The Time Museum, by Matthew Loux

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Delia Bean’s entomology-packed plans for her summer at her uncle’s estate take a surprising turn for her (less surprising for those of us who know the title of the story she’s in) when her uncle turns out to be a time traveler who founded a museum of all the times of Earth, past and future. He’s looking for interns and Delia fits the bill: intelligent, curious, determined. The other candidates for the internship are from different eras in history, including a girl from 200 years into Japan’s future, a Neanderthal boy, and an ancient Roman who is still weirded out that they keep calling it ancient.

Delia still gets to do some entomology, but she has to dodge dinosaurs to do it. She also finds other strengths she didn’t know she had. An adult reader might well suspect them–the character arc is not very twisty or surprising, but that doesn’t mean that its messages of curiosity and teamwork are unsatisfying.

This is the beginning of a series of kids’ comics, and the time museum and its related time travel set up tons of potential adventures for Delia and her friends, with one-offs and arc plot both possible. It’s a romp through space and time, aimed at kids but not offensive to adult sensibilities.

Please consider using our link to buy The Time Museum from Amazon.

Books read, early February

Douglas Brinkley, The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. This is a large, magisterial volume on nature and its protection. Brinkley is a modern enough writer to make serious attempts at including women in his assessment of what happened, and with good reason–several women were seriously important in this fight in divergent ways. He didn’t do quite as well with Native people; Native Alaskan groups are quite often treated as monoliths, with no particular individuals having any particular opinions or actions or influence. So–not a good place to stop learning about this topic, but a pretty good place to start.

A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Reread. I remembered loving these stories the first time I read them, and I did the second time as well. Two are excerpts from Possession, which I had not read the first time I read this volume; two are tiny fairy tales in the same vein, and the last is a novella of great depth and interest, a middle-aged woman’s relationship with a power of fire and air–a fantasy story rather than a fairy tale proper. I noticed Byatt dealing with the Blitz and the evacuation of London children again–she did this in one of the stories of Sugar and Other Stories, I think?–and that felt like a very familiar thing for a writer to be doing, returning again and again to myth to deal with the hard things in one’s past. Highly recommended.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures. I really shouldn’t look a gift novel about Mary Anning in the mouth. But…look, there are not that many working-class heroines of science. Mary Anning, fossil hunter, is very thoroughly one of them. And Chevalier…gives her a fictional older, middle-class woman for a mentor, and that relationship is the heart of the book. I am usually really happy with mentorship relationships at the heart of a book, but in this case it felt like the same thing that so often happens with scientists who are outside the stereotype of who can become scientists: their prowess is attributed to other people. Chevalier even gives one of Anning’s major discoveries to her brother, which, I mean, come on, this is textbook stuff. On the other hand…on the other hand I expect most of the audience for this book knows nothing about Mary Anning, and now they do a bit, so yay that. (The other book with the same title looks interesting. -ed) (And in fact it is!–MKL)

Anne de Courcy, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. This is a good book to read a single chapter of, so if you’re interested in any of the chapters for research, by all means, do that. Taken as a whole it is repetitive, and its focus is skewed toward the very, very late end of the period considered–because that’s where the easy research is. Which is great if you’re interested in specific case studies of British women who married men who were in some way serving the British Empire’s governmental, commerce, or military interests in the early 20th century, but less so if you’re interested in broader questions of how these institutions functioned in general. Not one of de Courcy’s best.

Michael J. De Luca, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, Jason S. Ridler, and Justin Howe, The Homeless Moon 3 and The Homeless Moon 4. Two more chapbooks by a group of friends. (Again available for free. -ed) One of them has a sub-genre theme (steampunk) and the other is stories in a shared universe. While I would have been reasonably happy to read more of these chapbooks, the progression from an unthemed chapbook to a shared universe seems like it has a natural endpoint here, as writers working together on a project like this could go. It’s also kind of neat to see people growing as writers in ways that you can’t always–or not always consciously–if you’re reading a story here and a story there and not always in sequence. Everyone was doing more by the fourth one than they were in the first one. So yay.

Victoria Finlay, The Brilliant History of Color in Art. This is a lovely coffee-table book about pigment. Finlay has another book (Color: A Natural History of the Palette) that is denser, more prose and more depth, and frankly I like that one better. But this one is not just a lighter version of the same thing. It touches on slightly different anecdotes in the history of art and science, and that’s fun. And sometimes can be shared with people who aren’t committed enough to read a longer prose work.

Stefan Grabinski, The Dark Domain. Early twentieth century dark fantasy short stories from a Polish writer I had never read. Gosh, people were frightened of their own brains in the early twentieth century. The call was pretty much always coming from inside the house. Which is not a bad thing, just a direction to be noted, as people’s tolerance for darkness/horror often varies depending on type.

John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness. Reread. This was an accidental reread–I picked it up on a whim and just kept going. Haines has some really lyrical nature writing here, and his relationships with snow and dogs make me particularly happy. Also it’s short, so if you fall into it, you can fall back out again without devoting too much of your reading time to it.

Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. This is a feminist Lovecraftian novella, which is not usually my jam, but there is a big one of my buttons to press here, which is: the Gaudy Night button. Early stages of female higher education: yes please give me more. There is a lot of wandering around doing quest stuff (well, it says so on the tin, I am not surprised) and exploring and contextualizing. Which was fine, but the university life was what got me interested here, and I wished for more of it.

