|Books read, late December.
||[Jan. 2nd, 2013|05:33 pm]
Madison Smartt Bell, Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. This is mostly about the transition from alchemy to chemistry and the stuff that Lavoisier and his peers did to get to what we recognize as chemistry. It was really good in that regard. If you were hoping that a Lavoisier-centered book would make his death in the Terror make more sense, it didn't, really. I mean, yes, the guy had tax farmed for awhile, but a lot of people did that. It really does mostly look like the people in that phase of the French Revolution were saying, "Someone we've heard of! Kill him!"
Marie Brennan (swan_tower), Lies and Prophecy. Kindle. I waited awhile to read this partly because I am still not very good at thinking of my Kindle as part of my to-read pile and partly because the "teaser" material hit me in two weird ways. One is that I don't like serialization. Period. Ever. So a thing that's a really good advertisement for a book for most other people will put me off even when it's an author I know I like. The other factor was that I knew it was set at a small college in Minnesota, and I knew that swan_tower didn't go to one of those, and I get skittish when I feel like there's a risk that one of my friends is going to get stuff wrong that's in my immediate field of interest/knowledge. Well, I don't feel she did get it wrong, and the teasers were very much extras: enjoyable for people who like that sort of thing but not vital to enjoying the book for those who don't. (I think it helped for me that what swan_tower was serializing as a "teaser" was not the beginning of the book itself, so I didn't have to additionally overcome, "Yeah, yeah, I tried reading this before and bounced because it was a serial.") The thing about the setting is that it's only as detailed as it needs to be--it's not trying to wallow in Minnesota small private college nature, so nothing cued my nitpicky nature. As for the book itself, it was not as assured as her more recent work, but it was still a fun college fantasy. I want more college fantasies. And I liked the quartet of major characters, too.
G.K. Chesterton, The Trees of Pride. Kindle. This is a short novel or possibly even a novella, with a nominally mystery plot. It contains a few of the ways in which Chesterton can be obnoxious but not most; on the other hand, it didn't contain very many of his pithier moments, either. The twist ending struck me as trying rather too hard to be twisty, but it didn't take that much of my time/energy to get there.
Kate Elliott, Cold Fire. Second in a series. Even more romance-influenced than the first. I had fun with the big fat fantasy aspects, but the parts of it that were more romance-influenced were not really my cup of tea. Who could have called that.
Jaine Fenn, Downside Girls. A chapbook of linked-ish short stories. I enjoyed them, but I felt like none of them went beyond the obvious thing to do with the premise, and I had hopes that the author could do so. Maybe with some more short stories in that world.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Permeable Borders. An incredibly mixed bag. Some stories I liked. Some I didn't really think worked as stories per se. A few were problematic in gender/sexual violence directions, although I have come to expect that of any group of short stories in this century (sigh).
Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752. I have been reading this for months in sips and bits at a time, because it is so large. I don't mean that it was mentally daunting, although it's a big dense philosophical history. I mean that it should have been published in hardbound so that it would stay open without being held open. The trade paperback format for nearly 900 pages of actual book (with endnotes etc. after that) was just not physically comfortable. The book was very cool, though, and I look forward to the third in the series...when my wrists and neck are a bit rested.
Christopher Kemp, Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris. I can honestly tell you that this is the best book on whale crap I read all year. Nothing else in 2012 even comes close. It's a delightful mix of oceanography, perfumery, 18th and 19th century trade history, and...stuff. Definitely stuff. Mrissish stuff. It also prompted one of the worst puns I've ever seen coming and made anyway at the dinner table. I'm only human.
Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. A good introduction. This is the sort of book that will either ground you in early Chinese Imperial history or else nudge you into realizing that you were more grounded than you thought.
John McWhorter, The Power of Babel. The evolution of language; dialects, pidgins, and creoles. markgritter and I both read it and have been poking at various linguistic markers ever since.
