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Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone

Review copy provided by Tor.

It’s such a relief when someone is good on panels and pleasant to have lunch with at conventions, and you haven’t read any of their books, and then you pick one up and you like it and can say nice things about it. WHEW. Because saying smart things on panels is not actually correlated all that strongly with writing good books, or we wouldn’t have fans and critics who’ve never written a book at all on panels in the first place.

But here we are, Full Fathom Five! It’s the story of an island “paradise” that’s home to street children, bars, poetry slam taverns…and a consortium of spiritual consultants who have re-formed their bodies in large ways and small to become priests and priestesses who create gods (of sorts) to fit their clients’ needs. The idols live, after a fashion, while their ties to belief, soulstuff, and the other fundamentals of divine survival are strong enough. When their support network ebbs, it’s time for them to dissolve back into the waters.

In one case–not even a case that starts out special to her personally–Kai can’t quite accept that and dives in after the idol Seven Alpha, and that’s where all her trouble starts. She’s dragged from the water with her body still partly broken (and oh, the physical therapy and disability stuff, yes, definitely so) and has to figure out what the heck is going on with this particular idol–and with the rest of her order and the world she thought she knew.

Meanwhile, Izza and her gang of co-religionist street kids are finding that their gods are appearing and being eaten, one by one. She tries to help foreigners who can help her and tangles with various authority figures while she tries to steer clear of the enforcement that threatens as she approaches adulthood: a sentence to the inside of a torturous rock exoskeleton called a Penitent. Her life to date has taught her mistrust of pretty much everyone, and her gods’ disappearance doesn’t help.

This stuff is great fun, and the chapters are short and zippy. The parts where the idol-builders are talking to their clients about their soul-investment needs are flat-out hilarious. The plot is engaging, and I’m eager to get the rest of the books in this world. Hypothetically this is third in the series, but I’m living proof that it’s a great entry point. Go ahead and start here. If you’re missing something, it’ll be no hardship to reread later when you know what it is you’re missing, but honestly, I didn’t feel like I was shorted on any element of story from not having read the earlier Craft books.

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And the title’s a quite good one, too.

You know what short story writers like?

Magazines. We really, really like magazines that publish short stories. (Y’know. Like the ones we write.) Which is why I commend to your attention the Kickstarter for Uncanny magazine. It’s the new project from the twisty, uncanny brains of the Thomases, who used to work with Apex and who were some of the editors I worked with on the Apex story some of you may have enjoyed earlier this summer. If I listened carefully (I’m pretty tired, so you should go listen carefully yourself), it looks like their business model is to have subscribers get an early e-book version of the magazine and then provide the stories online for the general reader, so if you help fund, there’s more stories for you early and then more stories for everyone eventually. I think pretty much everyone who reads this can get behind that idea.

So: Thomases! Weird speculative fiction projects! Track record good, outlook positive, go think about their new thing and whether you have two dimes to rub together and throw into making it go.

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In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Review copy provided by First Second.

This story will be familiar to Doctorow’s short story fans as “Anda’s Game.” It’s adapted to the graphic novel format, but if you read primarily for story and have already read “Anda’s Game,” this will not present you with new story.

For those not familiar, “Anda’s Game” is the story of a girl who gets involved with an online gaming guild and its anti-gold-farming exploits, only to find that the situation of gold farmers in China and other countries is a great deal more complicated than she previously knew.

The comics adaptation does interesting visual things with contrasting Anda’s choices “in real life” with her choices in the game world, only to bring them close together as Anda realizes that the game world is part of her real life, part of everyone’s real life, and that the distinctions between them are pretty arbitrary. I didn’t find the illustrations gorgeous, but they served their purpose and fit with the style of other graphic novels I’ve read that are pitched to that demographic. While this is no longer ground-breaking, I expect that it has a fairly large audience that it should find easily.

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three Fairyland books by Catherynne M. Valente

Review copies provided by Macmillan.

This is the series that starts with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, goes on to The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, and finishes off with The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. I say “finishes off” because that’s where we are as of the writing of this blog post, but it looks like Valente has stated publicly that there will be five books in this series. It’s an interesting thing to know, because the ending of soared is one I would want follow-up to but would not automatically assume, with my experience of its sub-genre, that all authors would want to provide follow-up to. So hurrah for not ending here.

This is the story of September and her adventures in Fairyland and the friends she makes there. Friends are very important to these books. Crucial. These books are very conscious about being a told story–the narrator is right there talking to you, personally, holding your hand and sometimes squeezing your shoulder, and if that bothers you, if you are attached to prose transparency, these are more decorative stained glass than clear, and these will not be the books for you. You can find out very readily what the voice is like just by reading a little bit of the beginning. They continue like that. If anything, the narrator gets chummier, more up close and personal, as the three books progress.

