It Happened at the Ball, edited by Sherwood Smith

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

This anthology was conceived as a light antidote to current moods–an escape, a lovely frothy escape. Where it succeeds at that, it succeeds brilliantly. Stand-out stories for me included Marie Brennan’s “The Şiret Mask” (reprinted from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and no less excellent in this venue), Francesca Forrest’s “Gown of Harmonies,” and Layla Lawlor’s “Gilt and Glamor.” These were extremely different stories–one urban fantasy/contemporary–and each hit its marks very well indeed, as one would hope from a themed anthology (but as one often doesn’t find). Though I often look askance at editors including their own work in an anthology, Sherwood Smith’s own “Lily and Crown” was a very strong element of this volume, which wouldn’t have been half as good without it–I’m a sucker for stories of revolution and independence, and this was one.

Some of the stories that were not as much for me were more a matter of personal inclination–nothing wrong with them, just not my sort of thing. A few more were on a weird line–acknowledging the reality of slave ownership for slaves but continuing to focus on the slave owners’ fancy parties is not really going to work for me, and I feel that while it’s entirely period that people were insensitive about terms for Roma people, we need to be careful about how and when we think it’s necessary to do that in stories written now. I had some larger issues with Marissa Doyle’s “Just Another Quiet Evening at Almack’s,” though. It had assault as a central event but not, in some senses, a central theme; the way it was handled was simultaneously light-hearted (which is far better for the anthology topic than for this story element) and victim-blaming. Young girls cast attraction charms on themselves, the silly things! and then get assaulted by men of all ages, with a strong attitude of “they should have known better, this is what they get.” This is the razor blade in this particular dish of sherbet. I wish there wasn’t one. I wish we could have an entire anthology of light-hearted stories about dancing without this particular element. Maybe in the next try. There’s a lot else that’s good in this book; I just could do without this one element.

Please consider using our link to buy It Happened at the Ball from Amazon.

Books read, early December

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black: Stories. This is a gripping and beautiful collection that wanders in and out of speculative tropes and social discussion. I think it’s not marketed as SFF but rather as literary, but he plays beautifully on the beach that belongs to both (rather than walled-off sandboxes for each) and I think writers from that entire continuum could enjoy and learn here. Recommended.

Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral?. This did not do what I hoped, which was talk about modern forms of the pastoral. He did start to form a model of pastoral that goes beyond Shepherd Poems, spotting commonality in some interesting 19th century works, so it wasn’t worthless, it just…didn’t go as far as I wanted it to.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis’s part of the Iliad retold from her perspective. This book does an amazing job of pointing out the horrors of war in a way that doesn’t prioritize one gender or another, but be warned, it is sexual violence front to back, that is the thing it’s doing. Also there are bizarre, gross, ahistorical moments of fatphobia, just thrown in for spice I guess, so…read with care.

Megan Crewe, Ruthless Magic. Sometimes you really want the YA trope of “we have just figured out that the system is rigged and what are we going to do about it,” because, welp, here we are. In this case that trope is set among magic trials, and the ending is satifsyingly un-pat. Relationships–not just smooching, friendships, family relationships–take a very high priority here. I raced through it and am looking forward to the sequel.

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States. I picked up this book on the theory that I was interested in anything Jill Lepore wrote, and now I am interested in nothing Jill Lepore writes ever again. That is how bad this book was. It had bizarre inclusions and maddening exclusions. Lepore’s choices reinforce a lot of standard “large overview” models that reinforce all sorts of misconceptions, with major movements often treated as mysterious forces of nature because she hasn’t bothered to discuss what led to them. The labor movement, the conquest of Native territories, most things west of the Mississippi…okay, let’s be honest, most things west of Syracuse…not present. A complete misreading of Desk Set, and honestly, I love Desk Set, but why is it here? A sure-footed and substantially wrong-headed focus on the last 15 years at the expense of the entire second half of the nineteenth century AND the entire second half of the twentieth century. Supposedly parallel constructions with drastically slanted language. I startled the dog several times with my out-loud reactions to this book (“NO–not you, not you Ista, good dog”). Assertions that would take another 800-page book to actually support went in blithely, unchallenged and unfootnoted. And almost all of this is directly relevant to modern political interactions. What a terrible book. So incredibly disappointing. I only finished it so that I could be authoritative about how bad it was, and it just kept getting worse.

