Books read, late November

Desirina Boskovich, Never Now Always. Sometimes knowing people gets you reading things that are outside your wheelhouse. Desirina’s novella is far more horror-skewed than I usually pick up, but the writing is beautiful as I expect from her. The children in it are trying to recover their memories, trying to figure out who they are and why they are there, what it is they’re struggling toward. The cover makes the horror look visceral, and there will be a certain amount of needle-and-blood, but the main horror element is strongly existential. Skillfully done, very much recommended to those who are fond of that…and even those who aren’t and want to push their limits a little.

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. A strange and interesting book, not entirely satisfying. Gonzales would desperately like for there to be a “true survivor” personality type and/or skillset, people who had the knowledge and grit and so on to survive fire and flood and blizzard and, well, anything. And he interviewed people who had done so, and he correlated traits. Problem: the universe was not written by Laurence Gonzales. So while there were tendencies that helped with survival, and while of course some skills are useful in some conditions, he had to keep admitting that “true survivors” sometimes died, that people who did everything wrong sometimes lived. Still, there were fascinating tales of people just making dreadful decisions, and of people managing to keep their heads when all others etc., and if you write about humans in extremis, this may well be of interest.

Tessa Gratton and Paul Witcover, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 5 and 6. Discussed elsewhere.

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing. This felt very rushed, from the title on. It’s a charming title, but it doesn’t fit all that well with the book, which…is not actually Victorian, it’s neo-Victorian alternate history near future SF. It’s the sort of title that sounds like a working title that everyone can easily fall in love with but…as fitting the actual book? Eh. There is a truly essential character for the first third of the book who completely disappears for the rest. There’s all sorts of interesting worldbuilding that is literally in the author’s note at the end, which…frankly does not count, sorry. And having talked to the author a couple of times I’m pretty sure what the shape of the ending was aiming at for a love triangle resolution, and…I think it could have gotten there with another draft or two? I was really glad that the main characters were not forced into being nasty within their private relationships, but their relationship with the public…I felt could have used some development. This was a book that was there when I needed something fun and fluffy, but the farther I got from it, the more I said, “Wait a minute.” And I wish it had waited a minute, because it’s not a book that I felt was terminally broken.

Naomi Kritzer, Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories. I had read many or most of these. I was happy to read them again. Having them collected in one place is charming and useful, and they have emotional range as well as genre range. A really great collection, highly recommended.

Fonda Lee, Zeroboxer. Mixed martial arts in space, with genetic engineering, the YA version. If that pitch makes your ears perk up, this is definitely for you. I’m not the target audience, and I still enjoyed this book. I would have liked a little more denouement, but even without it, this was entertaining and fun, and I’ll be interested in the rest of Lee’s work, which looks widely variable in topic.

Kari Maaren, Weave a Circle Round. Discussed elsewhere.

Robin McKinley, The Door in the Hedge. Reread. There is a lot of metaphor repetition here, and the characterization is often extremely shallow, and yet…and yet these stories manage not to make me furious, they manage to be interesting and gentle and fairy tale-ish and themselves. I should probably wait longer before another reread, but there was another short story collection that was a slap in the face on page one, so…this was a good antidote.

Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. I picked this up because I wanted to understand more of the roots of the Catalan independence movement, and I didn’t feel I could do that without more about the Spanish Civil War. Preston gives a master class in how to destroy both-sides-ism here, saying, sure, yes, there was violence on both sides, let’s look at how much violence, let’s look at what kinds of violence. This book was shattering to read, and he did an amazing job with intersectionality for a book that was not “about” any particular subgroup of the Spanish population. He started in the introduction talking about the anti-Semitism of the Spanish Right and went straight on from there; the complex relationship with Catholic faith, both using it and attacking it; sexual violence against women (including nuns as a specifically addressed sub-category). Harrowing. Awful. I had to take lots of breaks. Extremely, extremely well-done.

