Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

When I was a kid, I loved camp stories.

When I was a kid, I did not love camp.

The difference comes through very clearly in Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared: camp, like other hells, is other people.

Be Prepared is the story of a young Russian immigrant girl who feels out of place with her wealthier American friends and convinces her mother to send her to a Russian Orthodox scout camp for the summer, where she will–she feels–be among kids like herself and fit in and have the glorious joyful camp experience she has heard of from her friends. It is…about as much like that as you would expect. There are biting insects, stinky latrines, unfriendly older kids who are much more familiar with the camp experience, shifting expectations, well-meaning counselors…it’s camp. It’s camp, from the perspective of a two-cultures kid, and Brosgol makes it vivid and relatable.

Please consider using our link to buy Be Prepared from Amazon.

All Summer Long, by Hope Larson

Review copy provided by FSG.

This is the graphic novel story of the summer before Bina goes into eighth grade. It’s the kind of momentous summer where not much happens in terms of major plot points: no dragons slain, no worlds conquered or planets explored, no murders solved, not even first boyfriends or first kisses. The shape of this story is the stuff you figure out about your friendships and interests at that age, the small things that happen out of your control but inside your orbit–friends wandering off and wandering back, family members making choices that expand your world without you having anything really to say about them. A childhood summer is a very particular, very recognizable slice of life, and this is that. This is very clearly and evocatively that.

Please consider using our link to buy All Summer Long from Amazon.

Books read, early May

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, ed., Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara. One of the things that frustrates me, that I know frustrates a lot of people, is treating Africa as though it’s a single unified place, with a single unified culture. This anthology really does not do that, taking selections from authors from all across the continent with incredibly diverse theme, style, and content. Its very existence sort of belies that sentiment, but getting this kind of content in the US is difficult. Many of the selections were a bit frustrating as they were excerpts not just from novels but from works in progress–so if you particularly liked a passage or wanted to find out more about it in context, that is not guaranteed to be available any time soon. Still, the breadth of work available is breathtaking.

Andrea Cheng, The Year of the Book. I broadly categorize kids’ books as the ones that are for all ages starting with whatever age they’re aimed at and the ones that are only really for whatever age they’re aimed at. Mileage, of course, varies. The Year of the Book is a quite nice book about friendship in various shapes and sizes, and the kind of representation it has, my Chinese-American friends would have killed for when we were in grade school–which means it would have been important for the rest of us to see too. But as an adult, I feel like it’s aimed a little more narrowly elsewhere–and that’s okay. It doesn’t make it a bad book or badly done–it’s important to recognize that not everything is for us. I’d definitely recommend it to younger audiences.

Lara Elena Donnelly, Armistice. Discussed elsewhere.

Rita Dove, Selected Poems. Beautiful time- and world-spanning work that I picked up after my local library fixed their poetry month display to…not be parochial and supportive of local harassers. Go team Rita.

Mary E. Giles, Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World. Grueling accounts of various types of woman hauled before the Inquisition, including women who had or were suspected of having different religious affiliations, slave women of various color “categories”/gradations under the system used at the time, and sexually and religiously dangerous women who posed threats to the status quo. I am not sorry I read this, but it took a lot out of me.

Lynne Jonell, The Secret of Zoom. This is another kid-centered kids’ book, where the characterization is not very detailed. It’s focused on doing what it’s doing with music, science, and cartoon-type families. Reasonably fun kids’ adventure fantasy.

Alisa Kwitney, Cadaver and Queen. This book baffles me. It is entertaining and reasonably fast-paced, an exciting YA fantasy romance. But several of the structural choices confuse the heck out of me. The protagonist is American (why?), studying medicine in the UK, where there are reanimated corpses serving in an alternate Victorian England. One of those Victorian corpses is the young medical student Victor Frankenstein, thereby casting permanent confusion on the “Frankenstein was the doctor/Frankenstein was the monster/Frankenstein was the friends we made along the way” question. I found myself deeply disturbed by thinking through some of the implications of the love story too carefully, and also why is there even a Frankenstein in the UK, and…look, if you relax and have fun with it, it’s a fun book, but if you’re not aces at relaxing and having fun, there will be questions like WHAT DID HE SMELL LIKE that may haunt you in the wrong ways.

