Posted on Leave a comment

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The blurb on the front cover, from the genre’s most cheerful man, Peter Watts, suggests that this is “A scream disguised as a giggle.” If so, it’s the worst disguise ever, something along the lines of a plastic Groucho Marx nose and glasses. This is the kind of writing that reminds you that “hysterical” means not just “quite funny” but also “on the edge of a breakdown.”

There are five digital sentients crewing a spaceship together for hundreds of years–being part, more or less, of that spaceship. And they encounter a black sphere in their travels and must decide, collectively, how to continue–whether to take on physical form within their shape’s capabilities, for one thing, and what to do with their physical forms as they investigate. But the black sphere reveals to them things about their own personal and collective selves that they must process as best they can, within the limitations placed on them by their glorious savior, the all-powerful Company.

Look, if you’re in a book with an all-powerful Company and feel like things might be a good time with perhaps lemonade and a picnic, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not just Paul Cornell, it’s that I think you’re probably new here–and some of you are new here, we get new people all the time, they’re making them every day, welcome, hi, Paul Cornell might as well warn you about all-powerful Companies and how they treat motley, bantering crews of digital found families as anybody. But for the rest of you, this novella is going to have some screamy moments that you should not need Peter Watts to tell you are coming. (You Shouldn’t Have Needed Peter Watts To Tell You It Was Coming But Here We Are I Guess: A Story of the Twenty-First Century. Ahem. I digress.) So are there whimsical moments, sure, is it in space, sure, is this a happy tale of lucky spacefarers, well, you were warned, you were absolutely warned.

Posted on Leave a comment

Molly on the Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I have known Mary for Quite Some Time at conventions and Around This Here Internet. Also, since this is a picture book, illustrations by Diana Mayo.

Molly’s family moves to the moon, and she doesn’t have any toys. Well…except for one. And then another thing, and another, which she can make for herself from scraps and imagination. But her brother Luke is too little to do that for himself–too little to do anything but grab Molly’s hard-won toys and shout “bababa!”–which any big sister can tell you is infuriating.

But there are rules for how you’re allowed to treat your baby brother, even on the moon. Maybe especially on the moon. And the same ingenuity that can make toys out of bits and bobs might…maybe?…be able to make a playmate out of a pesky little brother.

The illustrations contrast the cool blue of the lunar module home with the warm brown skin of Molly and her family, their faces expressive and deftly sketched. Especially good for space-focused kids who may want to think about what it would be like to “REALLY REALLY” live on the moon.

Posted on Leave a comment

Among the best

I’m very pleased to tell you that one of my stories from 2020 (“The Past, Like a River in Flood”) has been chosen by Rich Horton for inclusion in his Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2021 Edition. The table of contents can be seen on Rich’s blog, here.

When I wrote that story, I was thinking about natural disasters I had witnessed, some quite close up, and some institutional failures they’d left in their wake. I didn’t really want a story about institutional failure and its human cost to be quite as timely as it turned out to be, but…I’m glad the story resonated, all the same, and I’m still very proud of it. And so happy to be in a volume with so many other stories I enjoyed, and some that are new to me, some I’ll be glad to discover.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, early April

Daniel Abraham, Age of Ash. You can count on Abraham to write a sentence and a paragraph. He is solidly a good writer on the level of: can this man write. Answer: yes. The central fantasy conceit of the magic around this tyrant–why the secrecy? tyrants get away with all kinds of stuff–is not my favorite of his. It doesn’t have the luminous brilliance of the Long Price series or the–well, the banking. It does not have the quirkiness of the Dagger and the Coin, let’s say. It’s very readable, but I hope that it gets more direction in the next book.

Max Adams, The Viking Wars: War and Peace in King Alfred’s Britain, 789-955. Adams has a very clear bias toward written sources when it comes to Vikings that is less present when it comes to the English–that is, he’s stronger on archaeology as a source in England (or even Scotland and nearby isles). Which is fair enough, that’s his period. It means that there were a few places early on where I quibbled before settling into the part of the book that was solidly about the early English and enjoying that very much. I intend to read more of his work.

Katherine Addison, The Grief of Stones. Discussed elsewhere.

Kelly Barnhill, When Women Were Dragons. Discussed elsewhere.

