Friendly questions for your con conversations

As we started to arrange for our convention memberships for the summer, one of my friends asked me about striking up conversations with strangers at conventions. What sorts of friendly questions can make this easier? friend wanted to know. Do you have a post somewhere? she wanted to know. Please note: this is not meant to dictate conversation for anybody! If you feel comfortable with what you’ve got, by all means, sally forth! But this was a requested post from someone who wanted some ideas, so if that’s also you, here we are.

So. Let’s start with the basic three, that work for people you are just meeting, and they (mostly) work for people you’ve known for twenty years, because you can answer them in any level of depth and detail:
Early con: How was your travel? Alternate: How has it been living here/what do you like about it here?
Middle of the con: Been to any good programming? (This continues through the end but you can segue to:)
Late con: So when are you heading out? How has your con been?

The convention is the basic thing you have in common. If you start with that first, you’re less likely to frustrate people with questions like, “Have you finished a novel?” that have SO MANY ways to go wrong if you don’t have background on the person. So:

Is this your first time at this con?
How did you find out about this con?
Do you go to others? What do you like about them/this one?

Depending on what con it is, the theme may give you clues for a place to start. Is there a specific theme for this year, and do you have a comment on that, one on which you can base questions to appeal to other people’s thoughts? Any comparisons to last year’s theme? Does this convention have the kind of focus where you can ask “what’s your favorite [category thing] lately?” Lately is a pretty broad term–keeping it at “lately” instead of “this month” or even “this year” means that you’re not putting people on the spot who love the focus of the convention but might feel a little overwhelmed about whether they love it exactly as informedly as the most intensely informed person in the room. “Hello, how is your imposter syndrome” is not the question we want, although sometimes it’s unavoidable.

So…sometimes “what was formative for you” or “do you remember an early favorite” can be a good icebreaker question with a new person, because while a lot of people are filled with anxiety about whether they’ve caught up on the latest and greatest, or on enough total from the checklist, what is some of your personal heart, what brought you in and feels best, is something that almost anybody can answer. And can often answer in a way that sparks more conversation, that is not just a single word answer…unless they’re petrified and literally any question is going to bring single word answers.

I don’t know, there’s a bit of a centipede problem here, because I’m trying to help my friend do something that I’ve learned to do fairly naturally. I think what I’m trying to do is give examples of approaches–think about what we already know we have in common from being at the conference, how we can find interesting points of difference and commonality to spark conversation…without making too many assumptions, without leaning on areas I’ve learned are sensitive for several people. When you’re in the audience waiting for a panel or just coming out of it, hopes and fears for the panel and/or things you liked best! Places you’ve had a good meal around the con and what was nice there! Little stories about This One Time At World Fantasy that will make people laugh and say, “oh nooooo” and set them at their ease!

There’s no perfect icebreaker question. But I think it’s important to remember that there isn’t. That a lot of times if you’re at a convention, a place to converse about a topic of mutual interest, and you turn to a stranger and make a reasonable attempt to converse on the topic at hand…sometimes there’s nothing you could have done. And if they appear to be cold and distant, maybe they’re dealing with their own stuff, maybe they’ve just had a major shock of some sort, maybe they’re overloaded from all the thoughts the convention has brought…maybe a thousand different things that having the perfect icebreaker question and the perfect conversational charm and all could not have changed, because it’s not about you at that point. But. You start with a handful of touchstones readily at hand, something brought us here and you can take that literally and ask about Delta Airlines or the other person’s Prius to warm yourself up, or you can dive right into literary influences of adolescent angst, or somewhere in between. It’ll be a collaborative effort. We’ll all get there together.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I’m not entirely sure who the audience for this book was, even though I enjoyed it. It’s a series of brief biographical sketches in graphic novel format–four to seven pages about each woman or women, talking about their accomplishments, their obstacles, their context. The subjects are diverse as to race, religion, milieu.

They are diverse enough, in fact, that their main unifying factor seems to be that Bagieu liked them and found them interesting to draw. Why Margaret Hamilton the actress for pages and Margaret Hamilton the programmer for only one disambiguating panel? Because that’s what Bagieu felt like.

