Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I apologise to whoever recommended this book in the comments but I can’t recall who it was! Thank you anyway, as this book is delightful.

The town of Grafton in New Hampshire has (according to this book) been a somewhat independent sort of place, keen on low taxes and small government. It has also been a town with a long history with bears. Hongoltz-Hetling tracks the history of the “Free Town” project where some internet libertarians got it into their heads to tray and concentrate their numbers in a single town.

For details of some of the shenanigans (and the impact on bears) this article in the New Republic covers a lot of ground.

“But tracking headlines on human-bear encounters in New England in his capacity as a regional journalist in the 2000s, Hongoltz-Hetling noticed something distressing: The black bears in Grafton were not like other black bears. Singularly “bold,” they started hanging out in yards and on patios in broad daylight. Most bears avoid loud noises; these casually ignored the efforts of Graftonites to run them off. Chickens and sheep began to disappear at alarming rates. Household pets went missing, too. One Graftonite was playing with her kittens on her lawn when a bear bounded out of the woods, grabbed two of them, and scarfed them down. Soon enough, the bears were hanging out on porches and trying to enter homes.”

The author even brings in some speculation around the role of toxoplasmosis in the events — the parasitic disease carried by cats that may have behavioural impacts on infected mammals. With the local bear population consuming a proportion of the town’s cats, maybe bear behaviour was being impacted by more than just inconsistent human reactions to the encroaching bears.

More broadly and more pertinently to some of the previous topics of this blog, the book charts the impact of a community dealing with right-wing entryism as a means of affecting political change. Prior to the town’s experience with the libertarians (and very much the wackier kind rather than the Republicans just pretending kind) the Moonies had also once set up shop there as well.

The tone of the book is wry, humorous and sympathetic towards the often eccentric and independent minded citizens of Grafton. That relatively gentle tone shifts when the inevitable encounters of humans and bears turns more violent. There are many distressing aspects to the story as inevitably there are cases of violence and neglect towards humans, domestic animals and wild animals (and from wild animals too…and from domestic animals as well in the case of one very protective llama versus an intrusive bear).

And as I was writing this review, the day’s XKCD popped up with a synchronicitous topic:

Currently Reading: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Oh this book is very much full of the kind of stuff I like. Stuck in a huge labyrinth like house full of statues and with floors in intermittently flooded by the ocean, the narrator believes they are exploring the known universe. The reader can tell they are probably somebody trapped in a magical place an were originally from contemporary London but ‘Piranesi’ is under the impression they have always lived in the halls of the vast house.

Slow, thoughtful and full of evocative details.

Currently Reading: The Mythic Dream by Dominik Parisien, Navah Wolfe, et al

I picked up this anthology to review the IGNYTE award finalist story by Rebecca Roanhorse [my review]. I’ve been listening to it on my socially-distant-get-out-of-the-house walks subsequently and of the 9 (of 18) stories I’ve listened to so far most are very definite hits and none are misses.

Fisher Bird by T. Kingfisher turns Hercules into a tall tale about a big lummox with a toxic family in some backwoods part of rural America. JY Yang spins up a nested tale that mixes space travel and faerie with a folk tale about the nature of the milky way in Bridge of Crows. But I think my favourite currently is Carlos Hernandez’s ¡CUIDADO! ¡QUE VIENE EL COCO! which really can’t be easily summed up but which is completely coconuts and very moving.

The premise is retellings of myths and folktales in new settings. The connections are sometimes overt (e.g. He Fell Howling by Stephen Graham Jones delves deeper into a Greek myth but keeps the setting and uses Zeus as a major character) or sometimes a lot more subtle as in Seanan McGuire’s Phantoms of the Midway which definitely felt like folklore but the actual myth (revealed in an afterword) is a clever surprise, that adds an extra dimension to the characters. About half of the stories so far have been Greek myth retellings and the others drawn from more varied settings.

I don’t think I’ll review it as a whole but there are some real gems in there.

Currently Reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

My current audiobook companion to long walks is the final book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, read by Ben Miles.

It’s got kings, executions, imperial shenanigans and it is in a trilogy, so that makes it fantasy right? Seriously though, the Tudor period has to be one of the most fictionalised bits of history in English literature or at least outside of the 20th century. Even so, Mantel’s justly praised series never feels like it is just treading over new ground.

It’s a very humanising book. Terrible, often very shallow, people doing terrible things and stupid things, all circling around the abusive character of Henry VIII. I’d forgotten how funny Mantel’s writing is, the world-weary thoughts of Thomas Cromwell as he attempts to keep all the spinning plates of Tudor England from crashing down in a world that is neither entirely medieval nor exactly modern.

