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Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt, by George O’Connor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

In the afterword to this graphic novel, George O’Connor notes that Artemis is one of his favorites, that when he was planning the Olympians series, he deliberately saved some of the ones he likes best for later so he’d have something to look forward to. Artemis is one of my favorite Olympians, too, so I’m glad to see her treated reasonably well.

Reasonably well–within the bounds of what’s mythologically available. Because Artemis is not a nice goddess. She’s not a happy huggy goddess. (Unlike the rest of the Olympians, right? Um.) So if you’re thinking of giving these books to small people–to any size people really–make sure they’re okay with sudden death and being ripped apart and shot and generally slaughtered. Because that will show up a lot, what with Niobe and Actaeon and all the rest.

My one complaint in this is that I didn’t imagine Artemis in a silver minidress and ankle-strap heels. But the dogs are nice. I do like the dogs.

Please consider using our link to buy Olympians: Artemis from Amazon.

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The Skill of Our Hands, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the authors are friends of mine.

This is the sequel to The Incrementalists. While it refreshes you a bit on who is who and what is what–enough that you don’t have to reread the first volume recently or have a crackerjack memory to get it, but in my estimation not enough to start here. The character relationships are key, and the character relationships have a lot of their resonance starting in the previous volume. What’s the deal with Ren and Phil? why does everybody keep trying to stifle Irina? It starts earlier than this volume to make a lot of emotional sense.

This is a series about a secret group of immortals changing things in small ways–incrementally–behind the scenes of history. And this book in particular focuses a lot on the concept of making things worse to make them better. When does that work? When is it a terrible idea? This book takes that on using various scales, personal, internationally ideological, state and national scales in between.

There are a few missteps (if no one in my house gets what you’re going for with a Negro Leagues [baseball] analogy, probably you can’t bet on that line working with a ton of other people), but they’re small caveats with a core of the book intact. One of the great reliefs of the Incrementalist series is that the characters all want to make the world better. They disagree on how, and there is no overarching authority to tell them how to use their subtle powers and version of immortality to make it all work out right. There is no one answer. But they keep working on it. Maybe you need something like that right now.

Please consider using our link to buy The Skill of Our Hands from Amazon.

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What do I write next: the squishy side

I felt like my panel on what to write next, with John, Dave, and Ty, went pretty well on Saturday. The audience seemed engaged, and there was plenty to say. So much to say, in fact, that here I am with the next thing: I feel like the panel focused a fair amount on market considerations. I feel like it focused a fair amount on choosing among ideas that you already have.

And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes those ideas have been pushing and shoving to get out, and now it’s their turn. Pick one through some means: choosing a project that’s very different from what you’ve just written, following through on a prior success, consulting someone who knows a lot about the market, hurrah. Whatever works.

What about the other times? What do you do when you’re staring at your fingers and muttering, “What now?” Well, here are some ideas.

Rest. Seriously, rest and then rest and then rest some more. Rest is underrated in our culture. Lately I have heard people talking about how they don’t have time to rest, acting as though taking a break would be a failure. Rest is a human necessity, not a failure. One of our most prevalent cultural attitudes is that if you work 50 hours in a week, you will get 25% more done than if you work 40, but in fact this is only sometimes true. Quite often you will get 5% more done, or 1%, or if you’ve been doing it enough weeks in a row, 25% less. So when you finish a big project, at least consider that napping, playing with the dog, going for a walk, watching Netflix, are the things that are getting you to the point of being productive with the next big thing.

Change inputs. My friend Mary, a poet and fiction writer, talks about filling the word bucket. Read something different, read something very different, read a bunch of things on a theme. Read a bunch of things on a non-obvious theme. Especially if you’re trying to make political art: a lot of the best ideas for art get sparked by combinations of things that are not linearly related, directly next to each other. Reading about pigments or manatees or Tlingit art is not something that automatically says, “From this will come the great protest literature of our time, the cry my heart needs to make.” It gives your brain not only space to breathe but space to make nonlinear connections, to think thoughts that are relevant to the current situation but not identical to the thoughts everyone else is thinking.

Change media. Art museums. Online stuff. Wandering around looking at public art in cities smart enough to have it. Reading is not the only way to refill the bucket. Hell, change to something that isn’t a medium at all but a natural phenomenon. What kind of stories does this landscape produce. What do people who live here learn from it.