Neil Clarke, Xia Jia, and Regina Kanyu Wang, eds., New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction. Kindle. This was a lovely anthology, and it started with my favorite story in it, putting me in a good mood for the whole thing. That was Shuang Chimu’s “My Family and Other Evolving Animals,” which was very consciously and deliberately the modern Chinese science fiction version of Gerald Durrell, which is a thing I definitely needed and some of you are now crying out in delight that you need too, and some are saying “what who” but that’s okay. The point is: cross-culturally really lovely, what a fun collection.

Christopher Fry, The Lady’s Not for Burning. Reread. One of the things I noticed about Fry on this reread, 25 years after I first read it, is that he has so many good lines but not one-liners, not things that are easily going to wind up in quote files, because they’re good lines in context, you have to back up at least a few lines and often half the play to really savor why they’re good. I’d hedge this around with content warnings if you have or have had someone suicidal in your life, but they all get through it in the end–I feel fine about that spoiler, it’s a play from the ’40s. They all get through it in the end. Yes.

Sarah Gailey, Just Like Home. Discussed elsewhere.

James Gleick, ed., The Best of American Science Writing 2000. Reread. When we reshelved the science section, I could see this collection of essays on the shelf and think: do I still want this twenty years later? and the answer is: not really. But the reason for that answer is interesting to me, it’s not that everything in it was ephemeral, it’s that more than half of what was included is now in books I’ve read (and often own) in other forms. A lot of the stuff that was considered the best science writing was not the writing that was conveying science news to people when they most needed it but the stuff that was slower, almost more novelistic. And on a certain level that makes sense, that’s what people tend to mean by good writing. But also it’s a good reminder that we might mean some other things by “good writing” that we…really don’t tend to. And in science writing in particular, that has social consequences.

Angelica Gorodischer, Jaguar’s Tomb. Experimental and harrowing–a bit less harrowing for being more experimental. Three chunks of novel each written by the subject of its predecessor. Gorodischer’s attempt to deal with those who disappeared during the Dirty War in Argentina, not something easy to face head-on or in fact at all. Circling it, coming around in different ways, made sense. Glad I read it, but oof.

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Queen’s Twin and Other Stories. Kindle. Very short collection of very short stories from the late 19th century. These are slices of Maine country life with heavy dialect. It was apparently phoneticized Irish person fortnight in the land of me. Not my favorite of her work, but I do love her old Maine ladies.

Jennifer C. McElwain, Marlene Hill Donnelly, and Ian J. Glasspool, Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates, and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland. Archaeological exploration and reconstruction of Greenland. I particularly love that there is a person who takes the shapes made by leaves in these fossil imprints and makes models of them out of foil and other materials to try to figure out how the leaves would have hung and moved in wind, because fossilization is a flattening process and leaves rarely just sit flat in life.

Foz Meadows, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance. Discussed elsewhere.

L. M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill, Pat of Silver Bush, and Mistress Pat. Rereads. I had been confusing these–it’s not Jane who loves a house to her own detriment, it’s Pat. Ah well, it had been more than thirty years since I’d read any of them. Jane is merely mediocre late-period Montgomery–not terrible, but pride is the only thing that ever comes between people in love, and everything can always be fixed by moving to PEI. Yyyyeah. The Pat books–this is the full conservatism of late Montgomery coming to the fore, and I do mean little-c conservative–“never change anything ever” could be Pat’s motto, and it seems to be one Montgomery is reasonably in sympathy with. One of Pat’s horrible sister-in-law’s sins is wanting to have a different picture hung on the wall than has always been hung on the wall. THE FIEND. HOW DARES. The entire plot arc, if you can call it that, is completely unsatisfying to me: Pat hangs around, something horrible happens but no one is hurt, she goes to hang around somewhere else without, so far as I can tell, anyone changing notably in the process. (Pride…once again seems to be the only thing…maybe? or something? Unclear.) Mistress Pat is also a very weird book because it was written into the near future at the time–it came out in 1935 and each year of the book is labeled “Year 1” and so on through “Year 11”–and in Year 1, 20-year-old Pat says she remembers the Armistice (of the Great War) when she was 5. So she was born in 1914. So year 1 is 1934, the book came out in 1935, and Montgomery blithely wrote years 3-11 on a speculative basis. Which is fine, it’s not like anything notable could happen in 1936-1945 anyway, it’ll probably be just like she…ima…gin…ed….it…..oh dear. But there’s actually something meta-appropriate about that, because of Pat’s “never change anything ever” motto: the real world might have been having World War II, but Silver Bush is not actually on PEI, it’s in Brigadoon, where Irish servants tell tall tales with their exaggerated brogues and the worst thing that ever happens is that your brother runs away to sea where the Germans will probably NO THERE ARE NO GERMANS NEVER MIND. And your sister leaves to be a missionary in China in about 1943, I expect that’ll be fine. Um. No, but it’s still worse than that, because in 1935 she already had reason to know that the Prairie Provinces were having the Dust Bowl–the Depression wasn’t as bad in the Maritimes because their economy was already terrible but having Pat’s father blithely be like “maybe I’ll go west, nah, I like ol’ PEI the best because everyone does” is callousness that Montgomery actually could have seen and fixed. She just…didn’t. Anyway I have literally never liked these books, and I now have the perspective to give them away with a clear conscience, hurrah.