These books are not slaves to the cult of originality. In recognizing that they come from a long and beloved tradition of tales about trips to fairylands, they honor their past while allowing room for the places that Valente is genuinely original to shine through. You can simultaneously see how September is spiritual kin to Dorothy and Alice, that there are bits that remind you of The Phantom Tollbooth and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, while noting that really, a wyverary (a wyvern who is part library) is not something you’ve seen before or are likely to see again. There are bits and fragments of familiar tales woven throughout, but usually with a sideways joke. The serial structure of the original publication of the first book encouraged a new element, a new adventure each chapter, and that carried through into the non-serialized second and third, though they went into the underworld and up to the moon instead of through the lands of Fairyland proper.

The weak spot for me is the connection to our own world, and I think it will be weaker for me than for most readers because of exactly what that connection is. September is from the Omaha area in the time of WWII. I know the Omaha area well, and one of the relatives I grew up with was a schoolgirl at that time, so I am more likely to spot where those details are off than most readers. But the real world is a very secondary setting indeed–an anchor for September’s adventures rather than the source of them–so even for someone with an Omaha connection, it doesn’t ruin the tale.

These are the category of books for young people that are all-ages books. No book is to everyone’s taste, obviously, but some books are spoiled a bit by having read another one of those and knowing what’s coming around the corner. Having read dozens of trip to fairyland books will not tell you what’s coming around the corner. Having the plots told in the titles and in the chapter titles will still mostly not tell you what’s coming around the corner, since the title plot is a tiny fraction of what happens in each book, and either getting there will be most of the fun or no fun at all, and you will know which from reading just a tiny bit of the style of the telling. I have been careful not to burble about the wrench and the tapir and the Quiet Physickists and other favorite bits, but on second thought I will mention the wrench and the tapir and the Quiet Physickists and like that after all, because just saying those things can’t really spoil them; that’s not the kind of books they are.

Oh, and: if three points make a sub-genre, Ellen Kushner and Mike Ford now have a sub-genre for Authors Who Are, Despite Their Differences, Apparently Obsessed With Awesome Coats. There has been worse company to keep.

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Prepare to help me hobbit!

Today is Sunday, and my birthday is Saturday. I have already read two books (one paper, one ebook) that were early birthday presents, because I am spoiled and because apparently the concept of delayed gratification is not a strong suit at the moment. Anyway, in making a dinner reservation for this evening, I got asked, is it anybody’s birthday? and usually I lie and tell them no, because I don’t want to make the waitstaff feel obliged to sing as well as their real jobs, and I worry that they will give me a nasty piece of white cake instead of letting me decide whether I want good dessert or no dessert. But this time I chirped, “Yes, it’s mine!” Because this year, honestly, with all the horrible and disappointing news the world has brought us in the last week, I kind of feel the need for all the birthday assistance I can get.

This post is a list of things you can think about getting for yourself–or just drooling over if you don’t have the spare cash–as presents for yourself for my birthday. Sadly, I can’t get them for all of you. I am not that much of a wealthy hobbit, to be able to buy all of you these lovely things as presents for my birthday. But I will at least show you the shinies that I would get you, if I could have a proper hobbit party and give you all the proper hobbit presents that I would like to give you. (Please note that this is the opposite of the usual wishlist: I am not asking you to get this stuff for ME but for YOURSELVES. Not that I wouldn’t like it also, but some of it–like the Kickstarter stuff–I already have, and mostly: the point is you, not me.)

1. Nerd coloring books. Specifically, Dinosaurs With Jobs. Mostly I would get this for my old college friend Scott, but the rest of you might want it too.

2. Chad Jerzak Raku ceramics. Saw these at the St. Kate Art Festival. Very cool.

3. Fresh Mud Pottery. Also at the St. Kate Art Festival. So many things in the gallery, be sure you look at the slide show.

4. Elise’s Current Shinies. Ooh. Shiny. So many shinies, so few body parts to hang them from.

5. Tim always has lovely things. Here are two of his newer ones (that first link was from the Pop Art Minneapolis series, the second the newest Reader photo).

6. Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky are doing a Kickstarter. For those of us who have been yearning for another Cry Cry Cry album, even two-thirds as good will almost certainly be good enough. (Did you miss out on Cry Cry Cry? Here they are singing Northern Cross. The third member is Dar Williams. Oh, fine, here’s another: By Way of Sorrow.)

7. Julie Dillon, who has done the gorgeous art for my stories, is also doing a Kickstarter. Many ways to support her art; go look.

Any other loveliness you want to share with each other? There’s a whole week before it’s my birthday, and the comments section lies before you.

