Books read, early August

Thomas Aquinas, On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists. This was my dad’s and kept among his chemistry texts. It was a charming example of medieval philosophy, debunking a notion that another group had come up with that was very inside-baseball but deftly handled with the tools available at the time.

Ruthanna Emrys, Imperfect Commentaries. I’d read, loved, and recommended several stories in this–I think even critiqued one or two in beta form actually–but it’s so nice to have them in this lovely volume where I can return to them again and again. Which I will, because there are so many favorites here, it’s impossible to pick one or even three or four. Highly recommended, you will want this on your shelf.

Kathleen Flenniken, Plume. This is a volume of poetry by a nuclear engineer who grew up in a town of nuclear engineers, in the shadow of a nuclear facility, and watched cancer clusters form in her childhood neighbors. It’s well-informed and technical and also poetically beautiful; it’s footnoted for those of you who need it, but for those of us who have the background it can be searing straight-up.

Sarah Foot, Aethelstan. A history or biography-of-sorts of this tenth century monarch, who is peripheral to a project I’m working on–hard to do biography as we think of it for modern figures on someone this far back in time, but it’s a different kind of interesting, seeing what we can piece together about him. I remain fascinated by what British historians are and are not interested in talking about regarding the Anglo-Saxon period, so there are several cultural holes I’ll continue to look to fill, but this is still a good thing to have on my shelf.

Gwynne Garfinkle, People Change. I was surprised and charmed by the breadth of the Hollywood poems in this. Less surprising but still favorites were “Man-Size” (already enjoyed elsewhere) and “The Paper Doll Golems” (I am a sucker for paper dolls, and this one was new to me).

Ruth Kassinger, Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us. This was less algae biology than I wanted and more algae engineering. It was interesting algae engineering, so it worked out okay! But I had been hoping for lots and lots of detailed algae subspecies biology. Ah well. Algae engineering is good too.

R.F. Kuang, The Dragon Republic. Discussed elsewhere.

Fonda Lee, Jade War. I love this series. It’s so much fun. And I love middle books, and this definitely is one–scope widening, ramifications and implications at every turn, no need to stick the landing yet. Don’t start here, for heaven’s sake, start with the first one, but you’ll want to keep going, because the fantasy gangster kung fu movie mashup in this series works so brilliantly.

Rose MacAulay, The World My Wilderness. Okay so. This book. This book! This book is about a teenage girl who was with the Maquis in WWII and now has been taken back to London by her British father and is supposed to learn to be a “civilized woman” and instead is wandering around the bombed out bits painting them and stealing stuff because Maquis come on. Rose MacAulay is so great and I just keep reading her weird amazing books and this was basically exactly contemporaneous with The Catcher in the Rye. So when you were being handed something about some rando kid slouching around muttering about phonies, you could have been reading painter Maquis girl who is used to bombing Nazi train tracks is faintly baffled by your conformity, come on now, really. Really.

Amanda Owen, The Yorkshire Shepherdess. This is a memoir of a woman who decided to go off and raise sheep and children. She has some moments of “wait you what”…even more so than that decision process might indicate…and there are a few places where I really feel that her husband wants a good kicking, like where she has the ritual commentary about how he doesn’t know how to turn on the grill (American English: broiler) and yet has seven children to feed. But I’m revising a novella that features several sheep, so! It was entertaining and interesting, mostly!

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. This ended up mostly being about matsutake mushroom hunters from various subcultures in different regions of the world, their sale and trading and interactions with the larger cultures around them. Occasionally Tsing wandered off into pronouncements of her personal philosophy that connected a little oddly with the mushrooms, but it was always back to the fungus eventually.

J.Y. Yang, The Ascent to Godhood. The fourth in a series of linked novellas, giving more of the history of the setting, but in a way that was all character and story, not a bare recitation of details. This centered on a relationship that shaped a world. My catnip.

