The Angel of the Crows, by Katherine Addison

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a personal friend.

This is an object lesson in the value of filing off serial numbers. Really, I mean that wholeheartedly and so very enthusiastically. Because this both is and is not a Sherlock Holmes story. It is clearly, plainly, not trying to hide it, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. And yet it is not a Sherlock Holmes story, it is clearly and firmly not, and the distance between Crow and Holmes, between Watson and Doyle, is enough to pour worlds into. It is not a technicality, it is an opening that lets in an entirely different kind of story.

This story would not be possible if I was comparing, at every turn, to my previously held view of Watson, saying, wait, what? Watson’s secrets are what? How does that square with what I previously know of Watson? Which things are alternate and which am I to keep? I am not to keep things, I am to trust what is built, not about Watson about this new character Dr. J. H. Doyle, whose experience in Afghanistan is not the same, because Doyle has been wounded by one of the Fallen, in a world where angels, vampires, werewolves, and hellhounds are part of the daily landscape.

And they are woven deeply into the fabric of this story. Addison knows the Jack the Ripper facts in our world incredibly well, so she knows how to use them deftly in a story that’s about so many more things. The fantasy elements go deeply into everything here, with thought and care, and the characters are layered and wonderful. I’m just so glad of this book.

Lady of Shadows, by Breanna Teintze

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend and shares an agent with me.

Lady of Shadows catches up with Gray and Brix not long after the events of Breanna’s first book, Lord of Secrets. They have settled into a peaceful life, everything is fine, and this book is basically them having fancy iced cakes with friends while they contemplate which traveling musicians should play for them.

Wait, no. It’s not. Actually it’s not at all. Because magical plague and also Brix’s relatives.

(I should note here that the magical plague is not at all like the real plague we are dealing with right now, and I don’t think it will be the least bit triggering. It is very magical and very, very different. There’s no way around the fact that there is a plague in this book, but it is not stressful, honestly.)

I also wanted to get Alan Rickman in this book to do the bit from Galaxy Quest where he yells at Tim Allen’s character for always managing to get his shirt off. Because Gray? Is always. Managing to get his shirt off. And sometimes the rest of his clothes with it. So many magical tattoo moments! So much naked magician!

The thing about Breanna’s books is that they have heart, they have plot, but they also have just a ridiculous amount of fun packed in. This came at just the right time for me, but I suspect that any time would have been the right time, and I suspect it will be for you too.

The Glass Magician, by Caroline Stevermer

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

I was so excited to get this from Caroline, because I’d been hearing bits and pieces of it as it was in progress but didn’t read the manuscript–perfect amounts of information to be optimally excited. And I was not disappointed.

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician, struggling to get by on skill and wit in an alternate twentieth century where the wealthiest families have not only the power of their money but also magical shapechanging powers. As an orphan, she’s worked with her guardian dad’s friend, Nutall, doing the only kinds of magic she knows: sleights of hand, cunning tricks. Then one night a jammed mechanism threatens her life and forces her into a kind of magic she didn’t know she could do.

And then there are the monsters after her.

The rich magicians have resources. The rich magicians have safety. The rich magicians have training. Thalia has what she’s always had, except now angry people trying to figure out what’s going on with her, and also monsters. So that’s fun.

No, really, it’s a lot of fun. For the reader. Not for Thalia so much.

I raced through this book with barely a glance at the outside world. I can’t wait for more.

Restarting the light

I think I am not the only one who feels a wave of relief in these pandemic times every morning that I wake up without a fever, without a cough, without anything to signify that I am getting sick. I read recently that loss of sense of smell is one of the early signs, and so I had two reasons to be happy that I woke up and smelled saffron and yeast from the next story down.

Last night I stirred up the lussekatter to rise while I was sleeping.

I’ve never made lussekatter in spring before, never made them when the thaw was so thoroughly thawed that the snow pile in the circle was half-dirt. I’ve made them for something other than Santa Lucia Day before, specifically for Tim’s birthday, but he was out of the country for his birthday this year and hadn’t had anything I’d baked for him. When I asked if he wanted pumpkin bread as a social distancing treat (I still might do that next week…or later this week depending on how fast we eat the lussekatter…), he paused and said, “Actually….”

So here we are, kneading the dough, singing some different songs, trying to bring back a different kind of light. It’s not Lucia Day, friends, but sometimes we need another candle anyway. Sometimes we need to put our backs into a little more care for each other and a little more hope for goodness in the world. Support the health care workers and the food workers and infrastructure workers who are keeping us all as safe as they can manage, be kind to each other, and bring back whatever light you can in whatever way you know how. It’s not Santa Lucia Day, but we’ll do the work apart-together anyway.

Driving the Deep, by Suzanne Palmer

Review copy provided by the publisher, and also the author is an online friend.

