Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers. About paratroopers in Normandy in WWII. This is the book related to the HBO TV series, which I'm told is superior; haven't seen it (yet--may still). There are some aspects in which the interviewing of the old guys who were involved in E Company is really well done and some ways in which Ambrose gets tripped up in making his own political points. He actually says at one point that this is a generation (in contrast, one supposes, with other generations) that didn't want a handout--which seemed implicitly argumentative about which programs and policies qualified as which things, how to get them, etc.--and completely ignored that significant numbers of these men survived their childhood/teens/early twenties, depending on when they fell in the cohort, on programs like the CCC and the WPA and do you want me to sing you a chorus of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" because I can. Seriously, reading about these guys and their contribution to the Second World War was very interesting, but you do not get to hit an historical reset button and pretend that you were magically not the very same people who were in on the New Deal for the last decade, because that dog won't hunt, and it takes absolutely nothing away from your contribution in either place. New Deal government programs built a lot of infrastructure for this country using American labor, World War II government programs helped kick Axis butt using--again--American labor, and having somebody with an axe to grind about the Greatest Generation not needing the government for anything isn't going to change either of those facts. And then you tell me a lot of those guys came home and became teachers? Working for the what kind of school systems? Oh, public? Really, huh. The sly little jabs are completely out of place in this book about this kind of US government action. And I really hate the way the WWII generation gets used as political icons for whatever people want at the time. If he was expressing the gripes and political opinions of Company E when he was interviewing them--fine, whatever, they're allowed to have their say. But using them to have his say on fairly unrelated topics? Bleh. (Not, alas, that this is the only reason to be annoyed with Ambrose.)
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag. The first two mysteries in a series set in 1950 Britain, in which the detective heroine is an 11-year-old girl obsessed with chemistry. Did that make you sit up and go "ooh"? Because if it did, this may well be your kind of book; it is what it sounds like there. Flavia is intrepid and bloody-minded and precocious and quite funny in spots. So are her sisters. I'm going to get the others in this series from the library posthaste. These are definitely worth the time, and not just to make people feel better about their own difficulties picking titles. Seriously, the titles are the worst thing about these books. Poor books. They deserved far better titles. She has a bike named Gladys. She cycles around and pokes her nose everywhere it's not wanted--and since she's eleven, that's everywhere--and is great friends with her sister's piano teacher and the vicar and all sorts of other parties who might be highly startled to hear that they are great friends. I am so fond of Flavia. More Flavia. More.
A. S. Byatt, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. Most of this book--the vast, vast majority--is merely A. S. Byatt using pretty sentences to directly retell bits of Norse myth with occasional autobiographical insertions about her childhood during WWII reading about Norse myth and what she thought of the whole thing. I kept peering at it and wondering when she was going to do something transformative, and the answer is never. It was not her intent to do anything transformative, so if you are looking for new and interesting ideas on this topic, she would apparently like you to go elsewhere. But then it gets worse. In the last few pages she writes interpretation of Ragnarok, and it becomes clear that she is attempting to interpret Ragnarok without the Jotuns. That's right: without reference to the frost giants at all. Further, she attempts to claim that Loki is fundamentally a Chaos theorist in the modern scientific sense without actually painting a new portrait of him that way--pulling it out of an orifice, basically--adding, "If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration." This strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of a) science and b) Loki; at the very last you have to tell that story to make me buy it. (The subject of the Lokasenna: not detached really. I mean WHAT.) But it makes the next sentence, the concluding sentence of the book--"As it is, the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it"--so pious and self-righteous it makes me want to puke. And the more so when she has been contextualizing this mythology in the context of her World War II childhood. The problem with WWII was not that neither the British politicians nor the British scientists knew how to keep little Antonia's Britain out of war, I feel fairly sure. Taking a sudden turn into "but the environment" in the last two pages is a cheat and again: Frost. Giants. Rather a major part to leave out of that metaphor. My land what a terrible book.
Tina Connolly, Ironskin. Discussed elsewhere.
Juliana Horatia Gatty Ewing, The Land of Lost Toys. Kindle. Something that is recommended by timprov and the Bastables is something I will get around to eventually. I thought this would be my first exposure to "Mrs. Ewing." I got halfway through and suddenly no, everything was very familiar indeed. Because the second half of The Land of Lost Toys is the founding story of Brownies. I bet some of you know the one and can say it with me: "twist me and turn me and show me the elf," that one. Except in the original the kids are both boys, who knew? (Harumph.) And it goes on much longer and there are clothes involved and a doctor who lost his love (wife, fiancee, girlfriend, we're not told exactly). But there it was, surprising me. Anyway, one of the things that I found interesting was that this was supposed to be one of the good children's writers of the time, and yet a lot of the story was very clearly written for the adults who would presumably be reading the stories to or with the children. The idea of trying to get into the kids' heads and go with their interests and their focus was not there at all for this one.
Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Kindle. This was mainly a biography of one man: Louis Zamperini, who started out a Los Angeles suburban hoodlum, became a record-breaking middle-distance runner and Olympian, was in the Air Corps over the Pacific in WWII, got shot down and survived on a raft for several weeks, and then lived in a Japanese POW camp for the rest of the war. Most of the book is that narrative, with a little bit about his time after the war, and it looks like Mr. Zamperini was very clear with Hillenbrand about being honest about the ways in which the POW camp didn't prepare him for a return to successful civilian life and the ways in which he screwed himself and his family up as a result--and how he got back out of that and to a life running a boys' adventure camp and forgiving his guards in person on return trips to Japan. I've read a lot of biographies lately that don't seem to know how to sympathize with a person in general without sympathizing with every single one of their actions. Hillenbrand doesn't make that mistake here. She also doesn't make the incredibly culturally common mistake of acting like the end of the war is the end of the story, negating the struggle vets had upon their return home. A significant part of Zamperini's own solution is religious, so if you're uncomfortable with that narrative, this is probably not the book for you, but it's not a book that's focused on the conversion narrative on his part, nor does it presume the reader will have had one or will have one in the future. I also think that there is stuff that it probably does not tell in as much detail as it could about either starving on a raft on the Pacific or being a POW--but it tells quite a bit, in some detail. So there are people for whom "it was really bad" will be quite enough, and if you're one of those people or if you're having one of those weeks/months, this is not the book for you or not the timing for you.
Kameron Hurley, Rapture. Discussed elsewhere.
Lisa Mantchev, So Silver Bright. This closes the trilogy of its theater, binding in all the loose threads, and I found it quite satisfying in the way that it did so. It featured less of the fairy sidekicks and more of the hard choices, but that's how it needed to be at this point in the narrative. This is another book that really deserves to be read after the companion volumes in its series, and in fact I'm not at all sure it would make sense without them.
John McPhee, The Founding Fish. A book entirely about shad. I had to keep repeating myself to people when I was reading it: "yes, the fish, shad." Sadly it was not nearly as good as either McPhee's masterful work on rocks (oh, can the man write about rocks!) or rivers or else Mark Kurlansky's lovely little book on cod. I know that was one of my earliest microhistories, but it was still such a nice one. One of my friends said in private conversation that she was afraid McPhee proved more interested in shad than she was, and I fear that's true of me also. Among other things, he is a shad fisherman, so too much of the narrative for my taste ended up relating to his experiences shad fishing. I mean, it's still McPhee. I'm not sorry I read it. But it does not, in combination with the book on cod, make me think that all microhistories of fish must be amazing.
Alistair Reynolds, Blue Remembered Earth. This book has elephants for characters. I mean, most of the characters are humans. But the elephants who are characters: they are not talking elephants. They are not augmented elephants. They are not super-duper-hyper-oliphauntish-mammoth-b
Greg Rucka, Keeper. Thriller, first in its series--had very different suspense for me because I started with the second in the series, so I knew some major plot points but not how they would unfold. It's pretty clear why this was not Rucka's breakout novel--in addition to his writing having improved somewhat in the last fifteen years or so, the subject matter of Keeper is significantly more controversial (abortion! nobody finds that controversial!), and while he has good characters holding a wide range of beliefs on the topic--well, that's it, actually. He has good characters holding a wide range of beliefs on the topic. Not an infinitely wide one, though. It turns out much to no one's shock.
Sherwood Smith (sartorias), The Spy Princess. This is my kind of book. I sometimes complain that Sherwood's characters are a little too naive, and just as I was starting to make that complaint, some naivete came right back and bit one of them right in the butt. I feel like I could start to be like the Grandpa at the beginning of The Princess Bride here, except I am not so much for fencing, fighting, and true love, so much as for sneaking around, magic, and revolutions. Also this is not a kissing book. I will want to reread this one, probably several times, because there is just not enough other stuff doing this sort of thing.
Kate Wilhelm, Fear Is A Cold Black: the Early Science Fiction of Kate Wilhelm. Kindle. There is a sweet spot in Kate Wilhelm's work, and this is not it. This is too early. These stories are not horribly unworthy, they're just not yet to her peak, so I would mostly recommend it for big Kate Wilhelm fans and completists such as myself. If you haven't already read tons and buckets of Kate Wilhelm, there are other things that represent her better. Also there is one of the stories that makes me sad in spoilery ways, so skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers for this quite old story. It's the story of a married couple both trying out for an astronaut program, and the husband patronizes his way through everything and is constantly telling his wife what she's doing wrong and why she will not make it with her girly emotional ways of actually having reactions to stuff and attachments to people including her husband. Cut it out, Missy! You'll never get to space with that attitude! Stop being such a girrrrullll! And what makes me sad about this story is that the way it's written makes it fairly clear that the ending, wherein it turns out that he was wrong and it is not actually bad to react to things and have opinions and stuff, and she gets to go to space and he doesn't, is supposed to be a surprising twist. I just want to go back in time and hug Kate Wilhelm and then go around and kick everybody around her in the shins and shout, "Stop reacting! You'll never get to space with that attitude!"
Jane Yolen, The Magic Three of Solatia. This is classic early Yolen in original fairy tale mode--not retelling someone else's, but making up here own, with lots of ocean motifs. It's quite short and divided into many sections, but the sections tie together well.
Sarah Zettel, Dust Girl. This hits a couple of my buttons very hard: folk music and the Great Depression. And I think Zettel does well by them. She also does pretty well, I think, with race and class issues in the space she has. I am looking forward to the rest of this series. However, one of the reasons I'm looking forward to the rest is that this book is not by any means a complete story. It's the kind of book where the ending is not at all an ending, it's the lead in to the next part of the story. If that sort of thing bothers you, it's going to bother you a lot here.