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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.

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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.)

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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.

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

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book had some amazing material that’s much easier to find here than a lot of other places and was generally a lot of fun to read in most chapters, and also it was a disorganized disaster and included a lot of tacked-on extraneous stuff for fairly shaky reasons! It’s both! Life is a glorious tapestry and so is this book!

The good: a lot of in-depth detail about what it was like to work as a conductress, a stewardess, or other ocean-going professions in the first half of the twentieth century. What their housing was like, their duties, their meals, their pay, how they were treated by various individual passengers and types of passengers, how their jobs first appeared in these ocean liners and how they developed. Side notes about women shipboard engineers, seagoing nurses, and so on. Details of how metallic threads and sequins on evening gowns would rust; details of how female staff on sinking vessels were actually treated. The intrusion of each of the World Wars in their very different ways, and their effects on women’s maritime employment thereafter. This part is a book very much worth having.

The bad: I’m not sure why, exactly, Evans felt that this was insufficient, but possibly she felt that more popular and well-known figures were needed. Some of them even did have a relationship with ocean liners that would justify their appearance here. Others…used an ocean liner I guess? Not notably except that they needed to get from Point A to Point B, but they sure…did that? Such as: Donald Trump’s mother, whose life story rambled on in these pages for no reason particularly germane to ocean liners. I’ve really had a great deal more of Random Trumpage than I care for, and I don’t need it intruding on Tallulah Bankhead (who is not actually in these pages to great effect either, but at least is mildly entertaining here).

Evans also seems to believe that history began with James Watt, making sweeping statement about women never having worked away from home before in all of history, which is tiresome but usual from a certain kind of modern historian who never looks up from their own period. This could be spun more positively into staying in their own lane, so: I wish that Evans had stayed in her lane with this book and just written about the colorful, interesting work and lives of the women who staffed the ocean liners of the early twentieth century. It would have been a much easier book to get through, and to recommend.

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Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the things that I feel like adult readers and particularly adult reviewers have to be careful of in reviewing books in MG and YA categories is remembering that young readers will be encountering tropes for the first time that are old hat to many adults, so the amount that one should “ding” a book for having them is quite different. And in this case I was very glad that I stuck around, because basically everything that made me say “oh this again” or “this is going to hit all these beats, is it” was expanded, undermined, or unraveled in the middle of the book.

This is a six swan brothers story, told by someone who wants her own Asian cultural heritage to inform and inflect her work. Which is, okay, pretty cool to start with. But then it’s got other things stirred into the mix–other fairy tales, from other places, and which of them you spot will depend on which kind of fairy tale nerd you are, who’s been telling you stories, whose stories you’ve gotten to hear. And it’s got…oh, some questions about the fairy tale villains, the shape of their villainy, and some interesting answers.

And the ending…this is a first-book ending. This is not a stand-alone ending. These characters, with their politics and their families and their crafting and their demands, have miles to go before they sleep. Don’t let the very genre-central beats of the first few chapters deter you from going with them.

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Books read, late April

Shadi Bartsch, trans., The Aeneid. This is a recent translation, and it reads fluently and easily. Bartsch is thoughtful about the rhythm and length of line. I picked it up to read on the theory that I already know all the bad things that happen in the Aeneid–I was unlikely to be blindsided with new bad things. This theory was correct, though it may not count as comforting to anyone but me.

John Paul Brammer, ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons. Discussed elsewhere.

Octavia Cade, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief. Discussed elsewhere.

Becky Chambers, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. This, on the other hand, is very much aimed at being comfort SF to a wider variety of readers. People from a selection of species and cultures are required to shelter at a common hospitality location and deal with their own lives and each other’s problems from there. It’s marked as the last in its series, but that appears to be because Chambers wants to write other things rather than because something has happened to end the possibility for more fiction in this universe, so take heart, nothing catastrophic will ruin the coziness of this if you’re looking for that.

Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History. You know how I often say nonfiction does what it says on the tin? This does not do what it says on the tin. It does not, in ways that frustrated me quite a lot, because if it had said Himalaya: Its Interactions With White People (Mostly British), I would have picked it up much later if at all. This is not an undocumented region. Some of the oldest printed books in existence are from this region. (I’ve seen them. They’re gorgeous.) I get that it’s hard when you don’t speak the languages the primary sources are in. But that’s the problem I have. That’s the problem I hoped that a book that purported to be a human history of the Himalayan region would solve for me, giving me access to what, generally, people in this region were up to when the white empires were not looking. And this book is utterly useless on that front, and frankly when you’ve gone out of your way to call it a human history I find that particularly offensive.

Meg Elison, Find Layla. A short and extremely intense mimetic YA. Harrowing would not be too strong a word. I’m glad I read this but also glad that it wasn’t longer, because it’s a very frank look at parental neglect of a teenager and her little brother. Layla is practical and determined and an incredibly compelling voice, but be prepared for quite a lot in the way of details about hoarding and unsafe housing.

Francesca Forrest, The Inconvenient God. Kindle. This is quite short and charming, dealing with the proposed decommissioning of the person mentioned in the title. I love the unique setting and the way we find out more with each installation about the people who populate it. Recommended.

JaHyun Kim Haboush, trans., The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea. This is nonfiction, and a lot of it is about how great the memoirist’s family is, how great the king of course naturally is, and how terrible her family’s enemies at court are. But toward the end it takes a sharp turn into the horrifying as Lady Hyegyong describes the descent of her husband, the Crown Prince, into a mental illness that no one of their era knows how to treat. She recognizes it as illness, which his father the King does not, but there’s not really anything she can do about it, particularly given the Crown Prince’s position in the power structure–the options for keeping him from hurting others are limited and ultimately rather gruesome.

Della Hooke, Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. Does what it says on the tin! Trees in archaeology, trees in orchard surveys of the time, trees in materials used and inventoried! Trees, you like ’em, they had ’em! You could do much worse than read about far off trees right now.

Gish Jen, The Resisters. For the vast majority of this book I was confused about why I wasn’t running into more science fiction people talking about it. It’s briskly written dystopian SF, balancing the concerns of literary dystopia with those of genre-SF dystopia rather deftly. It’s got baseball and knitting and scorn for mall food and other things that SF fans love. And the ending is very sad, so there’s my answer and yours. Is it worth reading, if you like baseball and dystopian fiction? yes. But pick your moment.

Ross King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. King has a habit of examining art and power acutely, and this is no exception. There’s a focus on Monet’s very late life here that leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions that I bet other books are practically panting to answer. But this one gives me a cranky old Monet dying with Clemenceau holding his hand, which is worth the price of admission.

Naomi Kritzer, Chaos on Catnet. Just as compelling as the first in its series, but for me more stressful: the potential consequences are more immediately large-scale, and the setting has moved to the Twin Cities. Which means that Naomi is writing about people and places I know very well indeed, sometimes in quite a lot of peril. I cried over this book a lot, sometimes because of the bad things happening ([MAJOR LANDMARK REDACTED] NAOMI COME ON) but sometimes because of the good ones that haven’t happened here yet. Yet. We can hope for yet. Oh, I do love CheshireCat, but most of the good things that haven’t happened here yet and made me cry are pretty utterly human.

Winifred Peck, Bewildering Cares. This is a delight. It’s a week in the life of a clergyman’s wife during WWII, with all the concerns of the parish against the backdrop of the larger world. Peck understands pastorfam all too well (I say as pastorfam myself) and particularly the protagonist’s young adult son is clearly the notion of someone who has met many children of clergy in her time. I love him. This was just what I needed when I read it. It was so relaxing. (Also, weirdly, Peck was Dilly Knox’s sister. !!??!!?? I said to the person who recommended it to me: like lower-amperage Haldanes, gosh.)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. This is a book about physics, gender, race, sexuality, and other demographic concerns that do affect life as a physicist. Prescod-Weinstein–Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, thanks–is willing to spell things out for readers who aren’t familiar with either the physics or the history and sociology. She doesn’t want this book to go over anyone’s head. I had a moment of thinking, okay, but who will this convince who is not already convinced? and then I realized that the example Prescod-Weinstein cited of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was illustrative: sometimes you have to write it down so someone can quote you saying it. People will be able to point colleagues at this, committees, students, well-meaning relatives who don’t get one aspect of it or another. Not everyone who reads this book will have bought it for themselves. (But you can.)

