Fourth Street panel schedule

Saturday 9:30 a.m. Dreaming Under Darkening Skies: The Cold War Fantastic A discussion of living and creating in the decades when the world was presumed to be an atomic tinderbox waiting for someone to push the button. Many writers cheerfully assumed we’d skip right past the whole mess, and an equal number assumed we’d all be served broiled on toast. While some wrote apocalypses or recoveries, others (including Tim Powers and John M. Ford) wrote intricately paranoiac tales of Cold War magic. What did those decades give our fantasy, what did they take from it, and how much of that time is still haunting our thoughts/works?

Saturday 11:00 a.m. Plotting Agency: From Resistance to Responsibility With great power comes a wall on every side, or so it seems. Much of our fiction can be described along an axis running from Resistance to Responsibility. At one end, characters have little or no control over their circumstances, such as Frodo and Samwise barely avoiding starvation on what increasingly feels like a suicide mission. At the other end lie books like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, where protagonists grapple with so much power that their real struggle is to break as little of the world as possible. Many stories seek to provoke or inspire by having characters travel this axis, including Lord of Light, The Broken Earth series, the works of John Christopher, and The Traitor Baru Cormorant. What do stories along this spectrum offer us? In the end, how can power become as much of a prison as deprivation?

For those who don’t know, Fourth Street is a single-track convention, so there’s no need to give room numbers. It’s all in the programming room. Wake up Saturday morning, stick your head under the shower, come down to the programming room and listen to my dulcet tones soothing and cheering you on these soothing and cheering topics.

Books read, late May

Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and this style of book is apparently a signature of hers: a set of interviews about a period, but not from famous people, from dozens or hundreds of ordinary people, many of them identified only by first name and last initial or not even that, when the commentary was captured in a stream of chatter at a public event. This one is focused on the experience of the late Soviet period and the fall of communism, especially from the point of view of the last people to really identify themselves as Soviets rather than Russians. It is not a cheerful book and talks a lot about people who were suicidal in this period, people whose lives were shattered and never rebuilt–but also, since it is filtered through a very ordinary-person-on-the-ground lens, about salami and kitchens other details that would be difficult to pull out of thin air as important unless you were part of that culture and that time. I’m glad I read this, and I’m glad I’m done reading it.

Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris. A literary novel of the thirties, with two small children who have never met before, running into each other in the house of strangers who are more to one of them than he knows, and then the gradual discovery of what they are to him and why. Bowen does child perspective very well indeed. I have some issues with the ending, but I’m not sorry I read it. This was one of the books I read this fortnight that treated reading a novel as though no one could possibly want to do it for fun: specifically, it came with introductory material that not only spoiled the plot/characterization considerably, it discussed some of the unfolding of the prose in a way that I found extremely annoying, as I would far rather have come to those particular turns of language and observation organically, in the text, because that’s what novels are, dammit. And the person who was writing this flattened and weird introduction was A.S. Byatt, who should have known better. I really need to remember to skip the intros. (She loved this book. I think I put it on my wish list because I read her gushing about it elsewhere in not nearly such an insensitive way.)

Bryan Cartledge, The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary. This is a mostly good general history of Hungary, briskly written. You may be surprised to find that Maria Theresa is the only woman to ever have any effect on Hungarian history, but welp, here we are, apparently.

Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. An examination of how the selection of presidential candidates has changed over the years, with a focus not only on Roosevelt himself but on how we sometimes let our desire to win something overcome our stated ideals. None of the several books I’ve read on Theodore Roosevelt have wanted to go into any detail on his decisions and the Progressive Party’s decisions under him to throw Black/anti-racist Southern Progressive under the bus to attempt to win the white Southern vote. The desired narrative is so thoroughly “they split the Republican party” that the fact that they split that party and made the anti-racist progressives not sure why they should vote Progressive somehow gets elided. Funny thing that.

Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning and Wild Mind. Rereads. I have become aware that our habit of acquiring new books will not result in our bookshelves expanding infinitely to accommodate, so I’ve been culling some parts of the collection. I culled the “stories should have a beginning, middle, and end” level of writing books some years ago, but I kept the more essay-style personal ones at the time. Now I’m revisiting them to see what they have to offer at this stage of my career and personality type. In this case, not a lot: Goldberg talks endlessly about her one mediocre novel but has made her career of being a writing-about-writing person. She is ceaselessly enthusiastic about her own freewriting and how she shouldn’t censor it but, I see with more experience, a great deal more judgmental about other people’s results. They, apparently, need to censor themselves into being more like Natalie Goldberg. Hmm. No thanks. (There was one point where she was proudly displaying a freewrite where she wrote, “My home is the night,” and I muttered, “Oh, shut up, Batman.” I think this is a sign I’m done here. I am usually nicer to Batman.)

Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots. This is a memoir of growing up on a farm outside Montevideo, Minnesota, in the late forties and early fifties. Gruchow is thoughtful about his father’s methods of farming and about his own childhood; I don’t agree with everything he says, but I agree with a lot of it, and I know his land, I know his people. I think there is beauty here for those for whom it is less familiar, less loved, but if you’re from these parts, there’s a home note to this.

A.E. Housman, Last Poems. Kindle. When I read A Shropshire Lad last fortnight, Larry said it was more of a concept album and this was more of a regular sort of cluster of songs, and I think that’s fair. Quite often the songs from a concept album don’t stand as well alone, don’t get played as often, and the opposite happened here. While these are less a unit, less doing a suite of a thing, they are not as inspired, not as thoroughly quoted and taught, less familiar. Still interesting, but very brief, and I spent the whole time being sad for the poor man, who said in the introduction that he could pretty completely tell at this point in his life that there would be no more, but he wasn’t dead yet. He was alive but had no more poems in him. Oof.

Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories. Hot takes from Marissa: this Jackson woman can write a story. I had read some of these in different locations, but the ones I hadn’t wowed me too. The opening story, “The Intoxicated,” was just such a sharp portrayal of a teenage girl and the disconnect between her and her parents’ party guest, her worldview and his, amazing, blew me away and then just kept going. Funny and creepy and temporally rooted and in spots universal.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. This is the other novel with an introduction that I wish just had not. Just please don’t. It’s about trust and innocence and small towns and relationships, insiders and outsiders. It’s very brief and very cutting, and if you’re thinking, oh, the Moomins are so much fun, this will be a nice book, no, it is not at all a nice book.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. Reread. This was also not particularly useful for me at this point in my writing process, but I think for the opposite reason to the Natalie Goldberg books. Anne Lamott has written several things that are not how-to-write books, she is not at all in love with the sound of her own navel clapping, but I really don’t find the level of hostility that she nurtures (under the pretense of not nurturing it) at all useful at this stage of life, and the little bits of writing advice are not for me any more. So that can also go in the bag to take to the used bookstore.

Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air. This was the story of two marriages failing, thirty years apart. It was beautifully written. One was the marriage of two Ethiopian immigrants, the other their son’s marriage. It was people failing to connect and failing to communicate, over and over again, with gorgeous detail, for the entire book. You will need quite a lot of tolerance for sadness if you read this book, and I picked it up at a time when I did not perhaps have as much as it wanted me to. I kept reading it, because it was very well done. But know what you’re getting into, time it carefully, if you and this book are going to have a time together.

Laura Secor, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. This is the book I needed a break from when I picked up the Mengestu, above. It is a history of Iran from roughly 1970 on. It goes into detail about the political parties but also the prison system, the wars with Iraq. The people who kept hoping they were going to make things better in one direction or another. It is worth knowing more about Iran, but maybe have something more cheerful than the Mengestu on hand to liven the intervals. Take breaks. Pace yourself. Breathe.

Johanna Sinisalo, The Core of the Sun. This book did not work for me. It is a satire, and I see what it is trying to do, but this is where being a science fiction writer vs. a literary writer can sometimes very much come into play: when someone’s metaphor does not take into account biological reality, I balk hard. I have a long rant about gender and genetics here, available to them as wants it, but basically: this book treats women as a separable sub-species from men, and even in the kind of hideous dystopia that it depicts, even with the horrible treatment of people who do not fit a predetermined gender box (that it puts basically offstage and hoo boy do I have issues there as well), nope, that is not how hormones or chromosomes work, the X chromosome goes really in all the humans, you literally cannot mess with “women’s genes” and not “men’s genes,” what even, this is so very wrong. I tried to just go with the capsaicin stuff, but once I was thrown out of the satire by the main body of the work, it was hard to really groove with the over-the-top elements there. Sigh.

E.P. Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. A collection of essays on poetry (and other art theory) and politics. Thompson is solid, but this is not peak Thompson, it’s posthumously published. I like Thompson, so still worth reading. And I like the direction of poetry/polemics it explores.

