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Books read, early April

Robert E. Blobaum, Rewolucja: Russian Poland 1904-1907. Kindle. Interesting and focused, lots of useful stuff about schools and labor unions and other pieces of information that broader texts might not think to go into. I know lots about Finland under Russian rule in this period and very little about Poland, so the compare-and-contrast was valuable as well.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Rereads. For a different project than other recent rereads, and while I’ve read others in this series more recently, it’s been a while since I saw the very beginnings of things that are fixed reference points in my family and immediate friend circle discourse.

Maud Cairnes, Strange Journey. This is a Freaky Friday (body swap) novel from the ’30s, but the characters doing the swap are two women of different classes rather than a parent/child pair. It’s light rather than overtly hilarious, and nothing of great dramatic consequence happens; it’s a short and pleasant enough read, and if you’re interested in this trope, it sure is a one of those, but the two women’s classes aren’t so staggeringly distant that Cairnes was attempting massive social commentary: they are an upper class and upper middle class woman, this is not the ’30s of the bread line, nobody is coming out of this with a particularly raised consciousness.

Christopher Clark, Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849. I loved so many things about this. If you have any interest at all in the ’48 uprisings, I recommend it very much. For example, Clark uses women sources as a matter of course rather than as a separate, vestigial How Women Did In All This section; he is clear that Europe is not the entirety of the world and yet notices that the rest of the world affects Europe and says so. For a 700+ page book it goes so fast, you’ll hardly know you spent any time reading it.

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. Probably I wouldn’t be rereading this quite so soon after a previous project if it didn’t fit a current project so well, but it does, and I didn’t entirely want to stop myself, I just fell right in rather than consulting it for one or two references. I caught myself talking like Molly for a week afterward. I never regret a reread of this one, never.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Gate of Angels. Brief and light and concerned with the intersection of worlds academic and otherwise through the intersection of people from those worlds; I finished it and immediately added another of her books to my list.

E.M. Forster, The Longest Journey. Kindle. Less funny than some of his other work, and I think less well-conceived, the abrupt death in this one is toward the beginning and of an adult, so it’s not as upsetting as Where Angels Fear to Tread, but there are flashes of absolute cold-bloodedness about the death of a disabled infant and some weird ideas about disability in general, so while it has some virtues as its hero struggles toward a clarity of purpose, I think I will neither want to revisit it nor particularly recommend it.

Victoria Goddard, Till Human Voices Wake Us. Kindle. This is a corner of Goddard’s universe that’s new to me, the corner that impinges upon our own and has magicians moonlighting as actors. Much shorter than the ones I’ve read before but with similar themes.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium. Reread. Not for a project, I just felt like mosaics. I like the birds, I like the chariots, there are parts of this I don’t like but I know what they are going in, I’m ready for them.

August V. Koskimies and Toivo I. Itkonen, with Lea Laitinen, Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar. A compilation divided by type of folklore, including proverbs as well as stories. I think some of the proverbs are not adequately explained in English and would be happy to argue with the translator about them, and by “happy” I mean “what a fun time that would be, gosh that would be great.”

Ann Leckie, Lake of Souls. What I see in these stories is that Ann is short story lab person, which we used to see a lot more of in science fiction. You can watch her tinkering with theme and concept and making sure they work and then deploying them later at greater length in novels, but they do work at the shorter lengths, if there were experiments in the lab that didn’t work so well they didn’t make it into the collection. More than half of it is in one of her preexisting universes or the other, but I believe the Raven Tower stories predated the book, so it’s very much not the sort of thing where you’re getting the cutting room floor with a collection label slapped on and already have to be invested to care at all, more the opposite, that this is a fine road in.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home. Reread. For book club, and the sort of reread where I say reread, I know I’ve read it before, but that was before I started my booklog 25 years ago, so the things I remember and the things I don’t are an interesting study. This book is clearly labeled “a novel” on the cover, and I think it isn’t one, I think “a fictional experiment in science fiction anthropology” would have put people off but there’s no particular reason to look at the way Le Guin wrote this and think, yes, that’s definitely a novel, although when the bits with character continuity come around I’m glad to have them, glad to immerse with them. There isn’t a lot else that’s like this.

Jeffrey McKinnon, Our Ancient Lakes: A Natural History. This is actually mostly “fish in ancient lakes: speciation is weird and not maybe as clear or important as previous generations would like to think.” And he was cheerful and interesting about it, and I don’t resent the fish, but also I was hoping for more geology. Well, win some lose some.

