The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, by Octavia Cade

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This novella grieves for all sorts of things. It grieves for climate change and species loss but also for friendships, lost to various causes, and to marriages, same. It grieves for a future that has bright, golden moments like jellyfish in a pool but still lots of darkness under the top layer of that lake.

It also understands appreciating what’s in front of you. Jellyfish, yes, but also thylacines, robot birds, a quiet moment with someone you still care about despite it all.

This novella is sad and beautiful and quiet and glorious, and it does so many things that no one else is doing, so many things that need doing. Recommended. Oh, very recommended.

Books read, early April

Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter. This is an Anishinaabe thriller set in the Sault, and it’s so good. It’s so so so good. It’s got science and hockey and complicated family relationships, and yes I was in a fragile place when I read it, but still it made me cry in two places because I was so moved by the protagonist’s relationship with her elders (I see far too few teen/old person relationships in fiction). I loved this. Highly recommended.

C.J. Cherryh, Divergence. This is the twenty-first volume of the atevi series. Do not read it without the other twenty. It is not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, but that which it is, it is; if you want to stop off and hang out with Bren and Banichi and Cajeiri and all of them, here’s your chance. It was reasonable comfort reading for me for the day I read it.

Sam Hawke, Hollow Empire. Second in its series, and I do recommend starting with the first one here as well–significantly less of a commitment than with the Cherryh, though. This is a secondary world fantasy second book full of consequence, ramification, and expansion of scope, and also full of interesting fictional poisons and people of different ages who get to have agency instead of focusing all the agency on one age group. It also handles some disability issues beautifully.

Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life. There is some value to having a biography that is by a friend of the author–extremely broad access, for example, and sometimes it’s nice when the biographer clearly finds the subject charming and interesting. So this is a very lot of Hermione’s Nice Friend Tom: What Cool Things He’s Done So Far. I will be shocked if we don’t get another biography of Stoppard within the next decade or two, one which acknowledges that someone, somewhere might have had any kind of negative experience of Tom Stoppard for even half a second. But in the meantime this had its interesting points–it is extremely work-focused, which is what I want out of this kind of biography.

Ken MacLeod, The Human Front. This is an alternate history novella that…doesn’t have a lot to it other than “look at my alternate history,” but MacLeod always writes fluently, and you may find his alternate history interesting.

Sara Flannery Murphy, Girl One. Discussed elsewhere.

Aimee Ogden, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters. A novella full of genetically modified human-variants whose relationships with each other are interesting, complex, and planet-spanning.

Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. The woman in question, Virginia Hall, was an amputee who used a prosthetic leg for the entirety of her spy work in France during the Second World War. This is very much in the line of a Thrilling True Story, but honestly I think it’s cool to find out more about the people who don’t fit the war hero mold one we’re usually presented with.

Burton Raffel, trans., Beowulf. I see why this has been a classroom classic for a bit now: he has added chapters where they do not belong, but that makes it easier to assign sections than the less-familiar line numbers. What distinguishes Raffel from the others I’ve read: he is focused on Beowulf being “good poetry” but wants that to be by mid-20th century standards rather than preserving features of good poetry of its time, like kenning and alliteration; he is very clear that the author of Beowulf was probably a Christian and is happy to use mid-20th century Christian language to convey that. So: my least favorite so far, but it has the Beowulf nature.

Veronica Schanoes, Burning Girls and Other Stories. A dark and beautiful collection that plays with fairy tales and children’s stories in ways that are distinctly adult. Highly recommended.

Christina Soontornvat, A Wish in the Dark. A Thai-inspired children’s fantasy adventure with good friend and mentor characters. I had fun with this.

Susan Stinson, Martha Moody. I bought this book because I loved Spider in a Tree, and as I was reading it, I kept thinking, “Well, I’m not really the target audience for this, but I like it anyway.” Stinson’s prose is playful and fluid, so I’m apparently interested in her take on Old West eccentric lesbian love stories as well as on things whose thumbnail description sounds a lot more like my taste.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Music at Long Verney. Warner has a habit of just dropping you in and going for a bit and then stopping, and I can see that this might be maddening in someone else, but in her I love it. Oh, that’s who’s in this story? right then, okay, on with the show.

Girl One, by Sara Flannery Murphy

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The characters and pacey thriller voice of this one sucked me in from page one. Josie is a compelling heroine, impatient, driven, fallible. Her relationships with the other people in her life weave through this story in ways that I found compelling. I am a pretty relationship-focused writer/reader, and this one got me good.

