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Present Writers: Nisi Shawl

Just under the wire but before the year-end posts–because the year is not yet ended–here’s December’s Present Writers post. For context on this blog series, see the first post, Marta Randall, or subsequent posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, or Sherwood Smith.

Nisi Shawl is a great example of a writer who has grown, changed, and expanded her horizons–and other people’s–long past her debut. If I’d been writing this post a few years ago I could have talked about her impressive short story career, or about her crucial work in teaching writers to think kindly and accurately beyond their own experiences with works like Writing the Other  (co-authored with Cynthia Ward) and workshops on the same topic. I could have talked about her work as an anthologist, particularly in anthologies that focus on various specific marginalized voices or on tributes to greats of the field like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. Shawl has been quite ground-breaking enough in those areas.

But two years ago she gave us her first novel to appreciate, Everfair. A steampunk alternate history focused on central Africa (specifically the Congo), Everfair uses multiple points of view to bring balance and nuance to the possibilities she shows us. Everfair helps point out the choices we make every day to improve the world for all people–or not–and the ways that our views of history shape those choices. It is profoundly hopeful and just plain fun to read. I’m excited to see where Shawl will go next, and how it will teach those who want to learn and illuminate more of the world for those who want to see.

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It Happened at the Ball, edited by Sherwood Smith

Review copy provided by the editor, who is also a personal friend.

This anthology was conceived as a light antidote to current moods–an escape, a lovely frothy escape. Where it succeeds at that, it succeeds brilliantly. Stand-out stories for me included Marie Brennan’s “The Şiret Mask” (reprinted from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and no less excellent in this venue), Francesca Forrest’s “Gown of Harmonies,” and Layla Lawlor’s “Gilt and Glamor.” These were extremely different stories–one urban fantasy/contemporary–and each hit its marks very well indeed, as one would hope from a themed anthology (but as one often doesn’t find). Though I often look askance at editors including their own work in an anthology, Sherwood Smith’s own “Lily and Crown” was a very strong element of this volume, which wouldn’t have been half as good without it–I’m a sucker for stories of revolution and independence, and this was one.

Some of the stories that were not as much for me were more a matter of personal inclination–nothing wrong with them, just not my sort of thing. A few more were on a weird line–acknowledging the reality of slave ownership for slaves but continuing to focus on the slave owners’ fancy parties is not really going to work for me, and I feel that while it’s entirely period that people were insensitive about terms for Roma people, we need to be careful about how and when we think it’s necessary to do that in stories written now. I had some larger issues with Marissa Doyle’s “Just Another Quiet Evening at Almack’s,” though. It had assault as a central event but not, in some senses, a central theme; the way it was handled was simultaneously light-hearted (which is far better for the anthology topic than for this story element) and victim-blaming. Young girls cast attraction charms on themselves, the silly things! and then get assaulted by men of all ages, with a strong attitude of “they should have known better, this is what they get.” This is the razor blade in this particular dish of sherbet. I wish there wasn’t one. I wish we could have an entire anthology of light-hearted stories about dancing without this particular element. Maybe in the next try. There’s a lot else that’s good in this book; I just could do without this one element.

Please consider using our link to buy It Happened at the Ball from Amazon.

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Books read, early December

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black: Stories. This is a gripping and beautiful collection that wanders in and out of speculative tropes and social discussion. I think it’s not marketed as SFF but rather as literary, but he plays beautifully on the beach that belongs to both (rather than walled-off sandboxes for each) and I think writers from that entire continuum could enjoy and learn here. Recommended.

Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral?. This did not do what I hoped, which was talk about modern forms of the pastoral. He did start to form a model of pastoral that goes beyond Shepherd Poems, spotting commonality in some interesting 19th century works, so it wasn’t worthless, it just…didn’t go as far as I wanted it to.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis’s part of the Iliad retold from her perspective. This book does an amazing job of pointing out the horrors of war in a way that doesn’t prioritize one gender or another, but be warned, it is sexual violence front to back, that is the thing it’s doing. Also there are bizarre, gross, ahistorical moments of fatphobia, just thrown in for spice I guess, so…read with care.

Megan Crewe, Ruthless Magic. Sometimes you really want the YA trope of “we have just figured out that the system is rigged and what are we going to do about it,” because, welp, here we are. In this case that trope is set among magic trials, and the ending is satifsyingly un-pat. Relationships–not just smooching, friendships, family relationships–take a very high priority here. I raced through it and am looking forward to the sequel.