Barbara Sjoholm, From Lapland to Sámi: Collecting and Returning Sámi Craft and Culture. A highly illustrated examination of which parts of Sámi material culture are where and why and how that looks culturally–mostly not sacred items, for example, but how craft was maintained against overwhelming cultural forces and where it was not entirely, that sort of thing. Interesting, and the illustrations are quite useful.

D. E. Stevenson, Music in the Hills. Kindle. This novel runs very much on rails: every twist goes exactly where you think it will, the ending is just what you expect it to be. Which is fine enough, I suppose; Stevenson can write sentences, and it’s not a very long book. But given that the running on rails undoes some of what was an interesting ending in the previous (but theoretically stand-alone) one, I was a bit disappointed. It’s a straightforward romance where much of the falling in love is various people falling in love with a farm.

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics. Reread. When I finished A College of Magics in March, I thought, why have I never read this and its sequel in close proximity? and the answer is: it is not a very close sequel, I now remember. You do not have to have the previous volume’s details close to hand, and it is considerably more idiosyncratic in structure (this is in no way a complaint, I like its singular nature a lot) whereas this is a lot more normal for fantasy novels. Except for having a cowboy sharpshooter falling in love with British magic, that’s not something you see every day, pure Caroline.

Noel Streatfeild, Luke. Kindle. This is one of the bad Streatfeilds, and I strongly recommend you skip it. There are no plot twists. Everything is just as it appears on the surface. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the creepy boy did it and his weak mother covered up for him, because you’ll know that right away, and there are never any twists that make you think, oh, but maybe not. No, it’s that, it’s always that, and it’s never any deeper than that, it’s always, you shouldn’t be too precious over your child or he’ll be a murderous creep. Thanks for that I guess? But no thanks? Ugh.

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Books read, late March

Aisha Abdel Gawad, Between Two Moons. The moons here are metaphors and also the two moons that mark the beginning and end of Ramadan; they are not a fantasy element, and this is not a fantasy novel. It’s a novel about a contemporary Egyptian-American family in New York, and it’s really well characterized and beautifully written and I liked it a lot. I felt like the ending wasn’t quite as much of a strong punctuation as I wanted, but on the other hand it was not the obvious thing I feared it would be, so yeah, very much worth the time.

Samit Basu, The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport. Science fiction adventure Aladdin! Do you want a fun one of those? Because this sure is a fun one of those.

Frederic L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Does what it says on the tin. Are you interested in southern France before it was firmly France per se? I am. So is this book, using the lens of this historical figure to get there.

Elwin Cotman, Weird Black Girls. Discussed elsewhere.

Pamela Dean, Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. Reread. This was a reread with a purpose, but on this go-round I was really taken by how much the time sense portrayed in this book aligns with what my friends with ADHD describe of their experience. I don’t mean to say that Pamela wrote it with that intention–far from it, with a 1998 copyright date. But I do think that there are books that later get looked at metaphorically through lenses that work for people and I think this might be one of them? But I, Captain Executive Function, am the wrong person to write about this extensively–in the context of this book I am such a Becky–I can love this book, but I can’t be the one to chew on it from that direction.

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock. Reread. What is it with the bibliophile Tam Lin retellings, do we have any theories? There’s nothing in the ballad that’s like, kirtle green a bit above her knee and also lots of books. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I will take another if anyone wants to write a third one of this description and I will reread that one too.

Lyz Lenz, This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life. I was somewhat amused to have gotten this rec from a fellow happily married woman, but as I said to another friend, it was no threat to us, we didn’t have to get defensive about reading an interesting book. One of the several appalling things here that stood out to me–that I’ve seen before in bad husbands, and maybe bad partners of other genders do it too and I just haven’t seen it, who knows–is the conviction that there is an easy type of writing to do that one’s spouse just isn’t doing, that would be just as satisfying but far more lucrative per unit labor and could be swapped out for the type of writing one’s spouse is inexplicably doing, no problem. Why! Why do some terrible people believe this! It’s not the first time I’ve seen this belief in the wild, sometimes I’ve had conversations with the actual people who are espousing this belief. Where does it come from, this sense that all writing is basically equally satisfying to all people, so anyone can/should just swap out theirs for the “easier” one? What??? I mean, there’s a bunch of other stuff in here about marriage and labor and respect, it’s an interesting read, I just…that one piece jumped out at me personally.

