Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend.

In the last decade or so I have met more people who are reluctant to begin a series that isn’t published in its entirety, with the objection that the author may drag it on forever or may die without finishing it. Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series has, with its fifth volume, reached its conclusion, so if you’re one of those people, please know that there is not just a stopping point but an ending here.

The series has followed–with lavish illustrations–the career of a lady naturalist specializing in dragons in a world that is not ours but has some very clear analogs. Her own country is not-Victorian-England, and in this book she travels to not-Tibet, following the trail of very rare and unusual dragon specimens. What results calls on all the skills she has spent the previous four books acquiring–in her own science but also in linguistics, archaeology, diplomacy.

If historical approaches to science are your jam–and they are mine–you will want this series. If you like adventure fantasy, there are plenty of death-defying feats and hairs-breadth escapes too. And it’s all told in the chatty tone of an elderly lady looking back on a life well-lived. Recommended.

Please consider using our link to buy Within the Sanctuary of Wings from Amazon. (Or if you’re just starting, A Natural History of Dragons.)

Books read, early April

Mary Alexandra Agner, ed., A Bouts-Rimes for Hope. A bouts-rimes, I was reminded by this project, is when you give people the end rhymes for a sonnet and they have to fill in the sonnet. This one, a free project, was specifically aimed at post-election optimism. The poems came out extremely different despite their common rhyme scheme. An interesting thing to do.

Nadia Aguiar, The Lost Island of Tamarind. Near-shipwreck, hidden magical island, and other buttons that you might have had factory installed to push as well. This is a children’s book that doesn’t have astonishingly beautiful prose, but it does have a cranky adolescent protagonist trying very hard for her family. Entertaining, but I was not really very drawn in–there were some quite awkward points.

Danielle Mages Amato, The Hidden Memory of Objects. The speculative premise in this one starts subtly–I was not even sure it would be speculative rather than mimetic YA. It’s about a teenager who is grieving the loss of her beloved older brother, and all the emotional beats are there for relationships being central. However! The speculative premise is also very well thought-through–better, in fact, than in some projects where it is more front and center. This is a book I found through asking what had gotten released since the election and might be falling between the cracks, and I’m really glad I did.

Mishell Baker, Phantom Pains. A sequel to Borderline, and a worthy one, too; this is a novel not just about the interplay between Los Angeles and the world of Faery, not just about disability and accommodation, but about consequences.

Maurice Broaddus, The Voices of Martyrs. This short story collection is divided into past, present, and future tales, and I liked the third category best, but there were interesting pieces in all of them.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia. What it says on the tin, written in the ’70s. There is a weird obsession with Dacron, and he pretty much comes right out and says that the denizens of Ecotopia are like hippies but less distasteful. There are lots of points of unintentional hilarity–the more so if you happen to be named Marissa. There’s a certain extent to which he has the ecological utopia being, “Nobody wears Dacron! and people recycle voluntarily!” and I’m like, honey, I have good news and bad news. I think this is most interesting to people who are particularly wanting to have breadth of field on either utopias or ecological speculative fiction; it is very, very dated for the casual reader.

Charles de Lint, Tapping the Dream Tree. Reread. This is a Newford collection. I really imprinted on an early Newford collection when I was a teenager, and for awhile I read everything de Lint wrote. This is not a terrible collection. It’s also not a collection that felt like it was doing anything in particular that he hadn’t done a dozen times with slightly different costuming. Don’t start here, and unless you’re a de Lint die-hard, I don’t see any good reason to continue to this point either.

Taiyo Fujii, Orbital Cloud. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Graves, Poems 1968-1970. On the one hand, the things that he labels “songs” sing on the page a great deal more than 99% of poems I have read that are labeled songs/lyrics. So that part was a great success. On the other hand, he is weirdly obsessed with female virginity and other gender dynamic issues that do not hold up well. I picked up some Graves because A.S. Byatt contended that he was one of the great love poets, treating the beloved as an equal, and this is one of the times when you realize what low standards people of previous generations had to have for such things and feel very, very sad.

Paul Gruchow, The Necessity of Empty Places. Reading ’80s nature writing is not entirely dissimilar to reading ’80s speculative fiction. Some of the points of florid inspiration are completely disproven at this time, some of the worries are mitigated and others completely underestimated. And there are moments when race and gender pop up suddenly in order to be handled badly. On the other hand, there are some lovely and personal observations of the natural world. I’m glad this isn’t the first Gruchow I read, because I know he learns better, and I’ll keep reading for the gems.

Bernd Heinrich, Summer World: A Season of Bounty. Heinrich writes about the Maine woods and birds a lot. I like that sort of thing. I bet some of you like that sort of thing too.

