Books read, late September

Colin Cotterill, The Rat Catchers’ Olympics. This is the latest in the Dr. Siri mystery series. Like many ongoing mystery series, it leans on “these are the people you already like having adventures,” so The Coroner’s Lunch is a better place to start if you’re interested in historical Communist Laotian magical realist murder mysteries. In this installment, most of the gang heads to Moscow for the 1980 Summer Games. This is simultaneously very typical of long-running murder mystery series doing something “offbeat” to try to change things up and completely thematically appropriate for what Cotterill is doing with Laotian communism and Siri’s crowd.

Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands. A lavishly illustrated book of Atlantis, Ys, and similar places. Eco makes sweeping pronouncements at the drop of a hat, often in ways that completely baffle me; the “we” and “us” he refers to certainly don’t include me, but it’s a beautiful book and at least mildly interesting. A highbrow bathroom book.

Max Gladstone, Ruin of Angels. A romp, a joy, a heist and a half, a family drama, doing completely different things with coexisting cities than The City and the City, a book that runs hot and cold very literally…it slices, it dices, it juliennes! Despite not having a number in the title, this is the latest Craft book, and I expect you’ll be glad to have it around. I am.

Robert Holdstock, The Bone Forest. Revisiting this short story collection did neither it nor me any good. It was a situation where I feel that his handling of sex magic and the mythic has not aged well over the decades since I first read this book, and…look, I’m not saying you can never portray a character with loathsome pedophile reactions, I’m saying that I want a damn good reason to sit through that, and I don’t feel like the last story in the collection gave me a good enough reason. I hope we’ve all grown as a field since these stories.

Jill Jonnes, Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape. This started out talking about which trees had been popular to plant in which eras and why, and it gradually decayed into a litany of tree diseases, and oh heavens diversify your plantings, people, diversify your plantings. I wanted to curl up into a ball and rock. Plant more trees and not the same ones as your neighbors. Don’t be seduced by a uniform canopy. Aaaaah. Aaaaaaah. Look, maybe you don’t cry reading about emerald ash borers, that’s fine, not everyone is me. Statistically quite few people in fact. But still, plant more trees and not the same ones as your neighbors good grief.

Ursula LeGuin, The Compass Rose. Gosh the worries of the ’70s are not the same as the worries of now. I tweeted about this, but…there was so much of “they will call everybody crazy” and then the assumption that there would be care for people labeled mentally ill. From the vantage point of forty years later, oh bless, if only. Some of these stories are great and some are not, but…I kept being reminded of my grandfather telling me that 90% of the things you worry about never come to pass. And that doesn’t mean the future won’t be worrying, as LeGuin well knows.

Kazuki Sakuraba, A Small Charred Face. Discussed elsewhere.

Vivian Shaw, Strange Practice. An urban fantasy from a medical standpoint, with a humane attitude towards groups and individuals that get treated rather more harshly in other urban fantasies. Structured neatly. This has an ending and yet leaves open the possibility of more, which is a good thing. I gulped it down in one eager night.

Laura Swan, The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement. This is a good starter history of beguines. If you already know something about them, it will not be greatly revelatory. Swan is earnest and passionate about her subject, and she’s particularly clear and keen about the relationship between nuns and beguines, which gets very sweet and touching in spots without in any case making me doubt her accuracy.

Karin Tidbeck, Amatka. This is utterly unlike The Dubious Hills except the pace and style of the incluing/worldbuilding hit me similarly. It’s a science fiction dystopia, more or less, sort of, and very Swedish, and very short, and I liked it, but it’s very hard to describe how metaphysical this book gets. Very. It gets very, very metaphysical about very, very practical things.

Jenny Uglow, The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine–Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. Brief and lucid biography of a fascinating figure and her even more fascinating church. Several works have noted that it anticipated the major ideas of Ruskin by a decade and could neither influence nor be influenced by him, existing off on its own as a singular work with ideas about nature and building and carving and art. The book also talks a fair amount about family and women’s choices in the mid-19th century. I had just gotten to the point of thinking, this really is reminiscent of Middlemarch when I turned the page and Jenny Uglow had the same thought but more formally: Losh’s reactions to Rome were not entirely disjoint from Dorothea’s (but again it would have been very difficult if not impossible for them to be an actual influence on Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot)–it’s just all zeitgeisty in the parts of the 19th century I like best.

Fran Wilde, Horizon. Discussed elsewhere.

Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London. This did not remind me of Middlemarch. I honestly got it from the library when I was reading Middlemarch thinking, well, 1830s, there we are then. No, but that’s what Middlemarch is like, it’s going to be like that around here for awhile, some of you know what I mean. But! This is popular history, quite readable, talks a lot about how medical training was happening and its intersection with the sensationalist press and the end of some laws that protected apprentices in the UK at the turn of the 19th century. Interesting stuff.

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