Books read, early August

Christopher Brown, Tropic of Kansas. Apparently two different professional reviewers described this as “the feel-bad book of the summer,” which makes me laugh and yet is not entirely wrong. (I enjoyed this book.) It’s an alternate America torn apart by climate change, a fascist government, the surveillance state, and…alternate. Yes. It is indeed alternate. But there are parts that make you wince, and the “ultimately hopeful” ending promised on the cover is a…conditionally hopeful ending. It’s the kind of hopeful ending that involves burning down institutions that need burning down. Which, depending on your personality, may be upsetting for you right now or just what you need.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Mira’s Last Dance. Kindle. This is the latest Penric novella, and I felt that it completed the arc of a previous story rather than standing on its own. It explores a bit more of what exactly it means to have all of Desdemona’s previous hosts living in Penric’s head with their own identities, but it’s at novella length, not novel, while juggling action and romance along with it, so while it seemed to me to be handled respectfully, there was plenty of room to go into more of it if she continues with this series.

Italo Calvino, Collection of Sand. This was a series of essays, all very short, very erudite, very much in the vein of, “Huh, wouldja lookit that.” If someone is not going to get intimidated by it being Calvino, it’s an ideal bathroom book, despite not being screamingly marketed as Italo Entertains You On the John or anything like that. Short attention span theater of letters.

Zen Cho, The Terracotta Bride. Kindle. Another novella, this one set in a Chinese-Malaysian hell with all the theological implications of same–with technological developments appropriate thereto, and interpersonal relationships the same. There’s a lot packed into novella length here, and I liked it.

George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets. A history of the Scottish-English border and the wars and raids they had and the period when they settled down into not so much having them. This had been on my library list for awhile, and I thought, well, I’ll give the first few pages a chance and send it back rather than have it languish indefinitely on my list. Fraser doesn’t do what a modern historian would do with the topic, but he’s plenty engaging. I had had quite enough of the exploits of various clans and their scions by the time I was done, but it was a fast read for its size and worth the trouble of getting it from the library; I’m glad I tried it rather than thinking that anything that was on the list that long was clearly not a priority.

Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. A novella prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, and…I feel like it undermined that book weirdly. Every Heart a Doorway did the not-obvious thing, it did the “what happens after” thing. Down Among the Sticks and Bones gives you the portal fantasy that begins it all. Except that of all the fantasy worlds hinted at in Every Heart a Doorway, it picks the most obvious, least interesting one to portray–and only one–and then gives a backstory that makes the plot of EHaD feel…like it makes a lot less emotional sense to me. I don’t want to be more spoilerific than that, but people who have read both and would like to talk should email me about the experience.

Naomi Mitchison, The Fourth Pig. This is a collection of Mitchison’s retold fairy tales, done in the 1930s. It is fascinating in its own right, it’s fascinating if you’re passionately interested in the Great Depression (which I am), and it’s fascinating if you’re interested in retold fairy tales and want a look at what they looked like before Angela Carter got at them. I’m slowly working my way through Naomi Mitchison (she and Gerald Vizenor and Rebecca Solnit are the triumvirate of the moment that way–write me a joke where they walk into a bar) and I’m very very glad to have gotten to this one.

Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West. And speaking of whom. This is not what I thought it was. It is mostly about nuclear testing. It is a bit about Yosemite and how we construct ideas of wilderness and other legends of The West. But it is really, really substantially about nuclear testing, which is something I mostly had focused on when it was interesting from a physics standpoint; what Solnit illuminated in some ways and could not illuminate in others, was not trying to, was the category of nuclear testing that occurs when the physics has been settled, and as a recovering physicist that had an extra-special horror. I think there are ways in which she made some stabs at understanding the physicists involved and got some part of the way there and some ways in which…eehhhh. I love me some W.H. Auden, too, but he is not a source of all models for everything in life maybe? I mean, maybe I’m wrong, maybe he is, but we can at least talk about this. “W.H. Auden handed me a dichotomy!” You’re allowed to hand it back I think. Uncle Wystan is dear and beloved, but so are your 6-year-old cousins, and some of the things they hand you can be deposited in the trash and your hand washed thoroughly after. I am still glad I read this. But I spent moments making faces of not-really-no.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Cary Pietsch, et al, Lumberjanes: Sink or Swim. What is better than Lumberjanes? Lumberjanes with a focus on water myths. Yes. For sure.

Books read, July

Traveling in mid-July means a combined post, so settle in, friends, this is going to take a minute. Especially because travel this time meant a lot of reading short things on my Kindle on public transit.

Kate Bernheim, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales. This is mostly fairy tale-esque and fairy tale-inspired short stories. They are published with the gimmick–and I do feel that gimmick is the right word–of one paragraph per page, which means that some pages contain a single line. If you’re not reading much that’s fairy tale related, this volume will probably be a revelation. If you are, it’s another contribution to the sub-genre, fairly far over to the self-consciously literary end, but not particularly a stand-out.

Michael Bishop, One Winter in Eden. Reread. I could see that these stories were decently well-written, and yet none of them really got to me anywhere emotional. Very Cold War, I should have reread this for the Cold War Fantasy panel. Ah well.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 5. Kindle. Moves the plot forward considerable-like. Probably will not get to another chunk of these until I’m traveling again, as I am not a good serial reader, and they are acutely and deliberately pieces of a thing rather than whole things on their own. Still, there is plot and to spare here.

