Books read, late June

Pat Barker, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. Rereads. I read these more or less in one go, as a trilogy, and that’s how I recommend doing it. There is an interesting phenomenon with some books that break a lot of ground in their time, because they sometimes do not look as astonishing in retrospect because people have gone on so much further after. Which is not to say that these are not still quite readable books–in fact I tore through them–but Barker was doing so much less with both sexuality and the war poets than I remembered. The first volume had such an incredibly light hand with sexuality, in fact, that I think a new reader to it would say, “I thought she said a theme of this trilogy was….” And the war poets rather the opposite: Siegfried Sassoon is a protagonist of the first, certainly, but I remembered him and Owen looming much larger throughout than they did. In short what she was doing here was not what I remembered her doing. Was it interesting, yes; but the things that were striking to me when I first read it nearly twenty years ago were less so now, and there were different directions. I’m still not sure what I think of the use of Rivers’s ethnographic work in the last volume. Huh. I’m not sorry I reread it, and I probably will want to reread it again in another twenty years for another look.

Nancy Marie Brown, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Assassins of Thasalon. Kindle. I like watching Lois think through all the different implications of the theology of this world and what it would do to actual people, and the compassion she approaches it with. This is very much the latest in a long series and I wouldn’t start here, but I enjoyed it as such.

Stephanie Burgis, The Disastrous Debut of Agatha Tremain. Kindle This was light and fun and just what I needed at its moment, the kind of 19th century-inspired fantasy that Steph does so well.

Elias Lönnrot (Eino Friberg trans.), The Kalevala. I was told that there was a new translation of the Kalevala, but alas, there is a new edition of a 1989 translation, and it does not even have new introductory material that could discuss use of words like “sq–w” that have no place in a translation of a Finnish poem, honestly what on earth was Penguin thinking. What are new editions even for. Why do they put introductions on things that tell me the entire plot of novels I haven’t read yet if they can’t put them on other things to apologize for (and/or amend…) racist language from past translators. Among my many gripes with the Friberg translation: it is mostly metrical but only mostly, so the places where it breaks meter are extremely glaring and do not appear to be for poetic emphasis or characterization, and mostly I could see how I would fix them myself in the moment I was reading it, which threw me out of the poem narrative. Also Friberg uses very cutesy translation words to try to keep meter in some places, like “snackbite” and “bigly,” which: stop that, Eino, what are you doing. Bigly. Now really. And when you have an epithet that breaks meter, returning to that epithet again and again when you could choose an epithet that does not break meter–oh, it’s dreadful. This is not what I meant when I said I wanted to compare translations. I hope the next version is better, or I’m just going to huddle in the corner with Francis Peabody Magoun and glare. (Magoun also uses “sq–w.” Why the fascination. Stop it.) Where is our Finnophone version of Maria Dahvana Headley? Where Emily Wilson? Whither Shadi Bartsch? I would give that person several of my very own cash dollars. I would rally my friends. I know several people. Is there a reverse Kickstarter where you put cash on the barrel and sort of a rope snare and translators wander through the forest that is the internet and when there is enough tasty cash they try to take it and translate poetry. I also want a Kalevipoeg more recent than W. F. Kirby in 1895. I don’t ask much. I’m a reasonable person.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares. Discussed elsewhere.

Zin E. Rocklynn, Flowers for the Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Dorothy Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon and Lord Peter. Rereads. Here is where my sense of Bunter comes from. There is more Bunter here than in the rest of the series. I had been thinking my reader’s 50% was really more like 80% when it came to Bunter–which would be understandable for class reasons–but there’s a lot more of him here, hello Bunter, I’d missed you. There were some really interesting things here, and also some appalling ones. The last story in Lord Peter, in particular, is that thing that happens with people of that era: it is an entire story that is more or less completely written in defense of capital punishment. If you ever get to making the mistake that people of past generations who are sensible in one regard are sensible in all, read “Tallboys” and you will be soundly disabused, because it is start to finish a whole-hearted defense of beating quite small children with sticks and how great it is and how much they love it and how much people who say one oughtn’t to beat children are hypocrites who would do it at first opportunity. You often see this sort of thing among science fiction writers of the same age as well. It’s horrifying particularly in the context of a series that has been seriously considering the problem of equality in heterosexual relationships. It’s a very weird note to end on and makes me very strongly anti-recommend reading the short stories last.

