Books read, early April

Mary Alexandra Agner, ed., A Bouts-Rimes for Hope. A bouts-rimes, I was reminded by this project, is when you give people the end rhymes for a sonnet and they have to fill in the sonnet. This one, a free project, was specifically aimed at post-election optimism. The poems came out extremely different despite their common rhyme scheme. An interesting thing to do.

Nadia Aguiar, The Lost Island of Tamarind. Near-shipwreck, hidden magical island, and other buttons that you might have had factory installed to push as well. This is a children’s book that doesn’t have astonishingly beautiful prose, but it does have a cranky adolescent protagonist trying very hard for her family. Entertaining, but I was not really very drawn in–there were some quite awkward points.

Danielle Mages Amato, The Hidden Memory of Objects. The speculative premise in this one starts subtly–I was not even sure it would be speculative rather than mimetic YA. It’s about a teenager who is grieving the loss of her beloved older brother, and all the emotional beats are there for relationships being central. However! The speculative premise is also very well thought-through–better, in fact, than in some projects where it is more front and center. This is a book I found through asking what had gotten released since the election and might be falling between the cracks, and I’m really glad I did.

Mishell Baker, Phantom Pains. A sequel to Borderline, and a worthy one, too; this is a novel not just about the interplay between Los Angeles and the world of Faery, not just about disability and accommodation, but about consequences.

Maurice Broaddus, The Voices of Martyrs. This short story collection is divided into past, present, and future tales, and I liked the third category best, but there were interesting pieces in all of them.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia. What it says on the tin, written in the ’70s. There is a weird obsession with Dacron, and he pretty much comes right out and says that the denizens of Ecotopia are like hippies but less distasteful. There are lots of points of unintentional hilarity–the more so if you happen to be named Marissa. There’s a certain extent to which he has the ecological utopia being, “Nobody wears Dacron! and people recycle voluntarily!” and I’m like, honey, I have good news and bad news. I think this is most interesting to people who are particularly wanting to have breadth of field on either utopias or ecological speculative fiction; it is very, very dated for the casual reader.

Charles de Lint, Tapping the Dream Tree. Reread. This is a Newford collection. I really imprinted on an early Newford collection when I was a teenager, and for awhile I read everything de Lint wrote. This is not a terrible collection. It’s also not a collection that felt like it was doing anything in particular that he hadn’t done a dozen times with slightly different costuming. Don’t start here, and unless you’re a de Lint die-hard, I don’t see any good reason to continue to this point either.

Taiyo Fujii, Orbital Cloud. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Graves, Poems 1968-1970. On the one hand, the things that he labels “songs” sing on the page a great deal more than 99% of poems I have read that are labeled songs/lyrics. So that part was a great success. On the other hand, he is weirdly obsessed with female virginity and other gender dynamic issues that do not hold up well. I picked up some Graves because A.S. Byatt contended that he was one of the great love poets, treating the beloved as an equal, and this is one of the times when you realize what low standards people of previous generations had to have for such things and feel very, very sad.

Paul Gruchow, The Necessity of Empty Places. Reading ’80s nature writing is not entirely dissimilar to reading ’80s speculative fiction. Some of the points of florid inspiration are completely disproven at this time, some of the worries are mitigated and others completely underestimated. And there are moments when race and gender pop up suddenly in order to be handled badly. On the other hand, there are some lovely and personal observations of the natural world. I’m glad this isn’t the first Gruchow I read, because I know he learns better, and I’ll keep reading for the gems.

Bernd Heinrich, Summer World: A Season of Bounty. Heinrich writes about the Maine woods and birds a lot. I like that sort of thing. I bet some of you like that sort of thing too.

Grady Hendrix, My Best Friend’s Exorcism. I am really not sure what I think about this book. It’s about a teen friendship, and there is a coda that makes it clear that it’s meant in some ways to be an ode to teen girl friendships. At the same time…the friendship turns really toxic, and everybody in the book has a horrible time, and once I was clear that it was actually going to be about teens in the ’80s who did drugs and one of them got demonically possessed, it felt kind of gross. The way that it was very vivid about the emotions and the experience was particularly unappealing knowing that that gets used as What Really Happened. Really well done, I’m just not sure I want what it’s doing.

