A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend.

Arkady Martine has a lot to say about empires. Luckily for the reader, she’s very clear on the difference between an academic monograph–that’s her alter ego’s job–and a space opera. A Memory Called Empire is full of bombs, spaceships, intrigue, poisons, and neurological devices. It is also full of thoughts about empire and its periphery, of how systems eat people and how those people can resist–before death, and beyond it with their influence.

It’s fun. It’s thoughtful and action-packed and well-balanced, and there are friendships (with more than one outcome and more than one focus!) as well as a flirtation. The main character, Mahit Dzmare, is poised at exactly the line between knowledgeable and lost that’s so much fun to read as she navigates a tense and dangerous diplomatic situation that’s fascinating not only to her but to me. I easily tuned out hours of airport with this book. I love its barbarians and am fascinated by its empire.

And it’s doing the thing that science fiction claims to do but often does not: examining fundamental questions from new angles. More than one person, more than one culture, has a particular answer to the idea of where the self begins and ends, and they’re all vital to this book, with its explosions and catastrophes. I can’t wait to see what the next one brings. Highly recommended.

One Hundred People, One Poem Each, edited by Fujiwara no Teika, translated by Larry Hammer

Review copy provided by the translator, who is a friend on this here internet for many years.

This is a famous and formative collection of Japanese poetry, first compiled in the 13th century and referenced often in the centuries since. There are names in this volume that have remained famous in the time since–there’s a Sei Shonagon poem in here, and one by Murasaki Shikibu, and several emperors–but also there are names that are less famous even to someone who’s studied Japanese literature. Looking at how that kind of compilation can end up assorted is fascinating.

The themes here are the expected ones because this volume did a great deal to set those expectations–so when there are lots of lovers crying into their sleeves, seasonal references, meeting in dreams, it’s interesting to watch them develop. The layout is similar to the previous translation volume I read from Larry, where the original and the translation are both given, and also contextual translation notes that point out where something is wordplay in the original, what significance a location had, the sort of thing that’s sometimes crucial and always set apart so it doesn’t nag at the poem itself. The poems are all five line formal ones, all very brief, so this is not a long read but a very rewarding one all the same.

The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore

Review copy provided by our mutual agent. Also we’re friends.

Every system, every society, every government, has its drawbacks. People differ on what those are and how to address them–in the real world. In too much fantasy, this disagreement gets flattened out into pure antagonism: this is the obvious problem, and if you’re not at least sort of aligned with me on the solution, you are The Baddie.

The Perfect Assassin doesn’t do that. Even in a system that features, well, secret assassins. And I enjoy that a lot.

Amastan is an historian by day, assassin by night. He and the others of his age group have been training for years, learning the rules that keep them in check as well as the skills that will be the difference between life and death for them and others. But someone else isn’t following those rules. Amastan and his friends discover not only a corpse, but one whose jaani (spirit, more or less, sort of) has not been properly laid to rest. This unexpected danger spurs him to find out more about the people around him, and about the past he is supposed to be studying.

Amastan is a beautifully cautious protagonist. He thinks things through, he tries his best–and he still gets himself into heaps of trouble. You will never have the “UGH THINK THINGS THROUGH” problem here, because ‘Stan does think things through–and the results are beautifully, humanly messy anyway. I was nearly late for a lunch meeting when I picked up this book, and it remained fun, exciting, and especially compelling throughout–for me, substantially because its protagonist is so well-drawn. Definitely recommended.

Books read, early March

Elizabeth Bear, Ancestral Night. I read this space opera in draft and loved it then. I love it now. And not just for the Mantis Cop! Although: Mantis Cop. Seriously there is fun with space travel, there is fun with alien species, there is, most importantly, fun with the human brain! How do we become civilized people, what alters free will and what is a means of asserting it…there are some huge questions in this book, and also loving chosen family, and also quite a lot of vacuum along the way. Highly recommended.

Mary Beard, How Do We Look and Women and Power: A Manifesto. Both of these books are Beard’s generalist side, turning her extensive knowledge of history to wider questions. They’re not going to revolutionize ideas about art and gaze or about women, but they’re solid works, the sort of thing that helps bolster reasonable views. She has the lovely skill–not all that common in a Classicist or Classical historian in my experience–of being able to write without assuming that Rome is the world’s eternal center, which makes things 1000% more readable for me. I’d previously read her book about Pompeii but will pursue more.

H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants. This book was a bit disappointing for me. It did what it said on the tin, sort of; the epic part was lacking. But I felt that there was less of the zany context of the era than I was really hoping and more focus on these three dudes, most of whom should have been kicked sharply in the shins. There are better books about the early Republic out there.

