“This is so topical!” and chasing trends

I have seen several people on Twitter trying to keep tabs on everything President Trump has done in a given week. This really, really highlights the problem with trying to chase trends and write to be topical: by the time your sharp, satirical story is available to the public–even if you self-publish on the spot with minimal revisions, the more so if you revise and find a traditional publisher–there will be three, four, ten fresher outrages. What was the scandal or gaffe in the Trump presidential campaign a year ago? Too late now, onward.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for political comment, but the more specific it is, the worse it will age. There are times when things start to look specific in context–I trunked a partial story that depended on the villainy of deporting ethnic and religious minorities. I still feel that that’s pretty villainous, but the rest of the shape of this story was not meant to comment on the current regime, and there’s no way it won’t look like it was trying under the current circumstances. And with a story I did sell, the editor and I worked on it to make sure that incidental things I came up with in January 2016 did not look like heavy-handed references to the current day. Instead they are light-handed references to the current day! Much better. Seriously. Much.

I guess what I’m saying is: big ideas weather better than small details. Principles weather better than current events in-jokes. “I am really mad at this current problem” is not the same thing as “I will cash in on this current craze”…except they lead to a lot of the same pitfalls, so tread warily.

Star Scouts, by Mike Lawrence

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Some kids’ books are really everybody books, but we call them kids’ books because they’re the first ones kids can read on their own. And other kids’ books lose some of their charm and appeal with exposure. This is the latter kind.

Star Scouts is the same plot as basically every scouting camp story: kid at camp competes with mean kid, both learn lessons about themselves, mean kid turns out to have at least one teamwork moment beneath mean façade, everyone wins (but really mostly the protagonist). The trappings of this version are jetpacks, robotics, and transporters rather than tents, forests, and canoes, but there are no unexpected twists. None whatsoever. And lots and lots of fart jokes, butt jokes, etc.

I like my socialization not to be gender segregated, and I did as a kid, so the integrated nature of Star Scouts feels like it should be cool. Instead…instead a little Earth girl leaves an all-girl organization that is entirely focused on makeup, pop songs, and boys to join a male-headed troop that gets to build and learn. At least this time she’s not the token girl…but there’s basically no redeeming value in the all-female organization; it is clearly supposed to be vapid and horrible and generally worse in every way. Considering what a great experience I had with Girl Scouts and with an all-female 4H troop, and how often “girl stuff” is mapped to “stupid stuff” in nerd circles, do not pass go, do not collect etc., this leaves a slightly sour taste in my mouth. But there’s nothing actually wrong with this graphic novel, and the protagonist is Indian-American, so I’m sure there are some people who will be happy to find representation even in a very formulaic story. Maybe especially then: kids of color are allowed typical kid stories, too. Even when it’s hard to argue against awesome kid stories instead.

Please consider using our link to buy Star Scouts from Amazon.

Short stories I’ve liked: earliest 2017

As always, I make no pretense of having read everything–even everything in the magazines I’ve read some of–so this is not some kind of “top ranking” or “better than,” it’s just stuff I’ve read and liked. Feel free to recommend things you’ve read and liked in the comments.

The Compassion of the Pheasant Lord, Leena Likitalo (Lackington’s)

Her Hands Like Ice, KT Bryski (Bracken)

Prosthetic Daughter, Nin Harris (Clarkesworld)

Suddenwall, Sara Saab (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips, Beth Cato (Uncanny)

Crown of Thorns, Octavia Cade (Clarkesworld)

The Last of the Minotaur Wives, Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)

Books read, early March

The vertigo is bad and I am reading a lot right now. I’m also bouncing off a lot of library books–more books than I read this fortnight. Yikes. That’s a lot of nope.

Megan Abbott, Die a Little. If you liked LA Confidential but were interested in a female viewpoint of the same noir setting and tropes, this is the book for you. It turns out that I was. I have limited tolerance for noir this dark, but on the other hand it’s a short book, so by the time you’re thinking, come on, somebody be a decent human being and not screwed over for it, the book is over.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and the Papas. Discussed elsewhere.

Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. The title is a bit overblown, but the prose isn’t really–she’s looking into how we can tell how old these ivory carvings are, how we can tell where they’re from. Margret the Adroit is a pretty cool historical figure, regardless of how many of the Lewis chessmen she made, and while this goes into a lot of Northern history I already knew, there were interesting tidbits all the same.

Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox. This is the very tip of the iceberg that is white supremacist terrorism and its propaganda in America. It’s a good start, knowing more about the Reconstruction and the horrible ways people behaved in it. It’s good context especially for rebutting certain threads of current politico-historical argument. But it seriously is just the very beginning of this topic.

Zoraida Cordova, Labyrinth Lost. Vivid, engaging YA fantasy that draws on Mexican and Central American cultures for its mythos but also for its characters’ cultural backgrounds. There was more than one place where Cordova dodged an obvious plot convention in favor of something more interesting. I liked this a lot and will look forward to whatever she wants to write next.

Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough. Did you want a version of The Fall of the Kings that’s set in a Weimar-equivalent rather than earlier? Because here it is. This isn’t a plot ripoff of that book, just one that reminded me of it in how it handled secondary world details. Flawed characters struggling and doing various versions of their best. Recommended.

Thoraiya Dyer, Crossroads of Canopy. I really wanted to love this book, but it didn’t do very much with the forest setting. Also, the difficulty with a “person who learned better” plot is that then you have to spend the entire book with someone who has not yet learned better, and some of those are far more obnoxious than others. This protag was jealous and entitled about things she had no particular reason to be, and if you’ve spent time around someone like that in real life, you may be less inclined to do so in fiction.

Brendan Fletcher, Adam Archer, and Sandra Hope, Gotham Academy Volume 3: Yearbook. This was a disappointment. Lots of little two- or four-page stories, many of them callbacks to other comics series or plotlines that I honestly don’t care about. Choppy, highly varied in art quality, do not want. Hoping that they snap out of it for the next one.

Nicola Griffith, Always. Reread. A great conclusion to a trilogy I love. It is that rare dual-stranded book, one where both strands draw me in equally, and as a result I kept succumbing to “just one more chapter” syndrome even though I had already read it and knew how it turned out. This is a book that shows that putting a lot of your own particular interests into a book can be perfectly great if you do it well enough, and your darlings should not always be murdered: there is a lot of didactic stuff about self-defense and a lot of personal stuff about adjusting to an MS diagnosis, and it is all good. Griffith is one of those authors where reading one of her books makes me want to read all of them, every time.

Reginald Hill, Midnight Fugue and The Price of Butcher’s Meat. Rereads. This is the very end of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, but it was not written as a definitive endpoint–this is just how far Hill got before he died. The Price of Butcher’s Meat tried a stylistic thing with emails that didn’t really work for me, but I enjoyed the characterization. I also particularly enjoyed Dalziel’s late-series arc over both of these volumes and only wish there was more of it. (Do not approve. Am not resigned.) I wrote my post about the order of reading this series, and you should unsurprisingly not start with the last two. But I still love these two books. And one of the things that a long series with a large cast can do is focus on some characters for awhile, then on others. These did not have much of Wieldy, and I expect that that would have started to get to Hill and he would have come up with something for Wieldy again soon, but–well, time and entropy.

Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone. I think Ruthanna Emrys has done me wrong. I read her forthcoming Winter Tide in manuscript and thought, oh, perhaps I like Lovecraftiana when it’s feminist and well-written. And no, I don’t, I really don’t. I mean, I don’t hate Hammers on Bone–it was vivid and spooky and doing clever things with noir prose. But the general impulse that Lovecraftiana–even well-written feminist Lovecraftiana–is not my jam is one that I should stick with.

Stephen Kimber, Loyalists and Layabouts: The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1783-1792. A small piece of British Loyalist history on both sides of the northern border. Several baffling moments–well-explained by Stephen Kimber, just baffling that people really did the thing described. Reasonably short, not a far-reaching history of the Loyalists’ fates but interesting for what it was doing.

Ursula LeGuin, The Complete Orsinia. Every once in awhile you read a book that is just exactly the book for you at that moment, and possibly would have been no matter when you read it. Malafrena was one of those books for me. It hit my Ruritanian buttons (like Hav and The Glory of the Empire) and my 19th century politics buttons and my university story buttons (yes, The Fall of the Kings again, I should just give up and reread that). It was done just like the 19th century novels I love best, but with a focus like the speculative fiction I love best, and with a self-awareness about the conventions it was using. I don’t love everything LeGuin has ever written, but the ones I love, I love unreservedly, and this was one. The rest of this volume, the short stories and poems set in Orsinia, varied considerably in how much I liked them, but I was glad to have them because they went with Malafrena.

