Present Writers: Barbara Hambly (Barbara Hamilton)

This is the third post in this series; see the first post, on Marta Randall, for series details, or the second one, on Dorothy Heydt (Katherine Blake) for more cool Present Authors.

Earlier this month I was on a Readercon panel about authors who challenge the pigeonhole, who cannot be categorized into one tidy box or another. And when I started to make my notes for panel prep, one of the very first names that popped into my head was Barbara Hambly’s. A quick glance at her bibliography shows a range not only all over the speculative sub-genres (historical fantasy! secondary world fantasy! vampires! Star Trek and Star Wars!), but also straight-up historical fiction, mysteries, things that are not speculative at all. She does it all. Short stories, novels, graphic novels, large press, small press, indie published…all of it. All. Backwards in high heels, I expect.

My personal favorites among Barbara Hambly’s work are the Benjamin January mysteries. They provide everything I want in historical mysteries: depth of worldbuilding, characterization that’s rooted in the place and time and yet deeply individual, thematic ties that make the setting the right place to explore these particular questions of life and death and human motivation. I am particularly fond of the women in these books, January’s sisters and his wife especially but also the variety of other characters in the periphery. As with many of the best mystery series, the ensemble cast provides strength and suspense, preventing the detective’s actions from becoming too formulaic. (Although I’m not sure that’s something we should worry about from an author who goes as readily from subgenre to subgenre and idea to idea as Hambly does.)

Characters are central to everything Hambly does. The genre tropes that she draws out in her books are presented with full context for what they would mean to a variety of real people–and that variety has included axes of underrepresentation not only along the lines of race, but age and ability and other factors as well. I never know what Hambly will decide to do next, and I love that in an author–it makes me so grateful that she is so prolifically present with us now.

In and out and around

So I have finished another year’s Readercon, and the adjacent small writing retreat I did with it, and both were good and now I am doing all the things that have to be done when you get back from a trip. And also all the things that have to be done before you leave on a trip, because it’s just over two weeks before I leave for Copenhagen.

It’s weird, because I am feeling less and less like posting an “I’ll be away for these days” message than I used to, on my blog or on social media of various kinds. Partly it’s that some of the social media will be coming with me in ways that didn’t used to be true. When I went to London in 2005 for my grandparents’ anniversary, I Got On The Internet I think exactly once. In Finland and Sweden two years ago, I did it every day, because Getting On The Internet is…not really a thing. You just are, you’re on the internet in the same way that you’re on the power grid, it’s as notable to be off the one as the other. It’s been several years now that I’ve noticed some surveys have old-fashioned usage questions: how many hours a day do you spend logged on to the internet, that sort of thing, and my answer is: huh? what does that even mean?

But there are things that I don’t do when I’m traveling, and one of them is blogging. There will be single book posts for both July and August, because the midmonth book post for each would have fallen when I was traveling, and nope. Another thing I don’t do is Facebook–I haven’t deleted my Facebook because a small number of people I care about use it for things I care about, but I use it minimally even when I’m at home, and if I’m going to choose between getting a lovely pastry somewhere in Nyhavn or using Facebook, you can bet which one I’ll pick.

And it’s interesting to me that in the two years since I went to Finland and Sweden, my feeling about Twitter has completely shifted. I now feel like I can tweet a photo of a beautiful pastry as a “hey, friend, thinking of you” to some specific people–that the rest of the world is allowed to see if they care–and have it be part of my day, not interrupting my day. That’s…insidious, but also awesome. I’m willing to live with the balance. But I do notice it’s there.

Anyway! Two weeks and two days! With a lot of revision and a lot of new stuff to write between now and then, and also house chores, and also a major birthday, and….

Juggling scarves and clubs and a flaming chainsaw, is what. But in a mostly good way.

Like Never and Always, by Ann Aguirre

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Most body swap stories–things like Freaky Friday–feature both perspectives, and the ending is that everybody goes back in their proper body but with new appreciation for the other person’s experiences.

Like Never and Always is really, really not like that.

