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Books read, late November

Margaret A. Burnham, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners. An examination of the way the legal system was used to enforce Jim Crow and also used to get away from it. Not as depressing as it might have been, still plenty depressing–but in the “you should know this real thing that happened” direction, not in the wallowing direction.

A. R. Capetta and Wade Roush, eds., Tasting Light: Ten Science Fiction Stories to Rewire Your Perceptions. There were some lovely stories by favorites in here, but the discovery for me was Charlotte Nicole Davis’s “Cadence.” I don’t think I knew her work before, and this was charming and well drawn.

Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile, eds., Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves. These essays all appeared in Catapult, which was slightly to the detriment of the collection for the simple reason that they were all hitting very similar word counts. (Weird, right? but essay collections really do usually have more length variation than this.) I would have loved the chance to have more iteration, more exploration, on a few of these topics/from a few of these authors. Still a diverse and interesting bunch of work.

David Enrich, Dark Towers: Deutsch Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction. I am really impressed with what Enrich has managed to do with his books lately, using public fascination with the loathsome ex-president to drive interest in larger malfeasance in the financial and legal world. While Donald Trump is a character in this book, he is by no means its main focus–but the horrid shenanigans at Deutsch Bank are worth knowing about even aside from his involvement.

Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. A slim volume of nonfiction, Erdrich’s personal wanderings, a pleasant read but probably not number one on my Erdrich recommendation list.

John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless. Discussed elsewhere.

Karen Joy Fowler, Booth. I really resented enjoying this novel. I didn’t want to care about the family of John Wilkes Booth! But Fowler is a really good writer, so she dragged me kicking and screaming into empathy ugh finnnne.

Max Gladstone, Dead Country. Discussed elsewhere.

Pekka Hämäläinen, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America. I’ve enjoyed Hämäläinen’s previous work, on the Comanche and Lakota people, and this is a more overarching version of a similar approach. If you’ve read any recent North American Indigenous scholarship, this will almost certainly contain some sections you already know, but synthesized into the larger perspective and told smoothly and well.

Saeed Jones, Alive at the End of the World. The apocalypse, as we all know, is not distributed equally. These poems are a beautiful look at people already in the thick of it. Jones knows–tells the reader–that they will be called seering. This is entirely correct.

Candice Millard, River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. I was disappointed in this. It was not a breathless lionization of the white people involved, which: good. But that left it rather flat: here are some annoying people doing something not all that well. I may be wrong, but I had the feeling Millard, who is quite a good writer, was aware of the limitations of her source material and doing the best she could.

Tom Mustill, How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication. Sadly this is also a bit of a disappointment if you have been paying attention to animal communication at all. Not only is there not a lot new, but there’s a lot missing. Reasonable amount of firsthand whale encounters, though, so that’s cool.

Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red. This historical fiction novel is not just a puzzle novel but an exercise in point of view. Who is the murderer? Why does the tree get to talk to us and what does it have to say? A literary game of the kind I find delightful.

Ann Patchett, These Precious Days. Probably unfair to read other essay collections in close proximity to this one, as she is insightful and pithy and varied and personal–and she’s allowed to be, because she’s Ann Patchett.

Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen Keepers. My favorite cooking website, now in its third book form.

Carl Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field and Wild is the Wind. I encountered one of Phillips’s poems elsewhere and grabbed at these from the library while the urge was still fresh. I enjoyed them more for image than for insight but definitely for that.

Emery Robin, The Stars Undying. Do you want Cleopatra in space? because this (first volume in this) series is Cleopatra in space, complete with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and all their nonsense. It’s all there. Depending on how well you know this era and Shakespeare writing about it, you will even be able to say to yourself, “oh shit, that’s Cinna the Poet in space.” If that will annoy you, skip it, because it is 100% what it is. I’m pretty sure I have several friends whose jam it is. I don’t know whether Arkady started a subgenre of empires-and-memory-themes-in-space but here we are, so…keep ’em coming as long as they’re fun, that’s what I say.