Which: sure, great, it is her book. She’s allowed to turn from Wu Zetian to Temple Grandin if she wants to. But the content includes levels of violence that I think a lot of people who restrict younger readers will want to restrict, in addition to honesty about things like Tove Jansson’s passion for smoking, so I expect this is not a My First Intersectional Feminism For The Single Digit Set. So…inspiration for teens who are feeling battered by the slings and arrows of high school life? A coffee table book for a particular quirky kind of coffee table?

It’s beautifully done, with the personal style and clear sight that Bagieu brought to her biography of Cass Elliot. It’s just a fairly weird object to place in the world. So…recommended to people who like weird objects of this sort, I guess.

Please consider using our link to buy Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World from Amazon.

Books read, late February

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You. I’m really glad this was not my first Lily Anderson novel, frankly, because this is in the same vein of mainstream YA as Not Now, Not Ever, with strong friendships among highly nerdy teenagers, and yet I would have been completely put off by the fact that one of its central plots is a very, very combative love story. You know the kind: I hate you I hate you let’s smooch. This is not a spoiler really–you can see it coming a mile off, you can see it in the title for heaven’s sake. And Anderson does it well, and there are other things going on. But–I really like having talked about romance/love stories enough to have the vocabulary to say that I prefer mine collaborative rather than combative, and I really like that I read her second book first so that I didn’t have a more general idea of this as Her Thing when in fact it’s just one facet.

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass. Fantasy with djinn and various related entities, ranging from Egypt to South Asia. This book started off with a very firm historical setting and wandered off from there into fantasical fireworks, and it is very clearly a first novel with miles to go before the series sleeps.

Barbara Hambly, Murder in July. An entry in the Benjamin January series. Not a great starting point for that as its emotional heft depends on you caring about the supporting cast and knowing a fair amount about them, but if you’re invested in this series–which I really like, New Orleans area free people of color as the main family–then, hey, here’s another.

Kat Howard, An Unkindness of Magicians. Very few contemporary fantasies are as honest about power and complicity in modern systems as this one is–and very few want to actually do something about that rather than saying oh woe the world is grim and dark, look how grim and dark, gosh that sucks. Rather than: look how grim and dark, better fix it, ya big jerk. The magic system Howard postulates here is pretty nasty. But she actually wants to talk about friendship and family and figuring out a way to do better. Which is more than a lot of authors can say when they think about power dynamics. So yes, this book has a lot of unkindness; it says so on the tin. This is one of those where some of us in the gutter actually are looking at the stars.

Barbara Jensen, Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. This book was startling, staggering, amazing. Jensen is my own people, to a startling degree my own people; she is from the north of the Twin Cities, some of the suburbs where I have great-aunts and -uncles. So when she used her own family examples to contrast working-class and middle-class cultural differences, she was talking about Minnesota Scandinavian Lutherans in both cases; she was talking about different parts of my family. There were a couple of places where I actually cried because I had never seen both class branches represented with respect and even affection, things that were good and valid about both, places where she could speak clearly and coherently about there being a difference rather than an absence. So that was amazing. It’s a really fascinating book. I think there are a couple of flaws. One of them is that it’s so very very generational. A great many middle-class assumptions she was talking about did not continue past the Baby Boomers, and I would be fascinated to see an analysis of what it means to be middle-class without them. Another is that I think in her rush not to throw working-class culture under the bus as has been done so many, many times before, she took several accounts of ideals as accounts of actuality. But it’s still a really thought-provoking, discussion-provoking book.

Sujata Massey, The Sleeping Dictionary. I am perpetually short on historical fiction, and Massey delivers with this one. It gets harrowing in several spots in several directions, child endangerment and sexual violence and relationship threat, just to flag that for readers, but I think that the story is interesting and has enough context to be sensitive and worth the emotional ups and downs if you’re ever up for them in any book. (Obviously if you just never want that, it’s a different calculation.) The setting is eastern India leading up to the time of independence from the UK, with independence a constantly intertwined theme for the heroine. It’s listed as the first in a series, but I don’t see that a sequel has come out yet.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., Robots Vs. Fairies. Sometimes you have a solid anthology where one story just completely blows you away and steals your heart, and this is one of those for me. Madeline Ashby’s “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” is the sort of story that I already know in February will be one of my favorites of the year. It deals with eldercare and traditional belief and robots and Iceland and I love this story to bits, worth the price of admission even if it wasn’t a well-constructed anthology otherwise. Which it is, it absolutely is, I just…am completely making heart-eyes at this one story.

