Back from Starry Coast

So last week I spent a week in a beach house in Charleston doing the Starry Coast writers’ workshop with ten strangers. No longer strangers after a week together! I had very little idea what to expect, other than the immediate practicalities, but I went in with a great deal of hope, a bunch of chocolate to share, and a theory that I could deal with almost anything for a limited time.

It. Was. Great.

I am used to coming out of critiquing sessions and having to think a long time about what I want to do with the ideas I got there. While the ideas here were diverse and sometimes contradictory (as they should be!), I got so much clarity of path that I’ve been doing the revisions right away before my local writers’ group meeting, rather than waiting to triangulate from it. I really loved how much variety in project there was, and how the structure of the workshop let us line up with the manuscripts we had the most to say to in the in-depth critiques. I came out of it so energized and ready to do this project and also the next, completely unrelated one. I am also prepared to boost the other projects when they’re done and ready for some cheerleading, because there is some serious stuff going on there. You’ve seen the post-workshop smugs of, “I got to read that first!” before, and I’m sure you’ll see them again from me. (Because I did.)

When I’ve read other people talking about this sort of workshop setting in the past, they have burbled about sitting out on the porch looking at the ocean to critique their novels, and I have gone, yeah, okay, ocean, porch, whatever. But! We sat out on the porch looking at the ocean to critique our novels and it was so great! I think it was Desirina who pointed out that a certain amount of relaxation helps, and that was definitely the case here. For one of the crits it was raining gently. There were dolphins in the sea going by.

And the sea. Oh my dears.

So…the vertigo, as I told you before I left, continued terrible. But I wanted, oh, how I wanted, to go in the Atlantic anyway. In addition to having no sense of balance whatsoever, I have gas permeable contacts–you know, the little tiny ones that wash easily out of one’s eyes–and no sport goggles or even sport band for my glasses. So: no sense of balance, no ability to navigate the beach with my cane or get into the water safely, no ability to tell up from down once in the water, very limited vision.

I packed my swimsuit anyway. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. I thought, well, if there isn’t a time when the weather is good, if there isn’t a way the beach is situated so I can do it with help…most importantly, if I don’t decide that I can trust anybody to help me…we’ll just see what happens. No assumptions.

You can see what’s coming. Everyone there, everyone, everyone was beyond wonderful about my vertigo. Seriously. All week long. I’m choking up writing this, because I literally cannot imagine that they could have been better if it had been planned around me, which of course it wasn’t. Nobody was sitting around fussing, that would have been far worse. People went off and did things without me that I couldn’t do all the time, and that was great, that was how it should be, because if they were hovering going, “Now…no one can do anything if Marissa can’t do it too!” that would have been awful. But. I cannot think of one single person who did not very casually help me out, offer assistance when it was needed, take a moment to seamlessly take their turn being the one to see that something was bothering me and lend a hand. Every. Last. Person.

If you haven’t dealt with a balance disorder, you might be thinking, oh, well, good, you got nice people. Or even “good people.” And I did. But nice people, good people, even people who know me well, screw this stuff up all the time. I’m pretty sure that at least one of the four people who kicked my cane out from under me coming home in the Atlanta airport was probably a very nice person–they just weren’t paying attention. For the workshop I got nice, good people who happened to be observant in the right ways to make dealing with my very nasty health problem as easy as it could possibly be under the circumstances. I am so grateful to every single one of them for that.

So on Friday when we didn’t have anything else going on, Molly and Michael helped me into the ocean. They each took an arm and held me steady, and they helped me out as deep as I wanted to go and let me experience it, vertigo and all. It was amazing. It was a three-dimensionally utterly disorienting experience, because the sand does what wet sand does under your feet, and so the only solid points of reference I had in the universe were their arms. But I felt utterly safe. They were not going to let anything happen to me. And Molly is a natural at guiding people with a balance disorder, saying what the terrain is going to do and what’s going to happen with the waves. In the middle of it all, the sun came out from clouds and was even more dazzling to my vision, and my inner ear started doing very slow backflips (that is, axis of reference doing complete spins so that up was at some points literally down), so if there was some kind of space station salt water sand and pool system, it would probably be very much like that, terrain leaving under your feet as you stepped, water coming up at intervals utterly unpredictable to you, light feeling more or less omnidirectional, only sensation and the safety of trust in other humans doing what they said they would.