Marie Brennan, Lightning in the Blood. Second novella in its series, still using memory loss and identity to good effect, still doing action fantasy things but not solely action fantasy things. Quick and fun.

Octavia Butler, Mind of My Mind. Reread. This is an incredibly nasty book about telepathy and its implications for a caste system and parenthood and interpersonal relationships. It being Butler, it’s incredibly well done, and I’m going to want to reread the rest of the series before I have fully formed thoughts about what it’s doing, but it made me squirm quite a lot.

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. A novel in pieces, reflecting the effects of a man, a torturer working in a prison for a totalitarian regime and then moving on, moving away to America, on the people around him. Fascinating and kaleidoscopic, although in some places too successful at getting me invested in one character or another who was going to disappear into the rest of the background and never become foregrounded again.

Bradley Denton, One Day Closer to Death. Reread. Oh, you can smell the prairie coming off Brad Denton’s short stories. They smell like the dust that comes off corn fields in August, the weeks when the highs are all over 100 F. Some of these are incredibly nasty work, some only mildly unpleasant, and I still love them, they are still worth rereading, they still hit me in the places where I know where the hits are coming. I reread this for a Heartland Fantasy panel that went completely different places than I expected, so we only brushed by it briefly, but I still don’t regret the reread. I look at some of the old pieces differently than I did–oh, the women in “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians”–but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them.

Chynna Clugston Flores et al, Lumberjanes Gotham Academy. This is the first crossover issue of a comic I’ve ever read where I’ve been reading both streams being crossed. So now I can say for sure: I just don’t like crossovers. I particularly think they’re a terrible idea for two ensemble cast comics like Lumberjanes and Gotham Academy, where you’re juggling large casts anyway. What’s Maps doing plus what’s Ripley doing would have been quite enough to keep track of without throwing in every single other character. It’s kind of a mess, and for me there was less fun than a single volume of either comic, not even the average of the two, much less the sum of the two.

George Fosty and Darril Fosty, Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. Kindle. Come for the hockey history, stay for the history of Black Canadians. Wow, the Fostys are going to make sure you get schooled whether you wanted to or not. (I did want to.) And they make a quite solid argument for Maritime Black hockey players making serious strides in the game decades ahead of white players. If you’re a hockey fan, if you’re interested in history of the icy regions, if you’re interested in how different cultural groups have interacted–and an unflinching look at how power has corrupted that–this is a solid and not unduly long look at all of that.

Lisa Goldstein, Tourists. Kindle, reread. Why didn’t I hate this book? I still can’t tell you. The title comes from the observation that we are all tourists in each other’s lives, which does not have to be true and I think is not in better lives true, but wow do these characters ever live as though they’re determined to make it true. Nor do they have a great deal of growth over the course of the book. Meanwhile the pseudo-Arabic country they’re visiting is entirely backdrop for their own (lack of) character arcs, its mythos writing itself on the messed up visitors’ minds, sometimes literally, and…why don’t I hate this book? It’s pretty messed up, honestly, and I can’t recommend it. All sorts of better books do better things with culture clash and visiting. Maybe I just want to keep it around to contrast with Hav or The Necessary Beggar or…something? I am still turning this over in my head.

Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. Hiking memoir in four seasonal sections. This has some of the best writing about hiking while cranky I’ve ever read. There are also more traditionally lyrical sections, but I howled with laughter as Gruchow got more terse, his sentences more clipped and bitten off, as his dreadful day hiking wore on…and then he told of the same hiking buddy teasing him for the foibles of the day on a trip together three years later. This is the first of his books I’ve read since the memoir of the depression that eventually killed him, and I could see the shadows of that here, but not enough to make it a sad book for me, not to spoil my love of his nature writing. Which feels like an honor and a relief.

David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors. This is a set of essays on different specific trees in different parts of the world. Conveniently for me, one of the types he was talking about was very familiar, very close to home (chert-rooted fir), so I could gauge how he talked about things I don’t know by how he talked about things I do. I would happily read more of this sort of thing all the time.

Billie Holiday with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues. This is the sort of autobiography that’s done as an “as told to,” and my golly do I not recommend it for a day when you’re already feeling dubious about humanity, because Holiday’s life, particularly her childhood, was utterly harrowing. Dufty captures her voice in a breezy, very readable way. I read that there was some question about some of the fact checking, but human memory is fallible, and there were limits on what she was permitted to tell of her truth in the late 1950s; I was moved to seek out a later, more comprehensive biography from the recent past, when a biographer would be permitted to be clear about interracial and same-sex relationships while still focusing on the strength of Holiday’s music. That’s just come in from the library; stay tuned. In the meantime, while her life was harrowing, her voice is not. Pick a day when you’re feeling strong, but it’s worth your time if you’re at all interested in jazz.

David King, Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World. Kindle. Oh lordy this book. The title does not tell you what it is actually about. It is actually about this Swedish speculative archaeologist in the seventeenth century, Olof Rudbeck, who decided that Atlantis was located in…Uppsala. And he kept going, he kept finding all the other Greek mythological stuff elsewhere in Sweden. No, all of it. No, really, all. He just. Kept. Going. There is that seventeenth century thing where you have someone genuinely erudite–Rudbeck discovered the lymphatic system–and then he goes completely off the rails and finds an entirely new set of rails to go off of, like, builds an entirely new railway system just to go off it. I was talking to my friend L about this and they mentioned autodidact syndrome. I think that the entire seventeenth century has that–there was the thing where they were largely self-taught by modern standards–and hoo boy, did Rudbeck ever. He decided that it made no sense that Greek could be derived from Phoenician when Phoenician had no vowels and Greek did, but! But the runic alphabet did! So clearly the Greek alphabet was derived from the runic alphabet! Also the derivation of Hercules (Herakles) made no sense to him because of that hero’s rocky relationship with the goddess in question, so he “found” an alternative Swedish derivation meaning “dressed in warrior’s clothes” that made much more sense to him. And it just keeps going. And I sat and read this while eating sushi by myself in a restaurant and thinking, surely he will come to his senses, and no, he decides that they have to teach classes at Uppsala in the original Swedish, which, great, except, wrong reasons, and everyone is all in a dither, and oh this book. Oh. This. Book. It was a great lunch.