Beryl Satter, Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. Satter is the daughter of a white Jewish civil rights lawyer from Chicago who died young in the middle of the struggle–and who turned out to have a more complicated past than she fully realized, with his landlordship. Satter traces the history of the laws and social actions around race and housing in mid-century Chicago and their wider implications.

A. G. Slatter, All the Murmuring Bones. This is an extremely Gothic fantasy. I referred to it on Twitter as a two-house Gothic, but a friend pointed out that it might arguably be three. Sometimes you want a Gothic, and this one leans in.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 39. Kindle. For me the standout of this issue was Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” The folk process, oh, lordy, this is my cup of tea for sure.

Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk, Pemmican Wars: A Girl Called Echo (Vol. 1). This is the first in a series with timeslip elements, intended to teach about indigenous Canadian history. As often happens with graphic novels, not much plot happens in this volume, but it’s easy to read and relatable; if you’re looking to teach young people about this topic, might be a good series to look into and see where the rest is going.

Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry. The new Murderbot, with other augmented and artificial beings doing their things and an unfortunate abundance of humans (albeit short at least one as of the beginning of the story). I tore through this while waiting for my supper delivery and appreciated the way that it advanced the overall plot while visiting characters I like already.

David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy. There were several Black police officers and government officials in Wilmington, NC, in the time this book discusses, and local racists felt incredibly threatened by it and used it to spread fear about what “they” surely intended to do…and incited riot and murder as a supposed preemptive strike. This book is horrifying, but the Reconstruction is a period I think American schools don’t cover nearly enough. It’s worth being aware that this happened, and how it happened.

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¡Hola Papi!, by John Paul Brammer

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Some of you already know this about me and some probably don’t: I love advice columns. Love love love them. I love to find out how people frame their problems, who they approach, what that person has to say, whether it’s by way of solution or meditation. Brammer is an advice columnist, with the same title for his column as for this book, and that’s how he’s learned to organize memoir writing: around questions of what to do and how to do it.

His prose voice is comfortable and friendly, and this book is short enough that having it structured as an essay per quite-general question from the advice-seeker reader doesn’t have time to wear thin. Brammer is entirely willing to go personal about identity, race, sexuality, mental health, and all the things that orbit those major topics. His personal stories are vivid and compelling, and it’s a fast read even for slower readers than I am.

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The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, by Octavia Cade

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This novella grieves for all sorts of things. It grieves for climate change and species loss but also for friendships, lost to various causes, and to marriages, same. It grieves for a future that has bright, golden moments like jellyfish in a pool but still lots of darkness under the top layer of that lake.

It also understands appreciating what’s in front of you. Jellyfish, yes, but also thylacines, robot birds, a quiet moment with someone you still care about despite it all.

This novella is sad and beautiful and quiet and glorious, and it does so many things that no one else is doing, so many things that need doing. Recommended. Oh, very recommended.

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Books read, early April

Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter. This is an Anishinaabe thriller set in the Sault, and it’s so good. It’s so so so good. It’s got science and hockey and complicated family relationships, and yes I was in a fragile place when I read it, but still it made me cry in two places because I was so moved by the protagonist’s relationship with her elders (I see far too few teen/old person relationships in fiction). I loved this. Highly recommended.

C.J. Cherryh, Divergence. This is the twenty-first volume of the atevi series. Do not read it without the other twenty. It is not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, but that which it is, it is; if you want to stop off and hang out with Bren and Banichi and Cajeiri and all of them, here’s your chance. It was reasonable comfort reading for me for the day I read it.

Sam Hawke, Hollow Empire. Second in its series, and I do recommend starting with the first one here as well–significantly less of a commitment than with the Cherryh, though. This is a secondary world fantasy second book full of consequence, ramification, and expansion of scope, and also full of interesting fictional poisons and people of different ages who get to have agency instead of focusing all the agency on one age group. It also handles some disability issues beautifully.

Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life. There is some value to having a biography that is by a friend of the author–extremely broad access, for example, and sometimes it’s nice when the biographer clearly finds the subject charming and interesting. So this is a very lot of Hermione’s Nice Friend Tom: What Cool Things He’s Done So Far. I will be shocked if we don’t get another biography of Stoppard within the next decade or two, one which acknowledges that someone, somewhere might have had any kind of negative experience of Tom Stoppard for even half a second. But in the meantime this had its interesting points–it is extremely work-focused, which is what I want out of this kind of biography.

Ken MacLeod, The Human Front. This is an alternate history novella that…doesn’t have a lot to it other than “look at my alternate history,” but MacLeod always writes fluently, and you may find his alternate history interesting.

Sara Flannery Murphy, Girl One. Discussed elsewhere.

Aimee Ogden, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters. A novella full of genetically modified human-variants whose relationships with each other are interesting, complex, and planet-spanning.

Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. The woman in question, Virginia Hall, was an amputee who used a prosthetic leg for the entirety of her spy work in France during the Second World War. This is very much in the line of a Thrilling True Story, but honestly I think it’s cool to find out more about the people who don’t fit the war hero mold one we’re usually presented with.

Burton Raffel, trans., Beowulf. I see why this has been a classroom classic for a bit now: he has added chapters where they do not belong, but that makes it easier to assign sections than the less-familiar line numbers. What distinguishes Raffel from the others I’ve read: he is focused on Beowulf being “good poetry” but wants that to be by mid-20th century standards rather than preserving features of good poetry of its time, like kenning and alliteration; he is very clear that the author of Beowulf was probably a Christian and is happy to use mid-20th century Christian language to convey that. So: my least favorite so far, but it has the Beowulf nature.

Veronica Schanoes, Burning Girls and Other Stories. A dark and beautiful collection that plays with fairy tales and children’s stories in ways that are distinctly adult. Highly recommended.

Christina Soontornvat, A Wish in the Dark. A Thai-inspired children’s fantasy adventure with good friend and mentor characters. I had fun with this.

Susan Stinson, Martha Moody. I bought this book because I loved Spider in a Tree, and as I was reading it, I kept thinking, “Well, I’m not really the target audience for this, but I like it anyway.” Stinson’s prose is playful and fluid, so I’m apparently interested in her take on Old West eccentric lesbian love stories as well as on things whose thumbnail description sounds a lot more like my taste.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Music at Long Verney. Warner has a habit of just dropping you in and going for a bit and then stopping, and I can see that this might be maddening in someone else, but in her I love it. Oh, that’s who’s in this story? right then, okay, on with the show.

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Girl One, by Sara Flannery Murphy

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The characters and pacey thriller voice of this one sucked me in from page one. Josie is a compelling heroine, impatient, driven, fallible. Her relationships with the other people in her life weave through this story in ways that I found compelling. I am a pretty relationship-focused writer/reader, and this one got me good.

This is very much structured like a thriller–the chapters range from reasonably short to incredibly short, and there’s a lot of action, a lot of suspense. The central conceit is a science fictional one: nine women have born children through parthogenesis, over the course of the 1970s, living on a commune together, visited by the scientist who is building his fame through their babies. That’s the past of the story, the backstory–or half of it, because the commune burns and the surviving mothers and children scatter.

The present is the 1990s, when the babies are now adult women developing talents and interests and lives of their own. Josie is the first of the babies, now a student, trying to follow in her creator’s path. She is Girl One, the first of the parthogenetic births, giving interviews to talk shows and magazines as she tries to unravel the mysteries of her own existence. Both the ’70s and the ’90s are very well-drawn, with a perspective on each that is neither overly nostalgic nor overly cynical, and they’re a perfect combination of tone for the story that begins when Josie’s mother disappears and things start to get really dangerous.

This book has a modern thriller focus on several major science fiction concerns of the ’70s. It goes fast with a keen eye for social details. If those are things you’ve missed or wished would be updated–welcome, this one’s for you.