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¡Hola Papi!, by John Paul Brammer

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Some of you already know this about me and some probably don’t: I love advice columns. Love love love them. I love to find out how people frame their problems, who they approach, what that person has to say, whether it’s by way of solution or meditation. Brammer is an advice columnist, with the same title for his column as for this book, and that’s how he’s learned to organize memoir writing: around questions of what to do and how to do it.

His prose voice is comfortable and friendly, and this book is short enough that having it structured as an essay per quite-general question from the advice-seeker reader doesn’t have time to wear thin. Brammer is entirely willing to go personal about identity, race, sexuality, mental health, and all the things that orbit those major topics. His personal stories are vivid and compelling, and it’s a fast read even for slower readers than I am.

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The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, by Octavia Cade

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This novella grieves for all sorts of things. It grieves for climate change and species loss but also for friendships, lost to various causes, and to marriages, same. It grieves for a future that has bright, golden moments like jellyfish in a pool but still lots of darkness under the top layer of that lake.

It also understands appreciating what’s in front of you. Jellyfish, yes, but also thylacines, robot birds, a quiet moment with someone you still care about despite it all.

This novella is sad and beautiful and quiet and glorious, and it does so many things that no one else is doing, so many things that need doing. Recommended. Oh, very recommended.

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Books read, early April

Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter. This is an Anishinaabe thriller set in the Sault, and it’s so good. It’s so so so good. It’s got science and hockey and complicated family relationships, and yes I was in a fragile place when I read it, but still it made me cry in two places because I was so moved by the protagonist’s relationship with her elders (I see far too few teen/old person relationships in fiction). I loved this. Highly recommended.

C.J. Cherryh, Divergence. This is the twenty-first volume of the atevi series. Do not read it without the other twenty. It is not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, but that which it is, it is; if you want to stop off and hang out with Bren and Banichi and Cajeiri and all of them, here’s your chance. It was reasonable comfort reading for me for the day I read it.

Sam Hawke, Hollow Empire. Second in its series, and I do recommend starting with the first one here as well–significantly less of a commitment than with the Cherryh, though. This is a secondary world fantasy second book full of consequence, ramification, and expansion of scope, and also full of interesting fictional poisons and people of different ages who get to have agency instead of focusing all the agency on one age group. It also handles some disability issues beautifully.

Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life. There is some value to having a biography that is by a friend of the author–extremely broad access, for example, and sometimes it’s nice when the biographer clearly finds the subject charming and interesting. So this is a very lot of Hermione’s Nice Friend Tom: What Cool Things He’s Done So Far. I will be shocked if we don’t get another biography of Stoppard within the next decade or two, one which acknowledges that someone, somewhere might have had any kind of negative experience of Tom Stoppard for even half a second. But in the meantime this had its interesting points–it is extremely work-focused, which is what I want out of this kind of biography.

Ken MacLeod, The Human Front. This is an alternate history novella that…doesn’t have a lot to it other than “look at my alternate history,” but MacLeod always writes fluently, and you may find his alternate history interesting.

Sara Flannery Murphy, Girl One. Discussed elsewhere.

Aimee Ogden, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters. A novella full of genetically modified human-variants whose relationships with each other are interesting, complex, and planet-spanning.

Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. The woman in question, Virginia Hall, was an amputee who used a prosthetic leg for the entirety of her spy work in France during the Second World War. This is very much in the line of a Thrilling True Story, but honestly I think it’s cool to find out more about the people who don’t fit the war hero mold one we’re usually presented with.

Burton Raffel, trans., Beowulf. I see why this has been a classroom classic for a bit now: he has added chapters where they do not belong, but that makes it easier to assign sections than the less-familiar line numbers. What distinguishes Raffel from the others I’ve read: he is focused on Beowulf being “good poetry” but wants that to be by mid-20th century standards rather than preserving features of good poetry of its time, like kenning and alliteration; he is very clear that the author of Beowulf was probably a Christian and is happy to use mid-20th century Christian language to convey that. So: my least favorite so far, but it has the Beowulf nature.

Veronica Schanoes, Burning Girls and Other Stories. A dark and beautiful collection that plays with fairy tales and children’s stories in ways that are distinctly adult. Highly recommended.

Christina Soontornvat, A Wish in the Dark. A Thai-inspired children’s fantasy adventure with good friend and mentor characters. I had fun with this.

Susan Stinson, Martha Moody. I bought this book because I loved Spider in a Tree, and as I was reading it, I kept thinking, “Well, I’m not really the target audience for this, but I like it anyway.” Stinson’s prose is playful and fluid, so I’m apparently interested in her take on Old West eccentric lesbian love stories as well as on things whose thumbnail description sounds a lot more like my taste.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Music at Long Verney. Warner has a habit of just dropping you in and going for a bit and then stopping, and I can see that this might be maddening in someone else, but in her I love it. Oh, that’s who’s in this story? right then, okay, on with the show.

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Girl One, by Sara Flannery Murphy

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The characters and pacey thriller voice of this one sucked me in from page one. Josie is a compelling heroine, impatient, driven, fallible. Her relationships with the other people in her life weave through this story in ways that I found compelling. I am a pretty relationship-focused writer/reader, and this one got me good.