Nancy Kress, Tomorrow’s Kin. Discussed elsewhere.

Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World. Reread. I think my main complaint about this book, nearly two decades later, is that it isn’t, it’s mostly a Basque history of Basque country, which is very interesting and I liked it a lot and found it worth keeping around, but there was a Basque diaspora. He mentions it. He mentions having cousins in America. He just…doesn’t talk about what they did there, what the cultural effects were both directions. So…that, maybe? But early microhistory is hard, determining what belongs in it. Still cool.

Ellen Kushner, Thomas the Rhymer. Reread. Captures the fairy tale voice of the ballad, goes on beyond the original ballad tale’s end into implication, picks up perspective from other characters. Unlike some others in this series, the setting is very much the setting of the original ballad, more or less–country appropriate, generically time appropriate to when such a tale might have been set by those telling it. So from here it feels like the least revolutionary of Kushner’s books. But it was a comfortable and lovely read, and certainly made me think not at all of the plane around me, and very few things in the world can be The Fall of the Kings; only one that I can think of.

Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. These stories are the kind of very short dark fantasy/horror that feel like they have the same kind of messagey twist at the end, a revelation that is not as startling as it could be, but is supposed to make you gasp at the prose and also make you think. And they are all of a piece. I think they will work better if you read them one at a time with long pauses between, instead of the whole book at once. There will be some that really will be revelatory both in prose and in twist. But it’s a lot to ask of every story with the same structure all in a row.

Elizabeth Lynn, A Different Light. Kindle. So there is an artist who has gotten stale because he has to make art living on the same planet all the time, but he has a genetic condition that is going to kill him much quicker if he travels off-planet. And I thrashed a bit at this premise, because literally every artist we have ever known has had to make art living on the same planet all the time. Like, ugh, you are cramping my style, entire planet! This guy has gotten to be all of the elderly age of thirty and he is so stagnant because one planet is not enough, and I just eyebrowed so hard and thought, how am I going to get through an entire book with this spoiled damn brat of a man. But okay, okay; some of us are not really all that happy in some settings, I decided to go with it. And it worked out all right, he ran around and figured out some things and met some people and there was plot and there were relationships and Lynn carried through on the premise: there was no magic hey-presto your genetic condition is all fixed now yaaaaays. So there were interesting things about this, and if you can get past the initial moment of are you kidding me thirty years on just one planet poor you, I found it worth reading.

Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String. This is the kind of very short story where the author has aimed at surrealism by substituting in words nonsensically, often proper names for common nouns, giving you the rhythm of language without the sense of it. Sure, fine. I get it. I decided to keep reading in case the cumulative effect was more pleasantly disorienting or gave me a different angle on what he was doing. Not really. Eh. Quite often people who write this sort of thing want to categorize readers into those who love it and those who don’t get it, and: eh, fine, sure, if you like that, but: not really.

Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. The thing that I really appreciated about this book is that it was willing–alone among the environmental and nature writing I read–to seriously interrogate what is practically possible for habitat restoration and–here’s the important bit–what we are doing it for. Marris did not entirely pretend that she had complete answers, that any one person had complete answers. But she was willing to ask questions that feel fairly taboo in other nature writing, or that feel…too reverential, perhaps? That feel as though their writers don’t want to ask them because asking them is used as a rhetorical device to say that there is no answer, rather than that there are several answers.

Colin Meloy, Wildwood. Meloy is the frontman for the Decembrists. You can tell. One, because there are occasional word choices that feel very familiar if you know the Decembrists, and two, because children’s books are not mostly permitted to ramble quite this way if the author isn’t either established or Somebody. This is an urban fantasy with its urban not-really-wild-erness tucked into Portland, Oregon, and it’s not quite coherent about that. The wild creatures are basically entirely citified, inside their “Impassable Wilderness”; they are mostly anthropomorphic birds and animals but some humans also, and they have things like postal services and militias. Very wild. The villain is going to use an invasive species and infant sacrifice to destroy all the other species, but not in favor of, y’know, development or something, because the city here is Portland, and Portland can’t be bad. Portland also can’t be specific in any way. You get the feeling of Portland from the characters if you’ve spent any time in Portland, not from the details of the setting. It is very, very white and very, very hipster, and very, very Portland. I like Portland. I never thought that I should put down this book with its cyclist heroine and superhero-drawing hero and go read something else. And yet I kept noticing all the opportunities it missed.

Judith Merril, Daughters of Earth and The Tomorrow People. Reread. I read these for an appreciation panel about Judith Merril, and most of the people on it also clearly had reread some of her work too, which was a joy. One point I did not get to on the panel: I think The Tomorrow People is the only portrayal I can think of where vestibular effects and anxiety effects are correctly tied to each other. Well done. Also: in what other work of that early era is a returned astronaut allowed to be a drunken wreck? She was doing all sorts of things other people were not even thinking of.

Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary, Better to Have Loved. Reread. Fascinatingly juxtaposed with her fiction, not always in an entirely self-aware way. For someone who claims never to have internalized stereotypes, she certainly could reproduce some of them to specification…and yet there are some amazing and fascinating stories here, some of which made me want to cry and punch people on her behalf. Even having read them before. Maybe especially having read them before.

L.M. Montgomery, Short Stories 1896 to 1901. These are in some ways fascinatingly linear compared to her novels. Good intentions always carry the day. “Let’s do something nice for someone–yay, that was nice!” is not at all how it works in Montgomery’s novels. In these short stories? Always. Nothing ever backfires. Strange to see the contrast, especially with such little investment required.

William Morris, News from Nowhere. Kindle. This is the kind of utopian fiction that is entirely didactic: you go around with the protagonist and hear how well things work in the future, tra la. How much nicer it all is. And in fact this works far better than when Morris is trying to make fiction go, so I enjoyed it better than with plot–but the time travel aspect is frustrating, knowing that the protag will awake and find him on this cold hillside of the Victorian present.

Carrie Anne Noble, The Mermaid’s Sister. What a weird and uncomfortable book. The message is ostensibly about accepting people for who they are. But actually there is a metric buttload of modesty politics (ew) with a side order of weirdness about “Gypsies” (WHAT NO STOP THAT). Also the love story is basically 95% pining and then 5% surprise this all worked out, so…yeah, that did not work for me. At all.

Henry Petroski, The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. This is mostly a book about roads and bridges, with a digression in the middle about whether our perception that things used to be built better in the past is about survivorship bias. There is so very much about infrastructure that Petroski barely skims or does not even touch on. (Ports. Waste treatment. Need I go on.) And…it’s a short book, but he chose to write a short book. This is okayish as far as it goes. Like most of our infrastructure planning and funding, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Marta Randall, Journey. Kindle. This is a book with a family taking care of refugees and having fallout from different choices and different reactions to those choices. Why did no one tell me about Marta Randall two decades ago? Well, never mind, we’re here now, with family relationships and consequences and being the political back end of the galaxy and new tech that isn’t quite what we wanted it to be and all sorts of other things I like in science fiction.

Robert Reed, The Dragons of Springplace. Reread. This is another set of short stories that was quite well written in some directions and made no emotional impact on me whatsoever. I put it back on the shelf so that when I pick it up to reread in another fifteen years, it will be entirely new to me again. I wanted to love something here, but alas, I just didn’t.

Pamela Sargent, The Alien Upstairs. Kindle. The title made this look like a romp to me. It was not. It was a quietly panicky book about a real dystopia, not a flashy thing with sorted categories but a society in which everyone is poor and struggling and everything is falling apart and everybody is making do the best they can. And into this comes an alien with more resources, and he turns things upside down in some ways, for the characters, between the characters, and they have to sort themselves, they have to figure out what to do about the entire situation, what to do with themselves, what they want to do with themselves. This book feels very modern in that way that things from the beginning of the Reagan era with the late ’70s remnants of gas shortages and some mysterious disease coming up and who knew where that would even go can feel very modern in the beginning of the Trump era when everyone you know is in some direction not okay, and I recommend it conditionally: if that will feel comforting, companionable, this is the book for you, and if the opposite, back away.

Ageeth Sluis, Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939. This is a brilliant work that weaves in fashion, colonialism, post-revolutionary work for women, and various aspects of architecture. It is like literally nothing else I have ever read in the types of thought and human interaction it is trying to discuss together, and I found it wondrously useful and interesting. You probably can’t find it at the corner market, but I absolutely recommend finding it somewhere.

Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game. Reread. Various people treating each other as various kind of object and rebelling against same, or not, in their own ways. I found this immensely absorbing on the second read, many years after the first read; its speculative conceit is a very particular kind of destiny, and I’ve had conversations with Jo about the different kinds and concepts of destiny since I first read it. I think not the book of hers she would want you to start with, probably not even the book of hers set in this universe that she’d want you to start with, but I was glad to return to it all the same.

Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with more ways). What a brief and delightful book. It deconstructs a Chinese poem in detail, from the character level upward. By the time he got to the first decent version, he had shown me enough that I could blurt out loud, “Now, there you go!” There are forays into translation from Chinese into Spanish, German, and French; there are discursions into single prepositions and also bits where Weinberger gets quite sharp with other translators about botany, there is a point at which he makes a dire academic enemy, and more than one member of my household had to look up for absolutely certain whether Eliot Weinberger was a real person or a joke Octavio Paz was having on all of us. It is hilarious, sometimes intentionally so. It grasps a great many important points about translation extremely keenly. There may be a point or two about the philosophy of the original poem that fall by the wayside along the way. But there are only 88 pages in this volume, so it will cost you very little time to find it and judge for yourself.

Barbara Willard, The Lark and the Laurel. Reread. This is an historical YA romance from my own youth, and it doesn’t really do much plot except for the plot twist that is simultaneously predictable and alarming. However, the prose rattled along briskly and there wasn’t much of it, so I felt entirely fine reading it until it was done; I just don’t think I’ll want to reread it. It’s set at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII, but far from court and focused on non-courtly virtues, which I would expect to like more than I did. Maybe if the romance plot twist hadn’t been so much itself.