Don’t be afraid to be too small or too big. There is no wrong size of canvas. Short-shorts can teach discipline. Giant multi-volume series can too, but not in the same way. Distill your ideas into tiny vials of concentrate. Let them swoop out all over everything. You are not too ambitious to listen to. You are not too trifling to bother with. If it sounds like it might be nifty, give it a whirl, and then do something else if it doesn’t work. Do something else if it does.

Surround yourself with people who believe in the work. Gentle people. Fierce people. People who ask you dozens of intelligent questions. People who leave you the hell alone and make mashed yams and let you work. People who have read all the same things as you so they know what you’re doing here. People who have read totally different things than you so they can see your blind spots. People who want to get technical. People who see the big picture. Your big picture. Your shared big picture. Your own big picture, just yours.

Ask yourself specific questions about what you need to do this work, about what work you need to do. Sometimes you will end up with vague answers. Keep going. The specific is our friend.

Like the man said, say what you mean, bear witness, iterate. You can interrogate all three of those when you’re figuring out what to write. Is this what I mean? What do I mean? Maybe I need an entire short story to figure out what I mean. Maybe I won’t know at the end of a trilogy. What can I bear witness to? What do I need to bear witness to? What do I see in the world that needs to be framed, noticed, seen? And for the sake of all I love, iterate, iterate, iterate. The world is not what it was a week ago. You are not who you were a week ago. Think it through. Try again. Try tenderly, try roughly, change perspective, change form. Get parallax.

I can’t tell you whether you’ve got this. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t. But trying is a virtue. Trying is what we have. Don’t ever apologize for putting the best of your mind and your heart and your body into trying to make something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.

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Self-care and social media

Last weekend I was at ConFusion in Detroit, which I told you I would be. And it was lovely and I had a great time, hurrah. I will probably want to talk about some things inspired by the panels I was on or witnessed, but that’s in a little bit. Right now I wanted to say: I do not have the passwords to my social media accounts on my laptop, and on my phone I only have the password to my Twitter.

This is deliberate, and I wanted to talk about it this week especially. Not being on Facebook for the weekend of the inauguration was definitely what is known in technical terms as a really great thing. But even if it hadn’t been the inauguration specifically, I find that taking breaks from social media periodically is a good idea. It helps me to see what I might be taking for granted otherwise. It gives me mental space. When I’m traveling, I can’t default to doing the laundry/unloading the dishwasher/checking Slack/taking out the recycling/checking Facebook/etc. I have some separation from all of that. I try to be sparing in my use of Twitter at those times.

This is hard for people in my life to remember. “Did you see the picture of–” No. I didn’t. Because I’m not on social media when I’m traveling. “I really loved X’s post about Y, did you–” No. Not on social media. It’s not up to other people to keep track of my computer quirks. But what their comments do is remind me of how submerged in social media I can be on a regular day. How obvious it is that someone will have seen the picture of and read the post about. Because that’s what we do.

It’s not wrong that that’s what we do. Social media is not bad. But taking it for granted, never taking a moment to asses its role in our lives–well, I can’t think of anything that’s a good plan for.

Maybe if I had kept reading social media all weekend, the sheer volume of political speech going on at the moment would have crept up on me. I’m part of that; I have been more overtly political in public social media in the last year than ever before. But suddenly the Twitter feed that used to be book release/politics/cute dogs/science news/personal yammering is politics/books maybe/politics/politics/politics/oh please give me some cute dogs/politics. Should I curate it differently? Spend less time on it? I don’t know. But whatever the answer is, I should be aware of the shift in balance. I should arrive an answer that is conscious of where and how political energy/focus is expended and not confuse it for happy fluffy things or interactions with friends just because it’s coming through the same channel those used to (and may again).

Occasional breaks help me do that. And for me it helps that they are coincidental: not me sitting down with a schedule and saying, “This is the right time and the right duration,” but chance handing me the opportunity to reevaluate. Maybe it’ll work that way for you. Maybe it won’t. But I think we have a strong cultural bias at the moment that staying up to the minute on news is what smart, engaged people do, and I don’t think it has to be like that for every single minute. Sometimes rest, perspective, and a chance to look for depth are called for.