Marcus Sedgwick, She Is Not Invisible. This is a puzzle story about a blind teenager and her very small brother tracking down their missing father halfway across the world from their home. There are some weird things about it, but it’s generally short and interesting, and if you wanted to read something as a memorial act for Sedgwick, who died recently, this is not your worst possible choice.

Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 49. Really liked “Rabbit Test” and “The other Side of Mictlan,” but actually enjoyed the whole thing.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Best of World SF Vol. 2. This is a behemoth, and Tidhar continues to use the space available to good effect. If you can’t find SF you like in this, you probably don’t much like SF. It’s varied in pretty much every direction you can vary science fiction.

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Dead Country, by Max Gladstone

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend.

How do we teach better than we were taught? When we’ve won free of an abusive system or person (or both), how do we make sure that we don’t revert to the things we were taught and create the same situation all over again for our student (child, nibling, other younger person)? I’m now finding it astonishing that more books don’t deal with this question as centrally as Dead Country, because it’s pretty crucial to progress. It would behoove us to think more about it. So here’s Max, thinking more about it, to the tune of at least one book. I am pleased.

So here we have–pleasant surprise!–Tara Abernathy again. Not precisely older and wiser, but certainly informed by her experiences in previous Craft novels. Except now she’s on her way home, because–and this is not a spoiler, it happens right away–her dad has died. (Note: if you are the daughter of a strong marriage who is still grieving her dad, this one will hit hard in places.) She loved her father fiercely. The rest of her hometown? eh. Not so much.

And on the way there, she’s picked up an apprentice, Dawn, a teenager whose voracious appetite for learning reminds Tara of herself. Which puts her in the role of…

Best not to think about that now. (She cannot not think about that now.) Because there are raiders at the gates, and her old neighbors are, shall we say, only variably glad to see her, and only variably interested in accepting her help.

So yeah. There’s a lot packed into this short volume. A lot of consequence, and this is very much first in a series–there are places yet to go with these ideas, and I can’t wait to get there. The marketing materials indicate that this is meant to be a good entry point for this series, and I totally agree. If you already know Tara, hurrah, more Tara. If you don’t, her characterization here is clear and interesting, entirely enough to go on. Highly recommended, regardless of whether you’ve enjoyed all the other Craft novels or never picked up a one.

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Growing Up Weightless, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publishers.

Dear Mike,

Did you know this is the novel of yours I’ve read the most often? Yes, and recommended the most often too, because to me it is like a clear glass of water, it’s very obvious who needs this book, and the answer is: most people, most of the time.

It turns out that not everyone agrees on the clear glass of water thing, Mike. A lot of other people seem to think it’s more like a milkshake, rich but opaque. You heard that a lot before you went, I bet, and here’s a new introduction from Francis Spufford saying it again: that you scarcely tell us what’s going on here. This confuses me. You hardly do anything but tell us what’s going on. Sometimes you are telling us five or six things going on all in the same paragraph. He also says–and don’t get me wrong, it’s quite a nice introduction and I’m grateful that they had him write it–that “It’s like eavesdropping on a rich, puzzling, clearly urgent conversation between strangers.” But Matt isn’t a stranger, Mike. You wrote him our friend. Our angry, confused, still figuring things out young friend. But still. From the angry start, Matthias Ronay is no stranger to me.

(Mr. Spufford also says of the ending that you “had a promise to keep to Heinlein,” and this I think is not quite right. The promise you received was from Heinlein. The promise you had to keep was to us. To the people who were basically Matt Ronay’s age when Growing Up Weightless came out. Or possibly to the people who are Matt’s age reading it now.)