Patricia C. Wrede, Snow White and Rose Red. Reread. Another fairy tale retold, this one very very Elizabethan. It has John Dee in it, and I do not pitch the book across the room when he appears, so you know that it is well-done, because: John Dee. I like stories with bears in them, but not enough to make up for John Dee without some other things well-handled also.

Isabel Yap, Hurricane Heels. Five girls grow to young womanhood fighting the forces of evil as superheroine avatars of a goddess, in anime mode but in a story told in prose. They become close friends, not entirely by free choice–but very few of our relationships are shaped entirely by free choice. This is very much a story centered on women’s friendships. Two of them also have a romantic relationship for part of the book. I think it would not have worked at a much longer length, but it didn’t have to; it was the length it needed to be. It was sweet and fun and had characters whose backgrounds were ethnically and personally specific. I am so glad there is this book.

Older epic fantasies with women protags: yikes

So it was a month ago that I was talking on Twitter about my love of book lists, and my friend Macey said that she wanted a list of older epic fantasies with women protagonists. Her standards for “older” are not at all stringent–she mentioned Sarah Zettel’s Isavalta series (good call!), the last of which was published in 2007, so we’re talking about things that were not published five minutes ago, not things from the 1930s necessarily. And I don’t know about Macey, but my standards for what is epic fantasy–well, they move around a lot. I think that “is it epic enough” is approximately the most boring argument we could have on this topic. So basically I was going to make this list of books with female protags, not taking place in this world, published before the last ten years.

Yeah. So. That list ended up way shorter than I expected. Way, way shorter. Epic is not my sub-genre, but still, yikes. And if you think that having a woman or a girl at the head of the book doesn’t change things, I’m going to have to disagree. And if it doesn’t, well, why don’t we? If it doesn’t change anything, why didn’t more people flip that coin differently?

So here are some. I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Some are squeaking in on technicalities (that is, just barely not this world, just barely before 2007, etc.). Some are favorites, some are things I have meant to reread and just have not gotten around to so I honestly can’t say how they look to me in this millennium, just that they exist and I have meant to look at them again. But here’s what I can do:

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Spirit Ring
Pamela Dean, The Dubious Hills
Naomi Kritzer, Fires of the Faithful and Turning the Storm
Megan Lindholm, Harpy’s Flight and The Reindeer People (if I recall correctly–have not reread in ages)
Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown
Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksennarion (again, have not reread in ages)
Garth Nix, Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen
Tamora Pierce, oh so many things, how many of us my age and younger did her work show that we could do it our own way (which didn’t even have to be hers)
Jo Walton, The King’s Peace and The King’s Name
Patricia C. Wrede, much of the Lyra series and much of the Enchanted Forest series

If your book or your favorite book is not on this list, check to see that it is 1) fantasy that 2) has a female protagonist and 3) does not take place in this world and was 4) published in or before 2007. If it meets those criteria? Please comment adding it to this list! If it is science fiction! If it has a whole bunch of protagonists of various genders! If it was published in 2012! If it takes place in this world! Then what a worthy book it very well might be, but this is not the list for it.

Note that Macey didn’t ask for female authors particularly this time around, just for female protagonists–and noticing that Garth Nix was the only one I could find off the top of my head was also a bit startling. Please tell me some more men who have written women protags in that time frame and genre and expand the list for me!

Tomorrow’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I am really torn about my review of this book, because there are a lot of things that I found grating and clunky in it. There are copy editing errors that make sense into nonsense, there are sentences that grate on the ear, there are near-future references that are actually already near-past references, there are places where a character introduces a piece of gratuitous racism and the protagonist gratuitously excuses him for it only to find that it has no bearing whatsoever on the larger plot. The gay character is basically labeled THE GAY in sparkly foot-high letters with no other character traits. The sections from the points of view of the Black lady assistant and the kids read as pretty patronizing to me.

And yet. And yet it is a near-future science fiction novel substantially from the POV of an older lady, and how many of those do we have right now? Not too bloody many. And she is an older lady who is a mom who is realistically concerned about her kids and eventually grandkids–she is explicitly not enmeshed in a network of friends, but she at least has some family, some life outside a career. She gets to have a love life. And her family disagrees thoroughly, completely, on politics, the economy, and the ecology. As families really, truly do.

And there is an ecology. There is a character who is obsessed with purple loosestrife. Sometimes this is a metaphor for alien or displaced ecological disruption in the main plot of the book, because there are aliens of size and conversational ability, and also there are space spores. But sometimes? Sometimes it’s not a metaphor. Sometimes it’s just purple loosestrife. Those are my favorite times of all.

So I am torn. The structure of this book is weird–its focus shifts around–and there are so many nits to pick. And yet there are also a lot of things it’s doing that are not as widely available as I would really want. Mixed bag, is I guess where I come down in the end. Not my favorite Nancy Kress, but not without its points.

Please consider using our link to buy Tomorrow’s Kin from Amazon.

Books read, late June

Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree. This is the latest installation in a long-running series. Do not start here. You will not have the character emphasis to get why various appearances are important or even make any sense. For people who are in the middle of this: there is at least Lesley but not as much Lesley as I could want. On the other hand there is quite a lot of Guleed, and I love Guleed. I love Sahra Guleed enough to pretty much forgive the fact that this is a pretty light entry in this series.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapters 1-4 and Three Twins at the Crater School, Chapter 22-end. Kindle. I am generally, as I have said many times here, not a fan of the serial format, so what I tend to do is let them pile up until I have a book. Or in this case, I let them pile up until I’m traveling and have a good chunk of reading to catch up with on my Kindle. There’s definitely arc plot in these, but their template is both old-school SF and old-school boarding school novels, so there is a lot of short-arc/episodic stuff as well, midnight feasts and sneaking out and getting caught in various hijinks and being in disgrace for them–about as well-suited for a serial as anything could be. Three Twins is the first and Dust-Up is the one that’s going now.

