Monsters Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Claudette, her brother Gaston, and their pal Marie have been chosen to be their village’s representatives in the Warrior Games. Gaston would rather be making gelato (as indeed who among us would not, in real life), and Marie is more concerned with diplomacy than its failed endgames. But someone has to represent them against all the other kingdoms, and Claudette would really like to win. Really. Really really.

Meanwhile Marie and Gaston are pretty sure that some of the other competitors are not what they seem, and that there are more important things than winning.

And the Warrior Games…keep getting less warlike with every stage of the competition. Except for the unofficial parts, which keep getting more and more alarmingly violent (in cartoon terms of course).

This is a kids’ graphic novel. It’s not a deep one. It’s a lot like an average episode of kids’ TV–not Steven Universe or Gravity Falls or Avatar: the Last Airbender, not one of the really good ones. Just something mildly entertaining I guess. These two authors know how to hit beats that make it story. And yet. And yet.

These are two male authors who are once again doing the thing that the male reviewer says on the front is “the strong female character every book-loving child needs to read about!”…by making sure that she *hates dresses* and *hates girly stuff*. Oh. So that again. Also…this is a “syndicated episode of mediocre kids’ TV” level of consequence-free plot. If you’re looking for emotional heft, maybe look somewhere else.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some reasonably entertaining moments here. But this is pretty standard fare with cute art, not by any stretch groundbreaking work for feminism, fantasy adventure, or really much of anything else. Even fairly little kids will feel cozy and familiar in this plot line, not startled and challenged.

Books read, early March

Penelope Bagieu, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World. Discussed elsewhere.

Brooke Bolander, The Only Harmless Great Thing. Radiation. Elephants. Anger, rebellion, community. There is a lot in not very much space in this novella. It’s an alternate history, but…perhaps not as far alternate as it could be.

Thekla Clark, Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. I am deeply fond of Auden, and this is a friend of his writing about their friendship, more or less. The shape of Wystan and Chester’s partnership, and their friendship with Clark and her family, is described lovingly but not inattentively; she does not need her friends to be perfect to love them. And there were moments that made me feel so very fond of one of my favorite poets, and I have always had moments that made me feel so very exasperated by him, so that wasn’t really a surprise. Also this is a very short book–Clark is not trying to do a comprehensive biography, she’s doing what it says on the tin–so there’s really no time to get tired of it before it’s over.

Grace L. Dillon, ed., Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. This is the kind of anthology that is substantially excerpts from longer works rather than the kind that is largely stand-alone works, although there are a few of those. So I felt like it gave me ideas for things to pursue and read rather than complete reading experiences. (I am far to the end of the “does not read serials” end of the spectrum; this may not be the same for everyone.) Given how little-promoted indigenous SF is, this still has value. The other caveat I would give is that this was somewhat difficult to read right now given how heavily influenced it is by Sherman Alexie. He is cited/quoted widely in the introductions to other authors’ work; he is treated as the guy for this field, and…that’s not an easy thing right now, and the shift away from it seems like it will be healthy for everybody.

Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road. A harrowing and somewhat difficult read but well worth it. Deep earth dragons, double standards, family expectations, friendships over time, boots…I feel like most of what I can say about this book will spoil the way it unfolds. It goes well with Seraphina, but it is doing quite different things; it is a companion volume rather than a copy or an attempt to cash in. I was glad of this even when it was hard on me.

Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak, eds., Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy. I was particularly glad to see that Law and Mak actually meant it when they said Asian (rather than one area of Asia or only large ethnicities) and that there were writers I had never read before as well as more familiar names I was glad to see in this volume. There’s also a really large range of genres/subgenres here.

Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen Every Day. I love Perelman’s blog. This cookbook had me nodding along; I copied out a couple of things, but a lot of it will be more useful to people who are not as instinctive about cooking as I am. Which is fine too.

Marta Randall, Dangerous Games. Kindle. Oh this book. Oh where has this book been all my life? Answer: around, and underpromoted. It has multiple kinds of aliens, it has indictments of respectability politics and the practice of pitting minorities against each other, it has a system where killing other sentients always matters even when you thought you could think of them as faceless dots on a spaceship screen, it has disabled people, old people, and children with agency, it has intergenerational respect and understanding AND its grave difficulties, it has…a lot. It has a lot. This is a sequel, so you’re going to want to read Journey first. Luckily that is possible. Also…this starts slow while she’s setting up the pieces. But DAMN does it come together.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power! This is the first Lumberjanes prose novel–a kids’ book. It is great fun. It is full of exclamation points. The title is not playing around. I love all the Lumberjanes completely and unironically. I love them even more together. I love prose more than I love comics. This is for meeeeee.

Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. How much you like this book will depend on which portions of the subtitle set you are most interested in. Taylor is at his strongest when he is considering the American citizen/British subject axis; he does very well with treating the British presence in North America at the time seriously, not just among what eventually became Canadians but along a continuum. However. The coverage of Irish issues was somewhat slight, and Native/First Nations issues were almost completely absent, and they were treated as almost completely without agency when they did appear. So that was far less interesting than I hoped it would be, alas.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 20. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing things I have stories in. I have a story in this.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Carey Pietsch, et al, Lumberjanes: Stone Cold and Lumberjanes: A Bird’s Eye View. Okay, I know I said I love prose more than I love comics, but…I will take Lumberjanes stories however I can get them, and this is the main mode of getting them, fine, yes, good. Lots of mythology, lots of adventure, friendship to the max. Sure, yes, on board.

Why, Miss A! You’re Beautiful Without Your Shift In Meaning!

A few months ago, we had to explain to my goddaughter the old trope where the hero takes off the heroine’s glasses and says, “Why, Miss A! You’re beautiful without your glasses!” Because…she has never known a world where she can’t get cute glasses in flattering styles and a wide variety of colors. That’s just how glasses are–and not because her parents are wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, either. Some of my friends who are struggling a lot for money still browse dozens and hundreds of glasses styles on the internet, able to choose from more on their tight budget than the richest could have dreamed of on theirs 50 years ago–especially the richest children.

My parents tell stories of having one choice of glasses, sometimes one gendered choice–here you go, here are your glasses. Doesn’t flatter your face? Too bad, this is what you get. Glasses. Now you can see. The fashion for girls right now is cat’s eyes. Boys get square blocky ones. For me, it was a little better than that, but not much–and they were not well-fitted to my child’s head, on the assumption that kids were growing, and as a result they were always slipping down my nose, and–in a fairly low-parental-conflict childhood–my mother was always nagging me to push my glasses back up.

Meg Murry’s glasses did that too. In A Wrinkle in Time. It was one of the reasons I bonded with her instantly when I first read the book in grade school: ugh, the glasses thing.

My goddaughter doesn’t have that. Meg’s glasses slipping down her nose are an individual character trait for her, not a bonding moment for every kid with glasses. There is no presumption that obviously everyone would look better without theirs, because, hey, there are so many flattering pairs of glasses, she knows so many people who look great in them. She looks great in hers. And if some jerk ever tries to take her glasses off to tell her she’s beautiful without them, she hasn’t been prepared that that’s the only way this can ever work. The idea of finding someone who thinks she’s pretty great with them is not a massive shock. It’s…life, it’s reasonable, it’s how things are.

The entire meaning of that description has shifted.

So you can’t just put Meg Murry in a pair of glasses and film it that way, assume the modern viewer will get it–in fact, you can assume they won’t. Translation is like that. The past, we say over and over again, is a foreign country. Sometimes the recent past even more so, because we don’t think of what we’re not seeing. We don’t have to explain chamber pots and carriages in the Murry home. Glasses are known technology, aren’t they? We understand glasses, don’t we? Oh.

And then there’s the hair.

This article on Meg’s natural hair in the movie is really good, really interesting. It quotes from the book, and I’m going to repeat the quote: “Meg’s hair had been passable as long as she wore it tidily in plaits. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her mother struggled with putting it up, but one side would come out curly and the other straight.”

Pretty straightforward, right?

Well.

A Wrinkle in Time has a 1962 publication date. Before the hippie era. So…I think younger readers mostly don’t understand the implications of women’s hair here. The passive voice is not accidental: when she went into high school it was cut. This is basically a force of nature, in social terms of the time. Wearing her hair in the braids that actually worked for (book) Meg is no longer an option because that is little kid hair. If you find a high school yearbook from the early 1960s, especially in a small town, you are not seeing the option of long hair worn straight or in braids yet. That came later. So what has happened here is that there are requirements of existing in the teen social world, between the kid world and the adult world, and Meg’s hair is failing her at them. Imagine one of the bouffants from a 1962 yearbook, but done poorly. That is what they mean by “up.” It is “done,” it is done with a fair amount of AquaNet or equivalent, it is one of the miserable child faces underneath a failed elaborate coiffure, because an extremely simple hairstyle of whatever length was not one of the options at the time.

Some of this is universal. Hair texture changes at puberty–sometimes daily–and it can feel impossible to work with whatever you got. And figuring out what on earth other people think is stylish and why on earth they think that is even more difficult when “people” means “whoever I am randomly assigned by geography” rather than “someone I have any interests in common with.” But…I think that people who post-date the hippie era–myself included, on some emotional levels–have difficulty conceiving just how many more options there are for What People Can Look Like, what we can do our hair like, what we can do our clothes like, what we can reject or choose for makeup or nails or any other grooming options.

