Books read, late July

Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, eds., In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. It’s possible that somewhere out there is a terrible book on translation that is poorly written and no fun to read. I have not found it yet. This isn’t it. This is a collection of essays that range from ethics to misfires to any number of other issues in the field of translation, and even when there were spots when I wanted to argue with somebody, it was generally in a thoughtful and productive way.

Patrice Caldwell, ed., A Phoenix First Must Burn. This is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in recent years. There were stand-out stories but the entire thing was fun and exciting to read. My favorites included “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life” Rebecca Roanhorse, and “All the Time in the World” by Charlotte Nicole Davis. But really I just generally recommend this book.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. This is Malaysian-inflected, wuxia-inflected fantasy, and I am 100% here for it. I think one of the things I love most is that Cho is so well grounded in wuxia that she would never mistake its beats and pacing for fights-only–the character and relationship stuff is done beautifully here too. You love to see it. Well, I do.

Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem. One of my favorite collections of poetry I’ve read, searingly personal and staggeringly erudite in its range of references. Highly, highly recommended.

Diane Glancy and Mark Nowak, eds., Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours. This is probably a good collection to start with if you don’t have very much exposure to Native writing. I still have some issues with some of its choices–I get that song is an important art form, but there are some kinds of song where the lyrics are repetitive for a reason, and transcribing them as sung doesn’t necessarily give a good sense of the song itself. But this work varies from highly traditional to extremely avant garde, so that’s a useful range.

June Hur, The Silence of Bones. A murder mystery set in Joseon Dynasty Korea (early 1800s Gregorian calendar), where the protagonist is a young girl who is a police servant. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the relationship between traditional Korean society and converts to Roman Catholicism in this period, and the protagonist is engaging.

Kathleen Jamie, Waterlight. Another lovely poetry collection, this one by a Scottish nature poet. Also highly recommended. What a good fortnight for poetry.

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne. Reread. It had been twenty years since I’d gotten back to this one, and I still enjoyed the faux-Provence setting and the extremely stubborn characters. I notice, with this distance, that Arbonne was repeatedly said to be woman-centered but this book is entirely not. I’m not even sure that that’s a shift in Kay, I’d have to reread some other things to be sure, but it’s more noticeable to me now than it was in 2000.

T. Kingfisher, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. Dough, dough, dough and wicked evil plots. This is a fun one, especially if you’re a baker yourself. I like that Mona’s baking-focused abilities are portrayed as an interesting challenge rather than a weakness. Yay.

Abir Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil. Second in a mystery series set in Calcutta in the early ’20s, although this one involves a road trip to a fictional province. The setting is very well drawn and the main appeal for me.

Emma Newman, Brother’s Ruin. I have really liked other things by Emma Newman, but this one left me cold, I’m afraid. I’m sure that there are some people who would be as screeblingly irrational as the protagonist in their outsized emotional reactions to things, but I didn’t find it fun to read about. Also some of the plot “twists” were incredibly thoroughly telegraphed, leaving me impatient with the characters not figuring things out. Also this is another of the novellas that is not actually a complete novella, it’s a novella-sized origin story–which I will put up with when I’m enjoying the thing, but less so when it’s on shaky ground otherwise. Ah well; I’m still eager to read more of Newman’s work, just this one wasn’t for me.

Karen Osborne, Architects of Memory. Discussed elsewhere.

Pat O’Shea, The Hounds of the Morrigan. Reread. I had not read this since I was…14 at the oldest, maybe younger. So I was deeply relieved to find it kind and charming. It’s an old enough work that “hey modern setting but Irish mythology” is a thing that happens partly because people read O’Shea doing it–and having a great deal of fun along the way.

C.L. Polk, The Midnight Bargain. Discussed elsewhere.

Jan Jarboe Russell, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II. This is one of the books that’s better to have read than to read. It’s reasonably fluid prose, it’s just…well, it does what it says on the tin, and that’s not going to be happy fun times. It’s good to know about this stuff, though.

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift. A Zambian magic realist generational novel, wryly and beautifully done. Different races and classes of Zambian lives through the twentieth century into the twenty-first, including some future stuff, not giving a darn what other people’s genre boundaries might be. Recommended.

