Reading Strange Matters, by Matthew David Surridge

Review copy provided by the author.

Matthew is someone I know a bit from Farthing Party in Montreal; I’ve talked about books with him in that context. If you don’t know him but the name sounds familiar, it’s either from his essays on Black Gate or for the Puppy slate Hugo nomination he declined for same. Since he had nothing whatsoever to do with either subgroup of Puppies, I was not at all surprised to see him decline.

This is a collection of those essays, existing on the borderline of reviews and book analysis.  At the same time as I was reading it, my husband Mark was reading Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, and the similarities and differences were interesting.  Reading Strange Matters has a much newer skew, whereas What Makes This Book So Great goes back much farther.  The Surridge covers only short series, focusing mostly on stand-alone works; the Walton goes into depth on long series.  But both focus primarily on books for which they have at least some good things to say. Both focus on books that are worth their time and yours, and why those books are worth a look.

After a few pieces, I found myself getting up to jot down titles–I have read most of the works covered, but not all, and I wasn’t trusting that I’d remember which ones exactly piqued my interest.  Even with as much as I read, there were some titles that were new to me.  While Surridge gives us thoughts about books that got wide mainstream coverage–Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus comes to mind, a favorite with book clubs all over the continent–but most of the titles could use more attention.  He touches on several of my neglected favorites: Minister Faust, for example, gets lengthy attention.  There is analysis not of a Nalo Hopkinson novel but of each of the short stories in a collection.  Leah Bobet and Susan Palwick each get an essay.  The nature of the collection means that if you do happen upon a rare piece of no interest whatsoever, it’s easy to flip pages to the next item.

A quick and broadening reading experience, if you’ve enjoyed Surridge’s thoughts in the past or wondered about them, this is your chance for more.

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Everybody bubble

Four times this week I’ve run into people being plaintive about how everybody is excited about something or likes something except them.

Three of those times I wasn’t excited or didn’t like the thing either. But the thing is–I don’t tend to announce, “I am unexcited about the World Series!”  There are people who are excited. They can go ahead and be excited.  If I am directly asked, I will indicate that, no, it is not taking up much of my attention, but even then I will try to refocus to what I am really interested in right now is this other thing here. And I know lots of rules parents make for their kids about this with food.  “Do not yuck other people’s yum” is the most common phrasing I’ve heard. Some parents say “do not harsh other people’s squee” or various other things not to harsh. But basically: if it’s not morally offensive, if the flaws in it are not things you want to analyze for a reason, if it’s just not your thing, there’s no reason to get in the faces of those who are excited.

I think sometimes in a particular subculture it’s hard to get perspective, though. Two of the times above were about the new Star Wars. And it’s easy to see how someone could feel that their entire Twitter, their entire Facebook, all their nerd friends in person–eeeeeverybody was excited about it! But no, there are plenty of people who went to your high school who are excited about college football instead of Star Wars (in addition, of course, to the ones who are excited about both)–who are excited about a reality show that premiered last week, or frozen concentrated orange juice futures, or the campaign of some presidential candidate, or anything else, really, that is not Star Wars.

And this is even more worth remembering when it comes to novels.  Because the novel that “everyone” was excited about? Will probably reach fewer than 40,000 people worldwide. Probably far fewer. Its author, while a household name in my household and probably, if you read this blog, yours, is famous in such a complete bubble that my next-door neighbors–who like books enough to put up a Little Free Library on their corner lot–are guaranteed not to be able to identify the name as an author rather than a musician, actor, or dental hygienist.  And so complaining that “everyone” thinks their book is so great while you are the brave truth-teller who sees that it is not bad, not morally reprehensible, not even mediocre, just–not your cup of tea?  Does not tear down the rich and famous.  It just points out what that author already knows: that fame and glory has only arrived to them in a tiny, tiny pinpoint of the universe.

This is why I’m not using the author’s name. It would not be fair to focus on them as the “popular” kid who is not “really” that great when that’s not my point at all.  What is my point?  Perspective, perspective, perspective.  There is almost nothing that is universally adored, so if you’re feeling surrounded by people who like a thing you don’t like, who are excited by a thing that doesn’t excite you…does it actually hurt you?  Can you go somewhere and talk about a different thing completely?  Because there often is a reason that other people are not speaking up to say, “I am not excited! I don’t like it!”, and it’s not cowardice, it’s courtesy.

Does this conflict with my willingness to give harsh or mediocre reviews? Eh, I don’t think so. I think going out of my way to single out a thing to say, “Not excited!” or, “Not that great!” is not the same thing as more context. But if you think I’m wrong, go ahead and tell me why you feel I’m wrong, I’m interested in discussion.

