Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a dear friend, and I read this book in an early draft.

For a book about death this is not particularly gloomy. It’s not only about death, it’s about creation/subcreation and the uplifting nature of story, and about Florence, and about a bunch of Shakespeare’s characters. But it is substantially about death. And yet…and yet it is not a particularly sad book, not on my list of “oh goodness don’t read this now.”

The mix of 21st century Montreal writer, 19th century Latin scholars, and fantastical 15th-16th-ish-sorta century fantasy characters give the story a sort of syncretist flexibility. It’s intensely personal and specific and yet very far-ranging. And…look, Caliban has a family. Caliban is not a singular monster but a person with motivation and family and compatriots. I like all sorts of things about this book, but I think one of my favorites is that it takes the time to have thinking, feeling creatures who are quite unlike each other, finding ways to get through it all in the same world. Worlds. Whichever.

Books read, late June

Sophie Anderson, The Girl Who Speaks Bear. This is a fun and charming middle-grade book that draws on Russian tales to make its own new thing. If you’ve read Anderson’s previous book, The House With Chicken Legs, there will be elements of the Baba Yaga story in there that have callbacks here, but it’s more a related work than a sequel. I loved the big strong titular character, her world, and her arc.

K. Arsenault Rivera, The Warrior Moon. It was the perfect time for me to sink into a big fat fantasy novel wherein the characters’ flirtations with godhood are taken head-on. I’d recommend that you read the first two before coming to this one–there are a lot of elements here that will be far more satisfying if you’ve got the characters’ backstory. Also, there were a couple of separate threads of father/daughter relationship that made me cry–done very well. Giant wolves ftw.

Molly Brooks, Sanity and Tallulah: Field Trip. Middle grade graphic novel, second in its series, and with a much more exotic element than the first, because this one takes place on a planet. Whoa, weird! But Brooks does a really good job of cuing you in on what you’ll need to know in such a foreign environment. (Seriously, the two space station girls’ planetary adventures are so much fun.)

C.J. Cherryh, Resurgence. The latest atevi book. For the love of PETE do not read this without the others, because it is in no way an independent story, it’s just another place where she’s carved off the next bit of the ongoing story. It is alien diplomacy soap opera. I find every sentence and paragraph completely readable, but don’t think too hard about where it’s going, because it’s not going. It’s here. Only read the late part of this series if you have no attachment to plot momentum, if you want to spend the day hanging out with your alien pals while they drink tea and argue politics. Plot is a thing that rears its head only occasionally and not energetically.

Ted Chiang, Exhalation: Stories. Quite often I can appreciate what Ted Chiang is doing without particularly loving it–my response is often more mental than emotional. That was not the case for “The Life Cycle of Software Objects” in particular: I think it is my favorite thing of all of his. Thoroughly compelling.

Julie C. Day, ed., Weird Dream Society: An Anthology in Support of RAICES. Kindle. This was a very solid reprint anthology that I found enjoyable, not just virtuous for its cause. For me standout stories included “Glasswort, Ice” by Emily Cataneo, “Amanda Invades the Museum” by Michael J. DeLuca, and “And Sneer of Cold Command” by Premee Mohamed. But there’s a lot of good stuff to choose from here.

Lisa Goldstein, A Mask for the General. Reread. This book practically has, “HELLO MY AUTHOR IS A BABY BOOMER” written in all caps at the top of every page. The attitudes toward Berkeley, toward which dystopia it is we’re risking exactly, toward ephemeral wearable art…it’s very very much of its generation. Which is neither good nor bad, it just is. But wow, is it.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. Gigantic magisterial biography, generally quite good. Lee had a tangent wherein she was absolutely obsessive about what, in stage-directed detail, had happened when Woolf was sexually abused, and I could have done without that, but otherwise it was a thoughtful assessment of a literary life. And importantly to my own attitudes, it did not make the mistake of thinking either that platonic friendships or friendships conducted primarily in writing (or, y’know, both) were negligible. Which to me would have badly misunderstood both the world and Virginia Woolf. So. Interesting stuff.

