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.)

Shattered Warrior, by Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Colleen is a human on a world colonized by humanoid aliens. She was born before the Derichet arrived, and her family was one of the richest, most powerful families on the planet, but that’s all gone now. She works in a factory, longs for her dead and missing relatives, and scrapes by as best she can.

One night she meets Jann, a fellow human involved in the rebellion against the Derichet. She moves from self-protection to a larger political activism–and opens up in her personal relationships along the way.

Ostertag is the artist who draws Strong Female Protagonist, and her style is clearly recognizable in this, her debut graphic novel. Shinn is the author of lots of speculative fiction novels, and her previous style also shows through, particularly in the ways the romantic relationship beats fall. I feel like it’s a reasonable introduction to Shinn’s work, accounting for less story per page than you’ll get in her prose novels. Ostertag, too: the modes of being expressive, the way interpersonal and action scenes are shown, are distinct from SFP but clearly the work of the same hand.

Please consider using our link to buy Shattered Warrior from Amazon.

A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge

Review copy provided by Amulet Books.

Neverfell is a cheesemaker’s apprentice in the underground city of Caverna, and my biggest complaint about this book is that there is not enough cheese in the second half of it. But there is quite a lot of cheese early on–quite a lot of decadent, fanciful cheese–phantasmagoric cheese, even–and it is replaced by other variable decadent and phantasmagorical substances, perfumes, wines. This is a book filled with description and vivid reference, but never in a way that’s extraneous to what’s going on.

Neverfell is fourteen. She feels much younger. The publisher lists “12 and up” as the age range, and I feel that’s about right, by which I mean, kids younger than 12 will be totally fine reading this book as they are for everything else publishers label “12 and up.” It is consistent with that category rather than limited to those numbers. There is darkness here, but not gore; treachery but not despair.

The denizens of Caverna have to specifically learn Faces: that is, their countenances are naturally blank. We learn very early that Cavernan babies don’t mimic facial expressions or experiment with their own features the way we do. Except for Neverfell. Neverfell’s face shows her reactions, her actual emotions–she has to be schooled to make it *avoid* doing so, not schooled to make it do so. In a city of cut-throat politics where everything down to the twitch of an eyebrow is calculated carefully, she is fascinating and dangerous, a loose cannon, a puzzle. How did this happen? What does it all mean? And who is controlling her, who is firing this loose cannon?

The world outside Neverfell’s cheese caves is glittering, complicated, deeply broken. The role she has to play in it is simultaneously predictable in its general shape from the earliest pages and unpredictable in its specific details. I honestly don’t know what to compare this book to. There is nothing quite like it. It’s a backstory of sorts, it’s…not a coming of age so much as a coming into one’s own, it’s about revolution and friendship and learning to pay attention to things that are obvious and things that are not. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s definitely an interesting one.

Please consider using our link to buy A Face Like Glass from Amazon.

Spill Zone, by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

The cover of this graphic novel says only the two names listed above, but the title page has, in smaller letters, “colors by Hilary Sycamore.” Comics are almost always a group endeavor, but this is the first time I have specifically wanted to mention the color work as making the book. The nature of the story is such that having psychedelic, violently variable colors strongly reinforces it, to the point where I’m not sure this story could exist in black and white. Well done, Hilary Sycamore.

This is clearly the first volume of a series. The story ends on a cliffhanger and doesn’t do all that much besides setting up the characters and scenario. Regular readers of comics/graphic novels may be used to that; it’s not something I really like. I also found that the tropes it leans on (non-verbal child character, creepy doll, “haunted” hospital) had not, as of the end of this volume, been revitalized into feeling like something new and special here.

I did think that the idea of Addison attempting to use her camera to document the horrors her family had endured was a cool one. She seemed to approach it far more in that vein than as an artist, but the spectrum of documentary photography to art photography is an interesting one anyway. I’m interested in a heroine who wants to shoot monsters in a non-fatal way–I just wish we’d gotten more of the story to see more of that.

Please consider using our link to buy Spill Zone from Amazon.

Real Friends, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is a memoir of Hale’s grade school struggles with friendship and group dynamics, and also her relationship with her oldest sister. It’s trying to be aimed at kids–it’s trying to give kids the message that they deserve friends who treat them well–and I really like that message.

But truthfully I feel like this is really more of an adult-appeal book. I can easily imagine adults giving it to kids in their lives who are struggling with friendship and group dynamics, and maybe some of those kids will find it useful or comforting. But for the most part the ’80s references don’t feel intricate enough to be fascinating to kids for whom they’re historical, just touchstones for people who lived through it. And the semi-nostalgic, semi-rueful adult perspective feels very present–it’s definitely “here is an adult telling you, kiddo, a story.”

Part of my problem here, I think, is with the graphic novel format. This is a very short graphic novel, and there are sections where LeUyen Pham’s art is given a chance to shine, notably the imagination games little Shannon plays with her friends. But none of the things that make Shannon Hale a unique individual have enough *time* to feel very developed here. It’s short even for a kids’ graphic novel. It’s not offensive. I’m definitely behind the message. I’m just not sure about the target audience really connecting with it.

Please consider using our link to buy Real Friends from Amazon.

Books read, late April

Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth, eds., Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. One of the really great things about having an entirely Dakota account of this conflict, from a variety of sources, is that it makes clear what diversity of opinion and experience there was among the Dakota people, between different ages and sexes and bands and obvious demographics of that sort but also between individuals. Which is a very good thing indeed, always. It also made it clear what a terrible time mixed-race people had in this place and time, facing distrust and worse from both ethnic groups. I actually expected this book to be more depressing than it was–I think because many of the worst stories would have belonged to people who died in one way or another. Not that there wasn’t plenty that was sad here, and the measles epidemic at the end was pretty bad to be reading about right now in particular.