Faith Erin Hicks, The Stone Heart. Discussed elsewhere.

Claire Humphrey, Spells of Blood and Kin. This is a great companion volume to Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night, which also came out last year. They’re dealing with the same chunks of Russian mythology in completely different ways, so they’re more enjoyable together rather than detracting from each other. This is an urban fantasy with egg magic. Egg. Magic. I know of one friend who definitely does not want that but other than my friend who is secretly the Nome King I totally recommend this book. (There are no Oz jokes in this book. I like it a lot otherwise though.)

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 2. If anything, an even stronger issue than the first. I particularly liked Maurice Broaddus’s “Vade Retro Satana,” Christopher Caldwell’s “The Beekeeper’s Garden,” and Eden Royce’s “Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment.” There was a lot of variety of voice and theme in this issue. Keep going, Fiyah.

Elaine Khosrova, Butter: A Rich History. Long-term, this may be the most expensive book I will ever read. I got it from the library and returned it on time…but it has motivated me to get The Great Butter at the store, and I will want to try The Really Good Butters after that, and yeah. Yeah, butter, there’s a lot to butter. The recipes in the back of this were pretty pointless, but butter technique, butter industrial detail, butter butter butter. I like microhistories, and also dairy. Major complaint: Khosrova only talked about the Iowa State Fair butter sculptures, which are done on wire forms come on people, not about our butter sculptures, which are done out of solid blocks of butter like Princess Kay intended. I’m just saying. There’s a reason they sing that their state fair is the best state fair in their state, and it’s because you cross the border and the people in Albert Lea will immediately tell you that there’s a better one just one state over. (I did not read anything about seed art this fortnight but trust me, you’ll hear it when I do.)

Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit. This is not what people mostly mean by military SF at the moment, but it is entirely military and entirely SF. It’s just a little more off-kilter–Lee is doing the SF part, he is not doing Hornblower In Space Take 257. Major lesson learned by putting this book at the culmination of a lifetime of SF reading: not being a tactical genius is the road to a happy life in a science fictional universe, and maybe you should try not being a tactical genius just in case ours becomes a science fictional universe.

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. I wanted to punch Marsh at several spots in this book. On the other hand, I think it’s very well worth reading, not just for the tactile experiences of different kinds of brain surgery (although–!!!) but also for the way that he is very clear about his own mistakes. He not only knows that he has not lived up to the title, he is willing to let us know too. I think we need more of that.

Adrienne Rich, Fox: Poems 1998-2000. None of these jumped out as crucial to share, but I enjoyed the experience. I think I would have enjoyed these poems more in a Collected Works sort of volume. They felt like they were in conversation with things I wasn’t quite catching, and I could easily believe that a fairly large number of those things were Rich’s past poems. I’m glad my library buys poetry at all, but it has a habit of buying one slim collection from 2-3 years of a poet’s life and then saying, oh, we already have some of their stuff and stopping there. Ah well.

Sonia Shah, The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years. This is a good introduction to malaria (far more fun than, for example, contracting it). I didn’t really need another introductory-level book, but if you haven’t read about the effects of malaria on human cultures, this is a quite reasonable place to start.

Bill Streever, And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air. This was a very weird book. It was far too short for what it claimed to do, and then it did even less of that than the space would have allowed, because a lot of it was “Streever and someone else sail around the Caribbean.” I might have read a memoir of sailing around the Caribbean in a small craft. I really was a lot more interested in the history of storms and meteorology here. This was basically half a history of meteorologists and half a travel memoir. So…I mean…fine, but ignore the title.