Fran Wilde, The Ship of Stolen Words. I read an earlier version of this in manuscript, and I’m delighted that it is now published and available to the rest of you! Goblins steal Sam’s ability to apologize, and he has to chase them and their word-hunting pigs through Little Free Libraries to get his words back. Sam’s frustrations and struggles and joys are utterly charming and delightful. Highly recommended.

Flowers for the Sea, by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This debut novella is listed as both epic and dark fantasy, and I would say it trends strongly toward the latter. Until we got to the ending, I was inclining toward calling it horror–there is a strong component of what I would describe as body horror here, subcategory pregnancy body horror. If that’s a theme you struggle with, you may want to leave this one for another day (or even another reader), because pregnancy (and nursing) body horror is a substantial portion of what we’re doing here.

This is a story of the outcast, and it is a story of the sea. I was wondering if there would be sharp twists, but no, it’s more like the tide, it’s inexorable like the tide. The razorfangs, the sea, the survivors and their treatment of each other including the ostracized other among them…the question of her humanity…it’s all there, you know this song, it’s a question of how vividly Rocklyn brings it to its conclusion, and the answer is, very vividly indeed.

The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, by Nancy Marie Brown

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I found this book both interesting and frustrating.

Interesting, because there was a lot of good solid information about textiles and trading. Much archaeology, lots of reconstruction! If you want the details of what kinds of paint substrates were being used in the Viking era, Nancy Marie Brown has your back. I do in fact want that. I want that a lot. So this is very useful to me. I expect to some of you also.

Frustrating, because she is very much willing to make assumptions based on herself personally and go galloping forth with them. There is a little note after the main body of the book where she blithely tells the reader that Neil Price encouraged her to take a complex view of gender and she decided not to do so. Oh really, says this reviewer. Well, isn’t that a choice you made.

In Brown’s favor, she is willing to revisit previous positions when there is evidence that they are utter nonsense. Unfortunately this means that there are long sections of this book where the person she is arguing with is not me, not Neil Price, not any of a great number of other people who have been thinking thinky thoughts about the Viking era and gender for decades now (I have restrained myself from listing half a dozen personal friends in this location), but in fact…Previous Version Nancy Marie Brown. For example she says out loud! without prompting! that she personally did not used to believe in women wanting to fight with swords, which was so phenomenally stupid that I nearly shut the book and went off to go reread Neil Price instead. It’s always possible to consider other people having preferences unlike oneself, the more so when they are removed from oneself by an entire millennium, sort it out before you visit it upon the rest of us in several published volumes.

But really there’s quite a lot of useful stuff about dyes and paint substrates and that. Even if her “reconstructed” fiction sections demonstrate why she is not a fiction writer. If you’re thinking of a project in this era you might well want it just for what furs are common where and so on. If you take it all with a grain of salt about how willing this particular author is to generalize from the particular person she has closest to hand.

Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares, by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Review copy provided by the publisher.

When I saw that there was a sequel to Paola Santiago and the River of Tears coming out, I couldn’t request it fast enough. Pao and her friends had exciting, fun adventures, and I was excited to rejoin them.

As often happens, the sequel goes to a somewhat darker, more grown-up place. In many cases when people discuss a fantasy novel and say “darker,” they mean that the fantasy tropes are more horror-tinged, scarier, but the first volume of this series was pretty dark for a kids’ fantasy–the titles are giving you accurate information that the fluffy bunny content here is fairly minimal. But for me, the thing that gets darker and more mature is not actually the fantasy element, which is pretty consistent. It’s the friendship element: Paola’s relationships with her best friends have grown rather fraught, and all is not well between them in ways that are more complicated than the spats of the first book.

