COVID Spring: Good Hair Day

Of course it would be today

My hair would fall in perfect waves,

Pre-Raphaelite and sun-kissed

To be taken not to the symphony

Nor a friend’s wedding, a party,

But the weekly grocery raid,

Mask secured over my Waterhouse chin.

Guinevere among the lettuces,

Boadicea buying crackers,

Face obscured, eyes worried.

Appreciate my tresses, grocery shoppers.

They will get no other airing.

COVID Spring: Against Omens

You may take back your shipment of portents–

We don’t need them. We already know.

The cracks in the floor, thank you, yes:

The ground beneath our feet is unstable. We know.

The fallen unmarked chickadee: now really

We’ve learned, we can go any minute. We know.

Killer hornets, Krakatoa, floods, locusts–

The scale is grand, the message trite. We know, we know.

Let’s have lilacs,Let’s have sunshine, ice cream, new books

A fresh clean wall, we’ve already seen this writing.

Put down the chalk. We know.

The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Caralee is a traverser, someone who travels professionally between universes similar enough to her own to resonate with them. Like other traversers, she led a hard and risky childhood–you can only travel to worlds in which your other self has died, and Caralee’s other self has been in an entire metric ton of peril.

Oh, and also: her employer thinks she is one of those other selves, a more naive girl named Caramenta. When Caramenta was transferred into Caralee’s world and died from being in the same place as her double, Caralee took her clothes, her world-traveling tech–and her life. Or at least as much of her life as she could figure out. Luckily Caramenta was an assiduous journaler. Even luckier for Caralee, she’s a quick study–because these worlds are pretty universally brutal, and missteps could cost her everything.

Cara’s got a job, a safe place to live, a mentor, even a family–which is more than she had at home. But all of those things are threatened, and she is constantly having to maneuver around the ruling classes, who find her useful as a traverser but don’t have any interest in protecting her as a person. She has a history of being romantically involved with people who treat her like garbage, but it comes around in different ways in different worlds. Navigating all the different histories (which are kept deftly woven for the reader!) provides complication after complication for Cara as her expectations of one person shift to better fitting another–but even learning that anyone can be on her side is a major obstacle for her given her past. It’s a very different take on parallel worlds than most, and one I found interesting throughout.

Books read, late April

David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. German history is confusing. Usually the more I learn about it, the more confused I am, reinforcing that it is genuinely confusing, not just my ignorance. But this book! This book was a bit of German history that actually straightened a few things out in my mind. Because it was German hydrological history! Canals and sloughs and barges and all sorts of things that you can actually trace a reasonably straightforward narrative about! So much water. It’s not a highly technical book, you don’t have to be a hydrologist yourself. It’s another of those “this is history too, and it’s not about crowns and battles” books that I like so much.

Marie Brennan, Driftwood. Discussed elsewhere.

Stephanie Burgis, Deadly Courtesies. Kindle. The next short story in a series about necromancy, crafting magic (in this case metalcrafting), and impending romance. Great fun.

Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. This goes through plant sensory systems and what research there is about them (and what has been debunked). Hurrah for a comforting book about botany.

Isabel Greenberg, Glass Town. A graphic novel about the Bronte siblings’ juvenilia and also their relationships with each other. I read this to discuss it with a friend who is a great Gondal fan, but then it turned out she hasn’t had time yet. If you’re interested in the topic I think it would be a reasonable introduction.

S.L. Huang, Critical Point and Null Set. Discussed elsewhere, and also discussed elsewhere.

Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On Disaster Capitalists. A short book on what the heck is going on there, with competing views for handling post-hurricane devastation and what the future of the island should be. Klein is not trying to avoid taking sides, but I think the side she takes is reasonable, and she also provides some useful information I had not seen covered well elsewhere in the mainland US.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Relentless Moon. Discussed elsewhere.

Naomi Mitchison, The Bull Calves. This is a thumping big historical novel set in 18th century Scotland. It is full of Scots dialect and people with very similar names who are related to each other, and I liked it anyway. Whenever there’s a Naomi Mitchison book on my pile, it’s what I want to read. They’re not like each other in overt ways, just in subtle ways.

Jenn Reese, A Game of Fox and Squirrels. This is a heart-rending book with a happy ending. Two sisters have had to move to their aunts’ house in Oregon because of their dad’s abuse, and the younger one gets caught up in a magical card game. And there is a lot of learning to trust and learning how to love people who love you well when you’ve had other kinds of love in the past, and it’s really good that way, but hoo, it is not easy, don’t think that the middle-grade age target makes it easy.

John Sayles, Yellow Earth. Speaking of good but not easy…well, no one was going to make that mistake with Sayles. This novel is about the North Dakota oil fields and the people around them, and…and…oh, it is not a “fun” book, but I loved it. I have generally believed John Sayles about the details of his work, that people say the things he says they do (adjusted a tiny bit for Sayles…), but in this book he is talking about various forms of my people, and he gets it right, he gets very tiny things right as well as large ones. A lot of flawed people trying the best they can, some of them not trying the best they can, and some people get genuinely happy endings, within the Sayles capacity. In this case the happy ending of the very last page felt like it was written just for me, so hey, thanks, Mr. Sayles, I love you too.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. This is a thin pamphlet that is all polemic, some of it quite reasonable polemic, but still. There are places where Snyder is acting in his capacity as a Holocaust scholar and times when he’s speaking more or less without evidence, just stuff that he as a human believes. I prefer the former category, but most of the latter are okay, if less interesting. Won’t take you long, but I suspect that most people who read my blog already know much of what they would gain from this.

Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence. This is very much a memoir rather than an autobiography. If you’re here for a recitation of the facts of Solnit’s life, in chronological order, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The focus here is to muse on how her work and her life have intertwined, and I found that very interesting. (She is another author I tend to want to read right away when I have one of her books on my pile.)

Tasha Suri, Realm of Ash. A sequel to Empire of Sand, but I actually think it would do all right as a stand-alone, if you’re looking for magic and thoughtfulness about empire and its costs. I enjoyed this.

Tade Thompson, Household Gods and Other Narrative Offenses. Kindle. A really good introduction to his short work, varied settings and characters.

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Shattering autobiographical poems. Read slowly.

Raynor Winn, The Salt Path. This is a memoir of a couple who lost their farm, and also the husband got a terminal diagnosis, so they…decided to walk over 600 miles of English coast, Devon and Cornwall. They were flat broke and just started walking. There is quite a lot of focus on what they managed to eat, but also there are some really poignant moments, and a lot of thoughtfulness about who has access to what and why.

Critical Point, by S.L. Huang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the third in the Cas Russell series. Cas remains, as she has been throughout, a computational genius with no past, who shoots people a lot. Her hazy past keeps catching up with her in pieces, and holding it at bay is taking a lot of her time and energy.

What’s worse, her friends have histories of their own, less hazy and more immediate–and substantially undisclosed to Cas. So when a teenage girl turns up saying that her parent is in trouble–and Cas didn’t even know that friend was a parent–there’s an extra level of adventure to the psychic manipulation/blowing things up that is Cas’s daily life.

What’s worse, she’s finding it hard to keep track of all the ways in which she’s being manipulated by different parties. There’s someone she’s supposed to remember–someone overwhelmingly terrifying–but who was he? Who was responsible for all the explosions? Who is impersonating whom here, and why?

I’m trying to be careful about spoilers for this thriller, because watching it unfold is a large part of the fun, but there are even more players with even more games than in previous volumes. I think this one stands alone somewhat better than Null Set, but I’d still recommend starting the ride at the beginning, with Zero Sum Game, for maximum impact.

Present Writers: Karen Joy Fowler

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, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley,Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Rosemary Kirstein.

Karen Joy Fowler’s speculative genre credentials are impeccable, and her mimetic genre credentials are also impeccable. It’s easy to immerse in her writing, knowing that when she applies a trope from one genre set or another, it’s on purpose, it’s all deliberate. Her work is as speculative as a particular piece needs it to be, no more and no less, but the range on that is huge, from the entirely mimetic Jane Austen Book Club to the first contact novel Sarah Canary.

Fowler has won bunches of awards, the World Fantasy, the Nebula, the PEN/Faulkner. But she also was one of the founders of another, the Otherwise Award which was formerly named the Tiptree. (It’s kind of a big deal.) That kind of appreciation of others shines through in her fiction and makes it more insightful and bigger-hearted. I’m never sure what I’m going to get in a Karen Joy Fowler story, but that’s actually the appeal–it is literally never “oh, this again,” it’s always a different balance and a different angle.

Null State, by S.L. Huang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cas Russell is a calculation savant with no past who shoots a lot of people. She fights crime.

No, really, crime as a whole, the entire gestalt of crime. That’s what she’s decided to take on in this book: not that dude’s crime, but Crime. And in the middle of doing that, her past-that-isn’t catches up with her.

Or tries to. Or tries not to. Cas is not supposed to remember what happened to her, and those blocks are breaking down in ways that are dangerous for her and for those around her. This book–a sequel to Zero Sum Game–pays attention to a lot of the ways that having psychics who can mess around in people’s heads could get very complicated, and very dangerous, very quickly.

This is a fast-paced science fiction thriller about someone whose friendships are utterly crucial to her, even when she’s not sure quite who she is. If that appeals to you, it might be time to catch up on this series; the third volume comes out soon.

The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author a bit socially.

This is the third full-length book in the Lady Astronauts series. There’s a change of protagonists–this one is from the perspective of Nicole Wargin, an astronaut who is also a politician’s wife–but the events of the previous volumes are important to this one. I’d recommend reading the others first rather than diving in with this as your entry point.

The astronauts and colonists have gotten settled enough into a moon colony that there can be such a thing as routine, but back at home the Earth Firsters still think they have a chance to derail the entire project. So Nicole Wargin not only finds herself separated from her beloved husband by thousands of miles just when he’s trying to run a presidential campaign–she’s also dealing with a saboteur on the moon. And, oh, by the way, a polio outbreak. And trying to help Earth with its problems from a distance, with satellite service not as reliable as it should be.

She’s dealing with a lot of shit here, to paraphrase Bull Durham. But for as long as this book is, it never drags; I was always in “just one more chapter” mode while I read it. And I have never been so happy about a scene where someone eats applesauce in my life. Despite the quarantine aspects being far more relevant than I expect Mary ever would have wished, this was still a fun read, and I’m glad I had an alternate universe worth of problems to contemplate for a few hours.