Automatic Eve, by Rokuro Inui

Review copy provided by Haikasoru Books.

If you were ever thinking, okay, what if steampunk, but deeply Japanese, absolutely Edo period Japanese, this is the book for you. The sections unfold in sort of a spiral structure, seemingly handling disparate stories that turn out to ramify into a larger political structure for which the steampunk plot is entirely crucial.

This is a book that is obsessed with the soul, with ensoulment and the spirit and what makes us human. My workshop buddy Molly is quoted on the cover blurb comparing it to Blade Runner, and there’s a lot of that–a lot of “if it walks like a human and talks like a human, when does the soul come in,” and I have some pretty strong suspicions about where and how the word kami is used in the original that isn’t quite translating but is still interesting in translation, is still not at all a Helen O’Loy story.

But honestly my favorite part is the clockwork fighting crickets. That’s a worldbuilding detail that threads through delightfully and entirely appropriately, and I just…clockwork automata in the fighting cricket rings! If that is your jam, this is your book.

Present Writers: Diane Duane

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Nancy Kress.

I’ve been talking a lot about entropy in 2019, so I think it’s inevitable that I would turn to the works of Diane Duane. Duane has written a gigantic and varied body of work–for adults and young people, original and media tie-ins, short and long, fantasy and science fiction of countless sub-genres, for prose and film, traditionally published and fan-funded, ranging over forty years. Name it and Duane has probably done it. She’s worked alone and with others; she’s written with Star Trek properties and Tom Clancy and even secretly been a John M. Ford character. (What, you thought Princess Deedee was purely an invention of Mike’s?)

But in her longest and best-known series, the Young Wizards books, the antagonist is the Lone Power, which is Entropy. The Lone Power is the unraveler. And in a time when saving the whales was a cliche, Duane’s characters stood with the whales to help them save themselves. What does Diane Duane’s work mean to me. Friends, oh friends, this year, this horrible year, I am choking up trying to write this post about how lovely it is to have her here, still working side by side with us against the chaos of it all. Because we need this more than ever. We need the partnerships with other beings. We need to embrace other ways of thinking for what we all bring to the table. We need to keep turning over the assumption we made and letting it ramify. And that is what the Young Wizards books do and have always done, from the first time Nita and Kit went on errantry.

There are so many other things Duane’s work has done–not always what it seems from the cover, she has some of the most oddly composed covers I have ever dealt with as a reader–but here and now, in the entropic vortex that is 2019, I find myself more appreciative than ever of the quiet, firm fierceness of these books, and of their author.

The Dragon Republic, by R. F. Kuang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the sequel to The Poppy War, and in the shape of a classic second book of a trilogy, things get significantly worse here and do not get significantly better at the end.

Yes, from the state of things in The Poppy War. Yes, I remember how things were in that book. There is, it turns out, a lot darker to get.

And yet. And yet and yet and yet. Is this book a catalog of unremitting horrors. No. No, not unremitting. There is a lot of bleak here. There is a lot of darkness, a lot of betrayal, a lot of people fleeing from horrible situations in their world, in their politics, in their own hearts and minds, in their…theologies, I guess I would say, in a very concrete and immediate sense. This is a book that takes some of the worst situations in our own history and gives magical and divine weight to metaphors about them, and those are…not even necessarily the worst situations it describes. Some of the worst situations are very real ways humans have treated each other historically.

And yet.

Still not unremittingly bleak.

Still ways for humans to keep trying, to keep hoping, to keep reaching for a solution, for understanding, for some way for things to get better.

This is a second book.

Will book three be about the day the teddy bears have their picnic? I expect not, no. I expect there to be addiction and loss and turmoil, starvation and death and upheaval, fire and flood and betrayal. But I expect Rin to fight not just for the barest edges of survival but for something more in herself. I expect Rin to keep finding something more. And that’s why I keep reading these books. And why I think you might want to also.

