Present Writers: Gwyneth Jones (Ann Halam)

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, and Pamela Dean.

The more I do of this series of posts, the more I discover that one of the commonalities of writers I want to feature here is that they write with great variety–both on a range of topics and for a range of audiences.

The first Gwyneth Jones books I fell in love with were the series that starts with Bold As Love–all rock, all political, all relationships, all the time. Focused on the near future, the environment, and how people handle it as people–at basically every scale. Healthy dollop of weird science fiction mysticism.

But then I ran around trying to find as many others of her books as I could–a harder feat than it should be in the US, alas–there were very different things. Weird alien SF! Creepy kids’ books! Riffs on classics with heart and humanity! There are authors of whom you can say, “Well, it’s a one of those again, if you want that,” and…Gwyneth Jones doesn’t do that. Even the last book of the Bold As Love cycle departs strongly from the patterns and concerns of the rest of it. (The Grasshopper’s Child, and I love that one too.) There’s a lot of her back catalog for me to pore through bookstores to find, and I’m eager for it.

Books read, early February

Ben Aaronovitch, Lies Sleeping. This is the latest in this long urban fantasy series, and it relies very heavily on both plot and character arcs from earlier in the series. Good news: there is plenty of movement on things that have been going on for several books. Bad news: if you want to start somewhere, this is not it. Peter and his friends, enemies, relations are all barreling forward at top speed, but a lot of it will make no sense without the rest of the series.

Jill Baguchinsky, Mammoth. This is a charming YA about a plus-sized teenage fashionista with a passion for paleontology. It has a lot of genre-YA themes about finding yourself and also maybe someone else, but at the top of the list of things the protag finds is BONES so that is pretty great. I want to put a CW on this for the protagonist starting the book fixating on guessing other women’s weight. This is flagged as unhealthy but may still be difficult for some readers, so: choose when you read it accordingly.

Hans Bekker-Nielsen et al, eds., Mediaeval Scandinavia 1968. This is a hardbound annual journal for its field. A lot of the stuff therein has either become basic knowledge since then or gotten debunked, but there were still some interesting rune-deciphering passages. Not recommended unless you’re constantly eager for new medieval Scand studies stuff, which…I am.

Blair Braverman, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North. I read this author’s twitter, and she writes about dogsledding there. YAY I LIKE DOGS. It was also a good time for me to read about dogsledding, as I revise a book with significant amounts of dogsledding in it. This book…was not really about dogsledding. Very much at all. It was mostly about recovering from sexual abuse, assault, and trauma. Braverman chose to do that in the far north of Norway, and there are interesting cultural things going on there, and I engaged with this narrative, but–if you’re here for the dogsledding, not so much.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the End of Time. This was a lovely, charming middle-grade adventure. I got a copy for a kid in my life for their birthday. Friendship and magic and figuring yourself out. Yay.

Linda Collister, The Great British Bake Off: Big Book of Baking and The Great British Bake Off: Perfect Cakes and Bakes to Make at Home. I flipped through these and wrote down exactly three recipes, but that’s actually pretty good for library cookbooks–I mostly am not a big recipe cook anyway.

Philip Cushway and Michael Warr, eds., Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. This was a harrowing book of protest poetry that was very much worth engaging with, a little at a time. I was a tiny bit frustrated that such a large percentage of the page count was dedicated to writing about each poet rather than showcasing their poems–for most poets there were more words dedicated to their bio than in their poems, which seems backwards to me. I feel like most of the poets showcased probably had more than one good protest poem. But the ones that were there were good to have.

Michael Eric Dyson, What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. This traces the roots and results of a major meeting between American Black intelligentsia/artists and Robert F. Kennedy. Dyson has lots of ideas about the implications of this conversation and conversations like it, and this was fascinating–especially with the range of talent that Baldwin could get to show up on a moment’s notice.

Lissa Evans, Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms. This is a fun MG about magic (the stage variety…or is it…) and puzzles and family.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. Kindle. Several of the “Grace Notes” are familiar, much-anthologized poems, tacked on here as extras. The “Notes” tend to be longer, often dialect-laden local poems. And then there’s the titular poem. It’s massive and rambly and reminds me a bit of W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland in form/style. I really like this geographical ramble poem thing. I would like a book of them. (But mostly I would like to reread Letters from Iceland because I love it unreasonably and Uncle Wys is the best.) (Ahem. Okay you can read Robert Frost too I guess, but really you probably already know that.) (AUDENNNN.)

