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The bits you bring along

Most pieces of writing advice have a flip side, especially since most pieces of writing advice can be interpreted multiple ways. One of my favorites to shake my head over is “omit unnecessary words.”

Kids, it’s the unnecessary words that make a story come to life.

The things that feel necessary to you but are unnecessary to other people: that’s style. (Tim said that, and I think he’s right.) That doesn’t mean that you should slather on adverbs. It means that you’re the one who sees from your eyes, and that has repercussions in every inch of the story.

Let’s talk about Ghostbusters. Say you’re trying to describe the very first Ghostbusters movie, what it’s about, who’s in it. If you were trying to do it from scratch from a plot or characters, you could set it anywhere. You could set it in an everycity Gotham. And in fact Tim and I entertained ourselves mightily imagining Venkman or Stantz going around the US selling rights to Ghostbusters franchises and what those would be like–the Chicago franchise laying Old Lady Leary’s ghost to rest, the very bored Cedar Rapids, IA, franchise, and of course the giant, shifting, almost completely African-American and Seminole cast of hundreds that is the New Orleans chapter of the Ghostbusters. (Anybody who would not watch Ghostbusters: New Orleans for at least, like, six seasons, do not bother to notify me, just see yourself quietly out.)

And y’know–New York is not the oldest American city. It’s not the ghost-iest. (See above re: NEW ORLEANS.) What it was–was the city that the people who were making that movie at that time needed to write a love song to. It was the extra part they brought with them. That kind of extra that is not strictly necessary makes all the other parts sing. It gets you up the Statue of Liberty instead of the Sears Tower at the end. Instead of up the CN Tower, or instead of out in the harbor on the Constitution, or instead of on the Ambassador Bridge, or wherever your love song to your city takes you.*

Because this stuff is extra. It really is. You leave it out of the synopsis for a reason. Because if you put in your synopsis, “Dear Editor and/or Agent: This book is about how much I love my city, or my mother, or that color the sky turns when the sun is gone but it’s not quite night yet,” it doesn’t help them know whether you’ve pulled it off, and it makes them suspect you didn’t do the other bits. So you have to say the necessary bits, the “This movie is about four men who love each other very much even though one of them is a jerk and they just met another one, and they make slimy ghosts go away and have witty banter” part.

But if you didn’t bring the part that didn’t look necessary, no one’s going to care.

If every part of the story is a part where you could have handed someone the plot synopsis and they’d do it the same as you, well, let ’em try.

People phrase this as “tell the story only you can tell,” but then they go on to talk about there only being [2, 3, 4, N] plots in the world. It’s not the necessary parts that are going to be yours alone. It’s the stuff that seems like it could get filed off and it wouldn’t matter. You write with the messy stuff that seems like it’s optional. The whole thing is optional. Except when it turns out it isn’t. Except when it’s a darn good thing it isn’t.

*The Lake Harriet Rose Garden, most recently. I know, I was as surprised as you are. Well, maybe not quite as surprised, if you’re not from here and don’t even know we have a Lake Harriet Rose Garden. But still pretty surprised.

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The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Translation by Joel Martinsen. I note this because I felt that Ken Liu walked a very fine line between keeping the Chinese feel of the text in the first volume of this series, The Three-Body Problem, and rendering it in smooth English, and he did it carefully and well. While that is still true, I want to say that I think Joel Martinsen did equally good work with the same hard job. Regular readers know that I am a giant translation nerrrrrrd, so kudos Martinsen hurrah. I wrote this review before I knew that The Three-Body Problem and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” won the only Hugos given for written fiction this year. It is a great time for works in translation to English, and I hope we see even more.

I had to steel myself to read The Dark Forest, not because I expected it to be bad, but because I did not expect it to be, well, cheerful. And it is not. Most of humanity continues to freak out at the impending aliens and at each other. (Note: you could probably pick it up without the prior volume, but I really recommend starting at the beginning.) While this installment lacks the Cultural Revolution, look, folks, he went and put “DARK” right there in the title, and he went and made up a future historical event that makes the Cultural Revolution look like a cotillion and ice cream social.

So what I’m saying is that this is a book that is more interesting than pleasant to read.