I referred to going in afterwards as “sobering up,” because it very much was. The aftershocks stayed with my system significantly for hours and hours afterwards, the sensation in my feet and my balance system of who-knew-what. Unnerving. Fascinating. Worth it.

The thing about a balance disorder is that you get very accustomed to what you can and cannot do safely, and having something that feels new, that is new, but that is also completely safe–that’s rare and precious. I haven’t captured a tenth of it here. It was a great gift.

There were other lovely things that were much more mundane and easy to describe–cooking and eating other people’s cooking/baking, going out for meals, going to the Hunley museum, playing games, hanging out talking until all hours, companionable reading in the common living area–so great, so great.

I’m paying for it now. I did basically the second half of the workshop entirely on adrenaline. Food is not at all my friend right now (I failed at gelato, just for reference–I made a try at a bowl of homemade gelato and failed), and I am so disoriented that when I woke up in the middle of the night the other night, I had zero physical cues for where I might be. Like, up, down, sideways, who even knows. It was the level of disorientation where you hold very still because the bed might or might not decide to abandon you, and without any sense of gravity, you have no idea which direction will be the wrong one that will make it do that. So I’m trying to get a little better rested, hoping that the meds will kick in (ANY MINUTE NOW DAMMIT)…and still revising this novel as many hours a day as I can manage, because the next one is breathing down its neck.

Everyone needs to spend time on how to get better. No matter what stage you’re at, no matter what kind of thing you’re doing, you need to spend the time with other people examining it, turning it over, thinking about what makes it work and what could make it work better. And this was a week dedicated to that in some very concrete ways. I wish that for all of you, whatever it is that you’re doing, at whatever level.

So: workshop. Yeah. Hell yeah.

I didn’t catch up on things like posting the link to the interview F&SF did about my story, and then tonight I saw a best stories of the year so far link on IO9 mentioning that very same story. I am pleased and abashed and feeling like I am not doing my share to promote the issue of F&SF it’s in. But honestly, at the moment the thing about “I would forget my head if it wasn’t attached” is particularly apropos because it doesn’t feel as though it is. So if there’s something I should be doing for you in the next little bit and you’re afraid I’ve forgotten, please remind me! I don’t mean to have forgotten.

Oh, one last somewhat relevant thing in that regard: I had already read Robert’s gorgeous first novel The Glittering World before the workshop, and now I know him, and he is doing an audiobook Kickstarter! Audiobooks are important for access! Audiobooks are fun for the whole family!…um…the whole parts of the family you will allow to listen to really dark fantasy, anyway. Maybe just the more grown-up parts of the family in this case. Anyway, go check it out.

Floodgate Poetry Series Vol. 2, by Judy Jordan, Kallie Falandays, and Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs

Review copy provided by Upper Rubber Boot Books.

The Floodgate series is basically a set of three chapbooks worth of material, joined into a nicely produced trade paperback. They’re putting them out each fall. I love this idea–the poets don’t have to have enough material (or enough focused material or the desire to put it in this format or…vamp until ready) for a dedicated book, but the combination is more satisfying than a stapled-together chapbook volume. Finding poets is always a difficulty–at least I find it so–and so it’s entirely possible that someone will pick up one of these volumes for one poet and discover another, in more depth than a single poem or even a handful flashing by in a magazine can provide.