Gerald Vizenor, Blue Ravens. Vizenor is always doing something different with every book, and also always touching on some beloved themes, Native life, tricksters, teasing. I am so impressed with him and always greet each of his books with joy. I wish he was better known among speculative fiction readers, but not all of his work is speculative. This isn’t. It’s an historical novel centered around WWI, some Anishinaabe boys from the White Earth Reservation who go to war and survive and paint and write poems, their lives before the war and after in the north of Minnesota and in Paris. I was enchanted.

Richard M. Watt, Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate, 1918-1939. Logistics. This book had logistics. It went into things like “what does it take to put together an army from scratch when you are suddenly a country and the bigger country you were carved from resents losing you.” I like logistics. Fascinating details about this. So glad I read it.

Ben H. Winters, Countdown City. The sequel to The Last Policeman, a series about trying to keep the world going when it’s about to end. I was hoping that he would have more to say about hope and its deliberate cultivation, and ultimately I didn’t find his insistence on forms to be satisfying. Maybe neither did he–there’s a third book, and this book leans heavily on its existence–but it does so in a way that makes me less inclined to go find it. Meh. The previous book is probably enough to stick with.

Stories I liked this time around

It’s time again for another batch of: short stories I liked since the last time I posted about some short stories! As always, this makes no pretense of being exhaustive. The appearance on this list of a story does not mean that I’ve read everything else a magazine puts out–so feel free to recommend your own favorites in the comments. Sharing around good stories is the entire point.

The Cold, Lonely Waters, by Aimee Ogden (Shimmer)

The Scholast in the Low Waters Kingdom, by Max Gladstone (Tor.com) (Is there a bonus for using “water” or “waters” in your title? Well. In your story, yes, so in your title, probably. Why be coy about this? Water. It’s a family thing.)

The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales, by Fei Dao (Clarkesworld) (Translated by Ken Liu)

Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus, by Bogi Takacs (Clarkesworld)

2067: Transcript of Found Audio Interview, by Adrienne Maree Brown (Riverwise)

A Burden Shared, by Jo Walton (Tor.com)

That Lingering Sweetness, by Tony Pi (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

They Will Take You From You, by Brandon O’Brien (Strange Horizons)

We never think it’s us

You volunteer for a thing. Good for you. Seriously, non-sarcastically: good. The world needs people to step up on so many fronts, and you do. And you do the thing, and then the thing gets done, and sometimes you have a natural gift for it, and sometimes you don’t, sometimes you just work hard at it and do some learning and figure out the thing. You get good at the thing, fast or slow you get good at it. There’s a little bit of applause but maybe not as much as there is work done. There never really is, that’s how volunteering works.

Great! Fantastic! Now stop.

I’m serious. I’m really, really not kidding. You need you to stop. Your organization needs you to stop.

Not stop volunteering completely. Nope. The world needs people to step up. But here’s the problem: if the same person steps up to the same job for too long, it becomes invisible. It becomes A’s job. And A still gets thanked, hey, good job, A, what would we ever do without A. But sometimes that last rhetorical question turns literal: A is probably not immune to breaking their leg, having a family member who needs care, a job crisis, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Tahiti. (Or Australia. Hi, Paul.) A, to get really morbid with you, is probably not the world’s first immortal. So if you can’t do the thing without A…you can’t do the thing. And the more important the thing is, the more that’s a problem.

Also of concern, and very hard to bring up: sometimes A’s skills slip for one reason or another. Yes, you. Even if you’re A.

Say you’re arranging the little kids’ Christmas program. And the first two years, you are filled with joy and energy and you have so many ideas and it is amazing! And people tell you how amazing it is! The best ever! My golly! What a Christmas program! And the next few years, you have not quite so much joy but so much experience, so the combination is still pretty great, probably better than anyone else could do! Wow! You are the Christmas program monarch! And when a 4-year-old vomits off the back of the risers, you have someone ready to clean it up quietly, and you have enough adults to make sure that the 6-year-olds do not rampage when they get offstage afterwards, and this is just a super, super job!

And ten years down the line, not one single person has approached the beloved mainstay of the community to say, “Your Christmas programs stink on ice and you need to stop.” Which of course they would feel totally comfortable doing, so you can definitely tell that you’re still at the top of your game and feedback will always get to you before people are frustrated enough for it to be non-constructive.

