Star Scouts, by Mike Lawrence

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Some kids’ books are really everybody books, but we call them kids’ books because they’re the first ones kids can read on their own. And other kids’ books lose some of their charm and appeal with exposure. This is the latter kind.

Star Scouts is the same plot as basically every scouting camp story: kid at camp competes with mean kid, both learn lessons about themselves, mean kid turns out to have at least one teamwork moment beneath mean façade, everyone wins (but really mostly the protagonist). The trappings of this version are jetpacks, robotics, and transporters rather than tents, forests, and canoes, but there are no unexpected twists. None whatsoever. And lots and lots of fart jokes, butt jokes, etc.

I like my socialization not to be gender segregated, and I did as a kid, so the integrated nature of Star Scouts feels like it should be cool. Instead…instead a little Earth girl leaves an all-girl organization that is entirely focused on makeup, pop songs, and boys to join a male-headed troop that gets to build and learn. At least this time she’s not the token girl…but there’s basically no redeeming value in the all-female organization; it is clearly supposed to be vapid and horrible and generally worse in every way. Considering what a great experience I had with Girl Scouts and with an all-female 4H troop, and how often “girl stuff” is mapped to “stupid stuff” in nerd circles, do not pass go, do not collect etc., this leaves a slightly sour taste in my mouth. But there’s nothing actually wrong with this graphic novel, and the protagonist is Indian-American, so I’m sure there are some people who will be happy to find representation even in a very formulaic story. Maybe especially then: kids of color are allowed typical kid stories, too. Even when it’s hard to argue against awesome kid stories instead.

Please consider using our link to buy Star Scouts from Amazon.

Books read, early March

The vertigo is bad and I am reading a lot right now. I’m also bouncing off a lot of library books–more books than I read this fortnight. Yikes. That’s a lot of nope.

Megan Abbott, Die a Little. If you liked LA Confidential but were interested in a female viewpoint of the same noir setting and tropes, this is the book for you. It turns out that I was. I have limited tolerance for noir this dark, but on the other hand it’s a short book, so by the time you’re thinking, come on, somebody be a decent human being and not screwed over for it, the book is over.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and the Papas. Discussed elsewhere.

Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. The title is a bit overblown, but the prose isn’t really–she’s looking into how we can tell how old these ivory carvings are, how we can tell where they’re from. Margret the Adroit is a pretty cool historical figure, regardless of how many of the Lewis chessmen she made, and while this goes into a lot of Northern history I already knew, there were interesting tidbits all the same.

Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox. This is the very tip of the iceberg that is white supremacist terrorism and its propaganda in America. It’s a good start, knowing more about the Reconstruction and the horrible ways people behaved in it. It’s good context especially for rebutting certain threads of current politico-historical argument. But it seriously is just the very beginning of this topic.

Zoraida Cordova, Labyrinth Lost. Vivid, engaging YA fantasy that draws on Mexican and Central American cultures for its mythos but also for its characters’ cultural backgrounds. There was more than one place where Cordova dodged an obvious plot convention in favor of something more interesting. I liked this a lot and will look forward to whatever she wants to write next.

Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough. Did you want a version of The Fall of the Kings that’s set in a Weimar-equivalent rather than earlier? Because here it is. This isn’t a plot ripoff of that book, just one that reminded me of it in how it handled secondary world details. Flawed characters struggling and doing various versions of their best. Recommended.

Thoraiya Dyer, Crossroads of Canopy. I really wanted to love this book, but it didn’t do very much with the forest setting. Also, the difficulty with a “person who learned better” plot is that then you have to spend the entire book with someone who has not yet learned better, and some of those are far more obnoxious than others. This protag was jealous and entitled about things she had no particular reason to be, and if you’ve spent time around someone like that in real life, you may be less inclined to do so in fiction.

Brendan Fletcher, Adam Archer, and Sandra Hope, Gotham Academy Volume 3: Yearbook. This was a disappointment. Lots of little two- or four-page stories, many of them callbacks to other comics series or plotlines that I honestly don’t care about. Choppy, highly varied in art quality, do not want. Hoping that they snap out of it for the next one.

Nicola Griffith, Always. Reread. A great conclusion to a trilogy I love. It is that rare dual-stranded book, one where both strands draw me in equally, and as a result I kept succumbing to “just one more chapter” syndrome even though I had already read it and knew how it turned out. This is a book that shows that putting a lot of your own particular interests into a book can be perfectly great if you do it well enough, and your darlings should not always be murdered: there is a lot of didactic stuff about self-defense and a lot of personal stuff about adjusting to an MS diagnosis, and it is all good. Griffith is one of those authors where reading one of her books makes me want to read all of them, every time.

Reginald Hill, Midnight Fugue and The Price of Butcher’s Meat. Rereads. This is the very end of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, but it was not written as a definitive endpoint–this is just how far Hill got before he died. The Price of Butcher’s Meat tried a stylistic thing with emails that didn’t really work for me, but I enjoyed the characterization. I also particularly enjoyed Dalziel’s late-series arc over both of these volumes and only wish there was more of it. (Do not approve. Am not resigned.) I wrote my post about the order of reading this series, and you should unsurprisingly not start with the last two. But I still love these two books. And one of the things that a long series with a large cast can do is focus on some characters for awhile, then on others. These did not have much of Wieldy, and I expect that that would have started to get to Hill and he would have come up with something for Wieldy again soon, but–well, time and entropy.

Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone. I think Ruthanna Emrys has done me wrong. I read her forthcoming Winter Tide in manuscript and thought, oh, perhaps I like Lovecraftiana when it’s feminist and well-written. And no, I don’t, I really don’t. I mean, I don’t hate Hammers on Bone–it was vivid and spooky and doing clever things with noir prose. But the general impulse that Lovecraftiana–even well-written feminist Lovecraftiana–is not my jam is one that I should stick with.

Stephen Kimber, Loyalists and Layabouts: The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1783-1792. A small piece of British Loyalist history on both sides of the northern border. Several baffling moments–well-explained by Stephen Kimber, just baffling that people really did the thing described. Reasonably short, not a far-reaching history of the Loyalists’ fates but interesting for what it was doing.

Ursula LeGuin, The Complete Orsinia. Every once in awhile you read a book that is just exactly the book for you at that moment, and possibly would have been no matter when you read it. Malafrena was one of those books for me. It hit my Ruritanian buttons (like Hav and The Glory of the Empire) and my 19th century politics buttons and my university story buttons (yes, The Fall of the Kings again, I should just give up and reread that). It was done just like the 19th century novels I love best, but with a focus like the speculative fiction I love best, and with a self-awareness about the conventions it was using. I don’t love everything LeGuin has ever written, but the ones I love, I love unreservedly, and this was one. The rest of this volume, the short stories and poems set in Orsinia, varied considerably in how much I liked them, but I was glad to have them because they went with Malafrena.

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds., Steampunk! An interesting array of stories from this sub-genre, trying not to be samey in setting. Standouts included Ysabeau Wilce’s “Hand in Glove,” Kelly Link’s “The Summer People” (although wow did I not think of that as steampunk the first time I read it…or now actually…), and MT Anderson’s “The Oracle Engine.”

Ben MacIntyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. This focused on Kim Philby’s personal treatment of the people around him, and as such it got more and more depressing as it went on. Kim Philby: a terrible person to have close to you! Good to know. Not necessarily that much fun to find out in detail. Uff da.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Well-written, told interestingly backward, with the misogyny baked way in so there is really no way around what a toxic view of humanity is inherent to this story. I’m not sorry I read it, and I won’t be reading it again.

John McWhorter, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t–and Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally). McWhorter is talking a lot about linguistic change over the entire lifetime of the English language, not just the vowel shift back in the day but usage alterations in the last 50 years. Brief, breezy, interesting.

Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders. Discussed elsewhere.

Phyllis Rose, The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading. Rose read the LEQ-LES shelf of the New York Society Library, and this is the chronicle of that reading and what she thought about while doing it. Stunt reading! I identify strongly with stunt readers, says the woman who just finished her reread of a 23-book series specifically to talk about optimal ordering of it. This is about as long as a book like this could be without getting tedious, and there are places where I wonder who she thinks the audience for it is. (Seriously, someone who is reading about stunt-reading and does not know about gender discrepancy in publishing: who. But on the other hand she doesn’t seem to notice that her shelf is all-white, so…sometimes an interesting experiment in perceptual gaps also.) On the other hand, her prose is hilarious in spots, and I went and added a couple of things to my list from her discussion–though none of them from the LEQ-LES shelf.

Justin Schmidt, The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science. Ants, bees, wasps. Schmidt writes about all of them and their stings. The appendix at the end of the book uses vivid descriptive prose comparisons to discuss the experience of being stung by nearly a hundred insects, as well as ranking them on a 1-4 pain scale. I found this fascinating and great. It is all about insect stings, however, and if that is not your thing it may be really really not your thing, so judge accordingly. “Maybe it won’t be very much about–” Nope. It really, really is.

Dean A. Strang, Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror. Covering a trial of Italian immigrants in Milwaukee early in the twentieth century. Interesting and unfortunately timely in its examination of how easy it is to categorize people one considers “other” in ways that don’t necessarily reflect their views and actions. Justice eventually done, mostly, sort of, a bit. This is almost certainly not the most vivid writing you will find on this topic–at least I hope it isn’t–stay tuned, I will be trying to find out–so odds are this is more a book for people with a topical interest than for general readers looking for good nonfiction.

Malachy Tallack, Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home. Tallack is from Shetland, and he went around the world writing about each of the places he encountered at this latitude, Fort Smith and St. Petersburg and all of them. There’s some self-exploration but not enough to make me want him to shut up, and there’s a lot about fascinating northern places. I am this book’s target audience. I probably would be within the target audience for a travel narrative about some other latitude or longitude line too, but not as strongly as I am for this one.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, Uncanny Magazine Issue 14. Kindle. The good part of reading a magazine on my Kindle is that I get to every single story. The bad part is that I do so over a long enough interval that I don’t always remember which stories (essays, poems) were in that issue as opposed to something else I read online. I’m pretty sure this is the one with Maria Dahvana Headley fondly and carefully taking apart Poe, which I liked.

Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. Lots of fun exploration of microbiota for humans but also other animals. If you’re a parent or would-be parent who is a worrier, maybe don’t read this right now, but if you’re more in the “nerd out about everything” mode, the sections on establishing infant microbiota are fascinating. There is so much more to find out here. It is not just about carpenter ants using their own butt acidity. Although there is that too, which, yay.

The Dalziel and Pascoe series: where to start

I am a great fan of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe mystery series. It is perhaps the only series I have read as an adult on a more or less completely random basis, grabbing things from the library as they became available, filling in with purchases what the library did not have. That was the first time. I went back and reread them recently for pleasure but also specifically so I could write this post and be clear on how to recommend reading them. I group the books into four rough categories as starting places. I had a bad experience with a friend who insisted on starting with the first one despite my repeated comments that it would not show what was special about the series, and sure enough, he declared it fine but not special and declined to read any further. I would have kicked him in the shins for that, but not getting to read On Beulah Height is punishment enough for one person, and he has brought it on himself. Still: do not let his fate be yours.

Please note that I actually consider them all worth reading–when I say “for the completist,” I include myself in that–but not all equally worth reading, and certainly not all good entry points. The numbers are their series order both in publication and in internal chronology, with one exception to the latter. I know that some people have an allergy to reading out of order, but really, it’s worth it here. And also if you are not committed to reading a 23-volume series in its entirety, who can blame you? But this is not like the series where the author got their best work out of the way immediately, not at all, and while there is continuity, it’s episodic as mystery series often are. You’ll figure it out. There’s incluing.

I realize as I am finishing this post that I have forgotten to mention: they are funny. No one told me the Aubrey/Maturin series was funny, and so it took me five years longer to read it than it otherwise would have. So: in addition to their other virtues, these are funny, but not in the mode of Humorous Fiction Har Har Har. No, the funny bits are organic. They’re funny like things really are funny, not like a forced jokeyness.

Best Places to Start
Bones and Silence (#11): Really hits his stride here. Also Wield consistently plays more of a role, which is good because Wield and also because the more Hill is clear that Peter Pascoe needs help to carry a book, the better. Dalziel mostly does it, but Wield, Ellie, and the later junior cops help a lot.
Recalled to Life (#13): Good mid-period D&P. This is why this series.
Arms and the Women (#17): This is where I started, and I commend it to you for that purpose. I picked it up at random, having heard that this author/series were good, and I’m not sure I could have done better. All the characterization, all the reference and structural games are here. If you reread it after reading the rest, you will find callbacks to very early books and also to more recent ones, but that in no way damages it on a first read; they are integrated entirely smoothly if you’re coming up on them as new information. Really, I’m willing to give props to the other two in this category, but: start with Arms and the Women.

Pretty Good Starting Points
Exit Lines (#8): Hill has started to play with reference and structure here, and it’s late enough in the series that he has also got Dalziel much more developed as a character.
Child’s Play (#9): One of the most suspenseful books I have ever read, particularly if you have not read later volumes in the series. Even if you have, it’s…well, look, I found it incredibly gripping even knowing how something had to turn out. Without that, yikes, try not to tear the pages as you clutch them.
The Wood Beyond (#15): Leans a bit on previous characterization for a starting point. Still interesting, layered, referential, well-characterized: having all the virtues of this series.
On Beulah Height (#16): Possibly the best mystery novel written since the death of Dorothy Sayers. I only don’t recommend it as a best place to start because you will get more out of it if you have one or two of the others under your belt for emotional freight/impact,  but get to this as soon as possible. One of the best reasons to start reading any of this series is to get to On Beulah Height. But you will want to know who these people are to each other, and particularly if you have not encountered Yorkshire dialect before, you will get more of the emotional impact of some key moments if you have had other books in the series teaching you the rhythms and weights of it.
Midnight Fugue (#23): I waffled on the placement of this: is the very last book really only second tier as a place to start? I think so, actually; the relationships are important but fairly well spelled out, and you’ll have spoilers for specific events but I think probably in the direction to make them intriguing rather than boring. It was not written as a definitive ending to the series; far from it. So…you only know how it ends, not how it ends, if that makes sense. But still: you could do worse.

Okay But Not Ideal
An April Shroud (#4): This is where Hill figures out how to do Dalziel’s interiority. Still much closer to standard form and content of the genre, but starting to feel out the characterization better. If you are absolutely set on starting very early in this series, this is the earliest you should possibly consider. I still don’t recommend it, but.
A Killing Kindness (#6): If this is what you can find first, it’s better than not reading them at all.
Deadheads (#7): Looser, more fun, structurally out of the ordinary for its genre.
Underworld (#10): Same idea as Killing Kindness: not bad if that’s what you’ve got
Pictures of Perfection (#14): Slight and gimmicky and still past the point where Hill really got himself sorted as an author, so perfectly charming to read.
Dialogues of the Dead (#18) and Death’s Jest Book (#19): These are really one story. You can start with the two of them as one story and get a very nerdy wordy mystery. Bad ideas include: a) starting with Dialogues of the Dead with no access to Death’s Jest Book to read very shortly thereafter, and b) starting with Death’s Jest Book at all. Treat them as a unit; this is a situation where they are only split because they would be too long otherwise. The only reason I don’t rate them higher is that there is a recurring character I am not that keen on, but on the other hand that may be less annoying if you’re encountering him for the first time.