Robert Sheckley, Untouched by Human Hands. Reread. I wanted this to hold up well, and…it really didn’t. The women were nearly nonexistent, the men barely better, the satires…I think I was most disappointed in the satires, actually, because of gaping mental holes like: the satire of consumer debt had consumerism and militarism as opposing forces. What? In Sheckley’s lifetime, what? How did that even, you lived through the rise of the phrase “military-industrial complex” for a reason, dude. The prose was better than a lot of the people who are touted over Sheckley from this era, but as idea fiction goes, the ideas were…not where I hoped I had left them, alas.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Fascinating as a study of social and economic life in Maine in that era, with all its intricate concerns. Courtship customs are handled here, debt, cloth manufacture, rape trials, all sorts of things. One of my old teachers used to say, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you, it’s what you know that ain’t so,” and there’s a lot of debunking of that sort of thing here–for example, the assumption that the day that you get married and the day that you move in together are necessarily the same day. Apparently not in this culture, usually they were separated by about a month. Fantasy writers take note, this is great stuff.

Another bit of progress to reckon with

This week’s writing-publishing news that has already gone on the more rapid social media is that I sold a story, “The Shale Giants,” to Reckoning for their second issue, which will be coming out soon in ebook form, then more slowly as linkable stories and in a print copy. I loved their first issue, and I’m really excited to be part of their second.

Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a very prickly book with a very prickly protagonist. Freddy (Frederica) starts out constantly angry at the world in general and her family in particular. Her main life strategy is to fly under the radar, to remain unnoticed. When new neighbors add a stream of confrontation and chaos to her sister and stepbrother’s unabashed differences, it infuriates her.

Bouncing through space and time with one of those neighbors in a series of uncontrolled time leaps brings her anger to a point where she has to deal with it, where she can deal with it–where, over the course of a deeply syncretist, confusing (to Freddy, but not particularly to this reader) journey she matures enough to deal with it. But bouncing around space and time is only the beginning–well, okay, the middle. There is still plenty of pointed plot after that, and it’s not just herself Freddy has to sort out.

There is a lot to like here. The fantasy part of the structure is entirely itself, the characters are stubborn and fierce and allowed to be flawed, and the resolution is resolute without being neatly tied.

This book does the opposite of most books that have any connection with role-playing games. Most RPG-related books have some connection to a campaign; this one blatantly could not be any kind of campaign. Instead, Maaren has thought about initiative and perspective from a role-playing perspective…and then done the work of putting those thoughts into the context of this medium. One of my major complaints about a lot of science fiction is that it appears to take place in a world with no science fiction; lately I have added to that complaint that it seems to take place in a world with no modern gaming. This book, thank heavens, has noticed that the last 30-40 years of gaming exist, in the same way that writers since time immemorial have noticed that card games exist: not everyone has the same relationship with it, not everyone gains the same insights from it, but people do gain insights from it without the poker game itself having to be the plot of the book. Instead of taking the shallow end of games, she’s taken the deep end; like most of the things I like about this book, more would be a spoiler.

There are also a few things that make me scrinch my nose up. Mel is charming and completely underused; Freddy herself is the type of teen protagonist whose flaws are spotted by the boys around her, a plot arc I am getting a little tired of (and barely redeemed here by the facts that 1. they are not romantic interest boys and 2. they are pretty flawed themselves). Also…this is a book where the protagonist has a growth arc that involves going from being a jerk to her stepbrother Roland about all sorts of things that include his disability (he is profoundly deaf, she refuses to acknowledge that she can communicate with him in ASL, making him read her lips instead and not doing a very good job of that either) to being less of a jerk to him about various things that include his disability. ASL plays some pivotal roles in the book and there are some bits that aren’t pivotal at all and still nicely done…but if you’re a reader who has already had it up to your eyebrows in your ordinary life with people being jerks about deafness, well, here it is again. And if you found yourself asking why exactly this book was about Freddy when Roland is pretty awesome and entirely plot crucial, well, sometimes books do a thing, and this is that thing, and there are lots of other things to like in the course of this book, but it might not be enough if that’s your thing. If you decide to skip it, you’d be missing out on Roland himself, who is pretty damn great, and on some very well-done supporting characters who are deaf (and not all to the same degree and not all with the same interfaces with the hearing world–variety of disability for the win). But for some people, sitting through the part where Freddy’s an ass to Roland may be more painful than having Roland as a really great character, and for others the opposite; judge for yourself which you are.