Books read, late July

Sophie Anderson, The House With Chicken Legs. This is a kids’ book about death and finding your own place. It is not actually a particularly hard book to read when you’re grieving, which…is kind of a signal of some pretty pulled punches, so if you don’t want a book with these themes and that set of decisions, tread carefully. The title is literal, however, and if that strikes you as charming, consider this one.

Maurice Broaddus, The Usual Suspects. This is a kids’ mystery, which is all too rare in my experience of reading middle grade. The protagonist is a member of a mixed group of kids with behavior issues that the school district deals with…about like modern school districts do. They have varying needs and abilities and types of family support. They are beautifully characterized, with their loyalties and friendships drawn incredibly clearly. If you are at all up for MG mystery, this is quite a good one.

Stephanie Burgis, The Girl With the Dragon Heart. This follows fairly closely on The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart, but it has shifted protagonists to a closely related character. The adventure has expanded to include not only a different viewpoint, but…elves. Elves! So much fun! Oh, these books are just what I needed right now, I can’t wait for the next one to come out.

Michelle Cuevas, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole. This is a fun, charming, whimsical book wherein the black hole is mostly a metaphor but also has some bits of science education in it. ALSO IT IS A BOOK ABOUT A GIRL WHOSE DAD JUST DIED. IT DOES NOT SAY THIS ANYWHERE ON THE COVER. The grief reactions are very real, it is beautifully handled, I think this would be a great book for a kid who has not just suffered that type of loss to have as part of their emotional vocabulary to refer back to when they do have loss in their life, but I WAS SITTING UNDER THIS SLEEPING DOG AND I HAD NOTHING ELSE TO READ AND IT WAS A DEAD DAD BOOK DO NOT GO IN UNWARNED.

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War. This is a beautiful epistolary time travel battle poetry love story. It is not like other things. It rewrites the world in full color.

Minister Faust, The Coyote Kings Vs. the Myconauts of Plutonium City Scrolls 7-8. Kindle. This continues to be a pop culture adventure extravaganza singularity. Where is he going with it, who can say.

Peter Fiennes, Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain. Trees trees trees trees. There are a few places where I felt a little baffled that Fiennes didn’t want to do more comparative work, but on the other hand limiting his scope is admirable in his way: he is by God writing about the woods and forests of Britain, and other comparable latitudes and habitats are not the point. There are also tidbits about forest creatures and the evolution of the British forest as habitat, although I feel like there could have been still more about what one is to do with a well-documented habitat as its climate changes–when the previous state literally could not be restored no matter what, how do you shape policy goals for its wild or wild-ish habitats? That was not Fiennes’s purpose here, and that’s okay, I still like tree books.

Nancy Kress, Beaker’s Dozen and Trinity and Other Stories. Rereads. What a relief to find some old favorites (and even a few more minor works) more or less where I’d left them, deftly characterized and passionately thought through.

Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. A poetry collection focused on Oliver’s dogs. Not entirely free of dog death, not handled graphically or in a maudlin way, but still: if you are not up for the raw emotions of losing a dog right now (or in fact on any day), tread carefully here, have someone recommend a few of the delightful works here that are not about that.

Susan Orlean, Saturday Night. Kindle. This was written to be a study of American casual leisure, more or less, in the handful of years leading up to the year it came out (1990). From this distance it ends up looking more like a portrait of the late ’80s as a cultural phenomenon. There are all sorts of things that Orlean carefully explains that strike me as common knowledge, like what a quinceañera is, and then others that have fallen completely by the wayside, like the ideas and attitudes around video rental. It was a very strange time warp of a book.

John Ruskin, The Queen of the Air/Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm. Kindle. OH JOHN RUSKIN NO. Look, I keep reading John Ruskin as background for a story I’m writing, but he is not going to be the hero of that story, I’ll tell you that much for free. And he keeps going on about how you can tell that Western art is superior to non-Western art because blah blah reasons–that all of Greek art is superior to all of Chinese art and then he sets up his bullshit that is often not even true, but even if it was it wouldn’t mean that and it’s all so insecure and pointless and you just want to give him a time out until he can treat the other children with respect. Occasionally he’ll have a sensible line about a particular painting and then right away he will ruin it with crashing racism. YUCK.

