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Self-Portrait With Nothing, by Aimee Pokwatka

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Content note that I wish I had had: the protagonist is related to veterinarians, and there are several graphic descriptions of veterinary procedures to sick and injured dogs. These descriptions have no bearing on the plot but they sure are present. If you don’t want to read about a grieving family you’ll never see in this book again euthanizing their pet, this is not the book for you.

The tone of this book is extremely detached and abstracted from events, including vivid ones like the above. Pepper (the protagonist) spends most of the time trying to avoid having any emotional reaction whatsoever. Which is understandable in context (though not all of her actions ever were for me), but it still adds up to a particular reading experience. One of the drawbacks of an eARC is that I’m never sure whether the formatting is true to the final layout, but if it is, the texts between the protagonist and her husband–one of the closest things a book has to a major emotional thread–are weirdly and sometimes confusingly formatted.

So what’s this book about? Well, eccentric artist Ula Frost is rumored to paint portraits of people’s alternate selves, from alternate universes. How does this work, and why would people believe this claim? That is not a topic this book concerns itself with. Instead it focuses on Frost’s disappearance and relationship with Pepper, and the ramifications of both in the rest of Pepper’s life.

I finished this book largely because I wanted to see where Pokwatka was going with the speculative conceit in a very literary novel, but honestly where she went with it was not worth the dog stuff for me. I’m perfectly happy with meditations on loneliness and isolation (I read Scand Lit for heaven’s sake), but this was a fairly middle-of-the-road instantiation of that kind of novel, without particular insights into the artist’s life, possibility, or other topics that the framing might have suggested.

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Books read, late July

Samit Basu, The City Inside. This is a really engaging book that takes on all sorts of ideas about livestreaming and social media forms of entertainment–what they do to our relationships and the world around us. The Delhi in this book is extrapolated into the near-future with loving but clear eyes–not an ideal but a place actual people do and will live, beautifully drawn.

Elizabeth Bear, The Origin of Storms. Will I sound too much like a marketing document if I call this the triumphant conclusion of this series? Still and all: it is. Dragons in various forms, diplomacy and betrayal, a sentient fountain pen and a Really Good Doggo, all the things you’ve come to love in this series, brought together for the conclusion, hurrah. (Or maybe you haven’t come to love it yet. If not, don’t start here, the others are still in print!)

Casey Blair, Tea Set and Match. Second in the Tea Princess series, the structure is not quite as strong as the first one simply because the fun Casey decided to have (GBBO/other reality competition show analog) wasn’t smoothed into the fantasy world quite as well. The characters are still endearing, their adventures engaging, but I’d start with the first one here too.

Stephanie Burgis, Touchstones: A Collection. Kindle. This is a collection that really shows Steph’s range, from sweet to dark and all sorts of things in between. I’d read some of these stories before, but it’s nice to have them collected–and I definitely hadn’t managed to find all of them.

John Cardina, The Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly. This is structured to use several botanical examples to illustrate larger points about how humans attempt to control the plants in our environments–and how those attempts can backfire hugely. It’s a very US-centric book, but I think it should be clear which of the principles apply elsewhere (which is most of them).

Becky Chambers, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Mosscap and Sibling Dex have returned to human lands, to a flood of interest neither of them is quite sure how to process. Their relationship continues to be tender and inquisitive. Less tea than you might hope, but more robot. I would once again start with the first one here, but if you liked the first one I think you’ll like this one too.

Marq De Villiers, The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin: Wood and Human Achievement. This is one of those books that made me think, well, congrats to De Villiers for managing to get a book deal for putting together sections about things he’s interested in, fair play to you, sir, may we all have the same. Interesting details here, although toward the end there are some places where his detail-orientation collides with big picture questions like climate change in ways that didn’t work ideally for me.

Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby, eds., The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. So…there are several ways to come up with a multiple-poet collection. You can select poems from an open call! You can solicit pre-existing poems you’ve enjoyed! You can do all sorts of stuff. In this case the editors sent scent to poets who had agreed to write them a poem inspired by each scent. I feel–I may be wrong–that this gets a much broader range of poems than if the poems are selected rather than the poets. What I discovered about myself: I was much more interested in the less literal takes on this challenge. Okay.