Add to that the fact that while it has tons of East Asian influences, the major Western influences are Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. That means psychohistory and alien artifacts, awesome! It also means tons of exposition, weirdly uneven pacing, and almost no women characters. And one of the largest roles a woman character plays is in and “ideal girl/dream girl” subplot, which would have been iffy enough if there were lots of interesting, full-fledged women characters. But there weren’t. There was, however, an incompetent beautiful waitress killer fembot. So hey, there’s that.

I do find it interesting where someone steeped and rooted in the Cultural Revolution–and before that, more happily, in Chinese classics–goes with their tale of humans freaking out and trying to cope–to varying degrees of success–with impending contact with an alien race. I’m very interested in where the third volume of this trilogy goes. I want to read more of this in particular, and of SF in translation from Chinese and from other languages in general. It’s just that sometimes the things that I want are a bit less fun and a bit more of a slog than I had hoped for. Well. Next book maybe.

Please consider using our link to buy The Dark Forest from Amazon.

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Critique sentimentalist

There is a curious hollow feeling that comes from sending a draft of novel off to be critiqued.

It has been eating focus, attention, concentration, energy–it has been monopolizing as much brain as is available and then some–and now it is done. Gone. Off to other garner other people’s thoughts. Not productive to fiddle with it any more for awhile, and yet not done either.

I’m doing something new this time. I’m going off for a week at the end of September to participate in a peer workshop–other people who have had either novels or a bunch of short stories published will converge on an undisclosed location, and we will all critique each other’s openings, and then we will do smaller-group in-depth critiques later in the week. (Seriously I’m not sure how undisclosed it’s supposed to be, I just haven’t seen anyone else talking about the details, so I’m staying vague.) I sent them a draft of Itasca Peterson, Wendigo Hunter. And we’ll see how this goes. I don’t know any of these people very well, but their work is cool, so that feels, if anything, even more interesting than if it was a retreat with people who were already close friends. And then I will come home and do critiques of the same work with people I know much better, so parallax is our friend, people, parallax is definitely our friend.

And…this is a thing I honestly love about writing. I really, really love this. If you catch me in the wrong mood, I will wax sentimental and get a little choked up. Because in writing, in speculative fiction in particular, we take it for granted–it is a totally normal thing to do–that we will get to look at other people’s awesome things and help make them a little more awesome. Think about that for a moment. There are some other jobs for which it works that way, sure–for which a project is primarily someone else’s and it is assumed that you will get to take your time and help make it better. But mostly not. Mostly you are either working together on something or you’re not helping.

I like helping.

I like cooperation.

Last weekend we had a marathon crit session for someone in my regular group. We hadn’t met for several months, but there we were, back at it again, here’s what I think the heart of this book is, here’s what I think didn’t quite do what you wanted it to, have a homemade cookie and enhance the emotional core of your creative work.

Isn’t that an awesome thing?

Well, I think it is.

So I am behind on all sorts of things. Like, I have not posted about my story “Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water,” which is in F&SF for Sept/Oct, and I have not posted about Alec’s story either, and I have generally had my head in fierce 11-year-olds who hunt monsters. But honestly that is a great place to have my head, and I like it. And also in crits, and I will continue to have my head there for awhile.

And also I get to write short stories now, and you can’t imagine how excited I am. Maybe you can. But honestly I am one of those people who likes to write rather than liking to have written, so it was less “Yay book done” and more “Yay get to write stories now whew.”

Except for having to take days off sometimes. That’s still a thing.

But yeah. A curious hollow feeling. And a love of cooperation. That’s where we are right now. Hi.

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Books read, early August

Blue Balliett, The Wright 3. This is a sequel to Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer and again deals with kids, art, and codes. The characters feel just a little off from where I am, like I’m not bringing quite the right reader’s 50% to the table to make them really come alive, and I feel like Balliett is, like many die-hard Frank Lloyd Wright fans, stacking the deck considerably. But I enjoy the series anyway and will keep reading it.

Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, and Karl Kerschel, Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy. Maps is the best. I like Maps. I hope that later volumes spend more time on Maps, and I will read them with that hope. The more Batman, the worse, as far as I was concerned; this angle on the Killer Croc may be noncanonical, but I liked it anyway. And Maps.

Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. An important book in cross-cultural medicine and probably the main (in some cases the only) exposure that Americans outside Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Merced, California, have to the existence of Hmong people. Which latter part is not at all Fadiman’s fault–quite the opposite, she is a loving chronicler of Hmong culture and very clear that she is an outsider. And yet it’s problematic for any one book–especially one a generation old–to be the sole lens on a culture. Fadiman’s research on the medical difficulties caused a particular little girl by the intersection of her immigrant family’s difficulties in a new land and that new culture’s medical establishment are extremely sympathetic and educational. I do wish that Fadiman had been less dogmatic about the chances of Hmong assimilation–there are several places I winced for all sorts of reasons. Now, and even at the time this book was published, Hmong Minnesotans of my generation are succeeding in all sorts of professions. They vary. They are our neighbors. They are “us Minnesotans” now. So when someone starts talking about how the respectful way to do medicine with Hmong people is to always have the male elder in the room and always address that male elder, I am horrified, because that practice may well have been necessary in getting the best medical care for the immediate wave of immigrants, and it would almost certainly block the best medical care for actual women I know, in ways that we owe to them NOT TO DO. So. Complicated book, interesting book, worth reading. But also worth reading beyond.

Ben Hatke, Little Robot. Discussed elsewhere.

Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo, The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Romeo and Juliet. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Levy, The Glittering World. Changeling stories very rarely feel alien to me. Changeling stories often feel alienated, usually in the way a fifteen-year-old feels alienated. This…is not that. It starts out looking like it will be that. It starts out looking like a dozen other urban fantasy novels. And Levy actually goes completely off the cliff in a number of places instead of looking out over the cliff and saying, “What a lovely view I’m so glad we came let’s open a bottle of wine mmm nice” and then driving home. It isn’t much like Adam Stemple’s two solo books structurally, but in that sense of jumping off a cliff from the ordinary urban fantasy book you began with, yeah, same deal.

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix. In the same universe as some of her other lovely stuff, but quite intimately in the towers, as well as in an African village and various other locations. Vivid, active, awesome. Recommended.

Paul Pope, JT Petty, and David Rubin, Battling Boy: The Fall of the House of West. Discussed elsewhere.

Terry Pratchett, A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Nonfiction. I’d read a lot of this from various linkage, but it was entertaining anyway, a good collection to dip in and out of.

Hanna Pylvainen, We Sinners. A mosaic novel about a Laestadian family. Laestadians are the far-conservative end of Finnish Lutheranism. These are American Laestadians, and there are some things about them that will be familiar to anyone with family who fled Scandinavia for religious reasons and some things that are quite unique either personally or culturally. I feel like Pylvainen has a far better grasp on what causes people to leave than to stay–that is, she has a full range of ideas of what might cause someone to leave, but completely misses the parts of religious sentiment that are not fear and inertia. Further, none of the family members who leave seem to find a gentler (or equally repressive but different) religion, which…is not my observation about people leaving similar situations/sects. So it’s an interesting but I think very limited book.

Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth Century History. This is the microhistory of a Scottish family. Rothschild coins a new term for a family microhistory, but I don’t think that’s actually warranted; I think many microhistories have focused on that scale. It’s an interesting thing she’s doing all the same, though, because she looks at the family’s servants and slaves as much as possible as well as the biological members of the family. Empire being what it is–or more to the point, what it was–while the origins are in Scotland, the story scatters across several continents. If you like microhistories, this is your jam. I do.

John Scalzi, The End of All Things. Discussed elsewhere.

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters, Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy. I’m not a person who usually needs an identification character, but with the Lumberjanes I identify with too many of them. They’re very Girl Scouty, and I am very pro-Girl Scout. Adventure! Excitement! Varying skills and personalities! Lumberjanes hurrah.

Molly Tanzer, Vermilion. I romped through this. My fair warning is that the voice is very modern despite the 1870s setting, so if that’s the sort of thing that will constantly grate on you, this will not be your book. However, if you like Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow, Vermilion may well be its older, rougher predecessor: a miner’s San Francisco, barely out of Forty-Niner days, rather than an Art Nouveau San Francisco, but you can see where the two have bones in common. And where Vermilion really shines is when its heroine takes to the mountains of Colorado to track down some seriously dark deeds. Tanzer has done research on parts of Chinese-American history that are dear to my heart and made me grin. This is a good time.