Meridel Newton, The Future, Second by Second. Discussed elsewhere.

Suzanne Palmer, The Scavenger Door. The third of the Fergus Ferguson books, poking around looking for alien artifacts and getting himself into trouble again–with a cast of friendly aliens and less-friendly aliens and way-less-friendly humans and yeah, okay, some of the humans are friendly too I guess. A lot of Earth time in this one! So that’s eccentric, Earth is weird! But don’t worry, Fergus is going further out there than just Earth….

Sarah Prineas, Asking for Trouble. Second in its series of shapeshifter MG SF, Trouble has his motley weird family and friends, but some of them need help finding their own families–and he still doesn’t entirely know where he came from. And also there are mysterious things at the edge of the galaxy? Uh oh. This is the book where he unravels all of that. Frankly I don’t like the ending, but not in a scream-and-cry-hate-this way, just…meh. But the rest of the book is fun.

Katharine Schellman, Last Call at the Nightingale. Discussed elsewhere.

Tess Sharpe, The Girls I’ve Been. A cracklingly fast-paced YA thriller about a teenage girl caught up in a bank robbery, forced to use con artist skills she set aside when she escaped her mother for a better life. Melodramatic? Sure, but not more so than your average crime thriller, and this one is far more compassionate about the victims of the crimes involved. I also loved how the protagonist had deep dark secrets and was bisexual, but being bisexual was not one of her deep dark secrets. Solid on friendships, clear view of family and agency. Very glad I heard of this one.

Jesse Q. Sutanto, Four Aunties and a Wedding. The sequel to the delightful Dial A for Aunties, and for me it did not reach the pitch of helpless laughter that the first one did, but it was still a fun book when I needed one. In this one, Meddy is getting married, with the invaluable help of her aunts and her mother. In England. While preventing a Mafia assassination. Um.

Claire Tomalin, The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World. Shorter than I expected because Tomalin was very straightforward about her interest in Wells cutting off more or less at midlife; I respect that a lot more than if she had pretended it was a comprehensive biography and then done a bad job on his later life. I love Tomalin’s ability to simultaneously sympathize with the aims of her subjects and see the fallout of their behavior for those around them. Interesting person, made me more interested in the Fabians around him, such is life.

Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond, eds., Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience. These poems are very directly about what they’re about, and that…is not my favorite kind of poetry, necessarily. There were still a few that I loved, but for the most part this was a very on-the-nose collection that made me want to give immigrant and refugee poets a collection in which they could write poems about chewing gum or owls or anything else they wanted.

Ocean Vuong, Time Is a Mother. These poems aren’t all about his mother’s death directly, but the entire volume is woven through with it. There’s one that made me weep with its simplicity and intensity of cataloging the shape of the end of a life, parent and child. When my father died, one of my friends who also grieves through poetry recommended several volumes–Tennyson, Donald Hall. This would be a worthy addition to that list.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Future, Second by Second, by Meridel Newton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author through this here internets.

Some of the fiction that gets labeled post-apocalyptic is actually during-apocalyptic. This is actually post-: the settlement in question, the town of Osto, has achieved a pretty stable state, farming and making clothes and trying to figure out how the people in the before times managed their weird materials and lives. They’re not perfect–there’s infighting and nastiness and domestic violence and disrespect. But they’re managing.