Grady Hendrix, My Best Friend’s Exorcism. I am really not sure what I think about this book. It’s about a teen friendship, and there is a coda that makes it clear that it’s meant in some ways to be an ode to teen girl friendships. At the same time…the friendship turns really toxic, and everybody in the book has a horrible time, and once I was clear that it was actually going to be about teens in the ’80s who did drugs and one of them got demonically possessed, it felt kind of gross. The way that it was very vivid about the emotions and the experience was particularly unappealing knowing that that gets used as What Really Happened. Really well done, I’m just not sure I want what it’s doing.

Faith Erin Hicks, The Stone Heart. Discussed elsewhere.

Claire Humphrey, Spells of Blood and Kin. This is a great companion volume to Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night, which also came out last year. They’re dealing with the same chunks of Russian mythology in completely different ways, so they’re more enjoyable together rather than detracting from each other. This is an urban fantasy with egg magic. Egg. Magic. I know of one friend who definitely does not want that but other than my friend who is secretly the Nome King I totally recommend this book. (There are no Oz jokes in this book. I like it a lot otherwise though.)

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 2. If anything, an even stronger issue than the first. I particularly liked Maurice Broaddus’s “Vade Retro Satana,” Christopher Caldwell’s “The Beekeeper’s Garden,” and Eden Royce’s “Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment.” There was a lot of variety of voice and theme in this issue. Keep going, Fiyah.

Elaine Khosrova, Butter: A Rich History. Long-term, this may be the most expensive book I will ever read. I got it from the library and returned it on time…but it has motivated me to get The Great Butter at the store, and I will want to try The Really Good Butters after that, and yeah. Yeah, butter, there’s a lot to butter. The recipes in the back of this were pretty pointless, but butter technique, butter industrial detail, butter butter butter. I like microhistories, and also dairy. Major complaint: Khosrova only talked about the Iowa State Fair butter sculptures, which are done on wire forms come on people, not about our butter sculptures, which are done out of solid blocks of butter like Princess Kay intended. I’m just saying. There’s a reason they sing that their state fair is the best state fair in their state, and it’s because you cross the border and the people in Albert Lea will immediately tell you that there’s a better one just one state over. (I did not read anything about seed art this fortnight but trust me, you’ll hear it when I do.)

Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit. This is not what people mostly mean by military SF at the moment, but it is entirely military and entirely SF. It’s just a little more off-kilter–Lee is doing the SF part, he is not doing Hornblower In Space Take 257. Major lesson learned by putting this book at the culmination of a lifetime of SF reading: not being a tactical genius is the road to a happy life in a science fictional universe, and maybe you should try not being a tactical genius just in case ours becomes a science fictional universe.

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. I wanted to punch Marsh at several spots in this book. On the other hand, I think it’s very well worth reading, not just for the tactile experiences of different kinds of brain surgery (although–!!!) but also for the way that he is very clear about his own mistakes. He not only knows that he has not lived up to the title, he is willing to let us know too. I think we need more of that.

Adrienne Rich, Fox: Poems 1998-2000. None of these jumped out as crucial to share, but I enjoyed the experience. I think I would have enjoyed these poems more in a Collected Works sort of volume. They felt like they were in conversation with things I wasn’t quite catching, and I could easily believe that a fairly large number of those things were Rich’s past poems. I’m glad my library buys poetry at all, but it has a habit of buying one slim collection from 2-3 years of a poet’s life and then saying, oh, we already have some of their stuff and stopping there. Ah well.

Sonia Shah, The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years. This is a good introduction to malaria (far more fun than, for example, contracting it). I didn’t really need another introductory-level book, but if you haven’t read about the effects of malaria on human cultures, this is a quite reasonable place to start.

Bill Streever, And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air. This was a very weird book. It was far too short for what it claimed to do, and then it did even less of that than the space would have allowed, because a lot of it was “Streever and someone else sail around the Caribbean.” I might have read a memoir of sailing around the Caribbean in a small craft. I really was a lot more interested in the history of storms and meteorology here. This was basically half a history of meteorologists and half a travel memoir. So…I mean…fine, but ignore the title.

Christie Wilcox, Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry. Kind of great about hemotoxins and neurotoxins and how they evolve and how they get used and what kinds of animals use them and why. Yay venoms. Fun and reasonably short. (Fun. Um. Okay, mileage varies, but if you can’t have fun with a book about venoms….)

Maryrose Wood, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. The titular characters were raised by wolves. This is a kids’ book that has some features that will be slightly more eye-rolling to adults–the way the Incorrigibles’ speech is affected by their wolf upbringing is a lot more aimed at kid sense of humor–but there’s other stuff too, the ongoing horse book series their governess is obsessed with. I liked this enough to get it for my goddaughter.

Orbital Cloud, by Taiyo Fujii

Review copy provided by Haikasoru Books.