Zen Cho, The True Queen. Light and frothy and fun. Some of the plot twists are visible from space, and yet it’s experiencing the specific way that Cho writes them that provides the joy. Recognizes that pre-20th century England was the center of a global empire and not an ethnic monoculture, and used that fact as the basis for a glorious romp.

Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House. Children’s historical novel about a young Ojibwa girl. It is mostly bright and suffused with light, but there are moments where history makes the shadows in this child’s life very deep indeed.

Meg Frank and Julia Rios, eds., Hope in This Timeline. This is a beautiful collection of hopeful stories from Fireside. I had read them already, but having a copy to shelve makes me very happy.

Tessa Gratton, The Strange Maid. This is the second book in a deeply weird series about Norse gods. It is the right kind of deeply weird; I am so fond and so pleased and I cannot wait to get the third one. Also it’s the kind of series that doesn’t just do more of the same but goes into different ideas and places and perspectives. Yay for this Valkyrie book.

Larry Hammer, These Things Called Dreams: The Poems of Ono no Komachi. Discussed elsewhere.

Kate Heartfield, Alice Payne Rides. Discussed elsewhere.

Carlos Hernandez, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe. What a lovely way to spend a snow day. I bounced around full of joy at the adventures of Sal and Gabi. Which are not always joyful adventures! There’s some deep stuff going on here! But it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s serious, it’s full of parallel universes, and the protags and their families and friends are immensely charming. I loved Carlos’s collection of short work for adults. This MG novel won my heart in a totally different–and very much similar–way. Highly recommended.

Kelly Jones, Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? This is the sequel to the previous chicken superpower book, and I love them so much, they make me so happy, I am all in on whatever Kelly Jones wants to do next, because: yay super chickens.

T. Kingfisher, Swordheart. This was funny and adventurous and very sharp about problems with our world while also taking on genre tropes. I laughed and gasped and enjoyed the heck out of this. More.

Sonya Taaffe, Forget the Sleepless Shores. These stories remind me of a certain era of Elizabeth Hand stories in their beautiful prose, but with somewhat different roots. The ones that drew on Jewish sources were my favorite, but honestly there’s not a badly-written piece in here.

Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work. Poems about everyday life, mostly not in the poet’s immediate present but in her past, through photos of her family and thoughts about what that past has meant. Also some beautiful poems on the line between domestic and nature poetry. I’m very glad I read these.

Anne Ursu, The Lost Girl. A book about sisterhood, about making space for other people and finding what you want to do with your own space, about friends and stubbornness and saving each other. What a fierce book this is. Yay.

These Things Called Dreams: The Poems of Ono no Komachi, translated by Larry Hammer

Review copy provided by the author, who has been a friend on this here internet for…gosh. A minute.

This is a selection of 9th century Japanese poems, with translation notes and images of their author from various sources. The images are very high quality reproductions and add to the sense of what was going on with Ono no Komachi, whose life is more speculated about than firmly documented.

The poems themselves are short and evocative–mostly in one genre of love poetry or another, with room for playfulness. Larry’s chosen layout does a good job of letting the reader appreciate the translated poem as a poem, just as it is, and only then transition to the translation notes, which are easy to understand even without a strong grasp of Japanese and give cultural as well as linguistic context for each poem. Where there is wordplay that’s impossible to translate, that’s noted–but not in the middle of the poem where it would distract from writing that is on one layer still easy to enjoy on its own terms over a millennium later and in a different language. This volume is short but rewarding.

Alice Payne Rides, by Kate Heartfield

Review copy provided by the author’s agent, who is a personal friend.

This is the sequel to another novella, Alice Payne Arrives, and really you should not read it as a stand-alone when the first one is so readily available. The relationships, the technology, the consequences, are all spelled out much more thoroughly in the first volume. This one assumes you’ve already gotten all that and are ready to ride on.

And it does ride on, right away, with all the things happening at once–and since this is a time travel novel, I really do mean that they are all happening at once. The future and the past are here and neither one is letting up for a minute–except that they keep shifting out from under each other.

There are a few things that strike me as somewhat off in the timelines–specifically, I feel like the late 18th century is being treated like the late 19th century when it is way more decadent and scandalous–but it’s not enough to stop the full-on time travel fun. And steampunk swashbuckling. It’s an alternate history! It’s a time travel book! It’s a steampunk adventure! Friends, it’s all of that.