For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Start Here
A Clubbable Woman (#1)
An Advancement of Learning (#2)
Ruling Passion (#3): For the first three, Hill has not yet figured out how to do Dalziel’s interiority, so while he clearly knows that Dalziel is smarter than people give him credit for, the characterization is not nearly as strong as it will later be. Nor is there as much
structural invention, playing with form and reference, etc.–things that are strong points of the series later. These read like standard British mystery novels of their time. Which is not a terrible thing to be but is a terrible way to get a feeling for the strengths of this series.
A Pinch of Snuff (#5): Despite having figured out Dalziel’s interiority more, this is not yet the strongly inventive/referential later part of the series…and it’s pretty objectionable in several ways for our time, not to mention the ways it intended to be distasteful on purpose in its own time.
Asking for the Moon (#12): This is a short story collection, and mystery short stories are very hard to make satisfying. Also Hill had no idea how long he would stay alive and keep writing these books, and the semi-science fictional aspect of one of these tales does not weather well–nor does its vision of Dalziel and Pascoe’s future relationship, compared to how he actually developed it. This is for the completist only.
Good Morning, Midnight (#20): Not entirely believable in its Dalziel characterization and focusing on giving backstory for that character whom you don’t have any reason to care about if you’re just starting. A fine enough book, just not a standout or a good introduction.
Death Comes for the Fat Man (#21) (Known in the UK as The Death of Dalziel): Do not start a series whose appeal is substantially in Andy Dalziel with a book with very little Andy Dalziel in it. This is the most Pascoey a book has been in quite a few, and as such: fill this in later when you’re already engaged with the characters.
The Price of Butcher’s Meat (#22) (Known in the UK as A Cure for All Diseases, which is a better title in general and for this book in specific): The stylistic experimentation in the first third of this book is via a young woman’s emails, and Hill signals that they are emails
largely by leaving out all apostrophes. I like the character–I like seeing more of her later not in email perspective–but this is an experiment that does not work well and is front-loaded in the book, so if you start with it, you are likely to give up completely. And miss
out thereby.

Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I really wanted to love this book. The author is not a close friend of mine, but she is a close friend of many of my friends, and I generally consider her to be a person of goodwill, someone who’s likely to try interesting things. I had a couple of main issues with Seven Surrenders that prevented me from really loving it, though.

First, the gender stuff. Seven Surrenders gives a fuller view than Too Like the Lightning of what exactly is going on with the treatment of gender in the society depicted and in the narrative chosen to depict it–but that fuller treatment comes at the very end of the book, after hundreds of pages of gender essentialism and…um. There is only one openly nonbinary character, and that person is assigned the pronoun “it” after their genitals are revealed to be a particular intersex configuration. (There are complicating factors to this choice, but not, I think, complicating enough.) Do I think that Ada Palmer would call an nb person “it”? Absolutely not, never. But choosing this language for the narrator to use in this context seems like it has a reasonable chance of feeling like a slap to people for whom this issue is far more personal than it is to me, so…the combination leaves me feeling like I, personally, see what she was trying to do and where it went wrong, but I’m not at all sure I would recommend that someone for whom our own culture’s current treatment of gender issues is a fresher wound.

Second, the book split. As I understand it, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders were originally conceived of as one book and were split for the purposes of publication. I sympathize with both halves of this: telling an 800-page story is no less valid than telling an 8-page story or an 80-page story. Stories come in different sizes. And yet an 800-page book changes printing a lot–and changes lugging the book around–and changes who is willing to even give it a try. However…for me, what that meant was that TLTL did not have an entirely satisfying ending, and SS started with a hundred pages of people tormenting each other. Without the momentum and balance of the rest of the story immediately preceding it, I had a hard time wanting to start with that much nastiness unbalanced by other elements.

Eventually the balance does get restored, though these are not, I should be clear, books about nice people who have picnics and perhaps walk through a garden from time to time. After a moment of melodrama that I just did not care about in the middle of the book, the through-thread reasserts itself enough to put the melodrama into context, and the larger world politics get their urgency back with a vengeance.

My recommendation is that if you’re interested in this series, you should read SS as soon as possible after TLTL to make it as close to the originally intended reading experience as possible. My understanding is that there are two more books to come, and there’s a lot of potential in the ideas here–and Ada told me in an interview last spring that some of the particular cultural institutions of this world will get more attention in later volumes. I’m looking forward to that part. There are still flying cars here, but this bit is mostly interpersonal machinations that also happen to be political machinations. I stuck around for the bit where they got political, and that didn’t disappoint me. But there’s still a really big canvas left to work with here, and I’ll be interested to see where Ada goes with it.

Please consider using our link to buy Seven Surrenders from Amazon.