Liv is in a car accident and wakes up in the body of her best friend, Morgan. Morgan doesn’t wake up in any body. Liv’s old body is dead. Liv’s family is grieving, Liv’s boyfriend is grieving, and Morgan has left Liv a gigantic mess that Liv had no way to anticipate–because it turns out that Morgan has been hiding almost everything from her. For their entire friendship. Yikes.

This is a thriller with thriller pacing; the chapters are short and vivid. Mostly it’s a contemporary YA thriller, but the speculative element is present on basically every page. There’s a strong romance arc as well, and a detective element in trying to figure out things about Liv/Morgan’s new life and her past, so…a lot of genres handled here. I think this one will have pretty broad appeal, because each of them is handled with a fairly light touch, so the people who say “I don’t really like _____” won’t be overwhelmed by _____. The strongest element is Liv’s relationships, and that fits the premise perfectly.

Please consider using our link to buy Like Never and Always from Amazon.

Short stories I’ve enjoyed in the last bit

It’s time once again for a short story recommendation post! As usual, please feel free to recommend stories to me in the comments, because I make no pretense of having read everything–if you see a magazine listed, it doesn’t mean I’ve read everything from that magazine, even.

The Velvet Castles of the Night, by Claire Eliza Bartlett, Daily Science Fiction

Time, Like Water, by Amal El-Mohtar, The Rubin

The Things That We Will Never Say, by Vanessa Fogg, Daily Science Fiction

The Guitar Hero, by Maria Haskins, Kaleidotrope

Five Functions of Your Bionosaur, by Rachael K. Jones, Robot Dinosaur Fiction

A Complex Filament of Light, by S. Qioyu Lu, Anathema

A Cradle of Vines, by Jennifer Mace, Cast of Wonders

The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change, by Virginia M. Mohlere, Luna Station Quarterly

Blessings, by Naomi Novik, Uncanny

Even to the Teeth, by Karen Osborne

50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover, by Aimee Picchi, Fireside

Canada Girl vs. The Thing Inside Pluto, by Lina Rather, Flash Fiction Online

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot, by A. Merc Rustad, Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Sonya Taaffe’s די ירושה, Uncanny (for some reason the text box will not let me enter this in the opposite order…)

Dear David, by Yael van der Wouden, Longleaf Review

Small Things Pieced Together, by Ginger Weil, Robot Dinosaur Fiction

In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same, by A.C. Wise, The Dark

Fascism and Facsimiles, by John Wiswell, Fireside

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also I hung out with Mary for hours less than a week before reading this book, so. There’s that I guess, as disclaimers go.

This book. Oh people. This book.

So the factual description first, what is this book: it is an alternate history of the early space program, with additional meteorite disaster (this is not a spoiler, it opens the book). Its focal characters draw on the neglected history of women in NASA, with a strong eye to the diverse bunch of people that actually got humanity into space from various places on this planet. There are exciting flight scenes, there are intense relationship scenes, there is…there is a lot. I am deeply, deeply glad that there is a second one, and that I don’t have to wait more than two months to get it.

But more nebulously, what is it? It is a book that deals very directly with anxiety, and with the fallout from being simultaneously the youngest kid in the class and the only girl in a technical field. It goes straight to my heart and some of the core of my identity and stays there, sometimes with catharsis and triumph, sometimes with pure struggle. It made me weep in unexpected places that will probably not be the same as yours unless they are. Its heroine doubts herself and screws up–everyone in the book is allowed to screw up–it is a book that understands that humanity and perfection do not coexist, but that striving is still worthwhile anyway. This book is made of striving.

I kind of think you want this book, friends. And I can’t wait for the next one.

Please consider using our link to buy The Calculating Stars from Amazon.

Books read, late June

It’s panel prep season! A lot of my reading this fortnight was preparation either for Fourth Street or for Readercon. So: many rereads. And so little time for other things.