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. All the other grimdark books are like teddy bears having their picnic compared to this. It is full of multiform rape, genital mutilation, excretion in its various types, cruelty…it is a lot. It is vividly imagined and beautifully written, and so, so very dark. It is doing things with worldbuilding that no one else has tried, and also it is so very dark.

Rosalie Knecht, Who Is Vera Kelly? This is both a spy novel and a young woman’s coming of age story. It is the kind of spy novel I have wanted, light and fun and firmly placed in space and time. It has the short, zippy chapters of some earlier works in this genre while leaving out the sexism. Yay for this book.

Rose MacAulay, Crewe Train. In many ways this is a charming and eccentric narrative of a young woman who does not want what she is told to want and the mild chaos that ensues in her life because of that fact. I will read more Rose MacAulay for sure, because this was intriguing and mostly good in an early 20th century way. However, I do feel the need to flag that there’s about a chapter of staggeringly racist content that is not only awful but completely unnecessary to the plot, the sort of thing that makes you repeat, “Rose, what are you doing, Rose, what are you doing,” over and over as you read. Is one chapter of that too much? You get to decide.

Seanan McGuire, In an Absent Dream. This is the most recent of Seanan’s portal fantasy novellas, which are my favorite thing she’s doing right now. This one stands quite well alone and is very distinctive in setting and character from the others. I was mostly okay with which things were summarized and which shown (an interesting calculus of novellas), until the ending, which wasn’t quite as satisfying because of that ratio. Still glad I read it.

John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. This is the book equivalent of sitting at John McPhee’s feet listening to him talk about his long and storied career and how it all has worked. I wouldn’t start here if you haven’t read McPhee before, I’d start with Annals of the Former World, because that is amazing. But if you already like McPhee this will probably be an interesting and fast read. (Note for people who are always on the lookout for writing books: this is about writing nonfiction, if that changes anything for you.)

Robert Muir-Wood, The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters. Interesting stuff on structure and materials and their adaptations to place. I’d have liked more of the title and less of the background for the title, but I’m told there are storage and organization issues with having everything.

Dennis Romano, Markets and Marketplaces in Medieval Italy, c. 1100 to c. 1440. This goes into a lot of detail about the relationship of the sacred and secular in this context, and about how the different Italian city-states varied but had common elements in how they handled marketplace issues. One of the things that was interesting to me was how much focus there was on fraud–which makes sense, but…well, if you have friends and family who spend a lot of time on deregulation as a political hot button, direct them to the medieval Italians.

Rebecca Solnit, Call Them By Their True Names. This is a collection of Solnit’s recent essays on the contemporary scene. I’d already read several of them in their original magazine publications, but it was still an interesting book–and I basically always reach for Rebecca Solnit first whenever I get one of her books.

Vanessa Tait, The Looking Glass House. I didn’t see one of the marketing points of this book before I picked it up in a used bookstore–namely that Tait is the descendant of Alice Liddell of Alice in Wonderland fame. This is a novel about the Liddells’ governess. Basically everyone in it is unhappy and unpleasant, parents, children, governesses, random family friends, all of them. This is a “sucked to be them” book, and while it’s written reasonably well, all that did was make me keep reading until the end, with nothing but frustration and misery as far as the eye can see. Not recommended.

Sara Teasdale, Love Songs. Kindle. There are several things that Teasdale appears to think about love that make me want to rent her a cabin for a year so she can get some time to herself to think, and then introduce her to people who are kind and don’t play power games, because wow, kiddo, wow. But then there are the moments where she is wrapped up in natural beauty, and I’m here for that.

Breaking the Glass Slipper guest

Recently I was a guest on the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. BtGS is a feminist SFF podcast that wanted to do more episodes on intersectional issues, so we talked about disability representation in SFF. You can give it a listen here!

(I will confess that I am terrible at listening to podcasts myself, but it can be so much fun to be on them–one gets into good conversations. So we’ll see if I can’t get better at this.)

Readers choose *two*!

Analog magazine runs a reader’s choice poll called AnLab every year. This year I had one story each place in the categories of Short Story and Novelette. You can see the full list here! Analog provides links to most of these stories (all the ones the authors consented to have on the internet), so you can read all sorts of my peers doing good things.

