Last batch of short fiction enjoyed from 2018

I’m going to do a comprehensive post of all my short fiction recs from 2018 later this week, but meanwhile here’s the year-end stuff.

The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls, by Senaa Ahmad (Strange Horizons)

The Feather Wall, by Octavia Cade (Reckoning 3)

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, by Zen Cho (B&N SF)

Forest Spirits, by Michael J. Deluca (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Word of Flesh and Soul, by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com)

Ten Things I Didn’t Do, by Maria Haskins (Pseudopod)

More Sea Than Tar, by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (Reckoning 3)

Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House)

The Thing About Ghost Stories, by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny)

Ava Paints the Horses, by Ville Meriläinen (Cast of Wonders

Birch Daughter, by Sara Norja (Fireside)

Don’t Pack Hope, by Emma Osborne (Nightmare)

An Aria for the Bloodlords, by Hannah Strom-Martin (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

My Name Is Cybernetic Model XR389F, and I Am Beautiful, by Monica Valentinelli (Uncanny)

2018 year in review (the writing version)

Years are too big a thing for me to fit in one post, so expect the post about other people’s work later this week. This is just the stuff I published and how I feel about it.

Because the reprint of one of the print stories went live today, you have an internet copy available for you to read, hurrah! That’s Left to Take the Lead, originally in Analog and now appearing in Clarkesworld. Other Analog stories in 2018 included “The Jagged Bones of Sea-Saw Town,” “Finding Their Footing,” and “Two Point Three Children.” Of those, “Left to Take the Lead” and “Finding Their Footing” take place in the same universe, which they also share with several previous stories.

“The Jagged Bones of Sea-Saw Town” was one of the stories inspired by my 2016 trip to Sweden. Another was Objects in the Nobel Museum, 2075, which appeared in Daily Science Fiction. The stories inspired by this summer’s travel are just starting to come clear in my head, so it’ll be interesting to see where those go in the next few years.

The next cluster of stories was in Nature. They published Say It With Mastodons, Seven Point Two, and My Favorite Sentience. Usually Nature-length stories are my way of working out science fictional ideas without letting myself get sidetracked, and that was true here, but “Say It With Mastodons” was also an example of my recent musings about collaborative partnership/collaborative romance, and I’m very proud of it.

Uncanny Magazine was also a good home for my writing this year. I did more essays this year than I have in ages, and I liked doing it. Developing that nonfiction voice is definitely on my radar for next year. Work in Uncanny included the essays Hard Enough, The Seduction of Numbers, the Measure of Progress, and Malfunctioning Space Stations. They also published two of my short stories, Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage and This Will Not Happen to You.

“This Will Not Happen to You” was in their special Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue, and it was the second of my stories in 2018 that dealt with disability more directly and more personally than I’ve ever done before. The first was Flow, which found its home in Fireside Magazine. I am so grateful to them for every detail of that, for understanding that story and wanting to give it an outlet and for its beautiful commissioned illustration and all of it. “Flow” was personal. It was terrifying. And it was so very much worth doing.

What else has been going on with my writing in 2018? Well, I finished a novel whose provisional title is The Broken Compass, although I have a whole page of alternate titles in my notebook. (I’m pretty sure that’s a good title, but it remains to be seen whether it’s a good title for this book.) My astute and energetic beta readers and agent will help me continue to revise this thing, and meanwhile I’ve made a start on a new novel project as well.

I finished nine short stories–this is why I don’t write year-end posts in November, because two of those were in the last week of the year. I’ve also got several stories waiting in the wings to come out in the early months of 2019, and I’m writing more essays, as I said I would.

To tell the truth, I’m not that great at looking back on things I’ve done with pride. I’m working on that. This year has helped. But I’m much, much better at looking forward to things I’m going to learn to do better, and this year has helped with that even more. Excelsior.

Present Writers: Nisi Shawl

Just under the wire but before the year-end posts–because the year is not yet ended–here’s December’s Present Writers post. For context on this blog series, see the first post, Marta Randall, or subsequent posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, or Sherwood Smith.

