This is a continuation of the conversation about reading I started in January, so take a look at that post for more info on some of the books below. Reading time has been limited the last few weeks. I had to write two unexpected things, and I’ve been trying to sort a long and complicated situation that I’ll tell you all about at some point, when it’s sorted. Also, I’ve been prepping for and recording the audio narration of So Lucky (another subject for a later date).

This is not meant to function as an in-depth assessment. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a mix of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood). The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for 99 cents from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.

With that warning out of the way, here’s the state of my current reading.

In progress:
The Best Bad Things, Katrina Carrasco

I’ve only read 5 pages but it’s very promising so far: a woman in the late 19th C Pacific NW takes physical risks; supremely visceral. I would have read more but I only have it as a bound galley, which means it’s not available across devices, which in turn means I can’t snatch ten minutes’ reading here, or five minutes there. But I’ll get to it. It’s doing something I haven’t seen before from anyone but me: showing a woman who doesn’t flinch when bone hits bone and blood spills and is quite, quite confident of herself and her physical abilities.

Madame Zero, Sarah Hall
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Dark State, Charles Stross
Hot Zone, Steven Konkoly
The Oracle Years, Charles Soule
The Changeling, Victor LaValle
Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker

This is an unusual list for me in that only two are by women. (At least I believe it’s unusual—this is partly why I’ve started to keep this list, to find out.) But those two, both short story collections, I recommend highly. It took me a while to work out what I was initially finding unwelcoming about Hall’s collection: the protagonists are solitary. With one exception, the stories are about people who are wrestling with their problems essentially on their own: their lives are hard and no one offers them comfort, physically or verbally. She gives fine and closely observed descriptions of landscape, natural and built, and though the atmosphere is constantly moving (there’s a lot of wind) the stories themselves feel oddly static because of the protagonists’ essential isolation. Sarah Hall is very good. And though I prefer her fiction when there’s a sense of physical and emotional connection these stories are most definitely worth reading. Recommended.

I liked parts of Machado’s collection very much. She is a strong, clean writer. She is not afraid of depicting women as entirely and magnificently human, with all the pluses and minuses you might expect from any fully rounded human being. Her people hope, and think, and feel, and fuck, and yearn, and ignore. They are marvellously and magnificently autonomous—though not alone, like Hall’s. The one piece I really did not get on with is, I suspect, intended as the centrepiece of the book. It’s certainly the longest. “Especially Heinous” is based on episodes of Law & Order: SVU. I could tell she was building to something, going somewhere, but frankly it made me impatient, so I did not make it past the first quarter. It was the only one I skipped. But other stories have real heft and feel unexpected and quite dangerous. Go read them.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Charlie Stross a long time, nearly 30 years. He was an usher at our first wedding. So I’m predisposed to like his work. And in fact the Merchant Princes series is my favourite of his, a zesty combination of plot, economics, and alternate history/timeslip/second (third/fourth/more?) world saga. Basic premise: we are not the only reality that exists, and a vanishingly small set of people with a genetic anomaly can walk between worlds/timelines. The impact on global economics and politics (think smuggling, think idea transfer) is profound. Also, smart women protagonists. Also, lesbians (though that’s later). If they’re new to you, start with the recently-updated first omnibus volume, The Bloodline Feud. Fun, fast-moving, thought-provoking, and competent.

Hot Zone on the other hand irritated me extremely. The clumsy writing eventually really got to me. And there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, and better, in other global-pandemic-leading-to-apocalypse stories. Most damning, it turned out to be the first in a series but did not say so on the packaging. The ending was most unsatisfying. I don’t recommend it, even for free.

I read the first few pages of Soule’s The Oracle Years as part of the Buzz Books selection from Publishers Marketplace and that was enough to convince me this would be a high-concept smash hit. (And in fact about a week later, it was snapped up for the screen.) It’s about a man who wakes with 108 visions of the future clear and sharp in his head. His friend happens to be a savvy finance, marketing, and data whizz. Together with the friend’s wife, they settle in to monetise the prophecies. What could possibly go wrong? Unsurprisingly, many things. Soule mostly answers questions posed by the premise, though leaves one unaddressed, which on reflection was mildly unsatisfying. But this is not a book that most will reflect on. It’s a blast of an airplane book or beach read. Approach it in that spirit and you won’t be disappointed.

The Changeling is one of those books I’ve been meaning to get to for an age, and last week (after giving up on a bargain Tom Clancy book in utter disgust, see below) was casting about for something to read Right Now and finally pushed the button on the LaValle. It’s set in present-day New York and follows Apollo, a rare book dealer, as he learns his trade and wrestles with what it means to be a black man, a husband, a father, a friend, son, and provider when the world is not necessarily your friend. It began very well, but I soon got the sense that something super seriously nasty lurked at the heart of this book, and I almost stopped. But I was enjoying the characterisation, the clarity and humanity, of Apollo very much. And, in fact, the book ends well. Sort of. I have some quarrels with the shape of the narrative—it felt baggy here and there; I had the impression the author may have got a little lost and wandered about a bit—or perhaps I simply prefer a tighter trajectory. But on balance I recommend it.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker is a winning combination of stylish and cosy. Lots of food porn: loving descriptions of deliciousness like foie gras and wine. A bit of stately sex. A real love and warmth for small-town France, la France profonde. The focus of this one is community and WWII history. There’s a whole series of Bruno novels, and I can imagine steadily consuming them, one by one. Recommended for relaxation and quiet contentment though with an air of underlying melancholy.

The Sum Of All Fears, Tom Clancy
Every Note Played, Lisa Genova

I’d never read Clancy but found the movies adapted from his books entertaining enough, so when I found this one for free I thought I’d give it a go. I think I made it about fifteen pages before abandoning it in disgust. It’s not a novel, it’s a blueprint for a movie. But the actual movie is much better than the blueprint. Not even worth reading for free. Go watch the film.

Genova’s prose is far superior to Clancy’s. But. The dual protagonists are Richard, a pianist who is a complete dick, gets ALS and (presumably) dies, and Karina his ex-wife who used to be a better pianist than dick but, because that made him unhappy (or something), gives it up. Although I’ve no doubt Richard’s illness trajectory is informed by Genova’s experience as a neuroscientist, and accurate, I just couldn’t bear to read yet another book written by a nondisabled author from the point of view of a disabled character. Also, I felt zero sympathy for Karina. I could not understand why the healthy, piano-playing I-sacrificed-my-career-for-my-husband’s-career ex-wife, did not just curl her lip at Dick and walk away. I’m guessing the whole point of the book was that she Found Herself Again as a result of Richard’s death. In other words, this book has Disability as narrative prosthesis written all over it.

Not read:
The Primeval Flood Catastrophe, because it was an interlibrary loan and I had to take it back. But I’ll be getting it out again in that mythical future When I Have More Time, at which point I’ll also read The Ark Before Noah.

Still have not yet got to:
Staring Back, Kenny Fries
Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England, Pasternack and Weston

On the TBR pile for the coming month:
A Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell
Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, Melvin Konner
The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley
Country Dark, Chris Offutt
Miranda in Milan, Katharine Duckett
Finding Camlann, Sean Pidgeon