Posted on Leave a comment

Catalyst, by Brandon Crilly

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also, the author is a convention/online friend.

There’s an entire subgenre of books that look like fantasy on the surface but are actually science fiction when you look close. Or straddle the line: are these energy beings aliens? are they a magical race? does it matter?

Brandon’s book is one of those: you start with a stage magician called Mavrin, doing what is clearly stage magic. Sleight of hand. Tricks. And then things unfold: the objects Mavrin has, are they magic, are they a kind of technology he doesn’t fully understand. Are they trouble: oh yes, definitely that.

This is a world that humans have altered beyond recognition, and they–and others–are still learning to live with the fallout of their alterations. And as has been the case so often in history, sometimes humans have no idea what they’ve done. Crilly does an admirable job of showing a variety of characters with different reactions to their world and its implications, always making sure that the humans are comprehensibly human (and the aliens are consistently themselves). This was fun to read, and I’m excited to see what he does next.

Posted on Leave a comment

Always watch the deleted scenes

I’ve now got the author copies for the current (Sept/Oct 2022) issue of Asimov’s, in which you can find my story “Bonus Footage!” (Available here in print or digital versions.) It’s a travel show in space! It’s a story about sensible Girl Scouts and the adults around them! It’s got a quite happy ending in which no one is eaten by the native flora, you hope!

Watch this space for more about this story….

Posted on Leave a comment

Into the Riverlands, by Nghi Vo

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cleric Chih and their hoopoe with perfect recall, Almost Brilliant, are traveling and, as is their wont, collecting people’s favorite stories. They agree to skip the ferry and take a faster road with four new companions: a young martial artist and her sworn sister and a curmudgeonly middle-aged couple. But “faster” is not necessarily “easier,” and her companions are not what they immediately seem–and the stories they tell are not necessarily just stories.

This novella is a charming addition to the Singing Hills Cycle. I think it would actually be fine to begin here and go back–I think it stands reasonably well alone, and its opening tells you what you need to know about the protagonist. I devoured it in one sitting. I don’t actually want Vo not to write her other stories, because I like those too, but I immediately wanted more. I’m here for as many more as she’s got.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, early August

Max Adams, The First Kingdom: Britain in the Age of Arthur. Subtitle appears to largely be chosen to appeal/signal to the mass audience–this is not an author who is going to try to wedge an historic Arthur in where a mythic one serves us all better. Lots of the sort of analysis Adams does best, fits well with his other books of Britain/early England.

Hanna Bervoets, We Had to Remove This Post. A Dutch novella about people who do content moderation for social media. I was frankly disappointed in this, because I’ve had friends who do this job–who burned out on this job–and the things that happened to them were far more nuanced than what Bervoets shows here. Nor does she really seem to have anything to say other than “wow this job sucks,” which: yes it does, but I was hoping for more substantive commentary and less…gratuitous description of how awful people can be, look, how awful, very awful.

Casey Blair, Royal Tea Service. The third in its series, and so far as I can tell the last–there’s a definite conclusion here in Miyara’s relationship with her family as well as the larger world and its magic. And the mysterious old lady reappears….

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapter 13 and Interlude. Kindle. Still reading the serial, even when its characters are on term break….

A. R. Capetta, The Heartbreak Bakery. A charming story of a magical baker figuring out powers and relationship stuff all at once–and also attempting to come out to family and friends as agender, which is why I carefully avoided pronouns in that sentence. Syd’s recipes appear with commentary as well as Syd’s interpersonal shenanigans. I left this book wanting to make scones.

Zoraida Cordova, Valentina Salazar is Not a Monster Hunter. She’s a monster protector, and this is a fun romp. The plot twists are only twisty if you’re in the target age range, but you know what, MG books are allowed to be mostly for MG people, and plot twists are definitely not everything. Internet friends who turn out to have cool magical [spoiler] matter a lot too.

Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani, Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from Our Ancestors. Two archaeologists with the approach that humans have dealt with changing climate before and surely we can learn things from how it’s gone. The ending is a bit repetitive, but it’s still an interesting take, and not horribly long.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India. Kindle. I am very much of two minds about this book. On the one hand, “can the colonized and the colonizer be genuine friends or will institutional/structural questions get in the way” is a very interesting question on which to center a book, especially a book of this era, and I love books that are fundamentally about friendship and people trying very hard. On the other hand, I went into this book unspoilered for anything except theme–which is how I like to read “classics,” I like to read them as books rather than institutions–and thus I was entirely unprepared for the fact that a sexual assault accusation would be plot-central and Forster would not care even a little bit about the experience of a person being sexually assaulted. Not. Even. A little. He does not even want to take a stance on whether anyone was sexually assaulted–maybe she was, maybe bitches be crazy sometimes, who could say. And that…is pretty hard to take, frankly. Having a book that both centers on and completely dismisses sexual assault is very hard to take, no matter how much I like the rest of what it’s doing, which is a lot.

