Don’t get me wrong, I like Eowyn kicking butt too. But really.

“So here we are in Middle-Earth.”
“Where a great many people get killed by orcs, trolls, wargs, giant spiders–”
“Ooh, those are nasty, I had a cousin killed by a giant spider last week.”
“Quite. Elves. Dwarves. Balrogs. Particularly detetermined hobbits. Dragons. Ents, when they move themselves to it. Rock slides. Rivers in flood. Influenza.”
“Yes, I’m beginning to see your point.”
“Yes, yes.”
“Cholera, starvation.”
“You needn’t belabor it.”
“That fellow who turns into a bear.”
“I got it quite some time ago, thank you!”
“Not to mention shield-maidens of Rohan and their stubborn old aunties, thank you very much. Oh, and UNliving men, we seem to have no few of those wandering around on winged shadow horsies, no guarantees that they’ll stay my pals, our side are not known for that. And you want me to feel all cozy because I can be hindered by no living man? Thanks. Thanks ever so, dark lord, that’s just keen.”

She closed the book. “And that, my darlings, is how the word ‘angmar’ came to mean ‘panic room’ in the old tongues of men.”
“But not the old tongues of elves, Mummy?”
She kissed the little hobbitling brow. “Elves have four different words for panic rooms, my sweet, and if you are good, we will get one of your Took aunties to come over and teach them to you, and why it is that they need to complicate things with four when we and the dwarves don’t need any. But not tonight. Tonight is for sleeping.”

“We’ll only create a martyr!”

I really liked some of the things Fred Clark said in this Slacktivist post about politics, martyrdom, and disgrace. I particularly wanted to highlight this part for my fellow fantasy writers:

There’s this mistaken idea in a lot of heroic stories that the oppressive evil villains can’t afford to kill the rebellious hero because they can’t risk turning them into a martyr. But that’s not how oppressive evil villains — or oppressive evil systems — work. They can kill without making martyrs because everyone they kill they also actively disgrace.

We–fantasy writers–are addicted to this trope. “We can’t kill him! We’ll only create a martyr!” says the villain. “Oh noes! Not a martyr! That’s way worse than, like, a live political operative wreaking havoc all over the land, and incidentally having crazy magical powers to boot! And also we are powerless against a martyr!”

Often what we mean when we do this is, “We can’t kill him! Our author would really like to write five more books if this one is successful!” And, y’know, I feel you, characters. I like having my favorite characters still around–both as a writer and as a reader. But we need a better reason to do that–like not walking characters into those traps in the first place. A reason that isn’t stupid. A reason that doesn’t make the real-life people who are killed look worse because they’ve been treated as real people always are: as people who can be disgraced by those in power, whose flaws can be played up or even manufactured, rather than as the mythical all-powerful martyrs.

Pretty tired, actually, but TINY PLUMS

I was going to have a post here called “Beware of People” about generalities that give me hives, about generalizing what People Want and Readers Expect and Editors Demand and how this is really not a good reason to do things in a manuscript, like, ever. (“So-and-so wants this and it really works in this story” can be a great reason. That’s an important difference.)

I’m really tired, though, and it just wasn’t congealing. And so instead, hey, I went to the farmer’s market and came back with something like my body weight in produce. Every week I forget something on the list and get two or three more things that weren’t on the list because I didn’t know they’d come into season yet. This time I forgot the corn (oops–corn stand time maybe) and got golden raspberries, pears, and tiny plums (TINY PLUMS) that I didn’t know would be there. (TINY PLUMS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS TINY PLUMS.)

So here is the thing about tiny plums: this year has been pretty rough for food for me, due to the vertigo and related meds. And tiny plums do not require a commitment. Four bites and you’re done, that’s all the plum there is. No preparation, and no feeling that, ugh, what if I start eating the plum and my body says HAHAHA NO NO MORE FOOD FOREVER? It will not matter. Because there is hardly any plum there to waste. It’s almost like deciding to eat a single strawberry. Except that it is an entire plum! It is a self-contained plum-based experience! What if it’s sour and not that great? You can have another one! Because they are tiny!

Boy, when they say sometimes it’s the little things, they really mean plums. I never knew that before.