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States. I picked up this book on the theory that I was interested in anything Jill Lepore wrote, and now I am interested in nothing Jill Lepore writes ever again. That is how bad this book was. It had bizarre inclusions and maddening exclusions. Lepore’s choices reinforce a lot of standard “large overview” models that reinforce all sorts of misconceptions, with major movements often treated as mysterious forces of nature because she hasn’t bothered to discuss what led to them. The labor movement, the conquest of Native territories, most things west of the Mississippi…okay, let’s be honest, most things west of Syracuse…not present. A complete misreading of Desk Set, and honestly, I love Desk Set, but why is it here? A sure-footed and substantially wrong-headed focus on the last 15 years at the expense of the entire second half of the nineteenth century AND the entire second half of the twentieth century. Supposedly parallel constructions with drastically slanted language. I startled the dog several times with my out-loud reactions to this book (“NO–not you, not you Ista, good dog”). Assertions that would take another 800-page book to actually support went in blithely, unchallenged and unfootnoted. And almost all of this is directly relevant to modern political interactions. What a terrible book. So incredibly disappointing. I only finished it so that I could be authoritative about how bad it was, and it just kept getting worse.

Anna-Marie McLemore, Blanca and Roja. Modern Latina version of Snow White and Rose Red, with swan shifters and tree affinities and a diversity of gender and sexuality. Charming and lovely.

Nuala O’Faolain, Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. This is substantially about digging herself out of the hole that the mid-twentieth century left Irish women in, and surveying the wreckage upon her family. There was a lot of unpleasantness here that somehow didn’t add up to a bad book, but I spent most of the time reading it sad for O’Faolain.

Daniel Jose Older, Dactyl Hill Squad. Alternate history Civil War-era New York with dinosaurs, orphan kids of color having dino-related adventures against racist miscreants. Great fun, especially if you have someone in its target age range to share with.

Mary Beth Pfieffer, Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. Do you want to scream endlessly? Because the stuff this book covers will do that for you. Not the book itself; Pfieffer is level-headed and thorough. But tick-based diseases are NO JOKE, friends, and worth knowing about in horrifying detail. (Horrifying. Really, really bad.)

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. This literary novel weaves together the lives of two women who work as painters, one in the seventeenth century and another, who is also a scholar and critic, in the middle of the twentieth (going on to her later life in the early twenty-first). I liked each and both, the way that they were finding their way in their work around various life obstacles, quite different in different eras and yet with a thread of commonality. The ending fell a bit flat for me, so I can’t jump up and down and recommend this as thoroughly as I’d like, but it was still worth reading.

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Books read, late November

Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860. This was lovely, an examination of how and why women were coming together to demand rights in that period, what their focus was, where they fell short of making their movement work for everyone. It’s too early a volume for the word “intersectional” to come up, but Anderson is both clear and blunt about racism when she sees it and attempts to discuss class issues and other intersectionalities quite thoroughly. I got a few more ideas for people to download from Project Gutenberg, and more to sigh over since the translations aren’t there.

Fatimah Asghar, If They Come For Us. Searing amazing lovely poems about the Partition and modern experiences of immigration that mirror some of its effects. Both personal and political. I’m so glad I read this.

Christelle Dabos, A Winter’s Promise. This YA fantasy has many prose hallmarks of being translated from the French, but I don’t mind that. It started out with the magic system feeling potentially enchanting and captivating, but I ended up frustrated with the ponderous length of it and the politics of it–both internal to the book and the way it sits with actual politics. Among other things, this is one of those books where He Won’t Tell You Anything–And Will Be A Controlling Jerk All The Time–But He Has His Reasons And Really He Loves You And Also What About His Tragic Past. And I am getting less and less patient with books that recapitulate abusers’ narratives with romantic trimmings.

Anne de Courcy, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy. I would not usually have picked this book up at all, but de Courcy generally knows her stuff and can be counted on to get into some social analysis like: was this successful, why did it happen beyond the simplistic explanations etc. Also it was not terribly long.

Anya Johanna DeNiro writing as Alan DeNiro, Tyrannia. These were fine enough stories for most of the volume but were not really grabbing me…until I got to the last one, that makes it a keeper. It’s a weird metafictional meditation that completely works for me.

Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky. There’s a reason these have won so many awards. They are so very brilliantly done, and their planetary/geomagic is amazing, and the relationships are wrenching and loving and horrible and great. I’m glad I finished this series.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir. Khakpour gives us a tour of her life through the lens of figuring out her health problems. If you have chronic health issues yourself, the difficulty with diagnosis and treatment will feel so familiar, as she hits setback after setback and finally arrives at…an approximation. A regimen that sort of works unless it doesn’t. Which is pretty familiar too. She doesn’t have to pretend that she is a perfect person who did everything–or even everything health-related–right. There are no Good Cripple narratives here. And what a blessing that is.

Naomi Mitchison, When We Become Men. So what an odd thing this is. Mitchison apparently got very involved with Botswanan independence, to the point of getting herself in trouble with the colonial authorities. When We Become Men is a coming of age story for young African men (and a bit for women) struggling toward self-rule. I think that if you only read one book about the struggle of various African nations toward independence, it shouldn’t be this one (it should be written by…you know…an African person), and if you only read one Naomi Mitchison novel, it shouldn’t be this one either (at the moment I’m going for Travel Light, but stay tuned). But. As another piece in a couple of larger puzzles, it’s very interesting indeed. Caveat: rape is a topic throughout this book and while reasonably important to the book, it is…I am not entirely comfortable with the handling of it, particularly with my own ignorance of how emotionally accurate it is to the cultures it was representing at the time.

Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems. I had already read the title poem of this collection, and it was brilliant and searing and amazing. Then the rest of it made me sob out loud and run around DMing links to poems and putting them up in various chat spaces. It was apparently a great month for me to read poetry, because I highly recommend this as well.

Rebecca Sugar et al, Steven Universe: Punching Up, Steven Universe: Too Cool for School, and Steven Universe: Anti-Gravity. These were a bit of a mixed bag, and frankly even the first of them (which was the best in my estimation) would have been a weak and minor episode of SU. However, as SU methadone they did fine. Do you want a side story about Steven going to school, or one about Pearl taking on a wrestler persona to team wrestle with Amethyst? That’s what’s here–but because it’s definitively side material, they can’t put anything of ongoing resonance in the way they do with the episodes that sometimes seem on the surface to be side issues. Oh Well.

Howard Waldrop, Horse of a Different Color: Stories. I just could not be arsed to care about these stories. I could see that they were well done in their way, and I read them, I didn’t skip past them, but…this is very much not for me, I’m afraid.

Laura Weymouth, The Light Between Worlds. Okay, so. If you are a person who, for example, knows what year rationing ended after WWII, you should go into this knowing that there are a few moments where that kind of historical-cultural detail will have slipped. However. Depending on your reaction to that sort of thing–or to these particular instances of that sort of thing–it may not matter. It didn’t really matter for me, but I mention it because I know several of my readers will be unable to not see those details. For me, the heart of the story was spot on. And that’s the story of two sisters trying to build lives in a world that isn’t quite what they expected it to be. The two and their brother had a very Narnia-like portal fantasy adventure, and there are bits of that in here in flashback, but mostly it’s about how they adjust–or fail to adjust–to coming back again. To having to go through puberty a second time, to the ideas and possibilities and priorities that come with postwar Britain instead of a magical forest land. And to having been through not just one war but two–having met war wherever they went. And there are so very very many emotionally true moments about that kind of trauma and about dealing with other people you love whose reactions to trauma are different from yours. (Also the stag imagery omg.)

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“I’ve got some new words I can see sideways”

Toward the end of the last several years, I heard a lot of people talking about how glad they would be to see the year go, how the next one had to be better. I’m not hearing that this year, and I don’t think it’s because 2018 has been all lollipops and rainbows, or even candles and saffron buns. No. I think it’s that there has been a slow realization that we are living in a dark time. That positive change is not going to come all at once with the turning of the year. We all knew that, I think, but…there’s knowing, and there’s knowing.

When you know something is wrong, identifying it can be such a relief. A lot of my friends with disabilities and other health issues have talked about this–how happy they were to get a diagnosis, how others didn’t always understand that and would be upset on their behalves. But upset is a reaction for if you thought nothing was wrong and suddenly got the news that something was. When you know something is wrong and now you know what…well. You can find coping mechanisms. You can begin to plan. Maybe you can even fix it–which is much harder when you don’t know something is wrong in the first place.

And here we are in the dark of the year. Santa Lucia Day has come around again. And the reason I started doing these posts twelve years ago (!!!) is that Santa Lucia Day is a holiday that comes before the solstice. Firmly and canonically before. We light the candles, we make the lussekatter, knowing that there is more and deeper darkness to come.

And we do it anyway. Because this is what we do. Because this is who we choose to be for each other.