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Reread. Yes, we have reached the “rereading the Heimskringla” stage of the pandemic here. Welp. It sure is what it is, and I marked it up for my gigantic research project and consider it time well spent. But I had to take breaks in the middle, because there is only so much of St. Olaf one can bear at a time.

K. M. Szpara, ed., Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. Some beautiful stuff in here, but I think that Nino Cipri’s opening story was just such a staggeringly lovely thing. Would have been worth doing the whole volume just for that story–and there’s more.

Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife. Kindle. Tales of immigration, sexuality, and more. Quite well done, very much in the slice-of-life mimetic fiction mode in case that’s what you’re looking for.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Chimedum Ohaegbu, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issue 35. Kindle. Another strong issue. My favorites were Aliette de Bodard’s story and Jennifer Mace’s poem.

Ovidia Yu, The Frangipani Tree Mystery. 1930s Singapore setting, young woman starting out in her career/life as the detective. I had fun with this and will want to read more. Yu walks an interestingly difficult line with a developmentally delayed character: being period-appropriate but also respectful. She does this by having a heroine who is convinced of the supporting character’s capabilities, beyond the assumptions of some fairly nasty people around her. I think it works pretty well, but if having anybody scornful/less than respectful of a developmentally delayed character is going to be a problem for you, you might want to give this one a miss.

Muhammad H. Zaman, Biography of Resistance: The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens. This is another knee-slapper, wooooo. Antibiotic resistance! Hooray! Seriously, good to know more about, not cheerful. Especially since it’s a quite-recent book that was obviously written before the pandemic (as it would have to be!), so Zaman is talking about things that could go wrong in terms of “another pandemic”–and the stuff he’s talking about didn’t disappear just because we got this pandemic. Welp.

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend of many years standing.

Sometimes a book is incredibly timely because its subject matter fits the headlines of the time when it comes out. And sometimes its timeliness is more a matter of mood: that this is the sort of book people will want to read in its particular era. I believe The Midnight Bargain is the second kind. There is nothing in it about pandemics and vaccines. Humans are not dying by the thousand, in The Midnight Bargain. There are glamorous balls, card parties, flirtations, enticing bookshops, hidden grimoires. Beatrice Clayborn has serious problems, but none of them involve masks.

Good.

Honestly, who could not use a story that is both heartfelt and witty, full of both peril and wish fulfillment, right now? The Midnight Bargain‘s characters fight misogyny and wrestle with each other’s trust. They struggle with duty and ambition. They bind willful spirits and break down social barriers. They ride spirited horses and sail gallant ships. They wear elaborate clothes and drink fruity gin drinks. I love that stuff. It is the fun stuff. And right now, it is exactly the kind of fun stuff I think so many people need right now, and I’m so glad that it’s coming out soon, because in October? Less than a month from the US Presidential election, many months into a pandemic? EVEN MORE SO.

Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend.

Ashlan Jackson’s world was, theoretically, shattered by humanity’s war with the incomprehensible screaming alien Vai. In reality, humanity had done quite enough before the Vai ever came along to break Ash’s world to pieces. The debt and indenture system set up by corporations of the future put people like her into a long series of no-win situations, so the risk and trauma of being soldiers in an alien war just feels like the capstone rather than something separate. Ash has already lost a fiance. She just wants a place to call home, people to call family.

And on the Twenty-Five, she has it, sort of. Her crewmates annoy her in the way that family can annoy, but they’re a good team, searching and salvaging to a “Christmas list” of tech treasures, sorting through corpses on the quiet space battlefield.

But Ash’s body is quietly, slowly betraying her. And it turns out so are some other humans. And all the empathy and understanding she can bring to the situation are tested and twisted as she gets staggering new insight on the nature of the Vai and their interactions with humanity.

