Present Writers: Jane Yolen

It’s still August for a few hours, so I can fit in my August Present Writers post. Whew! For the first one and an explanation of the series, see Marta Randall, with posts on Dorothy Heydt and Barbara Hambly following.

Jane Yolen is so incredibly prolific that this year she has passed the milestone where she can celebrate one book she’s written for every day of the year. While she was preparing for that celebration, more of her books came out, leaving the 365 mark in the dust. She has written science fiction, fantasy, mimetic fiction, nonfiction, poetry; she has written for adults and tiny children and every age in between. She has won the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award and SFWA’s Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. Jane is a pretty big deal, honestly. Once upon a time a reviewer called her “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” and every time I read that quote, I hear her son Adam Stemple’s voice in my head amending cheerfully, “More like the Hans Jewish Andersen!” Jane’s work on Jewish themes is staggeringly great, even for a Gentile like me, but she also has written on British themes, Greek themes, future themes. She’s collaborated with her kids. She’s collaborated with someone else’s kids. She’s done work of staggering originality, collected other people’s folklore, returned to her own successes to help children through the processes of growing up into reasonably functional people with delight and whimsy.

Are you getting the picture yet? Jane can do it all.

Recently I was on a trans-Atlantic flight and finished the paper book I was reading. I was exhausted, coming west, where the advice is “stay up late” rather than “sleep on the plane.” I poked my Kindle for something that would keep me awake and engaged, and I turned up Jane’s Tales of Wonder. Half the stories in it were things I’d read before, the other half new to me, but every word kept me captivated. It spoke to death and family and loyalty and a dozen other things.

I’ve had the privilege of being on panels with Jane (including one with Adam too, and my best advice there is to sit back and let the mother-son comedy hour happen; enjoy it). She’s as insightful as her novels, as intrepid as Commander Toad, as thoughtfully lovely as Owl Moon. She is a treasure and a joy, and we are so lucky to have Jane for one of our present writers.

I’ve got a little list

I always return from travel–especially long travel–with an extensive to-do list. It’s not just the inspiration, although there’s been a lot of that. It’s not just the stuff that didn’t get done while I was gone. It’s also the shifted perspective that makes me notice little things–like the hole in the pocket of my fall coat, now mended before fall arrives in Minnesota but glaringly apparent when I wandered around Icelandic canyons. Catching up is a matter of using the new perspective travel brought me in tiny, mundane ways as well as large, magical ones.

(This novella idea I got in Borgarnes: it is perfect for me. So excited. You will be excited too, when I get there. But there’s a long road between here and there.)

One of the things that my to-do lists do for me is to give me a little breathing room, to let me know that I don’t actually have to do everything I want to do right now today. Marking something as “THURS” or putting it on the list for two weeks from now is a clear mental barrier: yes, I want to accomplish this, I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, but not this minute. If I finish all the stuff on my list for today, I can sit down and rest. Rest is good.

But THURS and two weeks from now eventually become real, and one of the things I was supposed to do in the Grand Scheme of After I Return was set up a newsletter. Well, it’s After I Return, so I’ve managed to set up that newsletter. It’s at https://tinyletter.com/MarissaLingen, and it will require confirmation once you’ve signed up for it. I expect to send something out roughly monthly, with publication news, recipes, thoughts and chatter, nothing frequent or lengthy. Please feel welcome.

The Unkindness of Ravens, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Review copy provided by the author/publisher, who is also a personal friend and also someone I was in a writing group with, so I critiqued this novella.

This is a novella about a magical, divinely backed caste system and the perils of xenophobia. It’s also about family and assumptions and trust. It also has some unflinching scenes of fighting, battlefields, injury, and disability.

It’s a lot in one novella, is what I’m saying.

Anari is the heir of House Crow, one of the eight Great Houses that runs his homeland and contributes possible heirs to the throne. He hasn’t ever seen himself as oba (ruler) material, and he had hoped that that would keep him out of the cutthroat competition. The world–as embodied by his siblings in the other Great Houses, and possibly by the intentions and desires of his House’s god–has other plans. Soon Anari’s entire worldview is upended, and he has to figure out a way for divine favor and Crow cleverness to provide real healing for his people–including the people he never thought of as his.