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The old phrase “planetary romance” has been out of style for decades, and it’s a shame, because it’s just the description we need of Radiance.  The planets in it are not the ones we’ve researched, and they’re not meant to be–they’re more the old romantic notion of a solar system that might contain civilizations and settlements livable to the human race in the blink of an eye.

And not just civilizations but art, and not just art but the movie industry. Radiance is a cascade of images, a filmstrip spliced together from bits of its characters’ lives and works–some of them overwhelming, meant to be, metaphors and bits of tossed away worldbuilding to sum to a felt rather than a logical whole.  Its main character, Severin Unck, is the documentarian daughter of a filmmaker, found on his doorstep; she finds in turn a boy with a horrible wound.  And then there are the callowhales, necessary for the idyll of space travel to be even as much of a flawed idyll as it is.

I loved the callowhales most. I loved the callowhales best. I think some people will stay for the tough-talking detectives, or the drugs, or life in the movies. But for me it was to find out everything, anything I could about the callowhales. Animal, vegetable, or mineral? I found them much more compelling than Severin Unck and her human compatriots in and out of the film world, but they were needed to give the callowhales context, contrast, and–oddly, given their descriptions–heft.  A Radiance of callowhales alone would have swum murkily through the solar system–it took the film industry to bring them into the light.

Please consider using our link to buy Radiance from Amazon.

More short stories I have liked since last I told you

It seems like a good time to compile some more new/recent short stories I have read and liked.  One weird thing that happened is that I read a paper magazine I was not in, and I’m not entirely sure how to handle that, because I liked several things in it, but it’s so unusual that I don’t have a protocol for it.  It was Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet Issue 33, and what I particularly liked was:  “I Bury Myself” by Carmen Maria Machado; “Starling Road” by Alena McNamara; “For Me, Seek the Sun” by Michelle Vider; and “Request for an Extension on the Clarity” by Sofia Samatar (all stories) and “Child Without Summer” by Kelda Crich (a poem).  Elsewhere, more easily gotten to:

The Closest Thing to Animals by Sofia Samatar (Fireside)

Those by Sofia Samatar (Uncanny) (Yeah, I didn’t mean to make it Sofia Samatar month, it just happened that way.)

Solder and Seam by Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed)

Hold-Time Violations by John Chu (Tor.com)

Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood by Julia August (Journal of Unlikely Academia)

Books read, early September

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. This is short and interesting, and I think most of the reviews I’ve seen of it that react badly do not take into account that it is not talking to them.  I think it’s legitimate to have a specific audience even when you’re publishing (with “public” in the root of “publishing”), and when you’re outside that audience to take it into account.  I particularly liked the way that Coates cited some of his stronger influences; that comes into play later in this book post.  Doesn’t take long to read, part of a conversation on race in America that’s long overdue.

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution. If you don’t know a lot about how the US went from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, this is a pretty straightforward book about that era and the personalities at the centers of power who shaped it.  It was fairly short and did not really subvert any of the standard narratives that I could see.  It’s a lot more useful as an introduction than as an in-depth look.  If you’ve been listening to Hamilton and wanting to know more, this is not the place.

John M. Ford, Heat of Fusion. Reread.  Reread for the first time since the week Mike Ford died.  The story that really stayed with me this time was “Erase/Record/Play.”  It’ll be a different one every time.  Weirdly, I have only ever read this book in late September/early October: 2004, 2006, and 2015.  Also I am having a perennial struggle with anger at the universe, because I would like to have new Mike Ford stories to compare these to, and right now it is for various reasons being hard that I do not.

Maria Dahvana Headley, Magonia. I fell in love with this book immediately. She knows things about chronic illness that are so true and funny, and she knows things about that intense passionate teenage friendship that is on the verge of being something else, and all of it goes with bird people in ways that made me sit down and get swallowed up right away.  I just said yes to this whole book, yes, families, yes, cloud ships, yes, all of it, give me more of this book. Sing me this story. Make me lists, tell me about your people, yes.  All the yes.

Reginald Hill, Death’s Jest Book. This is the other half of the story with Too Much Franny Root in it, and it’s probably my least favorite of the late half of the Dalziel and Pascoe series.  I will be glad to have moved on in the series from it, but things kept coming up, so this is the only one I got to this fortnight.

Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, Hanzai Japan. Discussed elsewhere.

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, An Apprentice to Elves. Discussed elsewhere.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Against a Brightening Sky. Discussed elsewhere.