Nisi Shawl is a great example of a writer who has grown, changed, and expanded her horizons–and other people’s–long past her debut. If I’d been writing this post a few years ago I could have talked about her impressive short story career, or about her crucial work in teaching writers to think kindly and accurately beyond their own experiences with works like Writing the Other  (co-authored with Cynthia Ward) and workshops on the same topic. I could have talked about her work as an anthologist, particularly in anthologies that focus on various specific marginalized voices or on tributes to greats of the field like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. Shawl has been quite ground-breaking enough in those areas.

But two years ago she gave us her first novel to appreciate, Everfair. A steampunk alternate history focused on central Africa (specifically the Congo), Everfair uses multiple points of view to bring balance and nuance to the possibilities she shows us. Everfair helps point out the choices we make every day to improve the world for all people–or not–and the ways that our views of history shape those choices. It is profoundly hopeful and just plain fun to read. I’m excited to see where Shawl will go next, and how it will teach those who want to learn and illuminate more of the world for those who want to see.

It Happened at the Ball, edited by Sherwood Smith

Review copy provided by the editor, who is also a personal friend.

This anthology was conceived as a light antidote to current moods–an escape, a lovely frothy escape. Where it succeeds at that, it succeeds brilliantly. Stand-out stories for me included Marie Brennan’s “The Şiret Mask” (reprinted from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and no less excellent in this venue), Francesca Forrest’s “Gown of Harmonies,” and Layla Lawlor’s “Gilt and Glamor.” These were extremely different stories–one urban fantasy/contemporary–and each hit its marks very well indeed, as one would hope from a themed anthology (but as one often doesn’t find). Though I often look askance at editors including their own work in an anthology, Sherwood Smith’s own “Lily and Crown” was a very strong element of this volume, which wouldn’t have been half as good without it–I’m a sucker for stories of revolution and independence, and this was one.

Some of the stories that were not as much for me were more a matter of personal inclination–nothing wrong with them, just not my sort of thing. A few more were on a weird line–acknowledging the reality of slave ownership for slaves but continuing to focus on the slave owners’ fancy parties is not really going to work for me, and I feel that while it’s entirely period that people were insensitive about terms for Roma people, we need to be careful about how and when we think it’s necessary to do that in stories written now. I had some larger issues with Marissa Doyle’s “Just Another Quiet Evening at Almack’s,” though. It had assault as a central event but not, in some senses, a central theme; the way it was handled was simultaneously light-hearted (which is far better for the anthology topic than for this story element) and victim-blaming. Young girls cast attraction charms on themselves, the silly things! and then get assaulted by men of all ages, with a strong attitude of “they should have known better, this is what they get.” This is the razor blade in this particular dish of sherbet. I wish there wasn’t one. I wish we could have an entire anthology of light-hearted stories about dancing without this particular element. Maybe in the next try. There’s a lot else that’s good in this book; I just could do without this one element.

Please consider using our link to buy It Happened at the Ball from Amazon.

Books read, early December

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black: Stories. This is a gripping and beautiful collection that wanders in and out of speculative tropes and social discussion. I think it’s not marketed as SFF but rather as literary, but he plays beautifully on the beach that belongs to both (rather than walled-off sandboxes for each) and I think writers from that entire continuum could enjoy and learn here. Recommended.

Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral?. This did not do what I hoped, which was talk about modern forms of the pastoral. He did start to form a model of pastoral that goes beyond Shepherd Poems, spotting commonality in some interesting 19th century works, so it wasn’t worthless, it just…didn’t go as far as I wanted it to.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis’s part of the Iliad retold from her perspective. This book does an amazing job of pointing out the horrors of war in a way that doesn’t prioritize one gender or another, but be warned, it is sexual violence front to back, that is the thing it’s doing. Also there are bizarre, gross, ahistorical moments of fatphobia, just thrown in for spice I guess, so…read with care.

Megan Crewe, Ruthless Magic. Sometimes you really want the YA trope of “we have just figured out that the system is rigged and what are we going to do about it,” because, welp, here we are. In this case that trope is set among magic trials, and the ending is satifsyingly un-pat. Relationships–not just smooching, friendships, family relationships–take a very high priority here. I raced through it and am looking forward to the sequel.

