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Favorite stories, first quarter 2021

Wait, am I doing story recommendations in an organized fashion, aligned with the calendar and stuff? Eh. When it’s convenient, sure, I guess. It’s still mostly “I’ve accumulated a bunch of links on my to-do list and would like to clean them out again,” but let’s pretend it’s an End Of Q1 thing, it makes me feel accomplished. I’m actually behind where I would usually expect to be on reading periodicals, but there’s always time to catch up. Or not, the world is vast and beautiful. And, this time, full of poetry.

Trojan Road, Leah Bobet (Plenitude)

Salvage Song, Julia Da Silva (Reckoning)

Fractured, Aimee Kuzenski (Translunar Travelers Lounge_

Birds Are Trying to Reinvent Your Heart, Jennifer Mace (Baffling)

From the Embassy of Leaks to the Court of Cracks, Catherine Rockwood (Reckoning)

We Are Not Phoenixes, John Wiswell (Fireside)

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Pion Ista “tinydog” Gritter, 2005-2021

Over the years this blog has shifted focus away from life stuff and toward…well, mostly books and poems. But occasionally a life thing is big and needs saying.

My dog died yesterday.

She would have been 16 in April. She had probably 14.5 years of being quite healthy and energetic, a year or so of having some arthritis and being a little more fragile, and then the last half year she was clearly an elderly dog. We couldn’t let her go up and down the stairs any more–she sometimes fell, and it was only a matter of time until one of the falls hurt her if we’d let them continue. So we were blocking off the top or bottom of the stairs, depending, and carrying her up and down. A friend made her raised bowls to help with her arthritis, and we were feeding her soft food. We were doing all we could for her, and in the last few months I started thinking, maybe we should get old dogs from now on, we’re really good at care for them.

I don’t think that now. Because the care for them is not all there is, there’s also losing them, and I don’t think I could bear going through this over and over again without the springy young dog stages in between.

She was so smart. She was such a smart dog, and she was so communicative. And she was so loving. Toward the end, basically the only thing she wanted was to cuddle, and we did that a lot. We did that a lot.

I don’t know how my days will be without this sweet little opinionated old lady dog. I have so much more to say about her. I wish I had so much more time with her.

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The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author has been a personal friend for, wow, let’s not count how many years.

This is in the same world as The Goblin Emperor, and it takes place soon after it, but it’s not a sequel per se. We already know Thara Celehar, a bit: he’s the Witness for the Dead who found the truth about the previous emperor. But this book takes Celehar somewhere quieter, somewhere completely new. Somewhere no less surrounded by death and doom, but y’know, that’s the life of a Witness for the Dead.

This is a murder mystery with strong fantastical elements. The deaths and lives Celehar is trying to witness tangle themselves around each other, each piece leading to another. There are cemetery ghouls rather than court etiquette, and the main role of airships is…not healthy for those near them…but the essential goodness of the Celehar himself, and of some though not all of the people he encounters keep this book very much buoyed up.

There’s so much scope for characterization and worldbuilding here, and Addison uses both to their utmost. The world of the opera and how this world’s ideas of race change who gets to do what; domestic violence and family grief; a very shy person realizing, tentatively, that he can have friends, that though he faces opposition he also has support. I love all these elements so much.

One of the great virtues of mystery novels can be good people making sense of the world, and that’s here, that’s very much here–along with the potential for so much more to follow. Highly recommended. Here if you want to squee about it.

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Books read, early March

Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Discussed elsewhere.

Aliette de Bodard, Seven of Infinities. This is actually my second time reading this, because I also read the manuscript. It’s in the Xuya series and stands quite well on its own as a place to start those stories.

Sarah Beth Durst, Even and Odd. Discussed elsewhere.

Paul Farmer, Haiti After the Earthquake. I picked this up after being impressed with Farmer’s book about Ebola. I think he was still finding his feet here, because this reads more like a report of time on the ground for a charity than…a book with scope and perspective. And it’s interesting for that! It’s that there are areas where the focus is very different from what I expected or hoped for–it was written soon after, there was far less of the context that is more possible with time. (It is, however, no less emotionally grueling. Handle with care, as you’d expect.)