Gideon Marcus et al, ed., Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women Vol. 2 (1953-1957). An anthology read for book club. I wish I could recommend it more strongly–the book club discussions were good, but not because the stories were a series of gems. There are some quite good science fiction stories by women from this period, and this book is mostly not them. It is also quite badly edited. I’m not clear on whether there was an overall editorial hand–some of the stories are fine, others have random line breaks in places the story shouldn’t have them, the standards for the notes to them are wildly inconsistent, and they don’t seem to have been put in a particularly thoughtful order. I feel like there are better ways to get at stories from this period’s women than this.

Zohra Nabi, The Kingdom Over the Sea. I enjoyed this Islamic-inflected middle-grade fantasy a great deal except for the ending, where the heroine’s success depended very, very directly on her blood line, which is not really a thing I enjoy particularly as key plot elements go.

Aimee Pokwatka, The Parliament. This is much darker than I usually enjoy, and it was so, so good. The characters are trapped in a public library and dealing with their own pasts as well as the dark forces trapping them there, and it actually copes with some of the violent social issues of our time in a respectful and thoughtful way but also has kid characters realistically interacting as kids (this is not a kids’ book, it’s adult perspective on them) and…yeah, beautifully done, love it.

Arthur Ransome, The Picts and the Martyrs. Reread. My other rereads this fortnight were at least thinking about a project, though not all of them will end up being for that project. This one was just random, I just kept thinking about this old children’s favorite until I took it down from the shelf. It was exactly where I left it, great-aunt relations and living in the woods and all.

Natasha Dow Schull, Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. This is not a book I was glad to be reading, this is a book I’m glad to have read, so that I have the information in it. Oh gosh was it upsetting. But no, it was not just stuff I already knew, actually, it was worse than that. The focus here was the design of video poker machines specifically to create as addictive an experience as possible, and what shape that addictive experience took. I was completely mistaken about the latter–I would have said that it was chasing a win, chasing a high, and the research says it’s not that at all, it’s locking into the repetitive experience, a sort of broken version of flow state, which is useful to know but extremely disturbing in its details. Worth thinking about. Oof.

Adam Shatz, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. I didn’t know a lot about Fanon or his role in Algerian independence or any related topics, and I felt like Shatz did quite a good job of focusing on him while keeping perspective about his flaws–for example, Shatz is extremely clear that Fanon could in no way have been considered a feminist or gender egalitarian–while not making the entire book only about those flaws.

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics. Reread. I always forget how little of the book is at Greenlaw College, but I enjoy the whole thing regardless, the travel adventures, the feel of the magic, the friendships, all of it.

Michael Walsh, ed., Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology. This takes an extremely broad view of both what constitutes queer poetry and what constitutes nature poetry. The poems are arranged alphabetically by author, which sometimes is jarring and sometimes leads to interesting juxtapositions.

Jo Walton, Among Others. Reread. Another of the rereads with a specific intention, and I really like Mori’s forthright attempts to cope through books–same, buddy, same–and also how successfully of her era she is, how firmly Jo resists giving her knowledge and attitudes she wouldn’t have access to–she doesn’t have access to the Oz books in the UK of the time, she doesn’t know how bras are sized because girls of her age and class aren’t necessarily told, there’s all sorts of stuff she knows heaps about and the stuff she doesn’t understand yet fits with that perfectly, it’s all human knowledge even with the book having fairies.

Aliya Whiteley, The Arrival of Missives. Short fantastical work dealing with a village in the aftermath of the Great War and some strange happenings unfolding in it. Hope and fate and choice are intertwined without having to take forever to do it.

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Weird Black Girls, by Elwin Cotman

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the great skills in life, I have found as an adult, is knowing when you’re not part of a conversation. Sometimes you’re allowed to sit in on the conversation while your friend and their sibling talk about family stuff, but that doesn’t mean you’re part of the family, it just means you’re here for it. A lot of the stories in Weird Black Girls are very much in that category: am I actually part of the conversation about the use of violent punishment in Black American families as an attempt to ward off white violence from Black children and/or a reflection of white violence through the parents, refracted through a fantastical lens? I sure am not. That is someone else’s conversation I am sitting here listening to. And while these stories are not all that specifically, a lot of them touch on themes that are not really mine to dig into. It’s not “I’m not the target audience for this” in the sense of “I don’t appreciate this work,” because I did appreciate this work. It’s “I’m not the target audience for this” in the sense of “I am literally not the person being addressed here.” But I can still stand by and find it interesting.

What I can say is that this is a short story collection with a great deal of range. The voices of the characters are distinct, and their settings and speculative elements vary extremely. Whether they’re exploring a Boston that jutted suddenly into the sky in an alternate history or running a convention LARP tournament that’s suddenly populated by fantastical figures from anime, each character has their own voice, their own yearnings and grudges and firmly situated milieu that are totally absorbing. There’s big thematic stuff here, but there’s also the tiny finely drawn characterization that keeps me around for the theme to have a chance to sink in. The shape of the speculative conceits is never “oh, another one of those” but always firmly his own. Highly recommended.