Shel Silverstein, The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Okay, so really, Uncle Shelby, this stuff is…you didn’t really. You did? And people bought it for their kids? oh golly. There are all sorts of relationship things that he’s talking about with shapes here, and…welp. There it all is then. Learn to be happy on your own and sing your own songs and…yep, Shel Silverstein is exactly who he told us all he was. Repeatedly.

F.C. Yee, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. This book actually made me laugh out loud in spots. It’s a teen fantasy adventure about the Monkey King showing up to fight a demon infestation in a Silicon Valley suburb, and Yee has totally nailed the reality of that type of suburb being a great deal more influenced by strip malls and highways than redwoods at the moment. I loved Genie and her relationship with her parents and friends and legends and asskickery.

Books read, early February

This half-month’s book post was written, and then WordPress decided that “Save Draft” and “Destroy Draft” were somehow the same thing. So it is not only going to be late but also a trifle terse. Sigh.

Lily Anderson, Not Now, Not Ever. I liked this book now, but when I was twelve to fourteen, you would not have been able to pry me off it. A girl. Runs away. To Academic Decathlon camp. It is as though Lily Anderson said, hello, yes, Marissa, I would like to write you a book please, even though I have never met you, this is for you, okay thank you. There are also other fun elements of it–military family culture, teen relationships not only with love interest but with pals and cousins, intersectionality assumed as a default setting–but really, she had me at AcaDec.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapters 8-12. Kindle. We edge the plot along with British boarding school assumptions…I am really bad at reading serials and also really bad at leaving them alone when I have the files piled up on my Kindle and am traveling….

Box Brown, Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman. Discussed elsewhere.

Lucille Clifton, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010. This is the sort of collection that shows why reading the entirety of a poet’s work in order can be so intense and worthwhile. You can watch her feeling more able to talk about certain things, more expansive, as time goes by, as well as watching the progression of a human life. Clifton’s work is very grounded, very rooted, in community, in family, in person, and it’s wonderful to watch that grow as she grows as a person, even as it’s sometimes harrowing to watch that happen too. Highly, highly recommended.

Tessa Gratton, The Lost Sun. A North America shaped by Aesir visibly present in the world, a Baldur who does not behave as he had before, and some young people who have to sort out what’s going on before Ragnarok is upon them. This could have gone strongly either way for me, and I turned out to like it a lot and have fun with the Norse syncretist road trip aspects of it. I’ll look for the rest of the series.

Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives. Heinrich talks about wanting to observe individual bird personalities, and he does that, but there’s a bit of an oversell about what conclusions he can draw about them. There’s a lot more trolling of birds and his wife than I might ideally want, so I rolled my eyes a lot. If you’re going to start with a Heinrich, probably don’t make it this one, even though there’s some interesting naturalist observation here.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 5. Kindle. Fiyah continues to come up with themes that inspire their authors to diverse stories. My favorite in this issue was Monique Desir’s “Bondye Bon,” but I didn’t find any of it a bad read. I’m also glad to see them including some related nonfiction. I enjoy that.

Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The subtitle sounded like it was biting off an awfully lot of material, but Kimmerer is a botanist and a Native person, and the two combine to set her nature writing apart. I really enjoyed this.

Seanan McGuire, Beneath the Sugar Sky. The third in its series of portal fantasy novellas. I found the second one structurally a bit frustrating, but this is back to full form, doing interesting things with the nature of longing and desire in portal fantasy while giving vivid details of character and world in the specific fantasy settings along the way.

Malka Older, Null States. I found the characters more compelling in the first one, but this is idea science fiction around microdemocracy and its difficulties, and that’s a set of ideas I’m pretty much always going to find interesting, so I was definitely here for this.

Kimberly Reid, #Prettyboy Must Die. Discussed elsewhere.

Shel Silverstein, Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back. Wow, did Uncle Shelby sneak a lot of stuff past as kids’ books. Marshmallows, sure, but–the ending, what even was that. Okay. (I read this because it came up at a writers’ meetup and I’d never read it. More on this in the next fortnight’s book post.)

