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Books Read, Early September

Orange World by Karen Russell
A collection of longer short stories that take on ordinary themes through strange, and estranging, lenses; whether climate change and family through echolocation, or maternity through pacts with the (a?) devil, or depression through tornado farming, Russell uses estrangement to tell moving and very human stories about the everyday. The variety of themes and approaches to the weird and to different aspects of humanity is revealing and beautifully executed. I need to seek out more of Russell’s fiction: if it’s all like this, I’ve clearly been missing out!

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler
Read for LGBT+ Book Group. A good story (memoir) poorly told: while Fowler’s coming out, her canal expeditions, and her nature knowledge are all fascinating individually, the way they’re combined in this volume feels a little messy. Each detracts from the others, bouncing around and feeling a little disjointed. There’s also no sense of time; it’s unmoored from chronology, with no real idea how long anything takes, or how much time passes between different things: it’s only at the end in the conclusion that the total time becomes clear. Still probably worth reading, but it would have been better either restructured or as two different books: coming to this as either memoir or nature writing, the reader will likely leave disappointed.

The Princess Who Flew With Dragons by Stephanie Burgis
The third part of Burgis’ series that began with The Dragon With the Chocolate Heart, The Princess Who Flew With Dragons is very much in line with the earlier books; a light and gentle children’s story with a big heart and a message about family, belonging, selfhood, and coming into one’s own strengths. This one gets a little deeper into philosophical territory than earlier volumes, and fails to fully engage with that territory – it edges into questioning the nature and use of power, but dips away before ever really doing so, and falls down in its treatment of the kobolds – but it might make children want to know more about ideas around power, and that can only be good. All in all, another rather lovely installment in the series.

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Valdes’ debut novel is, unashamedly, openly, and with a lot of jokes, a good, fun Mass Effect fanfic, with elements from another couple of videogames thrown in for good measure, drawing on the relationship drama, worldbuilding, humour, and some of the ideas from the first two Mass Effect games. That’s far from a criticism: those games are excellent at dealing with character, and their main plots work well, and Valdes doubles down on both those elements, with a diverse, human cast (including the aliens), and a plot that deals with some big questions in a fun and enjoyable way while never losing sight of the essential goal of entertainment. The book has a really strong interest especially in family, found and natal, and has interesting things to say about both of them. It isn’t the most serious science fiction on the market, but it is probably the most fun. NOTE: I read this as an ARC, received as a gift from the author, who is a friend.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
The first of the Detective Club stories is quite an interesting creature; obviously in the tradition of both Dorothy Sayers (though its characters want to think it’s more Sherlock) and of Enid Blyton, it has that very upper class sensibility of both authors, and the first half is rather a slow affair. That suggests a far more frustrating read than is actually the case, though; Stevens goes out of her way to deconstruct and actually engage with a number of the tropes of Blytonesque boarding school novels, as well as the racism and specifically Orientalism of 1930s Britain and the treatment of intelligence in the British upper classes and educational system. It’s also a subtly queer novel (bisexual characters! even if one is dead), and the mystery is satisfyingly resolving, matching all the clues while also – for this reader at least – coming straight out of left field. Well executed, and I’ll need to look out the sequel soon…

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
The working title of this novel, discussed in Chabon’s afterword, is entirely accurate: Jews with swords. Gentlemen of the Road isn’t high literature, or late-century naturalism, or anything like that; it’s a pure, fun, simple romp. It’s Fritz Leiber, or Robert E. Howard, or any of those other purveyors of sword and sorcery, but without the sorcery, and with a lot more Jewry. It’s not particularly clever, and a lot of the twists are very visibly telegraphed, but that’s almost the point of books like these: they’re not there to be high literature, they’re there to be good, enjoyable, simple fun, and Chabon has delivered that in spades.

Mythic Dream eds. Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Reviewed here.

The Gurkha And The Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Hossain’s novella is a fun, feisty creature; a brief punch of politics mixed with myth and folklore, wrapped around a very human core. Hossain balances the different elements very well, and the earthiness of the Lord of Tuesday blends well into a world that seems to have become removed from that earthiness. The book as a whole is something of a parable about utopia, and the costs and risks of building utopia, and how we go about it; the end is a brilliant, beautiful moment, one that makes everything that’s gone before that much more powerful and thoughtful. For all its humour and crudeness, this is a deeply intelligent little book.

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett
Reread. For the nth time. The Watch and the Witches are my two favourite strands of Discworld, and this is probably my favourite of the Witches books; like all of them, it engages with story, but in this case, it engages in a very active way, with ideas of fairytale, and creating story, and playing with story. As usual Pratchett’s characters are strong and leap off the page with a life of their own, and the book is endlessly quotable; parts of it have dated a little, but its treatment of Voodoo is, if anything, better than most mainstream contemporary portrayals. Why there’s no Witches TV adaptation in the works is beyond me, honestly… Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick, and Granny Weatherwax sparking off each other would be the best core cast in all of entertainment.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder
Ogawa’s novel is a strange, creepy, creeping book; it reminds me of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, with its strange dystopia of rules and constant surveillance, and a science fictional underpinning that is never explained, just allowed to exist. The creeping narrative in Ogawa’s book is inevitable and unsurprising – indeed, there are no twists here, it’s exactly the narrative you imagine at the start; but the execution is beautiful. The narrative within a narrative plays a fascinating counterpoint to the main narrative, and the balance between the two is achieved excellently; both are about agency and loss and control, and well written. The book’s big flaw is its beauty; it seems to be too in love with its own narrative voice and its own intricacy, especially at the start, at the expense of character or plot, although the former of those at least is addressed as the book goes on and the characters shine through.