Rose Macaulay, Abbots Verney. This was her first novel, and while she was still not doing what everyone else did, this was a lot closer to what everyone else was doing in 1906 than…well, yeah. Anything subsequent that I’ve read by Macaulay. Questions of honor and family and where one should and should not cut ties are central here. There are also two completely gratuitous moments of conversational antisemitism that could have been cut without changing the thrust of the story–but they weren’t, so be aware if you’re thinking of reading this, that’s an element that’s in it.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. The last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I think one of the things Mantel does so beautifully here is give a sense of how history is not fixed while you’re living it. The flux and uncertainty of Cromwell’s world comes through so very well. I found it compelling and worth the entire long read. Probably less confusing if you start with the first one.

Ash Parsons, Girls Save the World in This One. This is 100% not my subgenre, and I sat down and read it in one go anyway. It’s ultra-contemporary in its voice (to the point where I’m not sure the slang and references will age well), and it’s about zombies. Zombies at a convention for a zombie show fandom. But it’s like Parsons sat down and was like, “What if I hit all these genre beats but…not misogyny?” And teen girl friendship was central, and that’s worth a lot of zombies to me. (Which is good, because zombie novels rarely come with just the one.)

Marge Piercy, What Are Big Girls Made Of. This is not really what I want in poetry. I see that it’s doing what it aims at, but it’s very on-the-nose. I found the series of poems dealing with the death of her brother pretty powerful, out of the whole volume.

Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept. A spy novel about the typing pool women and Doctor Zhivago and sexuality and friendship. I found it compelling, and it made me want to at least check out Doctor Zhivago.

Vienna C. Saari Maki, Ready to Descend: A Minnesota Iron Ore Miner in the Underground, 1908-1913. This book is awesome. Is it good? No, not really. But it’s awesome. Basically Saari Maki decided to translate her uncle’s journals from when he was a miner on the Range in the early 20th century. Lots of interesting information about life in those conditions, but also moments of hilarity (…the Finnish transliterations of the English stuff he hears the most…) and fervent, heartfelt passages about socialism that strike me as written in a particular range that changed once socialism was a flawed human system being tried by flawed humans. I’m so glad I have this book.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC – 1492 AD. The early sections of this book are particularly interesting as Schama sets archaeological evidence beside what we know of Jewish life in various Biblical eras–sort of a “yes, and” perspective about what specific Jewish people were doing. Covering an entire ethnic group including major diaspora in one volume is a feat that will inevitably lead to leaving out all sorts of things, and unfortunately much of what I wanted was in that category. There would be a single sentence, “such-and-such was a major center of Jewish life in this-or-that country,” and I’d be like, yes, that happened in the period you are covering, how did it happen, when did it happen. But still an interesting thing to do.

Ngozi Ukazu, Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks and Scones. This is a very sweet gay hockey/baking romance comic. You can read it online still I think? But I read better in print, so that’s what I did here.

Reprints of comfort

I have a reprint out today in Consolation Songs: Speculative Fiction for a Time of Coronavirus . My story is “Upside the Head,” which is about hockey and growth.

My agentsib Iona Datt Sharma put this together–if you have not tried their work, you should. Lots of other amazing writers are involved, such as Aliette de Bodard, Stephanie Burgis, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and many many more! And the proceeds are for a charity fighting COVID. Enjoy checking it out!

Books read, early June

Ben Aaronovitch, False Value. There are a lot of Douglas Adams references in this latest volume of the series, but it’s not a Douglas Adams pastiche. Which is good; hardly anyone can “do” Douglas Adams well. What’s not as overt is that this is doing a lot of the kind of light satire of the tech industry (British version) that Charlie Stross does in his Laundry novels. That, as much as I like the Rivers of London, Charlie Stross does better in his Laundry novels. So I really hope that this is a one-off within the series; it was fun to read but not one of the better entries in the series, to my mind.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot. This book languished on my library list for years because the title–even knowing it was probably a Dostoevsky reference (it was)–was just not appealing. As in Dostoevsky, this is not “idiot” in its general usage but more in the sense of “naive, innocent.” It’s the story of the first year of college and the summer after, for a girl who is not particularly driven, not particularly directed. It’s very well-written, and I enjoyed reading it, but if you want coherent plot this is not your book.