That said, this particular example was not entirely successful for me, I regret to say. I will try to say why clearly, because I think it was less “these are bad poems” and more “these are not mostly the poems for me.” The Kallie Falandays section, “Tiny Openings Everywhere,” was very much in the personal damage narrative school of poetry, which is one that has to hit just right or I am impatient with it. Her poem “Sometimes We Build Small Ships” did just that–but by its nature, it made me wish that more of her poems did build those ships, that the solar systems built out of our bruises (yes Kallie I have done that yes what a line your truth is my truth) were grander, deeper, or more lapidary, some direction–that they were more solar systems and stayed less with the bruises. I would have loved more small ships! I wish it had been a more frequent sometimes. I know, however, that this type of poetry touches a great many poetry readers deeply. It is not that she is doing a wrong thing or doing it wrongly. It’s that our small ships only pass each other glancingly.

Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs’s “Score for a Burning Bridge” section was the sort of poetry that is like going on a Midwestern road trip with a friend of a friend you will remember kindly but will never ask to do such a trip again. He has an eye for taking cell phone photos of the napkin dispensers in diners, that are perfectly fine photos, but there is no one photo of the napkin dispenser that says to me, oh yes, this is the one, this is where I finally see what he’s getting at with all the napkin dispenser photos in all the diners. (No napkin dispensers were harmed in the writing of these poems.) I’m not trying to be a poet myself here, I am not a poet, I am all prose, I just…I find it frustrating to talk about how and when I do not connect with poetry that is not doing its own things perfectly well, because it makes it difficult to actually get poetry recommendations, and the thing is, I know that there are people who love the diner napkin photos. They are fairly upset photos in this case without a lot of…well.

(Every time I find a poet I like and find the terminology/adjectives applied to them, I am heartened. I think “perhaps I like [group name here]!” And then I go find more, and no. I do not like group name. I like A and B but not C in the same group, and D is right out. Poetry is hard, let’s…read more poetry.)

Judy Jordan’s “Hunger” section was the one that struck deepest for me. It was keenly observed lack, hunger but also bills and illness, and yet not in a way that became a drumbeat of woe. It started with my favorite of the section, “These First Mornings Living in the Greenhouse,” and the entire section had the feel of a latter-day imperial fall in real daily terms–not what we imagine an imperial fall would be like, but what it actually was, dragged out, small, particular, personal ways. The greenhouse in the cold is vivid and rich and particular, and Jordan goes on from there to all the other particulars of a fall (not an autumn, a fall), the bulldozers, the algae-clogged ponds.

I will be interested to see where this series goes next year.

Off adventuring

In the morning I leave for my workshop. It’s the thing I was talking about in this post, where a bunch of people are doing peer critiquing. I love that there are a bunch of ways to work together to get better in this field. The teacher/student model workshops have done a lot of good for a lot of people, and I don’t mean to knock them, I’m just disambiguating that this is not one, this is a bunch of us looking at each other’s stuff and offering ideas. Like my regular writers’ group, basically, only in intensive form.

I don’t actually know any of these people very well. I’ve read some of their work (before the work being critiqued, I mean), and I expect some of them have read some of mine.

So it’ll be an adventure.

Probably it’ll be an adventure I won’t tell you very much about, because critiques are like that. You’re not supposed to talk about unpublished manuscripts you’re critiquing even to say OMG YOU GUYS THIS BOOK YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK, because you can’t read this book yet. So I just get to be smug later, when you can read this book (these books). I will look superior and say, oh yes, I got to that one first. I knew that would be a good one. And also the person who wrote it makes good breakfasts, or whatever it is they do.

In case you were wondering how the vertigo situation is: it is terrible. In case you were wondering how that will go with air travel and a strange house filled with people I don’t know very well: ahahaha THOSE POOR PEOPLE. No, seriously, the great thing about vertigo is that it is not contagious. The worst I am likely to be is, like, parked in the corner of the couch, palely drinking water, which is not my most entertaining but as health concerns goes really could be worse for other people. And hey, as long as I’m going to have a rough go of it, I might as well have a rough go of it trying to do something fun and cool and interesting, right? If you think the answer is no, no, wrong, not at all right, too late now, no one asked you, I’m doing this anyway.