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Firebreak. Discussed elsewhere.

Annalee Newitz, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. Newitz has chosen four examples from all over the globe and time to look at why cities “die” or “get lost,” and the similarities, differences, and misconceptions are fascinating. Won’t take you long and has lots of cool tidbits.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. Autobiographical essays with a poetic focus on natural history metaphors. This is beautifully illustrated and very short, and Nezhukumatathil’s perspective is not one that’s over-represented in American publishing by any stretch.

Janice P. Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women–and Women to Medicine. I ended up finding this less interesting than I’d hoped–it does what it says on the tin, but it’s a little unfocused, a little bland. Ah well.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: My Best Friend’s Squirrel. These are all romps, but for some reason this one felt even rompier. Possibly I just read it when I most needed it. Seems like a fine place to pick up the series–there’ll be stuff that gets inclued, but I expect you’d be fine. A lot of it is handled in “in case you forgot this” comic book incluing style, which can be amusing in itself.

David Pietrusza, 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR: Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny. This is the fourth of Pietrusza’s books on US election years, and I have read all the others (1920, 1948, and 1960). I have long said that if he does one for every election year, I will just keep reading them, and 1932 does not negate that statement, but I do think it’s the weakest of the lot for two reasons: one, he’s trying to do two political systems, not one, and there just isn’t room for as many of the neat sociopolitical tangents; and two, the fact that it is the year of both FDR and Hitler ends up deforming things in the direction of the Second World War a lot, when there’s Depression stuff that was interesting in its own right. Ah well, still a fun read.

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s View: Modern Photographs from an Ancient Landscape. A companion photography volume for his previous prose work, which is better and more interesting.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf. I don’t see any indication that Tolkien intended this for publication, but I’m not sorry to have it in my exploration of Beowulf translations even though it is probably the worst of them so far. It contains three versions, and the one I really wanted is actually a fourth one–a colloquial Beowulf of which you can see glimpses in the translation notes. The translation notes are great, and I learned a lot, but…also they have bits of basically Gandalf-by-the-fire voice, and that would have been an interesting Beowulf. Ah well. The first one, the straight-up translation, was fairly plain, the second a re-telling and had stripped out several interesting elements, the third a short poem that stripped out even more interesting elements and…is probably going to hit you about like the rest of Tolkien’s poetry. But oh, the flashes of inspiration in the translation notes! Sigh.

Dawnie Walton, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. Discussed elsewhere.

Walter Jon Williams, Fleet Elements. I’m afraid I no longer find this central relationship interesting, especially since it seems to return to the same misunderstandings, the same secrets, and the same will-they-won’t-they. I don’t think this one would work without the earlier parts of the series, but my recommendation if you want fun military-focused space opera is to read the early trilogy and then stop.

Ariel S. Winter, The Preserve. Short, snappy, interesting mystery about crime on a human preserve when the world is mostly populated by humanoid robots. I…have to say that I was a little put off by the fact that Winter does not seem to have considered what he was doing in the context of Native/First Nations experience. The Canadian word for “place where we shove the First Nations people” is one letter off, reserve (rather than reservation, in the US), but the entire concept was…well, it was curiously empty that way.

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is very much like the other things Becky Chambers has published, and also substantially different.

The elements that are very much like are the gentleness, the belief that humans might relate to each other better in the future, that better human structures are possible; the knowledge that small comforts matter but are not the only thing that matters; the sense of people of goodwill who are bewildered by a very complicated universe but trying their best.

The elements that are substantially different: everything else I’ve read by Chambers has been very focused on space, on built environments. This book is explicitly in a world that has been ravaged by a climate apocalypse, among humans who have had to figure out a better way. It has a strong focus on sustainability. And it also has bunches and bunches of enthusiastic nature-loving robots who wandered off into the wilderness generations ago.

I suspect that this means that the people who have loved Chambers’s work in the past will still love this one, and also some additional people who like other subgenres of science fiction will love it too. I am very fond of Sibling Dex the tea monk and Mosscap the robot, and the indications that this will be a series make me very happy.