California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and the Papas, by Pénélope Bagieu

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I love Cass Elliot’s voice. I didn’t know much more about her than you can get from knowing all the words to “Creeque Alley.” The subtitle of this book isn’t quite true–there’s a little bit of The Mamas and the Papas in this narrative. I think what Bagieu mostly means to say is that she doesn’t intend to go into Cass’s later life and death. And there’s no reason she should have to. With a quirky project like a graphic novel biography of a singer, I don’t think there’s any commitment to one thing that it absolutely has to be.

This energetically drawn comic takes us from Ellen Cohen’s earliest childhood through her career’s breakthrough as Cass Elliot of The Mamas and the Papas. Bagieu chooses not to idealize her subject, giving us a Cass who worries her parents, uses quite a lot of drugs, falls in love with people who don’t love her back, and sometimes gets on people’s nerves. In short, even though she is drawing cartoons, she gives us a full-fledged person. Cass’s irrepressible personality shines through more fully when we’re allowed to see her setbacks, her grief, her vivid mode of living.

Also if you’re like me you will be humming for a fortnight after reading this.

Please consider using our link to buy California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and the Papas from Amazon.

Books read, late February

Michael Brotherton, ed., Science Fiction by Scientists. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in–I think it’s tacky–so I will simply note: this exists, I am in it, I read it.

A. S. Byatt, Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. This book is more a lavishly illustrated single essay, comparing and contrasting these two artists and craftsmen. We get some satisfying thundery cranky William Morris letter quotes along the way, and a few of Byatt’s thoughts about creating things. Over before you can get tired of it.

Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, eds., The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. In the introduction, the editors note that people who are not steeped in hip-hop culture will have several of the references in these poems go right past them, and I can verify this to be true, as I am not, in fact, steeped in hip-hop culture. But that’s not a reason not to read the book. Not every poem is like that, and trying to hear rhythms in the language and references in the mind that aren’t the same ones I would use is an interesting exercise.

Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex. This was hallucinatory and weird, and I’m glad I read it. One of the worlds in it is a world in which the Aztec Empire defeated the Spanish; the other is this world, in a meat-packing plant. Foster uses orthographic choices (less successful for me) and prose style choices (totally effective for me, especially the long walls of prose with no breaks, weirdly enough) to give an immersive effect of switching worlds within the protag’s own mind. What a strange book.

Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. Reread. This is part of my ongoing desultory chronological reread of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. This is one of my least favorites, as it is almost all Peter Pascoe, and Peter Pascoe is the least interesting character in the series to my way of thinking. Hill still manages to give us an interesting book centered on him, but gosh do I want more Dalziel back, more Wield, more Novello, more Ellie, more…not Peter, basically. I have hopes of reading the last few in this series in short order and then doing a post about reading order, because chronological is absolutely the wrong way to read this the first time through (but not bad the second). We’ll see.

Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth. Good: this book goes into white ethnicity in serious detail but does not neglect the non-white people who live and have lived in Duluth. It is a modern enough look that religious minorities and women also have places in this book as in fact they do in Duluth’s labor history, so good. Bad or at least weird: this is a history of only Duluth. Not the Iron Range, not the North Shore, not the shipping industry on the Great Lakes…and not Duluth as having a place in any of those. Not Duluth as a regional center. Just Duluth. If you think it’s pretty weird to try to write about labor in Duluth without shipping and timber, holy crud are you ever right. I’d really like to think that this book is therefore a starting but not a stopping point for knowing more about labor and class in northern Minnesota, but it’s a specialized enough topic that who knows what I’ll find. It wasn’t even a very long book, either. They could have gone out so far as Cloquet without making it a bugcrusher. (Sorry, at least half of you cannot hear my indignant Minnesota accent saying, “they could have gone out so far as Cloquet” in your heads, but the rest of you are probably snickering.)

James McGrath Morris, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. I knew nothing about Ethel Payne or Black journalism in the middle of the last century when I picked up this book. It is smoothly readable and very interesting but focuses pretty narrowly on Payne herself, with only peripheral mentions of other Black journalists and publications. Neat person, interesting to read about, but again the threads of “I want more” keep coming through.

Lola Robles, Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist. I am a sucker for SF about alien cultures, and this is substantially descriptions of alien cultures. By the time you might think “should we have more plot to this,” it’s over, so–fast novella, definite positive buttons pressed for me and probably for some of you too. Lawrence Schimel translated it from Spanish in a way that preserved the headlong quality of the prose. All hail translators and the publishers willing to pay them.

Nisi Shawl, Filter House. This is strong and willing to go dark but not so dark that it puts my wimpy self off. I particularly appreciated the Detroit threads through the stories, having visited that part of Michigan a bit now and reading more about the Lake States as a region.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things To Me. Explorations of communications gone wrong. I suspect that a great many people argue with the title rather than Solnit’s actual arguments. This is a series of interesting essays, another one that is short enough that by the time you could start to get tired, it’s over.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Kindle. Part of an ongoing conversation with a friend about nature writing past and present. The two of us put together were not half so impressed with Thoreau as Thoreau was with himself. You can pull some great lines out of this, but it takes some serious sifting. It’s fascinating to watch how Thoreau feels he needs to justify the endeavor of nature writing with classical references, and modern nature writers feel they need to justify the endeavor of nature writing with Thoreau. Still, more of interest in an ongoing study/conversation than generally recommended. To put it mildly.