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Books read, early January

Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans. One of the things that’s interesting about this book is that it looks like Carpenter started writing it pretty much right away–so it was possible to interview almost everyone involved with the case at least once, directly and in person. So Carpenter could ask the police officers involved in the case specific questions about their attitudes toward gay men, toward queer people in general, toward various social institutions and ideas. And did. This was a good reminder that we sometimes want our landmark social cases to be “perfect” test cases, but sometimes the reality is much messier–and that’s okay.

D. G. Compton, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. A seventies science fiction novel about mortality (goes well with Marta Randall’s Islands!) and the surveillance society. The characters in it steadfastly refuse to be nice and calm and docile. They are prickly and angry and flailing. But not mean-spirited. They thrash around a lot trying to figure out how to have the lives they want–and in some cases the deaths they want–within what their culture has made available. Worth the time it takes to read (fairly short).

Frederic S. Durbin, A Green and Ancient Light. This feels like the sort of fantasy novel about a young boy and one summer that was his magical turning point that we don’t see as often as we used to. In this case his grandmother was a very strong presence and my favorite character. I wanted more sense of the woods–there was a lot of sense of human artifacts in the woods but not very much wildness of them–but village life was compelling and the magic plot was interesting, and I do in fact like this sort of fantasy novel.

Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First. A very short novel about Margaret Cavendish. Did not go as deep as I would like but was still a sympathetic portrait of a thoroughgoing outsider.

Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Thoroughly debunks the “spices were popular to cover the taste of spoiled meat” trope. The word “imagination” is key in the title: the author delves into how spices were presented, what they signified and how their signifiers changed, what people thought about what they were eating or just observing. Interesting stuff.

Barbara Hambly, Drinking Gourd. The latest Benjamin January murder mystery continues to explore how race, slavery, freedom, and violence affect relationships. Quite often I advise people not to start late in a series. This time I’d actually say, what the heck, go for it. You’ll figure it out, it’ll be human and compelling, you can go back and read the others and it’ll be fine.

Maria Dahvana Headley, Aerie. This is the sequel to Magonia, which I fell into one afternoon and did not come out until I was done. The same was true of Aerie. These books are some of the most page-turning books I have come across in a long time. I think it’s because I’m so invested in the central relationships. The worldbuilding is fun, the action plot is fun, but at the end of the day my heart is with the protag’s relationship with her best friend/boyfriend and with the protag’s relationship with her sister. Bird people in secret sky lairs? additional worldbuilding into other aspects of secret culture I will not spoiler here? sure yes why not just more of Aza’s interactions with the people she loves.

Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History. This is partly a history of paper and partly Kurlansky’s attempt to make a single point over and over and over again. That point is that technology does not drive social change, it follows it. Might it be more complex than that? Might one piece of technology follow some social change and drive others? Might something have more than one effect, not all of which are foreseeable at the time? APPARENTLY¬† NOT, Kurlansky wishes us to know. It is ALL ONE DIRECTION DAMMIT. So…yeah. That was a thing. It’s a lovely physical object with paper that’s nice to touch. There was interesting stuff about paper and papermaking, although there were also huge gaps on that topic–when did butcher paper start as a thing, for example? You’d never know from this book. Because Kurlansky is too busy telling us about THE NATURE OF ALL TECHNOLOGY ALWAYS. Thanks, Kurlansky! Sigh.

Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife. This book opens with a grandfather who keeps a volume of Kipling in his pocket. I am there for that. Basically any of the rest of you who want to write me books with Kipling-reading grandparents: you follow that urge, it will serve me well. This is also a book about war and recovery, violence and its aftermath, families, and all sorts of interesting things, done in a Balkan magical realist mode. But even without those things I’d have stayed on for the grandpa.

Malka Older, Infomocracy. This book opened feeling to me like the sort of thing Cory Doctorow or Neal Stephenson would have written if they’d started their careers in this decade instead of previous ones. It started out feeling rather standard post-cyberpunk–well-done standard post-cyberpunk, but still. Then we hit a disaster response and it was a different–and much better–book, vivid and engaging–and the world it’s engaging with is our actual complex world, not a cartoon of it. Yay. More.

