Books read, late February

Michelle-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden, eds., Rocket Dragons Ignite: Daily Science Fiction Year Two. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in, and I’m in this, so, hey: this exists, I’m in it, I read it.

Alan Bradley, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. A mystery series that has a definitive ending other than the death of its author or its main detective is like a dancing bear, and this is no exception. Compared to the delights of the early series, this is not nearly so good, but goodness, look at that! it ends at all! The long-term plot threads are wrapped up, Flavia is more or less launched in the direction we have long suspected she would go…but while I sat down and read it in one big gulp in an hour, there was a lot about it that felt a bit perfunctory the minute I thought about it. I still recommend the series, and I expect that if you get going and like it, I’m not going to be able to talk you out of getting the last tidbits you can about who Dogger is and what happened to Flavia’s mother and that. But the exuberance of the first few was just not there for me in this series ending.

Susan Chitty, Gwen John, 1876-1939. All sorts of interesting tidbits in this bio, but uff da, what a mess these people made of their lives. It was like they were all 22 from age 15 until their deaths, and they forgot to pick someone to be The Sensible One in their group of 22-year-olds. Also I will never look at Rodin statues quite the same way again. My main complaint of Susan Chitty is that she never found a way to refer to her subject other than by both names, even though there is no indication that John went by “Gwen John” compulsively (and in fact every indication that she did not). And 200+ pages of “Gwen John, Gwen John, Gwen John” started to get to be a bit much. I understand that John is a common male name and so might feel funny for a female subject, and that on the other hand one might not feel chummy enough to be constantly calling one’s subject Gwen. Get over either one problem or the other.

Kate Elliott, Cold Steel. Very much dependent on the earlier volumes, so if you want to read this, you probably already know it. I was mostly interested in the worldbuilding, which did not get developed much more in this volume, but the momentum was enough to carry me through happily enough.

Isabel Greenberg, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. The stories in this were mostly too similar and not twisted enough–“here is almost a Cain and Abel story but not quite, but not doing anything very interesting with the differences.” So mostly I would read them and want to say, “okay, and?” The “and” was the art. (It was a graphic novel.) Unfortunately I am the wrong audience for “weak story, nifty art.”

Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot. Quite well-done bio that managed to explain, without going into long digressions, the social and economic forces that led to women artists (particularly Morisot but also others) being a force in Impressionism in ways that were less possible earlier. Discussion of who could afford to paint and what would previously have kept people from it, as well as lots of personal and interpersonal stuff. Very pleased.

Bennett Madison, September Girls. This was the other thing I read in a gulp from the library yesterday while not feeling good. It’s very YA, male protagonist with some chapters of female perspective. I enjoyed it well enough, but I kept noticing how white it was, because I kept expecting it to be a plot point. Because “here is a town in North Carolina that is filled entirely with white people and all the crap jobs are done by teenage blonde girls” did not occur to me until most of the way through as potentially not signaling something interesting about plot, until…there was nothing political it was signaling about the plot. It’s just that everything else I’ve read about that regional setting…anyway, I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say: nope. So there was that then.

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety. A very long novel about the personal lives of French Revolutionaries. Screamingly funny in parts; I am still giggling about where the women started imitating Desmoulins. Having come to Mantel from her later work, though, I was a bit startled that she wanted to do something so conventional as these very well-known and central figures’ lives. Further, I felt that the explanation for the final rift was…I’m actually going to hope that “beneath her” is not inappropriate here. Certainly the very ending left a bad taste in my mouth. Not enough to ruin me on Mantel in general. I just felt that she was seeking for an interpersonal complication for something that politics entirely well explain, and also that the interpersonal complication she came up with was, in context, not great.

Jaime Lee Moyer, A Barricade in Hell. Discussed elsewhere.

Marie Rutkoski, The Celestial Globe. Sequel to her previous MG novel. I was a little disappointed because this one was set in Elizabethan London, whereas the one before it was set in Bohemia of the same era. Bohemia: little-used setting, very interesting. London with Queen Elizabeth, John Dee, Shakespeare, Marlowe: not at all little-used, been done quite well by quite a few people. I’m hoping that the third in the trilogy returns to a solidly Central European setting, because I found that a lot more unique and interesting.

Howard M. Sachar, Farewell Espana: the World of the Sephardim Remembered. This book was interesting in parts but not very well-organized. It was not entirely clear that it was going to start with Spain and then go on to the different regions and treat each mostly-temporally-sort-of, so when I got to twentieth century Jewish-Turkish-Armenian complicated relationships rather abruptly halfway through the book, I was pretty startled. Some gaps filled in, but this should definitely not be your first or even your third volume of Judaica/Jewish history/Sephardic history.

