Books read, late October

Robert Jackson Bennett, Foundryside. The tone of this was very different than I expected, far more adventurey fun and far less gritty grimness. Which is not to say that horrifying things don’t happen, because they totally do, but it’s generally a book where the characters can act to their own benefit, and make wisecracks along the way. It’s a very cinematic book–a lot of the action scenes feel like they would make even better filmed sequences–but with a solid grounding in the worldbuilding rather than just whatever.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. This is heartfelt and personal. Brown has a church background/association, so if you are allergic to all mentions of religion that aren’t thoroughly negative, you will want to read a different book–Brown talks a fair amount about her experiences in churches as one of her major community and work environments. But if you want a book that is simultaneously very fluidly written and easy to read and also firm and unflinching about her experiences of racism, this is a good one. (Excellent for well-meaning but not well-informed relatives, if you have any of those….)

Suzy McKee Charnas, The Bronze King. Reread. I adored prickly teenager Valentine when I was a grade school kid, and this book was part of why I wanted to even glance at Central Park the first time I visited New York as an adult. It’s a fascinating data point about which kinds of teen rebellion are allowed in which eras of YAs…but it’s also a fun book about magic and acquiring responsibility and stuff.

Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Cooper’s book is very personal, going into a lot of what it has felt like, very individually, to be the target of various racist acts and cultural norms. It’s short and snappy and vivid and individual.

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. I have some quibbles with some of Duffy’s conclusions–why do so many people want to believe that “making a fuss” wasn’t really necessary to get some of the social changes they approve of?–but his account of parish-level religious life in this era is fascinating. And he’s very clear that this should not be the only book you read on this topic, and indeed it has not been, so.

Randi Hutter Epstein, Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything. This…is not an evolutionary history of which hormones seem to have shown up when in various mammals. (I know, I was a fool to think so.) Instead it’s a history of what horrific things humans did in the process of figuring out how the whole hormone thing works. Sometimes fascinatingly horrific, but…aaaagh.

S.L. Huang, Zero Sum Game. Discussed elsewhere.

Tove Jansson, The Exploits of Moominpappa. This is one of the lesser Moomin books, where the current set of characters are somewhat rehashed by the adventures of their parents. Still, lesser Moomins are fun and whimsical and worth having too.

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Latchkey. Post-apocalyptic ghost mediation and community management. There are logistics in this book in the least tedious way possible. I was so happy to read this. (Also the one that came before it, Archivist Wasp.) Yay. Yay.

Ruth Rendell, Master of the Moor. Okay, so there is this thing that happens with Ruth Rendell novels a lot. She has a history of trying to be aware of and thoughtful about the range of human sexual expression, but she is also trying to write murder thrillers. And she started in the ’60s. This book from the ’80s has a terrible, terrible asexual character, and I can see what she was trying to do, and…there is no particular reason why you, a modern person, should particularly enjoy this example of her trying to do it. There are better Rendells to read.

Sofia Samatar and Del Samatar, Monster Portraits. This is the sort of side project I really want authors to do: unusual and short and biting. This is an illustrated collection of monsters with accounts of them that deal with the Samatar siblings’ immigrant experience in very sharp ways. Cool stuff.

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. This is a simply massive pile of analysis and evidence about how racism shaped Detroit and its problems from the middle of the twentieth century on. Compelling, convincing, depressing. If you are aware that loads of people in 1900 lived in tar paper shacks and hardly anybody in 2000 did, this also fills in a great deal of the hazy shape of that in detail: how we got there from here, with which sacrifices. More broadly applicable than just Detroit.

Meredith Wadman, The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease. This is a history of the rubella vaccine and all the tradeoffs and decisions involved in getting there. Harrowing in spots, well-constructed, worth having.

Rebecca West, The Birds Fall Down. A family novel, an atypical spy novel–about a young British woman whose grandparents are Russian exiles before WWI and the various machinations of the tsar’s agents and those rebelling against him. Really beautifully done, and why have I not read more Rebecca West. One of the small notable things: when one of the characters displays the kind of anti-Semitism that often shows up in this period of either setting or writing, another character calls it out; it is not endorsed by the text. That’s not a major point but sort of an indicator of who West was and what she was trying to do here.

Marguerite Yourcenar, A Coin in Nine Hands. A novel of Mussolini’s Rome, written at the time, which traces a 10-lira coin through the hands of nine people, one of whom is an anti-fascist assassin. I knew the structural conceit of this book, but not its politics, which turn out to be important. It’s not a bad time to read a book wherein people at least try to say no to the dictator.

Vengeful, by V.E. Schwab

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I think the proper genre category for this book (and the other in its series, Vicious) is super-anti-hero story. The superpowers regularly at play in this plot do not in any way render their bearers heroic; quite the opposite. Here we see humanity in all its vicious, vengeful, self-centered “glory.” There is some loyalty, but mostly there is raw ambition, fear, attempts at control.