George McClure, Parlour Games and the Public Life of Women in Renaissance Italy. The stuff they were getting up to in Siena! This is one of my favorite kinds of microhistory, the kind delving into the little side streams of what people were actually up to and the things in their actual lives and how it related to how they viewed the world. Siena! Valuing women because women were shrewd game players! Who knew! I love microhistory.

Victor D. Montejo, The Adventures of Mr. Puttison Among the Maya. This is a very quirky Guatemalan novella in translation, about an American tourist coming to Guatemala and trampling around getting his feet in everything and what transpires from there, sometimes throwing coins, sometimes gathering stories, generally being a 1930s American tourist as viewed through Guatemalan eyes. Glad I read it, entertaining and worth the time.

Armistice, by Lara Elena Donnelly

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the sequel to Amberlough, which is one of the most urban fantasies I have ever read, and yet is not, in genre terms, urban fantasy. It’s a Weimar-inflected alternate world, a spy novel, a stage novel that Noel Streatfeild would never have recognized; it is very much its own thing.

And so is Armistice, very thoroughly a sequel and yet its own book; among other things, Armistice has a different setting–from stage to screen, from temperate to tropics, from the domestic sketches of the descent to fascism to the diplomatic ones. The stakes remain both national and intimately personal–familial, searing, heart-wrenching. There are follow-on consequences from Amberlough, but also from before that book, from the characters being full people with full lives. I am a sucker for stories of revolution, and this is one in a small enough scale to grab and hold me. It’s doing very different things than other books in the genre are doing, and I’m glad to see them done.

Please consider using our link to buy Armistice from Amazon.

 

Present Writers: Marta Randall

Marta Randall is the author of seven novels, one as Martha Conley, and numerous short stories all across the science fiction and fantasy spectrum. Her characters dove the ruins of sunken Hawaii before most writers were willing to give the global effects of climate change the time of day. She was willing to take on refugee crises and generational resentments when these issues were just starting to ramify. If breadth, depth, and sensitivity in handling complex social issues were the metric, Marta Randall novels would be discussed in half the convention panels in 2018.

Her Kennerin duology–Journey and Dangerous Games–particularly exemplify the themes that make Randall’s work feel so contemporary forty years after its first publication. Disabled people, old people, and children all have strong agency. They make hard choices and deal with the ramifications of their decisions–sometimes for decades afterwards. For Randall, killing another individual always matters. Even if the killer was thinking of their victim as somehow lesser or unreal because they were a different ethnicity or origin of human, a different literal alien race, or because they were in good old science fiction fashion a little blip on the screen of a spaceship, they still count. Their deaths still matter, and there will still have to be a moral, personal and social reckoning for them.

For all that much of science fiction has featured colonies here, there, and everywhere, Randall’s work has been willing to deal with the ongoing legacy of colonialism in complicated and human forms. Her characters come up with solutions that their children don’t always agree with or even approve of, and the colonialism is intersectional and multidimensional. Some characters need to rename and reinvent themselves; others, to reiterate choices in a setting where moral purity is not a starting point or an outcome and the world is filled with people who are simply doing the best they can to stagger toward kindness among other flawed sentients.

The climax of Dangerous Games features a stunning indictment of respectability politics, in which a character demands, “Where is the law that says the victim of injustice must always be appealing?” and rails against the practice of pitting minorities against each other. It is a staggeringly fresh take on a topic that we will be generations more in fixing. It made me feel astonished and glad that Marta Randall is present, that her books are around to appreciate and to influence the conversation for those generations to come.