Marie Brennan, Within the Sanctuary of Wings. Discussed elsewhere.

Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit. One of the nicest science fiction books I have read in quite some time. It’s a semi-direct sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, in that the events follow on immediately and feature some of the characters, but only some of them, and there are two parallel storylines that inform each other directly as two people learn how to person in full-on science fiction style. This is a good book to read when you feel terrible.

Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. …and this is not a book to read when you feel terrible, especially when you have a deeply committed, lifelong, highly emotional relationship with one of the said Great Lakes. (If you are new here: Lake Superior. OBVIOUSLY.) I now know more about lampreys, alewives, quogga mussels, and a great many more things than I did before. I am glad to know it. I am not sorry I read this book. But oh lordy this book. Up side: there is a reason why life comes second in the title. It is trying to end on a hopeful note. Down side: I am aware of several of the topics he could have delved into and didn’t aaughhhhh. (But seriously, if you are from a lake state/province, read this book. If you are not from a lake state/province, probably read this book anyway. In conclusion: lakes.)

Ruthanna Emrys, Winter Tide. I critiqued this book in draft, and now it is a real live book. I am excited. I have been talking about this one for awhile, and now other people can too. Among other things I love about this book: it is so much easier not to let fantasy races stand in for human racial/ethnic/religious groups when the human racial/ethnic/religious groups are standing right there having their own perspective and history and opinions. Ruthanna’s cast is large for a reason: she is doing things with everyone, and they are not the things ol’ HP would have liked. Good. He’s not here, and we all are.

Masha Gessen, Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region. This is short and a bit rambly and does not do entirely enough of what it says on the tin, about Jewish populations and migration and assimilation vs. not, but it’s interesting anyway.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Lots of cool tidbits about the brains of other animals, particularly but not limited to octopus and their cousins. I like this sort of thing so much, but even if you don’t like it in general you might like this one; it is a pretty good example of its type.

Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Hint: only surprising if you were not paying that much attention. Sorry, there are lots of surprises available, it’s just that this is a generalist history; it is not where the surprises are to be found. It’s a good generalist history from what I, a non-Byzantinist, can tell–it feels like it hits the highlights of all the topics you would cover in detail if you were doing several courses on Byzantium. Like these are the bits you would have a vague memory of decades later if you didn’t tend to retain your courses all that well. Which is a decent way to start. If you’re hoping for more depth, go with something else she wrote, which is quite a lot really. There’s a lot of fun stuff here, just not quite enough of any of it.

Shirley Jackson, Let Me Tell You. Short stories of various kinds, personal essays, general stuff by Shirley Jackson. I really enjoyed this quite a lot. Some of it had not been published for decades, some not ever. The thing that kind of threw me was that it was her mimetic fiction and her thrillers and her fantastic fiction all jumbled together, so I was sometimes drastically misreading cues, and I would get to the end of a mimetic story and think, “And…they had an unhappy marriage? that was it? nobody killed anybody or was cast into the outer darkness or anything? oh.” Which does not make them bad mimetic stories, it was just that my reading protocols were wandering around quite a lot from story to story.

Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, eds., The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories. Sometimes I read a book like this and think, what did I used to read? who was there? because so many of the best authors, the ones whose names I see and look forward to, are people I had not heard of twenty years ago, or even ten, or sometimes even five. This makes me happy and excited about the future. Lots and lots of stories that were positive stand-outs here: JY Yang’s “Glass Lights,” Helene Wecker’s “Majnun,” Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Black Powder,” Amal El-Mohtar’s “A Tale in Seven Birds,” Catherine Faris King’s “Queen of Sheba,” and Usman T. Malik’s “Emperors of Jinn.” See, and of those people, two of them I don’t think I have read before, and the other four I am saying, oh, and I loved their this, their that–and it is less than ten years old. Excited. If I had one complaint, it’s that the opening of the volume felt more uniform than it would later be. But not in a direction of badness, so…not even really a complaint, that.

Sofia Samatar, Tender. This is a book filled with stories that would be my favorites if they were published in other things. I know because many of them were my favorites when they were published in other things, so I don’t have to guess. But not everything here is something I’ve read before, and some of the new things remind me of the old things I liked but different and are paired with them, a new thing late in the volume reminding me of the one from LCRW…oh. Oh, I just like this, I’m so glad to have it.

Emily Skrutskie, The Abyss Surrounds Us. YA about genetically engineered battle sea monsters and the (violent, not happy fun fakey type) pirates involved with them. I wanted to love this, but there was too much girlfriend, not enough sea turtle for me, and also there should be at least one sea turtle book where the sea turtles are not drastically injured. It may just be me and Tim and our godson Rob who feel that way, but we feel that way very strongly. It is not Emily Skrutskie’s fault that we feel that way, and if you are wanting rising sea levels and battle turtles and teen love-angst, this has that. I just would like to have been able to say that no turtles were harmed in the plotting of this book, and welp.

Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. This is a very straightforward book, first this thing, then that thing, then the other thing. And it is full of women doing astronomy, and I like that. It is not one of the tales of past science that comes with compelling narrative through-arc, so if you do not have at least a little of the same thoroughness that animated these ladies in your soul, it is perhaps not your book. But: first this variable star, and then another, and then a glass plate that might not have any at all, but look, it does. Yes. There. Good.

Bruce Sterling, Crystal Express. This is the sort of short story collection from my past that doesn’t make me baffled or sad at my past self, because I never adored it, it was sort of workmanlike, and it is now too, but…it is not enough really. It sits there with ideas that tried very hard and characters that did not quite get there, and if you are on an airplane or in a hotel somewhere you could do a lot worse than these stories but also generally better. They are not laughably bad, not shameful, not…anything that strong, really. They’re all right I guess. I think you can do better than all right I guess.