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Firebreak, by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Once upon a time in the Before-Times, I traveled to New York City. (Pause to stare off into space and consider how distant this now feels.) And while I was there, I went to a reading that featured Nicole Kornher-Stace reading a section of Firebreak, and I got really excited, because it was really good. I was recovering from a bad bout of influenza and did not have the energy to stick around after and enthuse about the book. But! I received it in eARC form and have that opportunity now!

I’m really glad that I heard the late section of the book early, because the beginning of the book is the characters’ work in computer games, and I am a hard sell on computer game books. One of the reasons, though, is that a lot of books that feature computer games struggle with how to make them important and resort to silly melodramatic tropes like “if you die in the GAME you die in REAL LIFE.” Kornher-Stace, on the other hand, understands that games are important because they are an art form humans invest with importance, and Firebreak reflects that on every level.

(“If you die in the opera you die in real life,” come on, nobody feels the need to do this. Ahem. Anyway.)

The other half of this book, besides involvement with online gaming, is water scarcity, and it is vivid and dystopic for sure. As a very water-focused person I found this just horrifying and needed to have a glass of water by my side the entire time I was reading this book, because oh wow, yikes, Kornher-Stace makes you really feel every detail of this system.

I feel like Firebreak deals with tropes and themes that cyberpunk wanted to handle, but in a way that’s taken the last 30-40 years of human politics and culture into account. Corporate behemoths focused on their own profit to the exclusion of human well-being? Check. Online life providing both respite and sinister problems? Check. But unlike most cyberpunk, Firebreak is well grounded in environmental change and in the desperation that can come from humans being ground down in a system that pits them against each other for the barest necessities. Firebreak is not anybody’s-movement-punk. It’s just plain punk. And I for one am here for it.

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What the Movies Taught Me About Grief

First thing is: you’re doing it wrong,
And probably a monster. You must feel
Your feelings honestly, but never
Let them touch another person. Don’t repress
But don’t let it take over.
Grief is a tank division
Backed by bombers; grief has battalions,
Shock troops, poised:
Taking over is its only goal.
You must repel them.
Always fighting, never defeated.
Emotions are a shark,
In constant motion, lest it die. Move on.
You must move on.
The only goal is to move on.
Never pause, never rest, never honor.
Only move. Without this
Your villainy is assured.
Hurt people hurt people–God forbid
They should know a moment’s pain
In solidarity with another,
God forbid, feel a twinge
For a loss not cataloged and claimed.
What you feel is unbearable
And every path through it proscribed,
Still worse to linger. Find a man
In tweed, a woman in soft linen.
Say the right things on their couch.
Pause at the right moments: thoughtful,
Contained. At peace. Never return
To tears, still less raw anger–never rage
At an uncaring universe. If you tell
Even one sweet story, with a sad smile,
You’ve returned. Back to the world
Of bright colors, fitted clothing,
The world of before–which you must re-enter
Seamlessly, and not merely watch
As through a screen, the storylines
Assigned you in your old life.

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Even and Odd, by Sarah Beth Durst

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Imagine a world where border closings are disrupting environments and separating families, dividing parent from child. Further imagine that the villain responsible for these atrocities is confronted publicly and declares that they simply don’t care and won’t stop. Sarah Beth Durst has done that here, but the border is that between a mundane world and a magical one, and the villain is…a spoiler to be determined later.

Even and Odd are two sisters who share one person’s normal amount of magic between them, alternating days. Even loves magic and wants to dedicate her life to its practice. Odd would rather help out in an animal shelter, rescuing strays and socializing new puppies and kittens. Both of them have to help out in their parents’ border shop, which sells mundane items to magical beings. But when magic stops working, Even is stuck as a skunk–and their mother is on the wrong side of the border. Distressed centaurs and worried unicorns only add to their complications.

This is a fun kids’ book whose social conscience will probably dawn on some of its target readers only years later. Some of the plot twists are pretty clear if you’re an adult who has read extensively in this genre, but one of the joys of MG is getting to be the place where kids discover a particular trope in the first place.