The superpowers of this universe come from the events surrounding a person’s death–provided that it doesn’t stick. These near-deaths provide a range of powers not quite the same as the standard narratives–some bulletproof heroes, certainly, but the limitation of having to relate powers to death is an interesting one, and well suited for the dark kind of story Schwab is telling.

Every element of this book feels like it would adjust so well to film, and people love superhero stories and also revenge stories, so I hope they do film it. It’s full of beautiful dresses and dark places, elegant dinners and grueling fight scenes and terrifying pseudo-medical experiments. It is very, very noir, so if you want a book with kindness and hope, this is not that book. But if you want to dig your teeth into the throat of vengeance, well, Schwab’s got that elegantly covered.

Please consider using our link to buy Vengeful from Amazon.

Books read, early September

Jens Andersen, Astrid Lindgren: The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking. I found this, the first English-language biography of Lindgren, really interesting, and I can’t wait until someone writes a good one of her in English. Andersen is enthusiastic but disorganized. This book could have used at least one more editorial pass for coherence and clarity. I understand not wanting to do everything in a biography in strict chronological order, but the way Andersen hopped around…well. This still gives context to Pippi, and to those of Lindgren’s works that were formative to me (The Brothers Lionheart and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter), and it’s not so bad that it’s not worth having if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Sue Burke, Semiosis. A mosaic novel about settling an alien planet with really alien life on it, learning to communicate with other species with very different priorities and assumptions than oneself. Learning to communicate with other generations of one’s own species with same. There are places where I feel things are glossed over (there is in particular a rape that is not handled very fully), but I am a sucker for alien SF so here we are.

Deborah R. Coen, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale. This is substantially about the Habsburg Empire, how the idea of climate and its variability really got going there and how they handled it without some of the concepts that we now consider foundational. Definitely a different angle on early climate science, and a welcome one.

John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless and The Final Reflection. Rereads. I am on my second Mike Ford panel of the year at Scintillation just under three weeks from now, so this is my not-at-all-burdensome research reading for that. I remain amazed at how I find more in each of Mike’s books every time I read them. The balance of perspectives in Growing Up Weightless in particular astonishes me. Both highly recommended.

Tryntje Helfferich, The Iron Princess: Amalia Elisabeth and the Thirty Years War. A study of the princess/landgravine of Hesse-Cassel, neglected in 20th/21st century histories of the Thirty Years War, through a combination of sexism and people having grave difficulties tracking the German principalities of this period. (I am also a people.) She was stubborn and focused and manipulative in the best way for her job, and this was a really interesting read…but if you don’t already know a few things about the Thirty Years War, I think you’ll be a bit lost, so maybe start somewhere else.

Liu Cixin, Ball Lightning. Discussed elsewhere.

Premee Mohamed, The Apple-Tree Throne. Kindle. A postwar ghost story with strong friendships in its core. WWI inspiration is my wheelhouse (think Witchmark, but not the same kind of speculative element), and this made me very happy with its emotional grasp of that period.

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. There are a lot of places where I think Morton is wrong or oversimplifying about specific details, often in a Western Europe-centric direction. However, this is still doing some fascinating things with concepts larger than we can wrap our heads around, that we have to deal with anyway, and it’s worth the quibbles.

Christopher Rowe, Telling the Map. This is a weird and beautiful connection, giving exactly the sense of dislocation people tout for speculative fiction but rarely deliver. The last two stories in particular were amazing, but frankly I recommend the whole thing.

Vivian Shaw, Dreadful Company. What a kind book. You can see in the details of how the characters treat the monstrous and the mistaken how much kindness is the core of this entire series. That’s rare enough in any sub-genre, but in an urban fantasy laden with the creatures of horror lore, it’s astonishing.

Dana Simpson, Razzle Dazzle Unicorn and Unicorn Crossing. I fell behind on the Phoebe & Her Unicorn series and am now catching up. When I read the first one, I saw the comparisons to Calvin & Hobbes and could see all the places P&HU is not doing the same things. Now I mostly see how much it makes me giggle, how delightful it is to read about this quirky little girl, her parents, her friends, especially her best friend Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, the unicorn. I’m definitely going to get the next two collections from the library right away.

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars. This poetry collection was intense in directions right next to my wheelhouse, but still very much worth my time to think long thinky thoughts about. Especially “Solstice.” I’m going to return to “Solstice” several times, I think.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: The Moon Is Up. This is the second Lumberjanes MG novel, and it is just as exuberantly friendly and zany as the comic. This one feels a bit more…rote?…than the series at its best, but I still got some good laughs out of it and find it wholesome and fun.

