not to reinforce that proto-bats were not following their dreams and working hard to make it happen when they evolved the features that allow for flight, just for example. Nobody is the pinnacle of evolution. Evolution is not a thing that has pinnacles. Lots of great stuff about jawbones here, though.

P. Djeli Clark, The Black God’s Drums. I see why this got so many rave reviews a few years back, because it’s so much fun! Airships in a fantasy historical Louisiana, wow, yes, love it, more.

Brandon Crilly, Catalyst. Discussed elsewhere.

Hannah Gadsby, Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation. I love Nanette and Douglas, I think Gadsby is so brilliant, and this book was an interesting companion to that material. I wanted to give it to the parents of a few friends who are queer and neurodiverse, because there were very relatable elements in this book that I think might be much easier to get across about a third party than about their own children, and Gadsby did such a good job of communicating them. Mostly I just wanted to bake her cookies.

Linda Gregg, All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems. This was another case where the poet and I were ships passing in the night–I could see what she was doing but I couldn’t feel what she was doing. Our rhythms did not mesh. This happens.

Kate Heartfield, The Embroidered Book. Best thing she’s done so far. Love it. Did you need Hapsburgs in your fantasy? you totally did. It’s just chock full of Hapsburgs, Hapsburgs as far as the eye can see, and the concept of magic Kate’s got going is far more intense on the subject of exchange and personal sacrifice than most of what you see out there. I had a tiny quibble with a minute fraction of the ending, but not enough to prevent me recommending this book wholeheartedly.

Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold. Holtby’s first book, about a Socialist agitator coming to a small Yorkshire village in 1913 (written in 1923). It’s hilarious in parts and outright tragic in other parts; it is not the masterwork that South Riding is, and there is some Irish stereotyping in it. But that last bit aside it was still a mostly lovely read.

R. F. Kuang, Babel. Another “best thing she’s done so far. Love it” book for August. As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a sucker for writing about translation, and this is explicitly about translation, and explicitly about colonialism, and also it is a beautifully done historical fantasy, and it is also a great college novel (I love college novels), and it is also a lovely book about friendship, and…look, I recommend it, okay? I highly recommend it.

Ken Liu, Speaking Bones. The stunning conclusion of this series. I felt like this was somewhat tighter than the third book but still had quite a lot of Liu’s eagerness to show the backstory of every fantastical military innovation…but at the same time, did I enjoy those backstories? I sure did. Don’t start here, but I do recommend the series–it gets where it’s going eventually, and as long as you’re not in a hurry it’s a good ride.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Mixture of Mischief. The third in a series of MG books about magic, friendship, family, and baking. Probably better to start at the beginning of the series but fine to start here. The family stuff in this book shook me up (in a good way), and I loved it when the characters had the opportunity to be stupid and not confide in each other and rejected that opportunity. Because there are still plenty of problems when you are not making more of them by being a jerk to the people you’re closest to and/or fueling the classic “idiot plot.” Anyway, fun times.

John Milton, Paradise Lost. Reread. So when you go to do a retelling, you ask yourself: what am I bringing to this retelling? What’s the new bit that’s me? And from what I can see, some of the crucial things Milton brought to the story of the Fall were: 1) English verse, 2) lashings of sexism (no really, way more sexism than the original), and 3) a sense of the world as the size that we now know it. That last part was fascinating to me, that when he was talking about the whole world, he meant it in roughly the way that a modern person would mean it. He knew there was such a place as Peru and felt like it had to be accounted for somehow in this story’s references. And considering how recently he had a chance to know that, it was astonishing to me how integrated it was into the text, how he didn’t just handwave it away as of no consequence. The sexism, though. Lord. There is an entire speech from Adam that’s basically, “the angels are all dudes, why didn’t you make us all dudes? why didn’t you make Adam and Steve, God?” I am paraphrasing but not maliciously, that is really what his speech says. There is a whole heaping helping of “she’s beautiful but wow is she dumb” in the concept of Eve in this telling. Sigh.

Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope. Kindle. Parker is quotable–we all know she’s quotable. What was interesting to me was how differently she came off in aggregate than in snippets. Yes, there was the bright, brittle, witty cynicism, but also there was quite a lot of acknowledgment that she had been hurt, more willingness to have something beneath that surface. (But still funny.)

Lina Rather, Sisters of the Forsaken Stars. Sequel, and I recommend reading the first one first, because this is a lot of consequences from the first set of actions, and the characters hang together perfectly well if you know what’s come before, but I think if you didn’t there would be several moments of “who’s this other person, why do we care.” The rebel space nuns have not stopped space rebelling. Did you want them to? I sure didn’t.

