Books read, July-August 2022

I missed reporting on July, didn’t I?

Phoenicians, Glenn E. Markoe. Man, for a book as brief as this one is, it took me a while to get through it. I very nearly decided to skip the opening chapter that’s a potted history of basically the entire Bronze and early Iron Age history of the eastern Mediterranean; it was dry, dry, dry. Things got better once it moved on to discussion of the actual culture, but this was not the most engaging thing I’ve read on the topic.

Raven Strategem, Yoon Ha Lee. Second of the Machineries of Empire series, and a re-read, and also the author is a friend. Sparked many thinky thoughts this time around.

From Unseen Fire, Cass Morris. The author is likewise a friend. Alternate history Roman fantasy; it definitely scratched my Latin nerd itch, especially in the places where it bypassed the obvious aspects of Roman culture in favor of the stuff you only put into your novel if you really know your business. And I award points for not doing the comfortable thing and anachronistically erasing slavery or having the patrician protagonists randomly not own slaves.

Give Way to Night, Cass Morris. Sequel to the above; I picked up From Unseen Fire simply because I was interested, but prioritized reading the sequel right away when I was tapped to interview Cass at ArmadilloCon (where she was the Toastmaster). No regrets! I would have read the third book (which is, for the record, not going to be the conclusion) if it were available right now.

Daily Life in Carthage at the Time of Hannibal, Gilbert Charles-Picard. Hooooo boy. So, the reason I’m reading about this stuff right now is that I have an idea for a story concerning Carthage, which would require me to know something about Carthage. In that respect, this book is very useful to me because it’s from decades ago, and therefore helps me sift what we’ve learned in recent decades out from what we’d learned as of the mid-twentieth century. On the other hand, dear Tanit and Baal Hammon, the racism in here. Charles-Picard is convinced not only that Carthaginian art was absolutely worthless in all respects and that the few good bits were borrowed from Greece and probably made by Greek artisans, he believes the cause of this worthlessness was the Carthaginian religion and the damage it inflicted on the Carthaginian soul. I mean, if I want to write a story set around the mid-twentieth century, I suppose it’s useful for me to know just how bigoted the attitudes toward Carthage might be, but . . . yikes.

Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee. Ditto above, subbing in “third” for “second.”

The Flower Path, Josh Reynolds. Third of the Daidoji Shin L5R novels, this one essentially a bottle episode set within a kabuki theatre. I craved more detail about kabuki theatre, to be honest, but these remain pleasant reads.

Hexarchate Stories, Yoon Ha Lee. Ditto above, subbing in “short story collection.”

Good Neighbors, Stephanie Burgis. I actually read this in a previous month, but I can’t remember which; opening my Nook app reminded me I’d read it and never posted about it. This is a fix-up of several shorter pieces of fiction, getting longer with each piece; it’s a fairly light-hearted romance about a necromancer and a mad inventor who are definitely not considered good neighbors by the local villagers. Quick, sweet, and entertaining.

Morien, trans. Jessie Weston. Heard about this one from Marissa Lingen, and heeeee, she was right. Do you need a thirteenth-century Dutch chivalric tale about a Moorish knight who becomes best friends with Lancelot and Gawain and saves Gawain’s life and and and this could totally pass for fanfic were it not for the archaic prose? (Hell, let’s be real; there are Yuletiders who would totally mimic this style for fun.) It does come with the caveat that the text keeps reminding you this guy is black, like, really, black all over if you can believe it, but not his teeth, those aren’t black; as Marissa said, it was clearly written by someone who had once seen a Black person for an audience that probably hadn’t. As we are not thirteenth-century Dutch people, this reads very oddly. But Morien is awesome, and this is crying out for somebody’s modern retelling.

Lion City, Ng Yi-Sheng. I was on a panel with the author at the last WorldCon and picked up his collection on the strength of that. There’s a whole mix in here of SF and fantasy, focused on Singapore, with several stories that particularly stood out for me (an one that may have sparked a story or poem idea).

Heaven Official’s Blessing, Vol. 2, Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. I’m beginning to suspect that the fan translations used for this series were not really edited before being typeset, as there are numerous instances here of the language being not quite right (“jaded” does not mean the same thing as “jade”). Which is a pity, because that keeps distracting me from the story, which is what I’m actually here for. I’m enjoying it, but I may still pause to let more of the volumes come out, because the amount of story in each one is relatively small.

A Thousand Li: The Second Expedition, Tao Wong. You know, I’ve commented on previous books that I’m not super impressed with the prose or characterization of this series, and I’m reading it mostly for the tour of cultivation novel tropes. I would not have predicted that the philosophy which starts cropping up in this volume would actually engage me! Not that it has profound answers to the human condition, but it raises interesting questions, and I really enjoyed that.

The Troubadour’s Tale, Ann Swinfen. Fifth and penultimate book of the Oxford Medieval Mysteries, once again sans murder. I realized with this volume that the author is deliberately doing a seasonal round; the whole series takes place over the course of a year. Here we are in winter, with much of the “what was life in medieval England really like” attention devoted to the challenges of traveling and staying warm as the Little Ice Age began.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell. This wound up being much deeper of a book than I expected. It’s not “social media bad, boo;” instead it’s about things like community and environmentalism, and how the commodification and fragmentation of our attention damages our ability to take effective political action. I enjoyed it a lot.

In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History, Dominic Lieven. A rather hefty tome of world history — well, mostly Eurasian history — that looks at different imperial systems and how they handled things like succession and the centralization of power. The interesting takeaway here is that there’s rarely if ever a “best” answer; any approach is going to come with downsides. (On the other hand, there are definitely some bad answers.) Since some of the regimes and time periods covered here are ones I knew basically nothing about, it also served to orient me in those contexts!

Singapore Children’s Favorite Stories, Diane Taylor, ill. L. K. Tay-Audouard. A very brief book, and part of what appears to be a sizable Asia-focused series. It was pleasing all out of proportion to recognize some of the tales in here as the ones that inspired short stories in Ng Yi-Sheng’s Lion City.

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo. I avoided reading this for quite some time because Alyc and I were still writing the Rook and Rose trilogy. Amusingly, Alyc and I decided, quite independently of one another, to read it at the same time! I don’t quite buy the characters’ stated ages, but if you ignore that, this was a lot of fun. And yes, I can see why people keep making comparisons between Vargo and Kaz Brekker. 😛

Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison, narr. Bernadette Dunne. This was, I will admit, a bad book to experience in audio. The narration was good and Alison’s writing is engaging, but the lack of clarity over when I was hearing an excerpt, and the inability to backtrack to look at that text, did not do me any favors. Still, some thought-provoking stuff in here, even if what I think of as “spiral” narrative structure appears to be completely different from what Alison thinks of.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, narr. Cassandra Campbell. This, on the other hand, was gorgeous in audiobook. I loved Campbell’s narration, which is both crisp and warm. The book itself is a classic of the conservation movement, and I can see why. It first goes month by month through the year, with Leopold talking about what happens in his natural environment and what activities he engages in as someone who lives close to that environment; at the end it discusses the importance of that approach, of a “land ethic” that sees the soil, water, plants, and animals of an area as part of its community, worthy of protection and care. Really, the only glaring flaw in here can be chalked up to it being written in 1949: a lot of what Leopold says is exactly the mindset advocated by indigenous environmental activists, but Native Americans are almost completely absent from even passing mention here. The points are good ones nonetheless, and it’s interesting to see where we have or haven’t achieved the kinds of changes Leopold hoped would occur.

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