Books read, late February

Ben Barres, Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. This is a very brief and to-the-point volume–although some of its points are kind of sideways from most people’s points, which is delightful. I could attribute this to the fact that Barres wrote it very quickly when he knew he was dying. But honestly it seems like that’s just how Barres was. He wanted to describe some fairly rare experiences he’d had and talk about how they extrapolate more broadly…but even more than that he wanted to give credit to junior scientists in his lab and talk about glial cells. Which I found charming and relatable.

Gwenda Bond, Girl on a Wire. Disclosure: I am not a sucker for circus stories. If anything, the opposite. I know some people find a tightrope walker main character to be an automatic yes, but I’m not in their number. However, the subtle magic and family dynamics of this book won me over fairly early. I found it to be a fun read even though balance is definitely not my forte.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister the Serial Killer. This is another brief fun read, although it’s very dark. The perspective character is a long-suffering elder sister who feels roped into her younger sister’s bad habit of killing her boyfriends. The characterization and the setting and basically the whole thing are vividly handled, but it’s not something you’re likely to find uplifting, if that’s what you’re looking for today.

Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschil, Becky Cloonan, Adam Archer, and Msassyk, Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 2: The Ballad of Olive Silverlock. Frankly I’m glad they got this out of the way, because it’s a part of the story they were fairly clearly angling to tell for quite some time, and it was pretty cliched. There were a few fun moments, but basically I’m glad they got it out of their systems.

N.K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month. Controversial opinion time: I think this is the best N.K. Jemisin book. It has emotional and tonal range, it has strong worldbuilding in tight quarters, and almost all of the stories are satisfying arcs in themselves, even when they take place in the same world as novels. The settings and themes vary widely and deftly. Unless someone absolutely hates short stories, this is such a great place to start someone on reading Jemisin’s work. Or to continue, if that’s where you are!

Kelly Jones, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. This is so charming. What a delight. Highly, highly recommended. My goddaughter has been talking about this book for years (which in her young life is a pretty high percentage of how long she’s been on the planet!), and I finally got a copy and it is so much fun. The chickens have superpowers. None of the superpowers are being human, though–they don’t talk, they don’t act like humans, they act like chickens. And the human girl who is raising them has to figure out what to do and how. She is amazing and I love her and I am getting the sequel stat.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits. And speaking of middle-grade delight, this is the second one in a series. I would recommend reading the first one first, because there’s a lot of implication and ramification here, but that’s no hardship, since the first one is also delightful. A family of young Latina sisters doing baking magic! So much family! So much deliciousness! So much magic! This is exactly the sort of thing I like.

Gregory Rabassa, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents: A Memoir. (I still do not know why he spelled discontents with a y.) He talks a bit about life as a translator and then goes into detailing his many projects and how they went, which is fairly interesting considering how much of magic realism he translated. This is very much a curmudgeon of 25 years ago, though, and I rolled my eyes a lot–at the bit where he claims there has to be a better word for a particular situation than homophobic but does not indicate the direction of his objection (YOU ARE THE TRANSLATOR SIR BETTER WORDS ARE YOUR JOB), the passage where he flags that where he says “he” you should think “he or she”…and then promptly uses “she” as the generic for copy editing because that is a girl job. Not cool, Rabassa. So really I recommend this if you’re particularly interested in translation or if you’re particularly interested in twentieth century writing in Spanish and Portuguese and how it got into English.

Susan Hand Shetterly, Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge. This is a lot more about the human use and cultivation of seaweed than I was expecting/hoping, but it’s still a gentle, interesting book, and it’s not so long that you can really get tired of kelp. At least I couldn’t.

Erin Thompson, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present. I often describe nonfiction as doing what it says on the tin. This does considerably less than it says on the tin. It is extremely narrowly focused on collecting antiquities from Greece and Italy that were from the Greek and Roman Classical periods. There is a whole lot of interesting material about the psychology and history of collection that is immediately ruled out there. I think Thompson does a better job with this focus than she would if she was following a fairly common pattern of actually talking about this focus and then handwaving vaguely in the direction of Chinese or Mayan antiquities–much less modern “collectibles”–but it does make for a book that’s somewhat less interesting for me than if it had had a broader scope.

Thornbound, by Stephanie Burgis

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend.

This is the sequel to Snowspelled, which I found utterly charming and full of snow, but I repeat myself. (I know, I know: not everyone finds snow as charming as I do.) (But! So much snow!) The seemingly natural force at work against Cassandra Harwood this time is fast-growing ivy–and it’s threatening her new school for magic, the first such to educate girls.