Barbara Hambly, Death and Hard Cider. The latest Benjamin January mystery is set during the chaos of the 1840 election, which is frankly a neglected period for historical novels. Tippecanoe and Tyler too, lots of campaigning, lots of politics–even if this was an election you usually saw a lot of, having a free man of color in 1840 New Orleans as the viewpoint character would not be standard for what this genre has been, and Hambly really leaned into that. The range of historical issues she’s willing to take on is part of what keeps this series fresh.

Guy Gavriel Kay, All the Seas of the World. This was only a few of the seas of the world, but I liked it anyway. It’s Kay doing the secondary world history that he does best, and I found it immersive and lovely. Would I start here? Probably not ideally, but maybe, probably it’d be fine. This set of books has few linear sequels, and this is not one of them.

Harry Kemelman, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. A ’60s mystery that is very, very much of its time. There were places I could watch Kemelman using the opportunity to educate Gentile readers about Judaism: what’s going on here, which I’m sure was (and still is, in some ways) valuable–but not at the expense of mystery story. Went very fast.

C.S. Lewis, Poems. There’s a reason Lewis was not a famous poet in his lifetime. More than one. He has the confidence in knowing the rules of poetry that comes of the kind of education he had, but it turns out that rules are a rather small part of poetry. Lewis actively, on the page not by implication, advocates for having what he calls the Stock Responses–the emotional reactions that your culture tells you are the right ones to have–and he is both smug and resentful about other poets who do not have those responses. Also, for people who argue about whether he was really a misogynist or not, with various positions about Susan, I refer you to the poem in which he’s really mad that he’s attracted to some lady because she is definitely not all that. (No, seriously. That’s the poem.) Or rather, I do not refer you to that poem, it is very, very skippable. Frankly I read the second half of this book in train wreck mode.

Ada Limon, The Hurting Kind. This is a very solid poetry collection, but it’s not my favorite of hers–just a different set of ideas and references than the previous work, which is great but didn’t hit quite as dead center with me. Still enthusiastic about whatever she does next.

Premee Mohamed, The Annual Migration of Clouds. Climate change and plagues and…not nearly as dark or upsetting as I feared it might be. Life after the apocalypse, friendship and family after the apocalypse. I had not braced myself for the sweetness.

Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel. A mystery from 1933. She was still finding her stride in this one, and she spends some time talking about how in the years when this book was set we didn’t yet know how to treat…what she means is developmentally disabled people, but it turns out they still did not know how to treat them in 1933. (Guess my feelings about whether we’re particularly great at it now, just guess.) So I would recommend either of the other two books of hers I’ve read above this one–it’s not ill-intentioned, but she’s very early in her novelist game and also in the Anglophone world’s development of genre mystery.

Aden Polydoros, The City Beautiful. A very gay, very Jewish, very fantastical visit to turn of the last century Chicago. Sometimes really grim but also beautifully vivid.

Kelly Robson, High Times in Low Parliament. This was a romp through a fairy government with a bit of an edge, giving humans a hard look through a side of whimsy.

DaVaun Sanders et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 23. Kindle. Two standout stories in this issue were Lina Monroe’s “The Usual Way” and A.M. Barrie’s “Just Desserts.” I remain glad to subscribe.

Warsan Shire, Bless the Daughter Raised By A Voice in Her Head. These poems are mostly about Shire’s immigrant experience and her relationships with other members of her community. There is a combination of kindness and clear sight that I find very appealing.

Edward Struzik, Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat. (The Improbable World of Peat is my next theme park.) So much interesting swamp stuff. I enjoyed this a lot, and if you like this general kind of natural history, this should fill a great “swamps and wetlands” niche.

E. Catherine Tobler et al, ed., The Deadlands Issue 15. Kindle. Beautiful issue. My favorite story was Leah Bobet’s “Sunday in the Park with Hank,” but I also recommend Amanda Downum’s column. I know I say that a lot, but this time I feel like it’s not just interesting but also important.

Elizabeth Van Duine, Paper and Knife. This is a collection of images of papercuttings, sent to me by a friend who knows I like to do that myself. My only complaint with this volume is that the kind of photography they used for the book sometimes makes it hard to see that you’re looking at a papercutting rather than a print of some sort.

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Books read, early July

Kalynn Bayron, This Wicked Fate. The second of a pair, and you really don’t want to read it as a stand-alone, as it’s very much the kind of duology where the story just dives in and keeps going as soon as the second book begins rather than trying to ease you in. Poison mythologies and family relationships, YA fantasy, very fond.