Carrie Vaughn, The Wild Dead. This is the sequel to Bannerless, and I really love what it’s doing with worldbuilding and characterization and post-apocalyptic fiction that has actually taken the post- part to heart and understands humanity’s ability to make do, to move on, to figure things out. This series is so very much my jam.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Carolyn Nowak, et al, Lumberjanes: On a Roll. This is the roller derby/cryptid issue of Lumberjanes. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, you probably don’t want to read it. But strong kid friendships + cryptids, come on.

Drew Weing, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic. Reread. I hadn’t picked this back up since it came out, but I’m on a panel about teens and time travel and another panel about good and evil, and…really, this was an essential reread. Jane is doing so much about the Holocaust and family and memory in so few pages. It’s beautiful and heart-shattering. Also…I have a strong fondness for books where great-aunts are important. That’s a part of my life I don’t see enough, and this could easily have gotten ground down into “why can’t it be her grandma” etc. And it wasn’t, it was particular and loving about this relationship.

The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall, by Drew Weing

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the sequel to the original The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, and in some ways it’s more a chunk carved off the same large story. The episodic resolution here is pretty incomplete. The plot moves forward, but not to any kind of conclusion. It begins with Chapter 4 and ends with an epilogue, though why it’s structured as an epilogue rather than Chapter 6 when there isn’t any doubt that there will have to be more story is not entirely clear to me.

The premise of these comics is that the titular kid is a go-between for humans in monster society, someone who understands that monsters are persecuted and hunted, someone who can try to talk the scarier monsters out of eating the humans. The comic is told from the perspective of her somewhat feckless kid reporter sidekick, Charles, who is learning all about his new home of Echo City and all about monsters. Charles is an extremely useful exposition device.

The empathy of this series brings the fun a little deeper, and Margo’s family situation is further explained in this volume in a very sympathetic way. It’s probably not going to revolutionize your worldview about monsters or relationships between different groups of humans, but it’s a fun and fairly non-toxic time for the kids who are its target audience.

Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I am deeply conflicted about how to talk about this book.

On the one hand, I am aware that the Anglophone world–particularly the US world–is resistant to translating works out of simple inertia, and that because of this, writers who write in a language other than English will be considered disproportionately representative of How Chinese Books Do In the US (or How Books Translated From Any East Asian Language Do In the US, or How Translated Books Do In the US). I really want to see more books translated from Chinese and in fact from every language. I want to listen more to basically everybody. Being able to talk and listen is good for art and also for the rest of the world. Yay, works in translation, yay!

However. However however however.

I don’t actually like this book or think it’s very good. I think its audience will be pretty narrow because of what book it is, not because it’s in translation. (Ken Liu’s brilliant anthology Invisible Planets demonstrates the diversity of Chinese SF! Let’s all read that and preorder the next one!)

Ball Lightning is a structure of book I read a lot of 25 years ago. It is the kind of science fiction novel that’s basically All (Zany) Science All The Time. Many people doing calculations, tracking down data, arguing about what data counts, running into dead-ends in The Science, finding new inspiration in The Science. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this structure of book, and I still enjoy some of them. If. IF.

If they are not entirely based around staggering levels of sexism, which Ball Lightning unfortunately is. There is exactly one female character of note, and she is by turns a psychopath and…well, here’s one line: “The old unshakable, goal-oriented major was now a fragile, helpless little girl.” Uh…huh. Our two choices are alluring unstoppable killing machine and alluring breakable child–now united in the same person! Because why would there be any other women in the world ever? And why would the one who exists have any depth?

At first I thought this was going to be an implicitly, peripherally sexist book–that all the pilots and all the officers and all the scientists would be male (okay, to be fair, there are two dead women, one a clingy mother and one a mysterious science-ghostly presence), and it would be a matter of the author just…not considering any other options. But no! No, the crashing sexism is central to the plot! The entire resolution of the book turns around it!

There are not many books that are speculation about ball lightning and various quantum effects (oh lord, the various quantum effects…), so if you like that and find it interesting and are willing to keep in your head that men are not the only people and this book is completely wretched about gender, by all means show the publishers that there’s an audience for science fiction in translation. Otherwise there will be more opportunities soon, and…you can go for those instead.

If after all that you still want this book, you can order it through our Amazon link.

Books read, August

Mishell Baker, Impostor Syndrome. The conclusion of the trilogy that began with Borderline. This book is so focused on consequences and relationship implications (two of my favorite things!) that it’s not the place to start this series. It’s only three books, the whole thing is out, go ahead and start from the beginning. But is it a satisfying ending? Yes. Oh yes.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapter 16. Kindle. The larger world implications at the edges of this boarding school serial are really coming into play here….