I don’t know what was in the water a few years ago to result in a rich subgenre vein of salvage-focused space opera, but I’m glad it was, and I would like to continue with whatever supplement that is, please. Celestium or whatever, sure, let’s have some of that. Because this is an incredibly different book from Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night and Machine, Valerie Valdes’s Chilling Effect, or Suzanne Palmer’s Finder. In no way could you blur any two of them together, they are tonally and thematically incredibly different. But taken as a group of recent finding-the-weird-stuff salvage space opera, it’s a sub-genre I’m very pleased with, and would like to see continue. And I’m so glad to add Architects of Memory to that conversation and the thoughts sparked thereby.

Books read, early July

Maya Angelou, The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. I think there is a certain groove to reading complete collected works of poetry. You have to know that you’re watching somebody grow as an artist and a person–more so in some cases than in others, but this one, oh, watching the first tentative poems grow into the mature outpourings, it’s a bit like tracing the Mississippi downstream. I had taken some of these poems a bit for granted, but having them placed in context with the other poems that led to them and followed them was amazing and well worth the time.

Mary Hunter Austin, A Woman of Genius. Kindle. So this is a weird book, it is a fictionalized autobiography of a woman who came from a small town in middle America to become an actress in the late 19th century, and all the ways in which it was weird and hard for her to be a woman trying to do something of her own when people did not expect that. She wrote it in 1912, and it has all the melodramatic fervor about Talent and Gift that that era produced, but at the same time, if you’ve been a square peg in a round hole, if you’ve been a tall poppy, this is an extremely vivid and sympathetic book. Unfortunately it is marred by certain sadly predictable racial/ethnic attitudes, but these elements don’t take much of the book’s time.

James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain. A brilliant family story, a deeps-of-the-South-and-out story, a Black story, a queer story, a weirdly modern story. I’m so glad I read this, I recommend it.

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapters 3 & 4. Forward! Onward! Hijinks! Light fun!

Stephanie Burgis, Fine Deceptions. Kindle. This is the latest in its series and the longest, but it never drags–the blossoming romance of mad scientists is just what I needed, fun and fast-paced and funny.

Ally Carter, Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor. The plot arc here is quite predictable but watching the kids get there is still fun. This is a lost heir plot and a plucky orphan plot and it is clearly the beginning of the series. And there are nerdy little friends having adventures, and I wanted that, and I bet some of you could do with some of that right now too.

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered and The Shortest Way to Hades. Rereads. These are charming and witty and hold up extremely well since last I read them. I picked up the one and immediately had to read the other too; if I had the last two in the series in my house I would have immediately read them as well. They are murder mysteries that are almost entirely voice. (I also think that they are the first thing I ever read where the protagonist’s gender was successfully obfuscated; I read Hilary Tamar as nonbinary, and that is not an accidental headcanon, that fits entirely with Caudwell’s text.)

Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943. Chen wants to situate Chinatown and its environs as a firmly trans-Pacific community in opposition to some historians who tried to treat it as an outpost of China, and I think this is entirely successful, and also in parts extremely interesting.

Aliette de Bodard, Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. What a relief this was, having it show up just when I was not feeling good (don’t worry, it’s fine). This is a holiday story, but this time it’s Tet rather than Christmas, and going home for Tet is…a very fraught thing for this dragon and fallen angel pair. So much fun.

Sarah Gailey, When We Were Magic. I’m really pleased that there are more fantasy novels coming out that center teen girl friendships. I am a huge sucker for friendship books in whatever genders, but having teen girls treated with respect on their own terms warms my heart. Like Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers, this one sees teenage girls clearly, their mistakes and gaps in knowledge but also their capacity for caring, ferocity, and so much more. I did feel that When We Were Magic could have done with a little more in the way of consequences for some of the stuff–or at least underlining what the consequences it had actually meant–but on the whole I enjoyed it a lot.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Grace. Kindle. Another fluffy fun fantasy romance about adult people with baggage. One of the two protagonists is a perfumer, which means that her worldview is one of the only sensible ones ever in fantasy, focused on how people smell yes good that is life.

Rosemary Kirstein, The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power. Rereads. The Marta Randall novel I read further down the alphabet reminded me a bit of these, so I decided to finish rereading the series. This was a great decision and my only regret is that books 5 and 6 are not out yet, but at least I know Rosemary’s writing them now. The focus on knowledge, investigation, and kindness is exactly what I needed in a science fiction novel. I did end up feeling weird about being bilaterally symmetrical, but that’ll happen from time to time.

