The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second of Tor’s new Tor Essentials line I’ve read–the first was The Dragon Waiting, so it’s in good company. I’m eager to see the rest of what they’re doing here, because these are two books I love and want to see a larger audience.

The Necessary Beggar is about a family of interdimensional refugees whose exile involves walking through a blue door into an unknown world…which happens to be Reno, NV, in the early part of the twenty-first century. Palwick does the best job I’ve ever seen at introducing characters to things that are unfamiliar to them and familiar to us, gradually building their knowledge of the culture we already know in a way that illuminates it.

She’s also done a beautiful job creating a family that comes from the same culture but has prioritized different aspects of it–no one person has to stand in for the whole, each gets to be fully individualized, and as a result the pieces of culture they cling to in their new home vary extremely. There’s not a lot of standard science fiction furniture here–after the dimensional travel, the book is mostly stuff that could happen at any time if there happened to be people with those personalities and cultural beliefs around to make it happen.

The Necessary Beggar, as its back cover tells us, is from the perspectives of a girl, a grandfather, and a ghost. I am a sucker for tales of relentless young girls and the grandpas who love them, so this is right in my wheelhouse. The ghost turns out to be pretty interesting too. But the main thing about this book is that it’s some of the most compassionate science fiction I’ve ever read. The people get to be full, flawed people and still love each other and make their way an an imperfect world with some of the most focus on kindness that I’ve ever seen in a book. This book dives into some extremely difficult issues–refugees, immigration, homelessness, alcoholism, suicide, cultural loss, depression–but it does so with such love that the potentially depressing nature of the topics is turned to hope. Highly recommended, so glad it’s available in this new edition.

Books read, early October

Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half. News that Brosh’s new book is coming out made me realize that I hadn’t ever read the old one. I had, however, read most of it in its original internet publication. Some of it made me giggle uproariously all over again. Some of it…it’s amazing how fast mores change, particularly around terms for disabled people, and I hope that she wouldn’t write it that way today, but this is the book she wrote then.

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. This was exactly the right choice for the mood I was in. The minute I picked it up and started reading it, I just wanted to keep going no matter what else I was supposed to be doing. This is one of the most-reread books of my adolescent + adult life, and I still love it and find new things in it every time. This time it was striking to me how much the change of technology between this setting and my college days didn’t change the basic difficulties in tracking down the person you wanted to talk to when you wanted to talk to them. Funny details like that, that you get to think of because you have the deep knowledge of the book to spot them. I’m still thinking about the last line again.

Michael J. DeLuca, Night Roll. Reread, sort of, because I read it in draft. This is also a Tam Lin story! A Tam Lin/Nanabozho near-future bike novella about very early parenthood. It’s lovely, I loved it in draft and I love it even more with the revisions Michael and his editor decided on. Check this one out.

Rosamond Faith, The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. It’s a very Anglo-Saxon time up in here, and this is probably the best nonfiction I’ve read on the topic so far. (Stay tuned etc.) Faith thinks interestingly and coherently about how it was that people changed what they were doing on an individual and small community level, and all the way up to the national scale. Good stuff, I’ve added her other books to my list.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Discussed elsewhere.

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night. I had not previously thought about the difference between cerebral and intellectual very much, but these poems are very much the former and not the latter, so that’s something to turn over in my head.

Laura E. Gómez, Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism. A 101-level book about Latinx identity and how it formed/co-evolved with prejudice around it. If you’re looking for a starter kit on how to think and talk about bias in this area, this is a good source, quite intersectional in the areas of class and other racial and ethnic groups. Not particularly interested in gender–my use of “Latinx” is mine, not mirrored by this text.

Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf. A less fun translation than Maria Dahvana Headley’s, very spare, very plain. I was left with the urge for More Beowulf when I finished Headley’s translation, so here we are and don’t be surprised if there’s more later.

Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. Of the books I’ve read on this specific topic, this is the one I’d recommend. Generally thoughtful, only a few places where he’s unduly confused by things that make total sense in Viking context.

Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. A young woman who wants to be a doctor when women mostly aren’t allowed, winning free of the various constraints of her family of origin, which are more interesting constraints than lack of support. Very well done, clearly paid a lot of attention to 19th century British painters, interested in more work by this author.

Christine Peel, ed., Guta Saga: The History of the Gotlanders. This is really only if you are feeling completist about reading basically every saga there is. I am feeling so completist. It is extremely short and not particularly outstanding in any way, except for some of its linguistic features. Still, now I’ve read it, and I know where it is on the shelf.

Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. This was quite good, absolutely recommended either as an introduction to this topic or for more insight/analysis if you’re well-versed in it. Lots of stuff for me to ponder here, which is quite rare in volumes with this subtitle, given how much I’ve already read and pondered.

London Shah, The Light at the Bottom of the World. Fun and pacey undersea YA SF adventure with a drowned dystopia. It hits some of the predictable beats but also is doing its own thing. The puppy comes out of the entire thing fine. I don’t want you to worry, because this is a book with peril and stuff, so: the dog is okay at the end.

Una L. Silberrad, The Good Comrade. Kindle. This is so charming. It has some Blue Castle-esque elements of satisfyingly telling off annoying family members, it has Silberrad’s recognition that women working for a living is sometimes tedious but not actually the end of the world, it has a heroine who is willing to consider her own values and not always come up with the choices the world assumes are obvious, it has a hero who belatedly realizes “what if wife but also good pal.” Oh yes, and it has random horticulture. It’s free on Gutenberg. Treat yourself.

Dana Simpson, Virtual Unicorn Experience. The latest Phoebe and Her Unicorn book, a charming escape that made me giggle.

Jonathan C. Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl. Blakiston’s fish owls are large, funny-looking owls, and Slaght studies them. If you don’t think owls are kinda great, I don’t know what to tell you. This is at least as much about field work as it is about owls, but both are interesting to me.

Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World. Look, I get that publishers want an exciting title, but…”most mysterious,” really, that’s pretty debatable. On the other hand, this book–like the owl book directly above–was interesting in part for what we don’t know about certain species of eel that you’d think we might–and, of course, for what we do know. I mean, they’re no owls, but they’re still pretty interesting. Also I find it a relief to read natural history right now.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Made Things. A fun novella featuring a young puppeteer and created creatures made from various materials, with more serious digressions into the nature of the soul.

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April. Kindle. Four women from ’20s Britain go on holiday to Italy together and figure their lives out in a beautiful rented Italian castle. I am a little skeptical of a few of the happy endings, but happy middles matter a lot as well, and this is a very gentle book in which things are generally okay. If I was in charge of Airbnb marketing I’d go around putting copies of this in Little Free Libraries. (…possibly there is a reason no one puts me in charge of marketing things.) You will still be able to enjoy this book if you have no fixed opinions about John Ruskin, but if you do have them it will be even funnier.

Wendy Williams, The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect. I didn’t actually plan to have a naturalist bent to this fortnight’s reading, it’s just that’s what came in on the long-term holds from the library. This was an interesting introduction to butterfly biology and another nice calm thing to read right now.

Harriet Wood Harvey, The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. And this is the less preferred of the books on this exact thing that I read in the last fortnight. She is more often baffled by cultural context, less thorough about sources, generally not an offensive read but not as illuminating, alas.

Xia Jia, A Summer Beyond Your Reach. Kindle. Always interesting to try to guess whether translated stories vary a lot in quality because of the originals or because of the translation, but in this case I think it’s at least partly the former because the structure of some of the stories seemed not-amazing to begin with. Some of them are amazing, though, in both concept and execution. So…a mixed bag, lots of interest in time travel and variously timed selves. Glad I read it.

Zoom panel for your enjoyment

Last week I recorded a panel about optimistic science fiction, among other things, hosted by Dominic Loise and the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum. Other panelists included Alec Nevala-Lee, Jake Casella Brookins, and Keisha Howard–we covered quite a range of professional interests and experiences and had a very collegial time of it.

If you want to watch the panel, it’s available here. I will warn you that I have not watched and will not watch, because that involves listening to my own recorded voice, which is a thing I avoid, and also look at my own recorded face, which same. But if those are not things you avoid, go enjoy!

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, by Catherine Coleman Flowers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Clean water is a cause very dear to my heart; it was my late father’s field. As a result, I know quite a bit more than the average person about water treatment, and I expected that to come into play in this book. And it did–but not in the way I expected.

Waste is not a book about clean water. It’s the activism-focused memoir of an activist whose long career has led her to fight for clean water and safe sewage treatment for some of the poorest people in America. Her personal journey has brought her to many famous politicians, celebrities, and activists–and not always the ones you’d expect.

There are some terms–“perc test” comes to mind–that go sweeping past that I know, because of my family background, but I don’t expect a casually interested reader to know them. Despite that, this is very much not a technical book, so if you come in wanting to know why some soils are more prone to drainage difficulties than others, how different diseases of untreated sewage spread differently with environmental factors, how climate change will only hasten this spread–this is not the book to explain any of that to you. What it is: a book that gives one woman’s road map to awareness, activism, and real change.