Vilhelm Moberg, The Settlers. Grandpa's. I see why these books are so popular with Scandinavian-Americans, because holy crud wow, my relatives are on every other page. Not my literal relatives, but still. The scene where the woman tells off the nosy pious neighbors? That is so my grandmother. It was delightful to me in that way, even though it was still a Swedish literary novel and thus full of gloom and woe. It makes me look forward to the last one in the series, even though I'm pretty sure that men die, cattle die, and even the gods themselves must one day die. That's just how we do.
E. Nesbit, The Rainbow and the Rose. Kindle. Good heavens, don't read this. Unless you are a gigantic E. Nesbit completist or a fan of indifferent Edwardian poetry, this is not the thing. This is what happens when a reasonably talented and literate person sits down and says, "I should write a poem. I know how poems go and what they're about! I'll do one like that!" (I don't know if that's actually what did happen. It's entirely possible that this is the fruit of her heart's inspiration. But it reads like rote poetry in Now I Write A Poem mode.) And the other Nesbit is so much fun, and there's good Edwardian poetry, so...yeah. Seriously, most people should give this one a miss.
Michaela Roessner, Walkabout Woman. Kindle. There is a fine line to walk between "this book is set in a culture with many speech taboos" and "this is an idiot plot." Also the structure of it was very weird. We don't get very many fantasy novels about Australia, so it was cool to have in that sense, but a bit self-contradictory: Roessner had clearly done a ton of research into aboriginal Australian cultures, but on the other hand, my understanding is that what that research says is that they are not so keen on this kind of book being written, on average. So lots of fine lines walked here.
Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations. I am very disappointed in the reviews of this book. If you paid attention to the reviewers, you would think that the book was mainly about Sacks's drug experiences in the '60s. And honestly, that was a very short and not at all sensationalist chapter. I thought there was a lot more interesting stuff in it when he was talking about otherwise healthy and sane people who are not on drugs and who happen to have various kinds of hallucinations. That's an aspect of hallucinations that I had not mostly read about, and this was an interesting exploration of it. (One note, though: he spends very little time on olfactory stuff, which frustrated me, and it boggled me that he claimed that most people can't imagine smells. What do you mean, can't imagine smells? I don't understand. It's just like imagining sights only easier. The other monkeys are very confusing sometimes.)
Johanna Sinisalo, Birdbrain. This was short, and I was glad, because I spent the entire time wanting to kick Jyrki, and he was one of the two main characters. The speculative element was very subtle, so mostly the reading experience here is the camping/exploration tales of two Finns, one of them annoying. And a lot of quotes from Joseph Conrad. I like to stay up on Finnish speculative lit, so I'm not sorry I read this, but I don't recommend it generally unless the poser guy who's always somewhere around REI does not annoy you.
Mark Twain, The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Grandpa's. Boy howdy, was this complete. If you were ever reading a shorter collection of Twain stories and said to yourself, "But what if I'm missing a hidden gem?", I can set your mind at rest. You were not missing a hidden gem. The better-known stories are better-known for a reason. Also there is nothing so sentimental as a sentimentalist who has convinced himself that he's a cynic.
Oscar Wilde, The Duchess of Padua. Kindle. If you ever said to yourself, "Well, the plots of Jacobean drama make sense, I just want a few Oscar Wilde language things thrown in," then this is the play for you. If not, um. I can see why this is not produced very often, because it's fine enough, but it seems to fall between categories of what people look for to round out a theater season.
Walter Jon Williams, Investments. Kindle. This is a novella in the Dread Empire's Fall universe, focusing on Martinez. Its strengths and its weaknesses were sort of the same: it had more focus than the Dread Empire's Fall novels, but less scope. I think I would enjoy a pile of novellas of this type as much as or more than one novel, so...why don't the rest of you all go buy Investments so WJW becomes convinced of the soundness of this plan and I can have that pile instead of just the one novella that doesn't do as much as I got accustomed to this series doing due to being a novella. Okay, thanks, guys. Much appreciated.