Books read, early September

Alex Alice, Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869. Discussed elsewhere.

Hassan Blasim, ed., Iraq+100 Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 7. Kindle. Plotty, moving forward, full of dust storms and schoolgirl antics, as one would expect for this project.

Marie Brennan, Maps to Nowhere. Discussed elsewhere.

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Kindle. And this is what happened to my early September. Middlemarch is surprising; it is delightful. It is one of the longest classics of English literature, and it is a joy to read. I kept thinking that I would want to leaven it with bits of something else, go off and take a break and read something in the middle of it. I didn’t. (I mean, I always have a book of short pieces going. But other than that.) While I was reading Middlemarch, I kept wanting to read Middlemarch, and when I was done reading it I wanted more of it. The only thing of its size that’s at all comparable in my attachment to it is John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, and that does not have the passionate following Middlemarch has–wherever I mentioned it I found that friends and strangers were ready to share my delight in this wandering intense chatty behemoth of a book. I’m discussing it with a friend who’s reading it with me. I’m not sure I have a lot to add for the general audience except to say, it’s funny, it’s intense, it’s gigantic emotionally as well as literally, it makes me want to read more George Eliot, it makes me want to read its giant self all over again. It is in some ways exactly what you would expect and in other ways nothing like what you’d expect. It is thoroughly itself. And oh, I love her, I love George Eliot so very much. I’m glad I read such a quotable thing when I was past the age of needing to strip-mine books for epigraphs. I can do that later. I’m glad I could just relax in and read this first time.

Masha Gessen, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. I enjoyed another of Gessen’s books and picked this up because the library had it, more or less on a whim. And it gave me a perspective on modern Russia that nothing else has, particularly on its criminal justice system. What the prison system is doing there, what trials are like, what sorts of things are prioritized, what and who counts, what and who does not. Enraging, illuminating. There are some things Gessen just takes for granted you will know about feminist art theory and punk, but I think it may still be interesting if you don’t? but even better if you do. Also, if you have a very strong high culture/low culture divide, read this book and have that nonsense knocked out of you. Not that I have an opinion about that.

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King. Discussed elsewhere.

Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. This is very much in the popular history category: short chapters, many things explained on a fairly straightforward level. Not a lot of delving deep into the obscure corners. However, Inskeep does a fairly good job of switching back and forth between the lens of the European settlers turned recent Americans and the lens of the cultures of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and especially Cherokee people in the region he was discussing. One of the things that this particularly underscored for me is how quickly the European/American settlers viewed the land as traditionally theirs in that part of the south: the beginning of the Cherokee Trail of Tears was twenty-three years before the US Civil War. Even the earliest of the resettlements was only thirty years before. So in some parts of the Deep South, there were indeed plantations that had been going for generations–but in large, large swaths of it, the land they were fighting so hard for was land they had just taken from its previous owners basically five minutes ago. References to traditional way of life in that context are basically like talking about GameBoys and other hand-held gaming devices as our traditional way of life: they are bullshit. I think the way we are taught this period of history in American schooling encourages us not to think of that. I will want to read much deeper works on Andrew Jackson’s presidency. In this case I will say: Inskeep is not trying to paint him as a great guy or not a racist…and I still think he ends up going too easy on him. But it’s a good starter work for this period, I think.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Language of the Night. Reread. The last time I read this was before I was keeping a book log, which means also before I was selling short stories regularly. I was a lot less prone to argue with assertions about fantasy not needing to compromise then. (Oh nonsense, of course it does.) But one of the things that makes Ursula LeGuin a great writer is that she argues with her past self, too. She evolves. She evolves in the course of this collection. And I think she’d be far happier with people thinking and arguing than uncritically absorbing anyway.

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch. So…I didn’t mean to go straight from Middlemarch to a book about it, but the other thing I had from the library, I bounced off, and…I wasn’t ready to be done. This is Mead’s memoir entangled with a bit of biography of Eliot. There are places where Mead is bafflingly obtuse (some areas of gender politics and the writing of sexuality, notably, but also the difference between a character who is fully human and a character who is generally sympathetic), but in general it is short and rattles along satisfyingly and tells me things I want to know about George Eliot without telling me too many things I actively didn’t want to know about Rebecca Mead.