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds., Steampunk! An interesting array of stories from this sub-genre, trying not to be samey in setting. Standouts included Ysabeau Wilce’s “Hand in Glove,” Kelly Link’s “The Summer People” (although wow did I not think of that as steampunk the first time I read it…or now actually…), and MT Anderson’s “The Oracle Engine.”

Ben MacIntyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. This focused on Kim Philby’s personal treatment of the people around him, and as such it got more and more depressing as it went on. Kim Philby: a terrible person to have close to you! Good to know. Not necessarily that much fun to find out in detail. Uff da.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Well-written, told interestingly backward, with the misogyny baked way in so there is really no way around what a toxic view of humanity is inherent to this story. I’m not sorry I read it, and I won’t be reading it again.

John McWhorter, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t–and Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally). McWhorter is talking a lot about linguistic change over the entire lifetime of the English language, not just the vowel shift back in the day but usage alterations in the last 50 years. Brief, breezy, interesting.

Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders. Discussed elsewhere.

Phyllis Rose, The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading. Rose read the LEQ-LES shelf of the New York Society Library, and this is the chronicle of that reading and what she thought about while doing it. Stunt reading! I identify strongly with stunt readers, says the woman who just finished her reread of a 23-book series specifically to talk about optimal ordering of it. This is about as long as a book like this could be without getting tedious, and there are places where I wonder who she thinks the audience for it is. (Seriously, someone who is reading about stunt-reading and does not know about gender discrepancy in publishing: who. But on the other hand she doesn’t seem to notice that her shelf is all-white, so…sometimes an interesting experiment in perceptual gaps also.) On the other hand, her prose is hilarious in spots, and I went and added a couple of things to my list from her discussion–though none of them from the LEQ-LES shelf.

Justin Schmidt, The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science. Ants, bees, wasps. Schmidt writes about all of them and their stings. The appendix at the end of the book uses vivid descriptive prose comparisons to discuss the experience of being stung by nearly a hundred insects, as well as ranking them on a 1-4 pain scale. I found this fascinating and great. It is all about insect stings, however, and if that is not your thing it may be really really not your thing, so judge accordingly. “Maybe it won’t be very much about–” Nope. It really, really is.

Dean A. Strang, Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror. Covering a trial of Italian immigrants in Milwaukee early in the twentieth century. Interesting and unfortunately timely in its examination of how easy it is to categorize people one considers “other” in ways that don’t necessarily reflect their views and actions. Justice eventually done, mostly, sort of, a bit. This is almost certainly not the most vivid writing you will find on this topic–at least I hope it isn’t–stay tuned, I will be trying to find out–so odds are this is more a book for people with a topical interest than for general readers looking for good nonfiction.

Malachy Tallack, Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home. Tallack is from Shetland, and he went around the world writing about each of the places he encountered at this latitude, Fort Smith and St. Petersburg and all of them. There’s some self-exploration but not enough to make me want him to shut up, and there’s a lot about fascinating northern places. I am this book’s target audience. I probably would be within the target audience for a travel narrative about some other latitude or longitude line too, but not as strongly as I am for this one.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, Uncanny Magazine Issue 14. Kindle. The good part of reading a magazine on my Kindle is that I get to every single story. The bad part is that I do so over a long enough interval that I don’t always remember which stories (essays, poems) were in that issue as opposed to something else I read online. I’m pretty sure this is the one with Maria Dahvana Headley fondly and carefully taking apart Poe, which I liked.

Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. Lots of fun exploration of microbiota for humans but also other animals. If you’re a parent or would-be parent who is a worrier, maybe don’t read this right now, but if you’re more in the “nerd out about everything” mode, the sections on establishing infant microbiota are fascinating. There is so much more to find out here. It is not just about carpenter ants using their own butt acidity. Although there is that too, which, yay.