Robin Sloan, Sourdough. Literary contemporary fantasy about bread baking and the tech startup culture of the Bay Area. It’s a fast, smoothly written read…that starts to leave a bad taste the more you think about what he’s actually saying. Ethnically pretty gross. Interpersonally…also pretty gross honestly. It’s a surface critique of tech startup culture that actually embraces most of what’s toxic about tech startup culture, so…well, enjoy the bits about bread baking if you can get there through the hipster one-upsmanship.

Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. I’m really enjoying reading through Solnit’s back catalog, and this is no exception. It does what it says on the tin, with illustrations.

Nic Stone, Dear Martin. Passionate and heartfelt young adult novel in which a young Black man tries to process his proximity to police shootings. He uses letters to Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his methods of figuring out his own modern world, but sparingly, thoughtfully. The characters are all complex and human, and there’s a lot packed into this short book. Recommended.

Louisa Thomas, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. She did indeed live an extraordinary life, doing a great deal of the work of being an ambassador to various nations early in the American Republic, so there’s a lot of “what an interesting life” here even aside from being First Lady. (That part was not that fascinating honestly.) But there’s also a heaping helping of: John Quincy Adams: which boots would you wear to kick him in the shins? discuss. I think one of the greatest strengths of this biography, though, was that the biographer was able to talk about the ways in which Louisa Adams was and was not ahead of her time on various issues like race, where she left extensive writings–places where Thomas could give the reader context and say, you know what, nope, she was really not a heroine here, or hey, she was trying on this question of gender but just didn’t get there. It’s a perspective I think more biographers could use, because going head-down into one person often makes you a partisan for them even when you think you’re recognizing their foibles. Thomas did very well with understanding that flaws don’t just mean the sort of things that would make them annoying to share a bathroom with.

P.G. Wodehouse, Mike and Psmith. Kindle. Lighthearted boarding school book, silly, full of cricket and who gets which study. If you want this sort of thing, here it is.

J.Y. Yang, The Red Threads of Fortune. I was so glad I read The Black Tide of Heaven first, because I felt like the characterization and worldbuilding both unfolded really well in this order. I really enjoy the Tensorate universe and am glad we’ll be getting more.

Over the surface

The sky above a frozen lake is the same color as it is above a road, a soccer field, a housing development, on the same day. I know that, but I don’t feel it. There is that clouded over slate blue-grey that has the feel of reaching perfection from the middle of a frozen lake, on a windy day, alone.

The winter I was twelve cooperated in my liminal state. It was cold enough for the lakes to freeze solidly and stay that way, no worries of open water or even thin ice, but not cold enough that anyone would worry about a newly-grown girl-child bundling herself into scarf, mittens, boots, coat, and heading off on her own for hours.

Twelve is big enough–at least, it was for me–that you can watch smaller kids, that no one needs to be deputized to watch you. Twelve is small enough–again, at least it was for me–that no one needs to worry that you’re sneaking off to do something worrying on an adult scale. I was adult sized at twelve, this height, very nearly this body shape that I have twenty-seven years later. I was very recognizably myself. I had been street harassed already, at twelve. I had started to grasp the edges of what so worried my mother about me growing up. But while I’ve been harassed in parkas that come down to my knees and hoods up over my head, winter is safer: fewer people on the street means less street harassment.

And I wasn’t going on the street.

My mother and I had been spending the last year and a half in what I then thought was a companionable understanding, which I now recognize as a productive misunderstanding. I thought that we mutually understood that I was too big for playgrounds (although I have never lost my fondness for swings), that I would stay safe and not do anything stupid but of course would not be going to a playground for hours. What would I do at a playground for hours? I was twelve, for heaven’s sake. I was big.

(Now that my goddaughter is eleven, now that her mother and I repeat to each other, “she’s so big now!” on at least a weekly basis, I understand how it was that my mother could have missed the fact of my bigness.)

So I thought that we understood that I was going to hike and not do anything worrying. My mother, on the other hand, thought that being away from the main road and out of shouting distance of the rest of humanity was something worrying and naturally I would not be doing that. This misunderstanding between us turned out to be formative for me, and I stand by it. I was immensely safer–I am safer now–in the woods than on the road. Twenty-seven years of experience tells me over and over again that the rest of humanity is the problem.