And! The novelette on the list was reprinted in Clarkesworld last month, but this is the first internet appearance of the short story! I hope you enjoy Finding Their Footing as much as the Analog readers did.

Books read, late January

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. A literary spy story, infiltrating the British fascists of 1940 and what has happened beyond that. I thought that Red Joan was better at some of the tropes that eventually came up as events unfolded in this book, but they’re actually both worth having.

Noel D. Broadbent, Lapps and Labyrinths: Saami Prehistory, Colonization, and Cultural Resistance. This is a lot of northern archaeology, which means that ski fragments and seal bones are discussed in great detail. That is in fact my jam. It may also be yours–and even if it isn’t, there aren’t loads of readily available sources on Saami culture before/during colonization, so if that’s an interest, it’s not going to be in the “yawn, another one of those” category.

Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschil, Becky Cloonan, Adam Archer, and Msassyk, Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 1: Welcome Back. They’ve added to the title of this I guess? Presented it as a new run instead of just having, like, volume 4 of the previous? It doesn’t work at all as a place to start this series–if you’re interested in spoopy youngsters in the periphery of Bruce Wayne, go back to the beginning. The plot twists struck me as really obvious this time, but this may be a results of me not being a teenager and new to this.

Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America. The ending of this book really built to something strong and worth having. I was a little unsure of several of the chains of association earlier in the book, but I can’t honestly tell whether it jumps around a lot or whether there are implicit links that I’m missing because I am not, in fact, living at the intersection of Black and anything, and y’know, not everything has to be spelled out anyway, and not everything has to be aimed at me.

Pat Parker, The Complete Works of Pat Parker. If you’re looking for righteous wrath, Pat Parker brings it. She occasionally brings other emotions, but there is a lot of Black lesbian anger here, well grounded in the reality of Parker’s lived experience.

Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. Quite often when people describe non-Latin American works as magic realism, they are neglecting elements like the post-colonial/anti-colonial thread to magic realism. Shange’s story of three sisters exploring the arts, the world, and themselves is exactly the magic realism of the American South. Beautiful stuff here.

Django Wexler, Ship of Smoke and Steel. Discussed elsewhere.

Ship of Smoke and Steel, by Django Wexler

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also I’ve known Django for several years, we’ve taught a workshop together, he’s marrying a friend of mine, it’s all…like SFF generally is, there.

So. If you’ve liked Django’s MG work, and/or you’ve liked his adult work, but you thought, y’know, this stuff is just too shiny and perky for me? Good news, he is writing this YA series that makes his previous series look like the teddy bears are having their picnic. It is all Django all the time, and then more stabbing with magical blades. Also giant crabs.

If you have not read Django’s previous stuff and are not sure what sort of thing this might be: stabbing with magical blades! Giant crabs! Treachery and scheming and forbidden sources of magic! Self-propelled sentient ships of doom!

It’s not quite as dark as I’m making it out to be. (It’s pretty dark.) One of Django’s common themes that crops up here too is people finding out that they’re better than they thought they were, finding reserves of goodness either on their own or with a bit of inspiration or coaxing. Also this is a kissing book, and not all of it is meaningless and Machiavellian. (Some of it totally is, though.)

The ending is very open, so I’m anxious to see what comes next in this series.

Books read, early January

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Reread. This is going to be a clear theme in this fortnight’s reading: I was preparing for the humor panel I was doing at ConFusion, and I didn’t want to talk about whether things did or did not hold up when I haven’t read them in [checks notes] [hides under desk]. Seriously, that long? wow. Anyway! I am very pleased with how the humor of this book arises from a surreal sense of the universe, and I am astonished at how much the recent show managed to keep the tone and basically only the tone of the book. Each is very modish, very of-its-time–but in the same way, for different times. Weird. Good.

John Appel, Jo Miles, and Mary Agner, eds., Skies of Wonder, Skies of Danger. It would probably be the most politic, when talking of an anthology filled with friends and cordial acquaintances, to say some vague nice things and move on, but honestly I think A.J. Hackwith’s “Lips of Red, Lips of Black” and Jennifer Mace’s “Thou Shalt Be Free As Mountain Winds” were the stand-out stories in this volume.