Which makes me squirm. And this is very much a middle book: if you’re looking for clear resolution and absolute redemption, this is not the book for it. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for lots of growth and characters figuring out interesting things and the author getting to play with a larger scope than she started with–plenty of Arizona desert, now heading into California and up to Oregon, with the legends to accompany–this may be your jam. It was mine.

Books read, early June

Zen Cho, Black Water Sister. An American woman goes to Malaysia with her parents and meets her grandmother. Who is dead. And learns a lot about her family, local gods, herself, and where she wants to be going with all this. This was delightful. Highly recommended.

Roshani Chokshi, A Crown of Wishes. Chokshi’s second novel and the last of hers I’ve gotten around to reading. There’s a darker feel here to the magical elements she’s brought to play in some of her other work, but two people still have to learn to trust each other and find their happy ending through tournaments and poisons and other stuff that’s much more fun to read about than to live.

Nino Cipri, Defekt. A sequel to Finna and along very similar lines: funny-horror-SF Ikea commentary. A quick good time at the edges of what I usually like in terms of its horror elements.

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest. The title kind of tells you what he’s doing here: people are gonna get killed. And killed and killed, wow, so killed. There’s a reason his later novels are more famous, because the structure here is just wild, but the sentences are all very very Hammett.

Graci Kim, The Last Fallen Star. Charming middle-grade fantasy about an adoptee figuring out her powers and her place in the world. Very centered on Korean-American LA in a way that was interesting and fun. I continue to love what Rick Riordan is doing with this line of books and the different authors whose voices get highlighted here.

Arthur C. Parker, Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. Parker was telling these stories from his own memory and interactions with his own friends and family members, and it has a certain feel of…drawing you into the cultural assumptions along with him. It’s the kind of compilation you got a lot in the early twentieth century, so it has that kind of writing, but in a very matter-of-fact voice, like, of course the person turned into a porcupine then, that’s what would happen! I enjoyed this.

Sarah Prineas, Trouble in the Stars. A light tale of shapeshifting alien kid. Since I just drafted one of those, I wanted to see if it was anything like mine, and the answer is, wow, no, could not be more different. Yay! This one has all sorts of different spacefaring aliens, not all of whom get along even a little bit in the early part of the book. Good times.

Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. The twist ending did not feel very twisty to me because I think a lot about story structure, but I enjoyed the relationships and how they unfolded, particularly in the early part of the book, and if you like thinking about Old Hollywood vs. new journalism, this is an interesting one.

J. C. Rudkin, Cthulhu: A Love Story. Discussed elsewhere.

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Rereads. It’s striking to me, on this reread, how much it looks like Sayers no longer wanted to write about murder after introducing Harriet Vane to the series. She still did it–it’s a murder mystery series, and the pressure from her publisher was intense. But she also found ways to do other things, and to make even the books that were clearly about murder also about other things. I like all of these. These are some of my favorites of the series. (I still maintain that if you’re going to read only one, it should be Bellona Club. Several of my friends suggest Murder Must Advertise works fine that way, but I think a major part of its appeal is the contrast of who Peter is pretending to be–who he might have been–with who he really is.) But I do wonder what it might have been like if she had been encouraged to wander off and written whatever novels appealed to her, what their structure might have looked like. Or whether it would have looked like this after all, since this was the structure she knew best.

Robin R. Wang, Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty. I don’t recommend this. Two reasons: one, this is the sort of book that goes with a particular course being taught by a particular professor, that they happen to have gotten published in book form. (It was a hand-me-down to me that was a gift to someone else.) There are loads of other things at least as good written about women in China over this two thousand year period; I can see the shape of the coursework around it, but even when it was published this was not a particularly special selection. But what’s worse is that this is an area in which fifteen years of scholarship have made a huge difference in how such a selection would be curated. Almost none of this work is by women, and its skew is very much in a particular direction. Several of the notes use identical language to that justifying basically every patriarchal culture–“oh but it’s fine that the women had huge restrictions because in this culture the family was valued“–check the literature, they literally say it about every single one, and what if…that kind of justification was not our job? what if we were observing rather than justifying? what if the role of this kind of book was to observe a diversity of thought (this book does not do that) and role in a gigantic empire over an immense span of time rather than to give a fairly narrowly curated view? Anyway you’ll want something else, this is not notably good commentary or selection.

