Like Never and Always, by Ann Aguirre

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Most body swap stories–things like Freaky Friday–feature both perspectives, and the ending is that everybody goes back in their proper body but with new appreciation for the other person’s experiences.

Like Never and Always is really, really not like that.

Liv is in a car accident and wakes up in the body of her best friend, Morgan. Morgan doesn’t wake up in any body. Liv’s old body is dead. Liv’s family is grieving, Liv’s boyfriend is grieving, and Morgan has left Liv a gigantic mess that Liv had no way to anticipate–because it turns out that Morgan has been hiding almost everything from her. For their entire friendship. Yikes.

This is a thriller with thriller pacing; the chapters are short and vivid. Mostly it’s a contemporary YA thriller, but the speculative element is present on basically every page. There’s a strong romance arc as well, and a detective element in trying to figure out things about Liv/Morgan’s new life and her past, so…a lot of genres handled here. I think this one will have pretty broad appeal, because each of them is handled with a fairly light touch, so the people who say “I don’t really like _____” won’t be overwhelmed by _____. The strongest element is Liv’s relationships, and that fits the premise perfectly.

Please consider using our link to buy Like Never and Always from Amazon.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also I hung out with Mary for hours less than a week before reading this book, so. There’s that I guess, as disclaimers go.

This book. Oh people. This book.

So the factual description first, what is this book: it is an alternate history of the early space program, with additional meteorite disaster (this is not a spoiler, it opens the book). Its focal characters draw on the neglected history of women in NASA, with a strong eye to the diverse bunch of people that actually got humanity into space from various places on this planet. There are exciting flight scenes, there are intense relationship scenes, there is…there is a lot. I am deeply, deeply glad that there is a second one, and that I don’t have to wait more than two months to get it.

But more nebulously, what is it? It is a book that deals very directly with anxiety, and with the fallout from being simultaneously the youngest kid in the class and the only girl in a technical field. It goes straight to my heart and some of the core of my identity and stays there, sometimes with catharsis and triumph, sometimes with pure struggle. It made me weep in unexpected places that will probably not be the same as yours unless they are. Its heroine doubts herself and screws up–everyone in the book is allowed to screw up–it is a book that understands that humanity and perfection do not coexist, but that striving is still worthwhile anyway. This book is made of striving.

I kind of think you want this book, friends. And I can’t wait for the next one.

Please consider using our link to buy The Calculating Stars from Amazon.

Books read, late June

It’s panel prep season! A lot of my reading this fortnight was preparation either for Fourth Street or for Readercon. So: many rereads. And so little time for other things.

Edward Eager, Magic by the Lake, Magic or Not?, The Time Garden, and The Well-Wishers. Rereads. The suck fairy had been at The Time Garden–there’s barely a bit of it that isn’t racially stereotyping and insensitive. Which makes me sad, because the general conceit of magic through varietals of thyme was cute and fun…but it made me aware that in my childhood I might not have encountered a character of Pacific Island heritage who was not portrayed as a cannibal, and that was pretty gross. (Nor was this the only example of racist portrayals in that book, nor was it Eager’s only use of that trope–Magic by the Lake is the companion volume to The Time Garden, as the children in the two encounter each other in the same scene written from different perspectives.) I have a lot to say about Eager’s relationship to Nesbit’s works–that’s the panel I’m preparing for–but here I will simply say that the difference between Nesbit doing her own thing and Eager looking back to try to do her thing looks pretty important to the result. The dubious magic pairing held up better (Magic or Not? and The Well-Wishers)–the latter was in the “okay for its time” category regarding how coy it was about race while trying to take on the theme of desegregation in housing and education–doing that while carefully never using any words that might be race-markers and never letting the illustrator illustrate the Black characters is…pretty shaky ground. But at least the book came down on the side of “these people are people and we support that,” I guess.

John M. Ford, From the End of the Twentieth Century and The Dragon Waiting. Rereads. The former is a brilliant and eclectic collection of short stories, essays, and poems. The latter…oh, oh, the latter. The Dragon Waiting holds up no matter how many times I reread it. It simultaneously does alternate history and does subtle meta things about alternate history and inevitability. It’s got vampires and wizards and Richard III and a strong Byzantium and…stuff, it is full of stuff, it is entirely full of stuff, and every time I reread it there’s something more I’d forgotten or hadn’t fully apprehended. Highly, highly recommended.