Christie Wilcox, Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry. Kind of great about hemotoxins and neurotoxins and how they evolve and how they get used and what kinds of animals use them and why. Yay venoms. Fun and reasonably short. (Fun. Um. Okay, mileage varies, but if you can’t have fun with a book about venoms….)

Maryrose Wood, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. The titular characters were raised by wolves. This is a kids’ book that has some features that will be slightly more eye-rolling to adults–the way the Incorrigibles’ speech is affected by their wolf upbringing is a lot more aimed at kid sense of humor–but there’s other stuff too, the ongoing horse book series their governess is obsessed with. I liked this enough to get it for my goddaughter.

The first question

I have a favor to ask. There are a lot of difficult conversations in this world right now, and I would like to ask you to pay attention to the first question you ask in those difficult conversations. Because it often gives a sense of your priorities–and sometimes it gives a sense of your priorities that is not the one you want.

Let me give you a couple of examples. When we’re talking about sexual harassment at conventions, if your first question is, “What do we do about the false reports?”, that tells me something very different than if your first question is, “How do we make sure that people trust us enough to report?” or “How do we keep clear records so that all the information we need is preserved?” And do I think, “I bet it’s because the people who are asking about false reports already have thorough answers to those other questions”? HAHAHA YEAH SURE I DO.

Similarly, disability and accessibility. If your first question is, “What about the times when accessibility needs conflict?”–and oh Lordy, that is so often the first question–that tells me so very very much about your priorities. And what it tells me is not great, frankly. Because again, I promise: the people and organizations who have this as their first question about disability and accessibility are not people and organizations who have smoothly and effortlessly handled all the first-tier, obvious accessibility needs and are now moving on to the hard ones.

Yeah, I know, sometimes the first thing that pops out of your head is something trivial, something random. I don’t think these examples are that. They’re too consistent to be random, and if you think they represent something trivial, you’ve probably never been on the wrong end of them.

Try to make sure your first question is not, “How do I put this problem back on the people who have been bearing the brunt of it all along?”, actually. That’s pretty important.

Oh, and if your stunningly insightful political question that “no one” is asking boils down to, “What if this group of people is actually just inferior? what if they just suck?”–guess what? It turns out people have asked that before. It turns out people ask that a lot. You are not new, you are not insightful, you are not hard-hitting. You’re just being an asshole. Social scientists have done a lot of research into whether one gender, one race, one ethnicity, etc. etc. etc. is inherently inferior to others, and it turns out that the scientific answer is, NO, AND ALSO STOP BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE.

Orbital Cloud, by Taiyo Fujii

Review copy provided by Haikasoru Books.

This is very, very near future hard science fiction. The vast majority of the action takes place in 2020, which in some ways is bravely near and in some ways safely near: I know that various things will change between now and then, but I was able to buy the world the characters live in being basically the same as ours in ways that would have bugged me if it had been set in 2040 or 2117. There is a lot of “basically right now” stuff in this book, including using brand names for things like the Raspberry Pi. (So many Raspberry Pis. So many. Wow. On the other hand, yay for a science fiction writer noticing they exist and can have stuff done with them.)

This is a very speculation-heavy book. It’s set on and near Earth, and the focus is entirely on the in-orbit technologies. The characters largely exist to fulfill their speculative plot functions; they are sketched in, not delved into deeply. Emotional and personal growth is not the engine of this plot. And that’s okay.

It’s particularly okay if you want a hard SF angle on another culture. Orbital Cloud is a bit like The Three-Body Problem that way, but only that way–it’s about a million times more cheerful. A billion times. Look, I would need to go into scientific notation to express how much more cheerful this book is than The Three-Body Problem in any kind of compact form. But my point is: same tropes plus different authorial cultural background gives a cool new angle. Fujii is also young/enlightened enough that the sexism here is minimal compared to some of the old hard SF I’ve been revisiting of late, which is refreshing. There are still a few moments where something is a little obnoxious, but it’s definitely a book with more modern standards in that regard. It’s also the good kind of mentally dislocating to watch a Japanese author talk about group dynamics among Americans with Japanese cultural assumptions about what people want or will perceive–gives me, as an American, some perspective about what it looks like when Americans do that about people from other cultures in their hard SF.