Say it’s not the Christmas program. And it’s not just burnout. Say it’s finances, and say your memory has started to go. This is not a random example; I know someone who was in charge of part of the finances of a volunteer organization and started to slip into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. And for the first few years, experience carried them through, and I bet that they told themselves that it was still fine and they were still doing a better job than anyone else would have done. And for the first few years they were probably even right. And by the time they moved into the memory unit, there was literally over a decade of mishandled finances for that volunteer organization. No one is the villain here. That person is not a bad person. But we never think it’s us. We never think, I bet I’m the problem here.

Nor is Alzheimer’s the only way this can happen. There are habits of thought one falls into, things that seem obvious, that are just The Way We’ve Always Done It, and some of them are because We have had Bitter Experience, and some of them are…just habit. Sometimes the Bitter Experience no longer applies. Sometimes this is all very true, and passing the job along to someone else will mean that it is done worse. We have to do that anyway. We have to be willing to let someone else make mistakes and do it worse sometimes. And sometimes we can pass along notes and advice and all sorts of information to make this smoother, but it can never be perfect.

But seriously. Rotating jobs. Changing what you’re volunteering for. I very, very occasionally see this discussed as a favor to yourself to avoid burnout, and it is. It’s also a favor to your organization. And you can come back after a few years, when someone else has taken a turn and learned to do the thing…although if it’s always you and the same person alternating, that also tells you a thing about the organization.

The last question is, what if no one else steps up? And the answer is: that tells you something about the health of the organization, right there. If no one else steps up and you are literally the only one, then maybe it’s time to say that your volunteer energies should be used on something else anyway. Which is a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve put a lot of time, energy, and love into something. But. Sometimes.

I have no exact perfect answer for a timeline on this. There is no five-year rule or ten-year rule or one-year rule. It depends on what you’re doing, how often it happens, what kind of energy it requires, what size of group, all sorts of things. But I’ve seen this in more than one kind of organization–churches, art groups, science fiction conventions–all in the last year, so I thought I’d say: we never think it’s us. Sometimes it’s us when we least want it to be, and those times are the times when we get the least signaling about it.

Why you deserve it

I have just finished watching season 1 of Skin Wars on a friend’s recommendation. It is very very far from my usual sort of thing: it’s a reality show that’s a competition in body painting. My friend promised that it was very low on the interpersonal cattiness/drama, with lots of very skilled work and a certain amount of people learning stuff about their art, learning from each other. New art and learning? Hey, I’m there for that. And I was immediately hooked, and I will definitely watch the other two seasons, especially since my friend is a person who would have warned me if there was a lot of body-shaming weirdness in store.

One of the things that fascinates me is that the artists involved in this were often financially struggling–it’s not a fast route to fame and fortune–and they had pretty well-entrenched justifications for why they deserved success that were not always easy to dislodge by circumstances that really should have dislodged them. Examples:

I have put in the time. I have worked long hours. This is a competition with firmly set time limits, around each piece and around the competition as a whole. Each artist gets literally exactly the same amount of time. There are no examples of artists putting their feet up and being done early, and beyond that here is absolutely no way for anyone to put in more time than anyone else. Eventually this got clarified to:

I have put in the time. I spent my whole life learning this. Finally someone turned to the person who kept repeating this and said, how old are you? and determined that they were very close to the same age. And that they had both spent their whole life learning it, so…yeah. Not a distinguishing feature. I’ve seen both of these at conventions, though: I have devoted more time to science fiction than the other people at my day job! And I’ve seen a certain amount of it in various factions in the field who are convinced that they are the ones who are truly, deeply devoted–and that that kind of devotion has to be what matters. (Spoiler: it does not have to be. Sorry.)

I need it the most. My living conditions are worse than other people’s without recognition. There are indeed need-based scholarships for various types of study, and I’m very glad. But they’re usually clearly labeled, and “I like your art a lot” and “I think you need money” are not actually the same thing–and “you should like my art a lot because I need money” doesn’t actually work very well.

I need it the most. I poured my heart into this piece. “You should like my art a lot because I need validation” does not turn out to work better than “you should like my art a lot because I need money.” It is often a great idea to pour your heart into art. I recommend it. Then make more art and pour your heart into that. Also technique at the same time.