Elizabeth Bear, Machine. Discussed elsewhere.

Molly Brooks, Sanity and Tallulah. This is a middle-grade comic about two little girls who live on a space station, one of whom is disaster-prone and one of whom merely needs lectures on consulting ethics boards before experimenting on live subjects. And receives them. This was so much fun. I immediately put it on my list to give to my younger niece for her birthday.

Agatha Christie, Poirot Investigates. Kindle. A series of Poirot short stories, reasonably light, about as successful as mystery shorts usually are (which, for me, is not very), occasional brief forays into ethnic slurs and stereotypes as one expects from Christie but not a dominant theme of this work.

George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such. Kindle. This is Eliot’s last, experimental book; it’s a series of character impressions in the titular character’s persona. It’s quite funny in spots, very modern. It’s by no means the first Eliot I’d recommend, but it will cause an Eliot completist no pain. Except…once you get to the last chapter, where “Theophrastus Such” is trying to defend Jewish people from the antisemitism of the time…yeah, unless you have a specific interest in watching what it looks like when someone thinks they’re helping and are not helping, you can skip that part, the book is over when it ends and it’s not going anywhere wonderful.

Hao Jingfang, Vagabonds. This is the kind of book I used to see a lot, where the characters earnestly explain Mars and Earth to each other and navigate the cultural conflict between the two planets with a lot of talking that illuminates ideas about the present-day world. Most of the examples of it that I read as a teenager were written by Americans, so having a Chinese version is an interesting lens on the same subgenre. I enjoyed this a lot and would like more of Hao Jingfang’s work to be translated, even if there were elements (internalized sexism, for example) that I didn’t like as much.

C.B. Lee, Not Your Sidekick. This is a classic superhero origin story. If you know these stories, you’ll know the beats in this one. However, it will be a lot of fun for some readers to get to experience those beats with in an Asian-American and queer context, and it won’t do anyone else any harm either.

Ken Liu, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. I ended this volume mad at the modernists, because if I say, “Ken Liu is a sentimentalist,” everyone will think that’s meant to be a bad thing. But he is: the stories in this volume are very emotion-focused speculative fiction. The heart comes first here.

Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits, and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. I often say “does what it says on the tin,” and this does not. It is not, in fact, a general accounting of those categories. It’s the story of one Albanian family, around the time of the Battle of Lepanto. Which is an interesting thing to do! but not perhaps what you might think you were getting from the title.

Eliza Nellums, All That’s Bright and Gone. This is an adult novel told from the perspective of a 6-year-old girl whose mother has just had a major schizophrenic break, as she tries to figure out what happened to her older brother and in fact what’s going on in her family at large. This is the first book in ages where I’ve read the last few pages first to make sure certain traumatic plot points are not the case, and they are not. Enough trauma happens to this kid as it is; I was not up for reading a first-person fictional account of a 6-year-old being assaulted, and lo, that was not in this book. The ending is human and hopeful, but it is a harrowing ride at some points along the way.

Danny Lavery writing as Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Witty pop culturally focused essays, many of which are about his transition, not all. A very fast read.

Priya Sharma, Ormeshadow. Emotionally dark fantasy, rather than vampirely dark fantasy. Family drama, mostly, until the very end.

Nisi Shawl, ed., New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. I particularly enjoyed stories by Tobias Buckell and Indrapramit Das, but honestly this was just a fun volume in general.

Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference. An interesting look at how distributive justice is necessary but not sufficient for comprehensive justice. If you’re up for social justice theory, this is a good addition to that reading list.