The Dalziel and Pascoe series: where to start

I am a great fan of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe mystery series. It is perhaps the only series I have read as an adult on a more or less completely random basis, grabbing things from the library as they became available, filling in with purchases what the library did not have. That was the first time. I went back and reread them recently for pleasure but also specifically so I could write this post and be clear on how to recommend reading them. I group the books into four rough categories as starting places. I had a bad experience with a friend who insisted on starting with the first one despite my repeated comments that it would not show what was special about the series, and sure enough, he declared it fine but not special and declined to read any further. I would have kicked him in the shins for that, but not getting to read On Beulah Height is punishment enough for one person, and he has brought it on himself. Still: do not let his fate be yours.

Please note that I actually consider them all worth reading–when I say “for the completist,” I include myself in that–but not all equally worth reading, and certainly not all good entry points. The numbers are their series order both in publication and in internal chronology, with one exception to the latter. I know that some people have an allergy to reading out of order, but really, it’s worth it here. And also if you are not committed to reading a 23-volume series in its entirety, who can blame you? But this is not like the series where the author got their best work out of the way immediately, not at all, and while there is continuity, it’s episodic as mystery series often are. You’ll figure it out. There’s incluing.

I realize as I am finishing this post that I have forgotten to mention: they are funny. No one told me the Aubrey/Maturin series was funny, and so it took me five years longer to read it than it otherwise would have. So: in addition to their other virtues, these are funny, but not in the mode of Humorous Fiction Har Har Har. No, the funny bits are organic. They’re funny like things really are funny, not like a forced jokeyness.

Best Places to Start
Bones and Silence (#11): Really hits his stride here. Also Wield consistently plays more of a role, which is good because Wield and also because the more Hill is clear that Peter Pascoe needs help to carry a book, the better. Dalziel mostly does it, but Wield, Ellie, and the later junior cops help a lot.
Recalled to Life (#13): Good mid-period D&P. This is why this series.
Arms and the Women (#17): This is where I started, and I commend it to you for that purpose. I picked it up at random, having heard that this author/series were good, and I’m not sure I could have done better. All the characterization, all the reference and structural games are here. If you reread it after reading the rest, you will find callbacks to very early books and also to more recent ones, but that in no way damages it on a first read; they are integrated entirely smoothly if you’re coming up on them as new information. Really, I’m willing to give props to the other two in this category, but: start with Arms and the Women.

Pretty Good Starting Points
Exit Lines (#8): Hill has started to play with reference and structure here, and it’s late enough in the series that he has also got Dalziel much more developed as a character.
Child’s Play (#9): One of the most suspenseful books I have ever read, particularly if you have not read later volumes in the series. Even if you have, it’s…well, look, I found it incredibly gripping even knowing how something had to turn out. Without that, yikes, try not to tear the pages as you clutch them.
The Wood Beyond (#15): Leans a bit on previous characterization for a starting point. Still interesting, layered, referential, well-characterized: having all the virtues of this series.
On Beulah Height (#16): Possibly the best mystery novel written since the death of Dorothy Sayers. I only don’t recommend it as a best place to start because you will get more out of it if you have one or two of the others under your belt for emotional freight/impact,  but get to this as soon as possible. One of the best reasons to start reading any of this series is to get to On Beulah Height. But you will want to know who these people are to each other, and particularly if you have not encountered Yorkshire dialect before, you will get more of the emotional impact of some key moments if you have had other books in the series teaching you the rhythms and weights of it.
Midnight Fugue (#23): I waffled on the placement of this: is the very last book really only second tier as a place to start? I think so, actually; the relationships are important but fairly well spelled out, and you’ll have spoilers for specific events but I think probably in the direction to make them intriguing rather than boring. It was not written as a definitive ending to the series; far from it. So…you only know how it ends, not how it ends, if that makes sense. But still: you could do worse.

Okay But Not Ideal
An April Shroud (#4): This is where Hill figures out how to do Dalziel’s interiority. Still much closer to standard form and content of the genre, but starting to feel out the characterization better. If you are absolutely set on starting very early in this series, this is the earliest you should possibly consider. I still don’t recommend it, but.
A Killing Kindness (#6): If this is what you can find first, it’s better than not reading them at all.
Deadheads (#7): Looser, more fun, structurally out of the ordinary for its genre.
Underworld (#10): Same idea as Killing Kindness: not bad if that’s what you’ve got
Pictures of Perfection (#14): Slight and gimmicky and still past the point where Hill really got himself sorted as an author, so perfectly charming to read.
Dialogues of the Dead (#18) and Death’s Jest Book (#19): These are really one story. You can start with the two of them as one story and get a very nerdy wordy mystery. Bad ideas include: a) starting with Dialogues of the Dead with no access to Death’s Jest Book to read very shortly thereafter, and b) starting with Death’s Jest Book at all. Treat them as a unit; this is a situation where they are only split because they would be too long otherwise. The only reason I don’t rate them higher is that there is a recurring character I am not that keen on, but on the other hand that may be less annoying if you’re encountering him for the first time.

