Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Sometimes you read the first book in a series and think, this is really well written, but it’s not for me, I should circle back when this author is doing something different. And then the author does fourteen volumes of that very popular series, and it becomes easy to not think of that. But! Molly Tanzer was glowingly positive about Bannerless, and I liked that, so when Tor had its paperback release of Martians Abroad, I asked for a review copy. I’m glad I did.

It’s pretty clear that this volume is a response–not a retelling or a rewriting, a response–to Heinlein juveniles, specifically to the loathsome Podkayne of Mars. Vaughn is smarter than to name a character pee/toilet (I know, I know, “it’s Poddy not Potty,” oh yes, that enunciation makes all the difference in the world–I have talked to people from Missouri, Bob, it totally does not), so her sibling characters are Polly and Charles, not Poddy and Clark. And…I don’t know who else sees this, but…to me, it highlighted something else. That Vaughn wasn’t just influenced by the Heinlein juveniles, the “Golden Age” SF by men. Someone else wrote teen siblings named Poly and Charles, patient analytical boys, reckless frustrated angry out-of-place girls. (Anybody? No? Madeleine did that. Meg Murry O’Keefe’s two eldest kids, who get books of their own after the Wrinkle in Time series, are named Poly–later Polly–and Charles.)

Carrie Vaughn has learned from a whole world of previous generations of speculative writers. Not just the men. And Martians Abroad is much the better for it.

So what is this book. Polly and Charles Newton are Martian teenagers who have gotten shipped back to Earth to go to school at the very snooty Galileo Academy, due to their mother’s machinations, and Polly is not thrilled. Charles is generally off in his own head, trying to weather things in his own way. Polly wants to be a pilot–she wants nothing to do with Earth–but gradually through mishap and adventure makes some friends at school. And then they begin to suspect that the mishap and adventure they’re suffering are a bit more than Polly’s penchant for getting into trouble, more than the weirdness of living in a heavily biological higher-gravity environment, more than they seem.

This is simultaneously a fun adventure science fiction novel that seems like it would be entirely plausible to give to teens and a fun adventure science fiction novel that I would be entirely comfortable giving to elders who complain that they just can’t find things like they used to like. It is both. And since it’s not extensively quoting from anything–since its argument, where there is one, is by example–there’s no need to immerse yourself in “original texts” or “source material” to enjoy it. You can just pick up a story about how weird Earth feels when you’re from Mars, how weird your teen years feel when you don’t get along with your mom, how you can find friends and learn to get along with your brother and figure out how to get the career your want that you’re really good at, if you can manage not to get yourself and everybody else killed along the way because gravity wells and biological systems are difficult, and also so is space.

Please consider using our link to buy Martians Abroad from Amazon.

The City on the Other Side, by Maighread Scott and Robin Robinson

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is one of history’s canonical disasters for a reason. I myself have stood and looked at a place where the fence line was dislocated several feet from where it had been, because the fault line had moved by that much; the city was in flames and rubble for days afterward, and it took much longer than that to clean up. Scott and Robinson have used this as the inspiration for their children’s fantasy comic: what if that natural disaster was not natural at all, but the result of a rift in the fairy kingdoms? What if the Seelie and Unseelie courts were warring and caused the quake?

That’s the backstory here, not a spoiler for this volume. This volume is a kids’ graphic novel about the fallout. It’s about a wealthy Latinx human girl, Isabel, ignored by her separated (divorced?) parents, who stumbles into the fairy war still raging after the earthquake, picks up a talisman, and finds she can use it when no one expects her to be able to. She crosses between the human and magical worlds and forms friendships and alliances with people of various shapes and species. They are chased back and forth across the worlds, and Isabel has to help find a lasting peace for both worlds, for humans, Seelie, and Unseelie.

It’s reasonably pretty, but if the plot sounds kind of generic to an experienced reader, that’s because it is. There’s a lot of “oh yes, one of those” going on here, and the San Francisco setting feels more phoned in around the edges to me than vivid–there’s not a lot of vivid “definitely San Francisco/Carmel/Northern California” art here. There is an attempt to show the diversity of the city even as of the early twentieth century, both on the human side and on the magical side, but that’s entirely visual. The plot and characterization are just…fine. They’re fine. And once again I’m reminded that the audience for this is kids, so this may be where they learn how the shape of this plot goes. This may be their first trip through this plot. And yet on the other hand…there are other kids’ books that still manage to do something that isn’t cookie-cutter, so…this one is fine. Not likely to offend, but not likely to stick with you long either.