But I was speaking of the year I was twelve. In the summer, this had meant hours in the woods, sometimes up a tree, sometimes with my sneakers tied to each other hanging around my neck so I could walk down the rocks in a shallow brook. It was green and quiet and peaceful, and I was competent there. One of my best friends got a rampaging case of poison ivy to start the seventh grade. I had told her not to touch it, it most certainly was not Virginia creeper. I was the one who knew the difference.

My new longer legs were useful in the woods, and my new curves were…not absent, exactly. But they had room to just be part of me, just present, neutral. Nobody told me to do anything like a lady. Nobody shouted that I was a cunt. If I set off at a fast lope through the trees, I bounced a little more, and it didn’t have to matter.

In the winter, the bare trees didn’t provide as much cover. But my clothes did, and the cold. When it’s cold enough, you can escape a crowded, smoky house full of relatives and no one will wander out after you. The outdoors will be quiet and still and empty. The ice is its own protection.

There are only a handful of other walkers on frozen lakes. You are almost guaranteed you will not run into them. If you are very careful, you can avoid all human companionship. If you’re not feeling that antisocial, you will walk past the ice fishers. The ice fishers will not make you talk. The protocol with ice fishers is simple: you can nod, or you can say, “Ayeh.” And they will do one of those two things back.

They will not say, “Awfully cold for you to be out, isn’t it?” They will not ask if you aren’t very young to be on your own. The ice fishers do not want to talk. They want to fish. And you want to walk. This works out well for everyone. The ice fishers may well be escaping a loud, smoky house full of relatives as well. Fishing is the thing that they are allowed to say they are doing, not “getting away from you all.” I had an aunt who would say she was doing both, but she was widely regarded as eccentric.

I loved her for it.

She was not in the house I was walking away from.

You pass the ice fishers, then, and you keep walking. You fall into a rhythm. If there’s a good crust of snow, or if there was wind when the lake was freezing, you can walk like you can on any land. The wind matters because it pebbles the ice, gives it a texture, your feet can find purchase. If it was a still day, you shuffle along like a purposeful penguin, not lifting your feet too far, moving straight from the hips.

(What about skating? they will ask. Well, no. Skating ice takes maintenance. It has to be a really still day, or more likely water that is carefully sprayed and smoothed, to get really good skating ice. You can’t skate on just random ice, mostly it’s far too rough for quality skating. Random lake ice is much better for just walking.)

The cold seeps into your legs. Your coat comes down over your upper thighs, your socks up over your calves, so it’s the middle, your lower thighs, where you really start to feel the cold first. Everything else is too well bundled, but the wind will hit your knees and start to numb them. But you keep walking. You’re going to go all the way across the lake to the trees on the other side. No one can take this from you. The cold can’t. So you walk, and the blood flows back into you with exercise, and gradually you get warm again, the warmth of exertion.

With the rhythm of walking, you regain the ability to notice things. Clouds. Cars on the distant road, the noises they make. Your own crunchy footfalls, whether there’s a difference in their sound. That difference is important.

In the present day, as an adult, I had gone on the assumption that everyone knows how to gauge ice thickness visually, that while you hear stories of people falling through, you also hear stories of people setting their microwaves on fire. Sensible people, ordinary people–certainly everyone you would socialize with–know you need at least two inches of ice to bear human weight. Sensible people know what that looks like.

But when I went to talk to my friends about it now, as a grown-up, other perfectly competent grown-ups had no idea. They worried about this. How would you know. That doesn’t sound safe. What are you doing. This is not sensible, stop it, come inside, surely this is not something you do.

It is. It’s something I do. Every chance I get.

And even as a twelve-year-old, I knew what good ice sounded like, even if it was snow-covered and I couldn’t look at it. I knew what it felt like to have a run of days cold enough to freeze the lake solid enough to hold me. I knew what patches to avoid until it had been good and cold long enough–rushes and ducks would be near open water, don’t go poking at the rushes and ducks, just keep walking.