E.M. Forster, Maurice. Written just before the Great War but not published for decades thereafter, this is very simply and straightforwardly about being gay and male in that era. It is a character/relationship study about a young man of that era of “good” but not “high” family and how his sexuality affects everything for him. It is short and in places poignant; Maurice is not perfect and can be very annoying, and Forster knows this, he did not mean to portray a paragon. Even if you feel like you have lots of factual data about this era, about Oscar Wilde and his trial and so on, this is still a work of art that lends texture and contrast and also makes me want to give Mr. Forster a cup of the good hot chocolate and someplace safe to hang out.

Roger Knight, Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815. Logistics! So much, so many! You want to fight Napoleon, you need logistics, and the UK had a bunch of them, and not always enough, and not always lined up properly with each other. And then the logistics fight. I do like a logistics fight.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Scenting the Dark and Other Stories. Reread. I think this should be of particular interest to short story writers who are new to their careers and would like to see someone evolve in her ideas and execution.

Foz Meadows, A Tyranny of Queens. This portal fantasy is, among many things, a love letter to those of us who spent our education being the good girls who could be counted upon to be convenient. For all those who were seated with a harasser for the teacher’s convenience, who were ever pinched on the thigh under the desk, whose complaints were “trouble” when the harassment was not. Foz has a story about parallel worlds and magic and travel and dragons and queens and strange beasts–but also a story of standing up and saying no, of finally having enough. This book was not here for me when I was fourteen. It is here for me now, and when my goddaughter is fourteen it will be here for her. And dammit, we will still need it. Caveat: I read it in the airport lounge, and I had to try not to cry in the airport lounge, so. Possibly be careful of your location. But recommended, oh, recommended.

Judith Merril, Exile from Space (Kindle) and Out of Bounds (reread). Who has two thumbs and is on a Judith Merril panel at Readercon? Yes. So. Exile from Space really clarified one of the strong things that’s going on here, which is writing from a female perspective but for a male editorial gaze. Once I saw that I couldn’t unsee it. I’m not at all sure there’s a man of the time who would have had the tools to write this story, or most of the ones in Out of Bounds–but it’s still very much written for them, for their attention. Fascinating. Very space-focused, very Cold War, and I do love Judith Merril or I wouldn’t have volunteered for the panel, so stay tuned for more.

Elizabeth Moon, Cold Welcome. The latest Vatta book, and it’s a crash-landing into difficult polar conditions with a saboteur to find. Even in space there are too many whiners, seems to be the thesis of this book, and maybe so, but it would be more fun if not.

William Morris, The Hollow Land. Kindle. Every once in awhile when I’m traveling I read another piece of Morris’s fantasy to get another bit of how to write him in the story I have in my head. As a fabulist he is a great ceramicist and other sorts visual designer. Oh Uncle Will. I do love him, but not for this, which is overwrought and overemotional and melodramatic and full of “revenge!” and symbolic colors and people swooning and spending years at things in one paragraph. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its own appeal, just…oh, Uncle Will.

J. Robert Moskin, The Story of the U.S. Marine Corps. Grandpa’s. I have been reading through my grandpa’s book collection since he died in 2009. I have done it in no particular order, except that I knew that I wasn’t going to want to leave things I would turn my  nose up at for last. This was second to last, and it was very solidly done on the deployments of particular Marines, sometimes down to their individual names. It is less solid on the motivations for those deployments, and not even just on the stuff that might be politically debatable, but if you’re writing historical fiction of any type that involves moving Marines from place to place, this is a good resource. It ends just after Vietnam. (The link is to a third edition which goes through the Gulf War. -ed)

Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold, Death by Silver. This is a fairly light Victorian fantasy mystery, wherein men who were bullied and abused at school are put in a position of having to implicate or, sadly, exonerate their abuser of a capital crime. Reading it in close proximity to Maurice and A Tyranny of Queens was fascinating coincidence, as the type of school harassment it depicted was substantially different, and its take on British attitudes toward gay men just before Forster’s period was meant to be historically serious without being depressing. An interesting balance, not a book that will probably be a passionate favorite of mine but still a fun read.

Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle. This book was simultaneously harrowing and not harrowing enough, which is odd. It’s about the survivors (…sort of) of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler, mostly their post-WWII lives but a bit of the context they had before the war. They face privations and sexual violence, and they forgive, and don’t, and get on with things, and don’t. I feel like if you’re going to write a book that basically takes the position that a lot of people, especially women and lower-class people, were swept along into Nazism and didn’t entirely know what they were doing and that forgiveness is the road forward, engaging more than peripherally with the people they most directly hurt is called for–the people who are not privileged enough to live literally in a castle, the ones who were not a protected class. Women were at risk of sexual violence even in that protected class, but as this book demonstrates, that was not unique to the Nazi regime and is somewhat aside from the questions of it, so…the questions of forgiveness of it, how a country moves forward from it, deserve more depth than this gives.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issues 15, 16, 17. Kindle. I’m not sure there was a weak piece in all three of these issues. I’ll put the links in short story posts, but in general I enjoyed all the content and was glad to have it in this compact form–especially since rereading a couple of the pieces I’d already read online brought aspects of them to my attention that I hadn’t entirely noticed before.

