So anyway. Books read, early April:
Hanne Blank (hanne_blank), Virgin: The Untouched History. Cultural history. I've read some of Hanne's blogging on the publication of this book, which made me sad about a few things she had to leave out. But even with editorial omissions, it was still fascinating, well-done, and recommended.
Jared Brown, Zero Mostel. timprov and I had been talking about Zero and ended up coming upon a reference to his run-ins with the HUAC. That era fascinates me, so when T. ordered this biography, I decided to read it, too. From here it looks like the biographer did a good and thorough job, and Mostel was an extremely interesting fellow surrounded by other interesting people.
Charles de Lint, Dreams Underfoot. This was the first de Lint I ever bought, and I remember reading it in the Math Club van on the way to and from the Dakota State Math Contest one year -- my senior year, I think. I was captivated, and for years I listed Dreams Underfoot as one of my favorite single-author short story collections ever. (Others on the list include Nancy Kress's The Aliens of Earth, Samuel R. Delany's Driftglass, Charles Sheffield's Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, and Octavia Butler's Bloodchild.) And then I started to become disillusioned with de Lint's work -- the line between tropes and cliches started to blur -- and I had not reread Dreams Underfoot in years. But then he won me back with Widdershins, and so when I missed the last two days of Minicon, I decided to see how Dreams Underfoot held up in light of his more recent work. The answer was, pretty well. I would no longer rank it with the other collections I've listed, but that's pretty heady company. There are stories where the characters not only say that you don't have to be an artist to do magic, but they really appear to mean it. And some of the "requisite cameo" problems or "forty-third verse, same as the first" problems just aren't there. I can't read Dreams Underfoot with my sixteen-year-old brain any more, but I can still enjoy it, and I did.
Gardner Dozois, The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Annual Collection. For those of you who don't keep track of the numbers -- which should be everyone, because why would you? -- this is for the year 2004. I have some serious issues with declaring things the best in a given year. Don't get me wrong -- I don't mind that Dozois does it, and I don't mind if you do it, either. But present me with something and tell me that it is the best X of a given Y, and I am likely to scowl and dig my heels in and give it extremely skeptical looks. So I suppose it's not much of a surprise that I enjoyed but was not wowed by the stories in this collection: the very title prejudices me against wowing. This is not Dozois's fault or the authors' fault. It's just how I process things.
Incidentally, this is one reason you will hardly ever see me commenting on awards shortlists or ballots: even my favorite books will provoke folded arms and a skeptical, "The best? Really?" If I can't tell you which is The Best Book Published By A Member of the Scribblies in 1991 -- and heaven knows I can't, even with the copyright dates sitting in front of me -- how on earth could I tell you which was the best novel-in-general of that year? It's not how I work. So when people demand to know -- for example -- which other works by women ought to be on the 2006 Hugo ballot, elephino. I can tell you a bunch of works by women that I enjoyed in 2006. Some by men, too. But since my brain is not inclined to tell you whether Inda is a better book than Blood and Iron, I certainly can't make it total-order the rest.
Also, when I kept track of short fiction I enjoyed one year, I discovered that I enjoyed significantly fewer than five novellas in your average year. Even when I read the award nominees online, that did not add enough novellas-enjoyed to bring the category to five. I have enjoyed some novellas in the past, but in the average run of things, I do not enjoy very many novellas, and I refuse to go novella-hunting in hopes of finding the ones that do not suck in a given year so that I can contribute to discussions of that year in specific.
Perhaps I am shirking some responsibility or other here, but I am having a hard time bringing myself to care.
Robin Hobb, Shaman's Crossing. Ohhhhh dear. Okay, so this is the book that prompted my theory about the two schools of big fat fantasy novel, the "Places to Go, People to Kill" school and the "What a Lovely Night for a Pleasure-Cruise Through Eel-Infested Waters." This was clearly a Pleasure-Cruise school of big fat fantasy. It is leisurely. It unfolds gently. This is not, in itself, a bad thing.