There’s often a song in my head for Santa Lucia Day, other than the traditional one, and this year it’s Case/Lang/Veirs “I want to be here” ( “Not bracing for what comes next” sounds good to me…especially because I feel like being present with each other, just that, gives us the strength to deal with what’s next without having to flinch from it. And don’t we all need to hear that the hungry fools who rule the world can’t ruin everything? They can’t. There is bread, there is hope, there is work to make things better. Even when all we can do for a minute is be here together.

I kept the idea of making lemon curd from last year. That strand of caring for someone else that helped with caring for myself ended up working very well for me, and I’m looking forward to continuing with it. This year I’m about to try the result of kneading the dried blueberries into the saffron bread instead of placing them on top. I’m hopeful. But I’m also willing to keep iterating. I’m willing to keep trying to make things better, acknowledging setbacks along the way, acknowledging that the path to better is not always smooth.

The other thing I tried this year: last week there was a different saffron bread. This one was savory, stuffed with olives and tomatoes and cheese and prosciutto. It worked on the first try, not perfect but good, and I now have another means of sharing with others, another bread of light in a dark time. Not a replacement. Just another angle to try, and we need all of those we can get. And…maybe having the blueberries protected in some dough will keep them from falling away. It’s worth a try.

Sometimes the people we love are faltering in the dark, and there’s not that much we can do to help except be there and bear witness. Sometimes there’s more. We can stumble on wanting so badly to help. Sorting out which situations are which takes practice.

We’re getting a lot of practice, these dark days. We are here. We reach for each other. We learn how to do it better, and sometimes we fail, but even when we don’t, we have more darkness to get through.

But we do it together. And that makes all the difference in the world.

I bake too much for myself every Christmas, and I do it on purpose, knowing that these cookies will go to that dear one, that this bread is for another, that the experimental fudge (…stay tuned…) for yet a third. Because we don’t light the candles for just ourselves, we don’t sing to just ourselves. That’s not how any of this works.

Thank you for being the lights in my darkness, this year, next year, all the years. Happy Santa Lucia Day.











2007: and

2006: — the post that started it all! Lots more about the process and my own personal lussekatt philosophy here!

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The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Do not start here. Really really do not. One of the things about books that are serious about consequences is that it’s extremely hard to write them without reference to what’s come before–those two goals are incompatible–and this book is basically all consequences. The cover with the mask-face on fire? That is this book. It is the previous book, but on fire, and also plagues and drowning.

What a nice book! you may now be thinking, if you have not read The Traitor Baru Cormorant. So about that. Yah. Not a nice book. If you’re going to read these, buckle in, because the teddy bears are not having their picnic here, and someone would probably lobotomize them if they did. (There are…lots of lobotomies in this series. Lots. More lobotomies than acts of treachery? mmmmaybe. Someone should count.) (Mostly they are offstage lobotomies, though.)

There is one moment where loyalty appears, nobility of spirit, that sort of thing, and Baru says she wasn’t expecting it. And you may not be expecting it either. But it’s there. That’s the thing about this very not-nice series full of transmissible cancers and prisoners in the bilge of the ship and judicial murders: Dickinson understands that chiaroscuro requires light as well as darkness. So amidst all the unpleasantness…are desperate people doing their best. Keeping on. So I do too, with this series.

Please consider using our link to buy The Monster Baru Cormorant from Amazon. (Or if you are starting, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.)

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Books read, early November

Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand. Megan Abbott is really good at writing thrillers. We now know that she’s really good at writing the research postdoc experience as well. Is a research postdoc thriller that isn’t focused on industrial/academic espionage but on the scientists as people your jam? It is mine, and here is one.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 17. Kindle. Another installation, the plot inches forward. I am really bad at reading serials, but I persevere.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few. I picked this up because I wanted a nice book, and it mostly is, but it starts with a disaster and doesn’t come together as quickly or at the same level as her previous two books. It does eventually, quietly, and I like the quietness of it.

Thomas Colchie, ed., A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin America. Colchie attempted to get a wide variety of stories for this: different countries, styles, genders, eras, etc. It suffers a little from that wide focus–this is an oldish book and I really feel that asking any one volume to recommend all of Latinx writing means that it will skimp on some things, or be weirdly put together. Still, some of these stories were delightful, and I’ll be looking further into the authors, and that’s what this kind of overview anthology is good for. (Also it cost a quarter.)