There were a couple of hilarious moments when translation was an important plot point–I found them funny not just because of the meta, but because this book does have a flavor of “translated from the Japanese,” obvious points where the translator was trying to figure out how to render “so desu ne?” and other things that are completely natural in Japanese but look weird if you repeat them literally in other languages, less obvious points where it was just a different feel. But translation plot points aside, I think it’s generally easier to translate hard SF decently because the technical terms are more obvious and the prose is not haring off after a lyric in the bushes.

I keep saying the genre over and over again: hard SF, hard SF, hard SF. I really think that this is one of the times where it matters a lot to whether you’ll want to read it. If you hate people doing calculations about orbital dynamics, you will straight-up hate this book, because that is the kind of book it is. It is all that flavor of nerd, all the time. But that flavor of nerd is a fine thing to be, and this is a fine example of it.

Please consider using our link to buy Orbital Cloud from Amazon.

The little bits that get you

I was reading a middle-grade book last week, contemporary setting with adventure fantasy elements, written this decade, la la la fine yay. And suddenly in the middle of it, the little brother was telling the protagonist that changing diapers was girls’ work. And she basically stamped her foot, and the book went on.

…except that he was the little brother, so it made sense for her to keep doing more of the care for their baby sister, because he was younger than I’d expect for that task. So…the idea kind of stood. It was embedded there in the text, and the next two most helpful adults with the child care were also women, and suddenly there’s a subtext.

It’s not a book about misogyny. So far as I can tell, it’s not a book that meant to portray a society that told girls that their role was having and caring for babies–either in a positive or a negative light. But there it is, a random line that just sat there being frankly kind of gross. That just sat there reinforcing to girl readers that this is how boys will view them and their lives, reinforcing to boys that this is a normal thing to say and a normal way to behave, not worthy of comment.

I’ve talked before about how I’m trying to not write misogyny in fiction any more. And this is simultaneously why I have that determination and the hard part of keeping it. It’s easy to not write misogyny that seems important at the time–at least comparatively easy. The large plot points like “society tells our heroine she cannot be a phoenix wrangler because of her gender” tend to jump out at you. “Big fight with family member over proper gender roles”: that takes up enough space on the page that it’s hard to miss. And it’s also easier to actually deal with head-on in the text, if it’s not something you actually believe in, if it’s something you want to fight or refute. It’s a lot easier to let your heroine show that girls can too be phoenix wranglers, or to have family members bend on “proper” gender roles.

When it’s a single line, a throwaway bit of dialog, it may not even register. It may just be the way of the world in the author’s experience. But depending on how you write it, you can help to make it more the way of the world in the reader’s experience, too, because hey, it was in all the books they were reading growing up. I’ve been revisiting a lot of ’70s and ’80s SF I read in high school and college, and it’s really striking to me how much blatant, hostile sexism I was completely used to. It’s really astonishing how much was just “how things are” and not a reason to find a book gross or upsetting.

Writers who are writing today: that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re setting norms. We’re building readers’ data sets about the world. Every. Day. It is very much worth paying attention to what assumptions we’re reinforcing with “unimportant” lines of dialog and bits of description. The larger points, the things we hoped to be writing about, the things we were conscious we were writing about, are by no means the only things that matter.

The Stone Heart, by Faith Erin Hicks

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the second volume of The Nameless City (first book named the same thing as the series). Having spent the first volume setting up a multicultural city with diverse population while also establishing character relationships, Hicks is ready to use those elements strongly in book two. The first book was a lot more action-adventure, with races through various parts of the city.

The second book has some action, but it’s a lot more politics. With the grounding The Nameless City provided, there’s never the problem of “why do I care about this, again?” The characters who are affected by the policies–and the ways they’re affected–have been established vividly. So the moments of going “oh no!” and “whew!” all hit.