Catherynne M. Valente, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland. And this is the sort of Changeling story I mean: it’s not bad that it’s more about alienation than about anything actually alien. But it is. I feel that it is a much sadder and darker and generally less fun book than the previous ones in the series because it’s the other side of Changeling stories–it’s the earthly side mostly, not the Fairyland side–but there is more to come, and I don’t think you would want to have skipped this one.

Chris Van Allsburg, The Sweetest Fig and Two Bad Ants. I continue to sift through the library’s Van Allsburg collection, and I keep not finding the outstanding thing I am hoping one of them will be. He is obviously a very talented visual artist, and that keeps not adding up to anything amazing for stories. The Sweetest Fig had a plot that was not only predictable but abrupt, and Two Bad Ants had ants that were not that bad really, and their different view of the universe was well done but not very creative under the circumstances. Meh. Meh, I say! Meh!

Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, Secret Coders. Discussed elsewhere.

Kao Kalia Yang, The Latehomecomer. This is a Hmong-American immigrant memoir. Anne Fadiman endorses it on the cover, which–see what I mean, above? It totally makes sense to have the person who is most well known for writing about the Hmong give a cover blurb: more famous person endorses less famous person, that’s how the business works. And yet it ends up with non-Hmong person validating the work of someone saying what it’s like to be Hmong, and if that doesn’t make you at least a little bit uneasy, think about it a little longer, it will. Yang does a lovely vivid job of telling her family’s story and her own, from the mountains of Laos to Minnesota. Her time with her grandmother is particularly heartfelt and touching, especially her account of Hmong funerary customs. I cried and thought a lot.

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The End of All Things, by John Scalzi

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

It’s really hard to review John Scalzi’s books in the Old Man’s War universe at this point, because most people know whether they want them. You pretty much shout, “Hey, there’s a new one of these!” And the people who want them queue up, and the people who don’t wander off.

But in case you’re one of the potential audience and haven’t tried them, what are they, and why do people want them? Well, they’re science fiction in which humans and a bunch of different alien species have done a lot of colonization, and they’re written in a contemporary American everyman voice. Here is the beginning of a passage about the sensory deprivation of being a brain in a jar: “Go ahead and close your eyes. Do it right now. Is it totally dark? I just realized you wouldn’t have read that last question if in fact you’d just closed your eyes when I asked you to. Look, I told you I wasn’t a writer. Let me try this again: Close your eyes for a minute. Then when you’ve opened them up again, ask yourself if it was totally dark when you had them closed.” It goes on for two solid pages after that, in a similar vein, about the difference between not seeing anything with your eyes closed and not seeing anything without eyes to close. If that strikes you as breezy and fun, onward! If it strikes you as annoying, there will be other passages that will probably grate as well.

If what you flagged on was not the prose voice but, wait, brain in a jar? Yep. One of the narrators is a brain in a jar. There are four sections, four related novellas telling the story of a group of humans, Rraey, and other aliens who…shall we say…have a little problem with the available major powers in the galaxy. And some drastic ideas about how to solve it. The diplomacy, and the things going boom, are narrated by different species and sexes who are varying degrees of likely to earworm you with “That’s Amore.”

I wouldn’t recommend starting the series here, as I think it presupposes a fair amount of knowledge about the Colonial Defense Forces, who is in them, and why, but if you’re comfortable with being thrown into the atmosphere not knowing whether you’re going to explode (hey, you take your metaphors, I’ll take mine), go on ahead.

Please consider using our link to buy The End of All Things from Amazon.

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Battling Boy: The Fall of the House of West, by Paul Pope, JT Petty, and David Rubin

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the second of the Aurora West comics. “Roar” is an impetuous heroine who cannot wait to kick monster butt by herself. Patrolling with the rest of her family is not good enough–she wants to go out on her own. And she wants to avenge her mother’s death. In The Fall of the House of West, Aurora digs further and further into the truth of that death, trying to get some answers that can bring her peace–especially if it’s over some monster’s dead body.