Until the infamous band of Esteben’s raiders come to Osto, intent on stripping the town of all that makes it an oasis and leaving desolation in their wake. Vasha, an old woman who has led Osto for years, tries to strike a bargain: if their leader can lead the town for a day and win its people’s support in a fair election, she’ll give him power freely. That day…hour by hour, second by second…determines the future of Osto.

There’s not a lot that’s earthshaking in the science fiction concepts here, but that’s not what Newton is aiming for. She’s focusing instead on character relationships–how understanding human relationships can be exactly the science that can save a way of life, a little at a time. How giving people their free choice is better than forcing them–no matter what the people holding the guns at your village keep would like you to think. This is a novella full of ideals (though not of sweetness and light), and this is a time when you might very well need some of that.

Posted on Leave a comment

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, by Foz Meadows

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author on this here internet a bit.

Sometimes you read the first page of a book and you think, yes, I am in good hands, I am going to have a good time now. That absolutely happened here for me. A Strange and Stubborn Endurance introduces itself with the perfect balance of trope and utter trope rejection: Our Hero is not fighting for his father’s lands! could not care less for them! has a servant paid to put up with his bullshit and is not going to bother that servant with this observation HOORAY I AM HERE FOR IT. Look, I picked this book up after a book that started whining about how corsets were universally bad, so I really needed this.

Okay, so what is it really, beyond the first page? It’s an arranged marriage book, with absolute lashings of fantasy politics, riding through the mountains, fighting bandits and/or discovering someone has been a bandit, chase scenes, discovering secrets, fancy parties, more fancy parties, knife throwing, figuring out the customs of a new land, using people’s ableism against them, lots of descriptions of food. And it is gay as a bright summer morning. Velasin and Caethari may not be the husbands each other dreamed of, but if they’re given a chance they might grow into being the husbands they need.

This book is also pretty clear about what content warnings you might want: sexual assault and both internal and external fallout thereby, homophobia (SO MUCH HOMOPHOBIA), suicidality (resolved happily but still portrayed). This is an ultimately positive and fun book, but not because everything is happy on every page. There’s a lot of emotional range here–chiaroscuro, so to speak, some very low lows for some young people starting out in their lives but also some very high highs. Some deep friendships as well as some startling betrayals. Magic seems, at first, to be a thing that is peripheral, but its presence grows as the story unfolds–from the tiniest charm around the edges to something more, something integral to this world and its people.

Posted on Leave a comment

Just Like Home, by Sarah Gailey

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Someday I will learn my lesson.

Some subgenres of book that I don’t like are far more upsetting when they’re written by somebody highly skilled and good at their job, as Gailey is, because they are more effective at the things I don’t like. Like highly psychological horror where people do loads of terrible things and treat each other badly. Like this book. It is an extremely, extremely well-done version of what it is. Also aaaaaah and I’m glad I finished it well before bedtime so I can try to think about something else now.

For the first time in years, Vera Crowder has been summoned back to the house where she grew up. It’s not for funsies–her mother is dying. And as little as anybody likes facing that reality, Vera has not only her mother’s frankly rather disgusting physical decay to deal with–not only the detritus of her parents’ life–but also the reality of the horrible things that happened in the house. (Oh, and a fame-seeking artist living in the shed, who thinks he’s all that and doesn’t respect her personal space, literally or emotionally, in this difficult time. Charming.) Gailey skillfully unfolds each twist of what happened and exactly how much this is supernatural and how much psychological horror–it’s both, it’s very both–so that things that look one way are illuminated with a very different–uh–flashlight when the next chapter rolls around.

If you like creepy houses and the kind of books where you have a very long list of answers to “who’s the real monster here?”, this is one for you. I don’t. But I read it cover to cover without putting it down to do more than eat my supper anyway. It’s a very well-done thing that is not my sort of thing.

Posted on Leave a comment

Last Call at the Nightingale, by Katharine Schellman

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Vivian Kelly is a seamstress by day, an Irish orphan in the New York City of the mid-1920s. By night she dances her cares away at the Nightingale, a speakeasy that serves a mixed clientele in race, class, and sexuality. Her sister wishes she’d stay on the right side of the law, but the Nightingale is Viv’s haven from a world that doesn’t much care what happens to women like her…until she and her best friend Bea find a dead body in the alley.