There is a new antagonist in this book, and Hicks makes sure that she has human motivations while still being clearly opposed to Kai and Rat *and* in the wrong. There’s a little bit of Jackie Chan Furniture School of Martial Arts in the climax of that relationship, which is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.

There are two kinds of young adult books: the kind that are only going to be of interest to people in that age group, and the kind that are set up to be of interest to anybody starting with that age group. This is the latter. If you’re a fan of Avatar: the Last Airbender, this is a series for you. It continues to deliver on earlier promise, and then some.

Please consider using our link to buy The Stone Heart from Amazon.

Books read, late March

Pat Cadigan, Patterns. Reread. One of the strange things about keeping a booklog is that you can discover that you had the urge to read the same book exactly eighteen years apart. In that time, these stories have gone from mildly dated to tales from another era. Unfortunately for my tastes, nobody seems to like each other very much in them–they’re well done but not done in a direction I really recommend.

Paul Gruchow, Worlds Within a World: Reflections on Visits to Minnesota Scientific and Natural Area Preserves. This is a tiny, unprepossessing volume of essays and photographs. Gruchow has just the sort of observations I love in nature writing: a mixture of ideas new to me and phenomena identified that I had seen but not known for what they are. Plants, birds, rocks…all sorts of good stuff. The library has a bunch of his other books, and I will almost certainly read more.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. Haupt wants us to think about how we are living in and shaping an ecosystem even if it’s not a “natural” ecosystem. She speaks up for the moles and coyotes in ways that sound sensible and healthy to me. I enjoyed this a lot.

Gwyneth Jones, Rainbow Bridge. Reread. Kind of an anticlimax to the series, I’m afraid. I still enjoyed it on a page by page level, but the conclusion is not very interestingly conclusive. Further, there are places where ten years have really taken us quite a ways down the road to speaking respectfully to and about each other. We do our best with what we know at the time, and when we know better, we do better. It’s clear to me that, for example, the trans characters in this are meant to be fully realized people…but I think that they would be portrayed very differently now. (Also I am really annoyed with the trope of “glamorous beautiful woman looks completely like she did before five seconds after pregnancy,” and it’s pretty bad in this one. Don’t do this, people.)

Mike Lawrence, Star Scouts. Discussed elsewhere.

Ken Liu, The Wall of Storms. A fascinating meander through this world. People (like myself!) who were annoyed with the lack of female representation in the first volume in this series will find a wealth of characters here, different backgrounds and tastes, roles and ideas. There is quite a lot of machination, so if you like machination, here you are. It also goes farther and deeper into the world Liu created–inspired by Polynesian islands and Chinese epics but with each influencing the other to be something new. If I had one complaint, it’s that manipulation appears to always work; everyone has a button that other people can press at will.

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. This is an intellectual history attempting to figure out what ideas led to the economic situation in Europe 1500-1700. It’s dense and dry, interesting if you’re interested in the topic but not really of general appeal.

Iain Pears, Arcadia. Science fictionish fantasyish tome with time travel and alternate worlds and quite a lot to say to portal fantasy. For me at least one of the levels of “more plot tangles” didn’t actually contribute very much to the whole, but neither did I find them unpleasant to read. Some self-indulgent writery stuff about the Nature Of Story.

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith. Reread. I love the Tiffany Aching books. I love winter. So when I first read this one, I was over the moon for it. I still like it quite a lot, but I’m not experiencing it as quite so much head and shoulders over the others as I did before, for whatever reason. Still: the worldview makes me so happy.

Erica L. Satifka, Stay Crazy. This is a book that attempts to write about people with schizophrenia (including the protagonist) in ways that are not just compassionate but human: the protag is allowed to be prickly, grumpy, and often a jerk to the people around her, rather than the “suffering saint” or “dangerous animal” pitfalls of portraying mental illness. It is also a very wry book about aliens and American consumerism. I’ve seen it compared to Philip K. Dick, but it was a lot more intimate voice, a lot more personal POV than I recall Dick being.

