Books read, late February

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You. I’m really glad this was not my first Lily Anderson novel, frankly, because this is in the same vein of mainstream YA as Not Now, Not Ever, with strong friendships among highly nerdy teenagers, and yet I would have been completely put off by the fact that one of its central plots is a very, very combative love story. You know the kind: I hate you I hate you let’s smooch. This is not a spoiler really–you can see it coming a mile off, you can see it in the title for heaven’s sake. And Anderson does it well, and there are other things going on. But–I really like having talked about romance/love stories enough to have the vocabulary to say that I prefer mine collaborative rather than combative, and I really like that I read her second book first so that I didn’t have a more general idea of this as Her Thing when in fact it’s just one facet.

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass. Fantasy with djinn and various related entities, ranging from Egypt to South Asia. This book started off with a very firm historical setting and wandered off from there into fantasical fireworks, and it is very clearly a first novel with miles to go before the series sleeps.

Barbara Hambly, Murder in July. An entry in the Benjamin January series. Not a great starting point for that as its emotional heft depends on you caring about the supporting cast and knowing a fair amount about them, but if you’re invested in this series–which I really like, New Orleans area free people of color as the main family–then, hey, here’s another.

Kat Howard, An Unkindness of Magicians. Very few contemporary fantasies are as honest about power and complicity in modern systems as this one is–and very few want to actually do something about that rather than saying oh woe the world is grim and dark, look how grim and dark, gosh that sucks. Rather than: look how grim and dark, better fix it, ya big jerk. The magic system Howard postulates here is pretty nasty. But she actually wants to talk about friendship and family and figuring out a way to do better. Which is more than a lot of authors can say when they think about power dynamics. So yes, this book has a lot of unkindness; it says so on the tin. This is one of those where some of us in the gutter actually are looking at the stars.

Barbara Jensen, Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. This book was startling, staggering, amazing. Jensen is my own people, to a startling degree my own people; she is from the north of the Twin Cities, some of the suburbs where I have great-aunts and -uncles. So when she used her own family examples to contrast working-class and middle-class cultural differences, she was talking about Minnesota Scandinavian Lutherans in both cases; she was talking about different parts of my family. There were a couple of places where I actually cried because I had never seen both class branches represented with respect and even affection, things that were good and valid about both, places where she could speak clearly and coherently about there being a difference rather than an absence. So that was amazing. It’s a really fascinating book. I think there are a couple of flaws. One of them is that it’s so very very generational. A great many middle-class assumptions she was talking about did not continue past the Baby Boomers, and I would be fascinated to see an analysis of what it means to be middle-class without them. Another is that I think in her rush not to throw working-class culture under the bus as has been done so many, many times before, she took several accounts of ideals as accounts of actuality. But it’s still a really thought-provoking, discussion-provoking book.

Sujata Massey, The Sleeping Dictionary. I am perpetually short on historical fiction, and Massey delivers with this one. It gets harrowing in several spots in several directions, child endangerment and sexual violence and relationship threat, just to flag that for readers, but I think that the story is interesting and has enough context to be sensitive and worth the emotional ups and downs if you’re ever up for them in any book. (Obviously if you just never want that, it’s a different calculation.) The setting is eastern India leading up to the time of independence from the UK, with independence a constantly intertwined theme for the heroine. It’s listed as the first in a series, but I don’t see that a sequel has come out yet.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., Robots Vs. Fairies. Sometimes you have a solid anthology where one story just completely blows you away and steals your heart, and this is one of those for me. Madeline Ashby’s “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” is the sort of story that I already know in February will be one of my favorites of the year. It deals with eldercare and traditional belief and robots and Iceland and I love this story to bits, worth the price of admission even if it wasn’t a well-constructed anthology otherwise. Which it is, it absolutely is, I just…am completely making heart-eyes at this one story.

Shel Silverstein, The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Okay, so really, Uncle Shelby, this stuff is…you didn’t really. You did? And people bought it for their kids? oh golly. There are all sorts of relationship things that he’s talking about with shapes here, and…welp. There it all is then. Learn to be happy on your own and sing your own songs and…yep, Shel Silverstein is exactly who he told us all he was. Repeatedly.

F.C. Yee, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. This book actually made me laugh out loud in spots. It’s a teen fantasy adventure about the Monkey King showing up to fight a demon infestation in a Silicon Valley suburb, and Yee has totally nailed the reality of that type of suburb being a great deal more influenced by strip malls and highways than redwoods at the moment. I loved Genie and her relationship with her parents and friends and legends and asskickery.

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