The thing that struck me anew reading this in 2022, Mike, is how carefully you gave us xenophobia in a form that your readers would accept and sympathize with, only to move us, with Matt, to seeing how wrong it is, how wrong it always is. Earth people! Slammers, who could not look down on them, who could not be annoyed with them! Some days it seems like everyone who’s ever annoyed me is from Earth! But then, up close and at the full bore of xenophobia, suddenly that justification seems flimsy, disappears completely. Suddenly there is the full horror of watching people who had always been decent to you be quite otherwise to someone else, and feeling nearly powerless to stop them. Oh. Oh, I hope that gets somewhere it needs to go. And soon, Mike, we’ve been needing it even more since you left.

In the very beginning of the story-within-the-story that is the teenagers’ LARP, you put the line, “Some people always cheered when the body dropped.” And isn’t that just like you, Mike, to put bits of your theme right there front and center. To say: here it is, look at what I’m showing you. A clear glass of water, it’s right there. We can’t even say it’s sneaky because it was in a teenagers’ game, because you, of all people, took both teenagers and games seriously. What you didn’t do was take them out of their own context. And threaded through all of this the games are part of how people work, and how people learn. And they are night and day different from the gamification we’re seeing now, and oh how I wonder what you’d have thought of Adrian Hon’s book, of all the ways gamification has crept in. I want to ask you whether you think it gamification undermines games. I’ll put it on the list, I guess.

It’s not a long book. But there’s so much here, the water supply on the moon and how we have moments with our friends before the ancient enemy, entropy, sends us flying in different directions, how we know who is our own people, why we get it wrong sometimes, what we sacrifice and what we discover later that we shouldn’t have. And also: lots of scenes of teenagers having fun and genuinely liking each other, on Luna. On the moon. It’s a bit like the argument I had with someone who was very very not you about Tooth and Claw, where they were saying it wasn’t really a book about dragons and I was insisting that what made it good was that it was all those other things through being a book about dragons. This would not be the book it is about every other topic if it wasn’t mostly a book about teenagers playing games on the Moon.

And finally, at the ending, just where I thought I was done crying about the little lines you left us in this book, there is Sonya telling Matt: “‘That–doing your work as well as you know it can be done, whatever less someone else may expect–that is what will keep you sound in yourself, Matt. That is what life is for.'” Oh, my friend. Well. We’ll try, okay? We’ll try.

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Books read, early November

Julian Aguon, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies. This is a slim collection of essays and poems with an environmental theme, rooted in the author’s experience as a Guamanian. One of his strengths is that he manages to be lyrical but also provide footnotes to give credit where due and a light to other paths.

Lindsey Fitzharris, The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I. I think this is one where you know pretty well from the subtitle whether you want to read it or not. It is pretty clear about what damage can be done to humans without killing them and what procedures people in the early 20th worked on to try to help fix them up. Fitzharris talks in an early note about her decision to include graphic photos of the patients in question, but those pictures are not reproduced in line with the text but rather concentrated in the illustration insert section, so if you really need to not look at what you’re reading described, it’s fairly easy not to.

Jorie Graham, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014. I love reading “collected works” but also other career-spanning volumes of poetry for a number of reasons. One is that if there is a period I don’t connect with as much, it’s clearer in a chronological collection. In this case, Graham moves from a grounded natural lyricism to a very personally generated formalism that doesn’t connect with me at all–so I know now to seek out the early work, which is a win.

Toby Green, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa From the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. This is the beginning of what I’m looking for. Okay. Okay, look. So if you go to an art museum, it’s clear that they know all sorts of things about African politics pre-colonization. There’ll be notes about how such-and-such a thing was the poroperty of the Dahomey ambassador to Portugal or something like that. So like: we know who that was. We know all sorts of things about the Dahomey kingdom and its surrounding kingdoms. It’s a matter of collecting those things and synthesizing them, because these people were doing diplomacy with Europe, they were doing trade, they were doing exchanges of art. These people exist in records. They have–and this is a major point Green makes, contrary to some earlier European thinkers’ explicit erasure–history. And Green, who is a historian of Lusophone Africa–that means Portuguese-speaking–has started doing some of that, and it’s fascinating and lovely and so important. More. More.

Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North. So it turns out that there are two different poets, Linda Gregg and Linda Gregerson, and when I got a book by the former earlier and thought, huh, this isn’t anything like the poem of her I liked before…there was a reason for that. Erudite, insightful, and faintly Nordic.

Adrian Hon, You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. I read this in part because I am one of the least gamified people I know, and I felt like it was good to know what was being done to people in different social situations than mine and/or with different brain wiring. Hon is clearly not anti-game and in fact is one of the creators of Zombies, Run!, which makes him a good person to assess the ups and downs of gamification, neither demonizing the entire industry nor wearing blinkers about it.

Jordan Kurella, I Never Liked You Anyway. This novella is an Orpheus and Eurydice story, and also a modern college musicians story, and the combination works perfectly. Tangled relationships, confused ambitions, Cerberus with snacks from the modern world, this novella has it all.

Freya Marske, A Restless Truth. When the first book in this series arrived I sat down and read it straight through. It was exactly what I wanted to be reading in that moment. And that happened again: shipboard mystery and romance, scandalous magicians, a parrot, yes, yes this, absolutely, more of this.

Bina Shah, Before She Sleeps. This is the kind of science fiction I wish I saw discussed more often in SF circles: it’s a feminist dystopia by an Iranian writer, so it has a very different perspective than a lot of US or even broader Anglophone SF in the same subgenre, even using similar familiar elements like a skewed gender ratio and forced marriage. One of the things I think Shah writes acutely about is that sex is not the only or even the main thing straight men want with women, and keeping that kind of complexity of relationship in a dystopia was lovely to see.

Margery Sharp, The Nutmeg Tree. This is a frothy joy from 1937. It’s not sexually explicit, but it is sexually frank, and funny, and compassionate, and sharply observant about human relationships, class, and interpersonal deception. In the first few chapters, the heroine, a widowed mother, ends up in spangled tights being (a stationary) part of a trapeze act. That’s the level of “let’s do something fun in the next chapter” Sharp is working from.

Jay Wellons, All That Moves Us: A Pediatric Neurosurgeon, His Young Patients, and Their Stories of Grace and Resilience. This is another one that you will probably know if you want to avoid just from the title. Are you going to be really upset at quite young children needing often-emergent neurosurgery? Then this is not the book for you. Are you going to be eye-rollingly annoyed at the writer’s insistence on Important Life Lessons From Sick Children? pretty borderline. But there’s also a lot of interesting stuff about the actual practice of pediatric neurosurgery.

Jonathan Wylie and David Margolin, The Ring of Dancers: Images of Faroese Culture. This one isn’t actually literally what it says on the tin. Specifically, it’s not about images that are commonly used in Faroese culture. The subtitle is more meant to convey snapshots, small vignettes, about Faroese culture. Still interesting, helping me fill in some blanks in this tiny part of a geography I’m otherwise fairly familiar with.

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Books read, late October

Kelly Barnhill, The Crane Husband. Discussed elsewhere.

Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective. This is one of those books that starts out in the introduction clarifying that the German Peasants’ War of 1525 was not just Germans, not just peasants, started in 1524 and ended in 1526. Hee, okay. But Blickle really does a good job of going into what they said they wanted, how widespread each of the demands was, what affected that spread, how things played out after.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Volumes 2 and 4. Kindle. I am still in search of a title, and EBB has failed me. These two volumes were very different, though. Volume 2 was full of deliberately archaic speech (it was very forsoothly) and had some ideas that did not wage well, like EBB trying to write a poem from the POV of an enslaved Black American woman. Her heart was probably in a pretty decent place but oh dear. Volume 4 is the one that has Sonnets from the Portuguese in it and has really started flowing in some ways. Those were ways that were completely useless to me. But still.

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger. This is a fairly cheerful mystery of blackmail and murder, low on classism and gratuitous racist remarks compared to Christie’s average. I haven’t committed to reading all of them, in fact quite the opposite, but when I see someone reading a decent one I will probably follow suit and enjoy it reasonably well.