A. Merc Rustad, So You Want to Be a Robot. This is a solid and heart-wrenching collection. It’s impossible to pick one true favorite because there are so many good choices. Definitely highly recommended, Merc hits it out of the park here. And they’re just getting started.

Gerald Vizenor, Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. This is when Vizenor was just getting started, and gosh I’m glad I didn’t get started with his early work, because…why, oh why, did so many men of the seventies–particularly men who wanted to claim they were ecologically minded without doing much about it–pick the same direction for their demonstrations of their own sexual daring? Well, Vizenor grew out of it. But it’s a one of those. The person who wrote the afterword was sure that objections to it would be because people thought Indians couldn’t be like that! and no, it’s that it’s trite, it’s exactly the kind of trite sexual objectification of women–especially Indian women–that you’d expect from “seventies dude trying to be sexually shocking.” He got better. I’m glad.

Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The cover describes this as, “The first anthology of science fiction to have emerged from Iraq,” but “emerged” seems insufficient to describe the work the editors did to make this project happen. Without an established science fiction community, editors definitely can’t just call for submissions and put their feet up. From what’s in the introduction, Hassan Blasim, with the help of Ra Page, approached writers from many regions of Iraq, generations, and writing styles, coaxing and cajoling them to approach the idea of Iraq a hundred years after invasion, doing with it whatever they saw fit. That’s not just emergence. That’s beyond even encouragement.

My favorite part of the stories themselves is the focus on Iraq as a future setting: this square or that city taking pride of place, this saying or that legend being the focus. I love fiction in translation for that reason: for the shift in perspective. I want more of it. And in order to get more of it, I’m willing to deal with stories that are not what I would ordinarily like best: stories with more sexual threat, stories that retread similar ground to previous work in other languages/cultures, stories that don’t seem to be able to find any thread of hope in the entire world. Which is not this entire volume, but it is some of this volume. If what I really want is works in translation from all over the world–and it is–I need to let the people actually from those places tell me what stories they want to tell, not tell them that their stories don’t fit my preconceptions of what they should want to tell. So while in some ways this was a bumpy reading experience for me, with some delights and some difficulties, I’m very glad to have the opportunity for the bumps.

Please consider using our link to buy Iraq+100 from Amazon.

Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869, by Alex Alice

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

When a person who mainly reads prose expands into reviewing graphic novels meant for children, suddenly the form factor of the book starts mattering a great deal more than it ever did before. This book is a large, slender hardbound, the sort of book I don’t see regularly outside picture books. Its production values are glossy and very high–but it’s not a picture book, it’s a watercolor graphic novel translated from the French.

The paintings are lovely. The layout is sometimes quite busy for my eye, having extra rows and columns of illustration compared to a “standard” size of graphic novel.

Seraphin’s mother is an explorer of the aether, a scientist in her hot air balloon. When she disappears on a dangerous flight, Seraphin and his father try to balance their own explorations with a desire to keep each other safe–and to find out what happened to her. They wind up in Bavaria, at the court of King Ludwig, whose swan-shaped aether-ship is promisingly bizarre.

The “book one” in the title is not merely an indication that this is a series: the story is not complete in this volume. What adventures will our young etc. and his daring friends etc. etc. I think comics readers are pretty used to that sort of thing, and there is plenty of adventure, excitement, swashing, and buckling. It’s a fairly old-fashioned sort of adventure–maximum of one girl character at a time, apparently, and the gratuitous startled-in-the-bath scene–but airships and 19th century science jokes do have their charm; I would definitely read further to see how this comes out.

Please consider using our link to buy Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869 from Amazon.

Maps to Nowhere, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author, who is also a personal friend. Also the title is a Fire and Hemlock reference, which, come on, how can that not bias a reviewer.