Seanan McGuire, Come Tumbling Down. The latest in her series of portal fantasy novellas, goes back to previous worlds and characters, definitely not a stand-alone but another installation in the larger story.

Marta Randall, Mapping Winter. Kindle. People trying to do good within a corrupt system. This is fantasy, but it reminds me, as I said above, of the Steerswoman books, the tech level, the exploratory feeling, the entire social structure. This is a compliment. I am looking forward to the sequel.

Iona Datt Sharma, ed. Consolation Songs. I make a policy of not reviewing anthologies I’m in, and I’m in this one.

Jo Walton, Or What You Will. Discussed elsewhere.

W.B. Yeats, Poems and Seven Poems and a Fragment. Kindle. The one that says poems is mostly plays, and there’s a poem about some of my response in a previous entry. Yeats is doing things with Irish mythologies that are more intellectually interesting than emotionally resonant for me, but they are intellectually interesting…and these were on my Kindle when I desperately and immediately needed a diversion. (Ideally next fortnight’s book post will be less like that….)

Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves, eds., Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. This is an exhibit book from a beautiful, varied, and in places surprising exhibition at Minneapolis Institute of Art. I went to talks around this exhibition, and I’m glad there are essays and photos to showcase it, because it’s good and needed work.

Jane Yolen, ed., Nebula Awards Showcase 2018. I’d already read a lot of this because of keeping up in the field in general, but the few I had not encountered yet were worth the time, and I’m glad they’re doing these volumes.

Steven J. Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. This account of a massive early 20th century pogrom and the social fallout thereafter was good and useful history to know and also incredibly difficult to read.

Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a dear friend, and I read this book in an early draft.

For a book about death this is not particularly gloomy. It’s not only about death, it’s about creation/subcreation and the uplifting nature of story, and about Florence, and about a bunch of Shakespeare’s characters. But it is substantially about death. And yet…and yet it is not a particularly sad book, not on my list of “oh goodness don’t read this now.”

The mix of 21st century Montreal writer, 19th century Latin scholars, and fantastical 15th-16th-ish-sorta century fantasy characters give the story a sort of syncretist flexibility. It’s intensely personal and specific and yet very far-ranging. And…look, Caliban has a family. Caliban is not a singular monster but a person with motivation and family and compatriots. I like all sorts of things about this book, but I think one of my favorites is that it takes the time to have thinking, feeling creatures who are quite unlike each other, finding ways to get through it all in the same world. Worlds. Whichever.

Books read, late June

Sophie Anderson, The Girl Who Speaks Bear. This is a fun and charming middle-grade book that draws on Russian tales to make its own new thing. If you’ve read Anderson’s previous book, The House With Chicken Legs, there will be elements of the Baba Yaga story in there that have callbacks here, but it’s more a related work than a sequel. I loved the big strong titular character, her world, and her arc.

K. Arsenault Rivera, The Warrior Moon. It was the perfect time for me to sink into a big fat fantasy novel wherein the characters’ flirtations with godhood are taken head-on. I’d recommend that you read the first two before coming to this one–there are a lot of elements here that will be far more satisfying if you’ve got the characters’ backstory. Also, there were a couple of separate threads of father/daughter relationship that made me cry–done very well. Giant wolves ftw.

Molly Brooks, Sanity and Tallulah: Field Trip. Middle grade graphic novel, second in its series, and with a much more exotic element than the first, because this one takes place on a planet. Whoa, weird! But Brooks does a really good job of cuing you in on what you’ll need to know in such a foreign environment. (Seriously, the two space station girls’ planetary adventures are so much fun.)

C.J. Cherryh, Resurgence. The latest atevi book. For the love of PETE do not read this without the others, because it is in no way an independent story, it’s just another place where she’s carved off the next bit of the ongoing story. It is alien diplomacy soap opera. I find every sentence and paragraph completely readable, but don’t think too hard about where it’s going, because it’s not going. It’s here. Only read the late part of this series if you have no attachment to plot momentum, if you want to spend the day hanging out with your alien pals while they drink tea and argue politics. Plot is a thing that rears its head only occasionally and not energetically.