Ellen Klages, Passing Strange. Another novella, this one with a 1940 San Francisco setting, focusing on the lesbian community of that time. There were a few places where it felt like it was referencing a larger body of work that to the best of my knowledge is not published, but it was still smoothly written, well-characterized, unique, interesting, and short. (Another piece of fiction with an interesting nonfiction book of the same title. -ed)

Jill Lepore, Joe Gould’s Teeth. Speaking of short books, I only finished this one because it was short, and I have the feeling Jill Lepore feels the same way. (I could be wrong.) She researched would-be historian and revolutionary of the field of history Joe Gould, who was friends with Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings and all sorts of other Modern poets, and what turned up is that Joe Gould was a fairly nasty person but not in an interesting way. Ezra Pound, not an excellent judge of character: news at 11. Gould hassled, annoyed, and harassed (for criminal definitions of harassed) members of the Harlem Renaissance who were ten times more interesting than he was. Jill Lepore being herself, she was utterly willing to call this out for what it is. But…it still left me feeling like there was no good reason to be reading about him instead of the Harlem Renaissance, except that I was 75% of the way through this very short volume. I’d recommend literally anything else Lepore has done over this book, unless you’re desperately interested in the peripheries of Modernism or the Harlem Renaissance.

Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. A giant book with some missed opportunities because of blind spots. Massie does not seem to have spotted that Catherine’s public acknowledgment of her lovers was entirely different than that of, say, Charles II of England, because she was a woman. So there’s this fascinating difference in Russian imperial culture that he ignores or, worse, misconstrues as typical of the rest of Europe. The first half of this, before Catherine takes the throne, is still pretty great, fluidly written, very novelistic. The second half is more back and forth, focusing chapters thematically rather than temporally…which in some ways makes sense, but it leaves you reading about the reaction of someone whose death was covered in the previous chapter. Still recommended, but only when you have a big chunk of time and patience.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky. Reread. The last time I read this book my grandfather was still alive, so the crucial scene relating to Tiffany’s grandmother’s place was merely well-done rather than completely wrenching. I love these books so much, even when they make me cry.

Michael Schumacher, November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. The past was a dangerous place. This is full of pictures of ships, most of which went down in this storm or at least struggled mightily. It is short and to the point, so if you’re interested in natural disasters, the Great Lakes, or the history of shipping in the US, you’ve come to the right place. Other than that probably give it a miss.

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone. This is not going to be known as Delia Sherman’s best book, but it’s entirely readable and entertaining. Young would-be magician and cranky mentor, several interesting supporting characters. The beats fall where you’d expect them to, but that’s okay.

Trenton Lee Stewart, The Secret Keepers. Kids’ adventure SF, very much a page-turner. Strange gadgets! Mysterious oppressors! Worried parents whose worries do not prevent adventures! I liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I like this. It’s much in the same vein.

Ian Tyrrell, Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A thoughtful analysis of the rhetoric and attitudes of empire and how they interacted with the early conservation movement. Very clear-eyed on the buttons pushed to get the cause supported, for better and worse. The writing style is very academic, and so are the concerns therein, but not inaccessibly so.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, The Seelie King’s War. The conclusion of this trilogy–this volume is very nearly all exciting climax and tying the threads from previous volumes back together. Don’t start here, start with The Hostage Prince. Full of faerie magic and stubbornness.

Books read, late January

Mishell Baker, Borderline. Do you ever do the thing where you get in your head that a book is something utterly different than what it was? For some reason I thought this was going to be near-future SF. There is no good reason for this; none of the jacket copy says so, because it isn’t. What it is, is urban fantasy, quite good urban fantasy in a number of ways. First, it doesn’t do the mushy thing that urban fantasy does where it’s “urban” but has no features of any actual city. This book is set in really for sure Los Angeles. It is very specifically LA, and a very specific part and experience of LA at that. Second, Baker uses borderline personality disorder to examine and refract some tropes of the genre in ways that delight me. The scene where the heroine has a big deal of telling everyone what she thinks of them: that has causes, and it has consequences, it is not the kind of wish fulfillment that that scene so often is. There is carefully followed worldbuilding here, there is a main character who is a person, not a diagnosis, but whose diagnosis informs her character intimately…there’s a lot to like, and I’m eager for the sequel. (What a relief, since I like Mishell, but that’s never a guarantee of anything.)

Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Skill of Our Hands. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Mission. Kindle. Pen and his demon continue to wander around the world of The Curse of Chalion, using lifetimes worth of knowledge to improve matters for the people around them–and sometimes, crucially, themself. Themselves. Whichever applies when one entity is entirely housed in another. These are fun, and this is a fun one of these. It’s not what I’d choose to introduce people to Lois’s work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value.

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets. I had just been reading about the Congress of Vienna, and up pops this fantasy novel set there. It is a fantasy that crosses over quite a lot with its romance genre–there are some misunderstandings and relationship developments that are squarely inspired by that genre–but for many of you that’s a happy thing. The Congress of Vienna is the sort of thing that takes a great deal of work to make sense of, so the addition of magic actually doesn’t make things any more confusing and possibly less so.

Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Justin Howe, Homeless Moon: Imaginary Places. A chapbook put out ages ago by five friends, of whom I now know three. Far-ranging weirdness. Good fun in different directions. Cool thing to do. (And available as a free PDF. -ed)

Anatole France, Bee: The Princess of the Dwarfs. Kindle. I have been thinking about how the late 19th century and early 20th century constructed their version of fantasy, and this was another data point for that. It feels to me like a lot of pre-Tolkien, pre-Mirrlees, pre-Dunsany writers were more interested in lush description of fantastical scenes than in characters that, well, did much of anything. Some of this is that many of them are consciously–self-consciously–telling a children’s story, but what that means for the era can get pretty precious. None of the characters who would seem to be primary characters learn or accomplish anything of note. But gosh, they were pretty. Okay then.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 1. Kindle. What a great way to start off a magazine. Malon Edwards’s story “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber,” in particular, as an opener: whew, wow. The insight of old ladies as a science fictional exposition device, with attention to the cultural norms between them and their individual personalities: yes please, more of this.

Bela K. Kiraly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism. If you’ve ever wondered about the Hungarian noble system, wow, here you go. Complicated, bizarre way of running a society, and Kiraly lays it out for you in detail, with charts: what percentage of people were this kind of aristocrat, what percent had that kind of education. It’s a solid place to put your feet when you’re looking at the Habsburgs and going, “What? What?”

Richard Manning, Grassland. Focused specifically on the grasslands of North America as natural habitats and human usage detracting from same. Manning has lots of interesting stuff to cover here but occasionally veers into habitat exceptionalism regarding grasslands as opposed to forests, deserts, etc. and overstates points that could have been made reasonably. Still, if you’re interested in wilderness environments, having a bit of analysis about grasslands and how great they are is no bad thing.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt. Discussed elsewhere.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. Retold fairy tales are by now a genre standard, and this book is a clear indication of why. There’s a rich vein still to be mined here, and a fresh editorial team is sometimes a great way to get the best out of authors who have touched on this sort of thing before–or who haven’t and need a nudge in the right direction. My favorites were Genevieve Valentine’s “Familiaris,” Theodora Goss’s “The Other Thea,” Sofia Samatar’s “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” and Kat Howard’s “Reflected,” but really there’s quite a lot to dig into here.

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Stone Forest. A book on the line between graphic novel and long picture book–or perhaps it’s just a graphic novel that’s aimed at a youngish audience. Hilda continues to have wild adventures with the secret magical creatures near her home. This time her mom gets involved–not entirely voluntarily–and their relationship is beautifully done. It would work as a starting point, but there are more before this, and they’re also lovely.

Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman, The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered. This is about a very particular blue dye that is religiously significant to some groups of Jewish people. If you’re interested in history of dyes and pigments or history of religion, this is one of the places where they overlap. Human beings are pretty odd ducks. If you read this book and don’t say, “What? What?” at several points, you’re more jaded than I.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. This is wrenching and great. It follows the arc of a young woman’s life from slavery in the Deep South onward, and it does not romanticize social relationships in any particular. It’s beautifully written. I’m so glad I read it. I’m also so glad I’m not permanently reading it, because it’s a lot to take in.

Walter Jon Williams, Impersonations. The latest Praxis story, following the consequences of the earlier trilogy. I think you could pick up everything you need to know, but the emotional weight of why you should care feels like it’s dependent on Dread Empire’s Fall etc., so you might as well start there if you have the chance.

Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt, by George O’Connor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

In the afterword to this graphic novel, George O’Connor notes that Artemis is one of his favorites, that when he was planning the Olympians series, he deliberately saved some of the ones he likes best for later so he’d have something to look forward to. Artemis is one of my favorite Olympians, too, so I’m glad to see her treated reasonably well.

Reasonably well–within the bounds of what’s mythologically available. Because Artemis is not a nice goddess. She’s not a happy huggy goddess. (Unlike the rest of the Olympians, right? Um.) So if you’re thinking of giving these books to small people–to any size people really–make sure they’re okay with sudden death and being ripped apart and shot and generally slaughtered. Because that will show up a lot, what with Niobe and Actaeon and all the rest.

My one complaint in this is that I didn’t imagine Artemis in a silver minidress and ankle-strap heels. But the dogs are nice. I do like the dogs.

Please consider using our link to buy Olympians: Artemis from Amazon.

The Skill of Our Hands, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the authors are friends of mine.

This is the sequel to The Incrementalists. While it refreshes you a bit on who is who and what is what–enough that you don’t have to reread the first volume recently or have a crackerjack memory to get it, but in my estimation not enough to start here. The character relationships are key, and the character relationships have a lot of their resonance starting in the previous volume. What’s the deal with Ren and Phil? why does everybody keep trying to stifle Irina? It starts earlier than this volume to make a lot of emotional sense.

This is a series about a secret group of immortals changing things in small ways–incrementally–behind the scenes of history. And this book in particular focuses a lot on the concept of making things worse to make them better. When does that work? When is it a terrible idea? This book takes that on using various scales, personal, internationally ideological, state and national scales in between.