It also is a book that does not flinch from the present day. There is an epilogue that was written after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and puts the rest of the book in that context. If you’re not ready for that on a given day, that’s not the day to read Waste.

Books read, late September

John Joseph Adams, ed., Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies. This is an anthology full of familiar names doing a wide variety of far-flung space adventure. I particularly appreciated stories from Vylar Kaftan, Yoon Ha Lee, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (writing as A. Merc Rustad), and Caroline Yoachim.

Melissa Albert, The Night Country. The sequel to The Hazel Wood, this deals with the fallout from that book in a way that is extremely well-suited to its YA fantasy structure.

Claire Beams, The Illness Lesson. Major content warnings for sexual abuse and medical abuse here. If you hate Bronson Alcott–and Lord knows I do–here is a book by someone else who hates Bronson Alcott and wants to tell a 19th century story of personal discovery and liberation from Transcendentalist bozo dudes. Some quite upsetting sections, but generally beautifully written.

Stephanie Burgis, Frostgilded. Kindle. This is a short treat, labeled a coda to the previous novellas and very dependent on knowing the characters from them–but very rewarding if you do.

S.B. Divya, Machinehood. Discussed elsewhere.

Maria Dahvana Headley, trans. Beowulf. This is a rollicking translation, steeped in Saxon braggadocio. Fun alliteration, interesting angle. Depending on how emotionally intimate you feel with the Geats, Danes, and Angles, you might not want this to be your only Beowulf–but it increased, rather than decreasing, my enthusiasm for more.

Jordan Ifueko, Raybearer. YA fantasy with global inspirations centering on Africa, lots of fun, beautifully written, highly recommended.

Naomi Mitchison, The Delicate Fire. The introduction to my copy claims that this is Mitchison’s farewell to the Classical Greek world. I can believe it. It’s like a mosaic novel except that the pieces don’t all join to one thing. It’s like a mosaic workshop, in novel form. One of the things Mitchison is seriously thinking about is slavery, and another is sexual violence, so time your reading of it carefully if you’re interested.

Megan E. O’Keefe, Chaos Vector. Another example of a sequel that depends heavily on the first volume, but they’re in print so you’re all good. This one had fewer AIs (less AI?) through most of the book, and those were my favorite part of the first one, but it was still fun.

Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English. A tiny monograph about ethnoformation and what we know from archaeological evidence in an age when genetic testing can rule out certain kinds and timings of vast population difference. Pretty cool.

Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and What Now?. Two nonfiction volumes, essays by the author, very personal but only sporadically deep. Sometimes fun to read, sometimes just awful–the former volume, for example, has an essay about end-of-life care for her grandmother and another about end-of-life care for her dog, so, uh. Tread cautiously.

Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation. Mixed media: photos, illustrations, poetry, essays. Really compelling and sometimes beautifully-footnoted personal thoughts about race in America.

Valerie Valdes, Prime Deceptions. Another sequel that is full of ramifications. This one I think has a cover that is slightly more accurate for the sometimes-dark tone–it’s a funny book, don’t get me wrong, but not a perky one, and I worried about the previous cover giving the impression of sunshine and roses when it’s more blasters and (self-)recrimination. But with Spanish-inflected wisecracking along the way! And a supportive team…that has to be supportive because they get into some pretty deep shit….

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars. This is about five women writers who lived in the same square in the interwar period–Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and HD and two scholars I didn’t know much about before, Jane Harrison and Eileen Power. You get some Hope Mirrlees as a bonus, and my main complaint about this book was that I’m still not sure why Wade didn’t make it six and give Mirrlees her own section, instead of wrapping her in with living with Jane Harrison. But still, it’s just the sort of history packed with artistic and intellectual connections that I love to see.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and Anne-Marie Rogers, Lumberjanes: Birthday Smarty. This…okay, I’m going to be honest: this is not my favorite style, of the artists doing Lumberjanes, and the plot felt pretty paint-by-numbers. It was still fun–Lumberjanes are always fun–but I don’t think it will be one of their notable best volumes.

Annie Whitehead, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. If you notice a pattern lately, why yes, I am reading a lot about pre-Conquest England. This is not one of the catchier volumes but is still very good for what it’s doing.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and B. Sherise Moore, eds. Fiyah Issue 15. Kindle. For me the stand-out story in this issue was Vincent Tirado’s “Your Name Is Oblivia,” but it was another solid issue, well worth reading.