Please consider using our link to buy The City on the Other Side from Amazon.

relationship with spoilers

I’m not seeing the new Avengers movie this week. I haven’t even seen Black Panther yet. And it’s not because I’m just too hipster to see the thing that all my friends like, it’s because I have a major balance disorder and I have learned my lesson about what I can and can’t see in movie theaters. The answer is mostly can’t. You don’t want to know how many times I was sick in the five days after The Last Jedi–and sure, yes, we later figured out that I probably had either very persistent food poisoning or a stomach bug that I managed to pass on to zero of the people I cooked for that night, but honestly, the first several times? surprised no one. Because balance disorder. Even when the balance disorder is well under medication control, the things I can see in the theater are the things that people tell you are not important to see in the theater. The things where the spectacle is not the point. The things that are not packed with fast-cuts and panning and awe-inspiring camera angles.

(Speak not to me of Arrival. NO.)

So: theaters. Not for me. I know people who go internet silent for a day, two days, even a week, to avoid spoilers on a movie they’re not going to have a chance to see right away, but honestly: that is not feasible. I have not seen Black Panther yet. Sure, if it was vital to me, I could pirate a copy. A better solution is to form a different relationship with spoilers.

Because…sure, yes, it is nice to be able to let a story unfold without knowing where it’s going. It is. I recently watched Brigsby Bear (at home, streaming on my TV), and if you can watch that without spoilers, I recommend it; it’s not that it’s thoroughly unpredictable, but having it unfold organically added to my experience, I think. (Mark Hamill is great in it.) But I watched it with someone who had seen it before, and I will happily watch it again; if it wasn’t worth watching again, it wouldn’t really be worth watching. Because most stories have been told in some form already, and the question is, how will the details work this time. How will the experience of it be.

Which is not to say that I think you should go out of your way to spill the details of a brand-new book or movie to those who haven’t read or seen it; you notice that I’m fairly careful about that in my posts here. I know that a lot of people don’t have the attitude I do, and that’s okay. But…I don’t have a lot of choice. And I like where I’ve ended up with that. I’ve made a virtue of that necessity, rather than railing against it. I’m still looking forward to seeing Black Panther. Being the last one on my block to see a thing has its perqs; having a phalanx of friends I could turn to and say “I got to the episode that’s Amethyst’s origin story!!!” when I was watching Steven Universe was a lot of fun.

And I’m not really the last one on my block. This week someone else got to Amethyst’s origin story and wrote to me. A couple weeks ago, a different friend did. Today I read a Moliere play for the first time. When I read Middlemarch there was the entire horde of Middlemarch fans ready to squee and welcome me in; when I mentioned it in a recent book post, a local friend said “OH FINE YOU’VE CONVINCED ME” and I expect that when she gets to it I will get email from her. My best girl friend from college hasn’t gotten there yet, but maybe when her youngest leaves for college I’ll get an email that says, “Dear Marissa, I have just finished Middlemarch. OMG YOU WERE RIGHT.” Because you’re never actually the last one on your block to get to it, and hearing something something Dorothea something is not the same thing as reading it.

So yeah, I’ll probably find out sometime this week that the Infinity War was the friends we made along the way, and that’s fine. It really is the journey. And when it’s not, I don’t want to go on that trip anyway.

Minds of the future….

Today you can read a new story by me in Nature Futures, My Favourite Sentience. I’ve adjusted the spelling of the title because the characters in it are in fact British, and their teacher would mark them down if they spelled it the American way! So many sentiences to choose from….

There’s also a writing of the story blog post, but obviously read the story itself first.

One Day a Dot, by Ian Lendler

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Picture book readers vary. There are the ones who read every word faithfully, the ones who wander off on each page going, “do you see the flippers on the nice tetrapod, Moo?”, the ones who make things up that bear only glancing resemblance to the author’s original text. Then there are the footnoters.

