Short Stories I’ve Enjoyed (Pandemic Spring Edition)

Eleanna Castroianni, Who Goes Against a Waste of Waters (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

L. Chan, Sonata (Metaphorosis) — Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Rjurik Davidson, Benjamin 2037 (Tor.com)

Claire Humphrey, We Are the Flower (Podcastle)

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Getaway (Uncanny)

R. B. Lemberg, To Balance the Weight of Khalem (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Arkady Martine, A Being Together Amongst Strangers (Uncanny)

Devin Miller, Fox Red, Life Red, Teeth Like Snow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Aimee Ogden, Never a Butterfly, Nor a Moth With Moon-Painted Wings (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Emery Robin, Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter (Reckoning)

Allison Thai, Caring for Dragons and Growing a Flower (Podcastle)

Emma Törzs, High in the Clean Blue Air (Uncanny)

Fran Wilde, An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands (Tor.com)

John Wiswell, Alien Invader or Assistive Device? (Robot Dinosaur Fiction)

John Wiswell, Gender and Other Faulty Software (Fireside)

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a novella about a trans guy whose Houston home floods and about his life with a dybbuk in a shelter in Dallas. If you read that sentence and thought, “ooh, that might be for me if it’s done well!”, congratulations, you are correct, this is definitely for you.

Noah’s experiences in the emergency shelter are about as much sunshine and lollipops as you’d expect, but there are some rainbows to be found in the community that he both builds and finds there. It’s perfectly drawn of imperfect humans–Kern has noticed that even excellent allies don’t always share the same priorities, and negotiating those with kindness and patience in the face of deteriorating conditions can be hard, sometimes feeling impossible. Kern draws these relationships so very well.

The shape of the ending is particularly wonderful at a time like this: a turning toward kindness and toward community in a world that would make it easier to shut others out. The speculative element ties in excellently with the real world strengths of this novella. I’ll be looking for more by Kern.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the third in its series, and you absolutely should not read it without having read the first two. There’s enough to keep track of here if you have a fighting chance of knowing what’s going on from having actually read it; having to guess and fill in why people care about Tain Hu and who Aminata is anyway and…look, there is an entire thread of magic/social connection that’s based on how people relate to each other, you’re going to want to know what the heck is going on before you dive in here.

If you have read the other two books, here’s what you need to know here: this book does not ease up on disgust or treachery. If anything it doubles down. And…there’s a plague that is made much worse by people behaving foolishly. Actually there are several plagues. The plague element is not lessened here. At all. For some of you, that will feel comforting, like the thing you’re living through is being validated by the book; but if you’re otherwise interested in this series and think, oh God, not that, not now, then I advise you to get your copy and hold off a bit on reading it, because there is no dodging a certain contagion-related theme here.

Does it stick the landing, though. I would say yes, yes it does. People behave like themselves, actions continue to accrue consequences at an alarming rate until the very end. Could there be more told in this universe? absolutely. Is this particular story left unfulfilled with pieces hanging? not at all. The empire and its denizens and outliers are all going somewhere in this book, not just wandering indefinitely. The title character has several quite large revelations about herself and her world, she is proven right about some things but not everything, so if you’re a person who hates it when series just ramble on indefinitely, fear not, this is not one of those.

Books read, early May

Gavin Chappell, translator, The Saga of the Volsungs and Other Stories. More legendary saga weirdness. So much to work with here.

Nino Cipri, Finna. This novella about evil wormhole Ikeas is…maybe not the most relaxing thing to read when you’re dealing with home improvement woes? But compelling and fun and recommended and grandmaful.

P. Djeli Clark, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. This is a fast-paced, fun novella in the same world as some of Clark’s previous work. The world is clearly delineated quickly so you can dive into the story. Beautifully done.

Zoraida Cordova, Incendiary. Toward the very beginning of this book, I said to a friend that it was mainly good for its world-building because its plot was very YA-fantasy-standard, and ten pages later something happened that entirely turned that on its head. There was a turn for the more expected toward the very end, but in general this is not doing exactly the same thing as you might expect, and also the worldbuilding is fun.

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World. This is a terrible title. Epstein is not opposite to specialization in this book, he’s opposed to trying to get people to specialize exclusively or at extremely young ages. And he has a lot of data about how trying to make your two-year-old into the prodigy of your choice is not going to work particularly well, with side trips extolling the virtues of intellectual freedom on an interpersonal/emotional level. The ending sort of wandered, and I think I am not the target audience for this book, as I have long been a proponent of Letting Kids (And Also Adults) Mess Around Trying Stuff. But if you are also such a proponent and want bolstering for your arguments, here it is.

Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. This is exactly what it says on the tin, no more and no less. If you want to sort out more of what was going on in the Balkans when, this is a very straightforward version of that. If you’re looking for the quirky weird corners of history, this is not the book, but if you want a basis for putting the quirky weird corners of history into context when you find them later, this is a reasonable place to start.

Micaiah Johnson, The Space Between Worlds. Discussed elsewhere.

Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays On Artists and Writers. The titular essay was particularly engaging here, but there was a lot of varied material that interested me, in the “oh, and here’s another thing” way of good essay collections.

John Pollack, The Pun Also Rises. A new acquaintance at ConFusion talked about this book, which was written by a competitive pun champion. Which is apparently a thing! And this book gives examples of how that works! But also he goes into the history of puns and their function and reception. It’s short and, well, punny. I got a copy for me and a copy for a dear friend so that we would both have this experience, like it or not.

Kate Quinn, The Serpent and the Pearl. If you thought, okay, I want some Borgias, but their actual history is not melodramatic enough, what if an historical fiction writer made them more melodramatic, this is the book for you. I kept reading it for the cook, and eventually the cook also got swept into melodrama. This is also not so much a story as the first chunk of story with a completely unresolved ending. The sequels are out, so at least you can go on with them if you like–and I know that this will sound great to some people, it would sound great to me in some moods and I read the whole thing. But the last bit went far enough over the top that I don’t know that I’ll be reading the sequel right away.

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Charm and Hunger. Also a cliffhanger ending, but more resolved and satisfying, for me at least. This is the third in its series, and you’ll get things out of it if you’ve read the first two–there was a moment of “oh no oh no [character] run away” that came specifically because I have read the first one. But I do think it would work reasonably if you didn’t want the first ones and just started here, because each book is set in a different era with different central characters. This one brings the diabolists up to WWII.

Martha Wells, Network Effect. It’s Murderbot! In a full-length novel! It is what Murderbot in a full-length novel should be. While this is the first full-length Murderbot novel, it’s not the first Murderbot book, so go read the others and then wallow in this. Wallow.

F. C. Yee, The Iron Will of Genie Lo. This is also a sequel, a YA inspired by Journey to the West. It is so. Much. Fun. I love Genie and Yunie and all the other characters. I tore through this on a very stressful day and it was just the perfect thing, and you might need it if you ever have a stressful day too.

Jane Yolen, Curse of the Thirteenth Fey. This is the fairy backstory to Sleeping Beauty, with fairy family and fairy culture and fairy politics. You know where it’s going, but it’s still fun getting there.

COVID Spring: Good Hair Day

Of course it would be today

My hair would fall in perfect waves,

Pre-Raphaelite and sun-kissed

To be taken not to the symphony

Nor a friend’s wedding, a party,

But the weekly grocery raid,

Mask secured over my Waterhouse chin.

Guinevere among the lettuces,

Boadicea buying crackers,

Face obscured, eyes worried.

Appreciate my tresses, grocery shoppers.

They will get no other airing.

COVID Spring: Against Omens

You may take back your shipment of portents–

We don’t need them. We already know.

The cracks in the floor, thank you, yes:

The ground beneath our feet is unstable. We know.

The fallen unmarked chickadee: now really

We’ve learned, we can go any minute. We know.

Killer hornets, Krakatoa, floods, locusts–

The scale is grand, the message trite. We know, we know.

Let’s have lilacs,Let’s have sunshine, ice cream, new books

A fresh clean wall, we’ve already seen this writing.

Put down the chalk. We know.

The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Caralee is a traverser, someone who travels professionally between universes similar enough to her own to resonate with them. Like other traversers, she led a hard and risky childhood–you can only travel to worlds in which your other self has died, and Caralee’s other self has been in an entire metric ton of peril.

Oh, and also: her employer thinks she is one of those other selves, a more naive girl named Caramenta. When Caramenta was transferred into Caralee’s world and died from being in the same place as her double, Caralee took her clothes, her world-traveling tech–and her life. Or at least as much of her life as she could figure out. Luckily Caramenta was an assiduous journaler. Even luckier for Caralee, she’s a quick study–because these worlds are pretty universally brutal, and missteps could cost her everything.

Cara’s got a job, a safe place to live, a mentor, even a family–which is more than she had at home. But all of those things are threatened, and she is constantly having to maneuver around the ruling classes, who find her useful as a traverser but don’t have any interest in protecting her as a person. She has a history of being romantically involved with people who treat her like garbage, but it comes around in different ways in different worlds. Navigating all the different histories (which are kept deftly woven for the reader!) provides complication after complication for Cara as her expectations of one person shift to better fitting another–but even learning that anyone can be on her side is a major obstacle for her given her past. It’s a very different take on parallel worlds than most, and one I found interesting throughout.