Books read, early June

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Miracles. Gods are apparently like ants in a California apartment complex in this Bennett trilogy: you think you’ve killed them all and there’s always one or two coming back again, so put your miracles in sealed containers. This is definitely a third book of a trilogy, not a stand-alone; I do not at all recommend starting here, but it does end things nicely. (The first book is City of Stairs – ed)

C.J. Cherryh, Convergence. This, on the other hand, is a sawed-off chunk of an ongoing thing. I wrote to another friend who has also read all twenty books of this series with a character’s name in all caps followed by “???” after reading this book. There is plot again, it is not like the trilogy within this series that was essentially focused on Bren getting his apartment back and furnishing it. Is it better for that? I’m not sure. I’m still reading as of book twenty, which tells you something, but for the love of Pete, do not do not DO NOT start here, it will be confusing and boring and generally awful, which it is not when you have read the other nineteen. On the other hand: will you want to read nineteen of these to get to this? I don’t know. It is very much science fiction about alien interactions, and it is very psychologically medieval in ways that I appreciate, and there are moments (like the name in all caps with the ???) where I feel like this is a very long game she has been planning in intricate detail all along and other moments where I am fairly sure it is the equivalent of going out for a morning nature walk with Auntie Carolyn and having her point out which tiny flowers and mushrooms grow under that big leaf and which ones are poisonous (most of them). On the other other hand, I do like nature walks.

Kathryn Evans, More of Me. Discussed elsewhere.

John M. Ford, The Scholars of Night. Reread. I picked this up for my Cold War Fantasy panel, and it is made of love for Christopher Marlowe and Anthony Price and intricacy. It is exactly what this panel is all about, but I reread it not that long ago; I just wanted the excuse.

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Reread. This is the last of my old Natalie Goldberg books, and honestly it is the one to get if you’re getting a Natalie Goldberg book for a new writer. It is straightforward and cheerful and does not self-aggrandize particularly; it quotes her teachers without acting like they hung the moon, it has ideas for what to do but sort of shrugs through them like, yep, try these and if they don’t work try something else, just try stuff. I am no longer at a point where I think it’s a good use of shelf space for me to keep this book, so I will set it free for some newer writer to enjoy, but it did not make me snippy with Batman the way the others did. (…if you didn’t read that blog post, maybe we should just draw a veil over it.)

Paul Gruchow, Letters to a Young Madman: A Memoir. Gruchow is a Minnesota nature writer and observer of the land, farming, people…he overlaps with my interests enough that I have been reading his books in an essentially random order from the library, and then I came to this one and it blindsided me. Because the present tense in that first sentence is inaccurate. Paul Gruchow. Oh God. Paul Gruchow did not survive his last bout with depression more than a decade ago. I had been darting merrily through feeling so much kinship with this man, and he was gone the whole time I was reading him, painfully and horribly gone, and he suffered so much before he went, and this is the memoir of how. I recommend it under only two circumstances: 1) If you have not read a memoir of depression and mental health treatment and hospitalization in this country. This is a keenly observed and fiercely intelligent example of its genre. It is not heartening. It is not uplifting. It is not the work of a person who managed to find his way out, to see brighter days ahead, to kick at the darkness, as the man said, until it bled daylight. The man I was starting to think of metaphorically as “cousin Paul,” struggled and fought with himself and hurt himself and his family and was hurt by himself and the world, and then he died. This is that book. If you are not yourself depressed and/or have not otherwise experienced the mental health system up close and have not read anyone’s detailed modern account of it, I think you should read at least one, and you could do far worse than letting it be Paul Gruchow’s. You also owe it to yourself to choose very carefully when you subject yourself to it. It does not have to be today, tomorrow, next week. You can look with deliberation when you must look. 2) If you have read such a book before but have come to love the other works of Paul Gruchow, you can choose to look again even if you know the facts and figures of modern mental health care. That would be me. You can see how some of his other stories are changed, cast in different lights, by these stories. By the stories of his illness. You may decide that you don’t want that of a writer whose work you love. And you may decide that you owe it to a writer whose work you love to have his whole work, not to look away. If it was me, I would want some of my readers to look away, to only have the brilliant and lovely things I said about frogs and rocks and farming. And I would want some of my readers not to look away, to read all my work, even the hardest and darkest. It is not me. But we come from the same places and the same people. It could have been. I am glad I didn’t look away. It has been a very long time since I cried so hard over a book as I did over the opening and closing pages of this book, and also many, many times over the middle, and it was not a very long book. Proceed with caution if at all.

Marvin Kaye, ed. The Fair Folk. Reread. Vividly told tales, most of which did not hit me particularly personally. The opening story from Tanith Lee is a really great example of a story that feels like it is going to be a wonderful story for someone else, a story that will go right to someone else’s heart and stay there. I think it’s easier to recognize those with experience.

Donald Keene, ed., Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Reread. This is something I purchased for a college class and kept. It is not the very last word in Japanese lit, but with twenty years’ experience it turns out to still be a quite decent first word and well worth keeping; there were things I was happy to quote and discuss with friends. I haven’t done a survey of survey anthologies, so I don’t know if this would be the one I would recommend above all others, but as the one I already have on my shelf, it had many things worth reading in it and I am glad to keep giving it space, which is a quite nice feeling. There were several place where I rolled my eyes at Donald Keene himself and his notes–his handling of notes on periods where there were predominantly women authors were not, shall we say, deft and sensitive–but most of the material was the material and could just be enjoyed for that. Good mix of poems, stories, diary excerpts, novel excerpts, play treatments.