Mary Rickert, You Have Never Been Here. A lot of dark fantasy is Halloween dark, moaning winds and the creak of newly bare branches, a bit self-conscious about how dark it is. This Mary Rickert collection is Midwinter dark. It is bleak and chilled. It is either the perfect thing to read in the dark of the year or something you should safe for July, depending on where you are in your life.

Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, eds., Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in. So: this exists! I’m in it! I read it! There ya go.

Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. I loved this. It looked at the shapes of five very different sets of Victorians, all of them literary, and how they made their relationships work in the face of various challenges–or didn’t. I would love more of this sort of thing. Also I came out of it feeling like giving George Eliot a hug and inviting her to coffee.

Jason Shiga, Bookhunter. Fast, fun, cute read about secret book protection agency. Not a lot of depth and did not take me long, but entertained me while I was there.

Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations. This is Solnit musing about her travels as an American of partially Irish ancestry in Ireland. She doesn’t stick to describing her travel experiences, roaming wherever she pleases in the history of Ireland or in fact the rest of the world. She has a modicum of self-awareness about Americans in Ireland and Irish-Americans, so I said to an Irish friend that it probably wouldn’t annoy them in the same way as standard American Irish tourism, but it might well annoy them in a refreshing and different way. I’m not Irish, I can’t tell for sure. It didn’t really annoy me, but it’s not the Solnit I’d recommend starting with, of what I’ve read so far.

The American Scandinavian Foundation, Scandia: Important Early Maps of the Northern Regions and Maps and Charts of Norway. What it says on the tin. Lots of neat misconceptions about what exactly was up there in all that snow anyway. Is it an archipelago of islands? is it basically a linear peninsula out from…somewhere? Much confusion in early mapmaking, many guesses, cool to see what they were.

Ka Vang, Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon. While the beginning exposition is a little clunky here, the characterization and setting are worth it. It’s a middle-grade book about a young Hmong girl whose family traditions leave her out because she’s a girl–until she does some awesome magical stuff that explodes her elders’ assumptions. What I particularly liked about this book is that everyone was human even when they were wrong. Characters who could easily have been caricatures were full-fledged people, understandable even when flawed, which is a lot to ask of something as long as most adult books are, and this was not that length. So there’s a lot packed into a small number of pages here. Especially useful if you’re looking for books for Minnesota kids that actually reflect the Minnesota they live in, but worth the time otherwise too.

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The work of optimism

My friend Fran Wilde said this week, “Do not hesitate to speak up for the reality you wish to live in. Don’t live in silence or fear. Those are really crappy universes.”

They are.

Having an optimistic imagination as a professional skill is hard work right now. It’s never actually trivial, but when the people around you are all muttering, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and you know exactly what they mean, it’s hard to turn from that to creating entire worlds from scratch with hope as a major component.

Hard, but important.

Hard, but necessary.

But hard. Did I mention hard?

I’m working on three things at the moment, two of which have other people involved in one role or another, so that’s taking up a lot of my time and energy. And rightly so. But every day this week I have made sure to write some number of words on the third project, which is an optimistic science fiction novel.

That’s not to say that it’s teddy bear picnic science fiction. Lots of dreadful things happen. Some of the characters are–brace yourselves–not all that cuddly. But many of them–most of them–are making at least some effort to solve problems and treat each other decently. Even if they don’t always agree on what’s a problem and what’s a solution. Even if they don’t always agree on what decent treatment would entail. It is science fiction about people who are trying. It is science fiction for adults. About people who are trying.

Did I mention that this is hard work? because it is. And combining the difficulty of it with the other projects I have going on means that I’m not writing reams at a time on this thing. A couple hundred words a day is all I’m getting for now. But I can see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel with the other projects. I’m getting them toward a point where I can pass them back to the other professionals involved, and my main project focus can be optimistic science fiction novel for awhile.

And you know what? I think it’s good for me. I think that making this effort, doing this hard work–putting in the energy to imagine doing some good, putting in the energy to imagine doing better–is a bit like working out. You get better at it. You find more capacity in yourself the more you do of it. And you find more challenges, places where your previous skillset would have been insufficient, but now you can manage, you can just barely manage.