I have the most technical skills. Ever heard a pianist play Hanon? They are finger exercises. They are finger exercises, they are to make you a technically better pianist, and nobody plays them in concert because they are no fun to listen to. (Or play. Freakin’ Hanon.) Okay, okay, they have a certain hypnotic power, they can be impressive, but…at the end of the day if you are showing up and playing Hanon, nobody is buying your book, your painting, or in the most literal sense, tickets to your piano concert. (Freakin’ Hanon.)

It is apparently really, really hard to say, “Mine is good. Here is what I did well. Look at this part. I deserve this because mine is really good art. I combined the technical and the creative, this has thought and feeling and everything it’s supposed to have, and who cares whether I picked up those skills in two minutes or ten million hours, who cares whether someone else thinks that they are overall better than me and paid their dues more than me, here is the thing I made, it doesn’t come with dues, it comes with awesome.”

It is even harder to say, “I don’t know what’s missing. I did everything right. It’s just not happening for me. Can you help me see what’s going wrong in my piece?” And sometimes there are ten million answers, and sometimes there’s one answer, and sometimes there…isn’t. And sometimes the artificial contest structure of a reality show has made something happen that reality doesn’t support, it has made a thing where there is a winner and a loser where actually in a group of ten there might be three pieces that really work and four that don’t and three that meh, or ten that meh, or any other combination of numbers.

But the attachment to previous explanations of why you deserve it, the strength of that: that really got fascinating for me, and I will be riveted to see whether that continues for future seasons.

Lando and Cap and me

Look, I am only a casual superhero comics fan, but here’s my sideline/peripheral take:

When I was two years old, Lando Calrissian betrayed his friends to the Empire. And then he thought better of it and became a good guy again. Two years old. I don’t actually remember experiencing this story for the first time, it’s a thing that entered my brain through cultural osmosis and repetition. I am now almost thirty-nine.

Why do I bring this up?

Because “maybe someone you thought was good is actually bad! but wait, no, they’re actually good again!” is not a new story for anyone who is an adult now. We have all done this one. It is not daring and new, it is not a shocking twist, it is–in fact–kind of the default. Yes, yes, who can you trust, anyone might turn out to be blah blah whatev.

We have never experienced a Superman without a kind of kryptonite that can turn him evil. We have never had a hero without shades of gray. And I’m not suggesting that we should do a ton of that. I’m not suggesting that abandoning nuance is the way to go. I’m just suggesting that “the ground beneath your feet is shifting! who should you trust!” is yeah, yeah, yeah, pretty old hat to more than one generation in a row by now. So you really need something better than that if you’re going to try to convince readers that you have something great up your sleeve. As far as twists go, this is as twisty as “maybe they’re all dead we promise they’re not oh wait they are.” Other people have made the moral arguments already, the arguments based on character background/origins. I find them pretty compelling. I just wanted to say, also? it’s really sad when you go to shock people with things that have been standard templates for longer than they’ve been alive. It relies on one of us not paying attention, and buddy, it’s not me this time.

Books read, early May

It was an astonishing fortnight for books I did not finish, with thirty in that category. Wow. I also have been having a hard enough time that even with that I finished, shall we say, several others.

Michael Ajvaz, The Golden Age. This was amazing. It started out feeling like a formless travel narrative of a particular sort, and instead it was substantially recursive and self-referential, with pieces of nearly everything you might be looking for, infinitely textured. I really liked The Other City. This was better. Is there more Czech lit like this? Is there more non-Czech lit like this? What is it? I would like it, please.

David Biello, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. A book about the Anthropocene, the era of human influence on climate and nature. Short, mostly stuff that you will know if you’re reading Nature cover to cover every week, a decent primer if you’re not.

Maurice Broaddus, Buffalo Soldier. Novella that is very, very densely worldbuilt. So much worldbuilding. The North America and Caribbean depicted are simultaneously very recognizable and very different, and Broaddus gives us an unusual pair of central characters with very clear relationship in their vivid world.

Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, Rebel. Discussed elsewhere.

M.R. Carey, Fellside. The cover image of this book felt calculated to imply that it was related to The Girl With All the Gifts, to me, but it was definitively not. This is a women’s prison story and a ghost story, the story of an addict whose life went to hell and the ghost who needs her, the story of the corruption inside a prison. There’s no way its elevator pitch didn’t have Orange Is the New Black in it. And yet Carey’s writing is compelling, despite the fact that I don’t really like either of the genres he’s mashed up here. He’s pretty good at writing things I don’t want to read and making me keep turning the pages anyway.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. This started out with all sorts of juicy facts about the kingdom of Serbia in the first two decades of the twentieth century (plum jam exports! heirs kicking their valets to death!) and went on to answer crucial questions like who was actually making the foreign policy decisions in each of the national capitals and what their background was for doing so. I found it very compelling and ended up squirming through the book despite having the ending spoiled for me by the title and, er, the entire rest of the last hundred years of history.