Present Writers: Ellen Klages

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, and Susan Cooper.

There are writers who are just like their books. Who are just exactly like you’d think they’d be, and if you’ve loved their books you are not the least bit surprised when they are like that. (coughPamelacough) And then there are writers like Ellen Klages, whose books show an extremely different side than the first thing you see of them when you meet them at a convention.

Ellen is popular as a toastmaster for good reason. She is improvisational and funny and knows how to find the common points in a crowd and work them for in-jokes–or create new in-jokes all her own that everyone is immediately invited into.

But her fiction is another thing completely. Her toasts are not insensitive, but her fiction is actively sensitive. This is the thoughtful inward part, and it’s amazing. Klages particularly shines when she’s writing historical fiction about (mostly) girls and women who don’t fit the expectations put on them in their time. Her work is tender and thoughtful and conflicted as well as funny, and the relationships in it are extremely strong. I love how Klages writes budding scientists and would like to see more of that kind of character done as well as she does it–but in the meantime I’m glad she’s showing a good way.

COVID Summer: Relic

I asked for a library book
Before. In the before times.
It’s here now, in my bag
For curbside pickup: ready
To tell me what I thought
I would want to know.
Before I checked the graphs
Every day, before I watched
The numbers climb. Before.
A fossil of past intent,
A message in a bottle
Sent from self to self
A little paper wormhole
Into the year that wasn’t.

In watercolor

There’s a lot of work left to do here in Minneapolis, and in the US at large. And there will be for awhile, massive institutional racist violence is not a quick fix situation. But I see a lot of reasons for hope this week. I hope you do too.

One of the hopeful projects I’ve been involved with continues: the Decameron Project is still making various pieces of fiction available every day. Today there’s another fresh story from me! The Watercolors of Elfland. Take a break and go read it.

Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by the author, who is a dear friend.

This is in the same universe as Ancestral Night, and some of the major characters of the are minor characters here. I actually howled, “Mantis COOOOOOOOP!” at one crucial point. (Mantis cop. Mantis cop.) But also there’s a whole slate of new characters to enjoy including Mantis cop’s timid compatriot omg this species okay I am fine now. I’m fine.

But really though: I have not had enough fun science fiction where humans and aliens have established friendships and working relationships, lately. It is a subgenre I like so much, and I basically never have enough of it. And this one has hospital drama! And faster-than-light travel drama! And people doing their best to get their heads together!

There is also some serious consideration of community, and of how to handle breaches of trust, both individual and community. The questions of how to be a functioning adult that come up in Ancestral Night are foundational, but this one expands on them further. With multiple-atmosphere hospital drama and mantis cop. I really really like this, okay? You’re going to want one. It’s a prime example of Bear continuing to grow as a writer–and I liked the stuff she started with.

Books read, late May

Einat Admony and Janna Gur, Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking. I leafed through this. It looks reasonably good about spice blends and techniques, especially if you’re new to cooking with Middle Eastern flavors.

Chaz Brenchley, The Bone Mask Boys, Chapters 1-3. Kindle. The beginning of a new serial, set on the same canal-laced Mars as his Crater School stories but with a very different tone and plot type, much darker and more procedural.

Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. I wish this had been more “history and traditions of Caucasus people” and less “how Caucasus people have been screwed over by Russians, repeatedly,” and yet one sees, in context, how the latter is important. I feel like the ethnic composition of this region is fractally interesting; the more I learn about it, the more I think, oh, but this has just scratched the surface really.

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Kindle. This was a frothy romance novella that I picked up because I like Cho’s other things, and it was great fun and allowed the titular Jade to have fun and not be punished for it.

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Kindle. I picked this up expecting it not to demand much of me, and lo, that’s what I got. I was a little surprised at how sketched in things were, how little detail–it’s a very bare bones style. Anyway, Poirot is here, Hastings is here, random startling prejudice for no plot-related reason is here–mostly fun if you are braced for that last category, over quickly, but not something I would say anyone simply must read.