Meanwhile, and the reason I’m writing this: I expect I will have email connectivity and such, but I will not be posting here for the next eight days. So: see you when it’s almost October. Or see you on email. Yes. Onward.

Books read, early September

Simon Barnes, Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom. Very, very short essays about animals. All sorts of animals. I thought my adult life would contain more of these, since one’s childhood does. Not a lot of depth, but gosh, animals; it was cheerful and nice.

Cole Cohen, Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders. Too much memoir, not enough neurology. It was very interesting, although if you are in any way prone to reading memoirs of illness and thinking, “OH NO MAYBE I HAVE THAT,” be careful with this one; I am not so prone, and therefore I could cheerfully read this about what it is like to have a lemon-sized hole in one’s brain. (Also they have looked at my brain and given it a structural thumbs up. So.) It was interesting, but I was glad it wasn’t longer. If you, too, are interested in the wide variety of Ways The Brain Can Cope Through Quite A Lot, this is that genre.

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

Carter J. Eckert, Ki-baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, and Edward W. Wagner, Korea Old and New: A History. I keep filling in my gaps in knowledge of Korean history as best I can despite the difficulties in finding things in English. This one was much more focused on the Japanese occupation than a lot of general Korean histories, which was interesting in itself–it read as though some specialists in that period had written some chapters, then decided that they didn’t want to expand them into a book on just that but rather wanted to stick on a few earlier and later chapters and sell it as a general history. Fine by me, no worse than other approaches, and hey, at least with a couple of people of Korean background doing some of the writing, it was not all “history begins when the US begins shooting, or possibly when the UK does; France at the absolute outside.” (I really hate that mode of history.)

Reginald Hill, On Beulah Height and Arms and the Women. Rereads. These may be my two favorites in the series. We’ll see what I think of the last few when I reread them, but right now I am feeling that On Beulah Height is one of the best mystery novels written since the death of Dorothy Sayers. I recommend reading one or two of the others in the series before it (Arms and the Women will do, although when I finish the series reread I will do a comprehensive “where do I start? what order?” post of some sort). It is a dark and lovely thing, and some of the emotional weight of it depends on having a strong feeling for who these people are to each other. It also depends on having had enough feel for Yorkshire dialect that when Andy Dalziel declares that he’ll not thole it, you don’t have to stop a minute to figure out what it is to thole something. If you have to stop for that minute, you won’t choke up at that point in the book. (Aaaaagh that SPOT and later with the DASHBOARD OH ANDY.) Arms, meanwhile, is the one I started with, and is lovely but not nearly so fraught. It’s an interesting one to have started with, because it has callbacks to books much earlier and only moderately earlier in the series, but the way they fit in the text are entirely fine if you read them as if they were just introduced at that moment.

Li Kunwu and P. Otie, A Chinese Life. This is a graphic novel memoir of the Cultural Revolution and Chinese history since. Other than its format, the main way it stands out from other memoirs of the time is that Li is clear and honest not only about what was done to him during the Cultural Revolution but also about what he did to others. He was a child at the time. If you know the Cultural Revolution, you know that that did not actually stop people from committing atrocities. It’s a harrowing read in spots, and if you have family/personal connections to the Cultural Revolution or are otherwise feeling sensitive, I recommend that you time your reading carefully.

Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Note: not actually surprising. I was hoping for quite a lot of octopus neurology and biology, and instead I got some very chatty accounts of hanging out with octopus at an aquarium. Which was nice, and it’s a short book, but…too many monkeys, not enough octopus.

