Books read, early June

Adam Regn Arvidson, Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest. This author went and had an in-person encounter with each of the species on the endangered species list in Minnesota and wrote about it. I LOVED THIS. I wish every state had a book like this. It gives a different context and perspective on your immediate habitat even if you’re a person who thinks about conservation and habitat frequently and broadly. I think it would be very readable even for non-Minnesotans, but for Minnesotans, a must-read. Mussels, orchids, lynx, all sorts of things.

Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective. This is a short piece but stands under separate cover, so it gets a separate review. This is a female PoC Holmes-and-Watson in space, but the in space part is baked into the bones. There’s no part of this that’s just plunked down in space with no thought to implication, no part where the shift in culture and gender is not done with careful consideration. As a result, I found it to be far more charming and interesting than the versions in which the template is used too exactly without regard to worldbuilding and character context. If you like nontraditional minds as characters, this one’s for you. No, I don’t mean Holmes….

John M. Ford, The Princes of the Air and Web of Angels. Rereads. These are Mike’s first two books, and I hadn’t reread them since he died in 2006. What struck me this time about Web of Angels in particular was how emotionally and culturally Protestant it is. Possibly the most Protestant book I’ve ever read that was not about conversion theology. It’s proto-cyberpunk, is what it is, it’s cyberpunk before movement cyberpunk, and the aesthetic and tonal differences are fascinating.

Victoria Glendinning, Anthony Trollope. This is a fun biography of the author in question, talking about his relationships and their effects on his work, particularly his relationships with women including his mother and his niece. It made me want to read more Trollope, although he is the scariest author I read, so I will still probably not do more than one. But soon.

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation. I think it’s worth looking at Deb Reese’s commentary on a Native perspective on this book, including its endnotes. I see what Ireland was trying to do, and the parts of it that were away from the residential school were as interesting as a zombie novel ever gets for me, interesting enough that I was very glad to keep reading and see what she was doing with it. But I also see that there are some areas where wounds are still very, very fresh in some communities, so…this book simultaneously does an amazing job with prejudice and perception and power in its main characters’ lives and has some caveats around it that I expect Ireland will be keeping in mind for future work, knowing how good this is and how good the work she’s done elsewhere has been.

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There. This is a “life of the Park” book mostly–a little bit about codebreaking, but mostly a book about how it was to live there, how it felt and who ate what and how it was to arrange lodgings–the sort of thing that a writer who wants that background will probably find valuable.

E. Nesbit, The Magic World. Reread. A set of Nesbit shorts, all aimed at kids and doing that Edwardian upper class thing where she’s talking at kids but assumes a great many specifics about their background. Simultaneously there are a few pre-Soviet socialist moments that are fascinating in their British Edwardian details. But mostly it’s a book where some small magic takes place and some child enjoys it or manages to squirm out from under it, often but not always with animal transformation and frustrating relatives.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Jacob Chabot, et al, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I Kissed A Squirrel and I Liked It. I’m sad that it’s still necessary for some of these tropes about dating and what NOT to do to someone you’re dating are necessary to mention–and really glad that comics are willing to mention them, and put them in the context of superpowered adventures. I raced through this.

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. This was the last of Grandpa’s books on my pile, and it took me forever to read–not mostly because of my awareness that it was the last, mostly because it is over a thousand pages of Nazis, and I kept needing to take breaks for my emotional well-being. Shirer was a journalist who had a front-row seat for a lot of things and could comment on the situation firsthand, which was particularly interesting in the early chapters (he did not have a front-row seat for the plot to assassinate Hitler, for example). This book is of its time, does not have all the context that we’d later have, but that’s also where its value lies: you can see how much of this stuff was terrifyingly known immediately or soon thereafter, what it looked like while it was happening. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad I’m done reading it.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition. The second Murderbot novella! Now featuring ART! I like ART so much. I continue to do the dance of Murderbot as it wends its way through frustrating human customs and societies and tries to figure out a place for itself. Looking forward to more unreservedly, highly recommended–I read this as a reward for finishing my own book draft.