Siegfried Sassoon, Picture-Show. Kindle. Sassoon is of course a Great War poet, and this is one of the volumes of Great War poetry that came out in 1919, full of anguish and the trenches. It is very thoroughly itself, but go in braced if you’re going in at all.

James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Scott has a bone to pick with agriculture–several, really–and he is not always careful along the way. I think he is most interesting when he’s taking down assumptions, not always as clear-headed when he’s building his own conjectures. There is a great deal about early agriculture that’s clearly not as we thought it would be, and this book has a great deal that’s interesting about it, but also a great deal that it misses, I think.

Breanna Teintze, Lord of Secrets. Discussed elsewhere.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issue 29. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing magazine issues I’m in, and I’m in this.

Tade Thompson, The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Kindle. A creepy and satisfying novella, far outside my usual range in the direction of horror but well worth the time.

Jessie L. Weston, Sir Gawain and the Lady of Lys. Kindle. True confessions time: of all the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain is my dude. So yeah, I’ll duck my head in to read early 20th century authors doing versions of Belgian things. Hell yes I will, every once in awhile, on airplanes, under stress. Sir Gawain relaxes me.

Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay, The Last Dragon. Graphic novel in a sort of Canty-esque style, very Scottish-ish, a fun fast read with bonus fantasy herbalism.

Damon Young, The Art of Reading. A slim and self-aware volume, fast and reasonably fun to read but honestly…sort of like the others of its kind. If you like books by passionate readers, for passionate readers, it’s that thing.

Present Writers: Nancy Kress

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

I’ve talked on the record about how Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain, the novel version, was one of the most formative books of my teen years, one of the books that my father found for me as a random no-occasion present that made me sit up and say, this, I’m going to do this. But when I went to write this post, I turned to the thing that turned out to be even more formative for me, which was Kress’s short story collections.

Now, I’ve been gradually rereading a lot of the short story collections I read in the Nineties, and frankly I’ve been disappointed in a lot of them. So I picked up Trinity and Other Stories with bated breath. It was the first one, she hadn’t even really hit her stride, how would it strike me now, in my 40s instead of my teens?

I needn’t have worried. I was not even all the way through the first story before I relaxed into the prose, into the characterization, into the ideas. I moved on to Beaker’s Dozen to find the Kress I remembered–the Kress of the Nineties, the Kress who shaped my idea of how short stories worked, still there, still writing about both biology and compassion, both spacetime and interdependence, social ecology. She’s won Nebulas, Hugos, a Campbell, a Sturgeon, written dozens of novels and even more shorter work, not to mention books on writing–taught and lectured and keynoted, hell, sang and danced and for all I know probably juggled.

And…when I read through these collections, I remembered the sigh of relief that I felt, that someone else in the field I was trying to work in knew and understood that heart vs. brain was not a reasonable theme because there was no “vs.” there, what you wanted was an ampersand. Because embracing that “vs.” made us all worse. I realized, on this reread, what I couldn’t see as a teenager: that Nancy Kress is the science fiction writer who is most like my mother. (Not “like a mother to me” but like my own specific mother.) Who sees the overlooked ideas of the lower-class women, the caregivers, the people whose life demands are not entirely polished, not entirely tidy…who can see into the shiny boardrooms and labs and also the world that is not entirely techno-black-matte-finish, and translate between the two. Why did this work feel so entirely right, oh, I see now, I am so happy to see now.