Rachel E. Gross, Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage. Bacterial ecosystems! Adjacent organ structures! Intersectionality as far as the eye can see! There’s something for everyone in this book, which is reasonably brief and breezy but not so breezy as to be ridiculous. It’s an explicitly inclusive book, with respect for both those with vaginas who are women and those who are not and also a thoughtful discussion of the construction of neovaginas.

Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger. This is a much smaller book than South Riding–most things are, conceptually if not literally–but I still loved what Holtby was doing at this scale. Its heroine is a dreamer of grand dreams, a square peg in a round hole who does not let her edges get filed down, and it is both precisely observed and specifically hopeful. Just what I needed.

Fonda Lee, The Jade Setter of Janloon. Kindle. If you’ve been wondering whether you’ll like Lee’s Green Bone Saga but are not prepared to commit to a thick fantasy novel, this is the novella for you. It’s one self-contained bit of side story, prequel to the events of the series so it won’t spoil anything, but it gives a very good taste of the world.

Amy Levy, The Romance of a Shop. Kindle. This was delightful and entertaining, a 19th century novel about four sisters who are orphaned and start a photography shop to support themselves, their various fates and works. Levy was friends with Eleanor Marx, and she’s doing that New Woman thing where she’s trying to figure out things about women and work and respect and relationships. I really like that thing–especially when it has funny bits, which this does.

Naomi Mitchison, Vienna Diary 1934. Do you ever say to yourself “I wonder what it would be like if one of my nerdy leftist friends could have been in Austria at the beginning of Austrofascism”? Wonder no more, this is your book. Victor Gollancz dispatched our girl Naomi to Vienna for a couple of months to write a book directly reporting on conditions on the ground in Austria and what on earth was going on there, and she did just that, and it’s personal and heartbreaking and glorious. Remarkably few cringe moments given the era. Gosh I wish there were more like this. Mitchison also talks about her frustrations in trying and failing to get the press at large to pay attention to the conditions she was seeing on the ground–if Gollancz had not been willing to pay for the book, this material would have gone completely unpublished, because article after article was rejected while the mainstream press of the time ran wishy-washy articles infected with both-sideism rather than eyewitness reports. Take whatever lesson from that you will.

Scott Reynolds Nelson, Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. I strongly suspect that the subtitle was chosen to try to sell more copies to the American audience, because this book also goes substantially into the effects of Russian Empire wheat (largely Ukrainian wheat) in the era in question. Lots of chewy detail, very good stuff.

Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel. By far the slightest of the three of Peck’s books I’ve read so far. This is when people were still learning to write mystery novels–still moving from “detective story” to “novel, but with a mystery in,” and this book is part of that progression but again a fairly slight one. There’s some fairly sketchy stuff about Romany people that never crosses the line into overt narrative-supported racism per se (racist characters for sure) but still is not the good kind of uncomfortable, and also some internalized misogyny, and on the whole I think her other novels are a better choice.

Aimee Pokwatka, Self-Portrait With Nothing. Discussed elsewhere.

John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet. If you read a lot about forests this is unlikely to have much that’s particularly new in it, but it’s a good one to introduce to people who are interested but not particularly immersed in this topic. The authors also talk seriously about the relative benefits of many small vs. fewer large habitats, in conservation terms, which is a useful policy conversation to keep abreast of.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems. Kindle. I had hopes that there would be title possibilities in this, and there were, but not for the thing I meant to be titling. (Darn.) Rossetti is that particular kind of Victorian overwrought that is very hit-and-miss for me. Her religious poetry in particular is less successful for me–and the amount of “someday I’ll be dead and you’ll be sorry” that slips through is really not to my taste. She was very thoroughly herself, though.

Margery Sharp, Harlequin House and The Foolish Gentlewoman. She is so good and I love her. There are occasional moments when colonialism has crept into her default metaphors, fair warning there. On the other hand, Sharp has a trick for writing light, fun books that turn out to have more to them than meets the eye. There was a moment of The Foolish Gentlewoman when I gasped and teared up at the character who had been given clear (and modern!) moral truths, in the middle of a fluffy confection. It’s like biting into divinity and finding out that they’ve put the really good pecans in. Sharp cares about the internal lives of people of all ages, and while not everyone in her books is trying to be a good person, the ones who are are supported by the text, and sometimes that’s such a relief.

Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner, eds., Apex Issue 132. Kindle. Generally good issue, with Iori Kusano’s “Have Mercy, My Love, While We Wait for the Thaw” as the standout story.

Jasmine Walls, Dozerdraws, and Micah Myers, The Last Session Vol. 1: Roll for Initiative. This is a sweet story about a group of friends who met in their Gender-Sexuality Alliance in high school and started a D&D group adjusting to new adult life and their old gaming group changing. It’s not very substantial but reasonably well-done throughout.

A.C. Wise, Hooked. A sequel to Wendy, Darling, and I’d recommend that you read the first one first; this relies on reacting to its emotional impact several years on. It does more with consequences. I love second book consequences.

Posted on Leave a comment

Self-Portrait With Nothing, by Aimee Pokwatka

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Content note that I wish I had had: the protagonist is related to veterinarians, and there are several graphic descriptions of veterinary procedures to sick and injured dogs. These descriptions have no bearing on the plot but they sure are present. If you don’t want to read about a grieving family you’ll never see in this book again euthanizing their pet, this is not the book for you.

The tone of this book is extremely detached and abstracted from events, including vivid ones like the above. Pepper (the protagonist) spends most of the time trying to avoid having any emotional reaction whatsoever. Which is understandable in context (though not all of her actions ever were for me), but it still adds up to a particular reading experience. One of the drawbacks of an eARC is that I’m never sure whether the formatting is true to the final layout, but if it is, the texts between the protagonist and her husband–one of the closest things a book has to a major emotional thread–are weirdly and sometimes confusingly formatted.

So what’s this book about? Well, eccentric artist Ula Frost is rumored to paint portraits of people’s alternate selves, from alternate universes. How does this work, and why would people believe this claim? That is not a topic this book concerns itself with. Instead it focuses on Frost’s disappearance and relationship with Pepper, and the ramifications of both in the rest of Pepper’s life.

I finished this book largely because I wanted to see where Pokwatka was going with the speculative conceit in a very literary novel, but honestly where she went with it was not worth the dog stuff for me. I’m perfectly happy with meditations on loneliness and isolation (I read Scand Lit for heaven’s sake), but this was a fairly middle-of-the-road instantiation of that kind of novel, without particular insights into the artist’s life, possibility, or other topics that the framing might have suggested.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, late July

Samit Basu, The City Inside. This is a really engaging book that takes on all sorts of ideas about livestreaming and social media forms of entertainment–what they do to our relationships and the world around us. The Delhi in this book is extrapolated into the near-future with loving but clear eyes–not an ideal but a place actual people do and will live, beautifully drawn.

Elizabeth Bear, The Origin of Storms. Will I sound too much like a marketing document if I call this the triumphant conclusion of this series? Still and all: it is. Dragons in various forms, diplomacy and betrayal, a sentient fountain pen and a Really Good Doggo, all the things you’ve come to love in this series, brought together for the conclusion, hurrah. (Or maybe you haven’t come to love it yet. If not, don’t start here, the others are still in print!)

Casey Blair, Tea Set and Match. Second in the Tea Princess series, the structure is not quite as strong as the first one simply because the fun Casey decided to have (GBBO/other reality competition show analog) wasn’t smoothed into the fantasy world quite as well. The characters are still endearing, their adventures engaging, but I’d start with the first one here too.

Stephanie Burgis, Touchstones: A Collection. Kindle. This is a collection that really shows Steph’s range, from sweet to dark and all sorts of things in between. I’d read some of these stories before, but it’s nice to have them collected–and I definitely hadn’t managed to find all of them.

John Cardina, The Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly. This is structured to use several botanical examples to illustrate larger points about how humans attempt to control the plants in our environments–and how those attempts can backfire hugely. It’s a very US-centric book, but I think it should be clear which of the principles apply elsewhere (which is most of them).

Becky Chambers, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Mosscap and Sibling Dex have returned to human lands, to a flood of interest neither of them is quite sure how to process. Their relationship continues to be tender and inquisitive. Less tea than you might hope, but more robot. I would once again start with the first one here, but if you liked the first one I think you’ll like this one too.

Marq De Villiers, The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin: Wood and Human Achievement. This is one of those books that made me think, well, congrats to De Villiers for managing to get a book deal for putting together sections about things he’s interested in, fair play to you, sir, may we all have the same. Interesting details here, although toward the end there are some places where his detail-orientation collides with big picture questions like climate change in ways that didn’t work ideally for me.

Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby, eds., The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. So…there are several ways to come up with a multiple-poet collection. You can select poems from an open call! You can solicit pre-existing poems you’ve enjoyed! You can do all sorts of stuff. In this case the editors sent scent to poets who had agreed to write them a poem inspired by each scent. I feel–I may be wrong–that this gets a much broader range of poems than if the poems are selected rather than the poets. What I discovered about myself: I was much more interested in the less literal takes on this challenge. Okay.

Barbara Hambly, Death and Hard Cider. The latest Benjamin January mystery is set during the chaos of the 1840 election, which is frankly a neglected period for historical novels. Tippecanoe and Tyler too, lots of campaigning, lots of politics–even if this was an election you usually saw a lot of, having a free man of color in 1840 New Orleans as the viewpoint character would not be standard for what this genre has been, and Hambly really leaned into that. The range of historical issues she’s willing to take on is part of what keeps this series fresh.

Guy Gavriel Kay, All the Seas of the World. This was only a few of the seas of the world, but I liked it anyway. It’s Kay doing the secondary world history that he does best, and I found it immersive and lovely. Would I start here? Probably not ideally, but maybe, probably it’d be fine. This set of books has few linear sequels, and this is not one of them.

Harry Kemelman, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. A ’60s mystery that is very, very much of its time. There were places I could watch Kemelman using the opportunity to educate Gentile readers about Judaism: what’s going on here, which I’m sure was (and still is, in some ways) valuable–but not at the expense of mystery story. Went very fast.

C.S. Lewis, Poems. There’s a reason Lewis was not a famous poet in his lifetime. More than one. He has the confidence in knowing the rules of poetry that comes of the kind of education he had, but it turns out that rules are a rather small part of poetry. Lewis actively, on the page not by implication, advocates for having what he calls the Stock Responses–the emotional reactions that your culture tells you are the right ones to have–and he is both smug and resentful about other poets who do not have those responses. Also, for people who argue about whether he was really a misogynist or not, with various positions about Susan, I refer you to the poem in which he’s really mad that he’s attracted to some lady because she is definitely not all that. (No, seriously. That’s the poem.) Or rather, I do not refer you to that poem, it is very, very skippable. Frankly I read the second half of this book in train wreck mode.

Ada Limon, The Hurting Kind. This is a very solid poetry collection, but it’s not my favorite of hers–just a different set of ideas and references than the previous work, which is great but didn’t hit quite as dead center with me. Still enthusiastic about whatever she does next.

Premee Mohamed, The Annual Migration of Clouds. Climate change and plagues and…not nearly as dark or upsetting as I feared it might be. Life after the apocalypse, friendship and family after the apocalypse. I had not braced myself for the sweetness.

Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel. A mystery from 1933. She was still finding her stride in this one, and she spends some time talking about how in the years when this book was set we didn’t yet know how to treat…what she means is developmentally disabled people, but it turns out they still did not know how to treat them in 1933. (Guess my feelings about whether we’re particularly great at it now, just guess.) So I would recommend either of the other two books of hers I’ve read above this one–it’s not ill-intentioned, but she’s very early in her novelist game and also in the Anglophone world’s development of genre mystery.

Aden Polydoros, The City Beautiful. A very gay, very Jewish, very fantastical visit to turn of the last century Chicago. Sometimes really grim but also beautifully vivid.

Kelly Robson, High Times in Low Parliament. This was a romp through a fairy government with a bit of an edge, giving humans a hard look through a side of whimsy.

DaVaun Sanders et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 23. Kindle. Two standout stories in this issue were Lina Monroe’s “The Usual Way” and A.M. Barrie’s “Just Desserts.” I remain glad to subscribe.

Warsan Shire, Bless the Daughter Raised By A Voice in Her Head. These poems are mostly about Shire’s immigrant experience and her relationships with other members of her community. There is a combination of kindness and clear sight that I find very appealing.

Edward Struzik, Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat. (The Improbable World of Peat is my next theme park.) So much interesting swamp stuff. I enjoyed this a lot, and if you like this general kind of natural history, this should fill a great “swamps and wetlands” niche.

E. Catherine Tobler et al, ed., The Deadlands Issue 15. Kindle. Beautiful issue. My favorite story was Leah Bobet’s “Sunday in the Park with Hank,” but I also recommend Amanda Downum’s column. I know I say that a lot, but this time I feel like it’s not just interesting but also important.

Elizabeth Van Duine, Paper and Knife. This is a collection of images of papercuttings, sent to me by a friend who knows I like to do that myself. My only complaint with this volume is that the kind of photography they used for the book sometimes makes it hard to see that you’re looking at a papercutting rather than a print of some sort.