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Books read, early March

David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. I felt like Kenya is too large a country and the Mau Mau Rebellion too large an event in its history for me to be as wholly ignorant as I was, so I set out to remedy some of that with this book. As often happens to me, remedying some of my ignorance left me aware of how much more I don’t know. Still, this is from all I can tell a fairly even-handed book that avoids a lot of the colonialist assumptions that all rebellion against the colonizer must have been irrational and manages to convey what the propaganda was in that direction without endorsing it–but also does not pretend that everyone who has ever rebelled has been a holy saint, nor that they have to be. I don’t recommend this for happy fun-fun times, but if you’d like to know more about the topic, it’ll sure help with that goal.

John W. Baldwin, The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages. Baldwin is definitely not fanboying Philip Augustus, which is good because neither am I; there were points at which he is using fairly elevated speech to say, “Y’know, buddy, if you hadn’t expelled the Jews from France, you’d have had more options here, my my my, if it isn’t the consequences of your own actions.” But the interesting thing about Philip Augustus was not the person himself but the documentation of his reign. When he left for the Crusades there was quite a lot of writing down of France: How I Runs It By Phil Age 24 (okay, he didn’t actually write it down, his scribes wrote it down), and then there was quite a lot more of What We Did While You Were Gone, so it was…basically he turned on Track Changes for the country of France. And Baldwin poked at that in this book, and I liked that, but if you aren’t particularly interested in twelfth century governmental Track Changes…welp, there sure are other books on this list.

Renan Bernardo, Different Kinds of Defiance. Discussed elsewhere.

Bertrand Bickersteth, The Response of Weeds. Poetry about one person’s Black experience in Alberta, which is sure not a thing I had a surfeit of poetry about and you probably didn’t either.

Winifred Boggs, Sally on the Rocks. This was mostly a light-hearted village satire about a young woman who has “ruined herself” by the standards of the (1915) day (she went and had sex with a man in Italy for a month, not on the page), having made up her mind to settle down and marry for the sake of her fortune only to find it less easy than she thinks to snag a not very appealing man. The up side: she and her rival for his fortune are entirely pleasant to each other rather than getting in the designated cat fights, seeing each other’s virtues immediately; this is also a book that sees and deplores gender-based double standards. The down side: there is some absolutely appalling “go have white babies to maintain the Empire” nonsense in the ending, just jaw-dropping “you didn’t actually say that oh no you did” stuff. Fortunately I watched Blazing Saddles at a formative age so I always have clips from it ready to play in my head in times of need; unfortunately the miniature Cleavon Little in my head who abides with me always had to abide with me particularly on that day.

Samatar Elmi, Portrait of Colossus. Absolutely beautiful poems about being an immigrant to modern Britain. This one I will want to return to, and gosh how nice that it was the next thing to hand after the Boggs. (This is a coincidence, the alphabetical nature of these entries does not usually reflect my reading order.)

Margaret Frazer, The Servant’s Tale. The second in its medieval murder mystery series, with a troop of players traveling through around Christmas time. The festivities were period-appropriate, not Victorianized for the modern reader. The ending was a bit…if it had been the first in the series I would have thought “oh is this what she thinks is a good twist, thanks but nah,” but as I’ve already had a pretty good one I’ll keep going with the series.

Merilee Grindle, In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl: Zelia Nuttall and the Search for Mexico’s Ancient Civilizations. A long-overdue look at a very interesting scientific figure who bridged eras of anthropology and fought for recognition that was due her.

Kathleen Jennings, Kindling. I’ve followed Jennings’s career pretty closely, so I’d read most of what had already been published here before, but not all, and in any case there’s a lovely new story and also it’s good to have things I previously liked collected in one volume, hooray, hooray.

John Bush Jones, Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of American Musical Theatre. I was doing all right with the early part of the book that was mostly names-dates-places, and then we got up to the part where Jones had really personal opinions about things he’d experienced and I’d experienced, and the wheels came right on off this bus. I found his opinions about Fiddler on the Roof pretty risible and it did not get better from there. It doesn’t help that this was a book from around the turn of the millennium, and events since shed a rather different light on American musical theater; he couldn’t have known where it was all going, nobody could have predicted Hamilton for heaven’s sake, but when you feel someone’s gone off the rails fifty years before that, you can hardly think not predicting Hamilton is the main problem. Not recommended.