Sarah Churchwell, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby. I was grateful that Churchwell was very careful to say that the murder trial she was writing about, in parallel with writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald in this book, was not meant to be an exact copy or direct source of The Great Gatsby, that she was very very clear on not overstating her claims. At the same time I felt like it left the book a little disjointed, here are two things sort of nearish each other, and it didn’t come together wonderfully, it just sort of sat next to each other. Fine but not thrilling.

Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

Katharine Duckett, Miranda in Milan. This is the aftermath of The Tempest, Miranda’s return to a society she never knew as an adult and all the politics and magic that follow thereby. A charming novella.

Carlos Hernandez, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe. I was so excited for this book and it did not disappoint. My favorite parallel-universe-wrangling Miami duo are back, with just as many wisecracks and tugs on the heartstrings as before. If you haven’t read Sal and Gabi Break the Universe yet, go back and start there, it’s a treat. But so is this. Universes are so much trouble!

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing. Beautiful essays about place. I went and put everything else she’s written on my list after I read this. So satisfying.

Sim Kern, Depart, Depart! Discussed elsewhere.

Steven Koblik, Sweden’s Development from Poverty to Affluence, 1750-1970. If you don’t want what it says on the tin, don’t read this book, because it is not doing anything else. If you’re interested in the Hats vs. the Caps (if in fact you know what the heck that means), this may be a book for you. It was clearly published very shortly after the period covered, so it’s not that anything magical happened in 1970.

Don Kulick, A Death in a Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. Kulick goes into a great deal of detail about his interactions with a village that had a unique language when he first came into contact with them. He’s very interesting about process–about literally how, as a procedure, people shift from using their own language with their friends, their families, their children, to…not. To using their larger language’s common tongue even without enforced mandates that they do so. He is much clearer than most white anthropologists about his own humanity, talking about when and how he left the village on various occasions, what he and the villagers give each other, etc. rather than positioning himself as a great objective authority. A lot to think about here.

Rose Macaulay, Noncombatants and Others. Kindle. I am astonished that she managed to get something this complex and thoughtful and non-jingoist published about the Great War in the middle of the Great War. The characters are thrashing around trying to make art and often failing and trying to cope with major social upheaval and quite often failing at that too and it’s amazing. There are a few offhanded prejudiced remarks/idioms but nothing plot-critical that I recall, so it’s more a “this is a novel written in 1916” warning than a “this author is deeply invested in this toxicity” warning–and at least to my way of thinking (your mileage, of course, will vary), it is very much worth enduring them, because the things Macaulay is invested in doing are phenomenal and not much seen elsewhere. Even now.

Susan Palwick, All Worlds Are Real. A thoughtful and big-hearted short story collection. As I would expect from Palwick.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Mythic Dream. This volume of myth retellings is a generally good read with several exceptional standouts. My favorite stories were by Arkady Martine, Carlos Hernandez, Indrapramit Das, and Amal El-Mohtar.

Jonathan Rosenberg, Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold Wars. Well, this was depressing. It’s about the politics of who can get jobs and who can get played in terms of the two World Wars and also the Cold War. It’s really useful to know this stuff but not, shall we say, an uplifting experience.

Veronica Roth, Chosen Ones. I am particularly fond of books about ramification. Okay, so you’re the chosen ones and you defeated the Dark Lord: what next? This book is entirely made of What Next. Its superheroes are struggling, and the things they discover in the process of sorting their own issues get pretty intense.

Patrick Samphire, Shadow of a Dead God. Discussed elsewhere.

William Shakespeare, Richard III. Kindle. Reread. This was specifically for a novella I’m contemplating, so it was the kind of reread that comes with eccentric note-taking.

Lynne and Michael Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 34. Kindle. Favorites from another strong issue include “High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma T√∂rzs and “A Being Together Amongst Strangers” by Arkady Martine.

Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I particularly liked the questioning, probing structure of this fantasy novella as it unfolded, a blossom structure as understanding grew.