Anna-Marie McLemore, Blanca and Roja. Modern Latina version of Snow White and Rose Red, with swan shifters and tree affinities and a diversity of gender and sexuality. Charming and lovely.

Nuala O’Faolain, Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. This is substantially about digging herself out of the hole that the mid-twentieth century left Irish women in, and surveying the wreckage upon her family. There was a lot of unpleasantness here that somehow didn’t add up to a bad book, but I spent most of the time reading it sad for O’Faolain.

Daniel Jose Older, Dactyl Hill Squad. Alternate history Civil War-era New York with dinosaurs, orphan kids of color having dino-related adventures against racist miscreants. Great fun, especially if you have someone in its target age range to share with.

Mary Beth Pfieffer, Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. Do you want to scream endlessly? Because the stuff this book covers will do that for you. Not the book itself; Pfieffer is level-headed and thorough. But tick-based diseases are NO JOKE, friends, and worth knowing about in horrifying detail. (Horrifying. Really, really bad.)

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. This literary novel weaves together the lives of two women who work as painters, one in the seventeenth century and another, who is also a scholar and critic, in the middle of the twentieth (going on to her later life in the early twenty-first). I liked each and both, the way that they were finding their way in their work around various life obstacles, quite different in different eras and yet with a thread of commonality. The ending fell a bit flat for me, so I can’t jump up and down and recommend this as thoroughly as I’d like, but it was still worth reading.

Books read, late November

Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860. This was lovely, an examination of how and why women were coming together to demand rights in that period, what their focus was, where they fell short of making their movement work for everyone. It’s too early a volume for the word “intersectional” to come up, but Anderson is both clear and blunt about racism when she sees it and attempts to discuss class issues and other intersectionalities quite thoroughly. I got a few more ideas for people to download from Project Gutenberg, and more to sigh over since the translations aren’t there.

Fatimah Asghar, If They Come For Us. Searing amazing lovely poems about the Partition and modern experiences of immigration that mirror some of its effects. Both personal and political. I’m so glad I read this.

Christelle Dabos, A Winter’s Promise. This YA fantasy has many prose hallmarks of being translated from the French, but I don’t mind that. It started out with the magic system feeling potentially enchanting and captivating, but I ended up frustrated with the ponderous length of it and the politics of it–both internal to the book and the way it sits with actual politics. Among other things, this is one of those books where He Won’t Tell You Anything–And Will Be A Controlling Jerk All The Time–But He Has His Reasons And Really He Loves You And Also What About His Tragic Past. And I am getting less and less patient with books that recapitulate abusers’ narratives with romantic trimmings.

Anne de Courcy, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy. I would not usually have picked this book up at all, but de Courcy generally knows her stuff and can be counted on to get into some social analysis like: was this successful, why did it happen beyond the simplistic explanations etc. Also it was not terribly long.

Anya Johanna DeNiro writing as Alan DeNiro, Tyrannia. These were fine enough stories for most of the volume but were not really grabbing me…until I got to the last one, that makes it a keeper. It’s a weird metafictional meditation that completely works for me.

Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky. There’s a reason these have won so many awards. They are so very brilliantly done, and their planetary/geomagic is amazing, and the relationships are wrenching and loving and horrible and great. I’m glad I finished this series.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir. Khakpour gives us a tour of her life through the lens of figuring out her health problems. If you have chronic health issues yourself, the difficulty with diagnosis and treatment will feel so familiar, as she hits setback after setback and finally arrives at…an approximation. A regimen that sort of works unless it doesn’t. Which is pretty familiar too. She doesn’t have to pretend that she is a perfect person who did everything–or even everything health-related–right. There are no Good Cripple narratives here. And what a blessing that is.

Naomi Mitchison, When We Become Men. So what an odd thing this is. Mitchison apparently got very involved with Botswanan independence, to the point of getting herself in trouble with the colonial authorities. When We Become Men is a coming of age story for young African men (and a bit for women) struggling toward self-rule. I think that if you only read one book about the struggle of various African nations toward independence, it shouldn’t be this one (it should be written by…you know…an African person), and if you only read one Naomi Mitchison novel, it shouldn’t be this one either (at the moment I’m going for Travel Light, but stay tuned). But. As another piece in a couple of larger puzzles, it’s very interesting indeed. Caveat: rape is a topic throughout this book and while reasonably important to the book, it is…I am not entirely comfortable with the handling of it, particularly with my own ignorance of how emotionally accurate it is to the cultures it was representing at the time.

Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems. I had already read the title poem of this collection, and it was brilliant and searing and amazing. Then the rest of it made me sob out loud and run around DMing links to poems and putting them up in various chat spaces. It was apparently a great month for me to read poetry, because I highly recommend this as well.

Rebecca Sugar et al, Steven Universe: Punching Up, Steven Universe: Too Cool for School, and Steven Universe: Anti-Gravity. These were a bit of a mixed bag, and frankly even the first of them (which was the best in my estimation) would have been a weak and minor episode of SU. However, as SU methadone they did fine. Do you want a side story about Steven going to school, or one about Pearl taking on a wrestler persona to team wrestle with Amethyst? That’s what’s here–but because it’s definitively side material, they can’t put anything of ongoing resonance in the way they do with the episodes that sometimes seem on the surface to be side issues. Oh Well.

Howard Waldrop, Horse of a Different Color: Stories. I just could not be arsed to care about these stories. I could see that they were well done in their way, and I read them, I didn’t skip past them, but…this is very much not for me, I’m afraid.

Laura Weymouth, The Light Between Worlds. Okay, so. If you are a person who, for example, knows what year rationing ended after WWII, you should go into this knowing that there are a few moments where that kind of historical-cultural detail will have slipped. However. Depending on your reaction to that sort of thing–or to these particular instances of that sort of thing–it may not matter. It didn’t really matter for me, but I mention it because I know several of my readers will be unable to not see those details. For me, the heart of the story was spot on. And that’s the story of two sisters trying to build lives in a world that isn’t quite what they expected it to be. The two and their brother had a very Narnia-like portal fantasy adventure, and there are bits of that in here in flashback, but mostly it’s about how they adjust–or fail to adjust–to coming back again. To having to go through puberty a second time, to the ideas and possibilities and priorities that come with postwar Britain instead of a magical forest land. And to having been through not just one war but two–having met war wherever they went. And there are so very very many emotionally true moments about that kind of trauma and about dealing with other people you love whose reactions to trauma are different from yours. (Also the stag imagery omg.)

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Do not start here. Really really do not. One of the things about books that are serious about consequences is that it’s extremely hard to write them without reference to what’s come before–those two goals are incompatible–and this book is basically all consequences. The cover with the mask-face on fire? That is this book. It is the previous book, but on fire, and also plagues and drowning.

What a nice book! you may now be thinking, if you have not read The Traitor Baru Cormorant. So about that. Yah. Not a nice book. If you’re going to read these, buckle in, because the teddy bears are not having their picnic here, and someone would probably lobotomize them if they did. (There are…lots of lobotomies in this series. Lots. More lobotomies than acts of treachery? mmmmaybe. Someone should count.) (Mostly they are offstage lobotomies, though.)

There is one moment where loyalty appears, nobility of spirit, that sort of thing, and Baru says she wasn’t expecting it. And you may not be expecting it either. But it’s there. That’s the thing about this very not-nice series full of transmissible cancers and prisoners in the bilge of the ship and judicial murders: Dickinson understands that chiaroscuro requires light as well as darkness. So amidst all the unpleasantness…are desperate people doing their best. Keeping on. So I do too, with this series.

Please consider using our link to buy The Monster Baru Cormorant from Amazon. (Or if you are starting, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.)

Books read, early November

Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand. Megan Abbott is really good at writing thrillers. We now know that she’s really good at writing the research postdoc experience as well. Is a research postdoc thriller that isn’t focused on industrial/academic espionage but on the scientists as people your jam? It is mine, and here is one.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 17. Kindle. Another installation, the plot inches forward. I am really bad at reading serials, but I persevere.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few. I picked this up because I wanted a nice book, and it mostly is, but it starts with a disaster and doesn’t come together as quickly or at the same level as her previous two books. It does eventually, quietly, and I like the quietness of it.

Thomas Colchie, ed., A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin America. Colchie attempted to get a wide variety of stories for this: different countries, styles, genders, eras, etc. It suffers a little from that wide focus–this is an oldish book and I really feel that asking any one volume to recommend all of Latinx writing means that it will skimp on some things, or be weirdly put together. Still, some of these stories were delightful, and I’ll be looking further into the authors, and that’s what this kind of overview anthology is good for. (Also it cost a quarter.)