Present Writers: Dorothy Heydt (Katherine Blake)

This is the second of a new series I’m doing here on the blog: Present Writers. See the first post, on Marta Randall, for series details. I admit that I’m fudging a tiny bit here on the series parameters, because a cursory internet search did not give me Heydt’s exact age–but it did say that she invented a conlang in 1967. If she was less than 11 when she did so, I apologize–and hats off for the small child achievement–but I think I’m safe in guessing that this is an author who fits.

And what an author. Heydt is not vastly prolific, but her work is highly varied. She’s made several things available in free ebook formats on her website, so you don’t have to spend any money to find out what I’m talking about. (Although you can kick in to support the author if you see fit!) There’s a book about a physician who dabbles with witchcraft in Ancient Greece, a virtual reality novel dealing with esports before the term esports was a thing, a parallel realities novel that is some of the most engaging and thoroughly domestic fantasy I’ve ever read, and lashings of short stories. Heydt has range.

There are fight scenes in Heydt’s books–A Point of Honor has a jousting knight for a main character, albeit a virtual one–and chase scenes and other pieces of excitement. But a lot of writers can do those well, too. Heydt really shines in making character interactions and pieces of speculative practicality come to life–the details that make a character or a world feel lived-in. Heydt’s use of violence is considered, nuanced, and full of consequence–it is never a default, and in fact is often absent because it was not the right element for the story. With that sure a touch, Heydt makes The Interior Life a master class in what can matter in genre–and a strong contrast to what traditionally has been considered to matter.

When I first looked at Heydt’s website, only a few things were there. She’s added more since, which gives me hope. But in the meantime, I strongly appreciate what there is, I urge you to go give it a look, and then a long hard think, and then come talk to me about what you thought. Because we’re so very lucky that she’s present and sharing so much.

My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

Books read, late May

The sea of DNFs in this fortnight’s booklog is daunting. DAUNTING. Also I am in the middle of two very long nonfiction books. So! Short post this time.

Vera Brosgol, Be Prepared. Discussed elsewhere.

John Crowley, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr. I enjoyed most of this book. The more crows, the better I liked it, but it was a giant mythic century-spanning thing, and I’m down for that. My problems came in with little asides that frankly felt completely extraneous to the book, like, why is this even here, Crowley? Why do you have a young Native character with fetal alcohol syndrome to be…not even a sidekick, basically a few sentences worth of prop at the end? Why have throwaway lines about crows being gender essentialists when you don’t really have that data and it isn’t going to matter to the rest of the book? Why…why, Crowley. Why. When the crow Orpheus section was so good. There were large thoughts about death, and then the places they went were…a little too large, a little too conscious of the idea that this would be a masterwork, a little too sprawling I think, with small elements not treated with enough respect, especially where they touch on actual human lives. This could have been better for trying to be a book instead of the book, I think. (And self-awareness about persons not like oneself, sheesh.)

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. Hurston interviewed the last surviving person who had been transported to the US to be a slave under legal chattel slavery (I phrase this carefully to acknowledge the realities of human trafficking in our time), and the book just came out now. Her interviews with him are preserved in meticulous detail–not just what he said, but what she as an interviewer did with him to build rapport, what gifts and assistance she provided. In an era when the first person was almost never used in academic writing, I can see why this would not have been a popular approach, but today it’s fascinating context, extremely edifying. This is short and in places emotionally grueling, and very, very much worth reading.

Paul Krueger, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. A fun urban fantasy with a bartending angle. The ending had some interesting twists–not all the ones I was thinking it would, and some I actively wished it wouldn’t–but I still enjoyed it enough to hand it off to a friend immediately, and to keep an eye out for Krueger’s next.

Hope Larson, All Summer Long. Discussed elsewhere.

Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City. Seasteading eco-SF disasterfuture Arctic whosis. As I was reading this, I kept thinking this, this is what people claim Kim Stanley Robinson is doing, that he is not in fact doing. Short chapters, diverse cast, very fast and exciting read.