This is very much structured like a thriller–the chapters range from reasonably short to incredibly short, and there’s a lot of action, a lot of suspense. The central conceit is a science fictional one: nine women have born children through parthogenesis, over the course of the 1970s, living on a commune together, visited by the scientist who is building his fame through their babies. That’s the past of the story, the backstory–or half of it, because the commune burns and the surviving mothers and children scatter.

The present is the 1990s, when the babies are now adult women developing talents and interests and lives of their own. Josie is the first of the babies, now a student, trying to follow in her creator’s path. She is Girl One, the first of the parthogenetic births, giving interviews to talk shows and magazines as she tries to unravel the mysteries of her own existence. Both the ’70s and the ’90s are very well-drawn, with a perspective on each that is neither overly nostalgic nor overly cynical, and they’re a perfect combination of tone for the story that begins when Josie’s mother disappears and things start to get really dangerous.

This book has a modern thriller focus on several major science fiction concerns of the ’70s. It goes fast with a keen eye for social details. If those are things you’ve missed or wished would be updated–welcome, this one’s for you.

COVID Spring: History

This will all seem obvious later.
They will look back and marvel:
How didn’t we see it? We did.
We knew. That’s how mistakes go,
That’s how the fixable parts aren’t fixed.
I went into this middle-aged,
Will come out that way. I spend
One of the years descending into invisibility
In seclusion. Maybe two. Who knows.
Every week another essay:
Who to pity most. Who’s missing most.
What year is most crucial. Let me tell you,
From the borderlands of disappearing:
Every year. They are all your vital
Beautiful horrible green growth years.
Or they might be. Each one.
Who can say yet? It’ll be obvious
Later. (I knew. I know. I’ll know.)

Books read, late March

Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Essays on race, music, personal relationships with both. Some of Abdurraqib’s subjects were musicians whose work I know well and some were not, but it was all a very interesting perspective quite different from my own.

Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead. Discussed elsewhere.

Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Does what it says on the tin. Are you interested in the main sources of raw materials of this period? Here we are. Quite enjoyed it. Some of the things that were revelatory might not have been if I’d been from a comparable climate–it never occurred to me that having waterlogged fields could be a problem in winter–but still, better to know these things. (If, on the other hand, you are not particularly interested in this topic, it is not likely to be a book that strikes you as transcendent.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Masquerade in Lodi. Kindle. The most recently published Penric & Desdemona novella, but not the chronologically most recent–this is somewhat earlier in Pen’s career, when he could wander around a strange city with a young saint and only worry himself and his demon. Simpler times.

M.A. Carrick, The Mask of Mirrors. A thumping great big con artist fantasy by two of my favorite people. I sometimes really really like a secondary world fantasy with a great deal going on, and this had that for sure. Looking forward to the next in the series, as there are more doors opened than closed here.

Wangari Maathai, Unbowed. This is the autobiography of the founder of the Green Belt Movement, who has led an interesting life. It’s labeled a memoir, but if there’s a distinction between the two I would put this on the autobiography side: it’s more dates and places than it is inner reflections.

Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems, 1950-2012. This is a great example of why I like to read people’s collected poems all at once. You can watch Rich growing from a slightly formal young woman in 1950 to the political force she later became, and from a fairly concise poet to one who is willing to go on for as long as it takes to say what she needs to. There are some searingly great moments along the way as well as a lot of poems I can take or leave on their own, but in combination they make something greater, they make the panoramic view of a career.

Sun Yung Shin, ed., A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. This is a collection of essays from various voices, talking about their own experience of race in Minnesota, including but not limited to their own experience of racism in Minnesota. If you’re from around here, a good thing to mull over.

Karin Tidbeck, The Memory Theater. Magical and patterned, a bit closer to a traditional faerie novel than Tidbeck’s previous works have been to traditional anything, but in a way that’s satisfying and well-done.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now. Kindle. This is doing a lot of the things that old-school science fiction readers complain that mimetic fiction doesn’t do, when they’re feeling beleaguered: considering the social implications of technological and cultural change, notably. It’s a satirical novel, and I think a good one to revisit in this decade, as it focuses a lot on what happens when the thing that has been keeping bad behavior in check is a set of norms that some people are completely willing to set aside when it benefits them. I think I liked some of the characters more than Trollope did. There was also a plot-crucial thread of antisemitism throughout, some of which was antisemitism of characters but some was of the author. So consider how much of that you want to deal with when you’re thinking of classic and currently relevant 19th century novels to dive into.

Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. An interesting biography of an engraver and woodcut artist, adorned with a lot of his work. Lots of interesting period details about his field and milieu as well as about his own life. I picked this up because Jenny Uglow has not disappointed me yet, and that’s still true.

Ovidia Yu, The Mimosa Tree Mystery. The fourth in this series takes a sharp turn in tone: instead of the Second World War threatening, it has arrived, in the form of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. This is a mystery series that is apparently willing to drastically alter its characters’ circumstances in the course of a series, and I will go into the fifth volume with the expectation that I don’t know what it’s going to do in that way. I think this would be more effective with the previous three volumes under your belt but might work all right without.

Favorite stories, first quarter 2021

Wait, am I doing story recommendations in an organized fashion, aligned with the calendar and stuff? Eh. When it’s convenient, sure, I guess. It’s still mostly “I’ve accumulated a bunch of links on my to-do list and would like to clean them out again,” but let’s pretend it’s an End Of Q1 thing, it makes me feel accomplished. I’m actually behind where I would usually expect to be on reading periodicals, but there’s always time to catch up. Or not, the world is vast and beautiful. And, this time, full of poetry.

Trojan Road, Leah Bobet (Plenitude)

Salvage Song, Julia Da Silva (Reckoning)

Fractured, Aimee Kuzenski (Translunar Travelers Lounge_

Birds Are Trying to Reinvent Your Heart, Jennifer Mace (Baffling)

From the Embassy of Leaks to the Court of Cracks, Catherine Rockwood (Reckoning)

We Are Not Phoenixes, John Wiswell (Fireside)

Pion Ista “tinydog” Gritter, 2005-2021

Over the years this blog has shifted focus away from life stuff and toward…well, mostly books and poems. But occasionally a life thing is big and needs saying.

My dog died yesterday.

She would have been 16 in April. She had probably 14.5 years of being quite healthy and energetic, a year or so of having some arthritis and being a little more fragile, and then the last half year she was clearly an elderly dog. We couldn’t let her go up and down the stairs any more–she sometimes fell, and it was only a matter of time until one of the falls hurt her if we’d let them continue. So we were blocking off the top or bottom of the stairs, depending, and carrying her up and down. A friend made her raised bowls to help with her arthritis, and we were feeding her soft food. We were doing all we could for her, and in the last few months I started thinking, maybe we should get old dogs from now on, we’re really good at care for them.

I don’t think that now. Because the care for them is not all there is, there’s also losing them, and I don’t think I could bear going through this over and over again without the springy young dog stages in between.

She was so smart. She was such a smart dog, and she was so communicative. And she was so loving. Toward the end, basically the only thing she wanted was to cuddle, and we did that a lot. We did that a lot.

I don’t know how my days will be without this sweet little opinionated old lady dog. I have so much more to say about her. I wish I had so much more time with her.

The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author has been a personal friend for, wow, let’s not count how many years.

This is in the same world as The Goblin Emperor, and it takes place soon after it, but it’s not a sequel per se. We already know Thara Celehar, a bit: he’s the Witness for the Dead who found the truth about the previous emperor. But this book takes Celehar somewhere quieter, somewhere completely new. Somewhere no less surrounded by death and doom, but y’know, that’s the life of a Witness for the Dead.

This is a murder mystery with strong fantastical elements. The deaths and lives Celehar is trying to witness tangle themselves around each other, each piece leading to another. There are cemetery ghouls rather than court etiquette, and the main role of airships is…not healthy for those near them…but the essential goodness of the Celehar himself, and of some though not all of the people he encounters keep this book very much buoyed up.

There’s so much scope for characterization and worldbuilding here, and Addison uses both to their utmost. The world of the opera and how this world’s ideas of race change who gets to do what; domestic violence and family grief; a very shy person realizing, tentatively, that he can have friends, that though he faces opposition he also has support. I love all these elements so much.

One of the great virtues of mystery novels can be good people making sense of the world, and that’s here, that’s very much here–along with the potential for so much more to follow. Highly recommended. Here if you want to squee about it.

Books read, early March

Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Discussed elsewhere.

Aliette de Bodard, Seven of Infinities. This is actually my second time reading this, because I also read the manuscript. It’s in the Xuya series and stands quite well on its own as a place to start those stories.

Sarah Beth Durst, Even and Odd. Discussed elsewhere.