Cynthia Zhang, After the Dragons. Discussed elsewhere.

Cthulhu: A Love Story, by J. C. Rudkin

This review copy came to me as a result of the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter’s Contributors Do Your Bidding effort: a nonfiction piece on the topic of the donor’s choosing was one of the possible rewards, and they chose me and a review of this debut novel. I was a little curious about being chosen to review a crossover Lovecraftian love story, since I am not the natural audience for either of those. Frankly I hate the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But as a reviewer I’m able to go into a work looking for what other people value in it.

It looks to me like that’s what J.C. Rudkin (a writing team of two) did with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, too. They’re part of the new generation of writers, along with Ruthanna Emrys, Victor LaValle, Premee Mohamed, and more, who are fascinated with the squamous and rugose but actively reject the racism and xenophobia that ol’ Howie brought to the table. Very early in the book, Rudkin’s narrator tells us, “It felt like the whole world had gone mad in the last few years. Chaotic weather, chaotic governments, violence, and fear across the globe. Admittedly, this had been great for my book sales,” and I felt like I had a handle on why they might have chosen Cthulhu as the focus of their love story.

And then we got to the romantic lead.

“I met Cthulhu when I was in college. I was young, naïve, and excited to be away from home, the place I’d considered a prison for most of my life.
He was one of those things.”

Yeah. If you think you made some unfortunate dating choices in college, consider horror writer Amanda, who finds out that her college boyfriend Ryley actually meant to tell her that he was from R’lyeh. Because it turns out Amanda dated Cthulhu, trapped in human form by evil cultists bent on controlling his power. They were mostly successful–mostly–so that a lot of the worst of his power is endowed in a twisted nautilus (later bestowed upon young Amanda). What’s left is a sexy demigod with improbably sea-blue eyes, bending passers-by and waitstaff to his will and giving young Amanda a very decadent introduction to the world.

Very decadent. As in, full of decay, chaos, and despair, ia ia.

There were several points at which I said, “oh my GOD! The REAL villain here is–” Trust me, this actually is a horror novel, there is no shortage of “real villains here.” Let’s start with Amanda’s mother Caroline, a controlling, petulant horror show on a very human level–although the way that unfolds comes with a tinge of pathos for the person Caroline might have been.

There are two separate sets of Cthulhu cultists, definitely villainous enough all on their own. And Cthulhu himself? Well, this may be labeled a love story. But he is definitely not “a nice guy once you get to know him, deep down”–or even down in the deeps. Is Cthulhu a real villain here? Definitely yes. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the way that the narrative played with romance tropes of the domineering alpha male and showed that they are frankly horrifying. “THE ALL-POWERFUL ROMANTIC ALPHA MALE TROPE AND HOW IT TWISTS THE PEOPLE AROUND IT IS THE REAL VILLAIN HERE!” I crowed.

Which is not to say that all romance novels do this–most of them do not, any more than most fantasy novels reinforce blood-based racism–but every genre has to own its share of gross tropes and figure out what to do about them. Watching how different the lush banquet and picking out special jewelry look when the hero involved is Cthulhu and he is destroying bystanders’ minds was a warping I didn’t expect coming in, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Because this is a debut and I don’t know the authors personally, I wasn’t entirely sure which direction the ending was going to take Amanda, and I was genuinely worried for her mind and her soul at several points–which genre would win? Would the Elder God in the form of a sexy man with eyes of Caribbean blue break the strong-minded girl who fought her way from working-class Florida to publishing glory despite a staggering lack of family support? Would extremely well-organized cultists thwart them both? Where was the FBI in all this, and would they come in at the right–or dreadfully wrong–moment?

And when Amanda said she didn’t expect to live out her plans, was she right?

A lot of smaller press publications have pacing problems, but this one flew right by, even though I was deliberately slowing my reading speed for review purposes. You can still see some of the first-novel scaffolding in some of the sentence construction, but if the idea of a successful horror writer having to deal with her past as Cthulhu’s college girlfriend–for the sake of the universe and its sanity–tickles your fancy, Cthulhu: A Love Story executes on that premise with some charming grace notes along the way.