A. C. Wise, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories. Lyrical and gorgeous, relationships beautifully done. I always feel nervous about the prospect of putting previously unpublished stories in a collection whenever I think of doing it myself, but Wise’s previously unpublished selections are gems I would have hated to miss.

The Time Museum, by Matthew Loux

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Delia Bean’s entomology-packed plans for her summer at her uncle’s estate take a surprising turn for her (less surprising for those of us who know the title of the story she’s in) when her uncle turns out to be a time traveler who founded a museum of all the times of Earth, past and future. He’s looking for interns and Delia fits the bill: intelligent, curious, determined. The other candidates for the internship are from different eras in history, including a girl from 200 years into Japan’s future, a Neanderthal boy, and an ancient Roman who is still weirded out that they keep calling it ancient.

Delia still gets to do some entomology, but she has to dodge dinosaurs to do it. She also finds other strengths she didn’t know she had. An adult reader might well suspect them–the character arc is not very twisty or surprising, but that doesn’t mean that its messages of curiosity and teamwork are unsatisfying.

This is the beginning of a series of kids’ comics, and the time museum and its related time travel set up tons of potential adventures for Delia and her friends, with one-offs and arc plot both possible. It’s a romp through space and time, aimed at kids but not offensive to adult sensibilities.

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Books read, early February

Douglas Brinkley, The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. This is a large, magisterial volume on nature and its protection. Brinkley is a modern enough writer to make serious attempts at including women in his assessment of what happened, and with good reason–several women were seriously important in this fight in divergent ways. He didn’t do quite as well with Native people; Native Alaskan groups are quite often treated as monoliths, with no particular individuals having any particular opinions or actions or influence. So–not a good place to stop learning about this topic, but a pretty good place to start.

A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Reread. I remembered loving these stories the first time I read them, and I did the second time as well. Two are excerpts from Possession, which I had not read the first time I read this volume; two are tiny fairy tales in the same vein, and the last is a novella of great depth and interest, a middle-aged woman’s relationship with a power of fire and air–a fantasy story rather than a fairy tale proper. I noticed Byatt dealing with the Blitz and the evacuation of London children again–she did this in one of the stories of Sugar and Other Stories, I think?–and that felt like a very familiar thing for a writer to be doing, returning again and again to myth to deal with the hard things in one’s past. Highly recommended.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures. I really shouldn’t look a gift novel about Mary Anning in the mouth. But…look, there are not that many working-class heroines of science. Mary Anning, fossil hunter, is very thoroughly one of them. And Chevalier…gives her a fictional older, middle-class woman for a mentor, and that relationship is the heart of the book. I am usually really happy with mentorship relationships at the heart of a book, but in this case it felt like the same thing that so often happens with scientists who are outside the stereotype of who can become scientists: their prowess is attributed to other people. Chevalier even gives one of Anning’s major discoveries to her brother, which, I mean, come on, this is textbook stuff. On the other hand…on the other hand I expect most of the audience for this book knows nothing about Mary Anning, and now they do a bit, so yay that. (The other book with the same title looks interesting. -ed) (And in fact it is!–MKL)

Anne de Courcy, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. This is a good book to read a single chapter of, so if you’re interested in any of the chapters for research, by all means, do that. Taken as a whole it is repetitive, and its focus is skewed toward the very, very late end of the period considered–because that’s where the easy research is. Which is great if you’re interested in specific case studies of British women who married men who were in some way serving the British Empire’s governmental, commerce, or military interests in the early 20th century, but less so if you’re interested in broader questions of how these institutions functioned in general. Not one of de Courcy’s best.

Michael J. De Luca, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, Jason S. Ridler, and Justin Howe, The Homeless Moon 3 and The Homeless Moon 4. Two more chapbooks by a group of friends. (Again available for free. -ed) One of them has a sub-genre theme (steampunk) and the other is stories in a shared universe. While I would have been reasonably happy to read more of these chapbooks, the progression from an unthemed chapbook to a shared universe seems like it has a natural endpoint here, as writers working together on a project like this could go. It’s also kind of neat to see people growing as writers in ways that you can’t always–or not always consciously–if you’re reading a story here and a story there and not always in sequence. Everyone was doing more by the fourth one than they were in the first one. So yay.

Victoria Finlay, The Brilliant History of Color in Art. This is a lovely coffee-table book about pigment. Finlay has another book (Color: A Natural History of the Palette) that is denser, more prose and more depth, and frankly I like that one better. But this one is not just a lighter version of the same thing. It touches on slightly different anecdotes in the history of art and science, and that’s fun. And sometimes can be shared with people who aren’t committed enough to read a longer prose work.

Stefan Grabinski, The Dark Domain. Early twentieth century dark fantasy short stories from a Polish writer I had never read. Gosh, people were frightened of their own brains in the early twentieth century. The call was pretty much always coming from inside the house. Which is not a bad thing, just a direction to be noted, as people’s tolerance for darkness/horror often varies depending on type.