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The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, by Dawnie Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a fictional piece of rock journalism. It reads like any other book about one of the musical acts of the late ’60s, complete with interviews with label execs, family members, colleagues, and hangers-on. But the people and the events in it are all fictional.

And it is so good.

Walton’s own background includes entertainment journalism, and it shows, not just in her absolutely pitch-perfect rendering of the genre in a fictional form but also in her observations of the personalities within it. And she uses the known elements of this genre to build something beyond itself–at first the ways in which each character may not be fully honest, may be self-justifying or reclusive or rude, seem to be entertaining and beautifully done, but they are that and they are plot. Who is given the benefit of the doubt and who is left hanging out to dry. Who’s the big talent and who’s lucky just to be there. All of these things are so familiar from the realities of music journalism that it takes a moment to realize what Walton is really doing here–and doing it beautifully, backwards and in five-inch platform heels. Highly recommended.

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Books read, late February

B. B. Alston, Amari and the Night Brothers. This MG fantasy is great fun and has a strong sense of family and place. On the large and blurry line between traditional fantasy and superhero story, I expect this to appeal to lots of readers. It certainly did to me.

Mike Brooks, The Black Coast. Discussed elsewhere.

Kari Byron, Crash Test Girl. This feels to me more like Life Lessons From Auntie Kari than traditional memoir. I enjoyed getting a little more feel for one of the people I liked to watch on Mythbusters all those years, but I felt more glad that she’d learned the lessons she listed than particularly enlightened on my own account.

Aliette de Bodard, Fireheart Tiger. When I saw this compared to Howl’s Moving Castle on the back, I thought, oh right, with the fire spirit. But it’s that and learning to value oneself, which is pretty great. I read this all in one gulp, snuggled up on the couch with my dog. Great fun, very sweet.

Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. I had thought about a lot of the issues in this book separately, but sometimes it’s useful to come across a book that encourages you to think of them all together, that gives sort of a directionality. I think a lot of us nerds are hypothetically aware of how algorithms can reinforce bias, but watching the examples in action was extremely useful anyway.

Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. This collection of stories is less gloriously weird than her more recent The Office of Historical Corrections, but her eye for human relationships is no less sharp. I like the direction she’s going, but I also like where she’s been.

Paul Farmer, Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History. Beautifully accomplished examination of why ebola was so much worse in some parts of West Africa than in others. Farmer is very smart about poverty and public health. He’s compassionate and involved and has zero patience for exoticization or victim-blaming. Not a fun book, but a really good one all the same.

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn. Discussed elsewhere.

John McPhee, The Patch. Scraps of essay about various things. The first half is mostly sports-themed, which is a thing McPhee does well, but I’m not always that keen (despite being a sports fan in various directions myself). But the second half is his collected short essays, and there are such lovely gems in that bunch. I do wish that the date of publication had been given for each, because sometimes that context would have been lovely. But I was glad to dance through these.

Wendy Moore, No Man’s Land. An interesting account of woman-staffed hospitals during the First World War. One of the things this made me think about was trying to figure out why some people were amenable to taking in data about something they had decided was impossible (women running a hospital, in this case) and some just did not want to see what was in front of their eyes. I’ll be thinking about that for some time ahead, I expect–and the specific stories of the doctors, nurses, and orderlies was lovely and in some places quite touching.

Nnedi Okorafor, Remote Control. An interesting fantastical exploration of community and relationship, another novella I gulped right down in one sitting.

Karen Osborne, Engines of Oblivion. Discussed elsewhere.

C.L. Polk, Soulstar. Wow, the end to this trilogy, wow. The number of ways that humans make each other’s lives difficult just snowballs here, it is wall to wall human foible…sometimes in an incredibly sweet and caring way that takes its time to an adult relationship. Sometimes in a way where even the people closest to each other can disappoint…but also can come through for each other. WHEW. THIS TRILOGY. YAY.

Django Wexler, Siege of Rage and Ruin. This is also the end of a trilogy, but in a very different way. This one has been structured to follow the same characters throughout, and the theme comes through very strongly here. Changing what you think a happy ending means can be really important. Glad to see it.

Aliya Whiteley, Skyward Inn. Discussed elsewhere.