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  Okay, look.  Genre is a tag cloud, right? It’s not an exclusionary thing where one label bumps out another.  So I’m all for some weirdo getting paid extra money by the establishment and having her books sold all sorts of places–I bought this one in Half Price, but the original sale sticker said Urban Outfitters, which, really? no.  But let’s be real: Karen Russell is, in fact, some weirdo, kids.  She’s one of us.  There is a story in here with US Presidents reborn in the bodies of very confused horses. The vampires in the titular story: they are not just a meeeeetaphor, they are vampires, with, like, the fangs and stuff.  (Not that it does them any good, but I like that part.)  This is the weird shit.  Don’t let the fact that she’s not publishing in Uncanny and SH distract you: this is the serious weird shit.  They can tag it with literary all they want, and that’s great, pay the weirdo, very glad for her. But you need to not lose track of it just because someone who doesn’t read it told you that literary is four pages of description of a tree or all about someone’s divorce or some other dumb description I’ve heard of literary fiction in the last six months.  Lady will make you go, “What?  What?  What are you even doing?”  Which is part of what we’re here for.  Well.  I am, anyway.

Sonia Sanchez, Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems. Sanchez is one of the influences Coates listed above, and I was looking for some new-to-me poets anyway.  I’m not the main audience for her poems, either, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t touch me.  I got to “Malcolm” and knew they would be powerful, and “Towhomitmayconcern” made me smile.  I paused also on “On Passing through Morgantown, Pa.” and “Aaaayeee Babo (Praise God)”–four poems in a short collection is a good number for me.  Glad I picked it up.

Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks. A light compendium, engagingly written, lots of side bars (yeah, sorry, I don’t know what to call them that isn’t punny), lots of quick information if you’re feeling like plants and booze. A good worldbuilding reference guide for writers or probably a pretty good present for the relative in your life with whom you have very little in common except that you both like [fill in booze here]: if you can’t take a bottle of the previous on the plane, get them this and you’re set for Christmas.  Or do both if that’s your price point.

Chris Van Allsburg, Zathura. Well, this was the deciding factor: I went and took all the other Chris Van Allsburg books off my library list.  Striking visual style has consistently not added up to any of them being the book that I like and want to keep around for poring over with small people; I give up.

Jonathan Waldman, Rust: The Longest War. This book jumps all over the place, with varying chapter lengths, about the wars we’re currently fighting against oxidation in industrial and consumer settings, and what consequences those have, good and bad. It’s nerdy and engaging but a little unfocused in places.

An Apprentice to Elves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by Tor Books. In addition, both of the authors are personal friends of mine for some years now.

Are reviewers allowed to write “NOW–THE TRIUMPHANT CONCLUSION,” or is that only for marketing copy?

This is the third in its series, and the trellwolves and their humans are still–mostly–at the center of its stage. But not in the same form: the new main character, Alfgyfa, is a young woman who has apprenticed to the svartalfar smith, Tin. (Smithing! Smithery! Hurrah!) While she can sense the trellwolves–while her sense of the wolfpack turns out to be relevant to her future as well as her personality and personal history–this book gives all sorts of angles on the surroundings and support of the trellwolf pack. It lets Alfgyfa explore the twists and turns of a space shaped by the other species around her–and a self shaped by a childhood among those species.

In addition to Alfgyfa’s adventures, we hear quite a lot from Otter, adopted daughter of the wolfheall, finding her way among the annoyances of tithe-boys and the joys of a newish-to-her society. Otter watches details. Otter notices people, even the wolf kind of people. Two kinds of alfar, trolls, wolves wild and domestic, humans….

Humans. Humans are the problem. Humans are only part of the solution, but they’re really pretty much all of the problem in this book. Monkeys, we say in my house, are a lot of trouble, and empires that do not understand the cultures they are trampling are even more trouble than individual monkeys. The resolution of both this individual book plot and the intercultural/interspecies weaving that has been going on all trilogy is so satisfying that I emailed the authors, “YAWP,” about it. Highly, highly recommended. Great fun even for those less Viking-influenced than I.

Please consider using our link to buy An Apprentice to Elves from Amazon.

Now! in paper!

One of my besetting sins as an author–not as a writer, that’s different–is that I have a tendency to leave things too much in the rearview. It takes some effort not to regard something I wrote last week with a baffled air of, “That? But that was last week, let me tell you what I’m working on now.” Since what I’m working on now is, by definition, not something that is finished and visible, this is not a functional approach to sharing one’s work with the outside world.

Short story collections are even less functional if you’re not able to talk about things you used to be doing. They have to pile up! And while they are piling you are doing something different.

In this case, my ebook collection of children’s stories from Tired Tapir Press is now a shiny new paper edition. It’s called Dragon Brother, and it’s got a shiny new cover by a local young artist with a comics specialty whose style is perfect for the youth content of the stories.  So…yay new edition, yay new cover, yay book!

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Hanzai Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington

Review copy provided by Haikasoru Books. Haikasoru is also listed on the cover as the editor, but Mamatas and Washington are listed as the editors on the title page, so since that information is available I’m using it.