Dorothy Heydt, The Witch of Syracuse. Kindle. This is a mosaic novel about a woman who is sometimes a physician and sometimes a witch. It’s set in ancient Greece and does really well with its setting, historico-mythically. The heroine is engaging and fun, and the trials she runs into are interesting. Definitely enjoyed and would recommend. (Free! -ed)

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It. Reread. Actually held up substantially better than Eager despite being almost twice as old: Nesbit’s children are flawed, forthright, stubborn little beasts having magic adventures, and it’s still reasonably fun. She takes more care than her era really would have found proper to make sure she’s not stereotyping Roma people (not perfectly successful at this–but better than not trying), and there are little pokes and jabs at the status quo in odd and charming places.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, Will Murray, Chris Schweitzer, et al. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Like I’m the Only Squirrel in the World and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Who Run the World? Squirrels!. These are just plain fun. Especially if you have no reverence for the other Marvel superheroes and enjoy seeing them skewered, mocked, and parodied. There is nut-eating as well as butt-kicking in these.

G. Willow Wilson et al, Ms. Marvel: Super Famous. I like Ms. Marvel a lot and enjoyed this comic, gentrification and all, but it suffered by being read in close proximity to the Squirrel Girl comics, because they took nearly identical paths to their young heroines’ romantic lives. Ideally there will be more divergence in future. Meanwhile it was still reasonably fun to encounter Kamala’s super adventures overlapping with her family stuff.

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The first thing about this book is that it nails the voice. It’s a 1930s British spy novel, and Rajaniemi gets that, down to the bones and, er, ectoplasm. It is intensely atmospheric; while the WWI of this book is not our WWI and the thirties that ensue are not our thirties, they have the same emotional heft, the same grit and shadow as ours. I like this a lot.

Second, what it has is follow-through on its worldbuilding. I watch a lot of procedurals with my workouts–no, a lot–no, really really a lot–and they quite often want to veer at least temporarily into an episode that has ghosts. But they don’t want to think about the implications of the kind of ghosts they’ve chosen: how much they can observe the world of the living, how much they can interact with physical objects, what effects that would have on life in general and the setting of the procedural in specific. Because they don’t want to write a ghost story, they want to write a procedural and do a little flirting on the side.

Hannu Rajaniemi wanted to write a ghost story. He wanted to think very, very hard about what all the implications would be if we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that spirits could interact with our world in certain specified ways, that people could then build technologies and social structures around. And so there is a story with heart here, with very human characters doing very human things–but the world-building was just lovely, because it thought through surveillance and evidence in a world with ghosts, it thought through how you would go about building spy networks when death did not release your agents, and the story that ensued is a very emotionally complex human story with the speculative premise utterly essential.

I liked this a lot, and I recommend it highly.

Please consider using our link to buy Summerland from Amazon.

Books read, early June

Adam Regn Arvidson, Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest. This author went and had an in-person encounter with each of the species on the endangered species list in Minnesota and wrote about it. I LOVED THIS. I wish every state had a book like this. It gives a different context and perspective on your immediate habitat even if you’re a person who thinks about conservation and habitat frequently and broadly. I think it would be very readable even for non-Minnesotans, but for Minnesotans, a must-read. Mussels, orchids, lynx, all sorts of things.

Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective. This is a short piece but stands under separate cover, so it gets a separate review. This is a female PoC Holmes-and-Watson in space, but the in space part is baked into the bones. There’s no part of this that’s just plunked down in space with no thought to implication, no part where the shift in culture and gender is not done with careful consideration. As a result, I found it to be far more charming and interesting than the versions in which the template is used too exactly without regard to worldbuilding and character context. If you like nontraditional minds as characters, this one’s for you. No, I don’t mean Holmes….

John M. Ford, The Princes of the Air and Web of Angels. Rereads. These are Mike’s first two books, and I hadn’t reread them since he died in 2006. What struck me this time about Web of Angels in particular was how emotionally and culturally Protestant it is. Possibly the most Protestant book I’ve ever read that was not about conversion theology. It’s proto-cyberpunk, is what it is, it’s cyberpunk before movement cyberpunk, and the aesthetic and tonal differences are fascinating.

Victoria Glendinning, Anthony Trollope. This is a fun biography of the author in question, talking about his relationships and their effects on his work, particularly his relationships with women including his mother and his niece. It made me want to read more Trollope, although he is the scariest author I read, so I will still probably not do more than one. But soon.