The resolution of this high fantasy adventure avoids some obvious pitfalls, holding interest deftly until the very end.

Please consider using our link to buy The Unkindness of Ravens from Amazon.

The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor Books. This is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, which I reviewed here: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=2206

I was really glad that the sequel came so quickly on the heels of the first book, because in some ways they’re more one story than two, and being able to finish the story promptly is something I really like. In other ways they’re not the same book and shouldn’t be–Elma York, our heroine, is in a very different place in her life.

There are short pieces of life on Earth at the beginning of this book, but for the most part it is a space mission book, it is travel to Mars and crew dynamics all the way. It’s the sort of book I read a lot of when I was in my teens: a book with the triumphs and pitfalls of crewed space flight, a book where a mission to another planet is made to feel as real as possible.

That place is a spaceship headed for Mars.

There’s a reason this is alternate history rather than projective science fiction this time, though, and that is: the mission to another planet is made to feel as real as possible for everybody. Not just for one demographic. All the stuff that was in the SF we grew up with implicitly is self-aware here: all the places where a character assumes that the proper person for the job has to be male, all the places where “publicity” and “marketing” dictate that white people do things to make them appealing to other (racist) white people…they’re there in the stuff this is an alternate history from, too. They’re just not there consciously on the author’s part. Here, they’re absolutely deliberate, and central.

Everyone in this book is allowed to make mistakes. Everyone in this book is allowed to differ from the people they care most about, and work on it, and work through it. It is not as centrally for me as The Calculating Stars was, but it’s a very satisfying conclusion to that story. With plenty of chess pie. Recommended.

Please consider using our link to buy The Fated Sky from Amazon.

If you didn’t like progress, here’s a tornado

Unexpectedly another thing of mine for you to read while I pack: this blog post on the Analog website is about the novelette I have in the current issue of Analog (“Left to Take the Lead”) and also about tornadoes and rebuilding and healing and community: https://theastoundinganalogcompanion.com/2018/08/07/it-all-comes-around-again/

An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Once upon a time there was a teenager whose physics research equipment was broken two summers in a row, and she was stuck with a library on Library of Congress system, which is great for organization but terrible for browsing. And this kid decided that if she was going to do this SF writing thing, she should take it as seriously as physics–and she was the sort of physics kid who had research jobs at ages 18 and 19 to go wrong, so that was how seriously she took physics. So…there was the list of Hugo nominees and winners. And the list of Nebula nominees and winners. And a lot of long summer hours reading them when there was no possibility of getting physics done. And a lot of wandering off down side tracks when I liked a particular author or work very much, or even just when the library had a lot by that person.

I sometimes refer to myself as my misspent youth, but it’s actually stood me in really good stead for the career I ended up having, which is 0% physicist and 100% SF writer. It also means that when I read a lengthy discussion of the history of the Hugos, I have a good grounding in who’s doing what when. This book was a kind of perspective all at once that I didn’t have, though, even with having glanced at the original Tor.com posts that comprise it. It was a fun, fast read despite its considerable size, and it left me with some thoughts I assemble for you here in no particular order.

Jo Walton is a nicer person than I am. Okay, I should have put in the disclaimer that she’s a dear friend, also, but that’s not why I’m saying this. Loads of my friends are not as nice a person as I am. (Not very nice to say that, but at the same time I can guarantee at least a dozen people are nodding happily along thinking, “She means me,” without the least trouble to their consciences.) But there were several places where Jo said, “I haven’t read this, but I’m sure it’s great,” and I said aloud to the book, “I HAVE and it’s NOT.” She gives a lot of wiggle room, a lot of benefit of the doubt. What she does not do is pretend to have read anything she hasn’t actually read, which is great, more people should be clear about what they haven’t read.

One of the fascinating things to me was watching the “I read this stuff when it was new” line kick in at a different place for Jo than it did for me. I knew hypothetically that books look different when they are ground-breaking for you than when they’re part of the status quo, but wow, there it all was. John Varley, for example, was always part of the world I could expect, one of the things stories just did–whereas for Jo and a few of the commenters who were adding to her posts, there was a period of adding those works to their world concept. It changes a lot. There are all sorts of definitions of a book “holding up” with time, many of which are discussed in this volume, but I think one of the interesting questions on that front is: how does it do as a novel if the concepts (stylistic or science fictional or whatever) that were startling have become familiar to the reader?