These things were so intuitive that more than twenty-five years later, when my friends, my southern friends, my coastal friends, my city friends, balked at the notion of walking out on frozen things, I had to interrogate my own mind: I know this, but how do I know this. What does good ice look like. Good ice is milky, good ice shuts you out from the waters below. Clear ice that holds you up and lets you watch the fish below is a cinematic dream. Good ice, firm ice, is opaque enough that you know that it is doing some serious ice business below your feet. It does not creak or crack. Some parts of it might crunch, but that’s different.

And yet you know you are not walking on the ground. You know that you are walking on ice. How do you know? You know. The sky is not a different color, the air does not taste different…rationally. Notionally, liminally? It might. It does.

Twenty-five years later, walking out on Lake Superior was not the same as a small lake. It is full of many jagged points and miniature cliffs–its limnology has structure and nearly seismic activity in a way that a smaller lake never could. And of course, walking all the way across, walking the whole lake, is impossible for any human. There is always the wall of spiky mist at the horizon where the giant body of water is subliming even when the temperatures are below zero Fahrenheit.

And yet. And yet the crunch and slide of ice, the penguin slip beneath my feet was the same. The feel of walking away from shore, out on the ice, squaring my shoulders and knowing that everything beneath me was water, everything above me was steely sky, and around was…nothing. No one and nothing. The perfect silence and wind is the same, exactly the same, always the same.

And getting warm after is the same, the excessive feeling of blood rushing into cheeks and fingers and thighs, burning and tingling, gulping hot tea too fast and burning my tongue. Not wanting to talk. Not wanting to speak a word. Wanting to keep the frozen lake wind in my ears.

I have never let myself collapse to my knees in the snow, upon attaining land again. Someday perhaps I will. I have always made myself keep moving, onward to warmth and the rest of humanity and its noise and hum and frustrations. I have never let myself kneel and feel the difference between snow on ice and snow on dirt in my hands, not just through my boots.

Someday I will. For now, I let myself be quiet when I come off a frozen lake. I don’t have to go into the hubbub of a family gathering. I can reenter the world of humans gradually, warmth first, light second, then tea and noise. And so I do.

Because of how geology works, frozen things are lower than their surroundings. Water, down in a hollow. So you find yourself looking up, up at the trees, up at the buildings, even up at the roads. Up at the clouds, and suddenly up at the clouds isn’t as different from looking at the manmade things as it usually is. Everything is at least a little up, and you are down, set apart, set aside, protected.

My friends who are not from the frozen north will find that feeling of protection strange, I think, but ice is like the poison ivy/Virginia creeper problem in the summer woods: safety comes from knowledge. You know how to walk, you know where and when to go, you’re fine, you’re much safer than you are on the street. And the quality of silence alone on the ice is impossible to replicate any other way.

#Prettyboy Must Die by Kimberly Reid

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a teen spy novel that stands alone perfectly well. There’s room for a sequel, but no sequel is required, and I imagine that if there was a sequel it could also be written to stand alone perfectly well–that Jake and his girlfriend Katie and his best buddy Bunker could all be introduced very swiftly, very easily, in the short chapters and pithy style of the spy novel as it intersects with the short chapters and pithy style of the action YA, allowing for getting on with it as quickly as possible.

Jake has been part of Operation EarlyBird, a program of very young CIA operatives, and the book opens with him on an actual real live mission. But oh no! he has to go back to high school! Does this cramp his style? Of course it does not! Hijinks continue to ensue! Trouble finds Jake wherever he goes, under whatever alias he uses!

This is a very, very contemporary book. The hashtag in the title is no accident–getting tagged #prettyboy on social media is one of the banes of Jake’s young would-be spy existence. There is slang that…I’m pretty sure will be “oh God that’s so 2017” in 2022. But it is not 2022 now, and it’s not offensive slang; in my memory part of reading kids’ books is the wonderment of learning slightly outdated slang while the plot rips breathlessly past you. There is camaraderie, there are twists and turns that all click neatly into place, there is wish fulfillment like whoa, and even if it doesn’t happen to be *your* wish fulfillment–as it was very much not mine–it’s a fun read that doesn’t take that long. So if you’re in the market for a teen spy novel, you could do a lot worse than this book, which understands friendship, pacing, and the aspirational potential of a girl with a ready supply of poisons.

Please consider using our link to buy #Prettyboy Must Die from Amazon.