Mark Siegel, Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson. Discussed elsewhere.

Johanna Sinisalo, It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction. Kindle. Interesting stuff I couldn’t get elsewhere, although I don’t really like having excerpts of longer works in an anthology. I know tastes vary on that, but that’s mine. It contained the single most disgusting short story I’ve ever read, Carita Forsgren’s “Hairball,” which was good enough that I kept reading despite being more grossed out with every page, but uff da, what a thing. I was much more fond of Maria Saario’s “The Horseshoe Nail” and her time traveling blacksmithing and consideration of what suits which people, and also of Tiina Raevaara’s “Ospreys.”

S. E. Smith, The United States Marine Corps in World War II: Vol. II: Battering the Empire. Grandpa’s. This is all first-person accounts from much closer to WWII, from Marines and journalists who were with Marines. As such, it’s fascinating and valuable, and I’m looking forward to Vol. III. It does bear some caveats; there is a certain amount of racism of the sort that tends to be encouraged in war, and it has not been filtered or softened by time (or any other force) in these accounts. It’s particularly fascinating to watch some of the more virulent racists and how their racism was shaped entirely by propaganda cartoons, because I only know what they’re talking about because I’ve seen those cartoons. I’m referring to the idea that the Japanese, as a people, have buck teeth. At the time this was apparently considered a thing. From the perspective of someone who has seen a great many Japanese and Japanese-Americans while not at war with them, it is as though someone decided that all Germans have either gigantic chins or weak receding chins. I can think of Germans and German-Americans with either trait, but it’s just not a generalized ethnic trait at all. And the buck teeth thing is like that: you think, “What were they talking about?” You can picture the cartoons and think, okay, that’s what they were talking about. But when you try to picture actual Japanese people, you can’t make the propaganda link up with any statistical trait. It makes you wonder what we’re thinking now is just “how [group] is” that our grandchildren will look at and go, “Uh…what are you talking about? No, seriously, what are you actually talking about?” The other thing in this book that was just heart-rending, that I wished for more of, was the account of the surgeon. He was talking about the casualties, and his attitude towards the psychiatric cases was particularly interesting, because he treated them as real but beyond his expertise. This particular surgeon–maybe typical? hard to tell?–would basically say, “Sure, yep, stomach pains,” about the shell-shock cases who claimed they had stomach pains but didn’t check out with any injuries/illnesses, and give them water and leave them alone, saying he tried to talk to the first one and made him cry, so he figured psychiatric work was beyond him. And…I think that’s so much more interesting than the movie version we have, where either you have the gruff military doctor barking at soldiers to get back to the front, or else you have the understanding healer who can talk it all out, the Hawkeye Pierce if you will. This guy talked about how he was a lung specialist back home, how this was all beyond him, and he just didn’t want to make some poor shell-shocked kid worse. Really glad somebody bothered to write it down.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, War Master’s Gate. I am really torn about this book. Philosophically I completely approve of what Tchaikovsky is doing here. He is making the plot arc bend towards an ending! He is not just wandering around endlessly complicating things further and having his characters do ever more stuff and find ever more interesting bug species! This is good! This is what we like! Shaped plot arc, determined action, hurrah, this is artistically satisfying. But in my heart of hearts, I can’t help it, all I really want this series to do is wander around meeting interesting bug kinden and finding out what their different powers are and how they live and what they look like and what their habitats look like. Basically I want Lonely Planet: Bug People. I am not proud of this urge, and it is not one that Tchaikovsky should indulge in me. I will dutifully go and buy him doing the artistically better thing. But bug people. That is what I am reading this set of gigantic fantasy bricks for.

Michael Wolf, Chinese Propaganda Posters. This is what it says on the tin: it’s reproductions of lots and lots of Chinese propaganda posters. They’re sorted by category and translated into English, French, and German. There are some very ordinary ones and also some completely alarming ones like “how a gas mask is supposed to fit properly on Comrade Horse and Comrade Mule” and “we need a whole mess of children to haul this gigantic peach of immortality to Chairman Mao, that is just how much immortality the Chairman needs,” and of course the ever-popular “send your propaganda artist out in the street to look at babies, because I have seen Chinese babies and they do not look like spherical pinkish kewpie demons.” Fascinating stuff.

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