Another thing that became startlingly clear to me when I was seeing the lists of what came out in a particular year of my childhood all at once: it used to be that most of my reading was in one of two categories: the men I was reading because I was told they were the good stuff you read if you were serious about SFF, and the women I read because I found them on my own and wanted to. It was not quite that stark, but…it sure felt pretty stark when I was looking at the lists of Hugo nominees and thinking, oh yes, I remember reading that…and then looking at the lists of what else was published and thinking, oh, I loved that! oh, that changed my life!

One of the major questions Jo addresses in this book is: how representative was each slate of nominees of what the field was doing at the time? And this is a question that I found fascinating in this format and…literally could not care less about in real time. Reading about it in this format clarified how little I care about that. It was an interesting point of consideration academically; in the field, inasmuch as I care about awards at all, I care about people trying to give them to the things they like best, or to the things that fit some other criteria that is specified for the award. So: does it represent the field? Is it “the kind of book that wins a Hugo”? I don’t care. I literally could not care less. Award the books you think are good. Period and full stop.

This is the sort of book that makes more dent than the sum of its blog posts. It was different reading it all at once than once a week (or less, since I wasn’t totally assiduous about this). It’s the sort of thing that you should read if you want an overview of what’s been done and how it was valued in the 20th century, but especially if you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time talking about–arguing about–science fiction and fantasy. Because even if you’re not arguing much with Jo herself, the very substance of what she’s talking about here can start a hundred discussions–or arguments–if you want it to. Perhaps it will become a party book: take the book down, read a randomly selected entry, discuss. People have done stranger things. People in my social circles, even.

Please consider using our link to buy An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 from Amazon.

Books read, July

Ann Aguirre, Like Never and Always. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Rowany de Vere and a Fair Degree of Frost. Kindle. This is a novella in the same world as the Crater School stories, and its heroine is one of the Crater School’s graduates, all grown up and moved into intelligence services. I think it would stand alone fairly well, if you’re not already supporting Chaz’s Patreon for these projects, but in any case it’s full of winter sports and spies, so I was entirely on board.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Ethan of Athos. Reread. This is a single-gender planet book, just outside the main Vorkosigan sequence. I reread it for my feminist socialist SF panel, and while I don’t think Lois was trying to write a perfect work of either ideology, there were elements that were extremely interesting to discuss in that context: the way that this society accounts for the labor of childrearing when childbearing is something that literally cannot happen accidentally to anyone in it, for example. This book doesn’t represent Lois’s current thinking on gender or sexuality, and also there are people in it who never were meant to–I’ll put a content note here for homophobia directed against the protagonist–but there are things it’s doing that I’m not sure I’ve seen done elsewhere.

Zoraida Cordova, Bruja Born. This was such a fast read. More family ties, more magic, more complications and difficult emotions and getting things done despite them. I really like this series. I like the way this protagonist is allowed to be wrong for all the right reasons, and the way that her family is there with her in all the worst situations.

Edward Eager, Knight’s Castle and Seven-Day Magic. Rereads. The latter is the one of Eager’s works that I feels holds up best–minimal racism, sexism not a major plot element. Knight’s Castle has a message that I guess you can read as anti-sexist, but it doesn’t really balance out the ongoing scorn for girls, in my 21st century experience, since the former is quite overt and the latter a great deal more subtle. Seven-Day Magic leans into Eager’s strength in a big way: doing explicit homage to other children’s writers. It’s a book for kids who love books, and it’s the one that brings me closest to my grade school appreciation of Eager.

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces. It’s easy to see why this is a classic of writing place. The way it evokes Wyoming, its people, its weather, its landscape, is astonishing. It’s also a 30+-year-old book, so there are places where I sigh looking at how Ehrlich has described what actual cowboys do (nurturing baby animals for heaven’s sake) vs. the cultural stereotypes of a cowboy…because we’ve had an increase in factory farming, a decrease in actual cowboys, and an increase in invested toxic stereotypes of that job from people who have never held it but would like to be seen in a certain light. Particularly politicians. Bleh.