Rio Cortez, Golden Ax. There’s all sorts of speculative-adjacent stuff in this poetry collection, and its handling of tropes about race and land is quite good. I picked it up without knowing anything about it and I’m glad I did.

David Enrich, Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice. This is not a pleasant read, but it’s sometimes useful, I feel, to have some of the specific details of the unpleasantness rather than a vague politically icky feeling, and this is one of those times.

Elizabeth M. Hallam and Judith Everard, Capetian France 987-1328. What it says on the tin, except that it’s really the monarchs and a very few high clergy of that era. Fills a gap reasonably, will be solid grounding for other detail.

Hua Hsu, Stay True. This is a memoir of a lost friendship. Hsu is about the same age as me, and so many of the cultural touchstones of our college years were skillfully drawn…while portraying a friend group absolutely nothing like mine. Fast and heartbreaking.

Justina Ireland, Rust in the Root. The Dirty Thirties are in my opinion a desperately underused decade for historical fiction, and Ireland gives them a beautifully alternate twist that never loses sight of what the reality looked like. Definitely the first in a series, and I really want the next one.

Peter Lasko, The Kingdom of the Franks: North-West Europe Before Charlemagne. Sometimes you can tell that somebody has recently sold a collection to the used bookstore, and this was one of those times, because I got this at the same time as I did the Capetian book. It’s not as extensive or solid but was still basically fine.

L. D. Lewis and Charles Payseur, eds., We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2021. Some of my favorite stories from 2021 were in this, plus some authors I hadn’t read before. Always a good mix to aim for in an anthology of this type.

Mary McMyne, The Book of Gothel. Medieval German fantasy that carries the echoes of fairy tales without adhering to them particularly strongly. Stands alone. Lovely, so lovely.

Adrian Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World. Okay, so I gave the title major side-eye (last, huh? I could make some introductions, Murdoch), but I was interested in a biography of Julian the Apostate. And this was a pretty interesting one, threading the needle between the natural urge to sympathize with one’s topic and the ability to paint a nuanced portrait of a human being–particularly impressive with classical sources.

Orhan Pamuk, Nights of Plague. Historical novel that does what it says on the tin, set on a fictional Mediterranean island that was part of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th century. This is a book clearly written with the experience of COVID in mind–the reactions to contagion are in no way idealized, and no one is saved through individual force of will. May be a tough read at the moment, or in fact for any foreseeable time.

Leslye Penelope, The Monsters We Defy. The Twenties have never Roared like this before. Magical heist novel, absolute romp, structured in the best traditions of con job reveals. Such fun.

Catherine Rockwood et al, eds., Reckoning: Our Beautiful Reward. Kindle. I am in this volume, and I make it a policy not to review things I’m in.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shards of Earth. This was a fun space opera with a bunch of different human variants as well as aliens. First in a series, and I’ll be glad to have the next one.

Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory. Discussed elsewhere.

Sheree Renee Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight, eds., Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction. Discussed elsewhere.

Amy Wilson, Lightning Falls. A charming middle-grade fantasy about a girl who might not be a ghost after all. I needed a fun book with rainbows on the cover that day, and this delivered.

Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of Self and The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. Like the previous pair of Wulf books I read recently, these two pair fairly obviously. You can see where the research for one led to the interest in the next. German Romantics and their worldview and their weird complicated relationships with each other! Fun times to look at from a distance.

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Another circle

New poem out today, Dante on the Metro in Mobius.

I wrote this because I miss the Montreal Metro. I miss visiting other people’s public transit in general, but the Montreal Metro, man, the way it’s warm when you rush down out of the cold to catch your train, the way you run into multiple Celine Dion cover buskers in one day, the whole of it, absolutely the entire thing. Again someday. But meanwhile this.

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Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also, the author and I are pals in part because we share an agent.