Edward Eager, Magic by the Lake, Magic or Not?, The Time Garden, and The Well-Wishers. Rereads. The suck fairy had been at The Time Garden–there’s barely a bit of it that isn’t racially stereotyping and insensitive. Which makes me sad, because the general conceit of magic through varietals of thyme was cute and fun…but it made me aware that in my childhood I might not have encountered a character of Pacific Island heritage who was not portrayed as a cannibal, and that was pretty gross. (Nor was this the only example of racist portrayals in that book, nor was it Eager’s only use of that trope–Magic by the Lake is the companion volume to The Time Garden, as the children in the two encounter each other in the same scene written from different perspectives.) I have a lot to say about Eager’s relationship to Nesbit’s works–that’s the panel I’m preparing for–but here I will simply say that the difference between Nesbit doing her own thing and Eager looking back to try to do her thing looks pretty important to the result. The dubious magic pairing held up better (Magic or Not? and The Well-Wishers)–the latter was in the “okay for its time” category regarding how coy it was about race while trying to take on the theme of desegregation in housing and education–doing that while carefully never using any words that might be race-markers and never letting the illustrator illustrate the Black characters is…pretty shaky ground. But at least the book came down on the side of “these people are people and we support that,” I guess.

John M. Ford, From the End of the Twentieth Century and The Dragon Waiting. Rereads. The former is a brilliant and eclectic collection of short stories, essays, and poems. The latter…oh, oh, the latter. The Dragon Waiting holds up no matter how many times I reread it. It simultaneously does alternate history and does subtle meta things about alternate history and inevitability. It’s got vampires and wizards and Richard III and a strong Byzantium and…stuff, it is full of stuff, it is entirely full of stuff, and every time I reread it there’s something more I’d forgotten or hadn’t fully apprehended. Highly, highly recommended.

Dorothy Heydt, The Witch of Syracuse. Kindle. This is a mosaic novel about a woman who is sometimes a physician and sometimes a witch. It’s set in ancient Greece and does really well with its setting, historico-mythically. The heroine is engaging and fun, and the trials she runs into are interesting. Definitely enjoyed and would recommend. (Free! -ed)

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It. Reread. Actually held up substantially better than Eager despite being almost twice as old: Nesbit’s children are flawed, forthright, stubborn little beasts having magic adventures, and it’s still reasonably fun. She takes more care than her era really would have found proper to make sure she’s not stereotyping Roma people (not perfectly successful at this–but better than not trying), and there are little pokes and jabs at the status quo in odd and charming places.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, Will Murray, Chris Schweitzer, et al. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Like I’m the Only Squirrel in the World and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Who Run the World? Squirrels!. These are just plain fun. Especially if you have no reverence for the other Marvel superheroes and enjoy seeing them skewered, mocked, and parodied. There is nut-eating as well as butt-kicking in these.

G. Willow Wilson et al, Ms. Marvel: Super Famous. I like Ms. Marvel a lot and enjoyed this comic, gentrification and all, but it suffered by being read in close proximity to the Squirrel Girl comics, because they took nearly identical paths to their young heroines’ romantic lives. Ideally there will be more divergence in future. Meanwhile it was still reasonably fun to encounter Kamala’s super adventures overlapping with her family stuff.

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The first thing about this book is that it nails the voice. It’s a 1930s British spy novel, and Rajaniemi gets that, down to the bones and, er, ectoplasm. It is intensely atmospheric; while the WWI of this book is not our WWI and the thirties that ensue are not our thirties, they have the same emotional heft, the same grit and shadow as ours. I like this a lot.

Second, what it has is follow-through on its worldbuilding. I watch a lot of procedurals with my workouts–no, a lot–no, really really a lot–and they quite often want to veer at least temporarily into an episode that has ghosts. But they don’t want to think about the implications of the kind of ghosts they’ve chosen: how much they can observe the world of the living, how much they can interact with physical objects, what effects that would have on life in general and the setting of the procedural in specific. Because they don’t want to write a ghost story, they want to write a procedural and do a little flirting on the side.

Hannu Rajaniemi wanted to write a ghost story. He wanted to think very, very hard about what all the implications would be if we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that spirits could interact with our world in certain specified ways, that people could then build technologies and social structures around. And so there is a story with heart here, with very human characters doing very human things–but the world-building was just lovely, because it thought through surveillance and evidence in a world with ghosts, it thought through how you would go about building spy networks when death did not release your agents, and the story that ensued is a very emotionally complex human story with the speculative premise utterly essential.