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. This is frothy fun midcentury fiction, except where it isn’t. The protagonist is a young American woman in Paris in the late 1950s, and she stays out late drinking and goes off to the countryside and has love affairs and all sorts of stuff. And also there is a rape attempt and a coercive pimp. I really hate the razorblades-in-cotton-candy nature of mid-twentieth century entertainment sometimes.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky. This is in some ways the opposite of razorblades-in-cotton-candy. Jemisin is a master of setting readerly expectations even in the first volume; by the time you get around to the conclusion of this trilogy, you know that some terrible things are going to happen and a lot of people are going to suffer. It’s built into the framework. And there are lots of loving things, too, lots of good things, lots of places where people are trying hard. And some really cool rock worldbuilding.

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War. This is brutally and beautifully done. It is not a nice book, but it is a quite good book, a fantasy whose Chinese roots are deep rather than cosmetic. I needed to brace myself for it and go read something soothing after, but I’m glad I did.

Mark Kurlansky, Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas. Yep, this is a history of the use of milk in human cultures. (Heh heh, cultures. Okay, I’ll see myself out.) It’s one of Kurlansky’s better ones, far-ranging and interesting. And. I mean. Milk! Not going to break your heart like fantasy novels!

Selma Lagerlöf, The Emperor of Portugallia. Kindle. So this is a lovely pastoral tale of a girl whose father adores her. And then she has to become a prostitute to save the family farm and he loses touch with reality! At the end he is dead but she’s okay because her dad loved her and believed in her until the end.  ….yes, this is a weird book, there is no pretending this is not a weird book, even for turn-of-the-last-century Swedish lit this is a weird book. I read it while exhausted on a plane and kept going, “What? WHAT???” I’m not sorry I did, but: WHAT???

Bethany Morrow, Mem. A short novel with a unique speculative conceit: your memories can be removed and exist, at least for a time, as their own entities, their own versions of you. The 1920s Montreal setting didn’t ever gel for me, but it didn’t really need to.

Emma Newman, Before Mars. This is a very well-executed version of a kind of book I don’t like. Specifically: I am a really hard sell on “what is even reality” books. In this one, a geologist-artist on Mars has reason to doubt everything that’s going on around her. Good reason, it turns out, and this is in a sense a prequel to some of Newman’s other work. I can’t imagine that she could have done better at this and made me like it more–it’s just not my shape of story. But if you’re looking for another in her SF universe, here it is.

Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, eds., Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Kindle. Most of this book was in the form of letters addressed to Butler herself. Some of them were analytical, some inspiring–some both!–and Nisi Shawl’s made me cry. A reminder that I do want to finish my Butler reread one of these days–she’s always, always, always relevant.

Andromeda Romano-Lax, Plum Rains. Elders and caregivers are so rarely the center of near-future SF novels. This one focuses on minority ethnicity people in Japan and their interactions with new robots who have various functions. That makes it sound dry, when in fact it’s very warm and…in places expresses a humane desperation.

Randal Roorda, Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing. This is almost a how-to in handling one’s own perspective not being universal in one’s topic, so kudos to Roorda on that. It goes to some very interesting places on the topics of solitude and escape–not quite into “our” escapism in the sff genre, but you can see the relevance through the trees from where Roorda is.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 25. Kindle. I have waited too long to write this book post and don’t remember which of the things in this issue were my favorites. I think Naomi Kritzer’s and Monica Valentinelli’s? It will be in my short story recommendation list. Anyway it was another good issue.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Kindle. Same travel as The Emperor of Portugallia, 900% more WHAT EVEN. This is what it says on the tin, except that Wollstonecraft was given to making random pronouncements, often without any evidence, just–pulled an idea out of an orifice. My favorite (and Twitter’s!) is still the theory that Swedish women are so pale because of overspiced food (I…I…what???), but there are several similar levels of insight in this book. And then there’s the bit where she’s being rowed around a fjord in the middle of the night looking for a particular inlet that the rower has no idea about…it was surreal, it was educational, it was entertaining, what is it even doing, I don’t know. (And I’m just going to note that I love Project Gutenberg for giving me access to this sort of thing so easily.)

Jane Yolen, Finding Baba Yaga and Merlin’s Booke (Kindle).  The former is a novel in verse. For me, at least, the impact of the verse built over the course of it–not so searing to begin with and really strong at the end. It’s a contemporary Baba Yaga story. The latter is a collection of short stories around one idea of Merlin, or possibly several. It’s from a similar era of Arthuriana to Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, if that helps you figure out whether you want it or not.