There are a few missteps (if no one in my house gets what you’re going for with a Negro Leagues [baseball] analogy, probably you can’t bet on that line working with a ton of other people), but they’re small caveats with a core of the book intact. One of the great reliefs of the Incrementalist series is that the characters all want to make the world better. They disagree on how, and there is no overarching authority to tell them how to use their subtle powers and version of immortality to make it all work out right. There is no one answer. But they keep working on it. Maybe you need something like that right now.

Please consider using our link to buy The Skill of Our Hands from Amazon.

Books read, early January

Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans. One of the things that’s interesting about this book is that it looks like Carpenter started writing it pretty much right away–so it was possible to interview almost everyone involved with the case at least once, directly and in person. So Carpenter could ask the police officers involved in the case specific questions about their attitudes toward gay men, toward queer people in general, toward various social institutions and ideas. And did. This was a good reminder that we sometimes want our landmark social cases to be “perfect” test cases, but sometimes the reality is much messier–and that’s okay.

D. G. Compton, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. A seventies science fiction novel about mortality (goes well with Marta Randall’s Islands!) and the surveillance society. The characters in it steadfastly refuse to be nice and calm and docile. They are prickly and angry and flailing. But not mean-spirited. They thrash around a lot trying to figure out how to have the lives they want–and in some cases the deaths they want–within what their culture has made available. Worth the time it takes to read (fairly short).

Frederic S. Durbin, A Green and Ancient Light. This feels like the sort of fantasy novel about a young boy and one summer that was his magical turning point that we don’t see as often as we used to. In this case his grandmother was a very strong presence and my favorite character. I wanted more sense of the woods–there was a lot of sense of human artifacts in the woods but not very much wildness of them–but village life was compelling and the magic plot was interesting, and I do in fact like this sort of fantasy novel.

Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First. A very short novel about Margaret Cavendish. Did not go as deep as I would like but was still a sympathetic portrait of a thoroughgoing outsider.

Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Thoroughly debunks the “spices were popular to cover the taste of spoiled meat” trope. The word “imagination” is key in the title: the author delves into how spices were presented, what they signified and how their signifiers changed, what people thought about what they were eating or just observing. Interesting stuff.

Barbara Hambly, Drinking Gourd. The latest Benjamin January murder mystery continues to explore how race, slavery, freedom, and violence affect relationships. Quite often I advise people not to start late in a series. This time I’d actually say, what the heck, go for it. You’ll figure it out, it’ll be human and compelling, you can go back and read the others and it’ll be fine.

Maria Dahvana Headley, Aerie. This is the sequel to Magonia, which I fell into one afternoon and did not come out until I was done. The same was true of Aerie. These books are some of the most page-turning books I have come across in a long time. I think it’s because I’m so invested in the central relationships. The worldbuilding is fun, the action plot is fun, but at the end of the day my heart is with the protag’s relationship with her best friend/boyfriend and with the protag’s relationship with her sister. Bird people in secret sky lairs? additional worldbuilding into other aspects of secret culture I will not spoiler here? sure yes why not just more of Aza’s interactions with the people she loves.

Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History. This is partly a history of paper and partly Kurlansky’s attempt to make a single point over and over and over again. That point is that technology does not drive social change, it follows it. Might it be more complex than that? Might one piece of technology follow some social change and drive others? Might something have more than one effect, not all of which are foreseeable at the time? APPARENTLY  NOT, Kurlansky wishes us to know. It is ALL ONE DIRECTION DAMMIT. So…yeah. That was a thing. It’s a lovely physical object with paper that’s nice to touch. There was interesting stuff about paper and papermaking, although there were also huge gaps on that topic–when did butcher paper start as a thing, for example? You’d never know from this book. Because Kurlansky is too busy telling us about THE NATURE OF ALL TECHNOLOGY ALWAYS. Thanks, Kurlansky! Sigh.

Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife. This book opens with a grandfather who keeps a volume of Kipling in his pocket. I am there for that. Basically any of the rest of you who want to write me books with Kipling-reading grandparents: you follow that urge, it will serve me well. This is also a book about war and recovery, violence and its aftermath, families, and all sorts of interesting things, done in a Balkan magical realist mode. But even without those things I’d have stayed on for the grandpa.

Malka Older, Infomocracy. This book opened feeling to me like the sort of thing Cory Doctorow or Neal Stephenson would have written if they’d started their careers in this decade instead of previous ones. It started out feeling rather standard post-cyberpunk–well-done standard post-cyberpunk, but still. Then we hit a disaster response and it was a different–and much better–book, vivid and engaging–and the world it’s engaging with is our actual complex world, not a cartoon of it. Yay. More.

Mary Rickert, You Have Never Been Here. A lot of dark fantasy is Halloween dark, moaning winds and the creak of newly bare branches, a bit self-conscious about how dark it is. This Mary Rickert collection is Midwinter dark. It is bleak and chilled. It is either the perfect thing to read in the dark of the year or something you should safe for July, depending on where you are in your life.

Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, eds., Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in. So: this exists! I’m in it! I read it! There ya go.

Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. I loved this. It looked at the shapes of five very different sets of Victorians, all of them literary, and how they made their relationships work in the face of various challenges–or didn’t. I would love more of this sort of thing. Also I came out of it feeling like giving George Eliot a hug and inviting her to coffee.

Jason Shiga, Bookhunter. Fast, fun, cute read about secret book protection agency. Not a lot of depth and did not take me long, but entertained me while I was there.

Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations. This is Solnit musing about her travels as an American of partially Irish ancestry in Ireland. She doesn’t stick to describing her travel experiences, roaming wherever she pleases in the history of Ireland or in fact the rest of the world. She has a modicum of self-awareness about Americans in Ireland and Irish-Americans, so I said to an Irish friend that it probably wouldn’t annoy them in the same way as standard American Irish tourism, but it might well annoy them in a refreshing and different way. I’m not Irish, I can’t tell for sure. It didn’t really annoy me, but it’s not the Solnit I’d recommend starting with, of what I’ve read so far.

The American Scandinavian Foundation, Scandia: Important Early Maps of the Northern Regions and Maps and Charts of Norway. What it says on the tin. Lots of neat misconceptions about what exactly was up there in all that snow anyway. Is it an archipelago of islands? is it basically a linear peninsula out from…somewhere? Much confusion in early mapmaking, many guesses, cool to see what they were.

Ka Vang, Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon. While the beginning exposition is a little clunky here, the characterization and setting are worth it. It’s a middle-grade book about a young Hmong girl whose family traditions leave her out because she’s a girl–until she does some awesome magical stuff that explodes her elders’ assumptions. What I particularly liked about this book is that everyone was human even when they were wrong. Characters who could easily have been caricatures were full-fledged people, understandable even when flawed, which is a lot to ask of something as long as most adult books are, and this was not that length. So there’s a lot packed into a small number of pages here. Especially useful if you’re looking for books for Minnesota kids that actually reflect the Minnesota they live in, but worth the time otherwise too.

Books read, late December

I was traveling, and I have had a cold, and also it is for some reason A Very Novella Christmas. So…lo these many things read.

Michal Ajvaz, The Other City. This is a short Czech surrealist novel. It’s very, very much about Prague–very detailed about Prague along with its stained-glass surrealist imagery–but the strange thing is that it was written in the early ’90s and did not contain even a hint of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics in the very year this book was published. That was not only practically but as far as I could tell thematically absent. Which for me was an interesting statement on how creative brains work, which is to say, not always as one might expect.

Miguel Angel Asturias, The President. Beautifully written account of life under the titular dictator. It was censored at the time of its writing. There’s a lot of how evil flows downhill in this, a lot of how the people in the middle of an oppressive system end up complicit. Like a lot of books of the early 20th century, it is not at all sensitive to disabled and mentally ill people as people rather than symbols, so heads up on that front.

Charles S. Brant and Jim Whitewolf, The Autobiography of a Kiowa Apache Indian. Whitewolf talks to Brant about his childhood, his life, the traditions of his people as he knows them. This is not trying to be anything like comprehensive about all Kiowa Apaches, but it’s not as deeply personal as a solo-written memoir would be. Brant’s commentary sometimes feels extremely off to me (this is a book from the middle of the twentieth century, and Brant is not more culturally understanding/enlightened than you would expect of his time), but Whitewolf’s character continues to shine through the snarky footnotes. He is not in some way an idealized noble Indian figure, nor is he the stereotype Brant alludes to of a supposedly-dissolute people. He’s just some guy, some guy that you can easily believe is someone’s uncle, who tells you about how things were when he was a kid, what his family and their neighbors used to do and what they still do now, and Brant can’t ruin that.

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame. Adventure fantasy that I stuck with despite main character amnesia. I have often complained that the failure mode of novellas is to have the worldbuilding of a novel and the payoff of a short story, but while the novellas I read this month mostly followed the pattern of being worldbuilding-heavy, I wouldn’t describe it as failure for these specific cases.

Paul Cornell, Witches of Lychford. The characterization of this was sharp and individual. It was an urban fantasy with what seems like it should be a standard urban fantasy plot (faceless corporation interrupts structure of village life for nefarious magical purposes and with nefarious magical consequences), but the characters are so individual that this is not a problem…and when I ask myself for actual examples of other stories that do this, they are not abundant. I particularly like the inclusion of a vicar as one of the titular women; this is a varied and matter-of-fact treatment of faith and organized religion that we don’t see often enough.

Michael J. DeLuca, ed., Reckoning Issue 1. Kindle. I’m in this, and I don’t review things I’m in–too much potential for tackiness. However, I will say that several individual pieces got mentioned in my year-end favorites, and when they’re available on the internet I’ll link to them.

S.B. Divya, Run Time. Another worldbuilding-heavy novella that did not turn out to suffer unduly from that balance. This one is near-future adventure-racing SF. If you miss EcoChallenge since adventure racing went all reality TV, this is for you. The plot twists are not very twisty, but they don’t have to be; there’s a diverse cast doing adventure-racing SF, and there are several of you who will want that if you don’t have it already.

Elizabeth Dodd, Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World. Essays on nature and place. Dodd’s lens has some beautiful views from it, and some extremely quirky personal ones. I’ve gotten a lot more interested in personal essay/memoir lately, so expect more of this.