I always think, “Maybe this time I will make the Hungarian plum dumplings out of them, with the potato dough and like that!” And then I laugh and say, “Maybe!” And then I eat another one and don’t. Because plenty of things take cooking. Long beans take cooking, and the round green eggplants, and you don’t have to cook the carrots but a lot of the things I put them in are cooking, and the salsa I make for Mark with his garden jalapenos and tomatoes takes cooking, and…yeah. There is no shortage of cooking. But the tiny plums can just be eaten, and that is really, really okay.

Adjective order and speculative writing

I found this article about adjective order in English very interesting. It’s a topic that we mostly grasp intuitively–no teacher ever told me that saying “iron big skillet” was wrong because material is the type of adjective that belongs closest to the word and size goes further out, so we would say “big iron skillet.” But we would. I would never say or write “iron big skillet” unless I had realized after I’d already started to say “iron skillet” that there were two of them in there–and even then mostly I’d say “iron skillet–the big one” rather than “iron big skillet.”

(I wonder whether this gets taught in English as a Second Language classes or whether we just leave ESL learners to flounder and tell them that they sound “funny” and “foreign” and “wrong” because most of their teachers can’t articulate why they do, they just do.)

But the thing that occurred to me reading the article was that I use this to signal things like fictional species name when I’m writing speculative fiction. The example they used of “wondrous blue-green Hawaiian gecko” vs. “Hawaiian blue-green wondrous gecko”: in the latter case, I would incline towards “wondrous gecko” being the species name, and if I saw it later in the text as “Caroline advanced toward the wondrous gecko enclosure with the stun gun at ready,” I would take that as further data, not that the enclosure was wondrous, but that the species was called “wondrous gecko.” Because otherwise it’s an awkwardness I would assume that a) someone fluent enough to write in English would catch and b) someone fluent enough to edit in English would catch so that c) it would be there for a reason.

I don’t know if people who primarily read memetic fiction have that reading protocol, or if I’m giving other speculative writers (or speculative readers!) too much credit, but it was a tool in my toolkit I was not conscious of using until there was the adjective order laid out right there, so look: adjective order, it is a thing! If you mess with it, you can sometimes signal things like species name in a speculative context. This has been your afternoon’s SF science nerding with Mris.

Reading about reading, other things about reading

Oursin has this post about a clueless article about books about reading–bibliomemoirs and “reading guides,” they mostly seem to be, rather than lit crit proper, although the line is almost certainly fuzzy. It looks like the original article’s author is having trouble with the concept that reading is another human activity that humans will like in varying amounts and with varying accoutrements. That’s…kind of weird, honestly. Aren’t we clear that some people want T-shirts that say “I’d rather be riding horses” and some people would just rather be riding horses regardless of their shirts? Some people want to ride horses and also read about the theory of riding horses and also read about famous riders of the past, whereas some people…just want to ride their horses. Why should reading itself be any different, as human activities go?

The ideal present for me has been the same throughout my life, and that is: the book I didn’t know I wanted. (Zalena nailed one of these recently: I had not been keeping close enough track to realize that Hilary McKay had a book out that I had not read, until poof! there it was. Hurrah!) A very close second place is a book I did know I wanted. I understand that there are people who change over the course of their lives, who have a different ideal present at age 6 than at age 36, but I understand this in an intellectual, not an emotional sense, because that is not my experience of life. For me the Best Present is a constant.

But. When I was younger, Book-Related Crap was far higher on my list of Good Presents than it is now. I have a mug reading “So Many Books, So Little Time,” and that was a good present at the time, and today it would be…not a great present, frankly. It would be a present I was polite about and would find a use for but would not be excited about, and at the time it made me happy. And I think I have figured out why.

When I was younger, it was a lot more important that people not try to put me in the wrong box. And giving me Book Crap or Fantasy Crap or SF Crap or Science Crap was a token that they had recognized my chosen boxes. The mug that said, “So Many Books, So Little Time” acknowledged that my Thing was books. They were not putting me in the Adolescent Girls Like Pop Music Box or the My Friend At Work Has A Daughter Your Age Who Likes This Box.