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States. I picked up this book on the theory that I was interested in anything Jill Lepore wrote, and now I am interested in nothing Jill Lepore writes ever again. That is how bad this book was. It had bizarre inclusions and maddening exclusions. Lepore’s choices reinforce a lot of standard “large overview” models that reinforce all sorts of misconceptions, with major movements often treated as mysterious forces of nature because she hasn’t bothered to discuss what led to them. The labor movement, the conquest of Native territories, most things west of the Mississippi…okay, let’s be honest, most things west of Syracuse…not present. A complete misreading of Desk Set, and honestly, I love Desk Set, but why is it here? A sure-footed and substantially wrong-headed focus on the last 15 years at the expense of the entire second half of the nineteenth century AND the entire second half of the twentieth century. Supposedly parallel constructions with drastically slanted language. I startled the dog several times with my out-loud reactions to this book (“NO–not you, not you Ista, good dog”). Assertions that would take another 800-page book to actually support went in blithely, unchallenged and unfootnoted. And almost all of this is directly relevant to modern political interactions. What a terrible book. So incredibly disappointing. I only finished it so that I could be authoritative about how bad it was, and it just kept getting worse.

Anna-Marie McLemore, Blanca and Roja. Modern Latina version of Snow White and Rose Red, with swan shifters and tree affinities and a diversity of gender and sexuality. Charming and lovely.

Nuala O’Faolain, Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. This is substantially about digging herself out of the hole that the mid-twentieth century left Irish women in, and surveying the wreckage upon her family. There was a lot of unpleasantness here that somehow didn’t add up to a bad book, but I spent most of the time reading it sad for O’Faolain.

Daniel Jose Older, Dactyl Hill Squad. Alternate history Civil War-era New York with dinosaurs, orphan kids of color having dino-related adventures against racist miscreants. Great fun, especially if you have someone in its target age range to share with.

Mary Beth Pfieffer, Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. Do you want to scream endlessly? Because the stuff this book covers will do that for you. Not the book itself; Pfieffer is level-headed and thorough. But tick-based diseases are NO JOKE, friends, and worth knowing about in horrifying detail. (Horrifying. Really, really bad.)

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. This literary novel weaves together the lives of two women who work as painters, one in the seventeenth century and another, who is also a scholar and critic, in the middle of the twentieth (going on to her later life in the early twenty-first). I liked each and both, the way that they were finding their way in their work around various life obstacles, quite different in different eras and yet with a thread of commonality. The ending fell a bit flat for me, so I can’t jump up and down and recommend this as thoroughly as I’d like, but it was still worth reading.

Books read, late November

Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860. This was lovely, an examination of how and why women were coming together to demand rights in that period, what their focus was, where they fell short of making their movement work for everyone. It’s too early a volume for the word “intersectional” to come up, but Anderson is both clear and blunt about racism when she sees it and attempts to discuss class issues and other intersectionalities quite thoroughly. I got a few more ideas for people to download from Project Gutenberg, and more to sigh over since the translations aren’t there.

Fatimah Asghar, If They Come For Us. Searing amazing lovely poems about the Partition and modern experiences of immigration that mirror some of its effects. Both personal and political. I’m so glad I read this.

Christelle Dabos, A Winter’s Promise. This YA fantasy has many prose hallmarks of being translated from the French, but I don’t mind that. It started out with the magic system feeling potentially enchanting and captivating, but I ended up frustrated with the ponderous length of it and the politics of it–both internal to the book and the way it sits with actual politics. Among other things, this is one of those books where He Won’t Tell You Anything–And Will Be A Controlling Jerk All The Time–But He Has His Reasons And Really He Loves You And Also What About His Tragic Past. And I am getting less and less patient with books that recapitulate abusers’ narratives with romantic trimmings.

Anne de Courcy, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy. I would not usually have picked this book up at all, but de Courcy generally knows her stuff and can be counted on to get into some social analysis like: was this successful, why did it happen beyond the simplistic explanations etc. Also it was not terribly long.

Anya Johanna DeNiro writing as Alan DeNiro, Tyrannia. These were fine enough stories for most of the volume but were not really grabbing me…until I got to the last one, that makes it a keeper. It’s a weird metafictional meditation that completely works for me.

Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky. There’s a reason these have won so many awards. They are so very brilliantly done, and their planetary/geomagic is amazing, and the relationships are wrenching and loving and horrible and great. I’m glad I finished this series.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir. Khakpour gives us a tour of her life through the lens of figuring out her health problems. If you have chronic health issues yourself, the difficulty with diagnosis and treatment will feel so familiar, as she hits setback after setback and finally arrives at…an approximation. A regimen that sort of works unless it doesn’t. Which is pretty familiar too. She doesn’t have to pretend that she is a perfect person who did everything–or even everything health-related–right. There are no Good Cripple narratives here. And what a blessing that is.

Naomi Mitchison, When We Become Men. So what an odd thing this is. Mitchison apparently got very involved with Botswanan independence, to the point of getting herself in trouble with the colonial authorities. When We Become Men is a coming of age story for young African men (and a bit for women) struggling toward self-rule. I think that if you only read one book about the struggle of various African nations toward independence, it shouldn’t be this one (it should be written by…you know…an African person), and if you only read one Naomi Mitchison novel, it shouldn’t be this one either (at the moment I’m going for Travel Light, but stay tuned). But. As another piece in a couple of larger puzzles, it’s very interesting indeed. Caveat: rape is a topic throughout this book and while reasonably important to the book, it is…I am not entirely comfortable with the handling of it, particularly with my own ignorance of how emotionally accurate it is to the cultures it was representing at the time.

Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems. I had already read the title poem of this collection, and it was brilliant and searing and amazing. Then the rest of it made me sob out loud and run around DMing links to poems and putting them up in various chat spaces. It was apparently a great month for me to read poetry, because I highly recommend this as well.

Rebecca Sugar et al, Steven Universe: Punching Up, Steven Universe: Too Cool for School, and Steven Universe: Anti-Gravity. These were a bit of a mixed bag, and frankly even the first of them (which was the best in my estimation) would have been a weak and minor episode of SU. However, as SU methadone they did fine. Do you want a side story about Steven going to school, or one about Pearl taking on a wrestler persona to team wrestle with Amethyst? That’s what’s here–but because it’s definitively side material, they can’t put anything of ongoing resonance in the way they do with the episodes that sometimes seem on the surface to be side issues. Oh Well.

Howard Waldrop, Horse of a Different Color: Stories. I just could not be arsed to care about these stories. I could see that they were well done in their way, and I read them, I didn’t skip past them, but…this is very much not for me, I’m afraid.

Laura Weymouth, The Light Between Worlds. Okay, so. If you are a person who, for example, knows what year rationing ended after WWII, you should go into this knowing that there are a few moments where that kind of historical-cultural detail will have slipped. However. Depending on your reaction to that sort of thing–or to these particular instances of that sort of thing–it may not matter. It didn’t really matter for me, but I mention it because I know several of my readers will be unable to not see those details. For me, the heart of the story was spot on. And that’s the story of two sisters trying to build lives in a world that isn’t quite what they expected it to be. The two and their brother had a very Narnia-like portal fantasy adventure, and there are bits of that in here in flashback, but mostly it’s about how they adjust–or fail to adjust–to coming back again. To having to go through puberty a second time, to the ideas and possibilities and priorities that come with postwar Britain instead of a magical forest land. And to having been through not just one war but two–having met war wherever they went. And there are so very very many emotionally true moments about that kind of trauma and about dealing with other people you love whose reactions to trauma are different from yours. (Also the stag imagery omg.)

“I’ve got some new words I can see sideways”

Toward the end of the last several years, I heard a lot of people talking about how glad they would be to see the year go, how the next one had to be better. I’m not hearing that this year, and I don’t think it’s because 2018 has been all lollipops and rainbows, or even candles and saffron buns. No. I think it’s that there has been a slow realization that we are living in a dark time. That positive change is not going to come all at once with the turning of the year. We all knew that, I think, but…there’s knowing, and there’s knowing.

When you know something is wrong, identifying it can be such a relief. A lot of my friends with disabilities and other health issues have talked about this–how happy they were to get a diagnosis, how others didn’t always understand that and would be upset on their behalves. But upset is a reaction for if you thought nothing was wrong and suddenly got the news that something was. When you know something is wrong and now you know what…well. You can find coping mechanisms. You can begin to plan. Maybe you can even fix it–which is much harder when you don’t know something is wrong in the first place.