George Eliot, Silas Marner. Kindle. I am not astonished at the people who were forced to read this in high school and told me it was boring, because it’s not a book for teens. But the people who read it as adults–come on, this is a beautiful book. It’s about community connection in an era of financially spurred isolation. And there’s that beautiful coda that is even more beautiful if you know Maryann Evans’s personal life…I cried at that ending. That was one of the most cathartic endings ever. I mean, it’s no Middlemarch, but nothing is.

Nicola Griffith, So Lucky. A thriller about being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I’m not kidding, and it’s searing and amazing and left me with all kinds of thoughts about disability representation and expectations and what makes experiences in this area the same and different. Recommended.

William Hjortsberg, Symbiography. Kindle. Very rooted in its time in its concerns about dream and “civilization.”

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 6 and Fiyah Issue 7. Kindle. These were two very solid issues–I think Issue 7 may be my favorite yet, with each story really firing on all cylinders. Tade Thompson’s “Yard Dog” and LaShawn M. Wanak’s “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” were my favorites but honestly it was all good. In Issue 6 I thought the stand-out was Juliana Goodman’s “Furious Girls.”

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars. Discussed elsewhere.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed. Reread. This was for my feminist socialist SF panel, and there were some ways in which it was fascinating, and there were some ways in which it is exemplary in the area of “authors who kept learning for their whole lives.” Because there were parts of this book that were simply appalling and heartbreaking in gender terms. The protagonist, let me be clear, commits sexual assault, and when he reflects on his feelings of guilt immediately thereafter, guilt for having assaulted another person is not in the list, there’s only reflection on political complicity. Nor, I feel, does the narrative complicate or undermine that reaction. Shutting women out of the sciences is used as a puppy-kicking plot point to show how terrible a society is, but there are literally no women characters who are directly negatively affected by it, no women who want anything better than they have, no…look, it’s a lot. Go into this prepared, because Le Guin got better than this over her lifetime, and it is a lot.

Naomi Mitchison, The Corn King and the Spring Queen. And speaking of a lot…there is so much sexual violence and toxicity in this book. There are so many relationships that are utterly, thoroughly horrid for all concerned. And this is the book that made me realize how many older women had cis women in their books wishing to be men, routinely, as though it was something obvious that everyone would do, and that made me cry, and I have not been able to unsee it since. But…this is also a fascinating angle for an historical novel, its setting, its worldbuilding and attitudes toward magic, everything. I’m not sorry I endured to get to the whole thing. (But there’s some part of me that’s sorry that Naomi had to.)

William Morris, The Defense of Guenevere and Other Poems. Kindle. Do you want rhyming couplets? Lots and lots of rhyming couplets, that only extremely rarely avoid an obvious rhyme? Do you want them on Arthurian and other chivalric themes? Uncle Bill is your dude, then. This…look, I love him, I love William Morris to pieces, it’s why he’s one of the very small number of historical figures I refer to with an avuncular nickname. But this is not, in fact, good. It’s ponderous and sentimental and everything, everything that the Pre-Raphaelites got criticized for being. “Chivalric themes” means that this is not actually even remotely the feminist end of his thought. If you want to read this at all, you want to read it for very specific reasons, and I have those reasons myself, I just…most of you can really let me take this one for the team.

E. Nesbit, The Book of Dragons, The Magic City, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Railway Children, The Story of the Amulet, and The Wouldbegoods. Rereads every one. Nesbit–like Eager after her (but before her in this book list!)–wrote for a very particular imagined child reader. That child was of her era, British, upper middle class or upper class. Servants and their families are people who help her readers, not people who are her readers. And yet. And yet she’s trying to juggle Fabian sensibilities and a strong sense of children as actual fallible people, not needing to be role models but real characters, and there’s still so very very much to love in her books. I read these because I was on more than one panel at Readercon about her, but I don’t regret a moment of the reread.