And so…if you showed a modern audience. Especially a modern child audience. The vision of Meg that was in Madeleine L’Engle’s head for Meg. The hair that had “been cut” and “put up,” the failed bouffant. It would be fundamentally not understood. Even if she was surrounded by other ’62 teenagers in a ’62 high school. The reaction, I think, would be, “What happened to her hair? Why did she do that?” Because as modern viewers, we just don’t have the context of the range of bad hair in the past. We know what present teen struggles with hair look like. We have no reason to keep the data set for 1962.

Similarly, if you filmed the fancy dress occasions of the 1920s, exactly as imagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald–the brilliantine on the gentlemen’s hair would overwhelm us as modern viewers. And so on through history. It just…gets adjusted for the modern viewer. Inherently. Because the world is large, history is large, we cannot keep it all in our head. Every movie made from a book is a translation. No matter how faithful to the text it tries to be. It’s still a translation. The more so for a movie that’s more than a year or two from its source text.

So–read the article in the link about how Ava DuVernay decided to translate Meg’s struggles with her hair. It is a translation, a visual translation, or a transformation, but it’s a necessary one even if the movie had decided to do other things than what it did with race (of which I thoroughly approve), because the world has gone on. I haven’t seen this movie yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to–I hear that it’s one of the most vertigo-inducing movies made in a very vertigo-inducing recent crop of movies. But I think that this particular choice of visual translation of Meg’s struggles with her hair is a brilliant one. It’s one that has some chance of making sense to a modern audience in a way that a literal rendering of the original just couldn’t. And the minute I hear people talk about filming what’s on the page, I know that they’re missing how books and film work differently as media–much less books and film across time.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I’m not entirely sure who the audience for this book was, even though I enjoyed it. It’s a series of brief biographical sketches in graphic novel format–four to seven pages about each woman or women, talking about their accomplishments, their obstacles, their context. The subjects are diverse as to race, religion, milieu.

They are diverse enough, in fact, that their main unifying factor seems to be that Bagieu liked them and found them interesting to draw. Why Margaret Hamilton the actress for pages and Margaret Hamilton the programmer for only one disambiguating panel? Because that’s what Bagieu felt like.

Which: sure, great, it is her book. She’s allowed to turn from Wu Zetian to Temple Grandin if she wants to. But the content includes levels of violence that I think a lot of people who restrict younger readers will want to restrict, in addition to honesty about things like Tove Jansson’s passion for smoking, so I expect this is not a My First Intersectional Feminism For The Single Digit Set. So…inspiration for teens who are feeling battered by the slings and arrows of high school life? A coffee table book for a particular quirky kind of coffee table?

It’s beautifully done, with the personal style and clear sight that Bagieu brought to her biography of Cass Elliot. It’s just a fairly weird object to place in the world. So…recommended to people who like weird objects of this sort, I guess.

Please consider using our link to buy Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World from Amazon.

Books read, late February

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You. I’m really glad this was not my first Lily Anderson novel, frankly, because this is in the same vein of mainstream YA as Not Now, Not Ever, with strong friendships among highly nerdy teenagers, and yet I would have been completely put off by the fact that one of its central plots is a very, very combative love story. You know the kind: I hate you I hate you let’s smooch. This is not a spoiler really–you can see it coming a mile off, you can see it in the title for heaven’s sake. And Anderson does it well, and there are other things going on. But–I really like having talked about romance/love stories enough to have the vocabulary to say that I prefer mine collaborative rather than combative, and I really like that I read her second book first so that I didn’t have a more general idea of this as Her Thing when in fact it’s just one facet.

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass. Fantasy with djinn and various related entities, ranging from Egypt to South Asia. This book started off with a very firm historical setting and wandered off from there into fantasical fireworks, and it is very clearly a first novel with miles to go before the series sleeps.

Barbara Hambly, Murder in July. An entry in the Benjamin January series. Not a great starting point for that as its emotional heft depends on you caring about the supporting cast and knowing a fair amount about them, but if you’re invested in this series–which I really like, New Orleans area free people of color as the main family–then, hey, here’s another.

Kat Howard, An Unkindness of Magicians. Very few contemporary fantasies are as honest about power and complicity in modern systems as this one is–and very few want to actually do something about that rather than saying oh woe the world is grim and dark, look how grim and dark, gosh that sucks. Rather than: look how grim and dark, better fix it, ya big jerk. The magic system Howard postulates here is pretty nasty. But she actually wants to talk about friendship and family and figuring out a way to do better. Which is more than a lot of authors can say when they think about power dynamics. So yes, this book has a lot of unkindness; it says so on the tin. This is one of those where some of us in the gutter actually are looking at the stars.