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation. I think it’s worth looking at Deb Reese’s commentary on a Native perspective on this book, including its endnotes. I see what Ireland was trying to do, and the parts of it that were away from the residential school were as interesting as a zombie novel ever gets for me, interesting enough that I was very glad to keep reading and see what she was doing with it. But I also see that there are some areas where wounds are still very, very fresh in some communities, so…this book simultaneously does an amazing job with prejudice and perception and power in its main characters’ lives and has some caveats around it that I expect Ireland will be keeping in mind for future work, knowing how good this is and how good the work she’s done elsewhere has been.

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There. This is a “life of the Park” book mostly–a little bit about codebreaking, but mostly a book about how it was to live there, how it felt and who ate what and how it was to arrange lodgings–the sort of thing that a writer who wants that background will probably find valuable.

E. Nesbit, The Magic World. Reread. A set of Nesbit shorts, all aimed at kids and doing that Edwardian upper class thing where she’s talking at kids but assumes a great many specifics about their background. Simultaneously there are a few pre-Soviet socialist moments that are fascinating in their British Edwardian details. But mostly it’s a book where some small magic takes place and some child enjoys it or manages to squirm out from under it, often but not always with animal transformation and frustrating relatives.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Jacob Chabot, et al, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I Kissed A Squirrel and I Liked It. I’m sad that it’s still necessary for some of these tropes about dating and what NOT to do to someone you’re dating are necessary to mention–and really glad that comics are willing to mention them, and put them in the context of superpowered adventures. I raced through this.

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. This was the last of Grandpa’s books on my pile, and it took me forever to read–not mostly because of my awareness that it was the last, mostly because it is over a thousand pages of Nazis, and I kept needing to take breaks for my emotional well-being. Shirer was a journalist who had a front-row seat for a lot of things and could comment on the situation firsthand, which was particularly interesting in the early chapters (he did not have a front-row seat for the plot to assassinate Hitler, for example). This book is of its time, does not have all the context that we’d later have, but that’s also where its value lies: you can see how much of this stuff was terrifyingly known immediately or soon thereafter, what it looked like while it was happening. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad I’m done reading it.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition. The second Murderbot novella! Now featuring ART! I like ART so much. I continue to do the dance of Murderbot as it wends its way through frustrating human customs and societies and tries to figure out a place for itself. Looking forward to more unreservedly, highly recommended–I read this as a reward for finishing my own book draft.

Present Writers: Dorothy Heydt (Katherine Blake)

This is the second of a new series I’m doing here on the blog: Present Writers. See the first post, on Marta Randall, for series details. I admit that I’m fudging a tiny bit here on the series parameters, because a cursory internet search did not give me Heydt’s exact age–but it did say that she invented a conlang in 1967. If she was less than 11 when she did so, I apologize–and hats off for the small child achievement–but I think I’m safe in guessing that this is an author who fits.

And what an author. Heydt is not vastly prolific, but her work is highly varied. She’s made several things available in free ebook formats on her website, so you don’t have to spend any money to find out what I’m talking about. (Although you can kick in to support the author if you see fit!) There’s a book about a physician who dabbles with witchcraft in Ancient Greece, a virtual reality novel dealing with esports before the term esports was a thing, a parallel realities novel that is some of the most engaging and thoroughly domestic fantasy I’ve ever read, and lashings of short stories. Heydt has range.

There are fight scenes in Heydt’s books–A Point of Honor has a jousting knight for a main character, albeit a virtual one–and chase scenes and other pieces of excitement. But a lot of writers can do those well, too. Heydt really shines in making character interactions and pieces of speculative practicality come to life–the details that make a character or a world feel lived-in. Heydt’s use of violence is considered, nuanced, and full of consequence–it is never a default, and in fact is often absent because it was not the right element for the story. With that sure a touch, Heydt makes The Interior Life a master class in what can matter in genre–and a strong contrast to what traditionally has been considered to matter.

When I first looked at Heydt’s website, only a few things were there. She’s added more since, which gives me hope. But in the meantime, I strongly appreciate what there is, I urge you to go give it a look, and then a long hard think, and then come talk to me about what you thought. Because we’re so very lucky that she’s present and sharing so much.