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. This is frothy fun midcentury fiction, except where it isn’t. The protagonist is a young American woman in Paris in the late 1950s, and she stays out late drinking and goes off to the countryside and has love affairs and all sorts of stuff. And also there is a rape attempt and a coercive pimp. I really hate the razorblades-in-cotton-candy nature of mid-twentieth century entertainment sometimes.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky. This is in some ways the opposite of razorblades-in-cotton-candy. Jemisin is a master of setting readerly expectations even in the first volume; by the time you get around to the conclusion of this trilogy, you know that some terrible things are going to happen and a lot of people are going to suffer. It’s built into the framework. And there are lots of loving things, too, lots of good things, lots of places where people are trying hard. And some really cool rock worldbuilding.

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War. This is brutally and beautifully done. It is not a nice book, but it is a quite good book, a fantasy whose Chinese roots are deep rather than cosmetic. I needed to brace myself for it and go read something soothing after, but I’m glad I did.

Mark Kurlansky, Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas. Yep, this is a history of the use of milk in human cultures. (Heh heh, cultures. Okay, I’ll see myself out.) It’s one of Kurlansky’s better ones, far-ranging and interesting. And. I mean. Milk! Not going to break your heart like fantasy novels!

Selma Lagerlöf, The Emperor of Portugallia. Kindle. So this is a lovely pastoral tale of a girl whose father adores her. And then she has to become a prostitute to save the family farm and he loses touch with reality! At the end he is dead but she’s okay because her dad loved her and believed in her until the end.  ….yes, this is a weird book, there is no pretending this is not a weird book, even for turn-of-the-last-century Swedish lit this is a weird book. I read it while exhausted on a plane and kept going, “What? WHAT???” I’m not sorry I did, but: WHAT???

Bethany Morrow, Mem. A short novel with a unique speculative conceit: your memories can be removed and exist, at least for a time, as their own entities, their own versions of you. The 1920s Montreal setting didn’t ever gel for me, but it didn’t really need to.

Emma Newman, Before Mars. This is a very well-executed version of a kind of book I don’t like. Specifically: I am a really hard sell on “what is even reality” books. In this one, a geologist-artist on Mars has reason to doubt everything that’s going on around her. Good reason, it turns out, and this is in a sense a prequel to some of Newman’s other work. I can’t imagine that she could have done better at this and made me like it more–it’s just not my shape of story. But if you’re looking for another in her SF universe, here it is.

Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, eds., Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Kindle. Most of this book was in the form of letters addressed to Butler herself. Some of them were analytical, some inspiring–some both!–and Nisi Shawl’s made me cry. A reminder that I do want to finish my Butler reread one of these days–she’s always, always, always relevant.

Andromeda Romano-Lax, Plum Rains. Elders and caregivers are so rarely the center of near-future SF novels. This one focuses on minority ethnicity people in Japan and their interactions with new robots who have various functions. That makes it sound dry, when in fact it’s very warm and…in places expresses a humane desperation.

Randal Roorda, Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing. This is almost a how-to in handling one’s own perspective not being universal in one’s topic, so kudos to Roorda on that. It goes to some very interesting places on the topics of solitude and escape–not quite into “our” escapism in the sff genre, but you can see the relevance through the trees from where Roorda is.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 25. Kindle. I have waited too long to write this book post and don’t remember which of the things in this issue were my favorites. I think Naomi Kritzer’s and Monica Valentinelli’s? It will be in my short story recommendation list. Anyway it was another good issue.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Kindle. Same travel as The Emperor of Portugallia, 900% more WHAT EVEN. This is what it says on the tin, except that Wollstonecraft was given to making random pronouncements, often without any evidence, just–pulled an idea out of an orifice. My favorite (and Twitter’s!) is still the theory that Swedish women are so pale because of overspiced food (I…I…what???), but there are several similar levels of insight in this book. And then there’s the bit where she’s being rowed around a fjord in the middle of the night looking for a particular inlet that the rower has no idea about…it was surreal, it was educational, it was entertaining, what is it even doing, I don’t know. (And I’m just going to note that I love Project Gutenberg for giving me access to this sort of thing so easily.)

Jane Yolen, Finding Baba Yaga and Merlin’s Booke (Kindle).  The former is a novel in verse. For me, at least, the impact of the verse built over the course of it–not so searing to begin with and really strong at the end. It’s a contemporary Baba Yaga story. The latter is a collection of short stories around one idea of Merlin, or possibly several. It’s from a similar era of Arthuriana to Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, if that helps you figure out whether you want it or not.

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.