Barbara Jensen, Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. This book was startling, staggering, amazing. Jensen is my own people, to a startling degree my own people; she is from the north of the Twin Cities, some of the suburbs where I have great-aunts and -uncles. So when she used her own family examples to contrast working-class and middle-class cultural differences, she was talking about Minnesota Scandinavian Lutherans in both cases; she was talking about different parts of my family. There were a couple of places where I actually cried because I had never seen both class branches represented with respect and even affection, things that were good and valid about both, places where she could speak clearly and coherently about there being a difference rather than an absence. So that was amazing. It’s a really fascinating book. I think there are a couple of flaws. One of them is that it’s so very very generational. A great many middle-class assumptions she was talking about did not continue past the Baby Boomers, and I would be fascinated to see an analysis of what it means to be middle-class without them. Another is that I think in her rush not to throw working-class culture under the bus as has been done so many, many times before, she took several accounts of ideals as accounts of actuality. But it’s still a really thought-provoking, discussion-provoking book.

Sujata Massey, The Sleeping Dictionary. I am perpetually short on historical fiction, and Massey delivers with this one. It gets harrowing in several spots in several directions, child endangerment and sexual violence and relationship threat, just to flag that for readers, but I think that the story is interesting and has enough context to be sensitive and worth the emotional ups and downs if you’re ever up for them in any book. (Obviously if you just never want that, it’s a different calculation.) The setting is eastern India leading up to the time of independence from the UK, with independence a constantly intertwined theme for the heroine. It’s listed as the first in a series, but I don’t see that a sequel has come out yet.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., Robots Vs. Fairies. Sometimes you have a solid anthology where one story just completely blows you away and steals your heart, and this is one of those for me. Madeline Ashby’s “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” is the sort of story that I already know in February will be one of my favorites of the year. It deals with eldercare and traditional belief and robots and Iceland and I love this story to bits, worth the price of admission even if it wasn’t a well-constructed anthology otherwise. Which it is, it absolutely is, I just…am completely making heart-eyes at this one story.

Shel Silverstein, The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Okay, so really, Uncle Shelby, this stuff is…you didn’t really. You did? And people bought it for their kids? oh golly. There are all sorts of relationship things that he’s talking about with shapes here, and…welp. There it all is then. Learn to be happy on your own and sing your own songs and…yep, Shel Silverstein is exactly who he told us all he was. Repeatedly.

F.C. Yee, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. This book actually made me laugh out loud in spots. It’s a teen fantasy adventure about the Monkey King showing up to fight a demon infestation in a Silicon Valley suburb, and Yee has totally nailed the reality of that type of suburb being a great deal more influenced by strip malls and highways than redwoods at the moment. I loved Genie and her relationship with her parents and friends and legends and asskickery.

Books read, early February

This half-month’s book post was written, and then WordPress decided that “Save Draft” and “Destroy Draft” were somehow the same thing. So it is not only going to be late but also a trifle terse. Sigh.

Lily Anderson, Not Now, Not Ever. I liked this book now, but when I was twelve to fourteen, you would not have been able to pry me off it. A girl. Runs away. To Academic Decathlon camp. It is as though Lily Anderson said, hello, yes, Marissa, I would like to write you a book please, even though I have never met you, this is for you, okay thank you. There are also other fun elements of it–military family culture, teen relationships not only with love interest but with pals and cousins, intersectionality assumed as a default setting–but really, she had me at AcaDec.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapters 8-12. Kindle. We edge the plot along with British boarding school assumptions…I am really bad at reading serials and also really bad at leaving them alone when I have the files piled up on my Kindle and am traveling….

Box Brown, Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman. Discussed elsewhere.

Lucille Clifton, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010. This is the sort of collection that shows why reading the entirety of a poet’s work in order can be so intense and worthwhile. You can watch her feeling more able to talk about certain things, more expansive, as time goes by, as well as watching the progression of a human life. Clifton’s work is very grounded, very rooted, in community, in family, in person, and it’s wonderful to watch that grow as she grows as a person, even as it’s sometimes harrowing to watch that happen too. Highly, highly recommended.

Tessa Gratton, The Lost Sun. A North America shaped by Aesir visibly present in the world, a Baldur who does not behave as he had before, and some young people who have to sort out what’s going on before Ragnarok is upon them. This could have gone strongly either way for me, and I turned out to like it a lot and have fun with the Norse syncretist road trip aspects of it. I’ll look for the rest of the series.

Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives. Heinrich talks about wanting to observe individual bird personalities, and he does that, but there’s a bit of an oversell about what conclusions he can draw about them. There’s a lot more trolling of birds and his wife than I might ideally want, so I rolled my eyes a lot. If you’re going to start with a Heinrich, probably don’t make it this one, even though there’s some interesting naturalist observation here.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 5. Kindle. Fiyah continues to come up with themes that inspire their authors to diverse stories. My favorite in this issue was Monique Desir’s “Bondye Bon,” but I didn’t find any of it a bad read. I’m also glad to see them including some related nonfiction. I enjoy that.

Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The subtitle sounded like it was biting off an awfully lot of material, but Kimmerer is a botanist and a Native person, and the two combine to set her nature writing apart. I really enjoyed this.

Seanan McGuire, Beneath the Sugar Sky. The third in its series of portal fantasy novellas. I found the second one structurally a bit frustrating, but this is back to full form, doing interesting things with the nature of longing and desire in portal fantasy while giving vivid details of character and world in the specific fantasy settings along the way.

Malka Older, Null States. I found the characters more compelling in the first one, but this is idea science fiction around microdemocracy and its difficulties, and that’s a set of ideas I’m pretty much always going to find interesting, so I was definitely here for this.

Kimberly Reid, #Prettyboy Must Die. Discussed elsewhere.

Shel Silverstein, Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back. Wow, did Uncle Shelby sneak a lot of stuff past as kids’ books. Marshmallows, sure, but–the ending, what even was that. Okay. (I read this because it came up at a writers’ meetup and I’d never read it. More on this in the next fortnight’s book post.)

Robin Sloan, Sourdough. Literary contemporary fantasy about bread baking and the tech startup culture of the Bay Area. It’s a fast, smoothly written read…that starts to leave a bad taste the more you think about what he’s actually saying. Ethnically pretty gross. Interpersonally…also pretty gross honestly. It’s a surface critique of tech startup culture that actually embraces most of what’s toxic about tech startup culture, so…well, enjoy the bits about bread baking if you can get there through the hipster one-upsmanship.

Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. I’m really enjoying reading through Solnit’s back catalog, and this is no exception. It does what it says on the tin, with illustrations.

Nic Stone, Dear Martin. Passionate and heartfelt young adult novel in which a young Black man tries to process his proximity to police shootings. He uses letters to Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his methods of figuring out his own modern world, but sparingly, thoughtfully. The characters are all complex and human, and there’s a lot packed into this short book. Recommended.

Louisa Thomas, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. She did indeed live an extraordinary life, doing a great deal of the work of being an ambassador to various nations early in the American Republic, so there’s a lot of “what an interesting life” here even aside from being First Lady. (That part was not that fascinating honestly.) But there’s also a heaping helping of: John Quincy Adams: which boots would you wear to kick him in the shins? discuss. I think one of the greatest strengths of this biography, though, was that the biographer was able to talk about the ways in which Louisa Adams was and was not ahead of her time on various issues like race, where she left extensive writings–places where Thomas could give the reader context and say, you know what, nope, she was really not a heroine here, or hey, she was trying on this question of gender but just didn’t get there. It’s a perspective I think more biographers could use, because going head-down into one person often makes you a partisan for them even when you think you’re recognizing their foibles. Thomas did very well with understanding that flaws don’t just mean the sort of things that would make them annoying to share a bathroom with.

P.G. Wodehouse, Mike and Psmith. Kindle. Lighthearted boarding school book, silly, full of cricket and who gets which study. If you want this sort of thing, here it is.

J.Y. Yang, The Red Threads of Fortune. I was so glad I read The Black Tide of Heaven first, because I felt like the characterization and worldbuilding both unfolded really well in this order. I really enjoy the Tensorate universe and am glad we’ll be getting more.

#Prettyboy Must Die by Kimberly Reid

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a teen spy novel that stands alone perfectly well. There’s room for a sequel, but no sequel is required, and I imagine that if there was a sequel it could also be written to stand alone perfectly well–that Jake and his girlfriend Katie and his best buddy Bunker could all be introduced very swiftly, very easily, in the short chapters and pithy style of the spy novel as it intersects with the short chapters and pithy style of the action YA, allowing for getting on with it as quickly as possible.

Jake has been part of Operation EarlyBird, a program of very young CIA operatives, and the book opens with him on an actual real live mission. But oh no! he has to go back to high school! Does this cramp his style? Of course it does not! Hijinks continue to ensue! Trouble finds Jake wherever he goes, under whatever alias he uses!