Paul Cornell, The Lost Child of Lychford. When it comes to balanced novellas, with setting and character and plot and everything all playing their role at their proper scale, I’m not sure anybody does it better than Paul Cornell. And I’m reading a lot of novellas lately. I particularly like the vicar in this setting–she is lovely and so well drawn–but really all the characters, I like the whole thing. I see why this has gotten attention.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life. Reread. I have been going through some of my shelves and considering whether I still want to spend the space on some things, and books about writing are getting a particularly careful eye. I had cleared out several of the “show don’t tell” level of writing manuals several years back but kept the more emotive, essay types. I revisited this one to see what it had to share with me, and…this was maybe not the best time. Because there are some passionate passages that still made me smile, certainly. And there were also pieces of…how do I say this. Self-aggrandizing bullshit. Dillard suggests, for example, that it is possible to be too healthy to write. This is not the sort of thing that someone dealing with a chronic health condition finds charming. She also compares writing a novel to sitting up with a dying friend. Since I am writing a novel this month and also have had a friend die this month, none of my responses to that were polite. We were not the level of close where his wife, another friend, would have called me to sit with him even if his death would have been more lingering, but even so, on the whole, I think I may safely suggest that this is the kind of self-important assholery that makes writers feel dramatic and important and should be avoided.

Mike Goldsmith, Discord: The Story of Noise. The first third of this rambles on annoyingly through the history of sound at large. I suppose it might not be annoying to everyone, but it seemed like the odds that someone would pick this up and not know that, for example, sound travels as a wave…really? Who is that target audience? Anyway, it picked up somewhat later, although there was a serious skew in the author’s interests toward talking about environmental pollution (which: fair enough) and away from talking about what factors might practically be used in weighting different kinds of pollutant (not fair enough, actually, if you’re going to write the book actually show up for your book) and also away from topics like how cultures and individuals grow more acclimated to discord in their music. He didn’t have to write the book of the last topic, I just…would like it from someone, please. And there were some bits where he was off his main expertise and flat-out wrong, related to that. (Do not listen to him about Stravinsky. Dude knows nothing about Stravinsky. He is not even trying to know about Stravinsky.)

Linda Legarde Grover, The Dance Boots. A collection of short stories about Ojibwe people from up in Duluth and surrounding areas, families over several generations. Repercussions of mission schools/Indian schools and other abuses. Traditions loved and reclaimed. Other traditions mourned and deprecated.

Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, Real Friends. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss. This book is like gravel and broken glass, so much damage, so much pain, so much desperation to be somewhere else. A little bit of learning to be okay somewhere, a lot of ocean and small town. And drugs and photography and punk. Did I like it? I’m not sure. I’m glad I read it. I think it’s well done. I guess I should say it is a novel, that’s not clear from what I said.

Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass. Discussed elsewhere.

Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me. This is a memoir of Hayes moving to New York and his relationship with Oliver Sacks. It is tender and quirky and funny, and Oliver Sacks is weirdly worried about fireflies. There are journal notes, there are interviews with strangers and friends and the guy who sells them magazines. It’s short. I’m glad I read it.

Carlos Hernandez, The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. I rarely come into speculative fiction short story collections completely cold these days, and this one I did, and it was glorious. I loved it so much. It made me wish that I was on book recommending terms with Samuel R. Delany so that I could verify that he has read this. He has, hasn’t he? Does one of you know? Can somebody poke somebody else who can check? Because the story with the pandas and the robot suits, that is the story that somebody who actually knows him ought to hand him and say, “I am so excited, look at this field, look what this person is doing, he did it on his own, but if you hadn’t made this field what it is, he couldn’t have, so well done both of you.” (If nobody gets back to me on this I will go find him at Readercon. I mean it. But it will be a lot more awkward because I don’t actually know him.)