“Hanzai,” for those who are not aware, is basically “crime”: this is a Japanese speculative crime fiction anthology. Rather than choosing to focus on one niche of crime fiction, one niche of speculative fiction, or one way of involving Japan/Japanese-ness, it aims at being a broad-spectrum collection. It succeeds admirably at that–for those who are fond of the “hookers and meth” end of one genre or the vampire end of another, that stuff is in there. For those who are me, there’s still a lot to like. Here are some of the stories I really felt stood out.

Genevieve Valentine, “dis.” Creepy and atmospheric exploration of its crumbling setting. Vivid post-industrial details. Made my skin crawl in the best way.

Yumeaki Hirayama, “Monologue of a Universal Transverse Mercator Projection.” Translated by Nathan A. Collins. Probably my favorite story of the collection, it is, in fact, what it says on the tin: the map’s perspective. And what crimes the map is privy to–party to–the map’s desires and motivations and fears–the map’s unique voice–all of these things sum to make “Monologue of a Universal Transverse Mercator Projection” a truly unique construction. Delightful.

Brian Evenson, “Best Interest.” PowerPoint. Using a famous Japanese entity to one’s own ends. Highly entertaining.

Carrie Vaughn, “The Girl Who Loved Shonen Knife.” The voice on this story was just note-perfect. If you know the Very! Enthusiastic! Teenage! Girl! Voice! from a lot of anime, it’s that. And she’s got a cover band! And the end of the world will not stop her cover band! It is hilarious good fun with tropes and characterization.

Violet LeVoit, “The Electric Palace.” A complete 180 from the above story, this is very vivid and atmospheric, full of sensory detail in chiaroscuro.

Please consider using our link to buy Hanzai Japan from Amazon.

Robin Hood and the Problem of Domestic Fantasy

So I’ve been thinking, off and on, about why it is that we see a lot of novels about King Arthur and not a lot of novels about Robin Hood. You get Robin Hood movies, sure, but books, not so many, only a handful. I was rewatching Disney’s animated version not that long ago, and a particular image got my attention.

Robin Hood and Little John were doing their laundry.

While Disney’s Robin Hood is really great on gender stuff–Robin Hood clearly can’t cook because he’s a lovesick fool, not because he’s a guy and Little John, who can, fixes the ruined stew for him; they do laundry; when Lady Cluck says “this is no place for a lady!”, she clearly means “for a gently reared person,” because she charges immediately into the fray herself, to the tune of On Wisconsin*–this is not the only Robin Hood that features laundry in Sherwood Forest. In fact Sherwood Forest is strikingly domestic, for a mythic setting.

I think this is perhaps the problem with getting it into novels.

Jo Walton, when talking about writing Lifelode, has discussed the problems of domestic fantasy, how conflict and war tend to creep into books that are otherwise trying to focus on the daily and the smaller-focus, just structurally–that we have an addiction to the grand and the dramatic, as a genre, even when we are trying not to. And I think that the Robin Hood myth actually runs into this problem. Sure, there is swashbuckling. There is the dramatic. But it is the dramatic image. It is the arrow going into the target; it is the Merry Man swinging into a tree. It is not the dramatic tension, because we all know the precursors for the ending are historical, not personal.

Because of Robin Hood’s near-unique place in western legend, straddling myth and history so neatly, the story’s ending can’t be refitted without upending actual history. The end of the Robin Hood story is that actual, historical Good King Richard returns from the Crusades and ends the usurped reign of his brother, actual, historical Prince John. So…what, exactly, are Our Band of Merry Men doing? They can’t actually resolve their own problems in any lasting way. And fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham starts to look an awfully lot like doing the laundry if you’re never allowed to either beat him (slay/depose him) or have him beat you on any permanent basis. Oh, it’s Monday: time to wash out our green jerkins and hassle the Sheriff’s men. Oh, it’s Tuesday: time to go to market for turnips and shoot some arrows into Prince John’s tax collectors’ hats. But not into the tax collectors themselves! Because resolution is not in our purview. We resist. Others resolve.

The jerkins will get dirty again, the turnips will go again into the stew, the taxes will get collected again. The camera can fool the eye with pageantry into feeling that there has been progress from arrow shot to arrow shot. But on the page of a novel, it’s very hard to make a holding action against entropy feel like heroism. Even though it’s the main heroism any of us achieve on a daily basis. Even though it is a heroism worth having.

Try again, someone; I would have another domestic fantasy, or a Robin Hood novel that grapples with this, or both. But for the moment at least, I am not the one to write it.

*Multiple associations with north of one place or another. Willingness to throw shoulders in a brawl and clown for children. Bosom capacious enough for storage. Can we say “Marissa’s identification character?” CLUCKY I LOVE YOU.