In some previous entries I’ve included a disclaimer that the author is a personal friend. I can’t say that here–I’ve never met Nancy Kress. But rereading these short stories, thinking happily about rereading some of the novels, I think that she is probably the head of the list of authors I’d gladly buy lunch if we were at the same convention. What these stories did for me was so huge, and–what a relief to find that they are still themselves, that they have not diminished as I have grown up. What a relief to find her work, as herself, so steadfastly present in this field.

Lord of Secrets, by Breanna Teintze

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend and shares an agent with me.

There is a lot of very serious fantasy out there right now, and I love much of it. Taking on the hard-hitting, gigantic questions is part of what genre literature does best. And yet. And yet sometimes I want a book that touches on those big questions but with a lighter hand. Lord of Secrets is one of those books.

For me it has a feel of all the best of the fun fantasy adventure I grew up with, without any of the parts that make us cringe now. Gray is a wry and dogged hero, Brix is a tart-tongued and able heroine, and the other characters are individually and vividly drawn. They cast spells with a painful, even poisonous, rune-based magic, consuming human lives a bit at a time. Gray is focused on saving his grandfather–a quest that I could hardly find more relatable–and Brix has her own concerns that unfold with the rest of the story. Each character has their own motivations, often getting in the way of the others to frustrating effect. (Frustrating for them. All too compelling for me.)

I got this copy of Lord of Secrets when I was down for the count with a bad cold. It was a lovely way to distract myself for those hours and kept me guessing to the end.

Books read, early July

Lloyd Alexander, The Beggar Queen, The Book of Three, The Illyrian Adventure, The Kestrel, and Westmark. All rereads. Well, let’s see, what panel was I on at Readercon this year. It overlapped nicely with the “rereading the Westmark trilogy phase of grief” in my life. Every time I read that series I find something new in it. This time there was a new gut punch in The Kestrel, which I’ve been gutted by over and over since I was in the single digits, but…the Regians were eating the seed corn. The seed corn, and I gasped and had to close my eyes because I am 40 now and that means so much more to me and every line of these books, oh, oh.

Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Lost Legacy. This was charming and fun, some kids saving the day in a hotel full of magical creatures. So many shenanigans. Definitely looking forward to the next one.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapter 21. Kindle. This was a quite short chapter, but it moved the non-school plot forward, so…we’ll see where it’s all going.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the Song of Death. The second in its series, and I heartily recommend starting with the first to get the character dynamics down. Which for me are the best part. I hope the up-to-the-moment contemporary references age well, but this is that moment, and right now they’re doing great. And this is another that was just so darn much fun. I needed a lot of fun this fortnight, and I got it. Yay.

Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever. Adventures in space, time, and the human mind–or perhaps soul!–with Max! Whooosh. Tech geniuses! Various kinds of goo and despotic reality-warping rulers and earnest monks and friendship being–well, magic. But the kind that helps you do the hard work of fixing, not the kind that fixes stuff just by being. Who are you, who are your friends, who are you with and without your friends–across the galaxy. Very different from the Craft Sequence, in ways I love to see people branch out. Yay.

A.J.R. Russell-Wood, The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move. This was a lot about the interaction of various Portuguese colonies with each other, and particularly about logistics. If you want to think about equipping ships and how long things took, this would be very useful. If that’s not your jam, probably give it a miss. Also there is a lot of pleading on behalf of the Portuguese as better than the other colonizers, which…let’s say I am not entirely convinced in every particular that this is a total ordering worth making.

Snorri Sturluson sort of we think maybe, Egil’s Saga. Reread. Good heavens is Egil a pill. Which is why this is a lasting work of literature, no one would want to read it if he was Egil the Snuggly. I read this as research for a future project, and I got everything I needed and more, but…mostly in the form of notes to myself rather than to you.

Bogi Takács, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation. Discussed elsewhere.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and Brandon O’Brien, eds., Fiyah Issue 11. Kindle. Interesting to see what happens with an unthemed issue and authors free to roam the galaxy and the human heart. I like the themed issues too, but having a bit of Fiyah that just goes where it will was very cool.