I know that some people find that writing about terrible universes is their way of trying to avoid living in one. And that’s fair. Saying, “OH GOD NOT LIKE THIS” is valid both as art form and as approach to improving the world, to the extent that the two are separable. It’s just that it’s not the only valid approach. And honestly right now I think it’s the easy way out, and if we’re going to have some balance, some of us are going to have to take the hard way. Some of us are going to have to imagine realities we would rather live in, and then speak up for them.

A little bit a day will do.

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ConFusion schedule

I will be in attendance at ConFusion next week, my dears, and here is what I am doing, officially and on the program:

Saturday, 10:00 a.m., Charlevoix. What Should I Write Next? The first book or series is all wrapped up, maybe even under contract. What comes next? Maybe a palate-cleansing change of genre, or building on strength and staying close to where you started? What about a pseudonymous guilty pleasure? Experts weigh in! Dave Robison (M), John Chu, Jackie Morgan, Ty Franck (James SA Corey), Marissa Lingen.

Saturday, noon, Ballroom A&B. Worldbuilding 495. Genre fiction, in all its many forms, relies on the author’s ability to invest its reader in a world other than their own. What are some of the advanced methods of adding a sense of the real to invented worlds? How do authors get themselves out of tricky spots when deep into a series? Marissa Lingen (M), John Chu, Dave Robison, Mary G. Thompson [Anything you think is crucial to this panel but unlikely to occur to me, please put in a comment or an email. Since I’m the moderator, I feel the need for a great many more notes and avenues of possible exploration to ignore in pursuit of just going with whatever we come up with in the moment than I do when I’m just a panelist.] [Note: they have gone and put Max Gladstone on the 101 version of this panel. Where I am sure he will be interesting, but anyone interested in waylaying Max and herding him into the 495 version would be performing a service to humanity as represented by the panel audience.]

Sunday, 10:00 a.m., Manitou. Reading: John Chu, Annalee Flower Horne, Marissa Lingen. [What it says on the tin. Since it’s an hour long reading slot with three people in it, they encourage us to keep our readings short, so I will probably do “Running Safety Tips for Humans,” forthcoming from Nature this spring but not yet available to the public. I know that a lot of people read part of a work in a reading that short, but I’ve gotten pretty attached to delivering a complete story experience in the time allotted to me, so…”Running Safety Tips for Humans” it is, unless something strikes me as more suitable for the occasion between now and then.]

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Books read, late December

I was traveling, and I have had a cold, and also it is for some reason A Very Novella Christmas. So…lo these many things read.

Michal Ajvaz, The Other City. This is a short Czech surrealist novel. It’s very, very much about Prague–very detailed about Prague along with its stained-glass surrealist imagery–but the strange thing is that it was written in the early ’90s and did not contain even a hint of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics in the very year this book was published. That was not only practically but as far as I could tell thematically absent. Which for me was an interesting statement on how creative brains work, which is to say, not always as one might expect.

Miguel Angel Asturias, The President. Beautifully written account of life under the titular dictator. It was censored at the time of its writing. There’s a lot of how evil flows downhill in this, a lot of how the people in the middle of an oppressive system end up complicit. Like a lot of books of the early 20th century, it is not at all sensitive to disabled and mentally ill people as people rather than symbols, so heads up on that front.

Charles S. Brant and Jim Whitewolf, The Autobiography of a Kiowa Apache Indian. Whitewolf talks to Brant about his childhood, his life, the traditions of his people as he knows them. This is not trying to be anything like comprehensive about all Kiowa Apaches, but it’s not as deeply personal as a solo-written memoir would be. Brant’s commentary sometimes feels extremely off to me (this is a book from the middle of the twentieth century, and Brant is not more culturally understanding/enlightened than you would expect of his time), but Whitewolf’s character continues to shine through the snarky footnotes. He is not in some way an idealized noble Indian figure, nor is he the stereotype Brant alludes to of a supposedly-dissolute people. He’s just some guy, some guy that you can easily believe is someone’s uncle, who tells you about how things were when he was a kid, what his family and their neighbors used to do and what they still do now, and Brant can’t ruin that.