This is the beginning of a new series I’m doing here on the blog: Present Writers. I thought about eligibility for this, and I finally decided that what I want it to be is the opposite of a retirement party. I want to take retirement age and say: yay! We’re glad you didn’t retire and are still around doing cool stuff–you are present, and your work is a gift. Let’s keep the part of a retirement party where your colleagues say cool stuff about your work and ditch the part where you, y’know, go away and stop actually doing it. I don’t like the part where you go away. Don’t do that! I just like the part where people say the cool stuff about your work. This is in lieu of a cake and a gold watch, which are harder to shove through the internet at this time.

I picked 62 because in the US that’s the very beginning of Social Security eligibility, so I did not have to figure out where my personal milestone line would be. What “seems reasonable” to me? Eh, humans vary a lot, “seems reasonable” is a weird thing. Rather than angsting about it, I will pick the arbitrary line that is used in the country I live in, and once a month I will write a post celebrating the work of a writer who has achieved that arbitrary milestone, focusing on at least one specific book that feels contemporary and interesting to me. If you want to recommend authors who are over 62, have at it! I have a pretty long list in my head already, but adding to it never hurts.

Books read, late April

Elizabeth Bear, Stone Mad. This is a sequel to Karen Memory but with very different focus and structure. Karen and Priya have moved on–taking some of their more interesting machinery with them–and some of the discoveries they make along the way are earth-shaking. Also building-shaking. But the heart of this story is relationship stuff, established relationship stuff, ongoing relationship stuff, in a way that we rarely get to see in genre narrative. Making things work, getting things to a point where they can keep going, is a very different plot than finding one’s sweetheart, and I’m glad to see it here.

Kate Cavett, ed., Voices of Rondo: Oral Histories of St. Paul’s Historic Black Community. This is an amazing book. It’s a compilation of interviews with people who lived in the neighborhood in question, and Cavett is smart enough to let the interviews speak for themselves. There’s a great diversity of experience–economic, cultural, personal–and putting it side by side does so much to make it vivid and layered and real, with joy and suffering and the human experience in miniature, in neighborhood form. This is my city. There are probably similar stories for yours, and I recommend that you find them, because this is worth knowing about the structure of where you live, what has been lost and what remains, what your neighbors have to say about it.

Craig Laurance Gidney, Skin Deep Magic. The title of this collection is extremely well chosen; they are fantastical and dealing with race and culture in ways that go beyond the superficial.

Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. Harjo is from Oklahoma, and the southern plains sing through the poems. This is not my prairie, but I can see how my prairie will slip down into this one, hotter and dryer. Harjo’s Muscogee background also informs her poetry in ways that sing through it, and I don’t know the songs the way I do the songs from the neighbors up here, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to read.

Faith Erin Hicks, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Jen Wang, Holly Black, et al, Lumberjanes: Bonus Tracks. This was a bunch of side tales of whimsy and wonder and friendship to the max. Already sold on it. Yep.

Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, eds., Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years. Okay so look. We do not do this with terza rima, people. We do not look at terza rima and say, okay, sure, this is a major cultural form, extremely important to you, but we’re going to say that when WE do it, it means basically whenever we want and not ANY of the stuff it means to you, but it’s the same thing with the same name yay. And I have serious issues with the way that Anglophones do that with haiku. This is an anthology of extremely short poems, and that is it. They have literally no other requirement than that. I decided within the first few pages that I could read them on that premise or not, since that’s what they are, and I did read them, and I learned some things about very short poems. But I still object to just willy-nilly declaring that minuscule poems get to be haiku because we feel like it. ANYWAY. One of the things I learned: repetition in really short poems is not nearly as searingly effective as the poets want it to be. Mostly, in poems of less than fifty words, it’s pretty bland. Interesting to have a large data set there. I still wish that they were not so blithe about how haiku can be three words or a bunch of letters or whatever. Eh.