Rebecca Campbell, Arboreality. Discussed elsewhere.

Julie C. Day and Ellen Meeropol, eds., Dreams for a Broken World. This was a very mixed bag. Day and Meeropol were trying to bring two different genre sensibilities to this fundraiser anthology, and for me, at least, the genre stories were immensely more successful than the mimetic ones. (And as you all know from reading this blog, I do read mimetic fiction avidly, so it’s not just that I’m more accustomed to the speculative stories.) There was a nice reprint from Sabrina Vourvoulias in this, and Zig Zag Claybourne (“Finding Ways”) and Marie Vibbert (“Subscription Life”) had the stand-out new stories.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters. Kindle. Famously unfinished, but just barely: you can see the shape of the ending they are barreling towards, and I believe it’s only the very last chapter she didn’t get to complete. A Victorian novel focused on the life, particularly the loves, of one provincial doctor’s daughter. This is not my favorite nor yet my second favorite Gaskell, but I’m glad I read it all the same.

Louise Glück, American Originality: Essays on Poetry. I was more interested in the things that actually were essays on poetry than on the introductions written for other people’s collections–but those felt more satisfying to me than the Jhumpa Lahiri versions of the same genre in last fortnight’s reading.

Roger T. Hanlon and John B. Messenger, Cephalopod Behavior. Very much a textbook rather than something structured as a smooth prose read, but I wanted to find out about cephalopod behavior for a project, and boy, did I.

Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Discussed elsewhere.

Fady Joudah, Tethered to Stars. This is one of those poetry collections where the astronomical theme is very loose/metaphorical, rather than mostly writing poetry about astronomy. I liked it for what it is, but do not mistake it for the other thing, because it definitely isn’t.

Christopher Kemp, Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation. Kemp walks the fine line of a modern nonfiction writer telling you about himself, but in this case it’s mostly anecdotes about how completely bad his navigation skills are, how he was fascinated with this topic due to his own shortcomings rather than his own skills. I learned interesting things about which parts of the brain are doing what. Unfortunately the section at the end about getting better at navigation was all the stuff I’ve already done to compensate for having a balance disorder–it seems that this is not an entirely surmountable problem. Well. Sigh. Still good stuff to think about, though.

Dana Levin, Now Do You Know Where You Are. Short answer: no. I think these poems are probably quite good for someone who is not me, but I felt un-grounded in them, un-rooted, and not in a deliberate and systematic way. I didn’t hate them, I just…did not orient myself to them successfully.

Philip Mansel, King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV. Okay, so I’m not entirely clear why Mansel feels that someone will be interested in reading 450+ pages of Louis XIV bio and have no knowledge of what happened in France before or since, but he does seem to hold that belief, starting the book with Clovis and carrying on to the present day. Those sections are short but kind of baffling in their existence. But otherwise it’s an interesting look at not just Louis XIV himself but also the institutions surrounding him from earliest infancy.

Margery Sharp, Something Light. Wow is this title ever accurate. This is a frothy, fun, funny book from 1960 about a career woman deciding to methodically seek a “good” husband only to find that she can’t go through with it in a number of the obvious places. The ending is a little abrupt but the entire thing is entertaining. (Caveat: I remember at least one moment of casually Antisemitic language toward the end.)

Dana Simpson, Unicorn Selfies. This is the most recent Phoebe & Her Unicorn collection. You can pick it up basically anywhere–it’s a daily comic strip from the contemporary era, so while there are plot arcs, they’re all pretty bite-sized. Still fun, took me only a minute.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 47. Kindle. Another very satisfying issue of this magazine. John Chu’s “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” was my favorite of the issue.

E. Catherine Tobler et al, The Deadlands Issue 14. Kindle. Also another good offering of this magazine, in which I felt that Iona Datt Sharma’s “Give This Letter to the Crows” was particularly fine.

Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. Now look. Nobody made him make this book stretch to 1931. I don’t know why he did it, except that he wanted to put in a slapdash chapter about the beginning of the Great Depression. Frankly he would have been much better off if it had been 1916-1922, and no one would have stopped him; that’s clearly what he wanted to write about and was the bulk of the book. So if you decide you want to read about global geopolitics in the late-Great War/immediate post-Great War period, that’s all very well, but if you want to read about global geopolitics in the 1920s, don’t blame me if you pick this book up and are disappointed.