Ted Chiang, Exhalation: Stories. Quite often I can appreciate what Ted Chiang is doing without particularly loving it–my response is often more mental than emotional. That was not the case for “The Life Cycle of Software Objects” in particular: I think it is my favorite thing of all of his. Thoroughly compelling.

Julie C. Day, ed., Weird Dream Society: An Anthology in Support of RAICES. Kindle. This was a very solid reprint anthology that I found enjoyable, not just virtuous for its cause. For me standout stories included “Glasswort, Ice” by Emily Cataneo, “Amanda Invades the Museum” by Michael J. DeLuca, and “And Sneer of Cold Command” by Premee Mohamed. But there’s a lot of good stuff to choose from here.

Lisa Goldstein, A Mask for the General. Reread. This book practically has, “HELLO MY AUTHOR IS A BABY BOOMER” written in all caps at the top of every page. The attitudes toward Berkeley, toward which dystopia it is we’re risking exactly, toward ephemeral wearable art…it’s very very much of its generation. Which is neither good nor bad, it just is. But wow, is it.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. Gigantic magisterial biography, generally quite good. Lee had a tangent wherein she was absolutely obsessive about what, in stage-directed detail, had happened when Woolf was sexually abused, and I could have done without that, but otherwise it was a thoughtful assessment of a literary life. And importantly to my own attitudes, it did not make the mistake of thinking either that platonic friendships or friendships conducted primarily in writing (or, y’know, both) were negligible. Which to me would have badly misunderstood both the world and Virginia Woolf. So. Interesting stuff.

Rose Macaulay, Abbots Verney. This was her first novel, and while she was still not doing what everyone else did, this was a lot closer to what everyone else was doing in 1906 than…well, yeah. Anything subsequent that I’ve read by Macaulay. Questions of honor and family and where one should and should not cut ties are central here. There are also two completely gratuitous moments of conversational antisemitism that could have been cut without changing the thrust of the story–but they weren’t, so be aware if you’re thinking of reading this, that’s an element that’s in it.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. The last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I think one of the things Mantel does so beautifully here is give a sense of how history is not fixed while you’re living it. The flux and uncertainty of Cromwell’s world comes through so very well. I found it compelling and worth the entire long read. Probably less confusing if you start with the first one.

Ash Parsons, Girls Save the World in This One. This is 100% not my subgenre, and I sat down and read it in one go anyway. It’s ultra-contemporary in its voice (to the point where I’m not sure the slang and references will age well), and it’s about zombies. Zombies at a convention for a zombie show fandom. But it’s like Parsons sat down and was like, “What if I hit all these genre beats but…not misogyny?” And teen girl friendship was central, and that’s worth a lot of zombies to me. (Which is good, because zombie novels rarely come with just the one.)

Marge Piercy, What Are Big Girls Made Of. This is not really what I want in poetry. I see that it’s doing what it aims at, but it’s very on-the-nose. I found the series of poems dealing with the death of her brother pretty powerful, out of the whole volume.

Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept. A spy novel about the typing pool women and Doctor Zhivago and sexuality and friendship. I found it compelling, and it made me want to at least check out Doctor Zhivago.

Vienna C. Saari Maki, Ready to Descend: A Minnesota Iron Ore Miner in the Underground, 1908-1913. This book is awesome. Is it good? No, not really. But it’s awesome. Basically Saari Maki decided to translate her uncle’s journals from when he was a miner on the Range in the early 20th century. Lots of interesting information about life in those conditions, but also moments of hilarity (…the Finnish transliterations of the English stuff he hears the most…) and fervent, heartfelt passages about socialism that strike me as written in a particular range that changed once socialism was a flawed human system being tried by flawed humans. I’m so glad I have this book.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC – 1492 AD. The early sections of this book are particularly interesting as Schama sets archaeological evidence beside what we know of Jewish life in various Biblical eras–sort of a “yes, and” perspective about what specific Jewish people were doing. Covering an entire ethnic group including major diaspora in one volume is a feat that will inevitably lead to leaving out all sorts of things, and unfortunately much of what I wanted was in that category. There would be a single sentence, “such-and-such was a major center of Jewish life in this-or-that country,” and I’d be like, yes, that happened in the period you are covering, how did it happen, when did it happen. But still an interesting thing to do.