For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Start Here
A Clubbable Woman (#1)
An Advancement of Learning (#2)
Ruling Passion (#3): For the first three, Hill has not yet figured out how to do Dalziel’s interiority, so while he clearly knows that Dalziel is smarter than people give him credit for, the characterization is not nearly as strong as it will later be. Nor is there as much
structural invention, playing with form and reference, etc.–things that are strong points of the series later. These read like standard British mystery novels of their time. Which is not a terrible thing to be but is a terrible way to get a feeling for the strengths of this series.
A Pinch of Snuff (#5): Despite having figured out Dalziel’s interiority more, this is not yet the strongly inventive/referential later part of the series…and it’s pretty objectionable in several ways for our time, not to mention the ways it intended to be distasteful on purpose in its own time.
Asking for the Moon (#12): This is a short story collection, and mystery short stories are very hard to make satisfying. Also Hill had no idea how long he would stay alive and keep writing these books, and the semi-science fictional aspect of one of these tales does not weather well–nor does its vision of Dalziel and Pascoe’s future relationship, compared to how he actually developed it. This is for the completist only.
Good Morning, Midnight (#20): Not entirely believable in its Dalziel characterization and focusing on giving backstory for that character whom you don’t have any reason to care about if you’re just starting. A fine enough book, just not a standout or a good introduction.
Death Comes for the Fat Man (#21) (Known in the UK as The Death of Dalziel): Do not start a series whose appeal is substantially in Andy Dalziel with a book with very little Andy Dalziel in it. This is the most Pascoey a book has been in quite a few, and as such: fill this in later when you’re already engaged with the characters.
The Price of Butcher’s Meat (#22) (Known in the UK as A Cure for All Diseases, which is a better title in general and for this book in specific): The stylistic experimentation in the first third of this book is via a young woman’s emails, and Hill signals that they are emails
largely by leaving out all apostrophes. I like the character–I like seeing more of her later not in email perspective–but this is an experiment that does not work well and is front-loaded in the book, so if you start with it, you are likely to give up completely. And miss
out thereby.

Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I really wanted to love this book. The author is not a close friend of mine, but she is a close friend of many of my friends, and I generally consider her to be a person of goodwill, someone who’s likely to try interesting things. I had a couple of main issues with Seven Surrenders that prevented me from really loving it, though.

First, the gender stuff. Seven Surrenders gives a fuller view than Too Like the Lightning of what exactly is going on with the treatment of gender in the society depicted and in the narrative chosen to depict it–but that fuller treatment comes at the very end of the book, after hundreds of pages of gender essentialism and…um. There is only one openly nonbinary character, and that person is assigned the pronoun “it” after their genitals are revealed to be a particular intersex configuration. (There are complicating factors to this choice, but not, I think, complicating enough.) Do I think that Ada Palmer would call an nb person “it”? Absolutely not, never. But choosing this language for the narrator to use in this context seems like it has a reasonable chance of feeling like a slap to people for whom this issue is far more personal than it is to me, so…the combination leaves me feeling like I, personally, see what she was trying to do and where it went wrong, but I’m not at all sure I would recommend that someone for whom our own culture’s current treatment of gender issues is a fresher wound.

Second, the book split. As I understand it, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders were originally conceived of as one book and were split for the purposes of publication. I sympathize with both halves of this: telling an 800-page story is no less valid than telling an 8-page story or an 80-page story. Stories come in different sizes. And yet an 800-page book changes printing a lot–and changes lugging the book around–and changes who is willing to even give it a try. However…for me, what that meant was that TLTL did not have an entirely satisfying ending, and SS started with a hundred pages of people tormenting each other. Without the momentum and balance of the rest of the story immediately preceding it, I had a hard time wanting to start with that much nastiness unbalanced by other elements.