The corpse looks only vaguely familiar, but the Nightingale’s owner wants Viv to help find out what’s going on–especially after the club gets raided. She’s not exactly happy to help, but she wants the Nightingale–and her friends who work there–to be safe, and her work gives her an excuse to fit clothes for the primary bereaved. And the interesting new man hanging around the club might have something to do with it all, but is it on the side of angels? Viv is highly motivated to find out. The dead man’s associates are providing a little…extra motivation of their own, and it is not always on the positive side, so Viv had better figure things out, fast.

This was a fun, easy reading mystery with lots of dancing to jazz, lots of cocktails, lots of flirting and friendship and sisterhood. Schellman’s notes after the book point out that she researched when the title Ms. was used (earlier than one might think!), whether there were Black and Irish girls living two blocks away from each other in NYC at the time (yes!), whether all the races and ethnicities she portrayed would be mixing at some types of speakeasy (absolutely!), and so on–I suspect that the fact that this is written as a fast-paced mystery rather than a footnoted treatise may be what trips up those readers who want to argue those points. (Certainly we can agree that the past was diverse, we just can’t enjoy it that way?) This one isn’t for them. It may well be for you, though.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Grief of Stones, by Katherine Addison

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend of long standing.

Thera Celehar, the hero of The Witness for the Dead, returns for a sequel with enough plot in it for four books by another author. Seriously, there is so much plot here. Celehar has a trainee! There’s a murder! That leads to corruption and evil and a foundling school that is doing what now? Oh no. Oh no. And then the dead just keep giving a little more of their secrets, and a little more, and soon Celehar and a brand new Witness have problems they thought were mythical. Or didn’t imagine at all.

Celehar remains his conscientious, worried, and slightly badly-dressed self. If you found the first volume charming–as I did–this is definitely more of the same. A lot more. I am extremely impressed at how much there is packed into this without making it feel crowded, it just keeps–turning. And turning again. And leaves Celehar in a new place that allows him to find out who he is, who he will be, going forward, while staying true to the core of himself.

Also there is more opera, so that’s a relief.

Posted on Leave a comment

When Women Were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a local/Twitter pal.

Throughout history, women have been able to turn into dragons, but in 1955, there was the Mass Dragoning. Thousands upon thousands of women turned into dragons at the same time: wings, fire-breathing, the whole lot. Some of them ate their husbands. Some of them just flew away, to the mountains, the sea, the great beyond.

This is a metaphor. Also, it isn’t, they really do turn into dragons.

Alex Green has one of the missing dragons-nee-women in her family, and the fallout shapes her entire life. In her proper small Catholic Wisconsin town, no one talks about dragons. No one wants to even acknowledge thinking about them, except for a few brave souls around the edges. Again, this is a metaphor. Also, it isn’t, it’s about dragons. They have talons, they set buildings on fire, they tear down walls, no really, literal walls. And Alex is fascinated, furious, torn, and her little cousin–now her sister–Beatrice–has a host of outsized emotions all her own that Alex has to help her manage. Because Beatrice and Alex are each all the other one has–that and a fierce librarian, some half-trustworthy pamphlets, and their own determination.

One of my favorite things about genre books that embrace their own genre nature is that their metaphors can be multi-layered, because they embrace the concrete. When Women Were Dragons is about women’s intellect, women’s emotions, women’s freedoms, and the ways the America of the 1950s and early 1960s stifled all those things. For sure. But also it’s about dragons with scales and shiny gold eyes, and the way that it manages its genre nature keeps its ground firm, means that it won’t get bogged down in one simple metaphor at the expense of other possibilities. There will be readers who want this book to be about sexuality–homosexuality, bisexuality–and it absolutely is, but not in an easy Dragons = The Gays way. And the same for transgender issues: this is not an easy Dragoning = Transition book. And you can tell that it’s not, because The Gays are right here in the book, and some of them become dragons and some do not. And there are trans women in this book, and some of them become dragons, and also some of them don’t.

So as with Tooth and Claw before it, but using a completely different set of approaches to what segment of history and what kind of dragons we’re talking about, When Women Were Dragons keeps a firm, sure voice in its period. It has beautifully passionate things to say about gender and sexuality and culture. It also wants to talk about, no shit, really, dragons. And I absolutely love that juxtaposition. This is one of the things genre does best.