Terry Pratchett, A Blink of the Screen and The Wee Free Men. (The latter a reread.) What different books. The former is a short fiction collection, which I feel is not at all his strength and frankly only worth the time for a Pratchett completist. The latter is one of his best works: the first of the Tiffany Aching books, a beautiful rallying cry for the stubborn, the precise, the caretakers, the people-herders, the over-prepared, the curious, the lookers-up…me, okay? It’s a rallying cry for me. One of my friends told me she pictured Tiffany as a young me, and when I reread this book, I got tears in my eyes over that comment, because I realized that it is the most overtly sentimental she is likely to get over our friendship, because she is also a one like that, and we mostly don’t go around saying things like that with our out loud words, mostly we say things like, “How’s your mom doing now?” and also we make soup. And Terry Pratchett: he understood that, and he wrote a book for us, and not only that, it starts for those of us who know it even when we’re little, it’s for my Lillian, my goddaughter who is already a people-herding little one of us, because this stubborn dark hilarious little book is for kids too. Oh, and also: I had not reread this since my grandpa died. And the important grandparent in it is a Granny, but: yeah. So. I will have to wait awhile before I read another of these, because there’s only so much of it in me at once. I knew when Pratchett died that I’d have to make a run up to Wintersmith, and I was right. But this is the beginning of that run. And now there’s the last one out. Crivens. Also quite funny, for those who for some reason don’t know.

S.E. Smith, The United States Marine Corps in World War II: Volume III: Death of an Empire. Grandpa’s. These stories were compiled from actual Marines and the journalists who were embedded with them, very shortly after the war. There is not the level of polish or perspective one might hope from a later account, but the value of the immediate version is very clear. The photo illustrations are smudgy and not really worthwhile, and the language is full of ethnic slurs on the one hand and elisions of the kind of crudity that they actually used on the other. And yet there is something very true and very useful about it, and I am glad to have it. This is the last in its set.

Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Wedgwood and Watt, Priestley and Erasmus Darwin and Matthew Boulton, plus assorted connections and hangers-on. They didn’t have the same lines that we do, they were just doing their cool things, and wandering about having their 18th century lives and affairs and stubbornness. I like Jenny Uglow a great deal, with one caveat that I would apply to more than one historian, and that is this: diagnostic medicine has improved so much even in the last fifty years, much less the last three centuries, that I am not at all comfortable with blithely labeling eighteenth century figures “hypochondriac.” That was a very small point in a very interesting whole, though.

Greg van Eekhout, Dragon Coast. Discussed elsewhere.

Fran Wilde, Updraft. Discussed elsewhere.

Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Winchester…really needs to get control of his footnotes. And this coming from a Terry Pratchett fan! It’s not that there are too many. It’s that he seems to be unable to know a thing without sticking it in a footnote without regard for whether it is relevant or even interesting in context. He has the sort of footnoting style that left me expecting to come upon “*I like cheese” as a footnote at any time. I am interested in very early geology, but Winchester’s style made this short book more of an eye-rolling slog than the length should have allowed. Seriously, you do not have to explain who Joseph Priestley is three times in one book–particularly not always with the same Priestley-you-know-the-oxygen-guy tagline. People who want to read about the beginning of modern geology either 1) already know Priestley, 2) got it the first time, or 3) don’t actually care (although they should because Priestley is a kick). Also if no one has ever required a dude to be married to be the Father of [His Field], no one should ever require a lady to be married to be the Mother of [Her Field], so PUT A SOCK IN IT, SIMON WINCHESTER: THAT IS MY MATURE AND CONSIDERED OPINION. Ahem. Yes. Well then. On that note.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by Tor.

Every once in awhile there is an epic fantasy that makes me say, “Oh yes, right, that’s why I read epic fantasy!” Even better when it’s a debut author, so I can say that and anticipate more of that person later. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is one of those books. It’s not perfect, of course, but this is not the universe for perfect. (Ours, I mean. Baru’s either.) What it does quite effectively, though, is show a young woman in the process of using the tools of empire to subvert the empire in question–and Dickinson has correctly identified bureaucracy and monetary policy as major tools of empire.

