Books read, late October

Robert Jackson Bennett, Foundryside. The tone of this was very different than I expected, far more adventurey fun and far less gritty grimness. Which is not to say that horrifying things don’t happen, because they totally do, but it’s generally a book where the characters can act to their own benefit, and make wisecracks along the way. It’s a very cinematic book–a lot of the action scenes feel like they would make even better filmed sequences–but with a solid grounding in the worldbuilding rather than just whatever.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. This is heartfelt and personal. Brown has a church background/association, so if you are allergic to all mentions of religion that aren’t thoroughly negative, you will want to read a different book–Brown talks a fair amount about her experiences in churches as one of her major community and work environments. But if you want a book that is simultaneously very fluidly written and easy to read and also firm and unflinching about her experiences of racism, this is a good one. (Excellent for well-meaning but not well-informed relatives, if you have any of those….)

Suzy McKee Charnas, The Bronze King. Reread. I adored prickly teenager Valentine when I was a grade school kid, and this book was part of why I wanted to even glance at Central Park the first time I visited New York as an adult. It’s a fascinating data point about which kinds of teen rebellion are allowed in which eras of YAs…but it’s also a fun book about magic and acquiring responsibility and stuff.

Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Cooper’s book is very personal, going into a lot of what it has felt like, very individually, to be the target of various racist acts and cultural norms. It’s short and snappy and vivid and individual.

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. I have some quibbles with some of Duffy’s conclusions–why do so many people want to believe that “making a fuss” wasn’t really necessary to get some of the social changes they approve of?–but his account of parish-level religious life in this era is fascinating. And he’s very clear that this should not be the only book you read on this topic, and indeed it has not been, so.

Randi Hutter Epstein, Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything. This…is not an evolutionary history of which hormones seem to have shown up when in various mammals. (I know, I was a fool to think so.) Instead it’s a history of what horrific things humans did in the process of figuring out how the whole hormone thing works. Sometimes fascinatingly horrific, but…aaaagh.

S.L. Huang, Zero Sum Game. Discussed elsewhere.

Tove Jansson, The Exploits of Moominpappa. This is one of the lesser Moomin books, where the current set of characters are somewhat rehashed by the adventures of their parents. Still, lesser Moomins are fun and whimsical and worth having too.

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Latchkey. Post-apocalyptic ghost mediation and community management. There are logistics in this book in the least tedious way possible. I was so happy to read this. (Also the one that came before it, Archivist Wasp.) Yay. Yay.

Ruth Rendell, Master of the Moor. Okay, so there is this thing that happens with Ruth Rendell novels a lot. She has a history of trying to be aware of and thoughtful about the range of human sexual expression, but she is also trying to write murder thrillers. And she started in the ’60s. This book from the ’80s has a terrible, terrible asexual character, and I can see what she was trying to do, and…there is no particular reason why you, a modern person, should particularly enjoy this example of her trying to do it. There are better Rendells to read.

Sofia Samatar and Del Samatar, Monster Portraits. This is the sort of side project I really want authors to do: unusual and short and biting. This is an illustrated collection of monsters with accounts of them that deal with the Samatar siblings’ immigrant experience in very sharp ways. Cool stuff.

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. This is a simply massive pile of analysis and evidence about how racism shaped Detroit and its problems from the middle of the twentieth century on. Compelling, convincing, depressing. If you are aware that loads of people in 1900 lived in tar paper shacks and hardly anybody in 2000 did, this also fills in a great deal of the hazy shape of that in detail: how we got there from here, with which sacrifices. More broadly applicable than just Detroit.

Meredith Wadman, The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease. This is a history of the rubella vaccine and all the tradeoffs and decisions involved in getting there. Harrowing in spots, well-constructed, worth having.

Rebecca West, The Birds Fall Down. A family novel, an atypical spy novel–about a young British woman whose grandparents are Russian exiles before WWI and the various machinations of the tsar’s agents and those rebelling against him. Really beautifully done, and why have I not read more Rebecca West. One of the small notable things: when one of the characters displays the kind of anti-Semitism that often shows up in this period of either setting or writing, another character calls it out; it is not endorsed by the text. That’s not a major point but sort of an indicator of who West was and what she was trying to do here.

Marguerite Yourcenar, A Coin in Nine Hands. A novel of Mussolini’s Rome, written at the time, which traces a 10-lira coin through the hands of nine people, one of whom is an anti-fascist assassin. I knew the structural conceit of this book, but not its politics, which turn out to be important. It’s not a bad time to read a book wherein people at least try to say no to the dictator.

