Books read, late January

Ben Aaronovitch, Foxglove Summer. It seems that Aaronovitch is alternating arc plot books with monster of the week books. This is one of the latter, and it’s a fun monster of the week sort of thing, Peter out of his usual setting, but if you were looking for an immediate follow-up to the ending of the last volume, this is not it. There’s just enough to let the reader know that he hasn’t forgotten, isn’t neglecting it, and otherwise this is pretty locally focused. I would still recommend starting at the beginning of the series, but you might be able to make this work as an entry point that’s atypical in some key ways.

Samit Basu, Resistance. This is another “start with the first one” book that’s still a pretty worthy sequel. The suddenly superheroic universe of the last book has evolved by a bit, and this book is fairly strong on following up/piling on consequences. If you wanted a book wherein mechas fight kaiju in a superhero universe, that happens here, but a lot of other stuff happens too.

Elizabeth Bear, Karen Memory. Discussed elsewhere.

Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, Stranger. Post-apocalyptic mutant adventures! I think my favorite part of this book was the variety of imagined fauna and flora. The human parts were well-handled also, but I found myself hoping that the characters would leave their town (as they sometimes did) so that they could find out about more strange plants and critters. I’m looking forward to finding out what else that world contains in the sequel.

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. I didn’t mean to have an incredibly morbid nonfiction week, but sometimes that’s what hold requests at the library do to you. This is short, a very easy read, and yet provides a lot of detail about modern cremation and the modern funeral industry in general. Some of this may be difficult for some people to read–I particularly want to flag that Doughty is detailed about how they handle infant corpses as opposed to adult corpses–but it’s very interesting stuff.

Amal El-Mohtar, The Honey Month. A synesthetic exploration inspired by twenty-eight types of honey–some poems and some short fiction, hard to genre-typify. The sort of strange intense project I wish we had more of.

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. This was the second unintentionally morbid book in the week that Mark’s Grandpa Gritter died, and it had a lot more intellectual/emotional depth than the Doughty. Gawande is a doctor who has written extensively about process in some very usefully nerdy ways, and he looks at some process questions here. Much of it is stuff we’ve already handled or are aware of others handling, in my family, but there was still interesting detail that was new to me, and I think it’s a worthwhile book for many/most people. Recommended.

Robert Hughes, Goya. This was physically heavy enough to be a problem to read sometimes, so I’m afraid I had a more fragmented experience than I would otherwise have had. The progression from young artist attempting to make his mark with court to satirist and on to darkly humorous old man pleasing mostly himself was fascinating, though, and I enjoyed having a closer look at a painter I didn’t know much about.

Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter. Most of the Moomins hybernate, so this is a limited-cast Moomin book. Still fun, interesting, so very Finnish, but again probably not my first choice for where to start. (There’s no Thingummy and Bob, so there you have that.)

David Liss, The Day of Atonement. The story of a Portuguese Jewish man in the 18th century returning to Lisbon after having lived safely in England, seeking revenge on those who wronged his family and finding it harder than he expected to determine where and how that revenge should be dealt out. It’s the sort of thing Liss does very well, and I liked this latest volume of it a lot.

Karen Lord, The Galaxy Game. I would have liked more elephants, but it was still another worthy book in the universe of her previous. I also would have liked slightly more perspective balance among the young characters, but that isn’t really very important; it was still a space SF book of the sort that I loved when I was 12 and miss very much right now: different types of human with different abilities, navigating galactic politics and local variations as best they can.

Allan H. Ropper, Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: A Renowned Neurologist Explains the Mystery and Drama of Brain Disease. I do love neurology when the topic of it isn’t a family member. This contains bunches of weird stories of what the brain does and what people do around their own and others’ brain glitches. If you like that aspect of Oliver Sacks, Ropper is not quite as engaging but still a quite reasonable example of the genre. He also handles being Michael J. Fox’s neurologist quite well in the text, walking the line between name-dropping and minimizing with ease.

Janni Lee Simner, Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer. Kindle. Tiernay hunts for very personal treasure. This is a middle-grade novel, but I think it’s almost better suited for adults, because the perspective on Tiernay’s awesomeness and juvenile limitations is very adult. I’m always on the lookout for good adventure fiction for the MG audience, so I was glad to get this one.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them. Every time I read Sylvia Townsend Warner, I say, “What a strange book,” and this was too. It was the story of a bunch of nuns over several decades of the 14th century. For the first half or so, it’s extremely fragmented, with through narratives not always easy to discern, but they do come together eventually.

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by Tor. Also, full disclosure, the author is a personal friend.

Remember when I read Emma Bull’s Territory and said I don’t like Westerns, but I like this book?

Yeah. About that.

I also don’t like books set in whorehouses because they are a minefield of bad tropes.

Huh. So. Funny thing.

Karen Memory is a masterpiece of voice. If you read the first chapter and aren’t hooked by the titular character’s voice, I can’t really help you; and it’s achieved almost exclusively by word choice rather than phoneticization. Karen is a logging camp girl, the daughter of a horse trainer, in the process of being educated in the whorehouse in which she works. She is acutely observant but still thinks of some of her vocabulary as belonging to someone else. She is wholeheartedly accepting of her co-workers, except for the places where she doesn’t notice her own biases until they trip her up. There is every reason for this book to be titled with its protagonist’s name, because while there is plenty (plenty upon plenty!) of action plot here, it is really Karen’s story.

(The Memory part…if you are a neurology nerd hoping for a speculative novel whose premise rests strongly on the processing of memories, this is not that book. Her last name is Memery. This is the one with steampunk battle machines made out of the least likely possible domestic implements and a diverse group of people fighting to be treated as people. We can do neurology geeking somewhere else.)

The alternate history-steampunk elements are subtle in some chapters but present from the beginning, and crucial from the beginning. They are not gears glued on after for fashion. There is, for example, a medical machine that is far better with some cures than others, and the machines are sometimes loud and smell funny, and they need people to actually fix them or, better, soup them up. But there’s also a wealth of setting detail grounding the narrative beyond the machines: the smell and behavior of horses, for example, and more kinds of processed carbohydrates than you can shake a stick at. Dear heaven the carbohydrates. If you have celiac and read this book, I sincerely hope you have good substitute recipes, because I defy you to read this book and not long for biscuits and cornbread and flapjacks. There is buttermilk on my grocery list right now because of this book. This is entirely period-appropriate; there are also beans and bacon and molasses and suchlike. But when I finished reading I wanted to a) make a list of people to give this to and b) eat biscuits. Not in that order.

I am finding myself dancing around some of the coolest steampunky/speculative elements because I think the book will be more fun if the reader discovers them at the pace the book reveals them. So “Karen and her friends/co-workers fight a nefarious local would-be politician who has…” um. “Who can…” right. Yes. Well. There is fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love. Okay, not so much the fencing. But biscuits and giant crazy machinery are a pretty good substitute.

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