There’s a lot about initiative and choice and story here, a lot about growth and family. There are awkward bits. There are good bits. And in some ways I find the title particularly amusing, because it is very much not a circle, it is a very very spiky shape, and that’s what it needs to be.

Please consider using our link to buy Weave a Circle Round from Amazon.

Timing, consistency, control

I’ve read two blog posts by friends about exiting Campbell eligibility, about timing of publishing and keeping work in the public eye and feeling good about professional development personally even when it comes out in weird chunks. One is by Arkady Martine and the other by Jordan Kurella, and I am simultaneously happy and not at all surprised to see them focusing on the important parts, on where they are as writers and where their upcoming work will be, and not on specific awards eligibility.

Obviously I’m not in the same place; Campbell eligibility is more than a decade in the rearview for me. But the way that how work is going and what the public sees do not correlate is something that I’ve had to adjust to. Sometimes I can write up a storm and no one gets to read it for ages. Sometimes I’m struggling, flailing, thrashing around, and people keep smiling and telling me how great things are going for me right now, because what they’re seeing is the result of a really great time.

That’s how it goes. And I get grateful that I got exposed to Bull Durham early, because I get Annie Savoy’s voice in my head saying, “It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it.” Well. Well, yeah. This is what I do. I was raised in the church of baseball, but I’m not its acolyte. I’m a writer. When I keep having story after story coming out, or when nothing comes out for ages but I’m writing like gangbusters–it’s hard to smooth it out perfectly, it’s hard to make it all perfectly even. A year is not the right scale for that, a year is too short. And that’s okay.

So when the end of the year rolls around, I’ll have some stories to link to, and I’ll be able to talk about what I did, and the two won’t really be the same. And again next year, the two won’t really be the same. That’s the nature of the beast. Being able to point to something and say, look, that’s what I did, that, yes, isn’t it shiny, I did something, me, and that’s what it is: that’s satisfying. But it’s even more satisfying to know that it’s the right something, long-term.

It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it. Yep.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 5&6, by Paul Witcover and Tessa Gratton

Review access provided by Serial Box.

Now that I am caught up, I am considering the episodes more as individual episodes. Which is not my best mode of interacting with serials–it’s me, not them–and yet it does expose interesting things about the construction of serial narrative as a unique form. No installation is trying to tell a complete story, but each is trying to be satisfying in its own right, thematically, individually.

These two have a paired focus that I think works as the heart of this season of Tremontaine: the holes left by losses from the previous seasons. Consequence and ramification is the hallmark of good series storytelling for me–not just doing the same thing over again but letting it go on to become more and different than it was.

With chocolate, and the organizing of a new school. The new school in particular is something that seems to be finally finding its logistical feet in these episodes. I hope so. The university is my jam, was some of why I loved The Fall of the Kings so much. I pin some hopes on this new school as a plot element.

And around again

One of the things about writing is that the same pieces of wisdom keep being re-applicable–not even just to the writing itself but to how I handle it. How I handle it. Maybe you have the same thing, but if you do, I bet it’s not all the same pieces of wisdom. We keep trying to reach out with the things that work for us, hoping that we can save other people time and trouble and heartache–or sometimes hoping that we will look wise and strong–but there’s only some overlap. A lot of this, I keep finding out over and over again, is finding out which mistakes we each make, which ways we each go to extremes, and countering those. And so my own advice to myself is most useful when it’s clear that it’s not universal, when I know that it might apply to you, or it might not, or it might apply to you sometimes and not other times.

For all that people talk about Twitter being a trashfire, it has been a social outlet for me. I wasn’t around for the glory days of usenet. I hit the peak of livejournal, when writers were exchanging comment threads, 20, 30, 50 comments a post. And I see some dreamwidth posts like that nowadays, but…not many, not routinely, usually when someone is having a crisis. And that’s fine. For me, right now, the social internet is Slack and Twitter. It won’t be like that forever, I’m sure, because the internet is impermanent. It’s like that now.