Ngozi Ukazu, Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks and Scones. This is a very sweet gay hockey/baking romance comic. You can read it online still I think? But I read better in print, so that’s what I did here.

Books read, early June

Ben Aaronovitch, False Value. There are a lot of Douglas Adams references in this latest volume of the series, but it’s not a Douglas Adams pastiche. Which is good; hardly anyone can “do” Douglas Adams well. What’s not as overt is that this is doing a lot of the kind of light satire of the tech industry (British version) that Charlie Stross does in his Laundry novels. That, as much as I like the Rivers of London, Charlie Stross does better in his Laundry novels. So I really hope that this is a one-off within the series; it was fun to read but not one of the better entries in the series, to my mind.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot. This book languished on my library list for years because the title–even knowing it was probably a Dostoevsky reference (it was)–was just not appealing. As in Dostoevsky, this is not “idiot” in its general usage but more in the sense of “naive, innocent.” It’s the story of the first year of college and the summer after, for a girl who is not particularly driven, not particularly directed. It’s very well-written, and I enjoyed reading it, but if you want coherent plot this is not your book.

Elizabeth Bear, Machine. Discussed elsewhere.

Molly Brooks, Sanity and Tallulah. This is a middle-grade comic about two little girls who live on a space station, one of whom is disaster-prone and one of whom merely needs lectures on consulting ethics boards before experimenting on live subjects. And receives them. This was so much fun. I immediately put it on my list to give to my younger niece for her birthday.

Agatha Christie, Poirot Investigates. Kindle. A series of Poirot short stories, reasonably light, about as successful as mystery shorts usually are (which, for me, is not very), occasional brief forays into ethnic slurs and stereotypes as one expects from Christie but not a dominant theme of this work.

George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such. Kindle. This is Eliot’s last, experimental book; it’s a series of character impressions in the titular character’s persona. It’s quite funny in spots, very modern. It’s by no means the first Eliot I’d recommend, but it will cause an Eliot completist no pain. Except…once you get to the last chapter, where “Theophrastus Such” is trying to defend Jewish people from the antisemitism of the time…yeah, unless you have a specific interest in watching what it looks like when someone thinks they’re helping and are not helping, you can skip that part, the book is over when it ends and it’s not going anywhere wonderful.

Hao Jingfang, Vagabonds. This is the kind of book I used to see a lot, where the characters earnestly explain Mars and Earth to each other and navigate the cultural conflict between the two planets with a lot of talking that illuminates ideas about the present-day world. Most of the examples of it that I read as a teenager were written by Americans, so having a Chinese version is an interesting lens on the same subgenre. I enjoyed this a lot and would like more of Hao Jingfang’s work to be translated, even if there were elements (internalized sexism, for example) that I didn’t like as much.

C.B. Lee, Not Your Sidekick. This is a classic superhero origin story. If you know these stories, you’ll know the beats in this one. However, it will be a lot of fun for some readers to get to experience those beats with in an Asian-American and queer context, and it won’t do anyone else any harm either.

Ken Liu, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. I ended this volume mad at the modernists, because if I say, “Ken Liu is a sentimentalist,” everyone will think that’s meant to be a bad thing. But he is: the stories in this volume are very emotion-focused speculative fiction. The heart comes first here.

Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits, and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. I often say “does what it says on the tin,” and this does not. It is not, in fact, a general accounting of those categories. It’s the story of one Albanian family, around the time of the Battle of Lepanto. Which is an interesting thing to do! but not perhaps what you might think you were getting from the title.