Andrus Kivirahk, The Man Who Spoke Snakish. This is an Estonian fantasy novel set at a sort of mythical version of the Christianization of Estonia, with the new ways symbolized by such newfangled innovations as eating bread and living in villages, and the old ways by speaking snakish and intermarrying with bears. This is a weird, weird book, and the bear-on-woman sex is right there in it, so if you are not up for that, you’re going to want to opt out here. It is…well, look, I picked it up because the Estonian ambassador was like, this is the one book you should read to represent Estonia! and huh. Huh. It idealizes a natural state that never was, it is extremely weird about sex and gender and let us not even get into the role of “speaking German” or farming tools and…yeah, so, Canadians? if you want to not feel alone about the ursine stuff? in your books? sidle on up to Estonians, they’ve got you covered. In bears.

Ian Lendler, One Day a Dot. Discussed elsewhere.

D. Peter MacLeod, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution. Quite often I say of nonfiction “does what it says on the tin.” This does not: the making of the American Revolution is an extremely minor component of this book. What it does do is consider the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in loving detail from primary sources in more than one language. Popular songs get quoted extensively. It’s a lot of fun, sardonic in spots, but it’s very specialized, so judge for yourself whether you’re interested in something quite that specialized.

Sujata Massey, The Salaryman’s Wife. This is the beginning of a long mystery series, and maybe the later volumes are really cool. I will probably not find out, because this is very very mid-90s, in that way that was so perkily fascinated with all things Japanese in a very exoticizing way. Everything is explained in words of very few syllables: in Ja-PAN…. It also…starts with a sexual assault on a commuter train and goes from there. The ways that this book parsed as sexy or at least daring have not aged particularly well in a few places. I really liked Massey’s recent historical non-mystery novel, so I had hopes for this, and I did finish it, it just…didn’t hit me very well. Which is a shame; I could use another good mystery series. I just don’t think this is it.

Moliere, The Imaginary Invalid. Kindle. The first translation that came up on Gutenberg, and it was a stinker of a translation, no nuance whatsoever, but I speak enough French to be able to spot what the better version would look like, and anyway I was reading it in preparation for going to see a production of it. It was not a good production, this is not a good translation…and yet I’m really glad I read it, thinking and talking about it with the person I went with has been fascinating, and you can see the bones of an interesting comedy about relationships and trust through both things being suboptimal.

Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. There’s a lot to like in this book–Rosling uses facts and figures to undermine a lot of well-educated westerners’ stereotypes about the rest of the world, ways in which worldviews have not been updated in 50 years or more, etc. I agree with Rosling that believing that things can actually be improved in the ways that they factually, verifiably have been improved will help us to be heartened to work toward improving more things. Hurrah. However, he goes off the rails in some areas that are not his main area of expertise, missing the point in ways that really have the potential to do harm because of his own firm, serene conviction that he couldn’t possibly have missed anything. A few easy examples: he brings up DDT as “safer than we think” because “it has not directly killed any humans.” Probably not true–very few manufactured products have no manufacturing fatalities–but in any case, direct, immediate human deaths are not the only possible point and also he completely neglects the DDT resistance that has come about in the areas where it’s continued to be used. So…stop that, Rosling. Another example: he blithely claims that menstrual pad companies “should be” trying to exploit the poorest markets as they emerge from being even poorer still, rather than questioning whether that’s really a case of “should.” Do those factors need reinforcing under the guise of pure fact? They really, really don’t, and I wish there was a good book about improvement in extreme poverty worldwide and general examining of statistics in that kind of area that didn’t wander off into that kind of bad logic.

Maighread Scott and Robin Robinson, The City on the Other Side. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Service, Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution. If you’re looking for an account of what things were like on the ground, for Russians, this is sure not it. This is about who knew what among various groups, many/most of them foreign. So if you want to hear a bunch about Arthur Ransome’s Russian Revolution–which, surreally, I guess I did–here is a book for you. It’s another piece in that very large puzzle. I like having more pieces, but at the end of the day I’m more interested in most of the other pieces, and I expect most of you will be too.