Naomi Mitchison, Sea-Green Ribbons. This is a strangely spare novel of a young woman printer during Cromwell’s time. I enjoyed it except for the ending, which I found unsatisfying in its handling of Quakers and slavery, and I spent much of the experience cocking my head and squinting sideways at it and thinking of Gillian Bradshaw’s London in Chains and A Corruptible Crown. They are really, really, really, really similar. Young woman printer, era of Cromwell, sexual trauma, various details…I don’t think that one is cribbed from the other, their style is quite, quite different, and their endings are, and there is something like four times as much of the Bradshaw. It was just very strange. I want more novels of the Interregnum, but it’s okay if the others are not specifically about young women printers with sexual trauma, variety being the spice etc.

Toni Morrison, Jazz. Lots of people failing to make their relationships work, but the language is rich and improvisationally jazzy, very successfully evocative of the ’20s urban setting and newly urbanized Black American culture of the Great Diaspora. If someone other than Toni Morrison had been writing this, the petty, angry despair of the major characters might well have put me off, but Morrison’s writing is so beautiful it was worthwhile for me.

Jim Northrup, Marcie R. Rendon, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Denise Sweet, Nitaawichige: Selected Poetry and Prose by Four Anishinaabe Writers. Highly varied voices and forms, but the traditions they’re drawing on are very recognizably Anishinaabe in their own ways. A very short chapbook, definitely worth the time if you can find it. Hilarity and anger and pathos and beauty all represented here.

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight and The Shepherd’s Crown. Rereads. After long hiatus, I have finished the Tiffany Aching series. Last first: The Shepherd’s Crown is Pratchett’s last book, and you can see that he was not quite done with it, that it is the bones of the book he meant to write rather than the full book, with its gestures toward third-wave feminism and a love letter to the geezerhood the author himself would never achieve. It has some great things to nod at. It makes me wistful. As for I Shall Wear Midnight…I find myself ambivalent about books with the “they persecute us for our virtues because they are stinky jerks” plots right now, and this is one. And yet it is a pretty good one, and sometimes “they” do. And the virtue in particular in this one is being willing to step up and help where help is needed, and I want more of that in fiction and in life.

Frederick Taylor, The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class. This sounds a bit dry but is very, very human–it’s very much about how the German people experienced the interwar hyperinflationary period, what played into it and what it created. Interesting and a much quicker read than one might expect.

Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless. Reread. This is far and away my favorite Valente novel for adults. I picked it up because I misremembered the time frame–I had thought, for some reason, that the ending was long after it was, deep in the Stalinist period, instead of 1942–and so I thought it might be of interest to my Cold War Fantasy panel at 4th St. Well, this is why we do panel prep, and of course 1942 is the exact right year to end this book. It is so vivid, so food-oriented and so full of myth and relationship and history. It is not for my panel. I still don’t regret the reread.

Martha Wells, All Systems Red. Murderbot! I was one of the last on the Murderbot train, but I do like Murderbot. All Murderbot wants is to be let by to figure things out and watch videos, is this too much to ask? Apparently so because humans, ugh. We are with you, Murderbot! We are with you through the rest of your adventures among humans, ugh, and whoever else you may encounter. Intimate voice far future SF, hurrah, more please.

More of Me, by Kathryn Evans

Review copy provided by Amulet Books.

Some spoilers are our friends, although I will not visit them upon you unsought. This is the first time I remember in ages flipping to the last few pages of a book to make sure that a particular concept was not how a book ended, because if it was, I did not want to be there for that experience. It wasn’t. I kept reading. In fact, I turned the pages compulsively.

The science fiction concept of this YA novel makes a better special effect than actual science: the cells of an entire person reproducing themselves and pulling apart fully formed, so that an entirely new version can step out and also leave the old version intact. Teva has been doing this annually, so that there is herself, age 16, but also her previous selves, known by their ages: Fifteen, Fourteen, and so on. Her mother, for reasons later made clear, has decided that it isn’t safe for this to be known, so once the split happens, the earlier version has to stay in the house all the time, and no one else is allowed in.

This is not, as you might well imagine, a long-term tenable situation.

I will not want to reread this book, because it is emotionally well-done. The claustrophobia of the well-meant captives, the panicked family turned in on themselves, the girl(s) taught to distrust the school friends and teachers who are part of her/their daily life…and inevitably led to doubt her/their own sanity. It was all incredibly evocative. There were times when I writhed reading it. The speculative conceit was not realistic. The teenage psychology was. And it was very clear that you do not have to intend to be a monster to wind up treating your loved ones monstrously, and you do not have to intend to be a jailer to put them in a prison they need to escape.

Those who have issues with reading about self-harm will probably also find this book really, really difficult. Like, you would need a serious good reason to read this book if you are a person in this category because there are substantial amounts of very vivid description of self-harm. This is for plot reasons due to the speculative conceit, but I’m not sure that will make the experience less difficult to read and may well make it more so. Beyond that I cannot honestly tell whether people whose families were less loving and healthy than mine will find this book cathartic or personally horrifying or some of each. You should tread with caution not because this is badly done but because it is well and lovingly done. This is not a hopeless book. Its ending is a substantially positive one. But I think it will be a wall-climbing experience for many readers.

Please consider using our link to buy More of Me from Amazon.

Books read, late May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books read, early May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass. Discussed elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag, Shattered WarriorDiscussed elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

Rebel, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

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

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

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

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