Jean d’Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, A History. Oh, what a weird book, oh, what a weird book. This is one of the rare places where the “a novel” style subtitles are really called for, because the format of this book is that it is a history of a place that never existed. It is written exactly like a history of the era it covers–I read a lot of history, so I know–and if you are prone to Clausewitz and Liddell Hart jokes, the footnotes are hysterically funny. If you don’t like reading history, for heaven’s sake don’t read this, it’s like that but nonexistent. The introduction may be daunting for genre-familiar readers, since the person writing it seems to be going, “OMG Alternate history! can you say ‘alternate history,’ children?”, but the book is better than that, the book is doing things with the stories we tell ourselves in different contexts, how we talk to each other and what’s given priority, what is this fiction endeavor anyway. Highly but narrowly recommended.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Public festivals, dancing mania, carnival, all sorts of expressions of group positivity. Interesting angle from which to take on various parts of history. I kept making wry faces at the fact that historians are divided on whether carnival-esque festivals are necessary for authoritarian regimes to keep the people blowing off steam or harmful for authoritarian regimes by allowing a place to conspire and invert the status quo. It can be both, people! It can totally be both, that can be part of how authoritarian regimes do not work well. Nothing on this earth guarantees that things that are necessary will not also be harmful to the entity that needs them.

Zetta Elliott, The Phoenix on Barkley Street. This was a chapter book, the stage before middle grade, so it was extremely brief and it did not attempt much in the way of nuance. City kids and their phoenix attempt to clean up a place where they can hang out safely. Probably you know some kids who could use some magic that doesn’t look like it’s just for dominant cultural groups; here’s some.

Dorothy Heydt/Katharine Blake, The Interior Life. Kindle. In the introduction, Heydt/Blake (each name appears on my Kindle file once) notes that this book came out in 1990 “and promptly went back in again.” I can see why, and not because it’s worthless. It’s an interesting example of the domestic fantasy subgenre/superset/whatever it is. And yet the part of the novel that takes place in our world is deeply confused about time. I am the same age as the oldest children in the book, and…this is not the world I grew up in. It’s the world somewhere between half a generation and a generation older. Except with enough computer details that you really can’t just say, oh, fine, yes, it’s 1965-75, onward. The crossover between the two worlds is handled interestingly, and I cared deeply about the mundane details of this world–I loved the fact that fantasy was a positive force and not a negative one–but the weird handling of the sexual harassment subplot made it very clear to me that this came out the year before the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. So I find this book to be worth reading, I care deeply about the characters, it’s not quite like anything else…but I can see why the mass market of 1990 did not fall upon it with glad cries, and I’m glad that we have ebooks now so that the mass market doesn’t have to in order for it to be available. (Unfortunately it seems to have become unavailable again. -ed)

Rachel Ignotofsky, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. This is a book primarily intended for a young audience. It’s lavishly illustrated and does not always choose “the usual suspects” for its subjects. These fifty women vary considerably in nationality, race/ethnicity, and religion–and in what fields they represent. A great resource to inspire kids. (I do wish that the woman who used a wheelchair had been pictured in it, but at least Ignotofsky was clear that she had disabilities and worked through/around them.)

Emmi Itäranta, The Weaver. I’m always interested in whether people do something very like their first novel for their second or very different. This felt very different to me, much closer to the mainstream of stories that get told in speculative fiction (in this case fantasy). It was a fun novel with cool worldbuilding elements, not nearly as special as Memory of Water but not everything has to be.

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds., Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Issue 35. Kindle. A lot of this was deep into weird-for-its-own-sake. “The History of Harrabash” by James Warner was fun to read in conjunction with The Glory of the Empire (I read them on the same day), since the Warner story is a much lighter, younger voice on the teaching and learning of history even when it doesn’t exist. Jack Larsen’s “The Equipoise With Lentils” was I think the most successful for me at being unabashedly surreal and still keeping my interest.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars. This felt so very very much like a big fat portal fantasy of my early teens. It’s exactly like the best of the sort of thing I was reading daily in junior high…except without the worry that the suck fairy will have visited it with attitudes about race, gender, or sexuality that now feel like a slap in the face. Portal fantasy: probably you miss it, here is one, it’s not a jerk to people, go.

Emma Newman, After Atlas. This is set in the same universe as Planetfall but is not a direct sequel to it, and I think that’s to Newman’s credit. After Atlas is aiming at a completely different thing, rather than trying to replicate the appeal of the earlier book. I’m glad of that. It’s a procedural with the future tech worked in rather than ignored or only showcased when it was convenient for the author. The ending was not as abrupt as Planetfall‘s, but it does make the “very abrupt ending, several interesting questions unresolved” thing look like a pattern rather than a fluke.

Marta Randall, Islands. Kindle. I had not even heard of Marta Randall, and I know a lot about SF of ages past. Turns out she was the first woman VP of SFWA and also the first woman president of same. And she wrote this and some other novels that I also downloaded to my Kindle, and it was definitely worth reading. It felt far more modern than most of what was presented to me as “classics of ’70s SF” when I was a teenager. I wonder how much sexism played a part in it not joining their ranks, how much it was random midlist blues, and how much it was that SF was hurtling toward cyberpunk while Randall was musing about mortality, relationship, and environment. I think one of the things that was particularly appealing to me is that Randall reached for connection and understanding of others’ viewpoints. But scuba-diving sunken Hawaii was pretty cool as a set of images, too.