A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad. Kindle. I read this in the intermission of the symphony, and I had read several of the poems in it before, but never all at once. They point. They point toward the coming Great War, so it was good to read with The Sleepwalkers like that. There are some beautiful things, the cherry trees, I like that. And there is some bitterness, anger, frustration, some stuff that where you can see the taking of the Queen’s shilling not being all it is cracked up to be. You can see the dulce et decorum est cracking, you can hear him telling people, trying to tell people, that while the athlete dying young is being praised for his wisdom this is maybe not completely wise. He thrashes. He flails. He comes around to “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” which I have loved for years, which I never fail to read all of, never. Okay, be angry, be frustrated, have some poetry and some cherry trees and wonder whether it’s enough. I will read his later poems soon and see what shape that makes. I hope he’s still flailing.

Gwyneth Jones, Proof of Concept. This science fiction novella goes off into the deep blackness of beyond with so many characters. So very very many characters. I like Jones in general, but by the time I got myself oriented within the cast we were almost done. Novellas are hard to balance.

Margaret Killjoy, A Country of Ghosts. This is an anarchist utopia with an embedded journalist who gets converted. They are fighting a war against imperialists, sort of, inasmuch as anarchists in a utopia do anything so organized as fight a war. It is exactly what it sounds like. Some of them make things to eat or things to eat out of, and they explain how their society works. People get hurt and take care of each other. There are people of different colors, gay people, disabled people. It is a lot nicer than most utopias, and the fact that there is a war (-ish) and a person being converted gives it as much structure as its length really requires. And when I picked it up, it was a good day for reading about a bunch of people trying hard at a thing, even if some of them were going to get hurt or die. Dreadfully convincing? Not really. Reasonable to read? Yah.

Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change. This is not just the sort of thing that a person who’s reading Nature all the time will know but the ten years out of date version of it. Still worth a quick read if you’re interested in knowing what other people will be hearing about these topics, but not the first thing you should reach for probably.

Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason. Ah, the eighteenth century. Time when people hoped they had some idea what the heck was going on, and totally didn’t. The Lisbon Earthquake is very telling about the rest of Portuguese culture at the time, and the merchant cultures that fed into it, and their assumptions. A particularly interesting read after Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home. A direct sequel, full of ramifications from Binti. Emotion, family, and aliens are centered here, all things I enjoy very much, and there’s a lot going on for something that’s only novella length.

Helen Phillips, Some Possible Solutions. This was blurbed by other short story writers in the weird and interstitial area whose work I have recently enjoyed, Kelly Link, Karen Russell. I could see why Phillips was put in with them, why they were given her collection to blurb, and yet where they hit dead center for me, she was off, and I couldn’t tell whether it was her or me or the combination of the two of us. If you’re passionate about those two, pick this one up. It has a nastier edge, less kindness. If you’re iffy on them or really don’t like them, you probably won’t like this one either.

Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know. I was so excited about this for something like 85% of the book. It was erudite and discursive. I had no idea where it was going, and I was excited about that, excited to be along for the ride, for the footnotes that went here and there in music and culture and history and literature. It was as though David Foster Wallace had some heritage in Bangladesh and Britain as well as the US and also was not a jerk. And then. And then the plot twist at the end, the plot twist was the most incomprehensibly boring plot twist–there was a plot twist, first of all, and it was staggeringly dull, it made the entire book worse. I had this from the library, and up until the last 50 or so pages I was all set to buy a copy for Mark’s birthday, and then he had to make this plot twist about interpersonal melodrama in this book about friendship and learning and what we think is worth knowing and why. And since he put it in the middle of things, he made it so it was supposed to ramify out, what ramified out was…distasteful, melodramatic, small, petty. Oh. Well then.

Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag, Shattered WarriorDiscussed elsewhere.

Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. Largely though not solely about the relationships among Black slaves, the free Black community, white Americans, and the British during the War of 1812. Informative but not particularly inspired.

Loung Ung, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites With the Sister She Left Behind. This is a parallel memoir/biography: Ung describes her life as a new immigrant in America and also her next-eldest sister’s life staying in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There are a lot of things about which she is gratifyingly honest, but the threads of her life are not necessarily pulled together very well–how does she get from despair to direction? She doesn’t really say, it happens between incidents. Ung has written other memoirs, so perhaps it could be pieced together there, or perhaps the fragmentary recollections are the kind of story she wants to tell.

Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland, Spill Zone. Discussed elsewhere.