Now? Well, now I’m pretty comfortable with who I am, and the default adult question when you first meet someone is, “What do you do?”, not, “What grade are you in?” So it used to be that the default I Just Met You question solicited approximately zero information that was really important to me, and now it solicits information that is greatly important to me. “I write science fiction and fantasy for all ages.” People know that about me within thirty seconds of meeting me in nearly any context. So I can focus my clothing on having a flattering cut and color, feeling soft, washing well, being durable, that sort of thing. Because “I like books” will come across in other ways. Not everybody has that. Some people want it. I don’t see why the original poster should object to them having it on their shirt or on a totebag.

And I really don’t see why we shouldn’t have community in books about books as well as out of books about books, and I think that’s what bibliomemoir is aiming at. Bibliomemoir is the book version of when you’re sitting around drinking tea with a friend and you say, “So when I was 18 and I read Joanna Russ,” and she says, “ME TOO.” It’s okay when your friend writes this down and publishes it. It’s okay when you haven’t met your friend yet. It’s okay if you never will. You can still live in the same community of books. You can still be aware that you do. Being aware of it doesn’t spoil it.

Books read, early August

Kenneth Andrien, Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness Under Spanish Rule, 1532-1825. This title is a bit misleading: there is not nearly so much of the culture and consciousness as a person might want. And this period is mostly the post-mummy period. Still, moderately interesting stuff.

Maria Belozerskaya, The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power. This was pretty disjointed. It was basically “zany rich animal collectors in history: some cool stories about them.” Which is fine as long as you’re not looking for something more, more thesis, more throughput of narrative.

Chaz Brenchley, Being Small. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

A.S. Byatt, The Shadow of the Sun. This was just horrifying. It was Byatt’s first novel, and the introduction alone is enough to curl your hair, that weird period when women, women we actually know now and still have around like A.S. Byatt, had established the right to an education but God forbid they should use it for anything simultaneously with doing anything else in life. And this novel deals with the weirdness of that period, only it does it from the inside, so there’s all sorts of stuff that you look at and say, “Uh…Antonia dear…uh…did you mean that to be a terrible creep show for which everyone needs slapping?” And it’s really nice to have read the things she’s written since and know that she doesn’t still need to stay in the guest room and eat soup and detox from the 1950s and early 1960s because MY LAND OH HONEY.

Rae Carson, The Shattered Mountain. Kindle. Fun novella backstory for one of the characters in the trilogy that starts with The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which I recommend you start with instead of this; this is a good time but will be better when you have more of the context of the world.

Carrie Harris, Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate. A kids’ steampunk novel featuring racing tractors and a girl who can fix nearly anything except possibly her family dynamic. So that part spoke to me. It was rife with anachronisms, some of which seemed deliberate and others less well-considered, and that was less great. So…some hit and some miss here, depending on how much ill-considered anachronism sets your teeth on edge.

Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. Jill Lepore is pretty much always good stuff. This time it’s about a supposed slave uprising in 1741 Manhattan, how a fire got deemed a slave conspiracy and dozens of people got executed for it. Oh, eighteenth century, I love you, but you are destructive and horrible and really awful sometimes. Lepore has a fascinating theory about the rise of conspiracy theories in the early eighteenth century to replace everything being Providence, because people remain really crap at “sometimes bad things really do just happen.” Lots of large and small things I did not know about colonial America per page here. (Possibly less revelatory to New Yorkers, who might be better educated about how their home state treated slaves and suspected crypto-papists in this period. Then again possibly not.)

H. C. Erik Midelfort, Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany. Mark looked at this and said, “I’m surprised it’s not a bigger book.” Yyyyyes. This is an overview. It’s an interesting overview, some fascinating case studies on who got the medical treatment of the time (and what that was) and who got treated theologically and why. But in fact there was enough “madness” (and Midelfort discusses his deliberate use of that very vague term pretty carefully) in that region and period that it could have been a bugcrusher instead of the slim volume it was.

Nicole Pope and Hugh Pope, Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey. Very chatty, very light, and this is the “post-WWII” meaning of the word “modern.” (I may be a bit biased towards the “post-Renaissance” meaning of the word, or at least the “post-Romanticism” meaning.) If you don’t know anything about 20th century Turkish history, which hey, I don’t, it seems like it might give you some framework, but I feel like it’s only a start, not at all a stopping point, and once I keep going I have a feeling I may recoil and go, “urghhh, that was…not really it.” Because this was not a particularly well-organized book. It was trying to go chronologically and then kept remembering things that happened later that interested the authors. It was like…talking to me personally about the 20th century in Turkey. Which, y’know, I can’t judge per se? Except that when I’m writing something at book length I make more effort to organize my thoughts than if we’re having tea and I’m babbling at you about some cool things I know. And I feel that this might not be an unreasonable thing to ask of other people too.