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver. I think that Naomi Novik and I will just never align on the subject of romantic plots/fictional relationships, and I would love to talk to other people who have read this about the ending of the romantic plots in this book because…so many thoughts and feelings here. However. This was a medieval fantasy with Jewish people who interacted with their own and Gentile culture in nuanced and varied ways. This was a medieval fantasy where a stubborn peasant girl got to stay a stubborn peasant girl. There were all sorts of portrayals of work, different kinds of work, in ways that were fascinating and, again, nuanced. There was more than one villain, and more than one antagonist, and they didn’t necessarily align. So the romantic plot…differences of opinion…did not manage to undo all the good done in this book, reminding me that we like books for what they do right, not what they fail to do wrong.

Daniel Malory Ortberg, The Merry Spinster. These are short stories that take a different angle on stories we feel we know. They’re unsettling and upending and sometimes grim (and sometimes Grimm) and generally worth your time. Every time you say, “I know how this one goes,” you probably don’t.

Tamora Pierce, Alanna: The First Adventure and In the Hand of the Goddess. Rereads. These were formative for me in so many ways. They were desperately important books in my adolescence. I read them again because they were an important example, for adolescent me, of how fantasy can handle sexuality and sex ed, without bogging down the ongoing adventures in preachiness. Upon reread it became clear to me how much they reinforced the idea that talking about your harassment will prove to the men and boys around you that you’re not worthy to be among them, and that made me sad. But I’m still glad I had it when I did.

Hannu Rajaniemi, Summerland. Discussed elsewhere.

Alastair Reynolds, Elysium Fire. This is an Alastair Reynolds novel! If you haven’t read one yet, this is an okay one to start with I guess? but Blue Remembered Earth has elephants so really go with that one. Anyway: there’s a consistency of feel in the universe he writes here, and he nails that again, so if you want one of those, this is a one of those.

Kelly Robson, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. This is very weird science fiction in ways that I didn’t expect from the title. It kept surprising me, which is always a valuable thing.

Jennie Rooney, Red Joan. This is not a traditionally structured spy novel, it’s a novel about a spy. It’s a novel about an entire long life and what leads to some decisions and what forces others. Old women are allowed to be characters here. It’s a lovely character study.

Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Fuego. A slim and passionate volume of poetry about childbirth and long-distance swimming and all sorts of interesting things.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. This is lovely. It talks about pilgrimage and mountain climbing and city strolls and the history of garden philosophy and Jane Austen and the Wordsworths and all sorts of things. There is a passage toward the end that feels very firm, very deliberate, where Solnit talks about some of the ways in which walking is not the same for every demographic in every culture, especially ours–I feel like I can almost feel her saying to herself, “This is not what my book is about and yet I can’t not talk about it,” and the balance works beautifully for me. I’ve been enjoying reading my way through her works, and this was no exception.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Issue 22 and Uncanny Issue 23. Kindle. Two solid but very different issues, since one of them was dinosaur themed. I don’t generally review things I’m in, and I’m in here, so I will speak only generally.

Jessica Weisberg, Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money, and Other Burning Questions from a Nation Obsessed. This is a history of advice writing, particularly of advice writing in the US, although there is a brief early part that’s about British advice writing, on the theory that it contributed to the genre here. This is short and interesting if you like the topic, which I do; I love advice columns. It’s so compelling to see how people formulate their problems and solutions. And watching the genre evolve socially over time is great.

Barbara Willard, A Sprig of Broom. Reread. This is a series of historical fiction from when the boundary between middle grade and young adult had not sorted itself out thoroughly, or at least not into what it is now. As a result, this series is…readable on the individual sentence level, and aimed at teens in content, but much thinner than what would be expected now. This one is the aftermath of Henry Tudor’s accession to the throne, as seen in a small manor house/family. It was fine to read, but I don’t have any reason to think I’ll want to reread it again.

P. G. Wodehouse, Three Men and a Maid. Kindle. I was on a plane, okay? This is a Wodehouse that does the things Wodehouse does. It does what it says on the tin, which is be by Wodehouse. Sometimes you’re on a plane and want a story where people run about and get into scrapes and dogs do various things and someone has to hide somewhere improbable and it all works out in the end.

Banana Yoshimoto, The Lake. A love story between two people with emotional baggage and some very weird life experiences. Compelling and thoughtful and short.