Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans. One of the things that’s interesting about this book is that it looks like Carpenter started writing it pretty much right away–so it was possible to interview almost everyone involved with the case at least once, directly and in person. So Carpenter could ask the police officers involved in the case specific questions about their attitudes toward gay men, toward queer people in general, toward various social institutions and ideas. And did. This was a good reminder that we sometimes want our landmark social cases to be “perfect” test cases, but sometimes the reality is much messier–and that’s okay.
D. G. Compton, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. A seventies science fiction novel about mortality (goes well with Marta Randall’s Islands!) and the surveillance society. The characters in it steadfastly refuse to be nice and calm and docile. They are prickly and angry and flailing. But not mean-spirited. They thrash around a lot trying to figure out how to have the lives they want–and in some cases the deaths they want–within what their culture has made available. Worth the time it takes to read (fairly short).
Frederic S. Durbin, A Green and Ancient Light. This feels like the sort of fantasy novel about a young boy and one summer that was his magical turning point that we don’t see as often as we used to. In this case his grandmother was a very strong presence and my favorite character. I wanted more sense of the woods–there was a lot of sense of human artifacts in the woods but not very much wildness of them–but village life was compelling and the magic plot was interesting, and I do in fact like this sort of fantasy novel.
Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First. A very short novel about Margaret Cavendish. Did not go as deep as I would like but was still a sympathetic portrait of a thoroughgoing outsider.
Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Thoroughly debunks the “spices were popular to cover the taste of spoiled meat” trope. The word “imagination” is key in the title: the author delves into how spices were presented, what they signified and how their signifiers changed, what people thought about what they were eating or just observing. Interesting stuff.
Barbara Hambly, Drinking Gourd. The latest Benjamin January murder mystery continues to explore how race, slavery, freedom, and violence affect relationships. Quite often I advise people not to start late in a series. This time I’d actually say, what the heck, go for it. You’ll figure it out, it’ll be human and compelling, you can go back and read the others and it’ll be fine.
Maria Dahvana Headley, Aerie. This is the sequel to Magonia, which I fell into one afternoon and did not come out until I was done. The same was true of Aerie. These books are some of the most page-turning books I have come across in a long time. I think it’s because I’m so invested in the central relationships. The worldbuilding is fun, the action plot is fun, but at the end of the day my heart is with the protag’s relationship with her best friend/boyfriend and with the protag’s relationship with her sister. Bird people in secret sky lairs? additional worldbuilding into other aspects of secret culture I will not spoiler here? sure yes why not just more of Aza’s interactions with the people she loves.
Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History. This is partly a history of paper and partly Kurlansky’s attempt to make a single point over and over and over again. That point is that technology does not drive social change, it follows it. Might it be more complex than that? Might one piece of technology follow some social change and drive others? Might something have more than one effect, not all of which are foreseeable at the time? APPARENTLY NOT, Kurlansky wishes us to know. It is ALL ONE DIRECTION DAMMIT. So…yeah. That was a thing. It’s a lovely physical object with paper that’s nice to touch. There was interesting stuff about paper and papermaking, although there were also huge gaps on that topic–when did butcher paper start as a thing, for example? You’d never know from this book. Because Kurlansky is too busy telling us about THE NATURE OF ALL TECHNOLOGY ALWAYS. Thanks, Kurlansky! Sigh.
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife. This book opens with a grandfather who keeps a volume of Kipling in his pocket. I am there for that. Basically any of the rest of you who want to write me books with Kipling-reading grandparents: you follow that urge, it will serve me well. This is also a book about war and recovery, violence and its aftermath, families, and all sorts of interesting things, done in a Balkan magical realist mode. But even without those things I’d have stayed on for the grandpa.
Malka Older, Infomocracy. This book opened feeling to me like the sort of thing Cory Doctorow or Neal Stephenson would have written if they’d started their careers in this decade instead of previous ones. It started out feeling rather standard post-cyberpunk–well-done standard post-cyberpunk, but still. Then we hit a disaster response and it was a different–and much better–book, vivid and engaging–and the world it’s engaging with is our actual complex world, not a cartoon of it. Yay. More.
Mary Rickert, You Have Never Been Here. A lot of dark fantasy is Halloween dark, moaning winds and the creak of newly bare branches, a bit self-conscious about how dark it is. This Mary Rickert collection is Midwinter dark. It is bleak and chilled. It is either the perfect thing to read in the dark of the year or something you should safe for July, depending on where you are in your life.
Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, eds., Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in. So: this exists! I’m in it! I read it! There ya go.
Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. I loved this. It looked at the shapes of five very different sets of Victorians, all of them literary, and how they made their relationships work in the face of various challenges–or didn’t. I would love more of this sort of thing. Also I came out of it feeling like giving George Eliot a hug and inviting her to coffee.
Jason Shiga, Bookhunter. Fast, fun, cute read about secret book protection agency. Not a lot of depth and did not take me long, but entertained me while I was there.
Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations. This is Solnit musing about her travels as an American of partially Irish ancestry in Ireland. She doesn’t stick to describing her travel experiences, roaming wherever she pleases in the history of Ireland or in fact the rest of the world. She has a modicum of self-awareness about Americans in Ireland and Irish-Americans, so I said to an Irish friend that it probably wouldn’t annoy them in the same way as standard American Irish tourism, but it might well annoy them in a refreshing and different way. I’m not Irish, I can’t tell for sure. It didn’t really annoy me, but it’s not the Solnit I’d recommend starting with, of what I’ve read so far.
The American Scandinavian Foundation, Scandia: Important Early Maps of the Northern Regions and Maps and Charts of Norway. What it says on the tin. Lots of neat misconceptions about what exactly was up there in all that snow anyway. Is it an archipelago of islands? is it basically a linear peninsula out from…somewhere? Much confusion in early mapmaking, many guesses, cool to see what they were.
Ka Vang, Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon. While the beginning exposition is a little clunky here, the characterization and setting are worth it. It’s a middle-grade book about a young Hmong girl whose family traditions leave her out because she’s a girl–until she does some awesome magical stuff that explodes her elders’ assumptions. What I particularly liked about this book is that everyone was human even when they were wrong. Characters who could easily have been caricatures were full-fledged people, understandable even when flawed, which is a lot to ask of something as long as most adult books are, and this was not that length. So there’s a lot packed into a small number of pages here. Especially useful if you’re looking for books for Minnesota kids that actually reflect the Minnesota they live in, but worth the time otherwise too.