Stories I’ve enjoyed in the last little while

The House on the Moon, William Alexander (Uncanny)

The Oracle and the Sea, Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Psychopomps of Central London, Julia August (The Dark)

Mountaineering, Leah Bobet (Strange Horizons)

By the Hand That Casts It, Stephanie Charette (Shimmer)

Odontogenesis, Nino Cipri (Fireside)

Octopus, Martha Darr (Fiyah)

Court of Birth, Court of Strength, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Stet, Sarah Gailey (Fireside)

A House by the Sea, P.H. Lee (Uncanny)

The Coin of Heart’s Desire, Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed)

The Foodie Federation’s Dinosaur Farm, Luo Longxiang (translated by Andy Dudak) (Clarkesworld)

Cerise Sky Memories, Wendy Nikel (Nature)

The Bodice, the Hem, the Woman, Death, Karen Osborne (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Court Magician, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)

Tamales in Space, and Other Phrases for the Beginning Speaker, Gabriela Santiago (Strange Horizons)

Spatiotemporal Discontinuity, Bogi Takács (Uncanny)

Abigail Dreams of Weather, Stu West (Uncanny)

Disconnect, Fran Wilde (Uncanny)

Ruby Singing, Fran Wilde (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

World Fantasy Convention schedule

This one is much simpler than some cons: one panel. Plans for ice cream and fountain pens and many other lovely things aside from formal programming! but for programming there’s this:

Strength Isn’t Just For the Strong

Time: Saturday – 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM 
Category: Panel
Track: Panel
Location: WaterTable BC
Panelists: Carole Cummings, David Anthony Durham, Rhiannon Held, Fonda Lee, Marissa Lingen (M)
Description: Fantasy stories w/ ordinary, non-magical people, both humans and others, as protagonists. #StrongCharacters

Present Writers: Suzy McKee Charnas

I missed a month when September happened to me, but we’re only looking back to remember where we were and what we were doing, not for regrets. What we’re doing: the Present Writers series is explained more fully with its first installment, about Marta Randall, with posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, and Jane Yolen following it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s anger lately, as I think many of us have–productive and otherwise. And there has been no writer more formative for me in how to write about anger in a respectful way–no writer who leaves me feeling understood and invigorated with her spiky depictions of female fury–than Suzy McKee Charnas.

Charnas’s work spans genres and decades. Like most of the people in this series, she is not easily pigeonholed, writing vampire fiction and post-apocalyptic SF with equal fluency. But there’s the matter of that voice, that quintessentially New Yorker take-no-prisoners done-with-your-shit Charnas voice. Most of the late-night pretentious writer conversations I’ve had about confident narrative voice confused an authoritarian voice for an authoritative one, but this is a mistake Charnas never makes.

I first read The Bronze King when it was new, when I was seven. I last read it this morning. Valentine, its cranky teenage protagonist, used to be a Big Kid in my perception, with all the baggage Big Kids have to deal with. Now 14 looks pretty darn young, and Charnas simultaneously doesn’t have illusions about what teenagers are dealing with (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll all get at least a mention in this book) and recognizes how new it all is. When Val gets berated by a male character who feels that he should have had the more heroic role that she performed because she was just a girl, it didn’t shock me that a boy might behave like that, because some already had. It shocked me that we didn’t have to pretend that there weren’t any boys like that. And that we didn’t have to take any lip from them when they showed up in our lives.

Later, when I was about Valentine’s age, I read the short story “Boobs.” I punched the air and yelled when I finished with it. Suzy McKee Charnas knew what was coming even back in 1989; she won a Hugo for it. There was a girl harassed for her body in this story. There was a girl triumphant. And the setting was not removed, not quasi-medieval, faux-historical; the contemporary setting meant that it spoke to me very, very directly. It gave me so much fierce magic. Almost a decade after I first read it, at my first WorldCon, I spotted a familiar name on a badge going the other direction on the escalator. “Oh my God Suzy McKee Charnas! I loved your ‘Boobs’!” I burst out and then wanted to sink through the escalator floor, but she just laughed happily. She knew what she had done, what it could mean to girls like me. To women like I grew up to become.