John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness. Reread. This was an accidental reread–I picked it up on a whim and just kept going. Haines has some really lyrical nature writing here, and his relationships with snow and dogs make me particularly happy. Also it’s short, so if you fall into it, you can fall back out again without devoting too much of your reading time to it.

Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. This is a feminist Lovecraftian novella, which is not usually my jam, but there is a big one of my buttons to press here, which is: the Gaudy Night button. Early stages of female higher education: yes please give me more. There is a lot of wandering around doing quest stuff (well, it says so on the tin, I am not surprised) and exploring and contextualizing. Which was fine, but the university life was what got me interested here, and I wished for more of it.

Ellen Klages, Passing Strange. Another novella, this one with a 1940 San Francisco setting, focusing on the lesbian community of that time. There were a few places where it felt like it was referencing a larger body of work that to the best of my knowledge is not published, but it was still smoothly written, well-characterized, unique, interesting, and short. (Another piece of fiction with an interesting nonfiction book of the same title. -ed)

Jill Lepore, Joe Gould’s Teeth. Speaking of short books, I only finished this one because it was short, and I have the feeling Jill Lepore feels the same way. (I could be wrong.) She researched would-be historian and revolutionary of the field of history Joe Gould, who was friends with Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings and all sorts of other Modern poets, and what turned up is that Joe Gould was a fairly nasty person but not in an interesting way. Ezra Pound, not an excellent judge of character: news at 11. Gould hassled, annoyed, and harassed (for criminal definitions of harassed) members of the Harlem Renaissance who were ten times more interesting than he was. Jill Lepore being herself, she was utterly willing to call this out for what it is. But…it still left me feeling like there was no good reason to be reading about him instead of the Harlem Renaissance, except that I was 75% of the way through this very short volume. I’d recommend literally anything else Lepore has done over this book, unless you’re desperately interested in the peripheries of Modernism or the Harlem Renaissance.

Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. A giant book with some missed opportunities because of blind spots. Massie does not seem to have spotted that Catherine’s public acknowledgment of her lovers was entirely different than that of, say, Charles II of England, because she was a woman. So there’s this fascinating difference in Russian imperial culture that he ignores or, worse, misconstrues as typical of the rest of Europe. The first half of this, before Catherine takes the throne, is still pretty great, fluidly written, very novelistic. The second half is more back and forth, focusing chapters thematically rather than temporally…which in some ways makes sense, but it leaves you reading about the reaction of someone whose death was covered in the previous chapter. Still recommended, but only when you have a big chunk of time and patience.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky. Reread. The last time I read this book my grandfather was still alive, so the crucial scene relating to Tiffany’s grandmother’s place was merely well-done rather than completely wrenching. I love these books so much, even when they make me cry.

Michael Schumacher, November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. The past was a dangerous place. This is full of pictures of ships, most of which went down in this storm or at least struggled mightily. It is short and to the point, so if you’re interested in natural disasters, the Great Lakes, or the history of shipping in the US, you’ve come to the right place. Other than that probably give it a miss.

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone. This is not going to be known as Delia Sherman’s best book, but it’s entirely readable and entertaining. Young would-be magician and cranky mentor, several interesting supporting characters. The beats fall where you’d expect them to, but that’s okay.

Trenton Lee Stewart, The Secret Keepers. Kids’ adventure SF, very much a page-turner. Strange gadgets! Mysterious oppressors! Worried parents whose worries do not prevent adventures! I liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I like this. It’s much in the same vein.

Ian Tyrrell, Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A thoughtful analysis of the rhetoric and attitudes of empire and how they interacted with the early conservation movement. Very clear-eyed on the buttons pushed to get the cause supported, for better and worse. The writing style is very academic, and so are the concerns therein, but not inaccessibly so.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, The Seelie King’s War. The conclusion of this trilogy–this volume is very nearly all exciting climax and tying the threads from previous volumes back together. Don’t start here, start with The Hostage Prince. Full of faerie magic and stubbornness.

Books read, late January

Mishell Baker, Borderline. Do you ever do the thing where you get in your head that a book is something utterly different than what it was? For some reason I thought this was going to be near-future SF. There is no good reason for this; none of the jacket copy says so, because it isn’t. What it is, is urban fantasy, quite good urban fantasy in a number of ways. First, it doesn’t do the mushy thing that urban fantasy does where it’s “urban” but has no features of any actual city. This book is set in really for sure Los Angeles. It is very specifically LA, and a very specific part and experience of LA at that. Second, Baker uses borderline personality disorder to examine and refract some tropes of the genre in ways that delight me. The scene where the heroine has a big deal of telling everyone what she thinks of them: that has causes, and it has consequences, it is not the kind of wish fulfillment that that scene so often is. There is carefully followed worldbuilding here, there is a main character who is a person, not a diagnosis, but whose diagnosis informs her character intimately…there’s a lot to like, and I’m eager for the sequel. (What a relief, since I like Mishell, but that’s never a guarantee of anything.)

Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Skill of Our Hands. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Mission. Kindle. Pen and his demon continue to wander around the world of The Curse of Chalion, using lifetimes worth of knowledge to improve matters for the people around them–and sometimes, crucially, themself. Themselves. Whichever applies when one entity is entirely housed in another. These are fun, and this is a fun one of these. It’s not what I’d choose to introduce people to Lois’s work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value.

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets. I had just been reading about the Congress of Vienna, and up pops this fantasy novel set there. It is a fantasy that crosses over quite a lot with its romance genre–there are some misunderstandings and relationship developments that are squarely inspired by that genre–but for many of you that’s a happy thing. The Congress of Vienna is the sort of thing that takes a great deal of work to make sense of, so the addition of magic actually doesn’t make things any more confusing and possibly less so.

Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Justin Howe, Homeless Moon: Imaginary Places. A chapbook put out ages ago by five friends, of whom I now know three. Far-ranging weirdness. Good fun in different directions. Cool thing to do. (And available as a free PDF. -ed)

Anatole France, Bee: The Princess of the Dwarfs. Kindle. I have been thinking about how the late 19th century and early 20th century constructed their version of fantasy, and this was another data point for that. It feels to me like a lot of pre-Tolkien, pre-Mirrlees, pre-Dunsany writers were more interested in lush description of fantastical scenes than in characters that, well, did much of anything. Some of this is that many of them are consciously–self-consciously–telling a children’s story, but what that means for the era can get pretty precious. None of the characters who would seem to be primary characters learn or accomplish anything of note. But gosh, they were pretty. Okay then.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 1. Kindle. What a great way to start off a magazine. Malon Edwards’s story “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber,” in particular, as an opener: whew, wow. The insight of old ladies as a science fictional exposition device, with attention to the cultural norms between them and their individual personalities: yes please, more of this.

Bela K. Kiraly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism. If you’ve ever wondered about the Hungarian noble system, wow, here you go. Complicated, bizarre way of running a society, and Kiraly lays it out for you in detail, with charts: what percentage of people were this kind of aristocrat, what percent had that kind of education. It’s a solid place to put your feet when you’re looking at the Habsburgs and going, “What? What?”

Richard Manning, Grassland. Focused specifically on the grasslands of North America as natural habitats and human usage detracting from same. Manning has lots of interesting stuff to cover here but occasionally veers into habitat exceptionalism regarding grasslands as opposed to forests, deserts, etc. and overstates points that could have been made reasonably. Still, if you’re interested in wilderness environments, having a bit of analysis about grasslands and how great they are is no bad thing.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt. Discussed elsewhere.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. Retold fairy tales are by now a genre standard, and this book is a clear indication of why. There’s a rich vein still to be mined here, and a fresh editorial team is sometimes a great way to get the best out of authors who have touched on this sort of thing before–or who haven’t and need a nudge in the right direction. My favorites were Genevieve Valentine’s “Familiaris,” Theodora Goss’s “The Other Thea,” Sofia Samatar’s “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” and Kat Howard’s “Reflected,” but really there’s quite a lot to dig into here.

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Stone Forest. A book on the line between graphic novel and long picture book–or perhaps it’s just a graphic novel that’s aimed at a youngish audience. Hilda continues to have wild adventures with the secret magical creatures near her home. This time her mom gets involved–not entirely voluntarily–and their relationship is beautifully done. It would work as a starting point, but there are more before this, and they’re also lovely.

Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman, The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered. This is about a very particular blue dye that is religiously significant to some groups of Jewish people. If you’re interested in history of dyes and pigments or history of religion, this is one of the places where they overlap. Human beings are pretty odd ducks. If you read this book and don’t say, “What? What?” at several points, you’re more jaded than I.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. This is wrenching and great. It follows the arc of a young woman’s life from slavery in the Deep South onward, and it does not romanticize social relationships in any particular. It’s beautifully written. I’m so glad I read it. I’m also so glad I’m not permanently reading it, because it’s a lot to take in.

Walter Jon Williams, Impersonations. The latest Praxis story, following the consequences of the earlier trilogy. I think you could pick up everything you need to know, but the emotional weight of why you should care feels like it’s dependent on Dread Empire’s Fall etc., so you might as well start there if you have the chance.

Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt, by George O’Connor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

In the afterword to this graphic novel, George O’Connor notes that Artemis is one of his favorites, that when he was planning the Olympians series, he deliberately saved some of the ones he likes best for later so he’d have something to look forward to. Artemis is one of my favorite Olympians, too, so I’m glad to see her treated reasonably well.

Reasonably well–within the bounds of what’s mythologically available. Because Artemis is not a nice goddess. She’s not a happy huggy goddess. (Unlike the rest of the Olympians, right? Um.) So if you’re thinking of giving these books to small people–to any size people really–make sure they’re okay with sudden death and being ripped apart and shot and generally slaughtered. Because that will show up a lot, what with Niobe and Actaeon and all the rest.

My one complaint in this is that I didn’t imagine Artemis in a silver minidress and ankle-strap heels. But the dogs are nice. I do like the dogs.

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