This is very, very near future hard science fiction. The vast majority of the action takes place in 2020, which in some ways is bravely near and in some ways safely near: I know that various things will change between now and then, but I was able to buy the world the characters live in being basically the same as ours in ways that would have bugged me if it had been set in 2040 or 2117. There is a lot of “basically right now” stuff in this book, including using brand names for things like the Raspberry Pi. (So many Raspberry Pis. So many. Wow. On the other hand, yay for a science fiction writer noticing they exist and can have stuff done with them.)

This is a very speculation-heavy book. It’s set on and near Earth, and the focus is entirely on the in-orbit technologies. The characters largely exist to fulfill their speculative plot functions; they are sketched in, not delved into deeply. Emotional and personal growth is not the engine of this plot. And that’s okay.

It’s particularly okay if you want a hard SF angle on another culture. Orbital Cloud is a bit like The Three-Body Problem that way, but only that way–it’s about a million times more cheerful. A billion times. Look, I would need to go into scientific notation to express how much more cheerful this book is than The Three-Body Problem in any kind of compact form. But my point is: same tropes plus different authorial cultural background gives a cool new angle. Fujii is also young/enlightened enough that the sexism here is minimal compared to some of the old hard SF I’ve been revisiting of late, which is refreshing. There are still a few moments where something is a little obnoxious, but it’s definitely a book with more modern standards in that regard. It’s also the good kind of mentally dislocating to watch a Japanese author talk about group dynamics among Americans with Japanese cultural assumptions about what people want or will perceive–gives me, as an American, some perspective about what it looks like when Americans do that about people from other cultures in their hard SF.

There were a couple of hilarious moments when translation was an important plot point–I found them funny not just because of the meta, but because this book does have a flavor of “translated from the Japanese,” obvious points where the translator was trying to figure out how to render “so desu ne?” and other things that are completely natural in Japanese but look weird if you repeat them literally in other languages, less obvious points where it was just a different feel. But translation plot points aside, I think it’s generally easier to translate hard SF decently because the technical terms are more obvious and the prose is not haring off after a lyric in the bushes.

I keep saying the genre over and over again: hard SF, hard SF, hard SF. I really think that this is one of the times where it matters a lot to whether you’ll want to read it. If you hate people doing calculations about orbital dynamics, you will straight-up hate this book, because that is the kind of book it is. It is all that flavor of nerd, all the time. But that flavor of nerd is a fine thing to be, and this is a fine example of it.

Please consider using our link to buy Orbital Cloud from Amazon.

The Stone Heart, by Faith Erin Hicks

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the second volume of The Nameless City (first book named the same thing as the series). Having spent the first volume setting up a multicultural city with diverse population while also establishing character relationships, Hicks is ready to use those elements strongly in book two. The first book was a lot more action-adventure, with races through various parts of the city.

The second book has some action, but it’s a lot more politics. With the grounding The Nameless City provided, there’s never the problem of “why do I care about this, again?” The characters who are affected by the policies–and the ways they’re affected–have been established vividly. So the moments of going “oh no!” and “whew!” all hit.

There is a new antagonist in this book, and Hicks makes sure that she has human motivations while still being clearly opposed to Kai and Rat *and* in the wrong. There’s a little bit of Jackie Chan Furniture School of Martial Arts in the climax of that relationship, which is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.

There are two kinds of young adult books: the kind that are only going to be of interest to people in that age group, and the kind that are set up to be of interest to anybody starting with that age group. This is the latter. If you’re a fan of Avatar: the Last Airbender, this is a series for you. It continues to deliver on earlier promise, and then some.

Please consider using our link to buy The Stone Heart from Amazon.

Books read, late March

Pat Cadigan, Patterns. Reread. One of the strange things about keeping a booklog is that you can discover that you had the urge to read the same book exactly eighteen years apart. In that time, these stories have gone from mildly dated to tales from another era. Unfortunately for my tastes, nobody seems to like each other very much in them–they’re well done but not done in a direction I really recommend.

Paul Gruchow, Worlds Within a World: Reflections on Visits to Minnesota Scientific and Natural Area Preserves. This is a tiny, unprepossessing volume of essays and photographs. Gruchow has just the sort of observations I love in nature writing: a mixture of ideas new to me and phenomena identified that I had seen but not known for what they are. Plants, birds, rocks…all sorts of good stuff. The library has a bunch of his other books, and I will almost certainly read more.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. Haupt wants us to think about how we are living in and shaping an ecosystem even if it’s not a “natural” ecosystem. She speaks up for the moles and coyotes in ways that sound sensible and healthy to me. I enjoyed this a lot.