Lois McMaster Bujold, Flowers of Vashnoi. Kindle. This novella bookends “The Mountains of Mourning,” coming around full circle to mutation and radiation and how attempts to fix problems sometimes complicate matters. I don’t know that I’d say it was fun, but it was pretty satisfying–and I like to see Ekaterin and her skills take center stage.

Jeremy L. Caradonna, Sustainability: A History. A philosophical overview of the concept, starting with forestry and going through to the present sets of politics and concerns. Not particularly long, worth having.

Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Elvin has pored over who knows how many pages not just of farming records and court documents but also bad poetry (yes, really!) to glean environmental data from China and figure out how and when various environmental changes happened. The human-induced shifts in various parts of the Chinese environment–not just elephants but rivers and beyond–were fascinating to watch over this period. Very cool book.

Maria Dahvana Headley, The Mere Wife. I was captivated by this book. Maria has a way with her writing that tends to do that to me. This time the language, the way the Beowulf translation touchstones sang through the specific prose of the book, got my heart. I feel under-Beowulfed, generally, and this is a startling counter to that.

Kate Heartfield, Armed in Her Fashion. I am not much for grimdark and generally hate zombies, and yet I tore through this eagerly. It was not at all typical of either grimdark or zombie fiction, being set in the Low Countries in the late medieval period. Its treatments of gender, power, and sin were spot on for its period and for ours. I also appreciate reading a book where I can’t predict what the author will do next. I feel like Crash Davis here: don’t dig in, I don’t know where it’s gonna go.

Alex Hirsch, Gravity Falls: Lost Legends. This is four short stories in the Gravity Falls universe/characters, in graphic novel form. It absolutely has Gravity Falls nature. I giggled wildly. If you’re feeling the lack of Soos in your life (or whoever, but obviously Soos), this will fill a little of the void. No, not that void. That’s still infinitely empty, obv.

Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders. I think people talk about whether authors have idealized childhood or focused on its dark side, but they don’t talk a lot about the focus and intensity of being a particular kind of small child. I was that kind of small child. I think Ellen was too, because she completely nails it, and whatever the plot is, I am there for that kind of vivid writing about that part of life. This is a series of short stories, not all about childhood, but a lot; not all dark, but a lot. Recommended.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Fated Sky. Discussed elsewhere.

Nicholas P. Money, The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization. This was a lot more basic than I had hoped. He talked about the different products that owe their entire existence to yeast, beer, bread, okay, cool, but…it’s very pop sci, put it that way. If you have a science background, you may find it disappointing; if you don’t, you will not find it at all daunting.

Ryan North and Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. I too am up for beating up the Marvel Universe. Yes. I too. Also I love the off-the-wall way Squirrel Girl takes on basically every comics trope she comes into contact with. But really: you had me at beating up Tony Stark.

Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race. A lot of this stuff is very remedial: Oluo is writing with great kindness and patience about her experience as a Black woman in America, with asides about how all of this affects non-Black PoC. I picked it up because I didn’t want to be the progressive white woman who was all “oh I don’t need to learn any of this stuff” and definitely needed to learn this stuff. It was a beginning reading. That’s what it’s supposed to be. There’s more to be had, but this is a good starting place.

Charles Sheffield, The Amazing Dr. Darwin. Reread. I am constantly in a process of reevaluating our bookshelves: what am I absolutely sure we will never reread again, what do I remember fondly, what has fallen down a memory hole so I honestly don’t know what category it’s in. I picked up this Charles Sheffield book with some trepidation: I read it more than 15 years ago and have no memory of it, and that’s…often not a good sign. In this case, however, it was a delightful series of historico-scientific mystery short stories. It was several standard deviations above “it was like that at the time” in terms of sexism and treatment of minority figures–though it’s clearly not a contemporary book, it’s pretty solid on the treatment of persons unlike Sheffield himself. So if you want to read about Charles Darwin’s grandfather solving medical mysteries with the cutting-edge knowledge of his time, there’s this book, it exists, it’s fun, it’s worth my shelf space.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby and The Mother of All Questions. I have discovered that if I have a book by Rebecca Solnit, it moves to the front of the queue pretty automatically. She is a prolific and far-ranging author, and this holds true regardless of the topic. I didn’t even know what the topic of The Faraway Nearby would be when I got it, and yet: top of the stack. It turned out to deal with cold and apricots and Solnit’s health and relationship with her mother and…bunches of other stuff. I went and downloaded a Mary Wollstonecraft book because of that one, I told a friend about the Marquis de Sade’s burial, I…thought thoughts. And The Mother of All Questions, sort of the same but different thoughts. Angry sad motivated thoughts. I’m going to keep making an effort to read through her back catalog, because it’s always rewarding.

Abra Staffin-Wiebe, The Unkindness of Ravens. Discussed elsewhere.