If you’ve read any of Brennan’s work before, there are through-lines to it: anthropology, history/quasi-history, and adventure fantasy. These are clearly visible in this short story collection, although the adventure fantasy is the smallest strain in this bunch. I think it’s in some ways hardest to write something that feels like adventure fantasy and still has plot at this length. In any case, if you haven’t read Brennan’s work before, that’s the place where this collection is least representative of the spread of what she’s doing.

Other than that, there is quite a lot of what Brennan does. There are bits with faeries and bits with odd artifacts, stories of self-discovery and stories of community relationship. There are funny bits and deathly serious bits. There’s a lot of range here.

What there is not–and this was important for me the day I read this book, and it may well be important for you–is a lot of gratuitously depressing or cruel material. The characters are not all sweetness and light–some of them are basically no sweetness and light–but what this collection is unlikely to do is leave you numbed and helpless in the face of an uncaring world. I feel like when I ask for things that are not staggeringly depressing, people think I want books in which the teddy bears have their picnic, and this is not one of those. This is just…balanced. Sometimes we can use some balance.

Please consider using our link to buy Maps to Nowhere from Amazon.

Books read, late August

Susann Cokal, The Kingdom of Little Wounds. The author of this book apparently described it to people as “a fairy tale of syphilis,” and this is pretty accurate. It’s also about mercury poisoning, madness, and abuse (both sexual and non-sexual). And a Ruritanian Scandinavian/Nordic kingdom. It’s really well-written. It’s really grueling and horrible. I recommend it. I recommend it very, very selectively. If you’re not going to be put off by something like 500 pages of the above, with very little relief from any other topic whatsoever, then rock on with this book.

Curtis Craddock, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. Discussed elsewhere.

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I was not hitting good luck with the cheerful books this August. Demick did a lot of interviews with people who had escaped, a lot of stuff about everyday life, personal experiences, some stuff about starvation and terror but in the context of just getting by, school uniforms and trying to cook what you have and trying to have a job you don’t totally hate and…human things. Utterly, utterly human things. It’s worthwhile not to look away from this kind of reporting…for some of us, some of the time. It’s okay for you to choose whether this is going to be one of the horrible bits of knowledge you’re going to endure right away, right now.

Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth. An alternate history novella with hippos in the lower Mississippi. Diverse on the axes of gender and race. Hippos are hippos, not anthropomorphized, and while they have been domesticated, they are not notably sweet. Nor are they notably mean-spirited in all cases. They’re, well, hippos. Sometimes bad things happen to characters, but it’s not a crapsack world where nobody cares about anybody. I had fun with this.

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. This is an essay collection whose jacket copy talked up the author’s job as an actress teaching med students patient empathy. Only the first of the essays touched on that, and it only in very shallow terms. The rest of the essays were much more random-essay-collection fare about her travels to various places and what she hopes to have learned from their inhabitants, what she is thinking about herself and society and the world. Given the title I feel that I am failing a bit when I say: this did not strike me as an outstanding collection of its type. It was fine. I am not sorry I read it; I cannot particularly commend it to you as more insightful than another randomly selected set of essays that managed best when focused on their own author.

N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. The worldbuilding in this is just outstanding. There is so much geology. I don’t know when I’ve seen so much passionate geology in worldbuilding. I think never. I can see why this series is winning so many awards, because it has both physical and social ramifications. It is just plain impeccable. The social ramifications are substantially on the front of “fractal implications of the structures of oppression,” which means that it can be a horrifying thing to read over and over again. The characters’ interpersonal relationships have only small positive moments punctuating long stretches of grief, despair–not horror as a genre, but horror in how humans treat other humans. Brilliantly done–but another one to time very carefully.

Simo Laakkonen, Richard Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War. This is an academic volume of essays, of the sort where each chapter takes a different focus and is by a different author or authors. So there will be a bit about Hawaii and the Pacific, a bit about the Arctic, and so on. I found that a few too many of the chapters equated ecology a bit too strongly with managed environment for my tastes–farms and managed forests are important but are not by any means the only systems to consider–but on the other hand I do want them considered, I want the impact on them considered. And most of the contributors appeared to be Finnish and Canadian, giving the overall authorial voice a cool tone outside the superpower assumptions that was beautiful, great, well-done.