...except. Except, except. Except that the main character is a total stuffed-shirt, and while I am willing to read books whose character arc is "total stuffed-shirt becomes a genuine human being," 1) I am significantly less willing to read such character arcs that take three very long books to achieve the same result, especially in first-person narrative where you are stuck with Lieutenant Boring the whole way through, and 2) I have read Robin Hobb's books before, and I know that she is perfectly willing to leave him an unbearable stuffed-shirt throughout. And while I appreciate, to a certain extent, subversion of the trope where the main character's major flaws are all overcome or at least significantly improved by the close of narrative, I am not sure I'm up for nearly 2000 pages that result in the main character being promoted to Major Boring rather than Captain Interesting.
All this by way of saying I'm not reading the next book in the series, and I may be done reading Robin Hobb books at all. I'm almost certainly not done reading Megan Lindholm books, and they're (at least theoretically) the same person.
There were also some worldbuilding things that might have eventually gotten to be more interesting or might have stayed horribly formulaic and boring, but I did not find myself willing to stick around and find out.
This is not the first time I have ranted publicly about Robin Hobb's main characters. An unnamed friend and I were complaining about how very whiny Fitz is when we were at World Fantasy Con, not realizing that Ms. Lindholm/Hobb/etc. was only a few feet away. That was not my most shining hour, and I do hope I didn't hurt her feelings. On the other hand, I really want to like this woman's books. I have invested time, money, and energy in attempts to like this woman's books. And if she made the main characters a titch less annoying? that would not be a bad outcome, in my book. I am not one who insists on liking every main character, but everyone has limits, and these books have found mine.
Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain. This was one of the most influential books of my adolescence. It gave me ideas about what modern SF is just at the time when I was first starting to see this work as mine, when I was 12 -- just when I had shifted from seeing myself as a writer to seeing myself as a writer with a particular genre or set of genres. And once again, it's something I hadn't reread it in years. Some parts of it hold up beautifully. Others...not so much. This one I could read with my 12-year-old brain, or substantial parts of it. I also could see structural bits of pointiness that did not jump out to my 12-year-old brain, ways in which I think it would have been different and better as a novel if it had started as a novel instead of as a novella. (Yah, I know, it's Rag On Novellas Day here, apparently.) But the later sections especially are still a good deal of fun for me to read. I still like this book. I do not draw back from my adolescent self in horror. So that's good then.
Noel Streatfeild, Gemma, Gemma Alone, Gemma and Sisters, and Good-bye, Gemma. These are children's books by the author of the Shoes books. Like the Shoes books, they concern British children involved with stage performance. I hadn't reread them in some time, either, and when I was having trouble braining while I was sick, they seemed like just the thing. And really they were. One thing I didn't notice when I read them as a child really upset me this time through, though: these books have been substantially translated. The maternal parent is "Mom" and "Mommy," not "Mum" and "Mummy" -- and I'm not convinced that "Mommy" and "Mummy" are the same exactly -- and there are dollars and cents and sweaters and trucks. This is particularly bad when Gemma's movie-star mother, who has been in America, returns: she refers to the season as "fall" and then corrects herself, that if she's going to be in Britain, she should say "autumn." Yarrrrrg. You cannot change bits of dialect in books where the dialect will become an important indicator of character. You particularly cannot half-assedly change bits of dialect. I have an entry coming on the profanity panel I missed out on participating in, but as a foretaste: this is one of the big problems with censorship on a purely artistic level: it alters character. Someone who says "gosh darn it" and someone who says "goddammit" are very different people -- and someone who says one in one context and the other in another is another different person yet. This is true of people who cry for their Mommies and their Mummies as well. Also, the late part of the series deals rather directly with the British university admissions system at the time (late 1960s), which is extremely different from the US system, so trying to make out that these characters are just like American kids of the same time, with the same concerns, falls utterly flat.
I still like these books. I just wish they hadn't been mangled on their way to me.
Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (1crowdedhour), Sorcery and Cecelia. This is yet another reread -- apparently being sick makes me want to reread things, these days -- but this was my "safe" one, because I had read it recently enough that I knew I would still enjoy it. And I did. Much fun.
And now I am off to make company chicken with no company. But one has to eat, and we make it for company because we like it, and so there you have that.