I am a mix of all of the above, but oh, am I ever a footnoter.

Because…mostly picture books that are trying to inform kids are aiming for simple, and once upon a time I was given a superhero name by an ex-boyfriend, and that superhero name was The Great Complicator. (He was wrong. My superhero name is The Non Sequitess. But I digress.) And I know all the arguments that kids need simple, and that picture books need simple. I get that.

But part of simplicity is choosing which simplicity. And choosing carefully.

Which brings us to One Day a Dot.

One Day a Dot is telling a very simple, very small child oriented creation story. It is telling the story of how the universe got from nothingness to you, tiny child. It starts with the Big Bang and goes through planetary formation (in the blink of an eye) and evolution and all the way to your current family, where you live as the end product of evolution.

Did you wince at that phrase, “end product of evolution”? I winced typing it, but this is a very, very linear narrative. It is a directed narrative. It is a narrative in which the self-centeredness natural to a tiny human child is not the least bit disturbed: you, tiny human child, are not only the most important thing in your own life, not only the most important thing in your parents’ lives for a few years yet (as indeed you must be to survive), but the most important thing. The. Most important thing.

For example, when a comet falls, tiny human child is told, “When the big dot hit the blue dot…the explosion turned the whole sky red. The world was on fire…and all the land-fish burned. But one thing survived.” BZZZZT sorry wrong! It will be quite important to you, tiny human child, that more than one thing survived. You are a mammal; quite a few other creatures you like will probably be mammals; but guess what? It turns out that many, many other species that are *not* proto-mammals survived the Cretaceous-Palogene Extinction Event, and it will be important to the entire world and to you particularly–especially if you are the sort of tiny human child who is interested in these things–that they did.

So…this is a book with very cute illustrations, and it gives very cute My First Bible kinds of answers to not at all Biblical narratives. And if you are the sort of person who wants a simple narrative to footnote–if you find it useful to be able to say, “okay, but not quite like that”–then you can bounce around this book with a tiny human and say, look, yes, but also no. The Great Chain of Being was not fundamentally right, evolution is not a line, and resulting in you does not mean that you were its goal, any more than echidnas or the current coloration on the moths that have been peppery in various shades, but yes, One Day a Dot, and so on for billions of years.

Please consider using our link to buy One Day a Dot from Amazon.

Books read, early April

Graham Annable, Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths. Discussed elsewhere.

Deborah Cadbury, Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain’s Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII. I think one of the things that people who are from a non-royalist country find a little difficult to wrap their heads around sometimes is which kinds of influence royal families have in which cases, in a modern situation. This book was valuable for that alone: lots of very specific instances of what the royal family could and could not do, what was expected of it, how it influenced the government and how the government influenced it. Not a staggering, world-altering book, but does what it says on the tin.

Jonathan I. Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848. Jonathan Israel is my go-to author for things about Radical Enlightenment, and what he’s doing here is tracing threads of that going into and coming out of the American Revolution: how it influenced other countries and how those influences came back into America. He goes into places this kind of discussion often misses but shouldn’t: Haiti, Latin America, South Africa, Greece, the Netherlands. He is often trenchant and fascinating. He also has a very particular focus/fixation, and he wants his terms to keep meaning the things he wants them to mean, so “radical” is supposed to mean “Spinozist,” dammit, and round about 1848 it stops meaning that, dammit, and they did not ask Jonathan Israel. But it is generally, like his other doorstops, worth the read. He remembers that Gouverneur Morris existed and was important! He remembers Olympe de Gouges! It’s at very useful right-angles with a lot of other history of this period.

Leena Krohn, Collected Fiction. This is also a doorstop. It’s a rare opportunity in two ways: one, to read Krohn’s work in English (she is a Finnish author), and two, to read a prose writer’s work all at once, in sequence, the way one can do with the collected works of a poet. This isn’t quite everything. But it’s a substantial fraction of Krohn’s work, and it allows the reader to watch her style and ideas evolve. She does a lot of episodic/fragmentary style, which makes it easier to read such a large volume in small bites and still take it all in, the strange cities and their stranger denizens looping back around each other, insect people, plants, pelicans living among humans. I am so glad and so grateful that we have more translated strange works than we did when I was a teenager, so that I can have this.