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. This was full of interesting tidbits that didn’t quite come together into the whole Solnit hoped it would be, in my view. Muybridge was extremely eccentric, and the times surrounding him no less so; lots of fodder for an interesting book here. But it felt to me like there was perhaps one or two steps of bringing things together missing between this book and a really great one. I’m still interested in Solnit’s work and looking forward to reading more of it, but this was not as good as A Paradise Built in Hell.

Fran Wilde, A Jewel and Her Lapidary. Worldbuilding-heavy novellas for the win. This one was also adventure fantasy, very vividly built, with relationships central to the plot.

Connie Willis, Fire Watch. Reread. I have been revisiting some of the old short story collections we have around here to see how they stand up. In this case: not well. The older I get, the more Willis’s time travelers seem implausibly foolish, the less they seem entertaining. Everything reads just a bit flat, all the emotions primary colors and very little nuance. I am a little worried about revisiting the longer works of hers I remember enjoying, in this light.

Kai Ashante Wilson, A Taste of Honey. You’d think with all the worldbuilding-heavy novellas I read this fortnight, they would start to run together, but they were all quite distinct–Wilson’s worldbuilding continues to be like no one else’s. This was a fantasy love story, tinged with melancholy but not depressing, the plot leaving room for the characters and their world to be the focus.

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From a Secret World. Forest health and tree tidbits. Stuff about how trees exist in community, how they share nutrients through the fungal network around their roots, other cool arboreal things. Yay trees.

Other people’s short stories I liked in 2016

On my list of things to do in 2017: keep better track of which stories I liked in anthologies, not readily linkable. There are a few on this list from things I read on my Kindle once I thought of that, but not many, and while I went through my book posts trying to spot the anthologies that came out this year and the stories I liked in them, I am tired and have a cold and probably missed some. And again: this list makes no pretense at being comprehensive, nor is it the N best for your award-nominating needs. I care about getting short stories into brains; that is what this is for, and secondarily to pat people on the back and say go team. I have not read all of any one thing, and I have not read some of everything. I have just read some things and liked them. Here they are.

Das Steingeschopf, by G. V. Anderson (Strange Horizons)

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg (Shimmer)

Blood Reckonings, by Alec Austin (BCS)

The Paper Sword, by Alec Austin (Hidden Youth)

The Spy Who Never Grew Up, by Sarah Rees Brennan (Uncanny)

The Signal Birds, by Octavia Cade (Liminal)

Mortal Eyes, by Ann Chatham (BCS)

A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by P. Djeli Clark (Tor.com)

A Hundred and Seventy Storms, by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny)

Anon and the Antlers, by Michael J. DeLuca (Orthogonal)

Asleep in the Traces, by Michael J. DeLuca (Middle Planet)

Binaries, by S. B. Divya (Lightspeed: PoC Destroy SF)

Written in the Book of the Woods, by L.J. Geoffrion (Reckoning)

Big Thrull and the Askin Man, by Max Gladstone (Uncanny)

A Name to Ashes, by Jaymee Goh (Hidden Youth)

Civitas Sylvatica, by Cae Hawksmoor (Reckoning)

The Stone Garden, by C. A. Hawksmoor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Virgin Played Bass, by Maria Dahvana Headley (Uncanny)

Transition, by Erin Hoffman (Reckoning) (a poem, not a story)

Plague Winter, by Emily Houk (Reckoning)

My Grandmother’s Bones, by S. L. Huang (Daily SF)

Spirit of Home, by Jose Pablo Iriarte (Motherboard)

The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles, by Rachael K. Jones (BCS)

Zombies in Winter, by Naomi Kritzer (Persistent Visions)

The True and Otherworldly Origins of the Name Calamity Jane, by Jordan Kurella (BCS)

Foxfire, Foxfire, by Yoon Ha Lee (BCS)

Where She Went, by Linden A. Lewis (BCS)

The Governess With a Mechanical Womb, by Leena Likitalo (Clarkesworld)

A New Home, by Karin Lowachee (Lightspeed: PoC Destroy SF)

Contra Gravitatem (Vita Genevievis), by Arkady Martine (Lackington’s)

“Fear Death by Water,” by Arkady Martine (Unlikely Story)

Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell (Shimmer)

In His Own Image, by E. C. Myers (Hidden Youth)

Hundreds, by Mari Ness (Daily SF)

The Middle Child’s Practical Guide to Surviving a Fairy Tale, by Mari Ness (Fireside)

A Citizen’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, by Josh Pearce (Orthogonal)

The Sweetest Skill, by Tony Pi (BCS)

Left the Century to Sit Unmoved, by Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons)

Recalled to Service, by Alter S. Reiss (Tor.com)

Playing Prometheus, by Frances Rowat (Persistent Visions)

Once I, Rose, by Merc Rustad (Daily Science Fiction)

Blue Flowers: Fragments, by Sofia Samatar (Uncanny) (This also may be a poem. Or not. As you will. It is a thing I like.)