But one of the things the brevity of Twitter means is that if I express having circled back to one of the same places, even with a new 280-character limit, I’m going to run into helpful n00bs who feel that they can give me good advice. I thought of that last night. I sold a story this week–Uncanny bought “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage,” which is exciting and awesome, and I am very happy about it. But I have been focused on longer works this year, and some of those longer works have been recalcitrant, and so the number of short fiction works I have in submission has been creeping down as I sell things. I am adjusting to this new normal, to not having large numbers of works in submission at a given time as a security blanket. I have talked about this before.

This is not the sort of thing that works well on Twitter. Because the one-size-fits-all circle-around-to-it advice is “keep trying!” and “you can do it!” Well…yes. I can. That’s why I sold a story this week. The second level is well-meant chiding: you don’t have a problem, you’re selling things! Well…yes and no. When you have a coping mechanism and it slips out from under you, you may not have a crisis, but you do have a problem. It’s not the same problem. It is a problem. I’m not looking for a buzzword quick fix, I am looking to process an emotion about a thing I know how to fix. Or if not fix, at least what to do. What to do next.

There’s a lot that’s like this, unfortunately. Where you know what you need to do, and you just need to do it, and it’s bumpy along the way. And there is good stuff, stuff to celebrate, yay! Really genuinely good stuff. But also: oh look, it’s time for that emotion. And for that thing to process that emotion. Again. Well. Okay. It does get different with repetition. I do find my way to another place in some ways. And in other ways: fewer things in circulation, funny feeling, check. Okay.

Books read, early November

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Americanah. This is a really beautifully done book about immigration and alienation and belonging, about Nigeria and the US and a little bit the UK, about race and nationality and culture and love. And hair. There is a lot of stuff about hair in here, all interesting and good. There is complexity and challenge and acceptance and its opposite. Recommended.

Marie Brennan, Ars Historica. Discussed elsewhere.

Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones. This is about a massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937, a novel, a novel about surviving it and about those who don’t, and about the relationship between Dominicans and Haitians in the DR at the time and after. It is sparely done, it goes quickly if you don’t let yourself look away, which you possibly should. The relationships are allowed to be complicated. It is not a long book but still a grueling one.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Karen Lord, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Witcover. Tremontaine, Season 2, Season 3 Episodes 1-4. Discussed elsewhere.

Cory Doctorow, A Place So Foreign and Eight More. Reread. I have been seeing what I connect with on the short fiction shelves upon reread, and the answer here is: these are modern stories, well-constructed and well-written, and they are not hitting me in deeply emotional places, but they are still worth my time to read again, and probably will be again in another decade. So it went back on the shelf. None of the stories made me gasp and say, oh, that one, have to talk about that one. But I kept the book. Okay.

Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. This is one of the places where a subtitle contradicts the book it’s appended to. This is not actually about Machiavelli and The Prince, mostly; it’s about Machiavelli the dude, wandering around Florence and around Italy at large, writing plays and other things, arranging for people to preach sermons that were not in the least of interest to himself, surrounded by syphilis at every turn or so it seemed. So much syphilis, so much strappado. Fascinating, short, not at all a nice book really.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. This is a young adult novel that’s hard to describe without making it sound like less than what it is. It’s about a young woman who is in the car when her childhood friend is killed by a police officer, and all the life complications that ensue thereby–and that makes it sound like a “problem novel,” like an “issue book,” when instead it is a deep exploration of character, relationship, culture, family, history, and more. Thomas is not out to make a quick buck on current events, she is writing a deeply personal exploration of historical trends she places in much broader perspective for her characters while still giving them the kind of individual story that makes a novel really work. Highly recommended. One of the cases where widespread buzz is wholly, wholly justified.