Gwyneth Jones, Rainbow Bridge. Reread. Kind of an anticlimax to the series, I’m afraid. I still enjoyed it on a page by page level, but the conclusion is not very interestingly conclusive. Further, there are places where ten years have really taken us quite a ways down the road to speaking respectfully to and about each other. We do our best with what we know at the time, and when we know better, we do better. It’s clear to me that, for example, the trans characters in this are meant to be fully realized people…but I think that they would be portrayed very differently now. (Also I am really annoyed with the trope of “glamorous beautiful woman looks completely like she did before five seconds after pregnancy,” and it’s pretty bad in this one. Don’t do this, people.)

Mike Lawrence, Star Scouts. Discussed elsewhere.

Ken Liu, The Wall of Storms. A fascinating meander through this world. People (like myself!) who were annoyed with the lack of female representation in the first volume in this series will find a wealth of characters here, different backgrounds and tastes, roles and ideas. There is quite a lot of machination, so if you like machination, here you are. It also goes farther and deeper into the world Liu created–inspired by Polynesian islands and Chinese epics but with each influencing the other to be something new. If I had one complaint, it’s that manipulation appears to always work; everyone has a button that other people can press at will.

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. This is an intellectual history attempting to figure out what ideas led to the economic situation in Europe 1500-1700. It’s dense and dry, interesting if you’re interested in the topic but not really of general appeal.

Iain Pears, Arcadia. Science fictionish fantasyish tome with time travel and alternate worlds and quite a lot to say to portal fantasy. For me at least one of the levels of “more plot tangles” didn’t actually contribute very much to the whole, but neither did I find them unpleasant to read. Some self-indulgent writery stuff about the Nature Of Story.

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith. Reread. I love the Tiffany Aching books. I love winter. So when I first read this one, I was over the moon for it. I still like it quite a lot, but I’m not experiencing it as quite so much head and shoulders over the others as I did before, for whatever reason. Still: the worldview makes me so happy.

Erica L. Satifka, Stay Crazy. This is a book that attempts to write about people with schizophrenia (including the protagonist) in ways that are not just compassionate but human: the protag is allowed to be prickly, grumpy, and often a jerk to the people around her, rather than the “suffering saint” or “dangerous animal” pitfalls of portraying mental illness. It is also a very wry book about aliens and American consumerism. I’ve seen it compared to Philip K. Dick, but it was a lot more intimate voice, a lot more personal POV than I recall Dick being.

Robert Sherrod, History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. This is one of the last of my grandpa’s books still on my pile, and it was surprisingly great. I don’t usually have a keen interest in the topic, but Sherrod handled it masterfully. Also: this book came out in the early 1950s, basically as soon as the Japanese information was available and the American information was declassified. You can tell that Sherrod was in the mode of writing it as the information came to him. And yet–he does not use any ethnic slurs in authorial voice. He repeatedly and explicitly acknowledges the contributes of Marine Corps women. I can easily see why my grandfather kept this book on hand all those years and enjoyed it, because it reads like Sherrod was just Grandpa’s sort of Marine.

Rebecca Solnit, Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. An essay collection about travel and current events. There’s not a clear geographic focus in this, nor an ideological throughline, and I enjoyed the episodic nature of it.

John Strausbaugh, City of Sedition: The History of New York During the Civil War. Lots of New York politics of the time, some of the “here is a famous individual and what they were doing while other people were shooting at each other” school of history. It wanders enough that I’d mostly recommend it to New York history buffs and Civil War buffs, but it was a pleasant enough read for me, and I am neither.

Angela Thirkell, Three Houses. A memoir of growing up Edward Burne-Jones’s granddaughter and Rudyard Kipling’s cousin. Thirkell is not, I learn elsewhere, completely a reliable narrator, but I loved her approach to writing about her grandfather. And I loved Burne-Jones better through his granddaughter’s eyes.

Maria Turtschaninoff, Maresi. A feminist YA fantasy that was somewhat reminiscent of The Brothers Lionheart and somewhat reminiscent of The Steerswoman. (That may not be where she’s going with it, but it’s where my mind went.) This is why we should have more things in translation, so I can have books like this. It was all too short. There is a sequel. It is not out yet. Harumph.

Ellen Wayland-Smith, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table. Wayland-Smith is the descendant of people from the Oneida colony, and she’s remarkably personal/casual about phrases like “my great-grandmother the sexual dynamo.” The nineteenth century is, like the rest of the world, weirder than we tend to imagine. And this is an interesting little weird piece of it.

A.C. Wise, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again. This is pulpy in the very best way. Costumes described lovingly, relationships and acceptance and chosen family the focus of it all. With, oh yes, occasional mad science, aliens, etc. I’m not squarely in the middle of the audience for this, but I could still have fun with it, and I bet some of you can too.

Ibi Zoboi, American Street. This was lovely. It’s an own-voices immigrant tale about a Haitian girl finding a new life with her cousins in Detroit and figuring out how she can help her detained mother. There are magic realist elements to this story. It is not a happy perky tale, but it’s not hopeless either. I loved the voice, the family life…basically the whole thing. Recommended.

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.