Rosalie M. Lin, Daughter of Calamity. Discussed elsewhere.

Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. I loved this, well written and interesting, about four mid-century women at Oxford looking at the world as it unfolded and thinking that it absolutely had to influence philosophy and…not always finding that the men around them felt the same, and persevering in their own ways despite a university system that was not particularly interested in women in general and women who wanted to think about the horrors of our time in specific. Complicated relationships, still meaningful friendships all the same, more like this please.

Lauren Markham, A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging. I have to tell you, I’m sorry, this book is not as good as its title. Just look at that title, what an amazing title. Would it be possible to live up to that title? I think so. This, however, is a fairly ordinary book that interweaves Markham’s search for her own roots in Greece with how Greece and the rest of the world are handling refugees. It’s got some solid interviews and reporting. It is not the transcendent shining thing that title promises. Many of us can benefit from a workmanlike book about the current handling of refugees and won’t mind some musings about personal identity thrown in. Just…set your expectations.

Marianne Moore, Complete Poems. Moore’s line lengths are all off from my own sense of rhythm, and her references are all off from my own sense of reference, so she will never be one of the poets of my heart, but I still liked reading this all the same, and will almost certainly read it again later.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Delia’s Shadow. Reread. What I want to say here is that it is a very strange experience to have a memorial reread of a recently deceased friend’s book when that book is a ghost fantasy full of Tuckerizations of other friends.

Jared Pechaček, The West Passage. Discussed elsewhere.

Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno, Tone. This is short, this is very readable, and also I’m not sure it will tell you a lot about tone (in writing, prose tone) if you aren’t already thinking a lot about it on your own. This is a book that is part of a conversation with writers who are already knee-deep in this subject, not Baby’s First Tone Book.

Noel Streatfeild, Grass in Piccadilly. Kindle. The inhabitants of a large house turned into flats in the immediate post-WWII period have to sort their personal lives in the upheaval of that period. Streatfeild is trying something with a German Jewish refugee family that doesn’t entirely work–she was always terrible at writing German accent dialect even when it’s word choice rather than phoneticization–but is clearly entirely well-intentioned, she’s going out of her way to show what a lovely generous person the mother in particular is and that the children are–in the end the whole family is–British, dammit, that German Jewish refugees can by her lights be British. It’s one of those attempts at Philosemitism that go a little off but only in a mildly embarrassing way, not a hateful way. The ending is not as tied up with a bow as it might be, and I think that tying it with a bow would have been cloying but I’m not sure the suggested ending is more satisfying–I think among other things it relies on a concept of childhood resilience that I do not for a moment believe and a certain amount of biological essentialism about motherhood. There is some brief and absolutely gratuitous homophobia at the end. (Are there queer characters throughout? no, they show up to be sneered at in the end. Noel what are you doing stop it.) There is also interesting stuff about what you can and cannot get done in the immediate postwar period and how people of different classes manage to get along. Take from all that what you will.

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The West Passage, by Jared Pechaček

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Two young people are left to fend for themselves–and their home–in a crumbling castle of varied tower traditions and strange denizens. The Guardian and the Mother of Grey House each have an apprentice at the beginning of this book of shifting names and identities. Each is saddled with a quest that feels insurmountable: to warn Black Tower of the coming of the Beast, to fix the seasons back in their courses so that winter follows autumn in its proper time rather than arriving in the middle of summer. Each must travel through a landscape of fantastical people, thoughtful bees and apes, less thoughtful humans, all tied to their own roles and customs, each holding to fragments of belief that might illuminate the past or the future or both. There will be miracles, but they might not be useful. There will be giant Ladies, but their loyalties are unsure. But Grey House is home, and the two apprentices try to protect it and–at least some form of–the lives they have known.

It’s a very weird book, and it’s not doing the same thing as everything else, and I liked it. Also it stands on its own (unlike Grey House–little Grey House humor for my denizens out there). Also it’s got little illustrations Pechaček did for the chapter heads and that, rabbit-headed squires in their cotehardies and Schoolmasters trying to teach their apes when the apes already know more. It feels…colored like a medieval manuscript, is what I want to say. The prose is not medieval, but the colors are, the seasons, the sense of people having known places that aren’t as solid as they wanted to hope in their childhoods. Not the faux knights of cod medievalism but the Great Chain of Being and the wheels of the world shifting and also the uncertainty about weather and food of the actual medieval world. And sometimes people eating ortolans, that helps with the medieval feel as well, and the ravenousness of a baby Lady, and the rarity and importance of manuscript, and…yeah, there’s a lot here, it’s going to be hard to explain, and that’s the point, it’s an uncertain-world sort of book, it’s a book for an uncertain world. Are you having one of those? Well.