I don’t think I’ll write a review when I’ve finished it as I’m not sure I’ve anything new to say about the book or the heavily discussed series.

Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Currently Reading: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

This is proving to be every bit as good as people said it would be. An ambassador from a space habitat that controls access to a key navigation route is sent to the heart of a hegemonic empire. Mahit Dzmare has spent her life studying the literature of the not-so-benevolent Teixcalaanli Empire and is both enamoured and wary of the culture she has to navigate. The death of her predecessor is not her only problem, as she finds herself amid the courtly machinations of the Teixcalaanli elite. Luckily she has the aid of the former (and now dead) ambassador but unfortunately he is an out-of-date back up copy and the implant he is stored in maybe broken…

It’s great stuff. A bit of Iain M Banks and a bit of Ann Leckie and a lot of originality within a familiar frame. I’m currently listening to the audio book version on my socially-distant solitary bush walks.

Now this may sound odd but…it also sort of reminds me of the recent Detective Pickachu movie. The parallels aren’t exact but there are these odd echoes between the two.

Currently Reading: The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota 3) by Ada Palmer

How behind am I in the books I intended to read some time ago? Not as far behind as the rest of you because I know you are all even worse and have to live in constant fear that the towers of unread books will collapse on top of you resulting in a headline in your local newspaper about the eccentric person who was eventually murdered by their own book collection.

So where were we? Palmer’s future society of hives (quasi-states that exist independent of physical territory) has learned of the conspiracy of elite leaders centred on Madame and also of the Humanist Hive’s OS operation – the selective assassination of people to keep society as a whole stable. The bountiful but uneasy peace between the many factions of the world is unravelling much as our narrator, Mycroft Canner, originally intended when he was a teenager and committed a series of brutal murders to shock society into conflict.

The possibly less murderous Mycroft’s previous accounts (Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders) charted the events leading up to the revelations. That account is now (in universe) public knowledge. In The Will to Battle Mycroft has been charged with maintaining a secret account of the run up to the apparently inevitable war between the Hives.

Central to the shift to a war footing is Achilles, as in the legendary Greek hero of the Iliad. Or maybe not. Achilles is both a former small plastic toy soldier (known as the Major) owned by the possibly magical child Bridger and also a transformed version of Bridger. The actual nature of Bridger/Major/Achilles is as yet unknown.

I will be continuing the Notes Ignota series, mainly because I enjoy reading the books this way, underlining words and adding question marks and chasing down references.

Currently Listening/Reading To: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky + Hugo Novelettes

I wasn’t supposed to start something new until I’d finished all my Hugo reading and I have the most recent Expanse book sitting right there on my Kindle like an avatar of temptation. But, I needed an audio book because I was doing garden stuff and my finger just pressed the ‘buy’ button.

Anyway, so far the book starts in a similar way to Children of Time. Human terraformers, far from an Earth that is descending into political chaos, some inadvisable experiments in cognitive uplift on animals (and what an interesting choice of animal it is…) and some quirky characters. The spiders from the previous book are set to re-appear in the next section.

Meanwhile, in non-auditory mediums I am reading novelettes. Making use of JJ’s “Where to Find the Hugo Finalists…” post, the links to them are

Just on what I’ve read so far, this is a strong field and a tricky one to rank. There are some really interesting stories here in very diverse styles. Brooke Bolander’s radioactive elephants would be what I would bet on but there’s lots to be said about Tina Connolly’s story and Naomi Kritzer’s is quite strong also.

Currently Reading…Hugo Finalists

So my Kindle and I went to some high up places and did some solid reading. This is what has been read so far:

  • Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)
  • Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
  • Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire ( publishing) – Novella
  • “The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018) – Novelette
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager

Left to go in the story categories are:

  • Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan) – Novel, (currently reading)
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor ( publishing)
    The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark ( publishing) – Novella
  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson ( publishing) – Novella
  • The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency) – Novella
  • “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018) – Novelette
  • “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (, 19 September 2018) – Novelette
  • “When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018) – Novelette

I’ll start posting reviews of novel finalists this week. In the meantime, here is a photo of my Kindle part way up the walk to Paro Taktsang aka The Tiger’s Nest Monastery. I had a chest cold, so I had planned only to do part of the initial walk up. In the end I did most of the big hike up but decided discretion was the better part of valour at this and hung out at this spot reading Revenant Gun. I always regretted not taking a picture of the Fifth Season by Machu Picchu (easily THE best pairing of book & location I’ve ever done) but this is a close second.