Yoon Ha Lee, Raven Stratagem. I have always been a middle book person, and the end of this middle book particularly was very satisfying to me. I found how he handled the mathy/calendrical nature of the worldbuilding really fine. A lot of spoilers would lead up to that, so…yep, as of the end of this twisty volume I am glad to still be going with this series.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble. This is a warm and loving book about a Tejanx Latinx family that runs a magical bakery and misadventures of the youngest member of that family trying to claim–and understand–her magical birthright. I found it so charming, cozy without being cloying, highly recommended for kids on up. (Although it made me hungry for cinnamon rolls.)

Tochi Onyebuchi, Beasts Made of Night. For some reason I had gotten the impression that this was a very different kind of book than it is, but it was still fun. YA fantasy with lots of action and intriguing worldbuilding, young people struggling with the strictures of power and social bonds none of which fit quite right, but not using usual fantasy genre-furniture, building with very different blocks.

V.E. Schwab, A Conjuring of Light. The conclusion of a series, and wow were there a lot of ends to tie up in the parallel worlds here. Schwab had to just keep tying, and there were sections, set pieces, callbacks from previous themes…it wasn’t entirely tidy, but it did all fit together. I wouldn’t recommend starting here. This is definitely an ending. On the other hand: this series is now complete, so if you wait for that, here you go.

Michael Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor, Scarlett Hart, Monster Hunter. Discussed elsewhere.

Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. This is a rambling and personal account that touches on all sorts of interesting points in Southern cooking, and in the foodways of America in general. Twitty relies a bit heavily on DNA testing sites for my tastes, but he takes a long look inward and connects it outward in ways that end up being really interesting, and he’s done very concrete research into what things taste and feel like. I’m very glad I read this.

Jennifer Wright, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. I am not the target audience for this book. The target audience for this book does not read monographs about specific instances of yellow fever. The target audience for this book is looking for a breezy, humorously written book with a chapter each about different historical diseases. That…is probably a lot more people than a lot of what I read, honestly. Wright brushes past some issues in historiography (why, for example, some biographers decline to state for certain whether their subjects had syphilis: hint, it is usually because they do not know), but in general if you want an overview, this is probably an entertaining way to get one.

Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths, by Graham Annable

Review copy provided by First Second Books

This is a picture book story of two sloths who go on adventures separately and find each other again at the end. It’s graphic novel length but picture book age, so…long picture book? If a kid talks you into reading this for their “one more book” before bedtime, I hope they’re a pretty big kid, or you got conned.

The two sloths enjoy watching clouds, but one of them, Ernesto, wants to see more of the sky, different kinds of sky. Peter is more worried, less daring, but when Ernesto leaves on his adventure, Peter wants him home safe. So he goes out after him and meets his own new friends, sees his own new habitats…less enthusiastically, and in more detail.

There’s not really any kind of acknowledgment that their differences could be good, here, just: here are two personalities seeing the world, seeing the world is great, here is a cranky tapir, here is a flock of lackadaisical crabs. The illustrations have their own very specific character, minimalist without being sparse, and somebody will probably attach hard to Murphy the parrot or some other character in particular. I think this is probably more of a little kids’ picture book than an all ages’ picture book, but it’s reasonably charming, not going to be offensive to big people for the first forty-leven reads.

Please consider using our link to buy Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths from Amazon.

Pitfalls of lacking a high/low culture divide

I made a jokey tweet (…that is entirely true) about my lack of high/low culture divide. (Specifically: “I think you would be alarmed if you knew how often, “Sir Mix-a-Lot’s identical twin brother does not like big butts, and cannot tell the truth,” is my IMMEDIATE response to philosophical conundrums and logic puzzles. My high/low culture separation is nonexistent, basically.”) And some stranger came along and said, “And yet weirdly, you say that almost in a tone of self criticism, as if it were a /bad/ thing. :)” So first of all: good use of emoji to indicate tone in a medium not well-suited for that, stranger, well-done, I get that you are being extra-friendly.