Books read, January

Ben Aaronovitch, The Furthest Station. Abigail is great. Why do I always like the supporting cast better than the main characters in this series? I don’t know, but in this novella we meet Peter’s young cousin Abigail, and she is great. More Abigail. Blah blah rivers, magic, ghosts: Abigail. Yay.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Fox. Kindle. A particularly metaphysical installation in this novella series. What do nonhuman species contribute to our experience of life and knowledge, in fantasy novella format! So!

John Crowley, Totalitopia. Very short collection of short stories and essays. The very first one did white ethnicity as a presence rather than a default, very thoughtful, I enjoyed it a lot. I think I like Crowley better as a fiction writer than an essayist, but that’s okay, that’s where the bulk of his work is too, so that’s good for me.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, and Racheline Maltese, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13. Discussed elsewhere.

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. This was fascinating, about a woman who was kept from credit substantially by the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. She not only worked in wartime codebreaking but also in Prohibition and other projects. Codebreaking was in its infancy at the time, and Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William were crucial to the American effort. If I had one complaint about Fagone’s focus it was that he sometimes was not at all alert to the nuances of some of the things he said, in his hurry to focus on achievement rather than obstacle. At one point he said that asking whether she faced sexism was like asking whether Mme. Curie faced sexism. I blinked at that and said, “So…yes, then. Really really super yes.” (He was making a different point about being ground-breaking, the first in your field, etc. Sure! And sexism STILL….) Focus on achievement rather than obstacle is admirable, but let’s not actively minimize the obstacle along the way, dude.

Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens. This is a New England-and-Guatemala novel. Its sense of place and relationship is fascinating, and the way it handles both is not like anything else I’ve read. The title misled me completely and then once I had read the book very much fit. It’s very contemporary, deals with modern immigration and adoption issues…I’m not sure what else to say about it. Very interesting book that I’ve only been able to discuss with one other person because it just isn’t widely known in my circles.

Elizabeth Hand, Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories. Kindle. Reread. This was the source of insight for me about short stories pivoting rather than unfolding, and I think I prefer Hand’s work when it unfolds. Several of them had a very strong sense of place that I enjoyed, and it was a reasonable thing to revisit when I was exhausted on an airplane I did not expect to be on.

Janet Kagan, Mirabile. Reread. A mosaic novel of genetic emergency, made of fun, reread for my disaster response panel only to find that it was not as relevant as I’d hoped. Still pretty much always worth the time.

Lydia Kang, The November Girl. A runaway kid and a spirit of Lake Superior in the winter find each other, help each other…this is a fast-paced and deeply felt YA, and I liked lots of things about it while not being the main target audience for it. Although. It’s still my lake, so…yeah, soft spot here.

Fonda Lee, Jade City. I have been recommending this everywhere, because it’s just plain fun. Lee draws on fantasy novels but also kung fu movie structure in ways that make her plot less predictable than a lot of novels for me, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. First in a series, yay! Magic jade, clans warring, people trying to stay true to themselves but also to people they care about…oh yes. Yes please.

Naomi Libicki and Alter Reiss, eds., The Scintillation Collection. Kindle. A small convention jam-packed with people I know and like is going to be great, and I am so excited…but it meant that a lot of these stories were rereads, because I follow pretty much everybody’s work. On the other hand, it also meant that I liked a lot of these the first time around and was glad to see them again (on an airplane…I did not intend to be on…).

Leena Likitalo, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress. I expected this to be very much an ending, since it is the second book of what I thought was two. But instead it felt very much like a middle. The worldbuilding and the family relationships continued to appeal to me, but…the ending felt…ongoing, very much ongoing…well. Perhaps we will be going on with this series.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Extremely quirky and surreal stories, mostly focused on Southern India. Very, very short, so easy to read in short bites if that’s a thing you’re looking for.

Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman. A structurally unusual accounting of first contacts. Mitchison is one of the women you still occasionally run into, who mistook the limitations placed on her personally for gender differences in general and yet who did not mistake them for a general inequality, and so there are all sorts of ways of trying to write about this galactic explorer and communicator in ways that are weirdly warped by Mitchison’s own upbringing. What communication means and what the protagonist brings to her interspecies communications…this is a weird and fascinating plot, not really much like anything else.