This, folks, is a fantasy of logistics. All the things that we talk about wishing there was more of–accounting, supplies, all of that–in exciting form. Any time someone tries to tell you that bashing people with swords is the main fantasy theme because supplying armies is boring should be turned around so they are pointing at The Traitor Baru Cormorant and then given a gentle shove.

(Also there is bashing people with swords. Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…true love not in the direction one might expect….)

There is twistiness. There is plottiness. There is double-crossing, there is a sense of priorities not going where they necessarily would for the modern reader. More. More.

Please consider using our link to buy The Traitor Baru Cormorant from Amazon.

I dig digging things, you dig?

My dog does also, but less in the short story department.

Last week a friend of mine was worrying about tagging things with the label “best,” because she hasn’t read everything, and what if she has missed things that are best-er than the things she currently thinks are best? And: look. No one has read everything. But it is okay to just say: here are some things I like. In fact, it’s great. Pointing out things you like is a good thing! Then other people can find out if they like them too! Everyone wins! So if the thing you like now turns out to be only in your top twenty-seven favorite stories of 2015 instead of your top ten, because you will later read seventeen favorite-er stories–oh darn! Twenty-seven favorites! How sad for everyone!

One of these is not from 2015. It is In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns, by Elizabeth Bear, and it was in Asimov’s and Lightspeed and is on her webpage also. As I said: the point is to point out stories I like, not to nominate for awards. Story, there ya go. The rest of this batch are 2015 stories, though.

Ginga, by Daniel Jose Older (Tor)

Fire Rises, by Alec Austin (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – I critiqued this story in draft form, so I feel like I shouldn’t brag on it, but oh how I want to, because it’s so much fun. Artificial satellites to alter astrological systems! Pyromancy and empire! Magic adventure dooooooom!

Find Me, by Isabel Yap (Apex)

20/20, by Arie Coleman (Strange Horizons)

The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards (Shimmer)

Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud, by Fran Wilde (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – Note that this one is in the universe of Fran’s Updraft, which I reviewed yesterday.

Glaciers Made You, by Gabby Reed (Strange Horizons) – This story goes across the middle and west of the northern part of the United States in a very magical realist way, and that made me feel comfortable and unsettled and sad and happy all at once.

Updraft, by Fran Wilde

Review copy provided by Tor Books. I think I’ve met Fran in person one weekend unless I’m forgetting another time (if so, sorry, Fran!), but we’re friendly online.

The best first novels are the ones where you can tell that the author is having fun with tropes and images they particularly enjoy. In the case of Updraft, that’s human flight via gliders. The humans in these books live in giant, at least somewhat-living structures, towers, that are interconnected with a few bridges but mostly conduct their trade and social contact through glider pilots flying back and forth. The Singers in the highest Spire keep the secrets of the towers, enforcing the Laws and protecting the tower denizens from the monsters who fly around them.

Or do they? Kirit and her friend Nat are trying to earn the right to fly alone between the towers as adults, but their curiosity leads them to some strange places and even stranger questions. They don’t have the backing of rich and powerful adults like some of their peers do, and the evidence that there’s more going on in their home than they’ve been taught keeps piling up. They take more risks and then more to find out what’s going on, and soon their loyalties to their home and each other are at risk. They find relationships they thought were lost and gifts within themselves that they never suspected existed.

This is really fine adventure fantasy that made me feel fourteen again in the best way.

Please consider using our link to buy Updraft from Amazon.

Dragon Coast, by Greg van Eekhout

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the third in its series, and I think there’s enough weight of story ahead of it that it’s really worth going back and reading California Bones and Pacific Fire if you can. The story in Dragon Coast will do an entirely great job of reminding you who these people are and why they matter to each other if you’ve already read the first two, but I think the emotional heft of it will be diminished if you just pick it up as “converging on a dragon on Treasure Island, osteomancy, go!”