Robert Sherrod, History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. This is one of the last of my grandpa’s books still on my pile, and it was surprisingly great. I don’t usually have a keen interest in the topic, but Sherrod handled it masterfully. Also: this book came out in the early 1950s, basically as soon as the Japanese information was available and the American information was declassified. You can tell that Sherrod was in the mode of writing it as the information came to him. And yet–he does not use any ethnic slurs in authorial voice. He repeatedly and explicitly acknowledges the contributes of Marine Corps women. I can easily see why my grandfather kept this book on hand all those years and enjoyed it, because it reads like Sherrod was just Grandpa’s sort of Marine.

Rebecca Solnit, Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. An essay collection about travel and current events. There’s not a clear geographic focus in this, nor an ideological throughline, and I enjoyed the episodic nature of it.

John Strausbaugh, City of Sedition: The History of New York During the Civil War. Lots of New York politics of the time, some of the “here is a famous individual and what they were doing while other people were shooting at each other” school of history. It wanders enough that I’d mostly recommend it to New York history buffs and Civil War buffs, but it was a pleasant enough read for me, and I am neither.

Angela Thirkell, Three Houses. A memoir of growing up Edward Burne-Jones’s granddaughter and Rudyard Kipling’s cousin. Thirkell is not, I learn elsewhere, completely a reliable narrator, but I loved her approach to writing about her grandfather. And I loved Burne-Jones better through his granddaughter’s eyes.

Maria Turtschaninoff, Maresi. A feminist YA fantasy that was somewhat reminiscent of The Brothers Lionheart and somewhat reminiscent of The Steerswoman. (That may not be where she’s going with it, but it’s where my mind went.) This is why we should have more things in translation, so I can have books like this. It was all too short. There is a sequel. It is not out yet. Harumph.

Ellen Wayland-Smith, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table. Wayland-Smith is the descendant of people from the Oneida colony, and she’s remarkably personal/casual about phrases like “my great-grandmother the sexual dynamo.” The nineteenth century is, like the rest of the world, weirder than we tend to imagine. And this is an interesting little weird piece of it.

A.C. Wise, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again. This is pulpy in the very best way. Costumes described lovingly, relationships and acceptance and chosen family the focus of it all. With, oh yes, occasional mad science, aliens, etc. I’m not squarely in the middle of the audience for this, but I could still have fun with it, and I bet some of you can too.

Ibi Zoboi, American Street. This was lovely. It’s an own-voices immigrant tale about a Haitian girl finding a new life with her cousins in Detroit and figuring out how she can help her detained mother. There are magic realist elements to this story. It is not a happy perky tale, but it’s not hopeless either. I loved the voice, the family life…basically the whole thing. Recommended.

“This is so topical!” and chasing trends

I have seen several people on Twitter trying to keep tabs on everything President Trump has done in a given week. This really, really highlights the problem with trying to chase trends and write to be topical: by the time your sharp, satirical story is available to the public–even if you self-publish on the spot with minimal revisions, the more so if you revise and find a traditional publisher–there will be three, four, ten fresher outrages. What was the scandal or gaffe in the Trump presidential campaign a year ago? Too late now, onward.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for political comment, but the more specific it is, the worse it will age. There are times when things start to look specific in context–I trunked a partial story that depended on the villainy of deporting ethnic and religious minorities. I still feel that that’s pretty villainous, but the rest of the shape of this story was not meant to comment on the current regime, and there’s no way it won’t look like it was trying under the current circumstances. And with a story I did sell, the editor and I worked on it to make sure that incidental things I came up with in January 2016 did not look like heavy-handed references to the current day. Instead they are light-handed references to the current day! Much better. Seriously. Much.

I guess what I’m saying is: big ideas weather better than small details. Principles weather better than current events in-jokes. “I am really mad at this current problem” is not the same thing as “I will cash in on this current craze”…except they lead to a lot of the same pitfalls, so tread warily.