Eventually the balance does get restored, though these are not, I should be clear, books about nice people who have picnics and perhaps walk through a garden from time to time. After a moment of melodrama that I just did not care about in the middle of the book, the through-thread reasserts itself enough to put the melodrama into context, and the larger world politics get their urgency back with a vengeance.

My recommendation is that if you’re interested in this series, you should read SS as soon as possible after TLTL to make it as close to the originally intended reading experience as possible. My understanding is that there are two more books to come, and there’s a lot of potential in the ideas here–and Ada told me in an interview last spring that some of the particular cultural institutions of this world will get more attention in later volumes. I’m looking forward to that part. There are still flying cars here, but this bit is mostly interpersonal machinations that also happen to be political machinations. I stuck around for the bit where they got political, and that didn’t disappoint me. But there’s still a really big canvas left to work with here, and I’ll be interested to see where Ada goes with it.

Please consider using our link to buy Seven Surrenders from Amazon.

California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and the Papas, by Pénélope Bagieu

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I love Cass Elliot’s voice. I didn’t know much more about her than you can get from knowing all the words to “Creeque Alley.” The subtitle of this book isn’t quite true–there’s a little bit of The Mamas and the Papas in this narrative. I think what Bagieu mostly means to say is that she doesn’t intend to go into Cass’s later life and death. And there’s no reason she should have to. With a quirky project like a graphic novel biography of a singer, I don’t think there’s any commitment to one thing that it absolutely has to be.

This energetically drawn comic takes us from Ellen Cohen’s earliest childhood through her career’s breakthrough as Cass Elliot of The Mamas and the Papas. Bagieu chooses not to idealize her subject, giving us a Cass who worries her parents, uses quite a lot of drugs, falls in love with people who don’t love her back, and sometimes gets on people’s nerves. In short, even though she is drawing cartoons, she gives us a full-fledged person. Cass’s irrepressible personality shines through more fully when we’re allowed to see her setbacks, her grief, her vivid mode of living.

Also if you’re like me you will be humming for a fortnight after reading this.

Please consider using our link to buy California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and the Papas from Amazon.

Books read, late February

Michael Brotherton, ed., Science Fiction by Scientists. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in–I think it’s tacky–so I will simply note: this exists, I am in it, I read it.

A. S. Byatt, Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. This book is more a lavishly illustrated single essay, comparing and contrasting these two artists and craftsmen. We get some satisfying thundery cranky William Morris letter quotes along the way, and a few of Byatt’s thoughts about creating things. Over before you can get tired of it.

Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, eds., The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. In the introduction, the editors note that people who are not steeped in hip-hop culture will have several of the references in these poems go right past them, and I can verify this to be true, as I am not, in fact, steeped in hip-hop culture. But that’s not a reason not to read the book. Not every poem is like that, and trying to hear rhythms in the language and references in the mind that aren’t the same ones I would use is an interesting exercise.

Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex. This was hallucinatory and weird, and I’m glad I read it. One of the worlds in it is a world in which the Aztec Empire defeated the Spanish; the other is this world, in a meat-packing plant. Foster uses orthographic choices (less successful for me) and prose style choices (totally effective for me, especially the long walls of prose with no breaks, weirdly enough) to give an immersive effect of switching worlds within the protag’s own mind. What a strange book.

Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. Reread. This is part of my ongoing desultory chronological reread of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. This is one of my least favorites, as it is almost all Peter Pascoe, and Peter Pascoe is the least interesting character in the series to my way of thinking. Hill still manages to give us an interesting book centered on him, but gosh do I want more Dalziel back, more Wield, more Novello, more Ellie, more…not Peter, basically. I have hopes of reading the last few in this series in short order and then doing a post about reading order, because chronological is absolutely the wrong way to read this the first time through (but not bad the second). We’ll see.

Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth. Good: this book goes into white ethnicity in serious detail but does not neglect the non-white people who live and have lived in Duluth. It is a modern enough look that religious minorities and women also have places in this book as in fact they do in Duluth’s labor history, so good. Bad or at least weird: this is a history of only Duluth. Not the Iron Range, not the North Shore, not the shipping industry on the Great Lakes…and not Duluth as having a place in any of those. Not Duluth as a regional center. Just Duluth. If you think it’s pretty weird to try to write about labor in Duluth without shipping and timber, holy crud are you ever right. I’d really like to think that this book is therefore a starting but not a stopping point for knowing more about labor and class in northern Minnesota, but it’s a specialized enough topic that who knows what I’ll find. It wasn’t even a very long book, either. They could have gone out so far as Cloquet without making it a bugcrusher. (Sorry, at least half of you cannot hear my indignant Minnesota accent saying, “they could have gone out so far as Cloquet” in your heads, but the rest of you are probably snickering.)

James McGrath Morris, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. I knew nothing about Ethel Payne or Black journalism in the middle of the last century when I picked up this book. It is smoothly readable and very interesting but focuses pretty narrowly on Payne herself, with only peripheral mentions of other Black journalists and publications. Neat person, interesting to read about, but again the threads of “I want more” keep coming through.

Lola Robles, Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist. I am a sucker for SF about alien cultures, and this is substantially descriptions of alien cultures. By the time you might think “should we have more plot to this,” it’s over, so–fast novella, definite positive buttons pressed for me and probably for some of you too. Lawrence Schimel translated it from Spanish in a way that preserved the headlong quality of the prose. All hail translators and the publishers willing to pay them.

Nisi Shawl, Filter House. This is strong and willing to go dark but not so dark that it puts my wimpy self off. I particularly appreciated the Detroit threads through the stories, having visited that part of Michigan a bit now and reading more about the Lake States as a region.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things To Me. Explorations of communications gone wrong. I suspect that a great many people argue with the title rather than Solnit’s actual arguments. This is a series of interesting essays, another one that is short enough that by the time you could start to get tired, it’s over.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Kindle. Part of an ongoing conversation with a friend about nature writing past and present. The two of us put together were not half so impressed with Thoreau as Thoreau was with himself. You can pull some great lines out of this, but it takes some serious sifting. It’s fascinating to watch how Thoreau feels he needs to justify the endeavor of nature writing with classical references, and modern nature writers feel they need to justify the endeavor of nature writing with Thoreau. Still, more of interest in an ongoing study/conversation than generally recommended. To put it mildly.

A. C. Wise, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories. Lyrical and gorgeous, relationships beautifully done. I always feel nervous about the prospect of putting previously unpublished stories in a collection whenever I think of doing it myself, but Wise’s previously unpublished selections are gems I would have hated to miss.

your own questions

Earlier this month I was the author guest for Literacy Night at a local grade school. My presentation (repeated three times–though never the same) was half an hour to kindergarteners through fourth graders and the adults they had in tow, about how to take an idea to the point of being an actual story.

It was great. The kids were great. At one point we ended up with a dragon riding a roller coaster with a robot yeti and fleeing a wendigo–and that was all one kid. The parents were also great, with one dad postulating a unipotamus (a hippopotamus with a unicorn head), both envying and envied by a dragon, each learning to be themselves.

The thing I focused on was learning to ask questions, learning to ask the right questions, which is to say, the kind of questions that result in a story. “Where do you get your ideas?” is the cliched question, the question that interviewers seem to simultaneously want to ask and want to avoid asking. But I think that behind the cliche there can be a genuine desire to know about a skillset the interviewer does not have, and that’s even more the case the younger the person asking the question. Sometimes what they’re really asking is: how do you do this thing, in specific, concrete terms so that I can do this thing too. Or at least so that I can see whether I can.

I think that one of the major aspects of keeping childhood creativity–or even a fraction of it–into adulthood is learning to direct your questions rather than stifling them. Learning which questions are the ones that suit you, that take you where you want to go. Learning when to break out of that pattern and try some new questions. So I tried to give these kids a sense of what kind of questions you can ask yourself about a story you want to tell.

If they keep up with questions, if they practice asking questions, most of them will discover that the questions that interest them most are not a fiction writer’s questions. They will look at the same birds on a half-frozen pond as a storyteller, and they will find that they have questions about how to make water look wet and ice look slick on paper, how those particular birds behave in summertime, what things we don’t already know about helping someone see at a distance. That’s okay. It’s actually great. But I think it’s fair to start giving kids some ideas of what kind of questions you can ask, how this actually works, where those questions lead you.