Jo Walton, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 (discussed elsewhere) and Starlings. Jo doesn’t think of herself as a short story writer, but the short stories in this volume are fun and humane. Very few of the poems were new to me, but having them collected is very convenient. I was there for the first reading of the play, and now it’s in a real book. So. An eclectic and interesting collection.

Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol. MURDERBOT. New entertainments for–and from!–Murderbot! Particularly new dimensions in robot-human relationships, feelings about them that can’t be disposed of easily, plots to foil and figure out, all in one small novella. YAY MURDERBOT WE LOVE MURDERBOT.

Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance. Kindle. I read this with a playreading group, which is new for me. It’s structurally Really Weird (first act: why even; fourth act: wait what), but we had fun with it, laughing and gasping and all the things you would want. And there was a lot of “oh is that where that line came from!” (Be really careful about the cynical witticisms that are frequently just attributed to Wilde; in context they are often a clever thing for a villain to say that Wilde shows no sign of believing.) (The fox hunt one I kind of think he did though.)

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: Civil War II. Kamala Khan and a bunch of sidekicks becomes Kamala Khan vs. the proto-fascist state, Kamala Khan finds respite in family, Kamala Khan is not sure what to do next (and I want to find out).

J. Y. Yang, The Descent of Monsters. The latest Tensorate novella, epistolary, research-focused, fascinating, fun. I love these. More.

Jane Yolen, Tales of Wonder. Kindle. An assortment of short pieces across types of speculative fiction. I’d read about half of them already, and liked them, and the other half were new. A really good Jane introduction, I felt, and it held my attention even when I was exhausted.

Adam Zamoyski, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871. Zamoyski, in this book, is trying to look at cultural threads through a bunch of revolutions. One of his strengths is Eastern European history–he will spot the Polish people you didn’t even know were being neglected in other books. He occasionally goes a bit off the rails for some other areas (a lot of people would be surprised to hear that English colonists in the Americas did not have mixed race children, for example) and is not the most brilliant prose stylist, but the places where he’s in his element don’t have a lot of overlap with other books you can get on this topic. So…don’t make this the only one you read.

The Unkindness of Ravens, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Review copy provided by the author/publisher, who is also a personal friend and also someone I was in a writing group with, so I critiqued this novella.

This is a novella about a magical, divinely backed caste system and the perils of xenophobia. It’s also about family and assumptions and trust. It also has some unflinching scenes of fighting, battlefields, injury, and disability.

It’s a lot in one novella, is what I’m saying.

Anari is the heir of House Crow, one of the eight Great Houses that runs his homeland and contributes possible heirs to the throne. He hasn’t ever seen himself as oba (ruler) material, and he had hoped that that would keep him out of the cutthroat competition. The world–as embodied by his siblings in the other Great Houses, and possibly by the intentions and desires of his House’s god–has other plans. Soon Anari’s entire worldview is upended, and he has to figure out a way for divine favor and Crow cleverness to provide real healing for his people–including the people he never thought of as his.

The resolution of this high fantasy adventure avoids some obvious pitfalls, holding interest deftly until the very end.

Please consider using our link to buy The Unkindness of Ravens from Amazon.

The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor Books. This is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, which I reviewed here:

I was really glad that the sequel came so quickly on the heels of the first book, because in some ways they’re more one story than two, and being able to finish the story promptly is something I really like. In other ways they’re not the same book and shouldn’t be–Elma York, our heroine, is in a very different place in her life.

There are short pieces of life on Earth at the beginning of this book, but for the most part it is a space mission book, it is travel to Mars and crew dynamics all the way. It’s the sort of book I read a lot of when I was in my teens: a book with the triumphs and pitfalls of crewed space flight, a book where a mission to another planet is made to feel as real as possible.

That place is a spaceship headed for Mars.

There’s a reason this is alternate history rather than projective science fiction this time, though, and that is: the mission to another planet is made to feel as real as possible for everybody. Not just for one demographic. All the stuff that was in the SF we grew up with implicitly is self-aware here: all the places where a character assumes that the proper person for the job has to be male, all the places where “publicity” and “marketing” dictate that white people do things to make them appealing to other (racist) white people…they’re there in the stuff this is an alternate history from, too. They’re just not there consciously on the author’s part. Here, they’re absolutely deliberate, and central.

Everyone in this book is allowed to make mistakes. Everyone in this book is allowed to differ from the people they care most about, and work on it, and work through it. It is not as centrally for me as The Calculating Stars was, but it’s a very satisfying conclusion to that story. With plenty of chess pie. Recommended.

Please consider using our link to buy The Fated Sky from Amazon.