The Right Sort of Monsters, by Kelly Sandoval (Strange Horizons)

As Long as It Takes to Make the World, by Gabriela Santiago (Lightspeed: PoC Destroy SF)

Three Alternate Histories, by Kate Schapira (Reckoning)

Today I Am Paul, by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)

Listen, by Karin Tidbeck (Tor.com)

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde (Shimmer)

Foreign Tongues, by John Wiswell (Flash Fiction Online)

Project Daffodil, by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Nature Futures)

Exquisite Corpse, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Daily SF)

Books read, early December

Daniel Abraham, The Spider’s War. The end of its series. Too much abusive boyfriend, not enough banking. Seriously. It felt like Abraham started out doing cool things with banking, and then the banker did not get to use her banking skills in the climax of the book basically at all. She got to use metaphors for them, which were her feminine wiles. This did not thrill me. Also, the person she was forced to use feminine wiles on was incredibly distasteful to her and me, and I totally get what Abraham was doing with the portrayal of a Nice Guy TM wreaking havoc without really understanding why what he was doing was not okay, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed spending any time with him in fiction, either in his perspective or the perspectives of those around him. I really loved the series that started with A Shadow in Summer, and every project Abraham does is quite different from the others, so I’m glad this series has found its resolution so we can see what other themes and tropes he feels like playing with.

Chaz Brenchley, Three Twins at Crater School Chapters 20 & 21. Kindle. I know, I keep saying I am terrible at reading serials, but the thing is we’ve got to the point in the book that’s jam-packed with plot. Each chapter is fairly short–think kids’ book chapters, that’s the model Chaz is using–and yet things! keep! happening! So if I’m in line at the post office and need something on my Kindle, I can find out what. And I am such a sucker for school stories.

Avner Cohen, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. Cohen apparently has another book about Israel’s development of the bomb. This one was about Israeli attitudes and discussion practices around nuclear weapons. I found it mildly intellectually interesting and not the least bit emotionally engaging. Probably falls in the category of “if you have a particular interest in this topic but not otherwise.”

Charles de Lint, Waifs and Strays. Reread. One of the problems of collecting an author’s stories around a particular theme is that it can feel repetitive or expose weakness. In this case de Lint’s sense of teenage dialog is a serious weakness. I have found some of his work compelling, but this is just not a collection of his best stuff. Start somewhere else if you’re curious about de Lint.

A. M. Dellamonica, The Nature of a Pirate. Discussed elsewhere.

Bradley Denton, Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede. Reread. I am really curious about how this reads to someone who wasn’t living on the prairie in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Denton’s sense of prairie, of that part of middle America, is literally incomparable. I have no idea what other author even tries to get across that sense of the world, especially in the late 20th century. The music references were fun, the gonzo sf conceit continues to be better than I would have assumed without reading other Denton, but it’s the dust of the middle and southern plains that I really love in Denton’s work.

Maria Emilia Paz, Strategy, Security, and Spies: Mexico and the US as Allies in World War II. I really like having specific references about parts of the world wars that were not the obvious theaters, books that make clear the ways in which it was a world war. Paz has a keen sense of where each country was clueless about the other’s perceptions and motivations here–particularly the fact that the US no longer thought of itself as an invading power that had taken some Mexican land (on the “that was a long time ago” front) but Mexico really did perceive it that way and have several diplomatic needs accordingly. Interesting stuff, and brief enough not to become tedious.

Benjamin Rosenbaum, The Ant King and Other Stories. Reread. Rosenbaum’s stories are clever (sometimes the failure mode of clever), and I really like the other cities section. (I am a sucker for that.) The stories I liked best outside that section tended to be the least wry, to feel the least like they were smirking at their own characters. And I do love the off-the-wall surreal moments. That’s what I keep this collection around for.

Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Brooke Allen, and Carolyn Nowak, Lumberjanes: Band Together. The thing about Lumberjanes is that every new thing feels natural but you can’t see them coming. “Oh, mermaid music festival, sure,” is a thing that makes emotional sense in context, and it was fun, and we got a little more Roanoke cabin backstory along the way. Not clearly a major advancement in plot, but a fun, fast read.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 13. Kindle. I really liked the Sofia Samatar prose poem or whatever it was (I don’t have to know what it was! it was a thing I liked!), and the nonfiction of this issue was particularly strong, to the point where I am tempted to call it a service to the community. The stories were all quite readable but just barely not into the “favorites” category for me, although Amal’s thing was close, thoughtful and personal and wrenching and why not a favorite again? Hmm. Maybe I just needed to sit with it for awhile.

Adam Zamoyski, Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna. This goes into a lot of detail about the Congress of Vienna, which apparently lasted for quite some time. Zamoyski is interested in the personalities as well as the policies, so it’s a fairly engaging read, but if you pick it up on the wrong day it will replicate the “gahhhh will this never ennnnnd” feeling experienced by so many of the people involved. And suddenly there’s Napoleon! and then not! So really: pretty accurate emotionally as well as detailed in facts.

The Nature of a Pirate

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the third in its series, and there is no reason not to read the first two and every reason to do so. But this one I think really comes into its own. This is the first time I have been able to figure out that it reminds me of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series with people applying scientific method in circumstances where that is not the default. Lots of people are wanting more like that while they wait for more Steerswoman–at least lots of people in my social circles–so here you go, a portal fantasy with Steerswoman-like traits.

It also has lots of examinations of trust, complicity, and assumptions. The stuff about complicity in particular, how you work for change within a flawed society, which things are effective, which things make your position clear…all of that has timing that I’m sure Alyx wishes was not quite so apt.

There are also some quite vivid creations called frights that sink ships and cause other kinds of mayhem, so…yay mayhem.

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