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame. Adventure fantasy that I stuck with despite main character amnesia. I have often complained that the failure mode of novellas is to have the worldbuilding of a novel and the payoff of a short story, but while the novellas I read this month mostly followed the pattern of being worldbuilding-heavy, I wouldn’t describe it as failure for these specific cases.

Paul Cornell, Witches of Lychford. The characterization of this was sharp and individual. It was an urban fantasy with what seems like it should be a standard urban fantasy plot (faceless corporation interrupts structure of village life for nefarious magical purposes and with nefarious magical consequences), but the characters are so individual that this is not a problem…and when I ask myself for actual examples of other stories that do this, they are not abundant. I particularly like the inclusion of a vicar as one of the titular women; this is a varied and matter-of-fact treatment of faith and organized religion that we don’t see often enough.

Michael J. DeLuca, ed., Reckoning Issue 1. Kindle. I’m in this, and I don’t review things I’m in–too much potential for tackiness. However, I will say that several individual pieces got mentioned in my year-end favorites, and when they’re available on the internet I’ll link to them.

S.B. Divya, Run Time. Another worldbuilding-heavy novella that did not turn out to suffer unduly from that balance. This one is near-future adventure-racing SF. If you miss EcoChallenge since adventure racing went all reality TV, this is for you. The plot twists are not very twisty, but they don’t have to be; there’s a diverse cast doing adventure-racing SF, and there are several of you who will want that if you don’t have it already.

Elizabeth Dodd, Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World. Essays on nature and place. Dodd’s lens has some beautiful views from it, and some extremely quirky personal ones. I’ve gotten a lot more interested in personal essay/memoir lately, so expect more of this.

Jean d’Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, A History. Oh, what a weird book, oh, what a weird book. This is one of the rare places where the “a novel” style subtitles are really called for, because the format of this book is that it is a history of a place that never existed. It is written exactly like a history of the era it covers–I read a lot of history, so I know–and if you are prone to Clausewitz and Liddell Hart jokes, the footnotes are hysterically funny. If you don’t like reading history, for heaven’s sake don’t read this, it’s like that but nonexistent. The introduction may be daunting for genre-familiar readers, since the person writing it seems to be going, “OMG Alternate history! can you say ‘alternate history,’ children?”, but the book is better than that, the book is doing things with the stories we tell ourselves in different contexts, how we talk to each other and what’s given priority, what is this fiction endeavor anyway. Highly but narrowly recommended.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Public festivals, dancing mania, carnival, all sorts of expressions of group positivity. Interesting angle from which to take on various parts of history. I kept making wry faces at the fact that historians are divided on whether carnival-esque festivals are necessary for authoritarian regimes to keep the people blowing off steam or harmful for authoritarian regimes by allowing a place to conspire and invert the status quo. It can be both, people! It can totally be both, that can be part of how authoritarian regimes do not work well. Nothing on this earth guarantees that things that are necessary will not also be harmful to the entity that needs them.

Zetta Elliott, The Phoenix on Barkley Street. This was a chapter book, the stage before middle grade, so it was extremely brief and it did not attempt much in the way of nuance. City kids and their phoenix attempt to clean up a place where they can hang out safely. Probably you know some kids who could use some magic that doesn’t look like it’s just for dominant cultural groups; here’s some.

Dorothy Heydt/Katharine Blake, The Interior Life. Kindle. In the introduction, Heydt/Blake (each name appears on my Kindle file once) notes that this book came out in 1990 “and promptly went back in again.” I can see why, and not because it’s worthless. It’s an interesting example of the domestic fantasy subgenre/superset/whatever it is. And yet the part of the novel that takes place in our world is deeply confused about time. I am the same age as the oldest children in the book, and…this is not the world I grew up in. It’s the world somewhere between half a generation and a generation older. Except with enough computer details that you really can’t just say, oh, fine, yes, it’s 1965-75, onward. The crossover between the two worlds is handled interestingly, and I cared deeply about the mundane details of this world–I loved the fact that fantasy was a positive force and not a negative one–but the weird handling of the sexual harassment subplot made it very clear to me that this came out the year before the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. So I find this book to be worth reading, I care deeply about the characters, it’s not quite like anything else…but I can see why the mass market of 1990 did not fall upon it with glad cries, and I’m glad that we have ebooks now so that the mass market doesn’t have to in order for it to be available. (Unfortunately it seems to have become unavailable again. -ed)

Rachel Ignotofsky, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. This is a book primarily intended for a young audience. It’s lavishly illustrated and does not always choose “the usual suspects” for its subjects. These fifty women vary considerably in nationality, race/ethnicity, and religion–and in what fields they represent. A great resource to inspire kids. (I do wish that the woman who used a wheelchair had been pictured in it, but at least Ignotofsky was clear that she had disabilities and worked through/around them.)