After the Dragons, by Cynthia Zhang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Immunology! Pollution! Diaspora Chinese experience! Tiny dragons! Prickly gay guys figuring out whether they want a relationship! Cynthia Zhang’s debut is so good that I am having a hard time writing this review because mostly I want to make high pitched squealing noises while pointing at it, and while that’s very expressive of my feelings, it may not be the most helpful–or at least not the only helpful–way to review a book.

Okay, so. Eli is a mixed-race American person, Black and Chinese American, and he has chosen to do some of his postgraduate medical studies in Beijing, in a world that is a great deal like–but not identical to–ours. His grandmother’s grave is there, but his (Chinese-American) mother is still a little confused and concerned at his choice, especially because the pollution levels in alternate-Beijing are dangerous. But Eli feels drawn to the place, the people who share some but not all of his heritage, and the dragons–little semi-aquatic flying reptiles of the right size to scrap with a house cat.

And once he’s there, he feels drawn to Kai, a young dragon lover, artist, and all-around fascinating guy with a lot of defense mechanisms. Eli and Kai circle each other more warily than dragons put in a fighting ring by human gamblers as they figure out how much to push each other and what parts of “not enough to fix everything but still worth trying” they can live with. There, that sounded coherent, right? Eeeeee this is lovely, go read it when you can.

Books read, late May

Diane Ackerman, The Planets. Reread. The last time I read this I was very early in a physics major/English minor in college and was much impressed with it. This time, alas, much less so. It’s a poetry collection where the poems are trying to be in some way shaped like the planet they’re associated with. Uranus, for example, is printed sideways on the page. This strikes me as far less clever than it did when I was an eager physics teenager. Ah well.

Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings, The Asset Economy: Property Ownership and the New Logic of Inequality. Like many economics books, this is a mixture of “oh, of course!” and “I don’t think you’ve come even close to demonstrating that in the confines of these pages.” The former: looking at households managing asset sheets, yes, definitely. The latter: I don’t think they’ve at all demonstrated that assets have supplanted things like jobs for class determinants–especially since figuring out other people’s assets can be quite tricky–and also some of how they define what an asset is seems to be pretty circular about their own arguments and can be shaky/self-contradictory. (Is education an asset? Asserting that it is allows some of their arguments to proceed, but it certainly doesn’t meet some of the obvious definitions.) Short, interesting in the sense of “sparked several conversations around the house.”

John Appel, Assassin’s Orbit. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Derelict of Duty and The Station of the Twelfth. Kindle. These are two very short pieces that felt extremely strong to me. In some ways I liked the first better, but the latter is a great introduction to what Chaz has been doing with his Mars stuff on Patreon and why you might be interested.

Roshani Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen. Vivid and fast-paced, probably my least-favorite of Chokshi’s so far which still puts it a cut above many other things out there. Death and magic and treachery.

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda. Kindle. I love her so much. I’m reading her books with as little knowledge of what they’re about as possible, going in, and this is actually going great, I’m getting to have them as books, not as classics we know all about. So there were things in this that I don’t want to spoil for you in case you want it the same way. There’s a lot about figuring out one’s work in life, and who’s on the edges of society, and all sorts of other interesting things. It’s massive, and it’s worth every page.

Jonas Lie, Weird Tales from the Northern Sea. Kindle. This is 19th century short stories from a northern Norwegian, and it is just as depressing as you’d expect from that. “An ocean spirit ate my whole family and I was a shadow of myself after that. Also my boat was no good.” Welp. Am I sorry I read it, no, sometimes I’m like that.

Premee Mohamed, The Broken Darkness. The sequel to Premee’s first cosmic horror novel, and it’s just as strong on complicated friendship and accidentally destroying the world in unfathomable ways, so if that’s your non-Euclidian jam, here’s more.

Coral Alejandra Moore, Eliana González Ugarte, et al, Constelacion Magazine Issue 1. Kindle. A strong first issue of this bilingual speculative magazine with standout stories from Malka Older and Dante Luiz.