Hannah Whitten, For the Throne. Another completion of a duology where I do not recommend reading it without the one that comes before. Echoes but does not directly follow several fairy tales, makes its own space in the dark woods.

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Arboreality, by Rebecca Campbell

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Oh, this is gorgeous. It’s a novella about the world falling apart and being put back together again, all at once–there’s no stage of the novella where people are not trying to hold the world together for each other. There are people saving library books from flood, planting seeds, teaching each other, making musical instruments. There are so many people going about the work of the world as best they can under difficult circumstances.

It’s the shape of piece that has different characters threaded throughout, one section leading into another by theme and other elements less than by continuity of character, so even at novella length you get different angles on the same places and problems. Some of it is generational difference but some is just personal–Sophie is a different individual than Kit or Benno or any of the others, as it should be. But themes keep coming around, themes keep coming back. This is a novella that looks climate disaster in the eye and does not flinch from the harm it will do, is already doing, but also speaks to the resilience of human hope and beauty in the face of it.

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Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I haven’t revisited this fantasy classic in this millennium–which is to say, not in my adult life. But here’s a new edition, so it seemed like the right time. Holdstock’s prose is clear and sure, a pleasure to read, and at the time this came out I think he was doing something really new with the echoes of legends and archetypes resonating through both the land—in this case Ryhope Wood in England–and the men who inhabit it. The way he’s chosen an archetypal brother-against-brother plot redoubles and resonates with the speculative conceit that way.

The down side is that this is one of the 20th century books that has not really thought through treating women as anything but adjuncts to men. Guiwenneth, the only woman who gets really any degree of page time at all, is defined by her sexual potential and/or as a love interest–she wants to stay with Steven but is under threat from his brother, Christian, whose violence and anger are (not very explicably) heightened to fever pitch with his time dilated stay in Ryhope Wood. This is not a book that cares about how that threat hits Guiwenneth at all: she exists as a token, more or less scorekeeping between the brothers. Nor are there any substantial female supporting characters who can balance this problem out. This is not uncommon for a book from 1984–but given that Chanur’s Venture came out in 1984 as well–and Native Tongue, and Clay’s Ark, and The Hero and the Crown, among other things–it’s definitely not obligatory.

So do I recommend Mythago Wood. Hmm. It’s certainly historically interesting, and once you’re braced for it being wall to wall dudes plus the token GIRRRULLL WHO LOVES HIM, there are things happening here with how we process the power of story through time. Not a favorite, but worth keeping around, I’d say.

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Books read, late June

Sophie Anderson, The Castle of Tangled Magic. A sequel, one finds out late in the book, but not one for which the earlier work is at all crucial–more a related work really than a sequel, except that the time sequence between the two is very clear. There’s a strong use of Russian and Slavic myth types in this, which I generally enjoyed, but more so in her previous work. This one suffers from having a really strong emphasis on belief over…substance of belief. “Belief is stronger than magic” as a message makes my teeth ache and also makes me worry, as we have loads of people believing in all sorts of horrid things just now. Not the best time to be preaching the virtues of faith unrooted to content for my tastes.

Alex Beam, Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece. Wow was van der Rohe bad at his job. Wow. Wow. I knew this house was a disaster, but…it was really a disaster. “Masterpiece” seems a bit strong under the circumstances. Poor Dr. Farnsworth. (Yes, she was prickly and difficult. Also she was right.)

Casey Blair, A Coup of Tea. The first in a trilogy that was originally serialized, and I hate reading serials through no fault of any individual serial’s own, so I’m really glad to have it in collected book form now. Tea ceremonies, finding one’s own way in the world, magic in more abundance than anyone in that area wants.

Christoffer Carlsson, Blaze Me A Sun. Discussed elsewhere.

Franny Choi, Soft Science. These were poems with a cyborgs-and-sex focus that I understood but didn’t mostly connect to. You may well have more interest in that particular vein than I do.

Tim Clarkson, The Picts. Steered entirely clear of the woowoo that sometimes surrounds the Picts, thank heavens, and looked at documentation and (later) archaeological research about peoples of the far north of Scotland, what we know about them and how we know it. Sensible and useful.