I liked this a lot, and I recommend it highly.

Please consider using our link to buy Summerland from Amazon.

Books read, early June

Adam Regn Arvidson, Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest. This author went and had an in-person encounter with each of the species on the endangered species list in Minnesota and wrote about it. I LOVED THIS. I wish every state had a book like this. It gives a different context and perspective on your immediate habitat even if you’re a person who thinks about conservation and habitat frequently and broadly. I think it would be very readable even for non-Minnesotans, but for Minnesotans, a must-read. Mussels, orchids, lynx, all sorts of things.

Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective. This is a short piece but stands under separate cover, so it gets a separate review. This is a female PoC Holmes-and-Watson in space, but the in space part is baked into the bones. There’s no part of this that’s just plunked down in space with no thought to implication, no part where the shift in culture and gender is not done with careful consideration. As a result, I found it to be far more charming and interesting than the versions in which the template is used too exactly without regard to worldbuilding and character context. If you like nontraditional minds as characters, this one’s for you. No, I don’t mean Holmes….

John M. Ford, The Princes of the Air and Web of Angels. Rereads. These are Mike’s first two books, and I hadn’t reread them since he died in 2006. What struck me this time about Web of Angels in particular was how emotionally and culturally Protestant it is. Possibly the most Protestant book I’ve ever read that was not about conversion theology. It’s proto-cyberpunk, is what it is, it’s cyberpunk before movement cyberpunk, and the aesthetic and tonal differences are fascinating.

Victoria Glendinning, Anthony Trollope. This is a fun biography of the author in question, talking about his relationships and their effects on his work, particularly his relationships with women including his mother and his niece. It made me want to read more Trollope, although he is the scariest author I read, so I will still probably not do more than one. But soon.

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation. I think it’s worth looking at Deb Reese’s commentary on a Native perspective on this book, including its endnotes. I see what Ireland was trying to do, and the parts of it that were away from the residential school were as interesting as a zombie novel ever gets for me, interesting enough that I was very glad to keep reading and see what she was doing with it. But I also see that there are some areas where wounds are still very, very fresh in some communities, so…this book simultaneously does an amazing job with prejudice and perception and power in its main characters’ lives and has some caveats around it that I expect Ireland will be keeping in mind for future work, knowing how good this is and how good the work she’s done elsewhere has been.

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There. This is a “life of the Park” book mostly–a little bit about codebreaking, but mostly a book about how it was to live there, how it felt and who ate what and how it was to arrange lodgings–the sort of thing that a writer who wants that background will probably find valuable.

E. Nesbit, The Magic World. Reread. A set of Nesbit shorts, all aimed at kids and doing that Edwardian upper class thing where she’s talking at kids but assumes a great many specifics about their background. Simultaneously there are a few pre-Soviet socialist moments that are fascinating in their British Edwardian details. But mostly it’s a book where some small magic takes place and some child enjoys it or manages to squirm out from under it, often but not always with animal transformation and frustrating relatives.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Jacob Chabot, et al, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I Kissed A Squirrel and I Liked It. I’m sad that it’s still necessary for some of these tropes about dating and what NOT to do to someone you’re dating are necessary to mention–and really glad that comics are willing to mention them, and put them in the context of superpowered adventures. I raced through this.

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. This was the last of Grandpa’s books on my pile, and it took me forever to read–not mostly because of my awareness that it was the last, mostly because it is over a thousand pages of Nazis, and I kept needing to take breaks for my emotional well-being. Shirer was a journalist who had a front-row seat for a lot of things and could comment on the situation firsthand, which was particularly interesting in the early chapters (he did not have a front-row seat for the plot to assassinate Hitler, for example). This book is of its time, does not have all the context that we’d later have, but that’s also where its value lies: you can see how much of this stuff was terrifyingly known immediately or soon thereafter, what it looked like while it was happening. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad I’m done reading it.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition. The second Murderbot novella! Now featuring ART! I like ART so much. I continue to do the dance of Murderbot as it wends its way through frustrating human customs and societies and tries to figure out a place for itself. Looking forward to more unreservedly, highly recommended–I read this as a reward for finishing my own book draft.