17 May 2022

Some books I've read and liked recently

Because word of mouth is the best advertising for books, I'm going to talk about some books I've read and enjoyed.

Clutter, Jennifer Howard (2021). Nonfiction. This is part memoir, part history of consumerism. Howard had to clean out her parents' home after their deaths (or moving into assisted living, I forget), and she weaves her story in with the modern history of consumerist capitalism. It's the type of book that if done wrong would end up being preachy and judgmental, but fortunately it didn't turn out that way. There are strong indictments of industry and consumerism, yes, but not of the people who live under it. She also casts a side-eye on the organizational products industry, because clearly the solution to having too much stuff is to buy more stuff to store the stuff, rather than ... stop accumulating so much stuff.

When I read this book last year, my mother had recently died, so my sister and I were dealing with all the stuff in her house and what to do with it. I was also frantically sorting and reorganizing my worldly belongings as I prepared to ship them to Germany (or shove them in my checked luggage). It was a very timely read for me, and I had a lot of moments of recognition as I read it. With the popularity of Marie Kondo and the growing number of Gen Xers whose Boomer parents are downsizing or dying and who are being stuck dealing with huge pieces of furniture that they don't have space for (for example), it's a very relevant and timely read for pretty much anyone.

(Note: I learned about this book from the blogger/podcaster Gin & Tacos, aka Ed Burmila, and it was an insta-buy, because I liked the last book he recommended, which was Combat-Ready Kitchen, which was a history of how the military-industrial complex led to pretty much all our modern convenience foods. Powdered cheese was invented to be sent to soldiers and reconstituted in their field rations. It didn't work very well, but it turned out to make a great sauce if you mixed it with liquid and fat. Cling wrap, granola bars, improved canning techniques... all of it stems from military research into feeding soldiers more efficiently. Great book.)

Das Doppelte Grab, Margarethe von Schwarzkopf (2021). This is an amateur detective novel set in Cologne, where the protagonist, an art historian, stumbles upon a grave in her deceased godmother's basement while she's renovating the house to be sold. Then, once that one is taken out of the basement by the police, they find ANOTHER, much older skeleton - from the Roman era. Family history, conspiracy theories, the Teutoburger Forest, monks, coin thieves, and double dealing -- this book has it all. I bought it because I wanted to read something not-serious that wasn't translated from English, which an unfortunate majority of YA & SFF books are. Germans LOVE detective novels, and there are tons of them written in German. Judging by the little postcard that was in the book, there are detective novels set in [insert your favorite city here], and you can get a list of titles by sending in to the publisher.

Son of the Storm, Suyi Davies Okungboye (2021). Twitter was all about this book last year, and I added it to my ebook collection at some point. I didn't get around to reading it until the end of the year (literally; it's in my book log as December 31.) I didn't write down anything useful about the plot in my book log (gj, past me), but I noted that there were themes of colorism (all the MCs are black, but people's social value is based on the shade of their skin) and how people react to oppression. The MC, Danso, is a scholar, and he's engaged to an heiress to a rich/prominent family. He is of mixed heritage and is therefore lower in social status. But he's really interested in what's outside the borders of their empire, and he ends up getting tangled in a mess of forbidden magic and secrets the priests don't want people to know. I'm looking forward to the sequel!

The Unbroken, C.L. Clark (2021). This was another of the twitter-buzz books of 2021, but it was on my wishlist until there was a sale. (I don't really have any steady income. I am really bad at the freelancer hustle.) So anyway. This is a military fantasy set in an empire. The MC, Touraine, was stolen from her family as a child, as the empire does when they need conscripts for their army. Touraine is from a desert region subjugated to the empire, and her unit is taken there to suppress a nascent rebellion. Her unit, which is made up entirely of people who were stolen from this desert as children, taken to the heart of the empire, and inculcated with imperial values. Touraine believes in the empire and wants to be a good soldier, get promoted, and take care of her unit - but she faces prejudice every step of the way.

Shortly after they arrive in the desert and escort the princess (who is dealing with her own garbage uncle's usurpation) into the garrison, Touraine thwarts an attempted assassination. As a reward, the princess has Touraine be the executioner (I know, some reward), but one of the rebels recognizes her. This haunts her and eventually leads to her confronting a childhood she barely remembers. Then Touraine is framed for murder, and she has to convince an imperial military that is prejudiced against her that she's innocent.

It's a profoundly angry book, in a good way. Touraine's naïveté repeatedly runs up against cold reality until she understands that no, the empire will never accept her. She has to balance her desire to protect her unit, her growing anger at the empire and ties to the rebels, and her love affair with the princess. I can't wait for the sequel.

Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao (2021). I saw early promo of this on twitter that compared it to a lot of things I like, so it was on my radar. Then Zhao made a little TikTok where they said that the battle scenes read like DragonBall fights with mecha furries, and I was like "lol wtf, I definitely need to read this." So I put myself on the waiting list at the Berlin public library. 

The army uses giant robots to fight other giant robots from the enemy country. These robots are powered by two people, always a man and a woman (his concubine). The man is the main pilot, but he draws additional fighting power from the woman, who stands a good chance of being killed in the process. The MC wants to get revenge for her sister, who died in this way. So she signs up to become a concubine and intends to kill the pilot who killed her sister. She's about to stab him when there's an emergency scramble, and she has to go with him to his robot. She does dragonball magic stuff and kills the pilot. This gets her branded an Iron Widow - a concubine who is stronger than her 'husband' - and paired with the most deadly pilot in the system, because the hierarchy (patriarchy) can't have a powerful female pilot going around and disproving all the sexism they've built into the pilot system.

It's a cracking great read. It's got everything: wuxia tropes, giant robots, feminist rage, a love triangle, and one hell of a cliffhanger ending. I need the sequel, like, yesterday.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo (2022). The Great Gatsby is out of copyright now, so it's legal to publish retellings, which this is. The narrator is Jordan Baker, Nick Carroway's socialite girlfriend from the original. In this version, she was adopted from Vietnam during the French-Indochine war, so she faces anti-Asian prejudice, which is to a small extent mitigated by the fortune she has at her back. A one-sentence summary could be "The Great Gatsby but queer and with magic." This is both an accurate summary and one that understates the book. Vo's writing is gorgeous. Go buy it, you won't regret it.

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) (2021). A girl whose magical power is baking stumbles across a dead body in the bakery one morning and gets embroiled in politics. Someone is killing people with magic, and she's on the list. She has to figure out who's killing people and why and then save the city. But, as she repeatedly says, she shouldn't have had to. The Duchess should have handled it before it got that far. It's a YA story and a bit dark. Not horror-dark, and the protagonist wins and almost everybody survives, but well. It starts with a dead body.

Starfall Ranch, California Dawes (2019). This was recommended by a friend as an example of "cozy SF" and described as "Stardew Valley in space." So I naturally had to get it. Shy Kerridan is a rancher on a remote moon. She's a loner and really doesn't like other people. Thisbe Vandergoss is the heiress to a vast corporate empire who runs away from her parents, changes her last name, and signs up to be a mail-order bride for Sean Kerridan on the remote moon. But she ends up on the wrong hemisphere and lands on Shy's doorstep just as an electrical storm blows in that knocks out communications. There's one tiny problem: Thisbe has to check in at Sean's ranch and be married to him within a week of arrival, or she will be fined, made to pay for the transportation to the moon, and deported back to Earth. It was a lot of fun, and the dark moments are resolved by ... people being adults and talking to each other. Imagine that.

I've got a bunch of books in my TBR, so I might write about those later. Or I might not. We'll see!

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