Emmi It√§ranta, The Weaver. I’m always interested in whether people do something very like their first novel for their second or very different. This felt very different to me, much closer to the mainstream of stories that get told in speculative fiction (in this case fantasy). It was a fun novel with cool worldbuilding elements, not nearly as special as Memory of Water but not everything has to be.

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds., Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Issue 35. Kindle. A lot of this was deep into weird-for-its-own-sake. “The History of Harrabash” by James Warner was fun to read in conjunction with The Glory of the Empire (I read them on the same day), since the Warner story is a much lighter, younger voice on the teaching and learning of history even when it doesn’t exist. Jack Larsen’s “The Equipoise With Lentils” was I think the most successful for me at being unabashedly surreal and still keeping my interest.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars. This felt so very very much like a big fat portal fantasy of my early teens. It’s exactly like the best of the sort of thing I was reading daily in junior high…except without the worry that the suck fairy will have visited it with attitudes about race, gender, or sexuality that now feel like a slap in the face. Portal fantasy: probably you miss it, here is one, it’s not a jerk to people, go.

Emma Newman, After Atlas. This is set in the same universe as Planetfall but is not a direct sequel to it, and I think that’s to Newman’s credit. After Atlas is aiming at a completely different thing, rather than trying to replicate the appeal of the earlier book. I’m glad of that. It’s a procedural with the future tech worked in rather than ignored or only showcased when it was convenient for the author. The ending was not as abrupt as Planetfall‘s, but it does make the “very abrupt ending, several interesting questions unresolved” thing look like a pattern rather than a fluke.

Marta Randall, Islands. Kindle. I had not even heard of Marta Randall, and I know a lot about SF of ages past. Turns out she was the first woman VP of SFWA and also the first woman president of same. And she wrote this and some other novels that I also downloaded to my Kindle, and it was definitely worth reading. It felt far more modern than most of what was presented to me as “classics of ’70s SF” when I was a teenager. I wonder how much sexism played a part in it not joining their ranks, how much it was random midlist blues, and how much it was that SF was hurtling toward cyberpunk while Randall was musing about mortality, relationship, and environment. I think one of the things that was particularly appealing to me is that Randall reached for connection and understanding of others’ viewpoints. But scuba-diving sunken Hawaii was pretty cool as a set of images, too.

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. This was full of interesting tidbits that didn’t quite come together into the whole Solnit hoped it would be, in my view. Muybridge was extremely eccentric, and the times surrounding him no less so; lots of fodder for an interesting book here. But it felt to me like there was perhaps one or two steps of bringing things together missing between this book and a really great one. I’m still interested in Solnit’s work and looking forward to reading more of it, but this was not as good as A Paradise Built in Hell.

Fran Wilde, A Jewel and Her Lapidary. Worldbuilding-heavy novellas for the win. This one was also adventure fantasy, very vividly built, with relationships central to the plot.

Connie Willis, Fire Watch. Reread. I have been revisiting some of the old short story collections we have around here to see how they stand up. In this case: not well. The older I get, the more Willis’s time travelers seem implausibly foolish, the less they seem entertaining. Everything reads just a bit flat, all the emotions primary colors and very little nuance. I am a little worried about revisiting the longer works of hers I remember enjoying, in this light.

Kai Ashante Wilson, A Taste of Honey. You’d think with all the worldbuilding-heavy novellas I read this fortnight, they would start to run together, but they were all quite distinct–Wilson’s worldbuilding continues to be like no one else’s. This was a fantasy love story, tinged with melancholy but not depressing, the plot leaving room for the characters and their world to be the focus.

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From a Secret World. Forest health and tree tidbits. Stuff about how trees exist in community, how they share nutrients through the fungal network around their roots, other cool arboreal things. Yay trees.