The earlier volumes were very focused on Southern California; this one moves north and to a partially new cast of characters, whose relationships to each other are important and unknown to the people trying to navigate them. One of the great strengths of these books is van Eekhout’s portrayal of how people bond in complex ways in stressful situations, and having the previous sets of emotionally close people contrasted and shoved up against new sets made that strength particularly clear.

That makes the books sound cerebral and measured, and in fact they are action-packed and rollicking. They are action-packed, rollicking books with bone magic, and they are about relationships formed and tested and warped in stressful situations.

And also there is a recognition of the importance of water and water magic, particularly in California, so there’s a hot button of mine lovingly pressed.

They’re a good time, is what I’m saying, this one no less than the previous books. There is convergence of three storylines upon the disabled dragon on Treasure Island. That’s what these books are doing. So yeah.

Please consider using our link to buy Dragon Coast from Amazon.

Books read, late August

John Joseph Adams, ed., Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 57. Kindle. This is the disadvantage to reading things on my Kindle in bits and pieces when I am waiting in line places etc.: it takes forever, and in the case of short fiction, I note what to recommend and then forget what was in that issue. In this case I mostly remember Bear’s reprint novella as really lovely. Very old issue of Lightspeed, but I am not the only one with a giant reading queue, so I think I will not stress about it.

Anil Ananthaswamy, The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self. Fascinating neurological cases focused (in some ways loosely) around disorders of sense of self. This is one of those books that makes me uneasy, because I felt it was fascinating and well-researched pop neurology, except for the chapter about autism, where I know the most from research and personal experience. That chapter had some statements that were utter bullshit. (Example: autistic people do not engage in imaginative play? The hell you say, they do it in my living room. In most rooms of my house in fact. Also, I continue to maintain that treating autism as all one thing is a major problem, and the fact that Ananthaswamy was willing to charge merrily on with the idea that autistic people have trouble with theory of mind when over a third of the autistic people in the tests he was discussing did not have any such trouble is only one example of why I think this is problematic.) And…when that happens, I have to wonder whether the people with other neurodivergences or neurological diseases and their family members are reading the book going, oh yes, great stuff except for the one chapter I know about….

Victoria Brehm, ed., Star Songs and Water Spirits: A Great Lakes Native Reader. This book does not divided along US/Canada borders for the quite sensible reason that the Native/First Nations tribes/groups did not use that national boundary for their cultural boundary. It has a wide variety of authors telling very different types of stories, some old legends, some poems, some talk about life in various eras. Very interesting reference book, good jumping-off point for further reading.

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid. Interesting study of a semi-legendary figure that takes a brief and startling left turn into Saint Olaf, and if anybody should be incapable of being startled by that venerable personage it should be me. Goes into the contrast of the legend and the fact and how political needs shaped later stories. Probably not a great introduction to the legend of the Cid or to the Moors in Spain and the Moors going out of it again, if you’re looking for an introduction.

Reginald Hill, Underworld, Bones and Silence, Asking for the Moon, Recalled to Life, Pictures of Perfection, and The Wood Beyond. (Ed. note: only the last four of these seem to be in print.) So two things happened here. One: I got a cold, and rereading a favorite series felt just right, comfy and nice. Two: I hit the really good part, the part where I would recommend people start reading for the first time. That line happens at Bones and Silence. That book is still of its time in a few demographic details, but it is, in my opinion, the point in the series where Hill really cuts loose and starts playing with literary reference and structure; after that, the books have the reasons I wanted to read the whole series in the first place. Even a volume like Pictures of Perfection, which is structurally weak and gimmicky, is still essentially charming as a reading experience. The exception here is Asking for the Moon, which is a set of four shorter pieces and highlights why short mystery pieces are harder. It also contains a dead-end: Hill had no idea, twenty years in, how much longer his mystery series would stretch, so he had a 2010 moon base setting with an elderly, retired Dalziel, when in fact the last volume of the series was published in 2009 and…no moon base, not nearly so elderly a Dalziel, not nearly so cynical a relationship between the titular two detectives. The other thing that happens at Bones and Silence besides structural and literary complexity is that the role of Wield consistently continues to expand, and I love Wieldy; he is my favorite. His life improves and his role in the books expands and la la la yay Wieldy.