The interpersonal conflicts keep this story humming in the best possible way: with the characters motivated mostly by care so that the few who are motivated by animosity sticking out as unusual. The social webs in which all the characters exist are fascinating and believable, and their determination to strike out on new paths is inspiring as well as fun. I’m looking forward to the third in this series.

Books read, early February

Ben Aaronovitch, Lies Sleeping. This is the latest in this long urban fantasy series, and it relies very heavily on both plot and character arcs from earlier in the series. Good news: there is plenty of movement on things that have been going on for several books. Bad news: if you want to start somewhere, this is not it. Peter and his friends, enemies, relations are all barreling forward at top speed, but a lot of it will make no sense without the rest of the series.

Jill Baguchinsky, Mammoth. This is a charming YA about a plus-sized teenage fashionista with a passion for paleontology. It has a lot of genre-YA themes about finding yourself and also maybe someone else, but at the top of the list of things the protag finds is BONES so that is pretty great. I want to put a CW on this for the protagonist starting the book fixating on guessing other women’s weight. This is flagged as unhealthy but may still be difficult for some readers, so: choose when you read it accordingly.

Hans Bekker-Nielsen et al, eds., Mediaeval Scandinavia 1968. This is a hardbound annual journal for its field. A lot of the stuff therein has either become basic knowledge since then or gotten debunked, but there were still some interesting rune-deciphering passages. Not recommended unless you’re constantly eager for new medieval Scand studies stuff, which…I am.

Blair Braverman, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North. I read this author’s twitter, and she writes about dogsledding there. YAY I LIKE DOGS. It was also a good time for me to read about dogsledding, as I revise a book with significant amounts of dogsledding in it. This book…was not really about dogsledding. Very much at all. It was mostly about recovering from sexual abuse, assault, and trauma. Braverman chose to do that in the far north of Norway, and there are interesting cultural things going on there, and I engaged with this narrative, but–if you’re here for the dogsledding, not so much.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the End of Time. This was a lovely, charming middle-grade adventure. I got a copy for a kid in my life for their birthday. Friendship and magic and figuring yourself out. Yay.

Linda Collister, The Great British Bake Off: Big Book of Baking and The Great British Bake Off: Perfect Cakes and Bakes to Make at Home. I flipped through these and wrote down exactly three recipes, but that’s actually pretty good for library cookbooks–I mostly am not a big recipe cook anyway.

Philip Cushway and Michael Warr, eds., Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. This was a harrowing book of protest poetry that was very much worth engaging with, a little at a time. I was a tiny bit frustrated that such a large percentage of the page count was dedicated to writing about each poet rather than showcasing their poems–for most poets there were more words dedicated to their bio than in their poems, which seems backwards to me. I feel like most of the poets showcased probably had more than one good protest poem. But the ones that were there were good to have.

Michael Eric Dyson, What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. This traces the roots and results of a major meeting between American Black intelligentsia/artists and Robert F. Kennedy. Dyson has lots of ideas about the implications of this conversation and conversations like it, and this was fascinating–especially with the range of talent that Baldwin could get to show up on a moment’s notice.

Lissa Evans, Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms. This is a fun MG about magic (the stage variety…or is it…) and puzzles and family.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. Kindle. Several of the “Grace Notes” are familiar, much-anthologized poems, tacked on here as extras. The “Notes” tend to be longer, often dialect-laden local poems. And then there’s the titular poem. It’s massive and rambly and reminds me a bit of W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland in form/style. I really like this geographical ramble poem thing. I would like a book of them. (But mostly I would like to reread Letters from Iceland because I love it unreasonably and Uncle Wys is the best.) (Ahem. Okay you can read Robert Frost too I guess, but really you probably already know that.) (AUDENNNN.)

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. All the other grimdark books are like teddy bears having their picnic compared to this. It is full of multiform rape, genital mutilation, excretion in its various types, cruelty…it is a lot. It is vividly imagined and beautifully written, and so, so very dark. It is doing things with worldbuilding that no one else has tried, and also it is so very dark.

Rosalie Knecht, Who Is Vera Kelly? This is both a spy novel and a young woman’s coming of age story. It is the kind of spy novel I have wanted, light and fun and firmly placed in space and time. It has the short, zippy chapters of some earlier works in this genre while leaving out the sexism. Yay for this book.

Rose MacAulay, Crewe Train. In many ways this is a charming and eccentric narrative of a young woman who does not want what she is told to want and the mild chaos that ensues in her life because of that fact. I will read more Rose MacAulay for sure, because this was intriguing and mostly good in an early 20th century way. However, I do feel the need to flag that there’s about a chapter of staggeringly racist content that is not only awful but completely unnecessary to the plot, the sort of thing that makes you repeat, “Rose, what are you doing, Rose, what are you doing,” over and over as you read. Is one chapter of that too much? You get to decide.