Dorothy Sayers, Have His Carcase, Strong Poison, The Five Red Herrings, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and Unnatural Death. Rereads. I was keeping an eye out for several things on this reread. One of them is which ones make good stand-alone reads if someone is to only read one, and I am still a partisan for The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club on this point. If you haven’t read any of the Lord Peter Wimsey books and think you’re only up for one, let it be this one. It’s thoughtful about the aftermath of the Great War, and it introduces you to the characters without leaning too heavily on previous volumes. It remains one of my favorite novels in that way and also works as a mystery novel specifically. I almost skipped The Five Red Herrings–I did on my last reread–and I’m glad I didn’t; my tolerance for phoneticized dialect has gone up, and I could see the influence of her writing for the stage here even though I didn’t find it wholly successful. A friend has suggested that Strong Poison is a good stand-alone, and I could not disagree more: I think its structure is a very weak start (it starts with a judge summing up a court case at length!) and it relies on knowing the characters to care what they’re doing–and I’m not sure Peter’s behavior is at all sympathetic if you don’t already like Peter (or frankly entirely sympathetic even if you do). Still, the series has hit its full swing here, and it’s just what I want to be reading. This has been a good life choice.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40. Kindle. My favorite things in this were stories by Fran Wilde and Rachel Swirsky, but I’m glad to have the whole thing. Yes, I did a lot of magazine catch-up this month.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, The Deadlands Issue 1. Kindle. Another strong first issue, although my favorite part was the opening to the ongoing column from Amanda Downum.

Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. For an 850-page book, it was paced like a rocket. Explained some useful things about Romania and Switzerland that often get skipped over by authors wanting to focus on Germany and Spain. Really you could do a lot worse for books on the Thirty Years War.

Assassin’s Orbit, by John Appel

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a convention/online buddy for the last few years (and his wife and one of his kids as well).

John Appel is having a good time.

I am often dubious about the advice to write the books you want to read, because there are loads of reasons why a particular person might not be able to do that. (Let’s start with: not everyone is a writer.) I’m pretty sure that John, however, wanted to read a book that was an action-packed space adventure full of older characters (mostly women from non-European cultural origins) who had to use their lifetimes of experience as their situation spiraled from a multiple-murder crime scene into riots and beyond to a coup attempt with interplanetary implications.

And that’s what he did.

For the moment, at least, John is not going to make the list of lapidary writers crafting perfect gems of sentences. Luckily for all of us, he doesn’t pretend that that’s what he’s after, instead of focusing on getting his readers as many varieties of action as the plot can bear, leaning on research and personal experience for the bits that go biff-bang-pow and imagination for the bits that are interplanetary spies and nanotech mind control.

(Uh. We hope.)

Books read, early May

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. Reread. This is for a panel I’m doing for virtual Fourth Street this year, “Choosing What Matters: Concepts of Heroism in The Curse of Chalion,” so I’m going to save most of my thoughts for the panel–I hope you’ll join us! But what I will say is: Lois is one of the people who grows most as a writer, year over year, in this whole damn genre. She grows and grows, and the way you can see it all the time if you keep reading her is amazing.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the City of Gold. I love this series. It is so much fun. Don’t start here, start at the beginning. (This is the fourth one.) I got to this one after my younger godchild did, so I could squee on the family Discord about the marmots and other choice sections without fear of spoilers, and it was lovely. I am so happy every time there is more of Aru and Mini and their friends. (I am a huge Mini partisan.)

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. Beloved every time I read it, but this time was for a project that is not yet public, so I’ll mostly save the thoughts for that context.

Elizabeth Enright, The Saturdays. Reread. This was not the success that some of the other rereads this fortnight were. Specifically, a lot less of the book was “kids running around having independent adventures” than I remembered–that was the part I liked, so I think this was an example of the reader’s 50% being 80% for kids’ books (more on which in a bit), while there were lots of other kind of weird elements that I sort of skimmed over as a kid because I didn’t understand what they were doing there. And now I understand that mostly what they’re doing there are things like: reinforcing nasty stereotypes about Roma people solely to provide an adult character with a colorful past. Uh. Wow. Not really great, no longer really worth it. Sigh.