The first page says: “Some Desperate Glory contains sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist and ableist attitudes, sexual assault, violence, child abuse, radicalization as child abuse, genocide, suicidal ideation, and suicide.” Friends, Emily is not kidding about this list. She’s not doing it to shock, there is literally nothing of epater les bourgeois here. But if you are thinking, haha wow, that’s a long list, probably some of it is a bit glossed over: not really, no. I recommend this book, but not on a day you need rainbows and bunnies, because those are in short supply here. The genocide in this book is space opera genocide, except unlike many space operas with genocide, Emily never forgets that it’s still genocide. And she’s not going to let the reader forget either.

So what is it, other than the content warnings. It’s a space opera about humans traumatized by the destruction of Earth, eking out their existence and training for vengeance on the aliens who destroyed it. (Because apparently for humans destroying Earth is like hitting your little brother: you do it yourself all the time but get really mad when someone else does. Ahem. Anyway.) Valkyr was born into this tiny, militaristic culture. She has drunk in every part of it. She is going to be its perfect representative. She was literally born for this.

Or so she thinks. Until her ideas of what the people around her are doing and how they should be treated keep getting upended–not because she’s a nice person, because she is absolutely not. Kyr is a great big jerk with all the certainty of a 17-year-old who hasn’t experienced any world outside her tiny space village/barracks. But because some of the things she knows to be true are put in contradiction to each other. She meets an alien. She and her brother both run into adulthood hard and the fallout is…literally explosive.

Sometimes if you’re raised in a deeply sexist culture, there’s a part of you that thinks, deep down, that sexism is because girls are less worthy. That’s the entire message you’ve been steeped in, sometimes it’s hard to get all of it out. And one of the things Emily gives us with Kyr is a heroine whose solution to this has always been to just be good enough…and to run her into that wall, that giant unforgiving wall that says, you don’t matter, all your achievements don’t matter, because this is what they believe about women, you cannot Not Like The Other Girls your way out of sexism, it doesn’t work that way, that’s not why sexism exists. And for me that was one of the hardest parts. And also it was one of the most beautiful parts.

What else is there, there’s a lot else, there’s a galaxy-spanning computer and various aliens and people getting to say exactly what they think to the people they’ve known for years, there are fight scenes and first dates and snark in its place but only in its place. There are family members who manage to care about each other despite differences so deep as to be basically incomprehensible…until they aren’t. There are bits where people are better than you think and bits where people are worse than you think. This is not a book that leaves anything for the swim back, and I love it for that.

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The Crane Husband, by Kelly Barnhill

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author from On Here and from being very local.

This is an amazing novella, and if it had been any longer than a novella it might have been so intense as to be unbearable. It’s the story of a teenage girl who is used to being the responsible party for her widowed artist mother and her six-year-old brother. She’s done the books for her mother’s business since her dad died six years ago, arranged for meals, gotten her brother dressed and to school on time.

But one night her mother brings home a crane. A taller-than-human, spectacle-wearing bird. Neighborhood frogs are not safe from his long, sharp beak…and neither is her mother. The longer the crane husband stays, the more wounds her mother bears–and the more she seems to slip away from ordinary human concerns. That includes her children.

So yeah, major, major content warnings for abusive relationships and child neglect here. And for feelings of helplessness and rage. Because that’s what this story is about, about neglect and abuse and bewildered love and being powerless to help one person you love most–and determined to help another. It’s also about art and modern (future?) rural life. There’s so much packed into this novella, and it will leave you reeling in the best possible way.

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Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction

Edited by Sheree Renee Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight. Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is an anthology of original fiction by authors from Africa and the African diaspora. Its editors are extremely personally aware that Africa is not one location but an entire continent worth, and that any anthology of this nature should have breadth and depth of story choice.