Eliza Nellums, All That’s Bright and Gone. This is an adult novel told from the perspective of a 6-year-old girl whose mother has just had a major schizophrenic break, as she tries to figure out what happened to her older brother and in fact what’s going on in her family at large. This is the first book in ages where I’ve read the last few pages first to make sure certain traumatic plot points are not the case, and they are not. Enough trauma happens to this kid as it is; I was not up for reading a first-person fictional account of a 6-year-old being assaulted, and lo, that was not in this book. The ending is human and hopeful, but it is a harrowing ride at some points along the way.

Danny Lavery writing as Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Witty pop culturally focused essays, many of which are about his transition, not all. A very fast read.

Priya Sharma, Ormeshadow. Emotionally dark fantasy, rather than vampirely dark fantasy. Family drama, mostly, until the very end.

Nisi Shawl, ed., New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. I particularly enjoyed stories by Tobias Buckell and Indrapramit Das, but honestly this was just a fun volume in general.

Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference. An interesting look at how distributive justice is necessary but not sufficient for comprehensive justice. If you’re up for social justice theory, this is a good addition to that reading list.

Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

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

This is in the same universe as Ancestral Night, and some of the major characters of the are minor characters here. I actually howled, “Mantis COOOOOOOOP!” at one crucial point. (Mantis cop. Mantis cop.) But also there’s a whole slate of new characters to enjoy including Mantis cop’s timid compatriot omg this species okay I am fine now. I’m fine.

But really though: I have not had enough fun science fiction where humans and aliens have established friendships and working relationships, lately. It is a subgenre I like so much, and I basically never have enough of it. And this one has hospital drama! And faster-than-light travel drama! And people doing their best to get their heads together!

There is also some serious consideration of community, and of how to handle breaches of trust, both individual and community. The questions of how to be a functioning adult that come up in Ancestral Night are foundational, but this one expands on them further. With multiple-atmosphere hospital drama and mantis cop. I really really like this, okay? You’re going to want one. It’s a prime example of Bear continuing to grow as a writer–and I liked the stuff she started with.

Books read, late May

Einat Admony and Janna Gur, Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking. I leafed through this. It looks reasonably good about spice blends and techniques, especially if you’re new to cooking with Middle Eastern flavors.

Chaz Brenchley, The Bone Mask Boys, Chapters 1-3. Kindle. The beginning of a new serial, set on the same canal-laced Mars as his Crater School stories but with a very different tone and plot type, much darker and more procedural.

Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. I wish this had been more “history and traditions of Caucasus people” and less “how Caucasus people have been screwed over by Russians, repeatedly,” and yet one sees, in context, how the latter is important. I feel like the ethnic composition of this region is fractally interesting; the more I learn about it, the more I think, oh, but this has just scratched the surface really.

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Kindle. This was a frothy romance novella that I picked up because I like Cho’s other things, and it was great fun and allowed the titular Jade to have fun and not be punished for it.

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Kindle. I picked this up expecting it not to demand much of me, and lo, that’s what I got. I was a little surprised at how sketched in things were, how little detail–it’s a very bare bones style. Anyway, Poirot is here, Hastings is here, random startling prejudice for no plot-related reason is here–mostly fun if you are braced for that last category, over quickly, but not something I would say anyone simply must read.

Sarah Churchwell, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby. I was grateful that Churchwell was very careful to say that the murder trial she was writing about, in parallel with writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald in this book, was not meant to be an exact copy or direct source of The Great Gatsby, that she was very very clear on not overstating her claims. At the same time I felt like it left the book a little disjointed, here are two things sort of nearish each other, and it didn’t come together wonderfully, it just sort of sat next to each other. Fine but not thrilling.

Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

Katharine Duckett, Miranda in Milan. This is the aftermath of The Tempest, Miranda’s return to a society she never knew as an adult and all the politics and magic that follow thereby. A charming novella.

Carlos Hernandez, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe. I was so excited for this book and it did not disappoint. My favorite parallel-universe-wrangling Miami duo are back, with just as many wisecracks and tugs on the heartstrings as before. If you haven’t read Sal and Gabi Break the Universe yet, go back and start there, it’s a treat. But so is this. Universes are so much trouble!