And generally, I am in favor of this trait of mine. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t only select friends for it…but it’s strongly, strongly correlated with the people I’m closest to. The last person I talked to about Debussy, for example, is also the person who got “Hooked on a Feeling” in my head for the last 48 hours and counting (…THANKS). Another dear friend inspired me to write her a story because she loves classic space stories and mid-twentieth century British literary fiction, so I got the peanut butter and the chocolate together for her, since I like them too. It’s just…an ease of conversation thing, an approach that makes it easier not to have to signal conversational turns because we’re all up in those things together. But here’s what I mean about signaling conversational turns when I haven’t figured out whether someone shares that trait yet:

There’s the problem of someone thinking that a low culture reference in what they intended to have as a serious conversation is automatically a joke. Example: someone wants to talk about writers who handle family relationships well or interestingly. They bring up A.S. Byatt and we talk about her works for some time. Great. If they think I’m changing the subject or not taking them seriously if I mention Lois McMaster Bujold (long series space opera), Fonda Lee (kung fu movie-influenced fantasy), or Hilary McKay (children’s), that’s not going to work, conversationally. It’s not going to help. I know that some of my friends who focus on genre get immediately indignant, defensive, and declare that people who have that reaction are being jerks. But I think they don’t necessarily mean to, they just…are trying to work from context they don’t have.

Here’s my example: when I was in my mid-teens, I had a cousin I loved very much, and she loved me very much, and I noticed she was laughing at pretty much everything I said. Not, like, hearty deep laughter. But polite laughter, baffled laughter. And I realized that we had diverged enough that she was trying to figure out what on earth I was saying, what would make me say the things I said, and the only thing she could think of was: she would never say any of those things except as some kind of weird joke maybe? And it was polite to laugh at people’s jokes? Therefore hahaha, OUT OF KINDNESS AND CONSIDERATION. So sometimes people are not trying to be jerks about breadth of artwork included in a discussion, they’re trying to get the context for what you are signaling. It’s a pitfall, not a conversation-ender, if you can manage to signal clearly that, no, you are still talking about the same thing they’re talking about. Communication can be achieved here. It just sometimes takes work.

The other end of the spectrum comes when people have past bad experiences with people trying to one-up and show off with how superior their tastes are. This is a crappy thing to do to people, but pretending no one ever does it won’t make it go away. So…if someone is trying to have a fun conversation about stuff they like, and you are trying to have a fun conversation about stuff you like, the trap comes in when they have been conditioned to read your fun as a dominance game over them, a way to show off how much better you are than them. And it’s useful to try to listen to the other person’s reactions carefully, to figure out when they’re being ignorantly dismissive for fun and when they’re protecting a bruise, where they’ve been smacked a bit before. (Sometimes, sadly, even literally.)

So yah: it’s easy to just dismiss the line between high and low culture, to look at some of the fruitful and amazing art that comes from ignoring or even gleefully trampling it. To say, nope, we want none of those divisions here. I’m on board. And every few years someone writes a manifesto about doing just that, as though nobody who came before them ever did, instead of practically everybody. But…if we can ever leap to “maybe this person’s context is different and it’s worth trying a little more communication to be sure” instead of “JERKS!”…if we can think of communication pitfalls instead of insurmountable problems…that seems worthwhile to me, when I can make it work.

Scarlett Hart, Monster Hunter, by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Scarlett Hart lives in an Edwardian-esque world filled with monsters and horrors. Ghosts, mummies, tentacle beasts, it’s all there. Underage people aren’t supposed to be monster hunters, but since the death of her parents, she and her butler Napoleon White have been carrying on the family business, with Napoleon delivering their catches/kills to the Academy. (The acronym for the monster hunting academy convolutes itself to be TRAPEZE, which tells you a lot about the convolutions in this book and which ones the author considers clever.)

This is a graphic novel aimed at young readers. It’s adventure fantasy. There are gadgets, there is loyalty and frustration at the establishment, there are conveniently absent parents to be avenged. There are a lot of stock elements, which is not wrong, just…not a lot that is new here. Which perhaps its young audience won’t mind, and it goes quickly.

Please consider using our link to buy Scarlett Hart, Monster Hunter from Amazon.