One month of 2016 down, and despite my feeling that it was relatively lacking in book knockouts, it turns out that there was some good stuff in there. Not much that merited five stars on my Goodreads account, mind, but still some worthwhile, edifying books to take note of.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I feel the need to note that I personally disagree with a lot of Mary Beard’s politics – for instance, the memorable statement in one of the essays in her Confronting the Classics that some female academics might be pining for the days when sexual harrassment was part of the educational experience of women in universities. However, she is an excellent historian, and her comprehensive history of Rome from its legendary beginnings to Caracalla’s granting of citizenship to all freemen across the empire. Beard never settles for easy answers or ignores gaps and elisions in the historical record, careful to acknowledge uncertainties and ambiguities – a vital part of classical histories for me. (Too much of taking biographers at face value tends to make my teeth itch.)
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. The sequel to City of Stairs, which I recommended in July last year and recently put on my Best of 2015 list, lived up in every way to the first book. Following retired General Mulaghesh, haunted by her past and wartime atrocities committed during the Saypuri attack on the Continent, she finds herself stationed in the city known for its violence: Voortyashtan, former stronghold of the goddess of war and death. While it appears that she is there to live out her last months before retirement, she is in fact investigating the disappearance of a spy that seems linked to a mysterious, metallic substance recently unearthed. Of course, there’s more than simply murder going on here. Bennett, once again, deals with issues of empire and its afterlife, the cycle of violence and vengeance, and the interconnectedness of gods and mortals in his constructed world.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Jamison’s collection of essays, broadly speaking about human pain and how we relate to others, may be one of my favorite essay collections I’ve read in a while. Her titular essay is especially striking, dwelling on what empathy means and how we practice it in our lives. Jamison looks at voyeurism and poverty tourism, closing with an essay on how to balance acknowledgment of female pain with the tendency to fetishize the suffering woman. Frequently moving and thought provoking, while there were a few essays that interested me less or felt weaker than others, pieces of some lingered in my head for hours.
This Census Taker by China Mieville. Oddly enough, this novella of Mieville’s – who is one of my favorite authors – reminded me most of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not a comparison I would ever have expected to make. Dwelling on childhood, loss of innocence, and memory, with a hearty dose of Mieville’s particular brand of darkness and strangeness, this tale of a boy trapped with his father, is beautiful and haunting.
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. This one was one of those random and fortuitous picks, brought to my attention through a combination of the cover art catching my eye and a single praising mention by someone on Tumblr, somewhere. I was sucked in enough by this book – though I had a slow start – that I almost immediately picked up Full Fathom Five, set in the same universe and with some overlapping characters. (Also very good, in my opinion even better than this one.) Tara Abernathy, a necromancer in a world where so called Craftspeople warred with and overthrew the gods, is recruited to help with the resurrection of one of the few survivors of that war: Kos Everburning. Of course, it’s never that simple, and when Tara discovers that the god was murdered, the case gets complicated. Not only is Gladstone’s worldbuilding fascinating, he weaves a cast of complex characters together racing toward a climax that will have you flying to the end.
That’s all for this month. February’s a short one, so we’ll see how far I get into my reading list moving forward, but I’m certainly not short on things I’m excited about – currently my priority reads are The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.