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Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, by Ben Hatke

Review copy provided by First Second.

This is another picture book, but it was one that was much more successful for me than The Zoo Box. Julia lives in a house by the sea, at first by herself. She advertises that lost creatures are welcome and soon has a house full of trolls, ghosts, and more. The text is minimalist without being unduly spartan, letting the charming illustrations carry the day–the house, for example, is on the back of a giant turtle, and the troll plays with an old-fashioned gigantic phonograph. Julia herself has a workshop for making and fixing things, though she is not above asking for help when it’s needed.

Hatke wrote the Zita the Spacegirl comics, and he makes the jump to a shorter, more spare text gracefully while keeping a certain familiar style to the characters. Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is a little treasure I’ll be glad to keep and share–definitely a good start for First Second crossing the line from graphic novels into picture books.

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Books read, early July

A large percentage of manuscripts not yet to be publicly discussed in early July, as an odd coincidence; a very, very small percentage of books too awful to finish (or, more politely, just wrong for me).

Megan Abbott, The Fever. A literary thriller that is about a high school but does not appear to be shelved as YA, about girls getting mysteriously sick. The beginning was quite readable, and I found the ending immensely, horribly unsatisfying. If you ask yourself, “What is the most boring thing that could be the cause of all this without actually being an offensive anti-vaccination screed?,” it’s that. (The anti-vaccination stuff comes up as a reaction people have–“OMG the evil vaccinations must have caused this”–but gets shot down.) Not at all recommended.

A. S. Byatt, Babel Tower. Immersive and compelling. The people who complain that nothing happens in literary fiction are clearly reading the wrong literary fiction, because Byatt is impeccably literary, and quite a lot happens in this book. I don’t guarantee that those same people will like it, and I didn’t entirely find the interwoven fragments successful in their eventual context. But really, the “I don’t like literary fiction, nothing happens in it” complaint is one of those ritualized complaints that people have discovered they are allowed to make, not something that bears resemblance to an actual Byatt novel.

Ariel Cohn and Aron Nels Steinke, The Zoo Box. Discussed elsewhere. Of a length that I would not usually have discussed at all, except that it was sent to me as a review book.

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time. Not, as someone suggested, the grimdark version of The Last Hot Time, but in fact a history of the Dust Bowl for white and a few Native American Oklahomans. I already knew quite a bit about the subject, and yet this was crammed with interesting tidbits and interviews, definitely worth the time. I’m still not sure how it got into the references for a different Depression-era project completely, but it was interesting enough that I’m not upset at the time spent.

Gary Kaunonen, Challenge Accepted: A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan’s Copper Country. Detailed work on how the Finns settled in and built their part of the copper mining labor movement in Michigan, with some attention to Minnesota as well. Lots of useful detail, even more tantalizing stuff around the edges. A little more intersectionality would have held Kaunonen, because he had a few complete misses, like thinking that office work was traditional for women in 1907. (The women who had to fight for those jobs at that time would laugh like a drain to hear it–but in retrospect, so many of them were successful that they now look traditional.) But most of the book was really solid and quite useful to me.

Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo, Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth. Discussed elsewhere.

Alan Palmer, Northern Shores: A History of the Baltic Sea and Its Peoples. Okay, so first, the title of this book is a lie. It is not even remotely a “people’s” history, it is a history of who was king or tsar or very, very occasionally prime minister in the countries around the Baltic. And second, it was utter crap at that, because Alan Palmer had the world’s biggest set of sexist blinders on, so he acted like we didn’t know Christina Gyllenstierna’s name, referring to her only as Sten Sture the Younger’s widow, when in fact she was a person, a known person, a quite interesting person, held Stockholm against four months of siege and was elected king for that period (yes, kong, that was the word, not drottning, queen, that’s something different). And if you’re going to do a history of the Baltic that isn’t focused on mercantile issues, then you’re kind of an idiot and missing out on juicy bits at least don’t close your eyes to the crazy cool stuff that the noble orders are doing just because it doesn’t fall into your preconceived notions of how kingship, noble orders, and–I will actually go all the way here: history. Because it doesn’t fall into your preconceived notion of how history works. Nor is Sweden the only issue here–Jagiella down in Poland was just as scare-quoted and sneered at by this Palmer person who doesn’t seem to have the faintest notion that the English Victorians made up the gender roles he thinks the Middle Ages and Renaissance had, and not all of the English Victorians signed on for them, even, so you can’t go imposing them on Gyllenstiernas and Totts and the like, they didn’t know them, they had no idea what you would later show up and be on about–yes, they had gender roles, certainly, just not the ones he thinks. And Christina Gyllenstierna wasn’t important because she was the widow of one of the Stures, one of the Stures married her because she was important, for the love of Mike; he wouldn’t have had a wife who simpered while Stockholm burned, it wasn’t how they made matches then, certainly not in Scandinavia. This is just a narrow slice of what I think of this book, substantially edited for public consumption. But seriously, don’t get this book. It’s like one of the bad Kalevala translations, with all the marrow sucked out and the rhyme scheme left in. (This book does not actually rhyme. Sometimes the internet is bad at analogy, so I feel I have to say.)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. A little bit iffy at math: you don’t get to average all the things he thinks you can, just on a “math doesn’t always work that way” level. Mostly okay with math, though. Considerably iffier with literary criticism and social criticism, hoo boy. Quentin Tarantino: not a reliable source for life in the antebellum American South. The US: considerably endowed with nostalgia for the immediate post-WWII period. And other howlers. Still an interesting book, and not a slow read considering what it was trying to do. But some pretty gaping holes in his attempts at examples.