Books read, late April

David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. German history is confusing. Usually the more I learn about it, the more confused I am, reinforcing that it is genuinely confusing, not just my ignorance. But this book! This book was a bit of German history that actually straightened a few things out in my mind. Because it was German hydrological history! Canals and sloughs and barges and all sorts of things that you can actually trace a reasonably straightforward narrative about! So much water. It’s not a highly technical book, you don’t have to be a hydrologist yourself. It’s another of those “this is history too, and it’s not about crowns and battles” books that I like so much.

Marie Brennan, Driftwood. Discussed elsewhere.

Stephanie Burgis, Deadly Courtesies. Kindle. The next short story in a series about necromancy, crafting magic (in this case metalcrafting), and impending romance. Great fun.

Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. This goes through plant sensory systems and what research there is about them (and what has been debunked). Hurrah for a comforting book about botany.

Isabel Greenberg, Glass Town. A graphic novel about the Bronte siblings’ juvenilia and also their relationships with each other. I read this to discuss it with a friend who is a great Gondal fan, but then it turned out she hasn’t had time yet. If you’re interested in the topic I think it would be a reasonable introduction.

S.L. Huang, Critical Point and Null Set. Discussed elsewhere, and also discussed elsewhere.

Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On Disaster Capitalists. A short book on what the heck is going on there, with competing views for handling post-hurricane devastation and what the future of the island should be. Klein is not trying to avoid taking sides, but I think the side she takes is reasonable, and she also provides some useful information I had not seen covered well elsewhere in the mainland US.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Relentless Moon. Discussed elsewhere.

Naomi Mitchison, The Bull Calves. This is a thumping big historical novel set in 18th century Scotland. It is full of Scots dialect and people with very similar names who are related to each other, and I liked it anyway. Whenever there’s a Naomi Mitchison book on my pile, it’s what I want to read. They’re not like each other in overt ways, just in subtle ways.

Jenn Reese, A Game of Fox and Squirrels. This is a heart-rending book with a happy ending. Two sisters have had to move to their aunts’ house in Oregon because of their dad’s abuse, and the younger one gets caught up in a magical card game. And there is a lot of learning to trust and learning how to love people who love you well when you’ve had other kinds of love in the past, and it’s really good that way, but hoo, it is not easy, don’t think that the middle-grade age target makes it easy.

John Sayles, Yellow Earth. Speaking of good but not easy…well, no one was going to make that mistake with Sayles. This novel is about the North Dakota oil fields and the people around them, and…and…oh, it is not a “fun” book, but I loved it. I have generally believed John Sayles about the details of his work, that people say the things he says they do (adjusted a tiny bit for Sayles…), but in this book he is talking about various forms of my people, and he gets it right, he gets very tiny things right as well as large ones. A lot of flawed people trying the best they can, some of them not trying the best they can, and some people get genuinely happy endings, within the Sayles capacity. In this case the happy ending of the very last page felt like it was written just for me, so hey, thanks, Mr. Sayles, I love you too.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. This is a thin pamphlet that is all polemic, some of it quite reasonable polemic, but still. There are places where Snyder is acting in his capacity as a Holocaust scholar and times when he’s speaking more or less without evidence, just stuff that he as a human believes. I prefer the former category, but most of the latter are okay, if less interesting. Won’t take you long, but I suspect that most people who read my blog already know much of what they would gain from this.

Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence. This is very much a memoir rather than an autobiography. If you’re here for a recitation of the facts of Solnit’s life, in chronological order, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The focus here is to muse on how her work and her life have intertwined, and I found that very interesting. (She is another author I tend to want to read right away when I have one of her books on my pile.)

Tasha Suri, Realm of Ash. A sequel to Empire of Sand, but I actually think it would do all right as a stand-alone, if you’re looking for magic and thoughtfulness about empire and its costs. I enjoyed this.

Tade Thompson, Household Gods and Other Narrative Offenses. Kindle. A really good introduction to his short work, varied settings and characters.

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Shattering autobiographical poems. Read slowly.

Raynor Winn, The Salt Path. This is a memoir of a couple who lost their farm, and also the husband got a terminal diagnosis, so they…decided to walk over 600 miles of English coast, Devon and Cornwall. They were flat broke and just started walking. There is quite a lot of focus on what they managed to eat, but also there are some really poignant moments, and a lot of thoughtfulness about who has access to what and why.