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Daughter of Calamity, by Rosalie M. Lin

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author a bit because we share an agent.

Jingwen is a cabaret dancer in a 1930s Shanghai quite a bit, but not entirely, like our own. She also goes by Vilma, for a little Western glamour when she’s lighting up the tiles with her fancy footwork and practiced flirtation. She loves her life of dancing, drinking, and beautiful qipaos and shoes. Her grandmother, a doctor with the ability to make people new limbs out of a magical silver substance, is disgusted by Jingwen’s frivolity. She has made her bargains with the seamier side of Shanghai life in the gang of the Blue Dawn, and she expects Jingwen to follow in her footsteps.

When another dancer is attacked in a horrifying and unnatural way, Jingwen can’t be comfortable running the occasional errand for her grandmother and her gang contacts any more. Gradually competing with the other cabaret girls for the richest patron feels less important–and the rich patrons look more dangerous. When her diurnal dance troop is bought out by one of them and its artistic director replaced by a mysterious figure who makes her the lead dancer, she knows she’s playing with fire, but she has to pursue justice for the other dancers–and safety for herself.

There are powers beyond the human in play in Jingwen’s Shanghai. She will have to try to sacrifice to them, embody them, control them, work around them–but she can’t ignore them, or not just her way of life but her life itself–will be in danger. This is not our Shanghai, quite, but it is still a crossroads of the world, keeping its culture and making it new in the face of dozens of outside forces and divided desires from its own people.

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Different Kinds of Defiance, by Renan Bernardo

Review copy provided by the author, who is an online pal.

The ten stories in this collection have a range of science fiction conceits, from an obsolete robot to the pollination of future farming. They’re unified by the warmth and determination of their characters, by their unflinching look at the way the world is going and what we will need to build a better way out of what we’ve got right now. Because there are different kinds of defiance here, but there are also different kinds of hope. Different kinds of optimism. This is not the “in the future everything will be shiny and happy” kind of optimism. It’s the “in the future, here are some ways people might work darn hard to make lives worth living on the human scale” kind of optimism.

You know. The genuine kind.

There’s a lot of Bernardo’s home nation of Brazil here, and Bernardo lingers on just enough telling details to give these short pieces depth of place, not enough to ever slow the pacing. There’s also quite a variety even within the explicitly Brazilian stories–it’s a big country with lots of room for science fiction in it. I can’t wait to see more from Bernardo and others.

Some of these were brand new to me, others old favorites (“old”–within the last few years favorites, okay), but it’s lovely to have them collected in one place to return to again and again. Recommended.

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Books read, late February

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility. Kindle, reread. I hadn’t reread this in decades, and it made me laugh as it was supposed to do (though it did not particularly make me cheer in the places it was supposed to, goals having changed). I had forgotten, however, that this book contains one of my Jane Austen identification characters, by which I mean Sir John, because: Sir John is always and basically only concerned with other people’s dogs. “We met Willoughby,” the Dashwood sisters tell him, and he immediately perks up and asks, “did he have his dog with him?” and starts describing the dog. Well done that man, one of the few people in literature to understand the proper focus of a conversation. Later, when he is angry at Willoughby: “and to think I offered him a puppy just yesterday morning!” Indeed, sir! You have moved me to indignation alongside you! And so on through the book. He is sharply observed, but also oh dear, he is me. Unfortunately no one else in the book is him, so I don’t know enough about his dogs, who I expect are quite nice also, if anything nicer. I wonder if this is what fanfiction is for, but I have too much else to do. Various people marry each other, but in only one case are we explicitly assured that their dogs are nice after, and he doesn’t deserve it. Ah well.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Demon Daughter. Kindle. The latest Penric and Desdemona novella, featuring a young Roknari girl adjusting to an equally young demon under the theology of this world. This continues the standing tradition of the Roknari being basically objectively wrong about the nature of demons and the Bastard God, so if that’s something that bothers you in this worldbuilding, there’s a lot of focus on it. It also has the protagonist family being quite nice to a child in need, so–it really depends on your focus and needs of this novella.

Adrian Cooper, ed., Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing. All fairly brief essays, all tree- or forest-focused, nothing particularly deep unfortunately, and the authors I’d read before were not at their particular best here. Fine but not outstanding.