Paul Farmer, Haiti After the Earthquake. I picked this up after being impressed with Farmer’s book about Ebola. I think he was still finding his feet here, because this reads more like a report of time on the ground for a charity than…a book with scope and perspective. And it’s interesting for that! It’s that there are areas where the focus is very different from what I expected or hoped for–it was written soon after, there was far less of the context that is more possible with time. (It is, however, no less emotionally grueling. Handle with care, as you’d expect.)

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Firebreak. Discussed elsewhere.

Annalee Newitz, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. Newitz has chosen four examples from all over the globe and time to look at why cities “die” or “get lost,” and the similarities, differences, and misconceptions are fascinating. Won’t take you long and has lots of cool tidbits.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. Autobiographical essays with a poetic focus on natural history metaphors. This is beautifully illustrated and very short, and Nezhukumatathil’s perspective is not one that’s over-represented in American publishing by any stretch.

Janice P. Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women–and Women to Medicine. I ended up finding this less interesting than I’d hoped–it does what it says on the tin, but it’s a little unfocused, a little bland. Ah well.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: My Best Friend’s Squirrel. These are all romps, but for some reason this one felt even rompier. Possibly I just read it when I most needed it. Seems like a fine place to pick up the series–there’ll be stuff that gets inclued, but I expect you’d be fine. A lot of it is handled in “in case you forgot this” comic book incluing style, which can be amusing in itself.

David Pietrusza, 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR: Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny. This is the fourth of Pietrusza’s books on US election years, and I have read all the others (1920, 1948, and 1960). I have long said that if he does one for every election year, I will just keep reading them, and 1932 does not negate that statement, but I do think it’s the weakest of the lot for two reasons: one, he’s trying to do two political systems, not one, and there just isn’t room for as many of the neat sociopolitical tangents; and two, the fact that it is the year of both FDR and Hitler ends up deforming things in the direction of the Second World War a lot, when there’s Depression stuff that was interesting in its own right. Ah well, still a fun read.

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s View: Modern Photographs from an Ancient Landscape. A companion photography volume for his previous prose work, which is better and more interesting.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf. I don’t see any indication that Tolkien intended this for publication, but I’m not sorry to have it in my exploration of Beowulf translations even though it is probably the worst of them so far. It contains three versions, and the one I really wanted is actually a fourth one–a colloquial Beowulf of which you can see glimpses in the translation notes. The translation notes are great, and I learned a lot, but…also they have bits of basically Gandalf-by-the-fire voice, and that would have been an interesting Beowulf. Ah well. The first one, the straight-up translation, was fairly plain, the second a re-telling and had stripped out several interesting elements, the third a short poem that stripped out even more interesting elements and…is probably going to hit you about like the rest of Tolkien’s poetry. But oh, the flashes of inspiration in the translation notes! Sigh.

Dawnie Walton, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. Discussed elsewhere.

Walter Jon Williams, Fleet Elements. I’m afraid I no longer find this central relationship interesting, especially since it seems to return to the same misunderstandings, the same secrets, and the same will-they-won’t-they. I don’t think this one would work without the earlier parts of the series, but my recommendation if you want fun military-focused space opera is to read the early trilogy and then stop.

Ariel S. Winter, The Preserve. Short, snappy, interesting mystery about crime on a human preserve when the world is mostly populated by humanoid robots. I…have to say that I was a little put off by the fact that Winter does not seem to have considered what he was doing in the context of Native/First Nations experience. The Canadian word for “place where we shove the First Nations people” is one letter off, reserve (rather than reservation, in the US), but the entire concept was…well, it was curiously empty that way.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is very much like the other things Becky Chambers has published, and also substantially different.

The elements that are very much like are the gentleness, the belief that humans might relate to each other better in the future, that better human structures are possible; the knowledge that small comforts matter but are not the only thing that matters; the sense of people of goodwill who are bewildered by a very complicated universe but trying their best.

The elements that are substantially different: everything else I’ve read by Chambers has been very focused on space, on built environments. This book is explicitly in a world that has been ravaged by a climate apocalypse, among humans who have had to figure out a better way. It has a strong focus on sustainability. And it also has bunches and bunches of enthusiastic nature-loving robots who wandered off into the wilderness generations ago.

I suspect that this means that the people who have loved Chambers’s work in the past will still love this one, and also some additional people who like other subgenres of science fiction will love it too. I am very fond of Sibling Dex the tea monk and Mosscap the robot, and the indications that this will be a series make me very happy.