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing. Beautiful essays about place. I went and put everything else she’s written on my list after I read this. So satisfying.

Sim Kern, Depart, Depart! Discussed elsewhere.

Steven Koblik, Sweden’s Development from Poverty to Affluence, 1750-1970. If you don’t want what it says on the tin, don’t read this book, because it is not doing anything else. If you’re interested in the Hats vs. the Caps (if in fact you know what the heck that means), this may be a book for you. It was clearly published very shortly after the period covered, so it’s not that anything magical happened in 1970.

Don Kulick, A Death in a Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. Kulick goes into a great deal of detail about his interactions with a village that had a unique language when he first came into contact with them. He’s very interesting about process–about literally how, as a procedure, people shift from using their own language with their friends, their families, their children, to…not. To using their larger language’s common tongue even without enforced mandates that they do so. He is much clearer than most white anthropologists about his own humanity, talking about when and how he left the village on various occasions, what he and the villagers give each other, etc. rather than positioning himself as a great objective authority. A lot to think about here.

Rose Macaulay, Noncombatants and Others. Kindle. I am astonished that she managed to get something this complex and thoughtful and non-jingoist published about the Great War in the middle of the Great War. The characters are thrashing around trying to make art and often failing and trying to cope with major social upheaval and quite often failing at that too and it’s amazing. There are a few offhanded prejudiced remarks/idioms but nothing plot-critical that I recall, so it’s more a “this is a novel written in 1916” warning than a “this author is deeply invested in this toxicity” warning–and at least to my way of thinking (your mileage, of course, will vary), it is very much worth enduring them, because the things Macaulay is invested in doing are phenomenal and not much seen elsewhere. Even now.

Susan Palwick, All Worlds Are Real. A thoughtful and big-hearted short story collection. As I would expect from Palwick.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Mythic Dream. This volume of myth retellings is a generally good read with several exceptional standouts. My favorite stories were by Arkady Martine, Carlos Hernandez, Indrapramit Das, and Amal El-Mohtar.

Jonathan Rosenberg, Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold Wars. Well, this was depressing. It’s about the politics of who can get jobs and who can get played in terms of the two World Wars and also the Cold War. It’s really useful to know this stuff but not, shall we say, an uplifting experience.

Veronica Roth, Chosen Ones. I am particularly fond of books about ramification. Okay, so you’re the chosen ones and you defeated the Dark Lord: what next? This book is entirely made of What Next. Its superheroes are struggling, and the things they discover in the process of sorting their own issues get pretty intense.

Patrick Samphire, Shadow of a Dead God. Discussed elsewhere.

William Shakespeare, Richard III. Kindle. Reread. This was specifically for a novella I’m contemplating, so it was the kind of reread that comes with eccentric note-taking.

Lynne and Michael Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 34. Kindle. Favorites from another strong issue include “High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma T√∂rzs and “A Being Together Amongst Strangers” by Arkady Martine.

Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I particularly liked the questioning, probing structure of this fantasy novella as it unfolded, a blossom structure as understanding grew.

Shadow of a Dead God, by Patrick Samphire

Review copy provided by the author, who is the husband of my friend.

If you’re an adult who reads fantasy, you probably read some fantasies in this sub-genre when you were a teenager. Depending on how old you are, you may have read loads of them. I know I did. Mennik Thorn is a disreputable, down-on-his luck mage who is barely scraping by. He has scruffy friends from his impoverished early childhood who lead him into ill-conceived and sometimes illegal activities–but he’s loyal, and he loves them, and hey, wisecracks will ease your way through a lot of hardship in life.

Yep, it’s one of those, with a couple differences. One is a cool worldbuilding twist–magic comes from the remains of dead gods, whoa, awesome, okay, let’s keep going with that and see where it takes us. (Don’t worry, Samphire will.) The other is that Shadow of a Dead God, unlike a lot of the parts of this subgenre I read as a teenager, is refreshingly not chock full of sexism and racism. Basically, if you like a fantasy like this, it’s the thing you like! but without the bits that horrify you when you think about them a minute! All the fun, none of the “wait he had his protagonist say what?”