Greg Rucka, Bravo. This is a pretty good thriller. The one that came before it in its series, Alpha, is one of my favorite thrillers ever, so it’s really hard to figure out how to write about one that’s pretty good when my expectations for it were that high. There is a folie a deux in it, and those…really hardly ever work for me. (It’s not that I find them unbelievable, it’s that I don’t enjoy them.) And one of the major plot points just flat out does not work for me in the sense of “find unbelievable,” so…yeah. I enjoyed it while reading it, it went fast, and I liked Alpha a lot. It’s easy to sound far more negative than I actually feel about this book. I don’t want to do that. It was fine.

Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart. This far into the Laundry series, I think one of the best metrics for how much I will enjoy them is how much Stross is doing something beyond just sending up the trope he’s sending up. In this case it’s vampires, and I think he did a really good job of consistently thinking another step beyond the obvious. This is one of the better Laundry novels, and I like the Laundry novels very well in general.

Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity. This does a beautiful job of what it says on the tin. In the introduction, Ubrainczyk talks about the people who tried to discourage her from writing this book. I dislike these people. They don’t want me to have nice things. Urbainczyk is also beautifully snarky about people who are Just Sure of what helots could not possibly have thought or done or wanted, while being very careful about what she does not have evidence that they did think/do/want. Hurrah Urbainczyk go team.

Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. This is an historical novel set in the Roaring Twenties, using the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale as a framework. The Roaring Twenties are one of my favorite eras, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses are one of my favorite fairy tales, and this was just beautiful. Just a lovely book. (Straight-up historical, not fantasy. Family. Dancing. Things! Things! This book!)

Django Wexler, The Forbidden Library. Middle-grade fantasy with Readers as sorcerers, and sorcery as fairly nasty. I’m interested in where the nastiness in tone goes for kids this age, where the boundaries are. So that was interesting. This is very much a “first in a series,” not a complete story.

Laurence Yep, Dragon of the Lost Sea. This first in a series, on the other hand, told a complete story. Shapeshifter dragon and tricksy human child team up to attempt to restore her home to its former glory, and things…get complicated. I’m looking forward to more in this series. The dragon is awesome.

Jane Yolen, Cards of Grief. Kindle. Science fiction of a very anthropological type I don’t get enough of, multiple perspectives on the same story. Good stuff.

Sarah Zettel, Bad Luck Girl. Fun conclusion to this trilogy in Dirty Thirties Chicago, although the new allies for the conclusion felt…a little too new, for as important as they turned out to be in the third volume of a trilogy. Would have liked a little more sense of their import going in. Ah well, can’t have everything.

Being Small, by Chaz Brenchley

Review copy provided by author.

I don’t read horror, mostly. And this is horror-ish. And I read it anyway, and no, I don’t read everything that people send me to review, not even by authors whose stuff I’ve liked previously, not even by authors I’ve hung out with at cons and been online pals with. (Oh yeah. I should put that disclaimer in.)

I used to say things like “the stuff I like is dark fantasy, and the other stuff is horror,” but this is not, really, this is just horror. It’s the quiet psychological stuff. Michael had a dead fetal twin in his belly, cut out when he was tiny, and he’s had his dead fetal twin, Small, inhabiting his thoughts his whole life. Small is with him, shaping him, constraining him, losing to him at chess, complaining when he smokes pot, unable to read, unable to make friends, unable to forget.

Now Michael, isolated by his mother’s theories about how her twin sons–alive and dead–should think and learn, finally gets to meet his own oddly assorted set of friends–one of whom is dying. Michael feels that he knows something about this, having lived with a dead twin in his head for all of his sixteen years. The rest of his friends are kind and welcoming to him despite or because of that, but what role Small plays in Michael’s treatment of the dying is closely written and perfect for the 16-year-old they both are, living and dead. The spiraling ending is chilly and horrible and yet fits the warmer tones of the short book leading up to it perfectly.

Not my usual sort of thing, but if you’re not turned off by the description of what sort of internal/external ghost story this is, it may well be worth stepping outside your usual too.