An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Once upon a time there was a teenager whose physics research equipment was broken two summers in a row, and she was stuck with a library on Library of Congress system, which is great for organization but terrible for browsing. And this kid decided that if she was going to do this SF writing thing, she should take it as seriously as physics–and she was the sort of physics kid who had research jobs at ages 18 and 19 to go wrong, so that was how seriously she took physics. So…there was the list of Hugo nominees and winners. And the list of Nebula nominees and winners. And a lot of long summer hours reading them when there was no possibility of getting physics done. And a lot of wandering off down side tracks when I liked a particular author or work very much, or even just when the library had a lot by that person.

I sometimes refer to myself as my misspent youth, but it’s actually stood me in really good stead for the career I ended up having, which is 0% physicist and 100% SF writer. It also means that when I read a lengthy discussion of the history of the Hugos, I have a good grounding in who’s doing what when. This book was a kind of perspective all at once that I didn’t have, though, even with having glanced at the original posts that comprise it. It was a fun, fast read despite its considerable size, and it left me with some thoughts I assemble for you here in no particular order.

Jo Walton is a nicer person than I am. Okay, I should have put in the disclaimer that she’s a dear friend, also, but that’s not why I’m saying this. Loads of my friends are not as nice a person as I am. (Not very nice to say that, but at the same time I can guarantee at least a dozen people are nodding happily along thinking, “She means me,” without the least trouble to their consciences.) But there were several places where Jo said, “I haven’t read this, but I’m sure it’s great,” and I said aloud to the book, “I HAVE and it’s NOT.” She gives a lot of wiggle room, a lot of benefit of the doubt. What she does not do is pretend to have read anything she hasn’t actually read, which is great, more people should be clear about what they haven’t read.

One of the fascinating things to me was watching the “I read this stuff when it was new” line kick in at a different place for Jo than it did for me. I knew hypothetically that books look different when they are ground-breaking for you than when they’re part of the status quo, but wow, there it all was. John Varley, for example, was always part of the world I could expect, one of the things stories just did–whereas for Jo and a few of the commenters who were adding to her posts, there was a period of adding those works to their world concept. It changes a lot. There are all sorts of definitions of a book “holding up” with time, many of which are discussed in this volume, but I think one of the interesting questions on that front is: how does it do as a novel if the concepts (stylistic or science fictional or whatever) that were startling have become familiar to the reader?

Another thing that became startlingly clear to me when I was seeing the lists of what came out in a particular year of my childhood all at once: it used to be that most of my reading was in one of two categories: the men I was reading because I was told they were the good stuff you read if you were serious about SFF, and the women I read because I found them on my own and wanted to. It was not quite that stark, but…it sure felt pretty stark when I was looking at the lists of Hugo nominees and thinking, oh yes, I remember reading that…and then looking at the lists of what else was published and thinking, oh, I loved that! oh, that changed my life!

One of the major questions Jo addresses in this book is: how representative was each slate of nominees of what the field was doing at the time? And this is a question that I found fascinating in this format and…literally could not care less about in real time. Reading about it in this format clarified how little I care about that. It was an interesting point of consideration academically; in the field, inasmuch as I care about awards at all, I care about people trying to give them to the things they like best, or to the things that fit some other criteria that is specified for the award. So: does it represent the field? Is it “the kind of book that wins a Hugo”? I don’t care. I literally could not care less. Award the books you think are good. Period and full stop.

This is the sort of book that makes more dent than the sum of its blog posts. It was different reading it all at once than once a week (or less, since I wasn’t totally assiduous about this). It’s the sort of thing that you should read if you want an overview of what’s been done and how it was valued in the 20th century, but especially if you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time talking about–arguing about–science fiction and fantasy. Because even if you’re not arguing much with Jo herself, the very substance of what she’s talking about here can start a hundred discussions–or arguments–if you want it to. Perhaps it will become a party book: take the book down, read a randomly selected entry, discuss. People have done stranger things. People in my social circles, even.

Please consider using our link to buy An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 from Amazon.

Books read, July

Ann Aguirre, Like Never and Always. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Rowany de Vere and a Fair Degree of Frost. Kindle. This is a novella in the same world as the Crater School stories, and its heroine is one of the Crater School’s graduates, all grown up and moved into intelligence services. I think it would stand alone fairly well, if you’re not already supporting Chaz’s Patreon for these projects, but in any case it’s full of winter sports and spies, so I was entirely on board.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Ethan of Athos. Reread. This is a single-gender planet book, just outside the main Vorkosigan sequence. I reread it for my feminist socialist SF panel, and while I don’t think Lois was trying to write a perfect work of either ideology, there were elements that were extremely interesting to discuss in that context: the way that this society accounts for the labor of childrearing when childbearing is something that literally cannot happen accidentally to anyone in it, for example. This book doesn’t represent Lois’s current thinking on gender or sexuality, and also there are people in it who never were meant to–I’ll put a content note here for homophobia directed against the protagonist–but there are things it’s doing that I’m not sure I’ve seen done elsewhere.