Paul Pope, JT Petty, and David Rubin, Battling Boy: The Rise of Aurora West. Discussed elsewhere.

Hannu Rajaniemi, The Causal Angel. Discussed elsewhere.

Christie Yant, ed., Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue. I make a policy of not reviewing books I appear in, and I have an essay in this. Nonetheless: it exists, and I read it, and you can read it too.

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The Zoo Box, by Ariel Cohn and Aron Nels Steinke

Review copy provided by First Second.

One of the hard parts about picking out picture books from a catalog or online is that some of the crucial information is how the text will read, and that’s very difficult to tell from the illustrations. Some books with clearly cute or gorgeous illustrations have stilted text that sounds like it was written by someone who hasn’t yet been taught how contractions work.

This is one of those.

The premise is also not really enough for the size of book they’ve got. It’s a box of animals in the attic! The animals get out and go to their own zoo where humans are on display! They chase the kids and jump back in their box for no reason! So…okay then, I guess!

Most kids–and most childless people who have kids’ books around–have books like this in their collection, if they have a big enough book collection. This is not an outstandingly terrible example. It’s not offensive. It’s just sort of a low-budget Jumanji with less plot, less purpose, and far worse illustrations. Might as well go for Jumanji if you want a one of those.

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Battling Boy: The Rise of Aurora West, by Paul Pope, JT Petty, and David Rubin

Review copy provided by First Second.

This comes out in September, but I read it today, so here we are. It’s the story of a young girl who is learning the ropes of the superhero trade–the Science Hero trade, they call it–from her father, while trying to figure out what role the imaginary friend of her preschool years had in her mother’s death. Aurora is eager for everything: eager to fight monsters, eager to get her own jet pack, eager to find out what really happened to Rosetta West.

And actually I think that’s where it didn’t grab me as well as it could have: Aurora didn’t have that much to her beyond that eagerness. She didn’t have a superhero name, but the right visor would have made her a very keen Bright Eyes. Occasionally people nickname her Roar, but despite the proximity to her name, it’s just…not that appropriate. It’s not appropriate directly, and it’s not appropriate like calling a big man Tiny. It’s just…sort of there. Maybe she’ll grow into her Roar? This wasn’t a tedious read, and it didn’t take long. There were lots of monsters for Aurora to stun and her father to slay, so if that’s your thing, come on ahead. If they send me another in this series, I will be glad to read it. Just not as excited as I’d hoped to be.

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Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth, by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo

Review copy provided by First Second.

Best Macbeth Evar.

Okay, so. This is a comic–a graphic novel, but I think a one-off, just long enough to be its own volume. And the conceit is that the animals at the Stratford Zoo are putting on Macbeth after hours. Macbeth is a lion who eats everybody else. It is hilarious. The shorthanding of the play, the audience reactions, the casting, the whole nine yards. You will probably spot Macduff’s punchline coming, but it’s still funny. The panel with Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the rubber ducky is my favorite. It’s just. It’s very, very silly. If you take a very, very serious view of Macbeth and will not be able to bear jokes and zoo animals applied to it, this is so not for you.

Some of the jokes will be entirely at the level that I expect my godchildren to get. This is a fabulous way to get them all the very basic cultural references to Macbeth they will need to navigate as tiny cultured individuals, and I intend to use it that way. There are several other jokes that will go over their heads, and that’s fine too, because it’s not a book that will shut them out when they don’t get one joke.

I did not expect to particularly like this book, honestly. When it arrived in today’s mail, I was coming home from a used bookstore accident with several things I am incredibly excited about, and I thought, eh, well, we’ll give it a shot, how long can it take? And I was so very pleasantly surprised. Definitely keeping it, definitely sharing with the godkids, who love comics and silliness.