Siân Evans, Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth Fair, A Winter Away. This was a nice, light book in which a young woman gets a job setting an old man’s library to rights and generally serving as his secretary, and various amusing things ensue. She lives with her cousin and her cousin’s companion, and it’s one of those midcentury books where nobody actually says BECAUSE THEY ARE LESBIANS WHO LESB but basically yes, they are nice middle-aged lesbians who take in a young cousin while she is finding her way in the world, which she does.

Elizabeth Lim, Six Crimson Cranes. Discussed elsewhere.

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things and The Carrying. The latter was the one I read first, and it knocked me over completely in the best possible way. It deals unflinchingly with having vertigo, with wanting a child and not having one, with all sorts of horribly difficult things and also mundane things and beautiful things. I want to read all her work. I love this. I was so happy that I had gotten both volumes from the library at once so I didn’t have to wait even a minute between finishing The Carrying and starting Bright Dead Things, and if these two are an indication, she is still getting better. Wow.

Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witness and Whose Body?. Rereads. A friend’s discussion of Antisemitism and depictions of Antisemitism in these books finally pushed me over the edge into the reread I’d been toying with all pandemic, and they are just what I wanted this week. Bunter remains the best. These two are fine enough for what they are, but they’re a lead-up to my actual favorites.

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes and Traveling Shoes. Rereads. The bits about ocean liners, above, made me think happily of the bits in Traveling Shoes where they’re sitting in Myra and Ethel’s cabin talking about various family things, which turn out to be entirely in my own head. A friend has suggested that I may have conflated with another Streatfeild; I’ll check. But there was a lot of reader’s 50% here too. On the other hand, there’s a staggering amount of stuff that I took for granted when I read and reread these as a kid–the way that there’s a ton of dancing with basically no fat-shaming, for example, or the way that there are women with a startling variety of professions and that everyone, absolutely everyone, takes it for granted that it is entirely needed for girls to be prepared to earn their livings. Look: there is a woman with a math PhD in Ballet Shoes. I took it for granted as a kid. But there she is, and she always was, I just…didn’t know how extraordinary that was on the first twenty-million times through. There are some very weird things that Streatfeild completely does not understand (ballet dancers do not have beautiful magical feet; ballet dancers are not a magical species apart from other people who have no need to learn about learning or humility) but in general they were still interesting and fun and the suck fairy had been at them remarkably little. (I still wish Petrova, dear awesome Petrova, had gotten an actual first name. Poor Petrova.)

Jesse Q. Sutanto, Dial A for Aunties. This was just what I needed the day after my second vaccine. I had no energy, and I just curled up in bed and read about the antics of this wedding catering family and was relieved to the point of tears when they had the good kind of pear at a really crucial emotional moment. And I giggled a lot. A lot.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 40. Kindle. Another very satisfying issue, with standout stories from Fran Wilde and Rachel Swirsky.

Kate Wilhelm, Defense for the Devil. Reread. It was very strange to read this in close proximity to a friend’s actual mystery manuscript (which is a category I don’t discuss in these posts), because this, a published piece of prose by a writer who taught writing for decades, felt more like a manuscript to me. Is this because the field has moved on so much in the intervening years? (But then Sayers. So perhaps not.) Is this because Defense for the Devil was a lesser work of Wilhelm’s? I’m not sure, and I feel a little uneasy about finding out, because I remember enjoying the Barbara Holloway mysteries, and yet a lot of things about this felt rushed to me–the characterization, the prose, the balance of what was shown and what summarized–and I could immediately tell how I would write the critique for this promising piece if I was handed it in draft. But it wasn’t a draft, and it had so much scaffolding, so many places where the writer did not trust the reader to feel or think or draw the desired conclusions without joggling their elbow without the authorial voice saying, “he was right,” sometimes literally. Rereading this at a time when I was repeatedly interrupted by life rather than racing through it all in a go didn’t help…but very few people can rely on reading books in even two or three gulps. So. We’ll see about the rest of this series, when I can face it.