Zoraida Cordova, Bruja Born. This was such a fast read. More family ties, more magic, more complications and difficult emotions and getting things done despite them. I really like this series. I like the way this protagonist is allowed to be wrong for all the right reasons, and the way that her family is there with her in all the worst situations.

Edward Eager, Knight’s Castle and Seven-Day Magic. Rereads. The latter is the one of Eager’s works that I feels holds up best–minimal racism, sexism not a major plot element. Knight’s Castle has a message that I guess you can read as anti-sexist, but it doesn’t really balance out the ongoing scorn for girls, in my 21st century experience, since the former is quite overt and the latter a great deal more subtle. Seven-Day Magic leans into Eager’s strength in a big way: doing explicit homage to other children’s writers. It’s a book for kids who love books, and it’s the one that brings me closest to my grade school appreciation of Eager.

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces. It’s easy to see why this is a classic of writing place. The way it evokes Wyoming, its people, its weather, its landscape, is astonishing. It’s also a 30+-year-old book, so there are places where I sigh looking at how Ehrlich has described what actual cowboys do (nurturing baby animals for heaven’s sake) vs. the cultural stereotypes of a cowboy…because we’ve had an increase in factory farming, a decrease in actual cowboys, and an increase in invested toxic stereotypes of that job from people who have never held it but would like to be seen in a certain light. Particularly politicians. Bleh.

George Eliot, Silas Marner. Kindle. I am not astonished at the people who were forced to read this in high school and told me it was boring, because it’s not a book for teens. But the people who read it as adults–come on, this is a beautiful book. It’s about community connection in an era of financially spurred isolation. And there’s that beautiful coda that is even more beautiful if you know Maryann Evans’s personal life…I cried at that ending. That was one of the most cathartic endings ever. I mean, it’s no Middlemarch, but nothing is.

Nicola Griffith, So Lucky. A thriller about being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I’m not kidding, and it’s searing and amazing and left me with all kinds of thoughts about disability representation and expectations and what makes experiences in this area the same and different. Recommended.

William Hjortsberg, Symbiography. Kindle. Very rooted in its time in its concerns about dream and “civilization.”

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 6 and Fiyah Issue 7. Kindle. These were two very solid issues–I think Issue 7 may be my favorite yet, with each story really firing on all cylinders. Tade Thompson’s “Yard Dog” and LaShawn M. Wanak’s “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” were my favorites but honestly it was all good. In Issue 6 I thought the stand-out was Juliana Goodman’s “Furious Girls.”

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars. Discussed elsewhere.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed. Reread. This was for my feminist socialist SF panel, and there were some ways in which it was fascinating, and there were some ways in which it is exemplary in the area of “authors who kept learning for their whole lives.” Because there were parts of this book that were simply appalling and heartbreaking in gender terms. The protagonist, let me be clear, commits sexual assault, and when he reflects on his feelings of guilt immediately thereafter, guilt for having assaulted another person is not in the list, there’s only reflection on political complicity. Nor, I feel, does the narrative complicate or undermine that reaction. Shutting women out of the sciences is used as a puppy-kicking plot point to show how terrible a society is, but there are literally no women characters who are directly negatively affected by it, no women who want anything better than they have, no…look, it’s a lot. Go into this prepared, because Le Guin got better than this over her lifetime, and it is a lot.

Naomi Mitchison, The Corn King and the Spring Queen. And speaking of a lot…there is so much sexual violence and toxicity in this book. There are so many relationships that are utterly, thoroughly horrid for all concerned. And this is the book that made me realize how many older women had cis women in their books wishing to be men, routinely, as though it was something obvious that everyone would do, and that made me cry, and I have not been able to unsee it since. But…this is also a fascinating angle for an historical novel, its setting, its worldbuilding and attitudes toward magic, everything. I’m not sorry I endured to get to the whole thing. (But there’s some part of me that’s sorry that Naomi had to.)

William Morris, The Defense of Guenevere and Other Poems. Kindle. Do you want rhyming couplets? Lots and lots of rhyming couplets, that only extremely rarely avoid an obvious rhyme? Do you want them on Arthurian and other chivalric themes? Uncle Bill is your dude, then. This…look, I love him, I love William Morris to pieces, it’s why he’s one of the very small number of historical figures I refer to with an avuncular nickname. But this is not, in fact, good. It’s ponderous and sentimental and everything, everything that the Pre-Raphaelites got criticized for being. “Chivalric themes” means that this is not actually even remotely the feminist end of his thought. If you want to read this at all, you want to read it for very specific reasons, and I have those reasons myself, I just…most of you can really let me take this one for the team.