Aurora is, as her mentor tells her, braver than she is smart. She also gets lectured on being a teenager who thinks she knows everything, and this adult perspective seems endorsed by the text (sigh). The art sometimes walks the line between exciting and cluttered. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an action-adventure proto-superhero comic, this one pulls no punches–and there are a lot of punches not to pull.

Please consider using our link to buy Battling Boy: The Fall of the House of West from Amazon. Or book 1, The Rise of Aurora West.

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The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Romeo and Juliet, by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I squeed when I saw this in my mailbox. The first volume, The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth was amaaaaazing. Hilarious. The only Macbeth you’ll ever need. Well, okay, not quite that far. But still: seriously good stuff.

Premise of the series is: the zoo animals perform Shakespeare after hours behind the humans’ backs. This is ridiculous. Yes. It embraces the ridiculous.

Romeo and Juliet is not as fertile ground as Macbeth, particularly when you have apparently decided that murder is all right for a kids’ comic but sex–even marital sex–is not. And somehow the direction of ridiculous with playdates was less hilarious to me than the direction of Macbeth eating everybody. I still enjoyed it, and I’m still looking forward to there being more (please? Titus Andronicus Richard II OH PLEASE TELL ME WHAT RIDICULOUS THING YOU WOULD SUBSTITUTE IN THERE I WANT TO KNOW).

Mostly I enjoyed Juliet being a bear. I like bears. I don’t go around saying I have a Patronus or anything, but bears: good stuff. Juliet-bear: okay, let’s go with that. Romeo-chicken and Juliet-bear. Got it.

Please consider using our link to buy The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Romeo and Juliet from Amazon

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Secret Coders, by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I loved Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints duology, so I was really excited to get Secret Coders in the mail. It’s a comic about programming! With a young heroine named Hopper! It looked right up my alley.

It was not quite what I hoped, and it’s not fair to ding authors for writing what they wanted to write instead of what you wanted to read. It’s an explicitly didactic comic, teaching the sorts of basic elementary programming lessons you’d learn in a programming class in the mid-’80s. What is binary, how do you make a turtle move…familiar stuff, done as live-action for kids trying to figure out their school and its weird birds and mysterious grounds. The action-adventure plot takes a serious backseat to the programming lessons, and the interpersonal plots feel really paint-by-numbers, the plot twists not very twisty.

This is a worthwhile book, but it’s not the exciting breakthrough I had hoped from the creator of Boxers and Saints. I hope later volumes in the series let Hopper, Eni, and even Josh (why is Josh even there? ugh, shut up, Josh!) find that balance a little more towards the side of excitement.

Please consider using our link to buy Secret Coders from Amazon.

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Little Robot, by Ben Hatke

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This book occupies an interesting space for length/words that really didn’t exist much when I was a kid–or if it did, I didn’t know about it. It’s 132 pages, definitely longer than a “picture book,” but there’s very little text, and even less of what is text is a coherent English word. (Robots do not speak English, apparently. Robots speak robot.) Hatke’s emotionally evocative illustrations get across a great deal of plot without words.

The titular robot and the small girl who finds it have some bumps along their road to making friends–as all of us do when figuring out how it works to be friends with someone quite different from ourselves. There are also external obstacles, some of them scary and some sillier. I expect that Little Robot could bring a smile–and sometimes a grimace of recognition–out of quite a broad range of faces.

Please consider using our link to buy Little Robot from Amazon.

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Books read, late July

Max Gladstone, Last First Snow. Discussed elsewhere. I also interviewed Max, in case you missed that.