This is a very, very contemporary book. The hashtag in the title is no accident–getting tagged #prettyboy on social media is one of the banes of Jake’s young would-be spy existence. There is slang that…I’m pretty sure will be “oh God that’s so 2017” in 2022. But it is not 2022 now, and it’s not offensive slang; in my memory part of reading kids’ books is the wonderment of learning slightly outdated slang while the plot rips breathlessly past you. There is camaraderie, there are twists and turns that all click neatly into place, there is wish fulfillment like whoa, and even if it doesn’t happen to be *your* wish fulfillment–as it was very much not mine–it’s a fun read that doesn’t take that long. So if you’re in the market for a teen spy novel, you could do a lot worse than this book, which understands friendship, pacing, and the aspirational potential of a girl with a ready supply of poisons.

Please consider using our link to buy #Prettyboy Must Die from Amazon.

Books read, January

Ben Aaronovitch, The Furthest Station. Abigail is great. Why do I always like the supporting cast better than the main characters in this series? I don’t know, but in this novella we meet Peter’s young cousin Abigail, and she is great. More Abigail. Blah blah rivers, magic, ghosts: Abigail. Yay.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Fox. Kindle. A particularly metaphysical installation in this novella series. What do nonhuman species contribute to our experience of life and knowledge, in fantasy novella format! So!

John Crowley, Totalitopia. Very short collection of short stories and essays. The very first one did white ethnicity as a presence rather than a default, very thoughtful, I enjoyed it a lot. I think I like Crowley better as a fiction writer than an essayist, but that’s okay, that’s where the bulk of his work is too, so that’s good for me.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, and Racheline Maltese, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13. Discussed elsewhere.

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. This was fascinating, about a woman who was kept from credit substantially by the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. She not only worked in wartime codebreaking but also in Prohibition and other projects. Codebreaking was in its infancy at the time, and Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William were crucial to the American effort. If I had one complaint about Fagone’s focus it was that he sometimes was not at all alert to the nuances of some of the things he said, in his hurry to focus on achievement rather than obstacle. At one point he said that asking whether she faced sexism was like asking whether Mme. Curie faced sexism. I blinked at that and said, “So…yes, then. Really really super yes.” (He was making a different point about being ground-breaking, the first in your field, etc. Sure! And sexism STILL….) Focus on achievement rather than obstacle is admirable, but let’s not actively minimize the obstacle along the way, dude.

Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens. This is a New England-and-Guatemala novel. Its sense of place and relationship is fascinating, and the way it handles both is not like anything else I’ve read. The title misled me completely and then once I had read the book very much fit. It’s very contemporary, deals with modern immigration and adoption issues…I’m not sure what else to say about it. Very interesting book that I’ve only been able to discuss with one other person because it just isn’t widely known in my circles.

Elizabeth Hand, Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories. Kindle. Reread. This was the source of insight for me about short stories pivoting rather than unfolding, and I think I prefer Hand’s work when it unfolds. Several of them had a very strong sense of place that I enjoyed, and it was a reasonable thing to revisit when I was exhausted on an airplane I did not expect to be on.

Janet Kagan, Mirabile. Reread. A mosaic novel of genetic emergency, made of fun, reread for my disaster response panel only to find that it was not as relevant as I’d hoped. Still pretty much always worth the time.

Lydia Kang, The November Girl. A runaway kid and a spirit of Lake Superior in the winter find each other, help each other…this is a fast-paced and deeply felt YA, and I liked lots of things about it while not being the main target audience for it. Although. It’s still my lake, so…yeah, soft spot here.

Fonda Lee, Jade City. I have been recommending this everywhere, because it’s just plain fun. Lee draws on fantasy novels but also kung fu movie structure in ways that make her plot less predictable than a lot of novels for me, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. First in a series, yay! Magic jade, clans warring, people trying to stay true to themselves but also to people they care about…oh yes. Yes please.

Naomi Libicki and Alter Reiss, eds., The Scintillation Collection. Kindle. A small convention jam-packed with people I know and like is going to be great, and I am so excited…but it meant that a lot of these stories were rereads, because I follow pretty much everybody’s work. On the other hand, it also meant that I liked a lot of these the first time around and was glad to see them again (on an airplane…I did not intend to be on…).

Leena Likitalo, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress. I expected this to be very much an ending, since it is the second book of what I thought was two. But instead it felt very much like a middle. The worldbuilding and the family relationships continued to appeal to me, but…the ending felt…ongoing, very much ongoing…well. Perhaps we will be going on with this series.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Extremely quirky and surreal stories, mostly focused on Southern India. Very, very short, so easy to read in short bites if that’s a thing you’re looking for.

Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman. A structurally unusual accounting of first contacts. Mitchison is one of the women you still occasionally run into, who mistook the limitations placed on her personally for gender differences in general and yet who did not mistake them for a general inequality, and so there are all sorts of ways of trying to write about this galactic explorer and communicator in ways that are weirdly warped by Mitchison’s own upbringing. What communication means and what the protagonist brings to her interspecies communications…this is a weird and fascinating plot, not really much like anything else.

David R. Montgomery, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. This is very popular-level science. Any of you has enough science background to understand it, and in fact in the first few chapters he is a bit patronizing in prose tone. After that he settles into the nuts and bolts of how farming should be revamped to be better for the soil, less costly in terms of chemicals, better for people and plants and even herd animals. He’s immensely convincing and in places even touching. I did not expect that so much of this would take place in the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota, in places where I have people. I cried in spots, where families managed to save not only the soil but their farms thereby. It’s good stuff, inspiring.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: The Night Masquerade. The last in its trilogy, and definitely do not start here, as a great deal of the emotional weight rests on knowing the people and their meaning to each other. A satisfying conclusion but not a satisfying start by any means.

Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. This is a beautiful book, essays from a Black woman visiting American landmarks. It’s nature writing from an angle I don’t see often, looking at the land from a different angle, from a very personal and human angle that illuminated it. Highly recommended.

Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, Viking Friendship: The Social Bond in Iceland and Norway, c. 900-1300. There is some very interesting stuff here about chosen social bond as opposed to family in saga and history. There are also some places where Sigurdsson…well, look, if you don’t listen to what people know, you won’t know it. And there were places where I just rolled laughing because you could ask any Nordic auntie, any at all, some of the things that he thought were mysterious, and they would either tell you or snort in disbelief that you had to ask such an ignorant question (why women were so prevalent in wedding seating disputes, dear God, do I even have to unpack that for you in the comments), so look, it is not their fault if you look like a fool in your book sometimes, they’re right there, child.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. This was, I think, the first book I read this year, and I was so glad of it, its wanders and focus on wandering, its meanders through thought and relationship and landscape. I am so very much enjoying making my way through Solnit’s works.

Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts. Spaceship life through an incredibly intersectional lens, with detailed attention to how relationships change in confined spaces around power in so many ways, energy in so many ways, so many assumptions examined. Powerful, reaching, fascinating.

Kanishk Tharoor, Swimmer Among the Stars. Lovely short stories, amazing. I am not seeing these discussed among genre readers, and they’re mostly not traditional speculative genre stories, but they range through space and time in beautiful ways that I would like to see more of, and I’m so very glad to have found them, and I wish more people were finding them.

Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus. I think I’m very glad that I started with late period Vizenor, because this is whimsical and interesting, and of course it’s good that Vizenor has learned better on some issues, especially some gender issues, and yet…and yet there are some places I sigh and roll my eyes a bit and am glad this is not where I began. And I would not necessarily recommend that you begin here either. There is some magic to this recasting, this…re-legending?…but if you have to pick just one Vizenor, really probably not this one.

J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven. I was absolutely enchanted by this story of siblings and power and gender and empire, by the worldbuilding, by all of it. I can’t wait for the other novella in this pair.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13

By Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, and Racheline Maltese

Review access provided by Serial Box.

This is the end of the season of Tremontaine, and it’s very obvious. Some season endings are about wrapping up plot threads, some are about setting up new plot threads for the next season. This is both. This is a ton of both. There is more than one scale of fight scene here; there are personal confrontations and decisions not to confront. There are relationships, if not repaired, at least…in détente.

There are deaths. Unexpected deaths. Surprises. Fencing fighting torture revenge…not so much true love. But it’s not really that kind of series. Chocolate, though. Lots and lots of true chocolate.

And something quite new in all the world of Tremontaine. Something looking up. A new direction (nudge nudge) for season 4. So that’s very interesting.

Books read, late December

Sarah Gailey, The Fisher of Bones. A grim and affecting fantasy novella about the leader of a group of people on a trek across a wasted landscape. Gailey’s previous novella, with the hippos, was not exactly pure joy, but was a lot of fun. This is a different tone completely, displaying her range. It’s very dark. Very, very dark. Well done, but…brace yourself.

Tessa Gratton and Karen Lord, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 10 and 11. Discussed elsewhere.

Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free. The first half of this book is a history of peasant uprisings in medieval Europe, the second specifically a history of the British peasants’ revolt of 1381. As it is not a long book, both halves were interesting, but I could have done with twice as much of each. There is not a sufficiency of peasant uprising history running around, though, so we take what we can get I guess. There’s a lot of discussion of what worked and what didn’t, in which ways peasants got which rights when, how they conceived of what they were asking for and when they just flailed angrily and why, etc.