E. Nesbit, The Book of Dragons, The Magic City, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Railway Children, The Story of the Amulet, and The Wouldbegoods. Rereads every one. Nesbit–like Eager after her (but before her in this book list!)–wrote for a very particular imagined child reader. That child was of her era, British, upper middle class or upper class. Servants and their families are people who help her readers, not people who are her readers. And yet. And yet she’s trying to juggle Fabian sensibilities and a strong sense of children as actual fallible people, not needing to be role models but real characters, and there’s still so very very much to love in her books. I read these because I was on more than one panel at Readercon about her, but I don’t regret a moment of the reread.

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver. I think that Naomi Novik and I will just never align on the subject of romantic plots/fictional relationships, and I would love to talk to other people who have read this about the ending of the romantic plots in this book because…so many thoughts and feelings here. However. This was a medieval fantasy with Jewish people who interacted with their own and Gentile culture in nuanced and varied ways. This was a medieval fantasy where a stubborn peasant girl got to stay a stubborn peasant girl. There were all sorts of portrayals of work, different kinds of work, in ways that were fascinating and, again, nuanced. There was more than one villain, and more than one antagonist, and they didn’t necessarily align. So the romantic plot…differences of opinion…did not manage to undo all the good done in this book, reminding me that we like books for what they do right, not what they fail to do wrong.

Daniel Malory Ortberg, The Merry Spinster. These are short stories that take a different angle on stories we feel we know. They’re unsettling and upending and sometimes grim (and sometimes Grimm) and generally worth your time. Every time you say, “I know how this one goes,” you probably don’t.

Tamora Pierce, Alanna: The First Adventure and In the Hand of the Goddess. Rereads. These were formative for me in so many ways. They were desperately important books in my adolescence. I read them again because they were an important example, for adolescent me, of how fantasy can handle sexuality and sex ed, without bogging down the ongoing adventures in preachiness. Upon reread it became clear to me how much they reinforced the idea that talking about your harassment will prove to the men and boys around you that you’re not worthy to be among them, and that made me sad. But I’m still glad I had it when I did.

Hannu Rajaniemi, Summerland. Discussed elsewhere.

Alastair Reynolds, Elysium Fire. This is an Alastair Reynolds novel! If you haven’t read one yet, this is an okay one to start with I guess? but Blue Remembered Earth has elephants so really go with that one. Anyway: there’s a consistency of feel in the universe he writes here, and he nails that again, so if you want one of those, this is a one of those.

Kelly Robson, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. This is very weird science fiction in ways that I didn’t expect from the title. It kept surprising me, which is always a valuable thing.

Jennie Rooney, Red Joan. This is not a traditionally structured spy novel, it’s a novel about a spy. It’s a novel about an entire long life and what leads to some decisions and what forces others. Old women are allowed to be characters here. It’s a lovely character study.

Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Fuego. A slim and passionate volume of poetry about childbirth and long-distance swimming and all sorts of interesting things.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. This is lovely. It talks about pilgrimage and mountain climbing and city strolls and the history of garden philosophy and Jane Austen and the Wordsworths and all sorts of things. There is a passage toward the end that feels very firm, very deliberate, where Solnit talks about some of the ways in which walking is not the same for every demographic in every culture, especially ours–I feel like I can almost feel her saying to herself, “This is not what my book is about and yet I can’t not talk about it,” and the balance works beautifully for me. I’ve been enjoying reading my way through her works, and this was no exception.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Issue 22 and Uncanny Issue 23. Kindle. Two solid but very different issues, since one of them was dinosaur themed. I don’t generally review things I’m in, and I’m in here, so I will speak only generally.

Jessica Weisberg, Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money, and Other Burning Questions from a Nation Obsessed. This is a history of advice writing, particularly of advice writing in the US, although there is a brief early part that’s about British advice writing, on the theory that it contributed to the genre here. This is short and interesting if you like the topic, which I do; I love advice columns. It’s so compelling to see how people formulate their problems and solutions. And watching the genre evolve socially over time is great.

Barbara Willard, A Sprig of Broom. Reread. This is a series of historical fiction from when the boundary between middle grade and young adult had not sorted itself out thoroughly, or at least not into what it is now. As a result, this series is…readable on the individual sentence level, and aimed at teens in content, but much thinner than what would be expected now. This one is the aftermath of Henry Tudor’s accession to the throne, as seen in a small manor house/family. It was fine to read, but I don’t have any reason to think I’ll want to reread it again.

P. G. Wodehouse, Three Men and a Maid. Kindle. I was on a plane, okay? This is a Wodehouse that does the things Wodehouse does. It does what it says on the tin, which is be by Wodehouse. Sometimes you’re on a plane and want a story where people run about and get into scrapes and dogs do various things and someone has to hide somewhere improbable and it all works out in the end.

Banana Yoshimoto, The Lake. A love story between two people with emotional baggage and some very weird life experiences. Compelling and thoughtful and short.