Intellectual property and wills

Every once in awhile something brings this to mind again, so consider this your annual-or-so reminder:

Please, please, please make a will. Please, please, please make a medical decision-making/power-of-attorney document. Discuss these things with your near and dear so that they know what you want. If your lives aren’t terribly complicated, they don’t have to be expensive. In many states you can do legally binding ones for free if you do them in your own handwriting or other stipulations–I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on the internet, please look up the details for yourself and/or consult an actual attorney such as this nice man–but please, please get them done. They aren’t just for rich people. They aren’t just for “important” people. You are important people. Make a will. Make your health care wishes clear. Do it today, do it tomorrow, wait until next week if you must. But please do it.

And the thing that brought it to my mind was this:

If you do substantial creative work. If you are a writer with a substantial body of work–novels, several short stories or poems–if you are a visual artist, anything that is that type of copyrighted intellectual property, please, please take the time to do this so that you establish who will be your literary executor*. This person does not have to be an heir. Sometimes family members who have been very dear and supportive of your career, who would want your work to be protected and perpetuated, are not people who have the background or the time to navigate the business of publishing. This doesn’t have to require malice! You can say, “Oh, my next of kin would be my sister Alice, and she loves my books!” But Alice has five children and a thriving practice as a cardiologist; if you are killed in a tragic meteor shower tomorrow, in five years, learning what she needs to know to do well by your work may not be Alice’s top priority. Or it might be! Alice might be awesome that way. But at least think through the personalities and skill sets involved.

The other thing I would like to say about this is: if you’ve already done this, hurrah! I salute you! But if you’ve already done this twenty, twenty-five, thirty years ago, please consider whether the people you selected are still the right people. Right now, my godchildren and my nieces are not the right people, and right now I have no children and don’t know whether I ever will.** In twenty or thirty years, my parents and my godchildren and my nieces will be in very different places in their lives, and we will know about the child hypothesis for sure. So: reevaluation. We used to joke about how upsetting it would be if something happened to Tim’s parents, not only because of losing them themselves, but also because they hadn’t changed their will, and we would miss Tim when he had to go live with his aunt and uncle. Obviously the guardianship of minor children goes away when those children reach majority. But designating a sibling instead of a child or a younger friend to be the literary executor does not. Sometimes that’s still the right thing. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes putting an extra layer of conditional statements into place–“my friend Chris if still available, my cousin Pat if not”–can help make everybody more comfortable with the situation.

I know, I know, this is one of my hot buttons, and I keep harping on it. But I think one of the things that happens is that our work sneaks up on us. We don’t think of ourselves as major authors, because major authors are always going to be the next rungs up. Even if you’re regularly making the New York Times bestseller list, even if you’re regularly winning major awards in your genre of choice, you’re always going to be able to say to yourself, “Yes, but I’m no Octavia Butler, a major author is someone like Octavia Butler.” But the thing is–well, two things. One, Octavia Butler probably didn’t think she was a major author when she wrote the stories I just read in Unexpected Stories, and I’m still immensely glad that she had the procedures in place so that people could get those stories published after her death, so that the rest of us could have them and love them. And two, it doesn’t matter if you’re major. If you make things, please let the rest of us protect your things. Please let this be the lantern glass around your bright spark, even if it’s a tiny spark.

*I’m going to use the language of literature from this point forward, since that’s the terminology I know, but if you’re another kind of artist, please look into protecting your work post mortem in the way that suits your type of work also. It’s still important–it’s just not the language I’ve got immediately to hand.

**I would like one. If it becomes possible, I will tell you. Until then, please don’t ask questions about it. Thanks.

pre-order gets you the same pretty cover

Just a quick note that the pre-orders are available for the Futures 2 anthology, in which I have a story–and so do 99 other people. Hard to beat that with a stick. Especially since it’s an ebook.

I would like to say something more here, but the neighbors behind us have let their dog out to bark since 8:30 this morning without more than 15 minutes of pause, and it turns out that I am able to focus through that to do three of the four of the following: 1) wrangle my own dog into not barking constantly; 2) write some fiction; 3) handle necessary house chores; 4) write a long blog post. So: sorry, folks. Tomorrow, I hope.