This is very much structured like a thriller–the chapters range from reasonably short to incredibly short, and there’s a lot of action, a lot of suspense. The central conceit is a science fictional one: nine women have born children through parthogenesis, over the course of the 1970s, living on a commune together, visited by the scientist who is building his fame through their babies. That’s the past of the story, the backstory–or half of it, because the commune burns and the surviving mothers and children scatter.

The present is the 1990s, when the babies are now adult women developing talents and interests and lives of their own. Josie is the first of the babies, now a student, trying to follow in her creator’s path. She is Girl One, the first of the parthogenetic births, giving interviews to talk shows and magazines as she tries to unravel the mysteries of her own existence. Both the ’70s and the ’90s are very well-drawn, with a perspective on each that is neither overly nostalgic nor overly cynical, and they’re a perfect combination of tone for the story that begins when Josie’s mother disappears and things start to get really dangerous.

This book has a modern thriller focus on several major science fiction concerns of the ’70s. It goes fast with a keen eye for social details. If those are things you’ve missed or wished would be updated–welcome, this one’s for you.

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COVID Spring: History

This will all seem obvious later.
They will look back and marvel:
How didn’t we see it? We did.
We knew. That’s how mistakes go,
That’s how the fixable parts aren’t fixed.
I went into this middle-aged,
Will come out that way. I spend
One of the years descending into invisibility
In seclusion. Maybe two. Who knows.
Every week another essay:
Who to pity most. Who’s missing most.
What year is most crucial. Let me tell you,
From the borderlands of disappearing:
Every year. They are all your vital
Beautiful horrible green growth years.
Or they might be. Each one.
Who can say yet? It’ll be obvious
Later. (I knew. I know. I’ll know.)

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Books read, late March

Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Essays on race, music, personal relationships with both. Some of Abdurraqib’s subjects were musicians whose work I know well and some were not, but it was all a very interesting perspective quite different from my own.

Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead. Discussed elsewhere.

Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Does what it says on the tin. Are you interested in the main sources of raw materials of this period? Here we are. Quite enjoyed it. Some of the things that were revelatory might not have been if I’d been from a comparable climate–it never occurred to me that having waterlogged fields could be a problem in winter–but still, better to know these things. (If, on the other hand, you are not particularly interested in this topic, it is not likely to be a book that strikes you as transcendent.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Masquerade in Lodi. Kindle. The most recently published Penric & Desdemona novella, but not the chronologically most recent–this is somewhat earlier in Pen’s career, when he could wander around a strange city with a young saint and only worry himself and his demon. Simpler times.

M.A. Carrick, The Mask of Mirrors. A thumping great big con artist fantasy by two of my favorite people. I sometimes really really like a secondary world fantasy with a great deal going on, and this had that for sure. Looking forward to the next in the series, as there are more doors opened than closed here.

Wangari Maathai, Unbowed. This is the autobiography of the founder of the Green Belt Movement, who has led an interesting life. It’s labeled a memoir, but if there’s a distinction between the two I would put this on the autobiography side: it’s more dates and places than it is inner reflections.

Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems, 1950-2012. This is a great example of why I like to read people’s collected poems all at once. You can watch Rich growing from a slightly formal young woman in 1950 to the political force she later became, and from a fairly concise poet to one who is willing to go on for as long as it takes to say what she needs to. There are some searingly great moments along the way as well as a lot of poems I can take or leave on their own, but in combination they make something greater, they make the panoramic view of a career.

Sun Yung Shin, ed., A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. This is a collection of essays from various voices, talking about their own experience of race in Minnesota, including but not limited to their own experience of racism in Minnesota. If you’re from around here, a good thing to mull over.

Karin Tidbeck, The Memory Theater. Magical and patterned, a bit closer to a traditional faerie novel than Tidbeck’s previous works have been to traditional anything, but in a way that’s satisfying and well-done.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now. Kindle. This is doing a lot of the things that old-school science fiction readers complain that mimetic fiction doesn’t do, when they’re feeling beleaguered: considering the social implications of technological and cultural change, notably. It’s a satirical novel, and I think a good one to revisit in this decade, as it focuses a lot on what happens when the thing that has been keeping bad behavior in check is a set of norms that some people are completely willing to set aside when it benefits them. I think I liked some of the characters more than Trollope did. There was also a plot-crucial thread of antisemitism throughout, some of which was antisemitism of characters but some was of the author. So consider how much of that you want to deal with when you’re thinking of classic and currently relevant 19th century novels to dive into.

Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. An interesting biography of an engraver and woodcut artist, adorned with a lot of his work. Lots of interesting period details about his field and milieu as well as about his own life. I picked this up because Jenny Uglow has not disappointed me yet, and that’s still true.

Ovidia Yu, The Mimosa Tree Mystery. The fourth in this series takes a sharp turn in tone: instead of the Second World War threatening, it has arrived, in the form of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. This is a mystery series that is apparently willing to drastically alter its characters’ circumstances in the course of a series, and I will go into the fifth volume with the expectation that I don’t know what it’s going to do in that way. I think this would be more effective with the previous three volumes under your belt but might work all right without.