Carrie Vaughn, Martians Abroad. Discussed elsewhere.

Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Sometimes you read the first book in a series and think, this is really well written, but it’s not for me, I should circle back when this author is doing something different. And then the author does fourteen volumes of that very popular series, and it becomes easy to not think of that. But! Molly Tanzer was glowingly positive about Bannerless, and I liked that, so when Tor had its paperback release of Martians Abroad, I asked for a review copy. I’m glad I did.

It’s pretty clear that this volume is a response–not a retelling or a rewriting, a response–to Heinlein juveniles, specifically to the loathsome Podkayne of Mars. Vaughn is smarter than to name a character pee/toilet (I know, I know, “it’s Poddy not Potty,” oh yes, that enunciation makes all the difference in the world–I have talked to people from Missouri, Bob, it totally does not), so her sibling characters are Polly and Charles, not Poddy and Clark. And…I don’t know who else sees this, but…to me, it highlighted something else. That Vaughn wasn’t just influenced by the Heinlein juveniles, the “Golden Age” SF by men. Someone else wrote teen siblings named Poly and Charles, patient analytical boys, reckless frustrated angry out-of-place girls. (Anybody? No? Madeleine did that. Meg Murry O’Keefe’s two eldest kids, who get books of their own after the Wrinkle in Time series, are named Poly–later Polly–and Charles.)

Carrie Vaughn has learned from a whole world of previous generations of speculative writers. Not just the men. And Martians Abroad is much the better for it.

So what is this book. Polly and Charles Newton are Martian teenagers who have gotten shipped back to Earth to go to school at the very snooty Galileo Academy, due to their mother’s machinations, and Polly is not thrilled. Charles is generally off in his own head, trying to weather things in his own way. Polly wants to be a pilot–she wants nothing to do with Earth–but gradually through mishap and adventure makes some friends at school. And then they begin to suspect that the mishap and adventure they’re suffering are a bit more than Polly’s penchant for getting into trouble, more than the weirdness of living in a heavily biological higher-gravity environment, more than they seem.

This is simultaneously a fun adventure science fiction novel that seems like it would be entirely plausible to give to teens and a fun adventure science fiction novel that I would be entirely comfortable giving to elders who complain that they just can’t find things like they used to like. It is both. And since it’s not extensively quoting from anything–since its argument, where there is one, is by example–there’s no need to immerse yourself in “original texts” or “source material” to enjoy it. You can just pick up a story about how weird Earth feels when you’re from Mars, how weird your teen years feel when you don’t get along with your mom, how you can find friends and learn to get along with your brother and figure out how to get the career your want that you’re really good at, if you can manage not to get yourself and everybody else killed along the way because gravity wells and biological systems are difficult, and also so is space.

Please consider using our link to buy Martians Abroad from Amazon.

The City on the Other Side, by Maighread Scott and Robin Robinson

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is one of history’s canonical disasters for a reason. I myself have stood and looked at a place where the fence line was dislocated several feet from where it had been, because the fault line had moved by that much; the city was in flames and rubble for days afterward, and it took much longer than that to clean up. Scott and Robinson have used this as the inspiration for their children’s fantasy comic: what if that natural disaster was not natural at all, but the result of a rift in the fairy kingdoms? What if the Seelie and Unseelie courts were warring and caused the quake?

That’s the backstory here, not a spoiler for this volume. This volume is a kids’ graphic novel about the fallout. It’s about a wealthy Latinx human girl, Isabel, ignored by her separated (divorced?) parents, who stumbles into the fairy war still raging after the earthquake, picks up a talisman, and finds she can use it when no one expects her to be able to. She crosses between the human and magical worlds and forms friendships and alliances with people of various shapes and species. They are chased back and forth across the worlds, and Isabel has to help find a lasting peace for both worlds, for humans, Seelie, and Unseelie.