Books read, late July

Madeline Ashby, iD. Not at all a stand-alone sequel, much of the emotional punch relying on vN. Very robot-y, very concerned with humans and consent and sex and reproduction. Interesting stuff, but not as compelling as the first, to my mind.

Octavia Butler, Unexpected Stories. Kindle. I could not make myself save these, even though they are likely the last new Octavia Butler I will have, barring another miracle like this one. The thing about Octavia Butler stories is that she understood the difference between being in power and being in leadership, and how you could be in the latter without having very much if any of the former. Oh my golly, did she understand that. And she left us these stories about being one of the people that other people turn to, and if you are one of those people it’s like being able to have a conversation with your best auntie across the years, across the miles, across never meeting each other. One of the stories in this pair is a perfectly fine Octavia Butler story, but the other one is one of the stories she left to make it okay or at least a little better than it was, a message in the bottle story for the people who needed it, even though it wasn’t as polished as the later ones, even though she was still figuring out what she was doing with it. Like “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” Like Fledgling. To let us known that she understood, she was there, she will always be there somehow. Thanks, Octavia. I never met you, but you’re there for me, and I’ll be there for them, I promise.

Well, that took a turn, didn’t it?

M.R. Carey, The Girl With All the Gifts. This is a zombie novel. I hate zombie novels. This is one. It is briskly written and obsessed with fungi. I like fungi quite a lot, really. I can be lured with mycology and Mike Carey. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s not really a zombie novel, because it is, in fact, really a zombie novel. If you don’t hate zombie novels, by all means, read this one. The ending falls apart a bit, but the titular character is almost worth the price of admission.

Corey Doctorow and Jen Wang, In Real Life. Discussed elsewhere.

Dung Kai-Cheung, Atlas: The Geography of an Imaginary City. This is influenced by Eco, Borges, Calvino–all that sort of thing, and those names get cited directly in the text. Dung wrote it in ’97, when Hong Kong was joining with China, and the conceit is that it is a very “imaginary cities” narrative, as though Hong Kong had disappeared and was being reconstructed or reimagined in the future, with other theoretical/speculative/fantastical discussions of maps and cartography. Short, light, whimsical, and an interesting cultural counterpoint to the European and South American perspectives I’ve had on this type of narrative.

Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Lots of gems, some that didn’t resonate with me quite so much, but the standout for me was Sofia Samatar’s. I’m getting used to saying that, really–I think many of us are–and expect to be repeating it a lot as the years go by.

Max Gladstone, Full Fathom Five. Discussed elsewhere.

Ben Hatke, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. I wish that this book had spent more time on the civil structures that preceded colonialism (or even the civil structures that preceded Islam in Indonesia), but once it got past the de Tocquevillian throat-clearing, interesting to have a political history of Indonesia in the twentieth century and a counter-narrative to the “Islam vs. democracy” idea that crops up so often in the west–in Indonesia Islam was on all sides of every movement, so it was a great deal more complicated than that “vs.” would try to reduce it to.

Thorsten Henn, Colours of Iceland. A book of Icelandic photos. Inspirational.

Ann Bowman Jannetta, Epidemics and Mortality in Early Modern Japan. Analysis of who got killed by what when. Interesting stuff, particularly with the insight that the Tokugawa isolation nearly kept cholera out of Japan. Nearly. Oops. Ann Bowman Jannetta was strongly, strongly discouraged from this work when she turned up in Japan to do it, so I hope that there has been more of it since, because I, at least, found it fascinating.

Hilary McKay, Binny for Short. This is not one of the Casson family books, and I love it anyway. It has that brilliant McKay combination where one scene can be hilarious and emotionally wrenching at the same time, and she doesn’t pull punches in those scenes. For those unfamiliar with her books, it’s a mainstream British children’s novel, a book about family and friends, and it’s funny and wonderful and horrible and I love them, I love them so much. There are seals and dogs and awful aunts and loss and friendship and fierce, dedicated children experimenting with things that probably aren’t poisonous (but they can hope), and I love Hilary McKay. I do. So much.

Jonathan Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. This is one of the most utterly readable pieces of nonfiction I’ve picked up in a long time. It is the fastest, chattiest nonfiction writing that does not make me suspicious about what the author is trying to put past me. The Taiping Rebellion is one of those crazy fascinating historical events, and this is a really good accounting of it. Highly recommended.

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, and The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. Discussed elsewhere.