Justina Ireland, Troy L. Wiggins, et al, Fiyah Issues 3 and 4. One of the lovely things about Fiyah is that I can read it purely as a fan, not being eligible to submit. That being the case, I have no idea how their issue themes hit their authors, whether they feel inspiring or frustrating from the author side. From the reader side, I think they’re succeeding admirably at picking things that are broad enough and deep enough to give a body of work that feels united without feeling samey. The specific stories I loved best will show up in my short story recommendations post, but I’m definitely glad to have a subscription here for the next year.

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties. Oh, these stories. I had read some of them, most I had not. And they just…unfolded beautifully, relentlessly. The title is perfect. I think the one that hit me the most, the best, started out feeling like a catalog of lovers, like a mimetic story, and…went from there into something far more speculative. But there’s so much here. This is another example of the hype I heard being absolutely worth it. I was entranced.

Peter Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague. Weird book about a weird man. A lot of this was background and biography, trying to put Rudolf II in his context in his place and time with the Habsburg family and Austria and Spain and…hoo. That era. They were in that “we are figuring stuff out!…we really don’t have stuff figured out!” era, when “maybe pour mercury on it!” was as good an idea as anybody had. “It might be a comet who knows!” Yes sure give that a look. This is not an outstanding book on the topic, but if you’re really enthusiastic about the topic, well, here we are.

Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia. This is a history of the concept of human rights, and a discussion of a) why people associate it with the 1940s, b) why the 1970s were actually an even stronger time for its rise, c) other aspects of human rights as a global concept/focus. Interesting, far more focused on those two decades than I expected, not too long and not too abstruse. Made a good case for human rights as a social minimum rather than a social maximum when figuring out a society.

Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun. Oh, this one was lovely. It’s about missionaries to fairyland, a missionary and his sister more accurately, and it has all sorts of grounding in what missionaries actually were like and did, and also all sorts of grounding in what old fairy stories were actually like before they got prettified, and as a result there are strange and dark and terrifying things going on here, many of them human. Captivating, thoroughly recommended.

Ada Palmer, The Will to Battle. Discussed elsewhere.

Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars. This is a Serbian novel in translation, a somewhat Ruritanian novel in encyclopedia entries. It would be another mildly interesting entry alongside the others I like of that type–I am a sucker for Ruritanian novels–except that being Serbian ends up distinguishing it extremely, because when Anglophones try to set a Ruritanian novel in that part of the world, they quite often attempt to leave out religion, or at least dash past it with a glancing blow. Pavic has no interest in that. Dictionary of the Khazars is in three sections for the three largest religions of that area, and quite often each section will have different things to say in its encyclopedia entry about a person or element of “Khazar” life. The shape of thing comes out distinctive and interesting, coming together at the end with a bang.

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Will and Temper. I critiqued this book in draft and loved it then, so I saved the polished version for when I knew I would want something I would enjoy. This, it turns out, was prescient; nothing gets you through a six hour airline delay while recovering from multiple illnesses like a book you already know you like but haven’t gotten in quite its final form yet. This is a book of fin de siecle art world, family relationships, fencing, and diabolism. It’s fun. It’s got significance and depth and the ending goes straight to me–in ways that I can claim no credit for, because Molly had nailed it the very first time I saw it. I’ve been wanting to be able to rec this book for two years now, and here it is. Yay.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trotta, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issues 18 and 19. These were two very strong issues, and I had notes on which stories I really loved from them, and…those notes went wandering when I was in the process of recommending stories on Twitter. I have them for my big short story recommendation post! So it’ll be in there! Short version is: enjoyed them, glad I subscribe so I don’t miss things in passing, but it does mean that I’m less likely to read things in passing because I know I’ll get there eventually.

Deborah Weisgall, The World Before Her. This is a novel with two parallel time streams, one of which is about George Eliot adjusting to her late life marriage, the other about a sculptor in the ’80s whose marriage is not really working. The details of her art work are delightful, and both timelines actually end up working fairly well for me, although I have to confess that since I have recently read Middlemarch the main effect of this book is to make me want to read Daniel Deronda. There are worse effects for a book to have.

Emily Wilson translating Homer, The Odyssey. Yes, this is counter to my usual policy of listing the author first. But come on, we all know that it’s Homer’s Odyssey…and we all know that this translation being by Emily Wilson is immensely important and immensely specific. This just feels so clear on the page. I didn’t struggle with the Fitzgerald Homer I read in college–I don’t ever recall feeling like this was hard material–so the clarity I mean is aesthetic, like sparkly water. The focus on hospitality, the characters getting to be characters, even the slaves. This is just a joy to read. I’m so glad of it.