Leena Likitalo, The Five Daughters of the Moon. Exquisitely done worldbuilding, based on the last days of the tsar. I’m not sure I understand the decision to make this into a novella duology with a cliffhanger in the middle instead of, y’know, a novel. But I was invested enough in some of the characters (and all of the worldbuilding, amber and machinery and all) to pick up the next when it comes out.

Josh MacIvor-Andersen, ed., Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. The pieces vary quite a lot here, from things I would classify as prose poems to more standard essays. Also in length. Not a lot of it was directly about trees either scientifically or more poetically. It was mostly about people in tree-adjacent ways. That surprised me, but it was still interesting. There was a bunch of stuff about religion, a bunch about families and relationships, a little bit about math…it was quite an interesting mix. (And I was only half-joking with a friend about doing a Best New Arboreal Fiction. That would actually be more than tree-adjacent, I would hope.)

Anton Treuer, Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe. This was actually really very positive for a people who have been through quite a lot. And the structural trick for writing an uplifting book about a nation of people who have had a lot of oppressive crap dumped on them without whitewashing the oppressive crap appears to be focusing on positive community leadership. Not every book can be like that, but this book is like that, and I think it’s quite good for it to be like that. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad it exists. Recommended if you have even a little interest in this topic.

Phoebe Wagner and Bronte Christopher Wieland, eds., Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. Mismatch of writer and reader expectations is a well-known phenomenon, and it’s generally a good idea not to write a bad review of a book that is not bad but merely not what was expected. I do want to flag, though, this specific thing: for me there is a difference between something that’s labeled optimistic and something that’s labeled optimistic ecological science fiction. When almost none of the SF chosen is SF that connects in a solid speculative way to the present–when it’s not anywhere we can see a path to get from here–the optimism feels less optimistic to me in a way that it wouldn’t if the stories had not been labeled ecological SF or eco-speculation or even solarpunk. It actually ends up feeling pessimistic: as though to get an optimistic emotional tone we have to have a complete departure from this reality, which I don’t think is the case, and I don’t think is at all the position of the editors or the authors. And it’s the sort of thing that an anthology can fall into without clear intent, if solicited authors deliver stories with a particular bent. So: setting that consideration aside, I felt that A.C. Wise’s story was a clear stand-out, and I also felt that Lavie Tidhar executed very well. I also particularly enjoyed poems by Chloe N. Clark (both!), Sara Norja, and Brandon O’Brien.

Caroline Yoachim, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World. This collection has both breadth and depth, in both ideas and tone. Seriously one of the best collections I’ve read in years. I can’t call out favorite stories because there are just too many of them. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s fantasy, it’s science fiction, it’s got everything. You really want this collection. Highly recommended.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, by Curtis Craddock

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This book both swashes and buckles. It has an actual no-kidding Musketeer, although the king he serves is not quite King Louis, and the country he’s from is not quite France. There’s fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love…though not of the romantic sort…there are airships, there are lots of different kinds of magic, and just when you think you’ve got a good handle on how many kinds of magic, there’s another kind of magic.

There is a protagonist who is a girl who likes math a heck of a lot and has learned to cope with a disability pretty darn well, and then has to re-learn around different parameters. The main point of reviews is to alert people to what kind of book it is, and I realize that that sentence right there had neon signs flashing “MY JAM” for some of you. And for a few more of you: there’s a heck of a lot of loyalty to friends and not a heck of a lot of loyalty to blood relations who don’t deserve it, and the people who save the day are not always the obvious people, and there are disguises and tricks and double-crosses and plots.

I did not find myself deeply engaged with any of the characters. But I didn’t have to be; it moved along, it never left me yawning, it was doing the thing it was doing, and that doesn’t have to be everything. This is book one of a series, but there’s significant resolution at the end of the volume; plenty of room for more in this universe, but also not the feeling of “wait, shouldn’t there be more words here?” at the end.

Please consider using our link to buy An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors from Amazon.

Books read, early August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books read, July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Kress, Tomorrow’s Kin. Discussed elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older epic fantasies with women protags: yikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

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

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

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

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

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