Emma Southon, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World. Okay, this is a very weird book. It’s a biography of Agrippina that Southon decided to write with loads of pop culture references to make the Roman stuff make more sense to the modern reader. Except…I feel like a lot of the specific references she chose were for a very specific audience. I am in that audience. But there was at least one reference that friends ten years older and ten years younger than me did not get when I asked them about it, and I suspect there are a lot more. So…I suspect that within the next decade the pop culture stuff in this book will be more alien than the Roman stuff, not less. Is that okay? Of course it’s okay, I read Victorian writers who are doing exactly the same thing 150 years before Southon, and it’s fascinating. But it’s something to know about the book, that it’s not very formal and is very referential. Also Agrippina, I mean, Nero’s mom, Caligula’s sister, this was going to be a weird book anyway. No way it couldn’t be.

Rebecca Stott, Dark Earth. For me this book suffered from being set in a milieu I have put a lot of research into and therefore have a lot of opinions about, that is to say, immediately post-Roman Britain. So I kept being snagged out of the story (it’s an historical fantasy) by reactions that can be summed up as “I see why you think that but I think this instead and have you read….” Which is too bad, because the character relationships and prose were quite good, so if you’re not weird about post-Roman Britain like me, you may well enjoy it.

Davide Turcato, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Maltesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900. I think one of the most gratifying things about this book is how literally the title is true: Turcato is actually going on the premise that people often do things for reasons that make some sense to them at the time–shocking, I know–and that it’s worth looking at what those reasons are rather than throwing our hands up and saying, “Anarchists! they were irrational!” They quite often were not, and by taking this approach, Turcato manages to do radical things like…actually looking for someone rather than taking a contemporary letter that he has “disappeared” as in some way factual (since…human beings do not actually have that power…this was fruitful). Should this be your first or only book on 19th century anarchism, probably not, but it’s really interesting for the portion it is about.

Nghi Vo, Into the Riverlands. Discussed elsewhere.

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Catalyst, by Brandon Crilly

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also, the author is a convention/online friend.

There’s an entire subgenre of books that look like fantasy on the surface but are actually science fiction when you look close. Or straddle the line: are these energy beings aliens? are they a magical race? does it matter?

Brandon’s book is one of those: you start with a stage magician called Mavrin, doing what is clearly stage magic. Sleight of hand. Tricks. And then things unfold: the objects Mavrin has, are they magic, are they a kind of technology he doesn’t fully understand. Are they trouble: oh yes, definitely that.

This is a world that humans have altered beyond recognition, and they–and others–are still learning to live with the fallout of their alterations. And as has been the case so often in history, sometimes humans have no idea what they’ve done. Crilly does an admirable job of showing a variety of characters with different reactions to their world and its implications, always making sure that the humans are comprehensibly human (and the aliens are consistently themselves). This was fun to read, and I’m excited to see what he does next.

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Into the Riverlands, by Nghi Vo

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cleric Chih and their hoopoe with perfect recall, Almost Brilliant, are traveling and, as is their wont, collecting people’s favorite stories. They agree to skip the ferry and take a faster road with four new companions: a young martial artist and her sworn sister and a curmudgeonly middle-aged couple. But “faster” is not necessarily “easier,” and her companions are not what they immediately seem–and the stories they tell are not necessarily just stories.

This novella is a charming addition to the Singing Hills Cycle. I think it would actually be fine to begin here and go back–I think it stands reasonably well alone, and its opening tells you what you need to know about the protagonist. I devoured it in one sitting. I don’t actually want Vo not to write her other stories, because I like those too, but I immediately wanted more. I’m here for as many more as she’s got.

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Books read, early August

Max Adams, The First Kingdom: Britain in the Age of Arthur. Subtitle appears to largely be chosen to appeal/signal to the mass audience–this is not an author who is going to try to wedge an historic Arthur in where a mythic one serves us all better. Lots of the sort of analysis Adams does best, fits well with his other books of Britain/early England.

Hanna Bervoets, We Had to Remove This Post. A Dutch novella about people who do content moderation for social media. I was frankly disappointed in this, because I’ve had friends who do this job–who burned out on this job–and the things that happened to them were far more nuanced than what Bervoets shows here. Nor does she really seem to have anything to say other than “wow this job sucks,” which: yes it does, but I was hoping for more substantive commentary and less…gratuitous description of how awful people can be, look, how awful, very awful.

Casey Blair, Royal Tea Service. The third in its series, and so far as I can tell the last–there’s a definite conclusion here in Miyara’s relationship with her family as well as the larger world and its magic. And the mysterious old lady reappears….