It’s reasonably pretty, but if the plot sounds kind of generic to an experienced reader, that’s because it is. There’s a lot of “oh yes, one of those” going on here, and the San Francisco setting feels more phoned in around the edges to me than vivid–there’s not a lot of vivid “definitely San Francisco/Carmel/Northern California” art here. There is an attempt to show the diversity of the city even as of the early twentieth century, both on the human side and on the magical side, but that’s entirely visual. The plot and characterization are just…fine. They’re fine. And once again I’m reminded that the audience for this is kids, so this may be where they learn how the shape of this plot goes. This may be their first trip through this plot. And yet on the other hand…there are other kids’ books that still manage to do something that isn’t cookie-cutter, so…this one is fine. Not likely to offend, but not likely to stick with you long either.

Please consider using our link to buy The City on the Other Side from Amazon.

relationship with spoilers

I’m not seeing the new Avengers movie this week. I haven’t even seen Black Panther yet. And it’s not because I’m just too hipster to see the thing that all my friends like, it’s because I have a major balance disorder and I have learned my lesson about what I can and can’t see in movie theaters. The answer is mostly can’t. You don’t want to know how many times I was sick in the five days after The Last Jedi–and sure, yes, we later figured out that I probably had either very persistent food poisoning or a stomach bug that I managed to pass on to zero of the people I cooked for that night, but honestly, the first several times? surprised no one. Because balance disorder. Even when the balance disorder is well under medication control, the things I can see in the theater are the things that people tell you are not important to see in the theater. The things where the spectacle is not the point. The things that are not packed with fast-cuts and panning and awe-inspiring camera angles.

(Speak not to me of Arrival. NO.)

So: theaters. Not for me. I know people who go internet silent for a day, two days, even a week, to avoid spoilers on a movie they’re not going to have a chance to see right away, but honestly: that is not feasible. I have not seen Black Panther yet. Sure, if it was vital to me, I could pirate a copy. A better solution is to form a different relationship with spoilers.

Because…sure, yes, it is nice to be able to let a story unfold without knowing where it’s going. It is. I recently watched Brigsby Bear (at home, streaming on my TV), and if you can watch that without spoilers, I recommend it; it’s not that it’s thoroughly unpredictable, but having it unfold organically added to my experience, I think. (Mark Hamill is great in it.) But I watched it with someone who had seen it before, and I will happily watch it again; if it wasn’t worth watching again, it wouldn’t really be worth watching. Because most stories have been told in some form already, and the question is, how will the details work this time. How will the experience of it be.

Which is not to say that I think you should go out of your way to spill the details of a brand-new book or movie to those who haven’t read or seen it; you notice that I’m fairly careful about that in my posts here. I know that a lot of people don’t have the attitude I do, and that’s okay. But…I don’t have a lot of choice. And I like where I’ve ended up with that. I’ve made a virtue of that necessity, rather than railing against it. I’m still looking forward to seeing Black Panther. Being the last one on my block to see a thing has its perqs; having a phalanx of friends I could turn to and say “I got to the episode that’s Amethyst’s origin story!!!” when I was watching Steven Universe was a lot of fun.

And I’m not really the last one on my block. This week someone else got to Amethyst’s origin story and wrote to me. A couple weeks ago, a different friend did. Today I read a Moliere play for the first time. When I read Middlemarch there was the entire horde of Middlemarch fans ready to squee and welcome me in; when I mentioned it in a recent book post, a local friend said “OH FINE YOU’VE CONVINCED ME” and I expect that when she gets to it I will get email from her. My best girl friend from college hasn’t gotten there yet, but maybe when her youngest leaves for college I’ll get an email that says, “Dear Marissa, I have just finished Middlemarch. OMG YOU WERE RIGHT.” Because you’re never actually the last one on your block to get to it, and hearing something something Dorothea something is not the same thing as reading it.

So yeah, I’ll probably find out sometime this week that the Infinity War was the friends we made along the way, and that’s fine. It really is the journey. And when it’s not, I don’t want to go on that trip anyway.