Robert Aspirin, Phule’s Company. Reread. I was mostly pleased with how this held up. Mostly. The message of “we need to all work together and share our highly varied strengths to succeed” and “underdogs go!” was still there…but in places it read like “we need all the stereotypes to work together and….” And what’s with a happy ending that’s basically “rich dude finds a loophole to get his rich family richer”? The part that has really not held up well here is “look at how much this rich guy is bypassing regs because he knows best.” Uh. We see how that goes in reality, and it’s way less funny.

Paul Bogard, The Ground Beneath Us: From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us About Who We Are. This…was not the book I was looking for. I enjoyed it! You might enjoy it too! But it’s a great deal more of Paul Bogard Has Dirt-Related Emotions than In-Depth Look At Soil Science.

Aliette de Bodard, In the Vanishers’ Palace. I love the worldbuilding on this. Love it so much. Oh wow. I kind of don’t want to talk about any of it, because I want you to discover it for yourself. Eeeeee this worldbuilding eeeee yay.

Jonathan Drori, Around the World in 80 Trees. This was such a beautiful volume, visually as well as in prose content. It’s just what I needed, like the book equivalent of walking in a green cool forest.

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black. This is a beautiful wrenching historical novel about a young enslaved man who is assigned to assist his owner’s brother in scientific experiments and hot-air ballooning. I enjoyed every page of it, and there were several places where I am thrilled to announce that I had no idea where it was going next. Not science fiction but science-important fiction.

Amy L. Handy, War-Time Breads and Cakes. Kindle. Okay, so my friend Justin is a weird influence, and I will download basically anything from Gutenberg. This one is from WWI and talks a lot about stretching (but not eliminating!) yeast and flour and sugar, techniques involving potato sponges and like that. I did not come out of this wanting to do the things in it, but it’s really good as worldbuilding influence, and also quite short.

Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant. Reread. I feel like this is one of the mid-period books where Pratchett was finding his feet again. He did good things here with policing and diplomacy and race and relationships, but…not as good as he would do with those themes later. Still fun from start to finish. And it sets me up for my favorite of the grown-up books next.

Spider Robinson, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon. Reread. I am one of the people who had a lot of social associations around the Callahan books, so I really wanted this to hold up well. It did not. Hoo boy did it not. There is gratuitous racism, both explicit and implicit. The gender politics are wretched, and are specifically enumerated so that you can’t think “well but maybe he just hasn’t said that…” nope. Nope! The way that the first woman to come into Callahan’s is treated is simultaneously breathtakingly awful and really transparent as a primer for how I, as a young woman, was expected to behave in science fiction fandom. It was so upsetting. In fact, one of the general things I took from even the better stories in this volume is that this was never so much funny as it was fannish. Lots of not-particularly-clever puns and bonhomie, not so much humor structure beyond that. Sigh. Sorry, teen self.

John Schoffstall, Half-Witch. Generally quite charming, inventive, more medieval than the people trying to feign medieval fantasy by a long shot. I hate to call stuff out that is literally one tiny sub-scene, but…I felt like the sexual violence in this book was handled rather badly. But it was such a small sliver that it didn’t make the entire book not worth having. (On the other hand, it was such a small sliver that WHY.)

E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. I do love me some E.P. Thompson. This was more Anti-Nomianism R Us than in-depth William Blakiness, but William Blake is widely available, and I do like the infinite branches of Protestantism, at least as a field of study from a distance.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog. Reread. Much to my relief, I still found this entertaining. Willis skews toward farce in a direction that can be hard to pace in prose writing, but for me To Say Nothing of the Dog is still on the correct side where the “one MORE thing OMG” aspect of farce really comes through and doesn’t drag into “this is just repetitious, not funny.”

Books read, late December

Elizabeth Bear, The Chains That You Refuse. Reread. I usually have one book of short things (poems, essays, short stories) going at any given time, and this time I just needed something that would reliably not smack me in the face and would have “old friend” characters. This delivered.

Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison, The Cobbler’s Boy. Kindle. A murder mystery featuring crypto-Papists and a 15-year-old Christopher Marlowe. Fun times, a very fast read.

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Buell is fairly satisfying about Thoreau and those who came after him, and this book is particularly good in talking about American women writers who are not as discussed as Thoreau but contributed significantly to American nature writing in their time–and are available on Gutenberg, so stay tuned.

Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled. This is a fun and light-hearted romance-mystery-fantasy in–and here is where my buttons are thoroughly pushed–a massive snowstorm. You could hardly fit more snow in this book if you used a plow to stack it up very high and let the neighbor kids sled off it. The ending is a bit less satisfying than the rest of the book–proving things is hard–but not so much so that I’m not going to immediately seek out the other published volume in the series.

Michael J. DeLuca et al, editors, Reckoning Issue 3. Kindle. The mix of stories, poetry, and essays in this issue is excellent. The types of each vary a lot (although several stories reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki’s environmental thinking; I mean that in a good way). My favorites included Octavia Cade’s “The Feather Wall” and Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s “More Sea Than Tar.” Danika Dinsmore’s poem in the editorial slot was a lovely choice for that, and Adelia MacWilliam’s “Paddling in the Sound” also struck me particularly well.

George Eliot, Adam Bede. Kindle. The prospect of reading George Eliot on the airplane appealed to me mightily, so I just picked one more or less at random. It turns out that Adam Bede was Eliot’s first novel, and there are some places in the ending where you can see her figuring out the form or…not quite getting there. The ending does not work as well as a portrait of humans as the rest of the book, for me. But the middle has some extremely solid excellent stuff about compassion and loving others around us for who they are and not who we wish they were. While I wouldn’t start here (START WITH Middlemarch!!! You could be reading Middlemarch right now!!!), I’m very glad I read it and will probably continue to while away happy hours of travel with her oeuvre.

Emiko Jean, Empress of All Seasons. This is an interesting YA fantasy with strong worldbuilding (…sort of a theme for this fortnight…). There is an aspect of it that started to be unsatisfying to me in theme/implications halfway through the book, and then just as I was getting restless about that aspect, the ending did not go where I thought it would go and all of a sudden the theme issues were entirely resolved for me into “YAY doing its OWN THING.”

Neil Kent, The Sami Peoples of the North: A Social and Cultural History. If you want a beginning book on Sami history and culture, this looks to me like a pretty solid one. If you’ve already got the basics, you probably don’t need this book to repeat them. Unlike some histories it does extend into the present day or fairly close to it, with important yoik musicians and other figures of the last few decades discussed.

Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Warrior. I sometimes do very poorly with similar titles, and so I went most of a year without noticing that the Akata W— book people were talking about was not the one I’d already read and enjoyed (Akata Witch). Enlightened, I went and got this book. It’s a lot of fun, interesting, good worldbuilding, good characterization.

Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum, A Day of Small Beginnings. This is a multigenerational novel about the ghost of a devout Jewish woman haunting three generations of a Jewish family not her own as they move from Poland to the US and then rediscover their Polish roots. It’s a beautiful example of moving writing about religion that is not attempting to proselytize. Also it’s very singular; or at least I don’t know of other books with this general shape of plot. I’m very glad I stumbled upon it.

Sherwood Smith, ed. It Happened at the Ball. Discussed elsewhere.

Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Every time I get a Rebecca Solnit book, it moves to the head of the queue immediately. This one did not take many pages to make it clear why. Solnit’s ideas about environment, idealism, and practical consequences are broader, deeper, and more clearly expressed than the other writers I’ve been reading on those themes. Such a joy.

Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand. This is intense and vivid YA fantasy with strong worldbuilding and major upheaval in the plot in just the ways I like. Definitely looking forward to whatever Suri does with the sequel.

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Want and Ruin. This is the sequel to a book that was very special to me, Creatures of Will and Temper. It’s the kind of sequel that allows for a large time gap and different characters, so the touchstones that were my own buttons to push have been replaced by a different set. I have every hope that this will be someone else’s very special book, and I’m always glad to see a series where someone is doing quite different things in each book.

Sara Teasdale, Rivers to the Sea. Kindle. This book of poems felt very young to me. A lot of them were about Old Love and New Love in the sorts of ways that people who haven’t loved anyone for more than about six months tend to write about, extremely breathless and full of broad pronouncements. Some of it was quite good of that type, and then there were the moments where the image part of the Imagist poetry broke free of the sweeping statements.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Issue 26. Kindle. I have a story in this issue, and I make a policy of not reviewing things I have work in.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Ayme Sotuyo, et al, Lumberjanes: Parents’ Day. A lot of stuff that has been foreshadowed or otherwise hinted at came to fruition in this volume, featuring bunches of family members and–of course–supernatural incursions into summer camp hijinks. And friendship to the max. Can’t forget the friendship to the max.