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapter 13 and Interlude. Kindle. Still reading the serial, even when its characters are on term break….

A. R. Capetta, The Heartbreak Bakery. A charming story of a magical baker figuring out powers and relationship stuff all at once–and also attempting to come out to family and friends as agender, which is why I carefully avoided pronouns in that sentence. Syd’s recipes appear with commentary as well as Syd’s interpersonal shenanigans. I left this book wanting to make scones.

Zoraida Cordova, Valentina Salazar is Not a Monster Hunter. She’s a monster protector, and this is a fun romp. The plot twists are only twisty if you’re in the target age range, but you know what, MG books are allowed to be mostly for MG people, and plot twists are definitely not everything. Internet friends who turn out to have cool magical [spoiler] matter a lot too.

Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani, Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from Our Ancestors. Two archaeologists with the approach that humans have dealt with changing climate before and surely we can learn things from how it’s gone. The ending is a bit repetitive, but it’s still an interesting take, and not horribly long.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India. Kindle. I am very much of two minds about this book. On the one hand, “can the colonized and the colonizer be genuine friends or will institutional/structural questions get in the way” is a very interesting question on which to center a book, especially a book of this era, and I love books that are fundamentally about friendship and people trying very hard. On the other hand, I went into this book unspoilered for anything except theme–which is how I like to read “classics,” I like to read them as books rather than institutions–and thus I was entirely unprepared for the fact that a sexual assault accusation would be plot-central and Forster would not care even a little bit about the experience of a person being sexually assaulted. Not. Even. A little. He does not even want to take a stance on whether anyone was sexually assaulted–maybe she was, maybe bitches be crazy sometimes, who could say. And that…is pretty hard to take, frankly. Having a book that both centers on and completely dismisses sexual assault is very hard to take, no matter how much I like the rest of what it’s doing, which is a lot.

Rachel E. Gross, Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage. Bacterial ecosystems! Adjacent organ structures! Intersectionality as far as the eye can see! There’s something for everyone in this book, which is reasonably brief and breezy but not so breezy as to be ridiculous. It’s an explicitly inclusive book, with respect for both those with vaginas who are women and those who are not and also a thoughtful discussion of the construction of neovaginas.

Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger. This is a much smaller book than South Riding–most things are, conceptually if not literally–but I still loved what Holtby was doing at this scale. Its heroine is a dreamer of grand dreams, a square peg in a round hole who does not let her edges get filed down, and it is both precisely observed and specifically hopeful. Just what I needed.

Fonda Lee, The Jade Setter of Janloon. Kindle. If you’ve been wondering whether you’ll like Lee’s Green Bone Saga but are not prepared to commit to a thick fantasy novel, this is the novella for you. It’s one self-contained bit of side story, prequel to the events of the series so it won’t spoil anything, but it gives a very good taste of the world.

Amy Levy, The Romance of a Shop. Kindle. This was delightful and entertaining, a 19th century novel about four sisters who are orphaned and start a photography shop to support themselves, their various fates and works. Levy was friends with Eleanor Marx, and she’s doing that New Woman thing where she’s trying to figure out things about women and work and respect and relationships. I really like that thing–especially when it has funny bits, which this does.

Naomi Mitchison, Vienna Diary 1934. Do you ever say to yourself “I wonder what it would be like if one of my nerdy leftist friends could have been in Austria at the beginning of Austrofascism”? Wonder no more, this is your book. Victor Gollancz dispatched our girl Naomi to Vienna for a couple of months to write a book directly reporting on conditions on the ground in Austria and what on earth was going on there, and she did just that, and it’s personal and heartbreaking and glorious. Remarkably few cringe moments given the era. Gosh I wish there were more like this. Mitchison also talks about her frustrations in trying and failing to get the press at large to pay attention to the conditions she was seeing on the ground–if Gollancz had not been willing to pay for the book, this material would have gone completely unpublished, because article after article was rejected while the mainstream press of the time ran wishy-washy articles infected with both-sideism rather than eyewitness reports. Take whatever lesson from that you will.

Scott Reynolds Nelson, Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. I strongly suspect that the subtitle was chosen to try to sell more copies to the American audience, because this book also goes substantially into the effects of Russian Empire wheat (largely Ukrainian wheat) in the era in question. Lots of chewy detail, very good stuff.

Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel. By far the slightest of the three of Peck’s books I’ve read so far. This is when people were still learning to write mystery novels–still moving from “detective story” to “novel, but with a mystery in,” and this book is part of that progression but again a fairly slight one. There’s some fairly sketchy stuff about Romany people that never crosses the line into overt narrative-supported racism per se (racist characters for sure) but still is not the good kind of uncomfortable, and also some internalized misogyny, and on the whole I think her other novels are a better choice.

Aimee Pokwatka, Self-Portrait With Nothing. Discussed elsewhere.

John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet. If you read a lot about forests this is unlikely to have much that’s particularly new in it, but it’s a good one to introduce to people who are interested but not particularly immersed in this topic. The authors also talk seriously about the relative benefits of many small vs. fewer large habitats, in conservation terms, which is a useful policy conversation to keep abreast of.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems. Kindle. I had hopes that there would be title possibilities in this, and there were, but not for the thing I meant to be titling. (Darn.) Rossetti is that particular kind of Victorian overwrought that is very hit-and-miss for me. Her religious poetry in particular is less successful for me–and the amount of “someday I’ll be dead and you’ll be sorry” that slips through is really not to my taste. She was very thoroughly herself, though.

Margery Sharp, Harlequin House and The Foolish Gentlewoman. She is so good and I love her. There are occasional moments when colonialism has crept into her default metaphors, fair warning there. On the other hand, Sharp has a trick for writing light, fun books that turn out to have more to them than meets the eye. There was a moment of The Foolish Gentlewoman when I gasped and teared up at the character who had been given clear (and modern!) moral truths, in the middle of a fluffy confection. It’s like biting into divinity and finding out that they’ve put the really good pecans in. Sharp cares about the internal lives of people of all ages, and while not everyone in her books is trying to be a good person, the ones who are are supported by the text, and sometimes that’s such a relief.

Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner, eds., Apex Issue 132. Kindle. Generally good issue, with Iori Kusano’s “Have Mercy, My Love, While We Wait for the Thaw” as the standout story.

Jasmine Walls, Dozerdraws, and Micah Myers, The Last Session Vol. 1: Roll for Initiative. This is a sweet story about a group of friends who met in their Gender-Sexuality Alliance in high school and started a D&D group adjusting to new adult life and their old gaming group changing. It’s not very substantial but reasonably well-done throughout.

A.C. Wise, Hooked. A sequel to Wendy, Darling, and I’d recommend that you read the first one first; this relies on reacting to its emotional impact several years on. It does more with consequences. I love second book consequences.

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Books read, late July

Samit Basu, The City Inside. This is a really engaging book that takes on all sorts of ideas about livestreaming and social media forms of entertainment–what they do to our relationships and the world around us. The Delhi in this book is extrapolated into the near-future with loving but clear eyes–not an ideal but a place actual people do and will live, beautifully drawn.

Elizabeth Bear, The Origin of Storms. Will I sound too much like a marketing document if I call this the triumphant conclusion of this series? Still and all: it is. Dragons in various forms, diplomacy and betrayal, a sentient fountain pen and a Really Good Doggo, all the things you’ve come to love in this series, brought together for the conclusion, hurrah. (Or maybe you haven’t come to love it yet. If not, don’t start here, the others are still in print!)

Casey Blair, Tea Set and Match. Second in the Tea Princess series, the structure is not quite as strong as the first one simply because the fun Casey decided to have (GBBO/other reality competition show analog) wasn’t smoothed into the fantasy world quite as well. The characters are still endearing, their adventures engaging, but I’d start with the first one here too.

Stephanie Burgis, Touchstones: A Collection. Kindle. This is a collection that really shows Steph’s range, from sweet to dark and all sorts of things in between. I’d read some of these stories before, but it’s nice to have them collected–and I definitely hadn’t managed to find all of them.

John Cardina, The Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly. This is structured to use several botanical examples to illustrate larger points about how humans attempt to control the plants in our environments–and how those attempts can backfire hugely. It’s a very US-centric book, but I think it should be clear which of the principles apply elsewhere (which is most of them).

Becky Chambers, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Mosscap and Sibling Dex have returned to human lands, to a flood of interest neither of them is quite sure how to process. Their relationship continues to be tender and inquisitive. Less tea than you might hope, but more robot. I would once again start with the first one here, but if you liked the first one I think you’ll like this one too.

Marq De Villiers, The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin: Wood and Human Achievement. This is one of those books that made me think, well, congrats to De Villiers for managing to get a book deal for putting together sections about things he’s interested in, fair play to you, sir, may we all have the same. Interesting details here, although toward the end there are some places where his detail-orientation collides with big picture questions like climate change in ways that didn’t work ideally for me.

Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby, eds., The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. So…there are several ways to come up with a multiple-poet collection. You can select poems from an open call! You can solicit pre-existing poems you’ve enjoyed! You can do all sorts of stuff. In this case the editors sent scent to poets who had agreed to write them a poem inspired by each scent. I feel–I may be wrong–that this gets a much broader range of poems than if the poems are selected rather than the poets. What I discovered about myself: I was much more interested in the less literal takes on this challenge. Okay.

Barbara Hambly, Death and Hard Cider. The latest Benjamin January mystery is set during the chaos of the 1840 election, which is frankly a neglected period for historical novels. Tippecanoe and Tyler too, lots of campaigning, lots of politics–even if this was an election you usually saw a lot of, having a free man of color in 1840 New Orleans as the viewpoint character would not be standard for what this genre has been, and Hambly really leaned into that. The range of historical issues she’s willing to take on is part of what keeps this series fresh.

Guy Gavriel Kay, All the Seas of the World. This was only a few of the seas of the world, but I liked it anyway. It’s Kay doing the secondary world history that he does best, and I found it immersive and lovely. Would I start here? Probably not ideally, but maybe, probably it’d be fine. This set of books has few linear sequels, and this is not one of them.

Harry Kemelman, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. A ’60s mystery that is very, very much of its time. There were places I could watch Kemelman using the opportunity to educate Gentile readers about Judaism: what’s going on here, which I’m sure was (and still is, in some ways) valuable–but not at the expense of mystery story. Went very fast.

C.S. Lewis, Poems. There’s a reason Lewis was not a famous poet in his lifetime. More than one. He has the confidence in knowing the rules of poetry that comes of the kind of education he had, but it turns out that rules are a rather small part of poetry. Lewis actively, on the page not by implication, advocates for having what he calls the Stock Responses–the emotional reactions that your culture tells you are the right ones to have–and he is both smug and resentful about other poets who do not have those responses. Also, for people who argue about whether he was really a misogynist or not, with various positions about Susan, I refer you to the poem in which he’s really mad that he’s attracted to some lady because she is definitely not all that. (No, seriously. That’s the poem.) Or rather, I do not refer you to that poem, it is very, very skippable. Frankly I read the second half of this book in train wreck mode.

Ada Limon, The Hurting Kind. This is a very solid poetry collection, but it’s not my favorite of hers–just a different set of ideas and references than the previous work, which is great but didn’t hit quite as dead center with me. Still enthusiastic about whatever she does next.

Premee Mohamed, The Annual Migration of Clouds. Climate change and plagues and…not nearly as dark or upsetting as I feared it might be. Life after the apocalypse, friendship and family after the apocalypse. I had not braced myself for the sweetness.

Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel. A mystery from 1933. She was still finding her stride in this one, and she spends some time talking about how in the years when this book was set we didn’t yet know how to treat…what she means is developmentally disabled people, but it turns out they still did not know how to treat them in 1933. (Guess my feelings about whether we’re particularly great at it now, just guess.) So I would recommend either of the other two books of hers I’ve read above this one–it’s not ill-intentioned, but she’s very early in her novelist game and also in the Anglophone world’s development of genre mystery.

Aden Polydoros, The City Beautiful. A very gay, very Jewish, very fantastical visit to turn of the last century Chicago. Sometimes really grim but also beautifully vivid.

Kelly Robson, High Times in Low Parliament. This was a romp through a fairy government with a bit of an edge, giving humans a hard look through a side of whimsy.

DaVaun Sanders et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 23. Kindle. Two standout stories in this issue were Lina Monroe’s “The Usual Way” and A.M. Barrie’s “Just Desserts.” I remain glad to subscribe.

Warsan Shire, Bless the Daughter Raised By A Voice in Her Head. These poems are mostly about Shire’s immigrant experience and her relationships with other members of her community. There is a combination of kindness and clear sight that I find very appealing.

Edward Struzik, Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat. (The Improbable World of Peat is my next theme park.) So much interesting swamp stuff. I enjoyed this a lot, and if you like this general kind of natural history, this should fill a great “swamps and wetlands” niche.

E. Catherine Tobler et al, ed., The Deadlands Issue 15. Kindle. Beautiful issue. My favorite story was Leah Bobet’s “Sunday in the Park with Hank,” but I also recommend Amanda Downum’s column. I know I say that a lot, but this time I feel like it’s not just interesting but also important.

Elizabeth Van Duine, Paper and Knife. This is a collection of images of papercuttings, sent to me by a friend who knows I like to do that myself. My only complaint with this volume is that the kind of photography they used for the book sometimes makes it hard to see that you’re looking at a papercutting rather than a print of some sort.