Kate Wilhelm, Storyteller. Reread. This is another how-to-write that I kept past the initial purge because I enjoy the writer’s other works, but it’s really very basic show-don’t-tell stuff, in addition to a few things that are memoir about the early days of Clarion. I didn’t go to Clarion and don’t have emotional attachment to it–mostly what I felt was horrified at the levels of sexism Wilhelm felt obliged to cope with even when she didn’t seem to think she was describing the overt sexism–so I will feel comfortable letting this one find a new home with a much younger storyteller than I am.

Rebel, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Review copy provided by the authors, who are personal friends. Of mine, I mean, although also one expects of each other. Although, hey, still friends three books into writing a series together, more power to them.

So yes: this is the third book of the Change series. It is not my recommended starting point. There is quite a lot of backstory here, but more importantly this is very much a character-driven story. There are very active plot elements–fire and fight and family feud and scheming and politics and travel–but the thing that ties together all the many point-of-view characters and their several concerns is coming-of-age, finding one’s place in the world, characterization stuff. And if you don’t have the background for that, it won’t have nearly the punch.

These books are diverse along numerous axes. They are about teenagers trying to figure out who they want to be in worlds that have complicated attitudes toward some aspects of their identities–and even in the places where the world is not restrictive, sometimes it’s still hard to figure out just because it’s hard, just because learning to human is hard even before you start throwing in mutant powers and post-apocalyptic Southern California landscapes. But at their core, these books are full of people who care about each other, and who are effective at doing it, too. Which is far too rare.

Please consider using our link to buy Rebel from Amazon. (Or, if you’re just starting this series, Stranger.)

Shattered Warrior, by Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Colleen is a human on a world colonized by humanoid aliens. She was born before the Derichet arrived, and her family was one of the richest, most powerful families on the planet, but that’s all gone now. She works in a factory, longs for her dead and missing relatives, and scrapes by as best she can.

One night she meets Jann, a fellow human involved in the rebellion against the Derichet. She moves from self-protection to a larger political activism–and opens up in her personal relationships along the way.

Ostertag is the artist who draws Strong Female Protagonist, and her style is clearly recognizable in this, her debut graphic novel. Shinn is the author of lots of speculative fiction novels, and her previous style also shows through, particularly in the ways the romantic relationship beats fall. I feel like it’s a reasonable introduction to Shinn’s work, accounting for less story per page than you’ll get in her prose novels. Ostertag, too: the modes of being expressive, the way interpersonal and action scenes are shown, are distinct from SFP but clearly the work of the same hand.

Please consider using our link to buy Shattered Warrior from Amazon.

A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge

Review copy provided by Amulet Books.

Neverfell is a cheesemaker’s apprentice in the underground city of Caverna, and my biggest complaint about this book is that there is not enough cheese in the second half of it. But there is quite a lot of cheese early on–quite a lot of decadent, fanciful cheese–phantasmagoric cheese, even–and it is replaced by other variable decadent and phantasmagorical substances, perfumes, wines. This is a book filled with description and vivid reference, but never in a way that’s extraneous to what’s going on.

Neverfell is fourteen. She feels much younger. The publisher lists “12 and up” as the age range, and I feel that’s about right, by which I mean, kids younger than 12 will be totally fine reading this book as they are for everything else publishers label “12 and up.” It is consistent with that category rather than limited to those numbers. There is darkness here, but not gore; treachery but not despair.

The denizens of Caverna have to specifically learn Faces: that is, their countenances are naturally blank. We learn very early that Cavernan babies don’t mimic facial expressions or experiment with their own features the way we do. Except for Neverfell. Neverfell’s face shows her reactions, her actual emotions–she has to be schooled to make it *avoid* doing so, not schooled to make it do so. In a city of cut-throat politics where everything down to the twitch of an eyebrow is calculated carefully, she is fascinating and dangerous, a loose cannon, a puzzle. How did this happen? What does it all mean? And who is controlling her, who is firing this loose cannon?

The world outside Neverfell’s cheese caves is glittering, complicated, deeply broken. The role she has to play in it is simultaneously predictable in its general shape from the earliest pages and unpredictable in its specific details. I honestly don’t know what to compare this book to. There is nothing quite like it. It’s a backstory of sorts, it’s…not a coming of age so much as a coming into one’s own, it’s about revolution and friendship and learning to pay attention to things that are obvious and things that are not. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s definitely an interesting one.

Please consider using our link to buy A Face Like Glass from Amazon.