Seanan McGuire, In an Absent Dream. This is the most recent of Seanan’s portal fantasy novellas, which are my favorite thing she’s doing right now. This one stands quite well alone and is very distinctive in setting and character from the others. I was mostly okay with which things were summarized and which shown (an interesting calculus of novellas), until the ending, which wasn’t quite as satisfying because of that ratio. Still glad I read it.

John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. This is the book equivalent of sitting at John McPhee’s feet listening to him talk about his long and storied career and how it all has worked. I wouldn’t start here if you haven’t read McPhee before, I’d start with Annals of the Former World, because that is amazing. But if you already like McPhee this will probably be an interesting and fast read. (Note for people who are always on the lookout for writing books: this is about writing nonfiction, if that changes anything for you.)

Robert Muir-Wood, The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters. Interesting stuff on structure and materials and their adaptations to place. I’d have liked more of the title and less of the background for the title, but I’m told there are storage and organization issues with having everything.

Dennis Romano, Markets and Marketplaces in Medieval Italy, c. 1100 to c. 1440. This goes into a lot of detail about the relationship of the sacred and secular in this context, and about how the different Italian city-states varied but had common elements in how they handled marketplace issues. One of the things that was interesting to me was how much focus there was on fraud–which makes sense, but…well, if you have friends and family who spend a lot of time on deregulation as a political hot button, direct them to the medieval Italians.

Rebecca Solnit, Call Them By Their True Names. This is a collection of Solnit’s recent essays on the contemporary scene. I’d already read several of them in their original magazine publications, but it was still an interesting book–and I basically always reach for Rebecca Solnit first whenever I get one of her books.

Vanessa Tait, The Looking Glass House. I didn’t see one of the marketing points of this book before I picked it up in a used bookstore–namely that Tait is the descendant of Alice Liddell of Alice in Wonderland fame. This is a novel about the Liddells’ governess. Basically everyone in it is unhappy and unpleasant, parents, children, governesses, random family friends, all of them. This is a “sucked to be them” book, and while it’s written reasonably well, all that did was make me keep reading until the end, with nothing but frustration and misery as far as the eye can see. Not recommended.

Sara Teasdale, Love Songs. Kindle. There are several things that Teasdale appears to think about love that make me want to rent her a cabin for a year so she can get some time to herself to think, and then introduce her to people who are kind and don’t play power games, because wow, kiddo, wow. But then there are the moments where she is wrapped up in natural beauty, and I’m here for that.

Books read, late January

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. A literary spy story, infiltrating the British fascists of 1940 and what has happened beyond that. I thought that Red Joan was better at some of the tropes that eventually came up as events unfolded in this book, but they’re actually both worth having.

Noel D. Broadbent, Lapps and Labyrinths: Saami Prehistory, Colonization, and Cultural Resistance. This is a lot of northern archaeology, which means that ski fragments and seal bones are discussed in great detail. That is in fact my jam. It may also be yours–and even if it isn’t, there aren’t loads of readily available sources on Saami culture before/during colonization, so if that’s an interest, it’s not going to be in the “yawn, another one of those” category.

Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschil, Becky Cloonan, Adam Archer, and Msassyk, Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 1: Welcome Back. They’ve added to the title of this I guess? Presented it as a new run instead of just having, like, volume 4 of the previous? It doesn’t work at all as a place to start this series–if you’re interested in spoopy youngsters in the periphery of Bruce Wayne, go back to the beginning. The plot twists struck me as really obvious this time, but this may be a results of me not being a teenager and new to this.

Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America. The ending of this book really built to something strong and worth having. I was a little unsure of several of the chains of association earlier in the book, but I can’t honestly tell whether it jumps around a lot or whether there are implicit links that I’m missing because I am not, in fact, living at the intersection of Black and anything, and y’know, not everything has to be spelled out anyway, and not everything has to be aimed at me.

Pat Parker, The Complete Works of Pat Parker. If you’re looking for righteous wrath, Pat Parker brings it. She occasionally brings other emotions, but there is a lot of Black lesbian anger here, well grounded in the reality of Parker’s lived experience.

Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. Quite often when people describe non-Latin American works as magic realism, they are neglecting elements like the post-colonial/anti-colonial thread to magic realism. Shange’s story of three sisters exploring the arts, the world, and themselves is exactly the magic realism of the American South. Beautiful stuff here.

Django Wexler, Ship of Smoke and Steel. Discussed elsewhere.