This is the sequel to last year’s Finder, with the same protagonist: Fergus Ferguson, interplanetary repo man. Fergus has been…changed…by his adventures in the previous volume, giving him some additional, uh…problem-solving options that I don’t want to spoil for you here, and he takes full advantage of them here.

Because he really, really needs to.

Fergus’s strength is his friends, but they’re also his weakness. Particularly when nefarious parties have done their best to kill them all. But where his friends are concerned, Fergus isn’t going down without a fight. Even if that means going way, way down…

Under the frozen waters of Enceladus.

Yeah, the ice moon of Saturn is host to a lot of angry people and their angry secrets, and that’s where Fergus has to do if he wants to save his friends, adopt a cat, and pick apart an additional mystery he didn’t even know he was in on. Spacefaring adventure that crackles with electricity. If you liked Finder, definitely pick up Driving the Deep.

The Scapegracers, by Hannah Abigail Clarke

There is a beautiful passage toward the beginning of The Scapegracers where the character talks about the ways and reasons in which people direct anger and frustration toward girls and young women, why and how they get underestimated. Hannah Abigail Clarke doesn’t make those mistakes.

This is a contemporary fantasy about teenage witches and their friendship, about trying to figure out who you are and what the hell you’re doing in a world with a lot more to it than you expected. So: the teen experience. With cool new friends who sometimes scare you, when you’re scaring yourself, and also horrible enemies, and also a crush, and what even is this fancy restaurant. So: the teen. experience. In so very very many ways.

Sideways and her friends are so well drawn, so very skillfully and respectfully done, and by respectfully I don’t mean that Clarke mistakes them for superheroes or even adults, but that they are allowed to be themselves. They are allowed to be grumpy, bristly, snarky, loving, guilty, full of rage; they are allowed to like eyeliner and worry that they’re screwing up various things; they rush in where wiser heads might advise caution and try things that just might work (but also might not). They are so human and so great, and I’m delighted that this is only their first book.

In the Isolation Grocery

I will wear a bright blue dress

To the isolation grocery tomorrow

And tights with hearts all over them.

My neighbor will cup her hands to call

A safe six feet across the carrots,

“I love your tights!” I’ll say,

“I like your hat,” and grin,

And for this moment we won’t guess

Who could die because they came here today

Who might have lived ten more years, thirty,

If they’d had flour and eggs left at home.

For this moment, I’ll step aside,

Let the next one out of the soup aisle

Before I go in, wash my hands,

Wear my strained smile in the distance

And my cheerful blue banner

That I am still me.

Toasted Cake Podcast presents

Some years back I had a story called Quality Control in Nature Futures–an upbeat little piece about supervillainy, mad science, and redirection.

Now it’s back in a new form! I hope you enjoy the podcast version through Tina Connolly’s Toasted Cake Podcast. Tina was looking for fun and optimism, I thought this would fit the bill, and she agreed! We hope it brings you a smile too.

Books read, early March

Karen Babine, All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer. This is about cooking for her mother, who had cancer. Spoiler alert: her mother did not die of cancer in the course of this book! I know that for some of you I just ruined this slim volume of nonfiction, and I’m very sorry, but for others I have made it possible to read the thing. She’s obsessed with secondhand shop Le Creuset, she’s a vegetarian who’s cooking meat for a sick carnivore, and the sick carnivore does not die at this time. You’re welcome. Come on, some stresses we just don’t need right now.

Claire Eliza Bartlett, The Winter Duke. Discussed elsewhere.

Cinelle Barnes, Malaya: Essays on Freedom. I picked this up because of my interest in Malaysia, even under its British colonial name, Malaya. It turns out that Malaya is also the name of Cinelle Barnes’s daughter! Who, if she has anything to do with Malaysia, does not reveal it in the course of these essays! That’s okay, though, because they turned out to be interesting in themselves. Barnes was an undocumented immigrant to the US from the Philippines who managed to regularize her legal status in the US and has very interesting thoughts on that process; she is fierce and detailed and fascinating.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Orphans of Raspay. Kindle. The latest Penric and Desdemona novella, in which Pen and his demon companion–and various others–are kidnapped by pirates and must effect their escape. Fun for fans of the series but probably not a good beginning place, go back to where Pen starts this whole thing.

Roshani Chokshi, The Gilded Wolves. I have enjoyed Chokshi’s middle grade books, but YA is a whole different ballgame, so I was wondering how this would go. Quite well, it turns out! Gilded Age Paris with a whole bunch of magic and some interesting people like a mathematician, a baker, and a spider enthusiast. There are important friendships as well as romances, there are lovely clothes, there is a lot of swirling color and bright lights in the more general scene-setting sense, and I had fun with this and will be glad to find the sequel.

Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America. This is a history of the Lakota in specific and of the Native world around them in general, how they migrated and were pushed. Hämäläinen includes thought and analysis about where and how he uses terms like Lakota, Dakota, Sioux, and so on, and the maps are some of the most sensible maps I have ever seen in books because they are centered on water at all times, so even though north is not always up, you can find Lake Superior or Lake of the Woods or the Missouri River or whatever it is and know just where you are immediately, they’re so intuitive, it’s great. Fascinating, recommended.

Diana Henry, Pure Simple Cooking. I am the wrong audience for this, because mostly I looked at them and thought, well yes, of course. But not everyone is used to thinking in these terms, and if you want to start, this is probably a pretty good place. A few ingredients used quite well, per recipe, probably a good cookbook for that.

Kathy Iandoli, God Save the Queens: the Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop. What a lovely corrective to the hip-hop documentaries that don’t seem to notice women exist at all. (Argh. Argh.) I am not a big hip-hop fan, so for me this is more educating myself than grooving with my faves–although I’m surprised to notice how many faves I already do have–so someone who is better versed in the genre than I am can evaluate it more from that perspective. As a non-expert, I learned a lot, and you might too.

Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman’s Road. Reread. These are such lovely books of inquisitiveness, care, and discovery. I intended to just stop with this volume (which is a two-book omnibus), but I may well just go on and reread all of what’s there, because really…they’re so good. The characters are so focused on learning each other and their world.

Janet Malcolm, Nobody’s Looking at You. I like the personal essay as a form, but it was so nice to pick up a volume of essays that wasn’t focused on how the essayist felt in her early twenties, that instead was external, thinking about how people do things in the world, profiles of others and what Janet Malcolm has thought of them. A few of the essays were more than twenty years old and felt oddly dated to include–I see why she felt they were some really good work at the time, they just sat strangely with the more recent work. But the effect was to make me wish that she’d had more than one collection like this, not to make me wish I hadn’t read them.

Tochi Onyebuchi, Riot Baby. This is a really strong and affecting novella that starts with a very young girl just before the Rodney King verdict and goes into her adult life and her brother’s adult life as Black people trying to work around a corrupt system as best they can. Magic provides a frame, a solace, insight, sometimes relief, but not a fix for that system–which is in some ways more satisfying, acknowledging that we will all have to keep grappling with it from our own angles, that we are not released from the work by having clearer sight of it.

C.M. Waggoner, Unnatural Magic. For me this book demonstrated one of the risks of having multiple points of view–Margaret Atwood has also had this problem–which is that sometimes I like one point of view vastly, vastly more than another. It was only toward the end, as they began to converge, that I was not impatient with one thread of this book and constantly wanting to get back to the other, but as with other competent multi-POV authors (see also Atwood) it would not have made much sense if I’d just skipped half the prose. Still: there is a stubborn and mathetmatically minded magical protagonist here, and she was worth my time.

Lawrence Wechsler, And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? Wechsler was going to be Oliver Sacks’s biographer. Became his friend. Then Sacks realized that he really, truly did not want a biographer while he was alive, largely because of attitudes about his sexuality during his upbringing. Wechsler, as his friend, acquiesced to his wishes and went on to write other things and hang out more with Sacks. For the rest of his life. And this is a very strange book as a consequence. It’s not the comprehensive biography someone should write–Wechsler knows what material there is to go through for that, knows that this is not it. It’s more of a memoir of a friendship, with the notes for what could have been more of a biography of who Oliver Sacks was in his younger years, except he kept going. Worth reading, interesting, funny, sad, sure, but weirdly shaped, and not just in the ways that anything about Oliver Sacks was going to come out nonstandard.

Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone. This is fundamentally a family story. It’s novella length, multiple viewpoints, long timeline, just different views of how a family views their family life. It has major events in it–the birth of an unexpected child is central, but so is 9/11, and yet…I think this is the first book I read that treated 9/11 sensitively but historically. The people who are directly affected are very clearly hurt, but not in a way that is automatically the only thing the book is about, the way it would have been in 2003 or even I think 2010. Just as now we can have stories where World War II changed people forever–it changed my grandmother, and so many people we know–but know something of the shape of how the survivors’ stories go on. Perhaps now is a good time for a story where an event most people who are old enough to enjoy reading this book can be devastating, can be recognized as devastating, but still have an “after”…but perhaps not if you’re a direct survivor yourself, so I wanted to flag that.

What Remains: the COVID Checkouts

Give and take is the way of the library

Now a breath held, a moment frozen,

And I remain with this: mosquitos,

Bulgaria, the poems of Jane Kenyon.

An awkward freeze-frame, mid-conversation,

Not the self-portrait I’d have chosen.

But here we are together, mosquitos.

It’s you and me now, Jane.

We’re gonna do this together, Bulgaria.

Last week I could dip into fancy,

Ponder another in a series,

Reject what didn’t suit, on a whim;

Now you share my distance, Bulgaria,

Jane–even you, mosquitos.

I clutch your binding close and wonder

What I’ll have learned by your pages’ end.