Since I started writing this post, I have felt more and more determined to go back and reread Charnas’s work. The Holdfast Chronicles are definitely worth another look, and there are short stories I’ve never gotten to. This is one of the best side effects of writing a series like this, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so immensely glad Charnas is present with us just when her work is most needed.

Broadens the mind, I hear

I recently sold my 150th story, which was a very nice feeling indeed and one I’ll explore more in my next newsletter. (I am trying to have somewhat non-overlapping content between my monthly newsletter and this blog. We’ll see how that goes.) But it was also a type of story I wanted to talk about more specifically here.

That is: it’s a story that was inspired by my trip to Finland and Sweden in 2016. It’s the fourth story in that category I’ve written and the fourth I’ve sold, and while it’s two years in the past, I’m pretty sure there are more coming. None of them are related to each other in any other way. Different speculative elements–different genres–different characters and settings. But I couldn’t have gotten to any of them from the same angle without traveling.

I didn’t plan any of them before we went. I just went and looked and listened and smelled and tasted and felt and thought and felt and thought and came home and read and felt and thought some more, and lo, there were some stories there.

I haven’t started on the stories inspired by the trip to Denmark and Iceland yet, but I know they’re there. (I even know the shape of at least two….)

People who don’t write, who are not frequently around writers except when I bring them around–people like my grandma–often think of travel for writing purposes as linear and planned. If I’m doing this trip for writing purposes, it must mean that I intend to set a book in one of the locations and am going to go give it a good hard squint and see what I get out of it. But…a few months ago I outlined a book inspired by these experiences, and it was just as unanticipated as the stories. And while I’m going to use the experience to revise an old book set in various parts of Finland, that’s not what I was there for–I didn’t know I’d ever get the right ideas to revise that book into something coherent.

It’s culturally much harder to say, “I’m going to write what I’m inspired to write.” We’re taught to look down on that kind of vague approach even within creative fields. Have a plan, be able to justify yourself, don’t just…be one of those irresponsible artists who flits around hoping for inspiration, ugh, what is that even. Well, I don’t hope for inspiration, I work for inspiration. I open doors and windows to inspiration, I leave out honey traps for inspiration, I sew gossamer nets to catch the very finest particles and smallest species of inspiration. And this only works if you’re not already convinced of where it isn’t.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that everyone has to travel to be open to new external input. Not everyone has the resources in whatever direction; sometimes I don’t have the resources. But I actually feel that making room for frivolity is essential. For books where you don’t know what chapter will help with your current project–or whether any chapters will help with any projects at all. For other people’s art, primarily as its own thing and only as a jumping-off point later if ever. For finding the road nearest your house that you’ve never been on and taking it and finding out whether there’s a bespoke foam merchant there, an antique shop, a greasy spoon, a park. For going to the free museum night to see an exhibit that has done the traveling for you. Not because you know how it’ll inspire you, but because you don’t.

I went to Montreal two weeks ago. I’ve been to Montreal many times. I love Montreal and have opinions about gelato available near different Metro stops. Vive Montreal. And even on this short trip, mostly full of conventions, I still discovered places I’ve never been, and I still looked at the places I have been and thought of them differently. Not in the “I must look into the Viau Metro and make sure I can put a story thing there” way. Just as: here I am, what else is here, who else. It makes me more able to do more of the same when I get home. I have no idea where it’ll end. And that’s an extremely good thing.

Next time I have a major trip–who knows when that will be–I will get asked whether I’m setting a book there, what book, why. I’m really happy that I don’t know.

Zero Sum Game, by S. L. Huang

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Math is nearly everything to Cas. It’s her solace when her mind is too loud, her means of making a living (albeit somewhat unconventionally), her identity, her core. The closer she can come to articulating axioms for individual people, the more comfortable she is dealing with them.

Which is good, because comfortable is in pretty short supply in this book otherwise.

Cas’s life is violently efficient retrieval services. She associates with people who have even more violence in their worlds–most notably Rio, a psychopath kept on the rails with a strong moral code external to his sense of self. But the situation she falls into at the beginning of Zero Sum Game is an even more dangerous one than she’s used to–not just in its violence but in its dangers to her own brain.

This is a fast-paced thriller with some clever twists and an uneasy resolution and a few math jokes along the way.

Please consider using our link to buy Zero Sum Game from Amazon.

Books read, early October

Wow, this was a notable fortnight for bouncing off books. I discarded fifteen books unfinished, so…yikes. Here’s what I did read.

K Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress. (The latter discussed elsewhere.) This is a big fat fantasy series of leisurely structure. If you’ve been missing the kind of fantasy where we get to see the protags grow up and learn to be the people they’re going to need to be, this is definitely that kind. The Tiger’s Daughter is a coming of age story for a couple of women (couple in both senses), one of whom is Empress and the other of whom is…extraordinary in other ways. That would be a major spoiler.

James Baldwin, The Amen Corner. A play about righteousness and families and who can learn and who can’t. Did not take long to read, much longer to think about.

Kelly Barnhill, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories. Not only is this fantasy collection a lot of fun, there are some stories in it that speak my language down to the potlucks. It is very, very Minnesotan in spots, in ways that can be delightful whether you’re a native, a transplant, or an outside observer.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds. Fiyah Issue 8. Kindle. Martha Darr’s “Octopus” was the real standout of this issue for me, staying with me for days after I finished reading it.

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate. This is the second volume in a justly multiply awarded fantasy series. The craft of it is just staggeringly good, and the ideas keep poking at me. It is, however, extremely grim, so if you hear “geology fantasy” and think “yaaaaay!”…that’s accurate, it’s just not complete. I’m very much looking forward to the concluding volume…but not right away.

T. Kingfisher, Clockwork Boys. A novella that is very clearly the beginning of a series, full of the kind of interesting creatures you would expect of Kingfisher (who is, in another life, Ursula Vernon). Like many such novellas, the pacing is a little weird, but the entire thing is charming enough to forgive it.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning. This book is structured like a thriller–short chapters, short sentences, fast pace–but has a lot more depth of worldbuilding and characterization than your average thriller. I often want more well-done fantasy set in the future, and this is that–with a future that’s more than superficial shine. Definitely looking forward to the next.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trotta, eds., Uncanny Issue 24. Kindle. I am in this. I don’t review things I’m in. But it’s there if you’re interested.

Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. This was more contemporary than I was hoping for. It was still informative in spots, and enraging/satisfying, but if you read a lot of women on Twitter, you may well already know this stuff–you may well have been there for it. It goes beyond Twitter and the #MeToo movement, but not as far beyond as I anticipated. Also it was emotionally grueling.

Martha Wells, Exit Strategy. The fourth and last Murderbot novella–there will be more Murderbot, but in novel form! This was a satisfying conclusion to this portion of the arc, lots of fun, return of characters whose return was implied by the structure of the series, hooray. Delightful, recommended–but don’t read this one first, read all of them. Read all of them! Yay all of them!

The Phoenix Empress, by K Arsenault Rivera

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second volume in its series, and you really should not start here. It’s structurally interesting in that it’s like the opposite of a romance novel: the central couple has already gotten together, and the question is can they stay that way, what will happen within their established relationship.

It’s the kind of setting and scope where “what will happen within their relationship” includes possibilities like one of them becoming a rampaging undead monster, or mismanaging an empire into ruin, or…there’s a lot of scope, is what I’m saying here. Continents and lifetimes, not just of the main characters but of thousands upon thousands of bystanders.

The setting is Asian inspired, with different regions not quite standing in for the Mongol steppes, China, Japan, and other real-world analogues. The feeling of vastness that I get from reading nonfiction about China through time is not there. This is a much more contained space to play in. On the other hand, the central couple I’m talking about in this plot is a lesbian couple, so some kinds of space are more expansive than would be traditional–and this is the kind of relationship story where people are actually living with the realities of their decisions, not a coming out story or a “first flush of love and that’s it” story. This is the story of the complexities of an ongoing relationship. Complete with zombie-equivalents and apparent gods and family dynamics. If you don’t like big fat fantasies at all, you probably won’t like this one, but if you’ve been waiting for sprawling epics that happen to center two women–plus a large cast of supporting characters who are not all or even mostly men–you’ve come to the right place.

Please consider using our link to buy The Phoenix Empress from Amazon. Or start at the beginning with The Tiger’s Daughter.

This Will Not Happen to You (and Others)

New story! This Will Not Happen to You is out in Uncanny‘s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue. I’m very happy to be ripping the fabric of spacetime with these fine people.

So happy, in fact, that I also have an interview and an essay, Malfunctioning Space Stations, in the same issue. The latter is a reprint from the Kickstarter for this issue, so it may be familiar to some of you. Still, I’m glad to see it out there again.