And wow, does it deliver. There’s the hardest of science fiction and the highest of fantasy and everything in between. Settings everywhere, everywhere. Stylistic choices of basically every type. If you can’t find something you like in this anthology, you probably don’t like speculative fiction at all, because there’s just so much here. I have long argued that lists like “best Mexican-American poetry” should be evaluated not as an AND but as an OR: if you are specifically interested in EITHER Mexican-American writing OR poetry, you should give it a look, as long as you’re not actively averse to one of them, and I think that’s important here. If you have an interest in speculative fiction by writers with African roots, great–but if you just have an interest in one of those categories, still great, don’t miss it.

There were a few stories that really stood out for me in this antho. First off, they started with an absolute barnburner of a story from Dilman Dila, “The Blue House.” It’s poignant, it’s excellent at thinking through non-standard points of view, and it’s got a human-robot hybrid in it, literally what more could you ask Dila for. “Lady Rainbow” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu has a lovely relationship with the protag’s grandmother, mediated by her cookbook, and also there’s a giant mantis element in it (!!!). Wole Talabi’s “A Dream of Electric Mothers” also has strong themes of family and ancestors, with giant future computers involved in a thoughtful examination of the complex nature of peace.

But those are just my favorites–there’s enough in this anthology that I’m sure you’ll find other things. There are friends and familiar names in here but also authors I’d never read before, which is a hard and wonderful balance for an anthology to strike. Recommended.

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Books read, early October

Antonia Angress, Sirens and Muses. Art school novel about artists and commercialism and collaboration and an entire cluster of related themes, including theme itself. Some of the characters make gleefully poor decisions, some struggle to do better, lots of thought about why we value particular art.

Terry J. Benton-Walker, Blood Debts. Discussed elsewhere.

Lyndsie Bourgnon, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. Bourgnon’s focus in this book is poverty in logging/formerly-logging communities and the social effects on the forest ensuing from it. Which is interesting and probably worth knowing about, but I wish she gave more context about whether individual poor and working class people are the main sources of forest crime and negative impact on forest ecosystems and how else we might define tree theft/other forest theft.

Octavia Butler, Imago. Reread. I think it’s pretty clear that Butler wanted to write about colonialism and empire with these books, and at that part she did a very interesting uncomfortable job. (Which was clearly her goal. If you read this trilogy and feel cozy, that’s…shall we say not the intended response.) But in the late ’80s/early ’90s when she was writing it, we were in a very different place with writing about gender and about sexuality and consent. So the farther you get in this trilogy, the more the gender essentialism becomes central, and the more the characters who “can’t help themselves” and “absolutely must” have sex with other people have POV sections. Which are not “wow what a rapey asshole this person is,” and yet: wow, so much rapey assholery in this book. So relieved to be done with it. There are books like Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw that take a sexist attitude like that, apply it to a non-human species, and show how clear it is that humans do not actually have the trait the sexist attitude assumes. Because this was not central to what it looks like Butler intended to do, that’s not the case here. This may be my least favorite of her books.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. This is a compendium of things we have from the pre-Norman Conquest world: wills, letters, poetry, recipes, riddles. It contains the entirety of the Crossley-Holland translation of Beowulf, which is not even my third-favorite translation of Beowulf. Crossley-Holland himself is explicitly writing for an audience that conceives of itself as having Anglo-Saxon ancestors–he talks about it in his notes. Despite these drawbacks I find this an immensely useful and interesting volume to have.

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Early Republic. The process of assimilation and the obliteration of Native cultures can be horrifying, but also I feel like we owe it to each other to know what’s been done in this area. This particular school was far earlier and less organized than the infamous Native Schools in the US and Canada–it was very much an amalgam of any male non-Christian person they could get to come, from 13yo Cherokees to full-grown Hawaiian men and at least one Jewish immigrant. This school explicitly aimed at converting its students to Christianity and promoting the success of their own project as a template, and Demos covers a lot of ground in how the aims changed over time but also were not consistent from person to person involved.

Nisid Hajari, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. One of the problems of starting to learn about horrible things that happened in history is that if you don’t know a lot, you can’t always tell whether the book you’ve found is reasonably fair-minded. Literally zero people in this book look good by the end, but Hajari is not someone who thinks that “fair” means “equivalent,” and Hajari is willing to be clear that specific individuals in each community did have the potential to be better or (much, much) worse than others. Not cheerful but informative.

Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution. Wat Tyler! John Ball! “When Adam delved and Eve span” and peasants who had very solid ideas of what was going wrong and not at all solid ideas of what they might do about it.

R. B. Lemberg, The Unbalancing. This is a lovely place to start reading Birdverse stories if you haven’t started them already. The worldbuilding is clear but not tedious, and the starkeeper’s relationship with the poet is spiky and lovely and real.

Marina Lostetter, The Helm of Midnight. Discussed elsewhere.

Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers. A bookstore owner friend of mine says this is what he gives people who come in looking for a tearjerker, and I believe it. It’s a two-timeline book, and the first of them is gay men at the very early height of the AIDS crisis. And the other is 30 years later but doesn’t give away very much of who survives and in what condition. Also the second is about the relationship of a mother with her estranged daughter, so…there are a lot of reasons you might want to go into this one braced for it and/or on a good day for you.

Emily Midorikawa, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice. And by “Visionary” we mean “the Spiritualist movement.” I don’t know, this was a weird middle ground for me between the depth of focus of a biography and the breadth of a more general history. Fine but not probably the best place to start on this topic.

Catherine Musemeche, Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II. I was hoping for more oceanography and less WWII-era sexism. The sexism is defeated by awesomeness at great personal cost etc.! And that’s great and it’s a fine book of that type! I just. Would like more oceanography.

Eleanor Parker, Conquered: The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England. One of the rare contemporary uses of “Anglo-Saxon” in a title that I don’t side-eye, because Parker is distinguishing among British ethnicities here: she means not the Normans and not the Celts and there is not a very good alternate term for that distinction that I know of. She traces the fates of the culturally last examples of some different power groups from the pre-Conquest society, and it’s pretty cool. If you’re not clear on how things generally went in the 11th century, probably not a good starting point.

Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment. Ridley’s thesis is that while George V has a reputation for personal dullness, his reign was excessively interesting. Fair enough. She seemed to promise that she was going to have theories of why George V managed to keep his throne when monarchies were falling all around him, but I found that less clear/convincing than “oh gosh what a time to be the head of somebody’s state.” That part was pretty good, though. She has dodged between the Scylla and Charybids of either idolizing or hate-biographing somebody. Also I see why this was not called George V and Mary with the same subtitle, but a rather substantial chunk of it was about Queen Mary.

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation. A science fiction novella about insomnia and siphoning sleep off people with all sorts of cultural commentary layered in. It was published as weird fiction/literary fiction, band the ending is more in those genres, but it is no less SF than a lot of other SF and I wish more people had talked about it when it was new. Also just reading this book made me grateful for sleep.

Cat Sebastian, The Missing Page. The second in a charming post-WWII mystery series (that is, written now, set immediately post-WWII). Two men struggling to recover from their wounds (some of them even physical) have found each other but are also solving crimes, and frankly my main complaint in this series is that she didn’t start writing it very long ago so I don’t have a giant stack o f them to catch up on.

Greg van Eekhout, Fenris and Mott. Stray puppy is Fenris, extremely cute and fluffy, and Mott has to stop him from eating the moon and bringing down the absolute worst of Ragnarok–even when adults are on the other side. Environmental context is clear without being preachy, and the characters are a delight. Loved this.

Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession and Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. Wulf is far better at the Old World than the New. This pair of books arose from one body of research, and it’s a very interesting take on how the white men at the heads of an established and an emerging empire influenced the course of botany and were influenced by it in turn. It’s a little curious that Wulf doesn’t seem to think of the gardeners these empires ran over, or in the case of the book about North America even acknowledge their existence. She has fallen hard for the myth of untouched wilderness in North America. If you want to read about the establishment, these are a reasonable source, but don’t mistake her focus for the world even when she does.