And here we are in the dark of the year. Santa Lucia Day has come around again. And the reason I started doing these posts twelve years ago (!!!) is that Santa Lucia Day is a holiday that comes before the solstice. Firmly and canonically before. We light the candles, we make the lussekatter, knowing that there is more and deeper darkness to come.

And we do it anyway. Because this is what we do. Because this is who we choose to be for each other.

There’s often a song in my head for Santa Lucia Day, other than the traditional one, and this year it’s Case/Lang/Veirs “I want to be here” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dskj0nqnIIY). “Not bracing for what comes next” sounds good to me…especially because I feel like being present with each other, just that, gives us the strength to deal with what’s next without having to flinch from it. And don’t we all need to hear that the hungry fools who rule the world can’t ruin everything? They can’t. There is bread, there is hope, there is work to make things better. Even when all we can do for a minute is be here together.

I kept the idea of making lemon curd from last year. That strand of caring for someone else that helped with caring for myself ended up working very well for me, and I’m looking forward to continuing with it. This year I’m about to try the result of kneading the dried blueberries into the saffron bread instead of placing them on top. I’m hopeful. But I’m also willing to keep iterating. I’m willing to keep trying to make things better, acknowledging setbacks along the way, acknowledging that the path to better is not always smooth.

The other thing I tried this year: last week there was a different saffron bread. This one was savory, stuffed with olives and tomatoes and cheese and prosciutto. It worked on the first try, not perfect but good, and I now have another means of sharing with others, another bread of light in a dark time. Not a replacement. Just another angle to try, and we need all of those we can get. And…maybe having the blueberries protected in some dough will keep them from falling away. It’s worth a try.

Sometimes the people we love are faltering in the dark, and there’s not that much we can do to help except be there and bear witness. Sometimes there’s more. We can stumble on wanting so badly to help. Sorting out which situations are which takes practice.

We’re getting a lot of practice, these dark days. We are here. We reach for each other. We learn how to do it better, and sometimes we fail, but even when we don’t, we have more darkness to get through.

But we do it together. And that makes all the difference in the world.

I bake too much for myself every Christmas, and I do it on purpose, knowing that these cookies will go to that dear one, that this bread is for another, that the experimental fudge (…stay tuned…) for yet a third. Because we don’t light the candles for just ourselves, we don’t sing to just ourselves. That’s not how any of this works.

Thank you for being the lights in my darkness, this year, next year, all the years. Happy Santa Lucia Day.

2017: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=1995

2016: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=1566

2015: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=1141

2014: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=659

2013: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=260

2012: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/840172.html

2011: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/796053.html

2010: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/749157.html

2009: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/686911.html

2008: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/594595.html

2007: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/2007/12/12/ and https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/502729.html

2006: https://mrissa.dreamwidth.org/380798.html — the post that started it all! Lots more about the process and my own personal lussekatt philosophy here!

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Do not start here. Really really do not. One of the things about books that are serious about consequences is that it’s extremely hard to write them without reference to what’s come before–those two goals are incompatible–and this book is basically all consequences. The cover with the mask-face on fire? That is this book. It is the previous book, but on fire, and also plagues and drowning.

What a nice book! you may now be thinking, if you have not read The Traitor Baru Cormorant. So about that. Yah. Not a nice book. If you’re going to read these, buckle in, because the teddy bears are not having their picnic here, and someone would probably lobotomize them if they did. (There are…lots of lobotomies in this series. Lots. More lobotomies than acts of treachery? mmmmaybe. Someone should count.) (Mostly they are offstage lobotomies, though.)

There is one moment where loyalty appears, nobility of spirit, that sort of thing, and Baru says she wasn’t expecting it. And you may not be expecting it either. But it’s there. That’s the thing about this very not-nice series full of transmissible cancers and prisoners in the bilge of the ship and judicial murders: Dickinson understands that chiaroscuro requires light as well as darkness. So amidst all the unpleasantness…are desperate people doing their best. Keeping on. So I do too, with this series.

Please consider using our link to buy The Monster Baru Cormorant from Amazon. (Or if you are starting, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.)