C.L. Polk, Witchmark. This is a gorgeous book, and I can’t wait until it’s actually out in print so that you can all squee about it with me. (This is an ARC, but not a publisher-provided one.) Magic and mental health care in the aftermath of a war, in the ongoing wreckage caused by colonialism and its ills. Relationships developing organically in a fraught situation. This is exactly what I want out of fantasy these days, and then some. Bicycles and trains and consequences. More. More.

Django Wexler, The Fall of the Readers. The last of this MG series, and there’s really no reason not to start at the beginning, but here we are at a satisfying conclusion, so if you’re concerned about series that go on and on, this is definitely not one. Threads are tied up and implications followed up on. I devoured this all in one go one morning when I had been cranky about literally seven other books on my pile.

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

When I was a kid, I loved camp stories.

When I was a kid, I did not love camp.

The difference comes through very clearly in Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared: camp, like other hells, is other people.

Be Prepared is the story of a young Russian immigrant girl who feels out of place with her wealthier American friends and convinces her mother to send her to a Russian Orthodox scout camp for the summer, where she will–she feels–be among kids like herself and fit in and have the glorious joyful camp experience she has heard of from her friends. It is…about as much like that as you would expect. There are biting insects, stinky latrines, unfriendly older kids who are much more familiar with the camp experience, shifting expectations, well-meaning counselors…it’s camp. It’s camp, from the perspective of a two-cultures kid, and Brosgol makes it vivid and relatable.

Please consider using our link to buy Be Prepared from Amazon.

All Summer Long, by Hope Larson

Review copy provided by FSG.

This is the graphic novel story of the summer before Bina goes into eighth grade. It’s the kind of momentous summer where not much happens in terms of major plot points: no dragons slain, no worlds conquered or planets explored, no murders solved, not even first boyfriends or first kisses. The shape of this story is the stuff you figure out about your friendships and interests at that age, the small things that happen out of your control but inside your orbit–friends wandering off and wandering back, family members making choices that expand your world without you having anything really to say about them. A childhood summer is a very particular, very recognizable slice of life, and this is that. This is very clearly and evocatively that.

Please consider using our link to buy All Summer Long from Amazon.

Books read, early May

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, ed., Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara. One of the things that frustrates me, that I know frustrates a lot of people, is treating Africa as though it’s a single unified place, with a single unified culture. This anthology really does not do that, taking selections from authors from all across the continent with incredibly diverse theme, style, and content. Its very existence sort of belies that sentiment, but getting this kind of content in the US is difficult. Many of the selections were a bit frustrating as they were excerpts not just from novels but from works in progress–so if you particularly liked a passage or wanted to find out more about it in context, that is not guaranteed to be available any time soon. Still, the breadth of work available is breathtaking.

Andrea Cheng, The Year of the Book. I broadly categorize kids’ books as the ones that are for all ages starting with whatever age they’re aimed at and the ones that are only really for whatever age they’re aimed at. Mileage, of course, varies. The Year of the Book is a quite nice book about friendship in various shapes and sizes, and the kind of representation it has, my Chinese-American friends would have killed for when we were in grade school–which means it would have been important for the rest of us to see too. But as an adult, I feel like it’s aimed a little more narrowly elsewhere–and that’s okay. It doesn’t make it a bad book or badly done–it’s important to recognize that not everything is for us. I’d definitely recommend it to younger audiences.

Lara Elena Donnelly, Armistice. Discussed elsewhere.

Rita Dove, Selected Poems. Beautiful time- and world-spanning work that I picked up after my local library fixed their poetry month display to…not be parochial and supportive of local harassers. Go team Rita.

Mary E. Giles, Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World. Grueling accounts of various types of woman hauled before the Inquisition, including women who had or were suspected of having different religious affiliations, slave women of various color “categories”/gradations under the system used at the time, and sexually and religiously dangerous women who posed threats to the status quo. I am not sorry I read this, but it took a lot out of me.