My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

Books read, late May

The sea of DNFs in this fortnight’s booklog is daunting. DAUNTING. Also I am in the middle of two very long nonfiction books. So! Short post this time.

Vera Brosgol, Be Prepared. Discussed elsewhere.

John Crowley, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr. I enjoyed most of this book. The more crows, the better I liked it, but it was a giant mythic century-spanning thing, and I’m down for that. My problems came in with little asides that frankly felt completely extraneous to the book, like, why is this even here, Crowley? Why do you have a young Native character with fetal alcohol syndrome to be…not even a sidekick, basically a few sentences worth of prop at the end? Why have throwaway lines about crows being gender essentialists when you don’t really have that data and it isn’t going to matter to the rest of the book? Why…why, Crowley. Why. When the crow Orpheus section was so good. There were large thoughts about death, and then the places they went were…a little too large, a little too conscious of the idea that this would be a masterwork, a little too sprawling I think, with small elements not treated with enough respect, especially where they touch on actual human lives. This could have been better for trying to be a book instead of the book, I think. (And self-awareness about persons not like oneself, sheesh.)

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. Hurston interviewed the last surviving person who had been transported to the US to be a slave under legal chattel slavery (I phrase this carefully to acknowledge the realities of human trafficking in our time), and the book just came out now. Her interviews with him are preserved in meticulous detail–not just what he said, but what she as an interviewer did with him to build rapport, what gifts and assistance she provided. In an era when the first person was almost never used in academic writing, I can see why this would not have been a popular approach, but today it’s fascinating context, extremely edifying. This is short and in places emotionally grueling, and very, very much worth reading.

Paul Krueger, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. A fun urban fantasy with a bartending angle. The ending had some interesting twists–not all the ones I was thinking it would, and some I actively wished it wouldn’t–but I still enjoyed it enough to hand it off to a friend immediately, and to keep an eye out for Krueger’s next.

Hope Larson, All Summer Long. Discussed elsewhere.

Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City. Seasteading eco-SF disasterfuture Arctic whosis. As I was reading this, I kept thinking this, this is what people claim Kim Stanley Robinson is doing, that he is not in fact doing. Short chapters, diverse cast, very fast and exciting read.

C.L. Polk, Witchmark. This is a gorgeous book, and I can’t wait until it’s actually out in print so that you can all squee about it with me. (This is an ARC, but not a publisher-provided one.) Magic and mental health care in the aftermath of a war, in the ongoing wreckage caused by colonialism and its ills. Relationships developing organically in a fraught situation. This is exactly what I want out of fantasy these days, and then some. Bicycles and trains and consequences. More. More.

Django Wexler, The Fall of the Readers. The last of this MG series, and there’s really no reason not to start at the beginning, but here we are at a satisfying conclusion, so if you’re concerned about series that go on and on, this is definitely not one. Threads are tied up and implications followed up on. I devoured this all in one go one morning when I had been cranky about literally seven other books on my pile.

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

When I was a kid, I loved camp stories.

When I was a kid, I did not love camp.

The difference comes through very clearly in Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared: camp, like other hells, is other people.

Be Prepared is the story of a young Russian immigrant girl who feels out of place with her wealthier American friends and convinces her mother to send her to a Russian Orthodox scout camp for the summer, where she will–she feels–be among kids like herself and fit in and have the glorious joyful camp experience she has heard of from her friends. It is…about as much like that as you would expect. There are biting insects, stinky latrines, unfriendly older kids who are much more familiar with the camp experience, shifting expectations, well-meaning counselors…it’s camp. It’s camp, from the perspective of a two-cultures kid, and Brosgol makes it vivid and relatable.

Please consider using our link to buy Be Prepared from Amazon.

All Summer Long, by Hope Larson

Review copy provided by FSG.

This is the graphic novel story of the summer before Bina goes into eighth grade. It’s the kind of momentous summer where not much happens in terms of major plot points: no dragons slain, no worlds conquered or planets explored, no murders solved, not even first boyfriends or first kisses. The shape of this story is the stuff you figure out about your friendships and interests at that age, the small things that happen out of your control but inside your orbit–friends wandering off and wandering back, family members making choices that expand your world without you having anything really to say about them. A childhood summer is a very particular, very recognizable slice of life, and this is that. This is very clearly and evocatively that.

Please consider using our link to buy All Summer Long from Amazon.