David R. Montgomery, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. This is very popular-level science. Any of you has enough science background to understand it, and in fact in the first few chapters he is a bit patronizing in prose tone. After that he settles into the nuts and bolts of how farming should be revamped to be better for the soil, less costly in terms of chemicals, better for people and plants and even herd animals. He’s immensely convincing and in places even touching. I did not expect that so much of this would take place in the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota, in places where I have people. I cried in spots, where families managed to save not only the soil but their farms thereby. It’s good stuff, inspiring.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: The Night Masquerade. The last in its trilogy, and definitely do not start here, as a great deal of the emotional weight rests on knowing the people and their meaning to each other. A satisfying conclusion but not a satisfying start by any means.

Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. This is a beautiful book, essays from a Black woman visiting American landmarks. It’s nature writing from an angle I don’t see often, looking at the land from a different angle, from a very personal and human angle that illuminated it. Highly recommended.

Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, Viking Friendship: The Social Bond in Iceland and Norway, c. 900-1300. There is some very interesting stuff here about chosen social bond as opposed to family in saga and history. There are also some places where Sigurdsson…well, look, if you don’t listen to what people know, you won’t know it. And there were places where I just rolled laughing because you could ask any Nordic auntie, any at all, some of the things that he thought were mysterious, and they would either tell you or snort in disbelief that you had to ask such an ignorant question (why women were so prevalent in wedding seating disputes, dear God, do I even have to unpack that for you in the comments), so look, it is not their fault if you look like a fool in your book sometimes, they’re right there, child.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. This was, I think, the first book I read this year, and I was so glad of it, its wanders and focus on wandering, its meanders through thought and relationship and landscape. I am so very much enjoying making my way through Solnit’s works.

Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts. Spaceship life through an incredibly intersectional lens, with detailed attention to how relationships change in confined spaces around power in so many ways, energy in so many ways, so many assumptions examined. Powerful, reaching, fascinating.

Kanishk Tharoor, Swimmer Among the Stars. Lovely short stories, amazing. I am not seeing these discussed among genre readers, and they’re mostly not traditional speculative genre stories, but they range through space and time in beautiful ways that I would like to see more of, and I’m so very glad to have found them, and I wish more people were finding them.

Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus. I think I’m very glad that I started with late period Vizenor, because this is whimsical and interesting, and of course it’s good that Vizenor has learned better on some issues, especially some gender issues, and yet…and yet there are some places I sigh and roll my eyes a bit and am glad this is not where I began. And I would not necessarily recommend that you begin here either. There is some magic to this recasting, this…re-legending?…but if you have to pick just one Vizenor, really probably not this one.

J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven. I was absolutely enchanted by this story of siblings and power and gender and empire, by the worldbuilding, by all of it. I can’t wait for the other novella in this pair.

you little non-punks, get off my lawn

The hopepunk panel at ConFusion was mostly not about the -punk part at all, but Nisi Shawl’s punk past weighed in for a moment, when she talked about doing it all with three chords if that many, not with complex technique, just jumping in and bashing out a song on feeling and momentum.

And I thought…wait…but…

That’s not cyberpunk at all.

In a lot of ways the cyberpunk movement and the subsequent -punk movements have meandered around how much they are or aren’t living up to punk’s rebelliousness, sticking it to the man, going against the establishment, corporatism, whatever else they have identified as punk roots.

But musically. Let’s be honest. Three-chords-if-that? Is not an accurate parallel to what cyberpunk was doing. Or any of its heirs.

Do you think they’ll get offended if I call them cyberprog? Steamprog?

Can I write some solarprog? Like solarpunk but with lots of obscure chord structure and orchestration?

Should I go back to twitter now? Okay.

better lines this time

The second half of Uncanny’s Issue 20 is now available for free on the internet, and with it my story, Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage! Or if you’d prefer to get your fiction through another medium, it’s also on their podcast, along with an interview I did with editor Lynne Thomas. Marvel as we wrestle the technology! Gape in awe as I attempt to minimize my Minnesota accent for listener comprehension! etc.! Anyway just go enjoy the story, however you enjoy it. It’s got iron giants and cherry trees, and it came about because I was messing around on twitter with my hoodlum friends, what more could you want.