Reginald Hill, A Clubbable Woman, An Advancement of Learning, Ruling Passion, An April Shroud, A Pinch of Snuff, A Killing Kindness, Deadheads, Exit Lines, and Child’s Play. Noticing a pattern? Yeah. This is the first nine books of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. I read them out of order the first time–wildly out of order, in fact. I read #17 of this series first. So I was wondering how they would go when read in order. I still recommend that people take them out of order. Hill started writing them in the late ’60s (first one came out in 1970), and so if you start at the beginning you get a reasonable-enough straight-up British detective novel with two straight white male British detectives. If you start late in the series, you get structurally inventive British detective novels with a diversity of literary references and character demographics. Knowing where you’re going makes where you’ve been a lot more interesting and worthwhile. They’re still quite readable novels of their type early on, but as Hill starts to realize he can play–Exit Lines is structured around three sets of last words and starts each chapter with an historical figure’s last words, Deadheads does not strictly follow the structure of the genre–you can feel him loosening up and having more fun. It’s not until the fourth book that Dalziel really gets interiority–I think that for the first three, while Hill was clear that Dalziel was a lot sharper than the unwary gave him credit for, he wasn’t sure how to do that or perhaps whether he wanted to–and that alone would have killed the series for me if I’d tried to start at the beginning: I have nothing against Peter Pascoe, but I’m more interested in literally everybody else. A Pinch of Snuff is pretty distasteful by today’s standards (not just including the bits that were clearly distasteful then also). Child’s Play…wow. Child’s Play is to an ordinary mystery novel as Trollope is to vampires, in the way I’ve talked about before: I am not actually worried about anybody I care about being brutally murdered. It’s pretty unlikely to happen. But if I had come into Child’s Play not knowing whether a favorite character would have their life ruined by coming out? I’m not sure whether I could have read it at all. It was a kind of peril, a kind of jeopardy, that affected me quite strongly. And the kindness from unexpected quarters made it a better book but no easier to read on that front. So seriously: wait until I’ve finished my reread of the whole series, and I’ll give some ideas for where to start late in it and then go back and fill in. It’ll be better that way. This was really interesting and worth doing, though, and despite having new books I really want to read from my birthday, I’m looking forward to continuing this series reread.

Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution. An attempt at looking at the French people’s personal and public concept of politics and government along family models. Some places Hunt really stretched this too far, interpreting an explicitly paternal Revolutionary figure as fraternal because that fit her argument better, and the chapter on the Marquis de Sade looked very much like “I know this doesn’t actually fit anything here, but he’s period and I want to talk about him.” Interesting but not amazing.

E. K. Johnston, Prairie Fire. The sequel to The Story of Owen. I recommend that you read both, as Prairie Fire will make less sense and be far less emotionally effective. I do recommend reading both rather than neither, though! Because! The alternate history stuff is hilarious and great. Modern-day rural Canadian dragon-slaying! This volume leaves Ontario and goes to Alberta! (That’s like “this one goes to 11,” but in Canadian.) This one deals with disability in a natural, unforced way that I appreciate so very, very much, especially because it’s doing, like, nine million other dragon-slaying plotty worldbuildy things all at the same time. The series appears to be complete after two (although the world has room for more), and I can’t wait to see what Johnston does next.

Rudyard Kipling, A Kipling Pageant. Grandpa’s. Well–proximately Grandpa’s. Actually Great-Grandpa’s. This is nine hundred pages of short stories, poetry, novels, novel excerpts, essays, all Kipling, all the time. Some of it was very familiar, some of it charming discovery, some of it…let’s say that the Kipling novels you haven’t heard of, there’s probably a reason. But just having it is really lovely. I’m not sure how to preserve it–it’s nearly a hundred years old and definitely showing age. Still very glad I could read it, though.

Sydney Padua, Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. You’ve probably seen at least pieces of the Lovelace/Babbage comic online, the one that stipulates that they built their computer and had crime-fighting adventures and occasionally, on short notice, received the Queen. This book is a compilation of those strips and the author’s gushing footnotes about what actually happened. “Gushing” here is a term of praise, not condemnation; this is like sitting around with our friends talking about their favorite bits of wacky history.

Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. It says “Low Countries,” but it means Belgium. This is a demographic overview, which is useful–it’s not like people know a lot about beguinages in general, including me–but not as useful as Daily Life In Three Beguinages: A Sampler would have been. Can somebody write me that book? That’d be keen. Thanks.

Chris Van Allsburg, Probuditi!. I had the realization that our library has a bunch of Chris Van Allsburg books, and I don’t know which ones are outstanding, so I’m getting them to find out. They vary in length. This one is short enough that I wouldn’t usually log it (I don’t usually log picture books), except that I’m going to want to keep track of which ones I’ve read, so here we are. It’s very predictable, very nearly content-free, so the main draw is Van Allsburg’s illustrations. Also if you’re looking for picture books with non-white characters, these characters are African-American. It’s sad that picture books are still white enough that that’s even worth mentioning, but they are, so it is.