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. When it says personal, it basically means that Simon Winder is going to intrude his stories of his kid’s school program or whatever in the middle of his stories of sixteenth century monarchs. Not because he has enough for a memoir, because he doesn’t, but because he feels that you need your hand held through the Habsburgs, that if you don’t have your hand held through the Habsburgs you will be very frightened. Sometimes he is wry and funny, though not usually when talking about himself, and there were enough ways in which he was insightful about other historians’ failings early on that I did not immediately flee, which I should have. Look, here is the thing about family trees: they are there to make things easier, not harder. If someone tries to tell you that a family tree is confusing, it’s almost certainly because the family is confusing. LIKE THE HABSBURGS. There is a certain category of person who is convinced that maps and diagrams of any kind are Technical and therefore Difficult and therefore Intimidating, but these things are tools for visualization and clarification, it’s worth learning to use them rather than running away and hiding, unless you have a genuine learning disability. And if you do, just ignore those bits. Turn the page and move on. Because Winder’s attempts to do without are kind of emblematic of what he means to simplify and does not manage, that didn’t really need to be simplified anyway.

(Disclosure: I feel this way about equations also, so you may want to discount what I say based on that. If you have both equations and text, and you didn’t screw it up, things should be clearer, not less clear, than if you’re trying to express something that has an equation without saying the equation. Equations are a really bad thing to play charades with.)

2018 convention schedule as I know it

I posted this on Twitter, but Twitter is a less durable medium. Here is what I know of my 2018 convention plans.

January: Detroit: ConFusion. I have already gotten my flights for this. I am going in on Thursday afternoon and leaving Monday late morning, to maximize shenanigan potential. If other people are not around for shenanigans at a particular time, I will cocoon in my hotel room and write. Win/win.

June: Minneapolis: Fourth Street Fantasy

July: Boston: Readercon

October: Montreal: Scintillation. So let’s talk about this one a minute. It’s why I’m making this post right now instead of a different time. I’ve talked about Farthing Party; this is the new and improved Farthing II: Farthing Harder, more or less. Why is it a Kickstarter right now? Because there is not a large organization bearing the burden of cost. It is being run by Jo Walton personally, and in years past Jo had to ask herself, gosh, will we have enough people to make it financially viable, will I lose my own personal money that I use for eating in doing this, etc. And it was not–what’s the word–oh yes: fun. It was not fun to wonder that. So! There is now a Kickstarter model for people to say, yes, actually I would like to commit in advance so that you do not have to have that nonfun in the process of making this fun thing, please and thank you.

So! Montreal in October, lovely time for chocolat chaud. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you have to be inner circle to Jo to make it to this con! (Or me, or Fran or Ruthanna or Sherwood or Ada or Greer or Alison or Alter. Or anyone else who is coming but has not officially committed to coming in a public sort of way.) It is for persons of goodwill who want to go to a small, intimate conventiony thing in Montreal in October. So you can think about that. Sometimes you can even think with your Kickstarter support.

Ars Historica, by Marie Brennan

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

This is another collection of Brennan’s short fiction. All of this one is historical fiction, skewing in the historical fantasy direction. If you’ve enjoyed her Onyx Court series (the one that starts with Midnight Never Come), there are several stories here that are either explicitly in that continuity or clearly came from the same set of research. The settings of these stories range from the ancient world to the nineteenth century, but there’s a strong focus here in Brennan’s wheelhouse, early modern England.

Fans of Beneath Ceaseless Skies may recognize that some of these stories appeared there originally–but some time ago, so more recent fans of BCS should use that more as a cue for what kind of adventure-historical aesthetic to expect. It’s not all fairies–it’s not all fitting magic around highly specific historical events–it’s not all dueling–it’s not all any one thing, so if you don’t like one story, another will come along very soon. And yet there is a much clearer unifying feel to this collection than to the previous one, and I’m hard pressed to think of any of Brennan’s books that aren’t a good fit in the “if you liked x, you’ll also like Ars Historica” equation. No dragons, but some very well-considered humans.

Please consider using out link to buy Ars Historica on Amazon.

I Won at NaSuHeMo!

I have a new story up at Daily Science Fiction today: I Won at NaSuHeMo! So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo and want a quick break from it–or if you just like short superhero stories–go on over and give it a read.

Seriously, whatever goals you’re pursuing this month, all the best to you and please be kind to yourself in the pursuit.

And go read my story.