Christine Coulson, One Woman Show. A “novel” (probably not by length, no, probably novelette or novella) told as placards at an art exhibition–the entire life of an unhappy wealthy woman, birth to death. Coulson was clever here but not particularly compassionate to any of the characters–basically none of them had any redeeming traits. Which is a choice she can make, and you can judge for yourself whether the cleverness of the conceit will be worth the time for you.

Genoveva Dimova, Foul Days. Discussed elsewhere.

Rose Fox (now going by Asher Rose Fox) and Daniel José Older, eds., Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Reread. Picked up for a memorial reread on the passing of one of the authors (S. Lynn), who was the dear friend of a dear friend though I did not know her at all, and the entire rest of the volume was engaging enough that I just kept going with the whole thing. At a decade on it was interesting to see that some of the new and unfamiliar authors had become household names at least in this very nerdy household. As with any anthology not every story could be a favorite but there were enough that qualified in that category that I had a hard time putting it down even though it was my designated “short bits” book.

Antonia Fraser, Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit. Fraser seems to be particularly taken with defending Lady Caroline on the grounds that the people who were most upset with her did most of the same things she did, and if she was appalling, so were they. For this she makes a pretty good case. She also makes a somewhat reasonable case that Lady Caroline’s mental health needs were not well-served by the medical care available at her time, although this occasionally strays into specific diagnoses in ways that I don’t find entirely well-judged for the level of historical distance we have. This is a very short book and probably should not be your first introduction to Whig society of this period (early 19th century).

Barbara Hambly, The Nubian’s Curse. The latest Benjamin January mystery, and the title refers to a statue from an ancient kingdom rather than getting cutesy about a semi-modern person. Probably not the best place to start with the series but a reasonable enough place to continue.

Florian Illies, Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War. Episodic flashes of how notable figures in various of the arts got by in Europe in the 1930s. Interesting, sad, engaging.

Catherine E. Karkov, Art and the Formation of Early Modern England. Kindle. A brief Kindle monograph on influences on the art of this period and how it, in turn, influenced its world. Not of great depth but with interesting bits about, for example, stone-carving and enamel-working.

Mark Monmonier, How to Lie With Maps. I was not the audience for this book. I’m frankly having a hard time imagining the audience for this book, which is an audience who is interested enough to read an entire book on map inaccuracy but not interested enough to have thought for even one moment about the topic before. It was so basic, and despite the catchy title it did not spend a great deal of time on things like gerrymandering. I kept waiting for the chapters where it leveled up. There were no such chapters.

Christopher Priest, The Prestige. Reread. I picked this up for a memorial reread after he passed away recently, and what a relief it was to find it still basically where I left it: the prose so readable, the characters as flawed as they ever were but handled so well by the author in their differing settings and voices, the stagecraft vivid and fun/horrifying to contemplate.

Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham. This is an example of how I will read whatever is lying about because another family member has it, but honestly it was fast and interesting, and I like Bull Durham a lot. What was particularly interesting were the places where Shelton was talking about scenes that were cut that…would not have added to the movie and he did not seem clear on why but I, with 25 years of experience as a short story writer, could totally have told him why. We don’t always understand our own work, this is why we get other eyes on it, I’m glad he got other eyes on his, I’m glad I have other eyes on mine. And I’m totally glad the studio person who wanted Anthony Michael Hall as Nuke LaLoosh lost out, because what tomfoolery is this.

Francis Spufford, Cahokia Jazz. On the one hand, I think it’s amazing that someone tried to write an alternate history this sweeping, of an America where smallpox did not actually kill off most of the Native American population, where there is a vast and thriving Native culture in the early 20th century, where St. Louis does not exist but the city of Cahokia, with strong Native traditions, does. On the other hand the farther back the divergence point with our history the more convergence becomes a statement of inevitability. And having a divergence back in the 16th or 17th century that…still leads to a powerful KKK and a non-identical but quite similar Birth of a Nation? is making a statement about how powerful and how inevitable those things are that I don’t like and don’t agree with. Also frankly it really rubbed me the wrong way to have a British man coming in and writing about the KKK racism of the German-Americans in his fictional Missouri when I know a great deal about the history of German-Americans in actual Missouri and how it was German 48ers who kept it Bloody Missouri instead of entirely rolling over and showing belly for the enslavers so excuse me if I don’t find it a compelling vision that oh it’s those Germans who are racist, certainly not the Americans of similar ethnic background to Mr. Spufford himself who were the actual founders of the KKK, sir, own your shit. (In case you think I’m being defensive, I am not myself of German ethnicity. I just find it awfully convenient when someone comes in and points so hard at Them when there’s a whole lot of his Us behaving badly to be had.) And the ending: I will give you three guesses as to what kind of ending someone who decided that his compelling vision of a future full of Native Americans featured a dominant KKK would give us for his Native hero. Heroic ending, certainly, but: happy or tragic, no spoiler here, you just guess though, you just give it one guess whether he wanted to imagine something good for a large, strong Native man in a strong Native culture…or not. I wanted so much better here. His prose is compelling. I have liked his other work. But the vision here is flawed in ways that I don’t think he was even trying to understand. I don’t think he knows what he doesn’t know here.