Nalo Hopkinson, Falling in Love with Hominids. Cannot lose with this volume of varied speculative short work from one of the modern masters of the genre. I don’t feel that the very short pieces are her strength, but otherwise just dive right in. Recommended. One caveat: if you have zero tolerance for horror or creepiness, this is not the place to start with Hopkinson, because some of these stories are quite effective at being unpleasant.

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest. Discussed elsewhere. I would like to talk about the title metaphor with someone who has read the book, please, if such a person would email me.

David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Nineteenth century, mostly early. Oh lordy there is so much James Fenimore Cooper. You might think, “How much James Fenimore Cooper can there be?” And the answer is, “ARGH TOO MUCH.” There are other people who are more interesting than Cooper (LIKE EVERYBODY), some of them even crossing the line into actually interesting. But the pressing need to slay James Fenimore Cooper with a dull spoon pour encourager les autres really dampened my enthusiasm for this book. Especially since there were lots of 19th century American medical women who got short shrift thereby, and I was promised plagues! Promised plagues and received Fenimores! What a thing!

Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life. I am very glad that I read this eminent and chatty neurologist autobiography a few days before Dr. Sacks died, rather than having the fraught decision of whether to read it immediately upon hearing his death or having it hanging around being a thing I want to read but freighted with different meaning. Its structure is very much “here are some things I wanted to say about myself before I go,” and I’m glad he got the chance. I am gnashing my teeth in particular about the missing book about myoclonus (noooooooo)

Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang. This was just the sort of nice rural Chinese 17th century history, focused on a region and its inhabitants in ways that one doesn’t get often, that allowed me to brace myself for the titular darkness of The Dark Forest. I hold further volumes of Spence in reserve for future need of similar kind. I feel sure they will have famine and bandits and trials and other things like that, things that are quite interesting when happening far away to other people.

Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score. I didn’t want to put this down while I was reading it. Afterwards I felt somewhat less positive, though I still liked it. I guess I feel that Mo is not as successful a voice as Bob–her concerns are too similar to his, the details she notices too similar. Also the ending made me furious. FURIOUS. Not in a “haha the author sure got you” sort of way that one should feel smug about but literally incandescent with rage, and yet I did not dislike the book enough–and I love the series–that I am anti-recommending the book on the basis of the last few FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE pages. Somebody who has read this please email me and talk to me about this so that I can vent without harming the innocents. Breathing. Yes. Really, as I said, love the series. Did not want to put it down while reading it. Have hopes of further volumes. But those last two pages OH MY GOLLY. And really: do not start here. Do not. Start at the beginning of the series, there’s a dear. You have direct evidence further up the page that I am not a “start at the beginning at all times” purist, and I bet you don’t have to start with volume one here. But not this one. And not just because of the flames. Because there are all sorts of places where follow-ons and consequences matter quite a lot here.

Jeff Sypeck, Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of AD 800. This is a warm and charming book. It is a quite reasonable introduction, so it probably has things many of you won’t need. On the other hand, it talks about what we can know about Charlemagne’s relationship with his daughters and with the nascent Frankish Jewish community, which was awfully nice. And there was the poor fellow who walked most of the way from Baghdad to Aachen with the elephant. Which is bad enough, being him or being the elephant, but can you imagine being the Frankish peasant along the wayside? “Gran, there’s got to be ergot in the rye, you won’t believe what I’ve just seen.” “Na, lass, come look what it’s left behind as a gift, the fields will bloom for years. Get the shovel.” Give me a book about the Empress Irene and I still end up in the fungus and dung. Peasant ancestry woooo! Annnnnyway. I brought that bit with me, you can’t expect it in the book. There was the Empress Irene in the actual text, though, so that’s all right then.