Lynne Jonell, The Secret of Zoom. This is another kid-centered kids’ book, where the characterization is not very detailed. It’s focused on doing what it’s doing with music, science, and cartoon-type families. Reasonably fun kids’ adventure fantasy.

Alisa Kwitney, Cadaver and Queen. This book baffles me. It is entertaining and reasonably fast-paced, an exciting YA fantasy romance. But several of the structural choices confuse the heck out of me. The protagonist is American (why?), studying medicine in the UK, where there are reanimated corpses serving in an alternate Victorian England. One of those Victorian corpses is the young medical student Victor Frankenstein, thereby casting permanent confusion on the “Frankenstein was the doctor/Frankenstein was the monster/Frankenstein was the friends we made along the way” question. I found myself deeply disturbed by thinking through some of the implications of the love story too carefully, and also why is there even a Frankenstein in the UK, and…look, if you relax and have fun with it, it’s a fun book, but if you’re not aces at relaxing and having fun, there will be questions like WHAT DID HE SMELL LIKE that may haunt you in the wrong ways.

George McClure, Parlour Games and the Public Life of Women in Renaissance Italy. The stuff they were getting up to in Siena! This is one of my favorite kinds of microhistory, the kind delving into the little side streams of what people were actually up to and the things in their actual lives and how it related to how they viewed the world. Siena! Valuing women because women were shrewd game players! Who knew! I love microhistory.

Victor D. Montejo, The Adventures of Mr. Puttison Among the Maya. This is a very quirky Guatemalan novella in translation, about an American tourist coming to Guatemala and trampling around getting his feet in everything and what transpires from there, sometimes throwing coins, sometimes gathering stories, generally being a 1930s American tourist as viewed through Guatemalan eyes. Glad I read it, entertaining and worth the time.

Armistice, by Lara Elena Donnelly

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the sequel to Amberlough, which is one of the most urban fantasies I have ever read, and yet is not, in genre terms, urban fantasy. It’s a Weimar-inflected alternate world, a spy novel, a stage novel that Noel Streatfeild would never have recognized; it is very much its own thing.

And so is Armistice, very thoroughly a sequel and yet its own book; among other things, Armistice has a different setting–from stage to screen, from temperate to tropics, from the domestic sketches of the descent to fascism to the diplomatic ones. The stakes remain both national and intimately personal–familial, searing, heart-wrenching. There are follow-on consequences from Amberlough, but also from before that book, from the characters being full people with full lives. I am a sucker for stories of revolution, and this is one in a small enough scale to grab and hold me. It’s doing very different things than other books in the genre are doing, and I’m glad to see them done.

Please consider using our link to buy Armistice from Amazon.

 

Books read, late April

Elizabeth Bear, Stone Mad. This is a sequel to Karen Memory but with very different focus and structure. Karen and Priya have moved on–taking some of their more interesting machinery with them–and some of the discoveries they make along the way are earth-shaking. Also building-shaking. But the heart of this story is relationship stuff, established relationship stuff, ongoing relationship stuff, in a way that we rarely get to see in genre narrative. Making things work, getting things to a point where they can keep going, is a very different plot than finding one’s sweetheart, and I’m glad to see it here.

Kate Cavett, ed., Voices of Rondo: Oral Histories of St. Paul’s Historic Black Community. This is an amazing book. It’s a compilation of interviews with people who lived in the neighborhood in question, and Cavett is smart enough to let the interviews speak for themselves. There’s a great diversity of experience–economic, cultural, personal–and putting it side by side does so much to make it vivid and layered and real, with joy and suffering and the human experience in miniature, in neighborhood form. This is my city. There are probably similar stories for yours, and I recommend that you find them, because this is worth knowing about the structure of where you live, what has been lost and what remains, what your neighbors have to say about it.

Craig Laurance Gidney, Skin Deep Magic. The title of this collection is extremely well chosen; they are fantastical and dealing with race and culture in ways that go beyond the superficial.

Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. Harjo is from Oklahoma, and the southern plains sing through the poems. This is not my prairie, but I can see how my prairie will slip down into this one, hotter and dryer. Harjo’s Muscogee background also informs her poetry in ways that sing through it, and I don’t know the songs the way I do the songs from the neighbors up here, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to read.