Eric R. Eaton, Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect. …honest to Pete I think this book was written by a wasp, or possibly by a council of wasps put to the task by the wasp propaganda board. The entire introduction is not just “wasps are the greatest,” it’s also “ants and bees ain’t shit.” The contents are far more like a series of brief magazine sidebars about wasps than I wanted, and also this is incredibly heavily illustrated, so…I’m keeping it in case I need it as a reference, but if you were hoping more for longform prose about wasps, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking. And also tell me when you find it, because that’s what I was looking for too.

Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America, and Other Essays. This is one of the many library books I picked up when I searched for something completely different and the library gave me an unrelated title that looked like it was worth a go. As a result, what I got was an interesting enough read about modern and contemporary poetry, and sometimes he explained to me why some people liked some things that I 100% do not like…but also hoo boy is there gender stuff Hoagland is not caught up on yet.

Patrick Radden Keefe, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks. Keefe is extremely good at writing investigative pieces about bad people. I’ve read two of his book-length works in that vein. This is a collection of his long magazine profiles/articles, and it’s interesting, and I’m glad I read it, and also I’m really, really glad to be done reading it. Because: ick. And it’s good that he doesn’t try to pretend that the ick is not…ick. But: bleh.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Reread. The reorganization of our bookshelves brought the science section into easier view, and I started rereading some of the things I had in that section but hadn’t touched in this millennium. This is a midcentury work on the ripples Copernicus left in western thought, natural historical and otherwise. It contains quite long passages from Copernicus, which is useful for people of a certain mindset, which includes me. There are also some quite sad moments when Kuhn feels that we have progressed more thoroughly and more permanently than we actually have, as a culture, but these are worth noticing for their own context.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Translating Myself and Others. This essay collection is substantially composed of introductions Lahiri has written to other works, which…is I suppose a fair enough way to make up an essay collection, but not a particularly inspiring one for me. I really liked the essay about redoing one of her Italian books in English, but the introductions to books I haven’t read and did not intend to read feel to me like they should be interspersed with more solid pieces–even essays about those books not intended to be part of their front matter would be fine. Ah well.

Vaishnavi Patel, Kaikeyi. A feminist retelling of the Ramayana from the perspective of one of its originally-negative characters, this is engaging and interesting throughout, and as far as I can tell plays fair with its source material. I really enjoyed it. (If you’re watching Shoresy, you’ll know why I have Thoughts about what does and does not constitute fair play with source material. Ahem.) Questions of good governance of particular interest.

C.L. Polk, Even Though I Knew the End. Discussed elsewhere.

Christopher Rowe, These Prisoning Hills. This is in the same universe as some of Rowe’s other stories, which I love. I found it filled in rather than expanded what there was of that universe, which is entirely his prerogative but not what I was hoping for. Perfectly readable as an introduction to this universe and possibly even the best starting point–although it’s tonally different and lacks bicycles so that really depends on why you’re here. Mecha instead of bikes? It’s a question of preference really.

Greg van Eekhout, Voyage of the Dogs. The dogs come out of this book okay. I need to tell you that, because there is a whole heap of dog peril, and you might otherwise be worried. These are very dogly dogs, and they’re in space without their humans, and you don’t find out why for most of a book, and it’s a good thing it’s a very short book, is what I’m saying, because my nerves very nearly could not take it. (A masterpiece in MG SF pacing.)

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Even Though I Knew the End, by C.L. Polk

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author and I have been friends since Fido was a pup, as my grandmother would say.

So you’ve got a noir 1940s Chicago setting. You’ve got a lesbian protagonist with a steady girlfriend she wants to move away and buy a house and settle down with–but in the meantime they go drinking and dancing in clubs that cater to the women of Chicago who love the other women of Chicago. And then you’ve got…arcane magic with demons and angels bargaining for the souls of humans. And it’s all got a swiftly ticking time clock, because if Helen (Elena) Brandt doesn’t find this arcane serial killer in three days, she’ll be both dead and damned.

You know. No pressure.

I barely stopped reading this novella to eat supper. The characters’ lies, omissions, and outright mistakes all fit their personalities achingly well and propel them toward their interlocking ending. Helen has a compelling, wry, individual voice, and the balance of introduction, action, and payoff is perfect for its length, neither a splinter of novel nor a bloated short story but wholly itself. Definitely recommended.