Noel Streatfeild, The Silent Speaker. Kindle. Very clear, very large content warning: this is a book about a suicide. There is a dinner party in chapter one, in chapter two one of the people at the dinner party kills themself, and the entire rest of the book is the other characters trying to figure out why that person did it. This book was published in 1961, the last of Streatfeild’s adult novels, and its mid-century status turns out to be very important to the plot as well as to its worldview. It’s actually not one of the preachier Streatfeilds–the people who are ready to blame themselves are generally wrong and given authorial compassion as well as compassion from some of the other characters–but because of the subject matter I would put this in the “only if you are quite interested in her work in general” list; it’s very much not for everyone for reasons that I would hope would be tolerably obvious.

Martha Wells, The Book of Ile-Rien (containing The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer). Discussed elsewhere.

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Foul Days, by Genoveva Dimova

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Sometimes when I’ve been doing a lot of revisions and bouncing off a string of bad library books, I grump around the house asking if I even like books. The house is stuffed with books. I like books better than basically any other material object. Of course I like books. Sometimes I need the right book to remind me. And Foul Days was one of those books.

Kosara is a witch in the walled city of Chernograd. The rest of the world wants its monsters behind the walls, where the witches and warlocks of Chernograd know how to ward them off, hunt them, or at least mitigate their damage–and Kosara has a lot of experience with all of that. She’s even had very personal run-ins with the Zmey, the terrifying human-like force known as the Tsar of Monsters. But this year in the monster-ridden Foul Days that start a new year, her luck has run out–and she’s cornered in the worst situation a witch can get herself into. With new allies looking suspicious–and the old ones even worse–Kosara has to get her shadow back and beat the Zmey in order for herself and her city to survive intact.

Foul Days is infused on every page with a wry and loving blend of Dimova’s Bulgarian background and her own considerable imagination. The characters, down to the smallest house spirits, relate in a way that feels real and vivid. The entwining of Kosara’s magical and personal obstacles feels real. It was exactly the right thing to snap me out of a reading slump, and I can’t wait for the promised sequel.

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The Book of Ile-Rien, by Martha Wells

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a re-issue in omnibus form of two books I have read separately, years ago. They are united by a common setting–sort of. The country of Ile-Rien is separated by several hundred years in the two books, and it is allowed to evolve between them, to have history and technology and all sorts of things, so that The Element of Fire is a court fantasy and The Death of the Necromancer is very gaslamp. One character is the ancestor of another, and his actions matter but only as a sort of subplot; the magic has similar roots in the same way that we have lots of pieces of technology from hundreds of years ago–kettles, needles and thread, all sorts of things–but also new ones.

So having it reissued in omnibus has a few advantages: one, there’s a reissue at all; two, it’s all in one place; three, the book will stay open nicely if you set it on the table to read while you’re eating. I did this experiment for you, friends, because I value science. However, if you want to get it and read one and then stop for a bit before you read the other, it’s really not all one story, you won’t have to do all 700+ pages at once.

The Element of Fire is the court fantasy. It’s full of fey/Fayre/fairies, the Unseelie court having a representative in the half-fey princess Kade Carrion and her generally quite relatable machinations in the court of her brother king Roland. The captain of the Queen’s Guard, the Dowager Queen and the new queen, all have roles to play in this, and there is court intrigue to the gills. I think Martha may have gotten a friend to sit on it so she could zip it with all the court intrigue she stuffed in there. I love court intrigue. I forgot how much I liked this one.

The Death of the Necromancer is more thieves and miscreants chasing around the city’s underworld trying to figure out in time who is causing the chaos for whom and whether it’s themselves (sometimes yes), and who they can trust enough to add to the team and who is just not going to be worth it. There are horrible, horrible things done to corpses, there are people who are willing to destroy each other for revenge, there is a really good grandmother. It goes on as the beginning of The Element of Fire starts but does not go on.

I found these held up really well and were so satisfying all these years later, and I’m delighted people will have another go at them.