Faith Erin Hicks, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Jen Wang, Holly Black, et al, Lumberjanes: Bonus Tracks. This was a bunch of side tales of whimsy and wonder and friendship to the max. Already sold on it. Yep.

Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, eds., Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years. Okay so look. We do not do this with terza rima, people. We do not look at terza rima and say, okay, sure, this is a major cultural form, extremely important to you, but we’re going to say that when WE do it, it means basically whenever we want and not ANY of the stuff it means to you, but it’s the same thing with the same name yay. And I have serious issues with the way that Anglophones do that with haiku. This is an anthology of extremely short poems, and that is it. They have literally no other requirement than that. I decided within the first few pages that I could read them on that premise or not, since that’s what they are, and I did read them, and I learned some things about very short poems. But I still object to just willy-nilly declaring that minuscule poems get to be haiku because we feel like it. ANYWAY. One of the things I learned: repetition in really short poems is not nearly as searingly effective as the poets want it to be. Mostly, in poems of less than fifty words, it’s pretty bland. Interesting to have a large data set there. I still wish that they were not so blithe about how haiku can be three words or a bunch of letters or whatever. Eh.

Andrus Kivirahk, The Man Who Spoke Snakish. This is an Estonian fantasy novel set at a sort of mythical version of the Christianization of Estonia, with the new ways symbolized by such newfangled innovations as eating bread and living in villages, and the old ways by speaking snakish and intermarrying with bears. This is a weird, weird book, and the bear-on-woman sex is right there in it, so if you are not up for that, you’re going to want to opt out here. It is…well, look, I picked it up because the Estonian ambassador was like, this is the one book you should read to represent Estonia! and huh. Huh. It idealizes a natural state that never was, it is extremely weird about sex and gender and let us not even get into the role of “speaking German” or farming tools and…yeah, so, Canadians? if you want to not feel alone about the ursine stuff? in your books? sidle on up to Estonians, they’ve got you covered. In bears.

Ian Lendler, One Day a Dot. Discussed elsewhere.

D. Peter MacLeod, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution. Quite often I say of nonfiction “does what it says on the tin.” This does not: the making of the American Revolution is an extremely minor component of this book. What it does do is consider the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in loving detail from primary sources in more than one language. Popular songs get quoted extensively. It’s a lot of fun, sardonic in spots, but it’s very specialized, so judge for yourself whether you’re interested in something quite that specialized.

Sujata Massey, The Salaryman’s Wife. This is the beginning of a long mystery series, and maybe the later volumes are really cool. I will probably not find out, because this is very very mid-90s, in that way that was so perkily fascinated with all things Japanese in a very exoticizing way. Everything is explained in words of very few syllables: in Ja-PAN…. It also…starts with a sexual assault on a commuter train and goes from there. The ways that this book parsed as sexy or at least daring have not aged particularly well in a few places. I really liked Massey’s recent historical non-mystery novel, so I had hopes for this, and I did finish it, it just…didn’t hit me very well. Which is a shame; I could use another good mystery series. I just don’t think this is it.

Moliere, The Imaginary Invalid. Kindle. The first translation that came up on Gutenberg, and it was a stinker of a translation, no nuance whatsoever, but I speak enough French to be able to spot what the better version would look like, and anyway I was reading it in preparation for going to see a production of it. It was not a good production, this is not a good translation…and yet I’m really glad I read it, thinking and talking about it with the person I went with has been fascinating, and you can see the bones of an interesting comedy about relationships and trust through both things being suboptimal.

Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. There’s a lot to like in this book–Rosling uses facts and figures to undermine a lot of well-educated westerners’ stereotypes about the rest of the world, ways in which worldviews have not been updated in 50 years or more, etc. I agree with Rosling that believing that things can actually be improved in the ways that they factually, verifiably have been improved will help us to be heartened to work toward improving more things. Hurrah. However, he goes off the rails in some areas that are not his main area of expertise, missing the point in ways that really have the potential to do harm because of his own firm, serene conviction that he couldn’t possibly have missed anything. A few easy examples: he brings up DDT as “safer than we think” because “it has not directly killed any humans.” Probably not true–very few manufactured products have no manufacturing fatalities–but in any case, direct, immediate human deaths are not the only possible point and also he completely neglects the DDT resistance that has come about in the areas where it’s continued to be used. So…stop that, Rosling. Another example: he blithely claims that menstrual pad companies “should be” trying to exploit the poorest markets as they emerge from being even poorer still, rather than questioning whether that’s really a case of “should.” Do those factors need reinforcing under the guise of pure fact? They really, really don’t, and I wish there was a good book about improvement in extreme poverty worldwide and general examining of statistics in that kind of area that didn’t wander off into that kind of bad logic.

Maighread Scott and Robin Robinson, The City on the Other Side. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Service, Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution. If you’re looking for an account of what things were like on the ground, for Russians, this is sure not it. This is about who knew what among various groups, many/most of them foreign. So if you want to hear a bunch about Arthur Ransome’s Russian Revolution–which, surreally, I guess I did–here is a book for you. It’s another piece in that very large puzzle. I like having more pieces, but at the end of the day I’m more interested in most of the other pieces, and I expect most of you will be too.

Carrie Vaughn, Martians Abroad. Discussed elsewhere.

Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Sometimes you read the first book in a series and think, this is really well written, but it’s not for me, I should circle back when this author is doing something different. And then the author does fourteen volumes of that very popular series, and it becomes easy to not think of that. But! Molly Tanzer was glowingly positive about Bannerless, and I liked that, so when Tor had its paperback release of Martians Abroad, I asked for a review copy. I’m glad I did.

It’s pretty clear that this volume is a response–not a retelling or a rewriting, a response–to Heinlein juveniles, specifically to the loathsome Podkayne of Mars. Vaughn is smarter than to name a character pee/toilet (I know, I know, “it’s Poddy not Potty,” oh yes, that enunciation makes all the difference in the world–I have talked to people from Missouri, Bob, it totally does not), so her sibling characters are Polly and Charles, not Poddy and Clark. And…I don’t know who else sees this, but…to me, it highlighted something else. That Vaughn wasn’t just influenced by the Heinlein juveniles, the “Golden Age” SF by men. Someone else wrote teen siblings named Poly and Charles, patient analytical boys, reckless frustrated angry out-of-place girls. (Anybody? No? Madeleine did that. Meg Murry O’Keefe’s two eldest kids, who get books of their own after the Wrinkle in Time series, are named Poly–later Polly–and Charles.)

Carrie Vaughn has learned from a whole world of previous generations of speculative writers. Not just the men. And Martians Abroad is much the better for it.

So what is this book. Polly and Charles Newton are Martian teenagers who have gotten shipped back to Earth to go to school at the very snooty Galileo Academy, due to their mother’s machinations, and Polly is not thrilled. Charles is generally off in his own head, trying to weather things in his own way. Polly wants to be a pilot–she wants nothing to do with Earth–but gradually through mishap and adventure makes some friends at school. And then they begin to suspect that the mishap and adventure they’re suffering are a bit more than Polly’s penchant for getting into trouble, more than the weirdness of living in a heavily biological higher-gravity environment, more than they seem.

This is simultaneously a fun adventure science fiction novel that seems like it would be entirely plausible to give to teens and a fun adventure science fiction novel that I would be entirely comfortable giving to elders who complain that they just can’t find things like they used to like. It is both. And since it’s not extensively quoting from anything–since its argument, where there is one, is by example–there’s no need to immerse yourself in “original texts” or “source material” to enjoy it. You can just pick up a story about how weird Earth feels when you’re from Mars, how weird your teen years feel when you don’t get along with your mom, how you can find friends and learn to get along with your brother and figure out how to get the career your want that you’re really good at, if you can manage not to get yourself and everybody else killed along the way because gravity wells and biological systems are difficult, and also so is space.

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