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Blaze Me a Sun, by Christoffer Carlsson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the English language debut of a Swedish bestseller. It reads like a bestseller, very short chapters and a lot of simple sentences. It also reads like it’s translated from Swedish, where I can see the ghosts of a couple of jokes that were impossible to translate and a few places where the translator chose to stick close to cognates in places where a more colloquial translation might have served them better. (“These were the sentiments of such men”: a cromulent English sentence, but not for a late 20th/early 21st century thriller.)

I hope that an Anglophone audience receives the Swedishness of the central conceit well, too. Because while it’s a thriller murder mystery, it’s also a book about the emotional confusion and angst many people–including those who didn’t support him politically–experienced in the aftermath of Olof Palme’s assassination. The psychological importance of this event, the sense that the world was falling to pieces, is in every page of this book, and I hope that that’s comprehensible to an Anglophone readership that may not be entirely clear on what happened to Olof Palme in the first place. (No, I know the Swedes are not clear either, but they know Christer Petterson from Krister Peterson in a dark alley.)

So. There are two generations of police, father and son, but not working together, on a single set of murder cases. They’re also each trying to figure out their place in the world, their relationship with their child, whether this is all there is. Some mysteries are tagged as “competence porn.” This is almost the opposite, very nearly incompetence porn. Bewilderment literature. There is illness, struggle, wrong turnings that never do get righted. It is almost disorienting to be in thriller-type prose but deep in the headspace of people having thoroughly literary crises. It’s a very weird book, and I don’t really have an “ultimately satisfying” or “ultimately unsatisfying” verdict, it just…goes hard at what it is. I suppose we should all hope for as much to be said of us.

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Short work I’ve enjoyed this spring

I make no pretense of getting to everything–please include recommendations in the comments if you like!

“The Voice of a Thousand Years,” Fawaz Al-Matrouk (F&SF May/June)

This Is I, KT Bryski (The Deadlands)

“Breathless in the Green,” Octavia Cade (F&SF May/June)

“The Book of Unwritten Poems,” Curtis Chen (Sunday Morning Transport)

“Whose Spaceship Is It Anyway?”, John Chu (Bridge to Elsewhere)

My Great-Grandmother’s House, Madalena Daleziou (The Deadlands)

Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart, Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (Strange Horizons)

Hello, this is Automatic Antigrief: what problem can I solve for you today?, Jenna Hanchey (Nature)

“Give Me English,” Ai Jiang (F&SF May/June)

Advice from the Civil Temporal Defense League, Sandra McDonald (Lightspeed)

A Partial Record of Enchanted Cheeses I’ve Fed My Wife, Devin Miller (PodCastle)

Carcinisation, Ellie Milne-Brown (Reckoning)

“Cumulative Ethical Guidelines for Midrange Interstellar Storytellers,” Malka Older (Bridge to Elsewhere)

Sword and Spore, Domenica Phetteplace (

The Cheesemaker and the Undying King, Lina Rather (Lightspeed)

Arbitrium, Anjali Sachdeva (

“My Family and Other Evolving Animals,” Shuang Chimu (New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction)

“Team Building Exercise,” Valerie Valdes (Bridge to Elsewhere)

Onions, Grace Wagner (Reckoning)

The Coward Who Stole God’s Name, John Wiswell (Uncanny)

“The True Meaning of Father’s Day,” John Wiswell (F&SF May/June)

Too Little, Too Little, Too Much, John Wiswell (Cossmass Infinities)

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Books read, early June

Ben Aaronovitch, Amongst Our Weapons. This book actually made me laugh out loud once, which is very rare for me–funny books get a smile or a silent chuckle–but not with the Monty Python reference that was obviously coming for the whole book. (One might even say: I expected it.) The arc plot is arcing very, very slowly. Is it still on the charming side of charming vs. annoying? Yes…ish…but for heaven’s sake don’t start with this one. Don’t start at all if you don’t have patience for arc plot. I fear that any moment Peter may spend a trilogy getting his apartment back. (That’s a CJ Cherryh joke. Sorry. Well. Not that sorry.)

Hanna Alkaf, Queen of the Tiles. YA Scrabble mystery set in Malaysia. It is not better than that thumbnail description, but also it is not worse–if you’re in the market for a very, very Scrabble-y book about teenagers figuring out their lives, here you go.

Betsy Aoki, Breakpoint. A collection of poems by a poet (and friend!) whose work I have liked in scattered venues. When it’s all assembled it’s amazing how much Betsy has to say about, among other things, being a woman in tech. Good stuff, looking forward to whatever comes next.

Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. And by “new” we mean “takes into account Native peoples basically at all.” Brooks pulls in a lot of first-person sources from the time that were not necessarily written in English or respected or taken in context by English settlers. She’s able to point out a lot of sources of misunderstandings (and some outright bad faith actions) knowing about both–in several cases all–of the cultures involved. And when she has short vivid passages of fictionalized perspective, it does not annoy me the way it often does when nonfiction writers do that. Upsetting but only appropriately so, really well done.

CSE Cooney, Saint Death’s Daughter. The kind of dark whimsy that Claire does so well, and it is paced perfectly for a long novel, with each section giving the characters something different than the previous ones in a way that kept the whole length fresh. Lovely and a joy to read even in its darker moments.

Christopher Fry, The Boy With a Cart. Reread. This is a quite competent play about the life of a very obscure saint, but I find myself at a loss for who would ever want to put such a thing on or why, unless it was the village where he lived for some festival, I guess. What an odd thing to want to do, though, and how very unlike Hild. Welp.

Jo Harkin, Tell Me an Ending. This is a literary science fiction novel about editing memories, and it juggles several different point of view characters with different angles on the process. The juggling is quite skillful for most of the book, and I found it engrossing. The end is a little too wrapped up for my tastes, but this is not a fatal flaw, and I still recommend this, particularly to science fiction fans who might not have come across it because it may be shelved in “fiction” rather than “science fiction.”

Sarah Orne Jewett, Strangers and Wayfarers. Kindle. A collection of short stories. Not recommended except for the completist: while in her better work (including some stories of this collection) Jewett focuses on the people of Maine, the people she knows best, here she tries her hand farther afield–including Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved Black Southerners. The dialect is painful; her ideas of what their worldviews might be, worse.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Spare Man. Discussed elsewhere.

Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop. A time-traveling subway lesbian romance, but not a very generic one–McQuiston’s placement of the beats of this plot are her own and do not align with either romance or time-travel SF. And that’s as it should be, because this is primarily a novel of character and relationship. (Also it is fun.)

Eddie Robson, Drunk on All Your Strange New Words. Discussed elsewhere.

Margery Sharp, The Stone of Chastity. This book came out in 1940, trying to distract the British reader from the WWII woes surrounding them. It is a frothy, light village comedy centered on folklore that promises that a particular stone will make the unchaste lose their footing. Sharp’s view of chastity and relationships is a quite modern one, and the humor here tends to be gentle rather than eviscerating of people’s foibles and assumptions.

Walter R. Tschinkel, Ant Architecture: The Wonder, Beauty, and Science of Underground Nests. What a delight. Tschinkel dives into experiment design in this book, telling the reader not only how he figured out ant nest structures but how he figured out how to figure them out. It’s lavishly illustrated and has a very thoughtful relationship with its subjects. Loved it.

Jing Tsu, Kingdom of Characters: the Language Evolution That Made China Modern. Lots of interesting nerdery about dealing with Chinese characters for things like typewriters, computers, indexing, etc. Very useful for those interested in the subject, possibly still edifying for those with no prior interest.

HKF van Nierop, The Nobility of Holland: From Knights to Regents, 1500-1650. This, on the other hand, is really more for people who have an interest in Dutch social history of the period. What does nobility mean, how do you maintain it, what is it even doing there and how is it changing: interesting stuff, but addressed in a highly context-specific fashion rather than a general one.

Jessie L. Weston, trans., Morien. Kindle. This is a 13th century Dutch romance (not in the people kissing sense, in the people jousting sense), translated by someone from the turn of the 20th century. It’s very clearly written by someone who has seen a Black person and does not expect most of their readership to have done so, because it is eagerly expressing the very concept of Black people to what it expects is an ignorant audience, carefully explaining that the titular hero is neither deformed nor ugly, just dark-skinned. For a modern reader there’s a certain wide-eyed weirdness to this experience, but on the other hand, Morien (even his name is basically “that dude who’s a Moor”) gets to be THE MOST AWESOMEST HERO EVER AND GAWAIN LOVES HIM AND LANCELOT LOVES HIM AND SPOCK LOVES HIM–wait, that’s something else. But seriously, this is the fanfic impulse in action, with a Black Arthurian knight, and it’s short, and it’s kind of fun.