Posted on Leave a comment

I may be whistling in the dark, but I like the song

I have a new story out from Lightspeed Magazine today, Islands of Stability. You can read or listen there, and also there’s an author spotlight with more from me about the story. This is one I wrote last year when I needed some positive eldercare thoughts, which actually still applies now and is likely to keep applying. I hope you enjoy it.

Posted on Leave a comment

Weird Black Girls, by Elwin Cotman

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the great skills in life, I have found as an adult, is knowing when you’re not part of a conversation. Sometimes you’re allowed to sit in on the conversation while your friend and their sibling talk about family stuff, but that doesn’t mean you’re part of the family, it just means you’re here for it. A lot of the stories in Weird Black Girls are very much in that category: am I actually part of the conversation about the use of violent punishment in Black American families as an attempt to ward off white violence from Black children and/or a reflection of white violence through the parents, refracted through a fantastical lens? I sure am not. That is someone else’s conversation I am sitting here listening to. And while these stories are not all that specifically, a lot of them touch on themes that are not really mine to dig into. It’s not “I’m not the target audience for this” in the sense of “I don’t appreciate this work,” because I did appreciate this work. It’s “I’m not the target audience for this” in the sense of “I am literally not the person being addressed here.” But I can still stand by and find it interesting.

What I can say is that this is a short story collection with a great deal of range. The voices of the characters are distinct, and their settings and speculative elements vary extremely. Whether they’re exploring a Boston that jutted suddenly into the sky in an alternate history or running a convention LARP tournament that’s suddenly populated by fantastical figures from anime, each character has their own voice, their own yearnings and grudges and firmly situated milieu that are totally absorbing. There’s big thematic stuff here, but there’s also the tiny finely drawn characterization that keeps me around for the theme to have a chance to sink in. The shape of the speculative conceits is never “oh, another one of those” but always firmly his own. Highly recommended.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, early March

David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. I felt like Kenya is too large a country and the Mau Mau Rebellion too large an event in its history for me to be as wholly ignorant as I was, so I set out to remedy some of that with this book. As often happens to me, remedying some of my ignorance left me aware of how much more I don’t know. Still, this is from all I can tell a fairly even-handed book that avoids a lot of the colonialist assumptions that all rebellion against the colonizer must have been irrational and manages to convey what the propaganda was in that direction without endorsing it–but also does not pretend that everyone who has ever rebelled has been a holy saint, nor that they have to be. I don’t recommend this for happy fun-fun times, but if you’d like to know more about the topic, it’ll sure help with that goal.

John W. Baldwin, The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages. Baldwin is definitely not fanboying Philip Augustus, which is good because neither am I; there were points at which he is using fairly elevated speech to say, “Y’know, buddy, if you hadn’t expelled the Jews from France, you’d have had more options here, my my my, if it isn’t the consequences of your own actions.” But the interesting thing about Philip Augustus was not the person himself but the documentation of his reign. When he left for the Crusades there was quite a lot of writing down of France: How I Runs It By Phil Age 24 (okay, he didn’t actually write it down, his scribes wrote it down), and then there was quite a lot more of What We Did While You Were Gone, so it was…basically he turned on Track Changes for the country of France. And Baldwin poked at that in this book, and I liked that, but if you aren’t particularly interested in twelfth century governmental Track Changes…welp, there sure are other books on this list.

Renan Bernardo, Different Kinds of Defiance. Discussed elsewhere.

Bertrand Bickersteth, The Response of Weeds. Poetry about one person’s Black experience in Alberta, which is sure not a thing I had a surfeit of poetry about and you probably didn’t either.

Winifred Boggs, Sally on the Rocks. This was mostly a light-hearted village satire about a young woman who has “ruined herself” by the standards of the (1915) day (she went and had sex with a man in Italy for a month, not on the page), having made up her mind to settle down and marry for the sake of her fortune only to find it less easy than she thinks to snag a not very appealing man. The up side: she and her rival for his fortune are entirely pleasant to each other rather than getting in the designated cat fights, seeing each other’s virtues immediately; this is also a book that sees and deplores gender-based double standards. The down side: there is some absolutely appalling “go have white babies to maintain the Empire” nonsense in the ending, just jaw-dropping “you didn’t actually say that oh no you did” stuff. Fortunately I watched Blazing Saddles at a formative age so I always have clips from it ready to play in my head in times of need; unfortunately the miniature Cleavon Little in my head who abides with me always had to abide with me particularly on that day.

Samatar Elmi, Portrait of Colossus. Absolutely beautiful poems about being an immigrant to modern Britain. This one I will want to return to, and gosh how nice that it was the next thing to hand after the Boggs. (This is a coincidence, the alphabetical nature of these entries does not usually reflect my reading order.)

Margaret Frazer, The Servant’s Tale. The second in its medieval murder mystery series, with a troop of players traveling through around Christmas time. The festivities were period-appropriate, not Victorianized for the modern reader. The ending was a bit…if it had been the first in the series I would have thought “oh is this what she thinks is a good twist, thanks but nah,” but as I’ve already had a pretty good one I’ll keep going with the series.

Merilee Grindle, In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl: Zelia Nuttall and the Search for Mexico’s Ancient Civilizations. A long-overdue look at a very interesting scientific figure who bridged eras of anthropology and fought for recognition that was due her.

Kathleen Jennings, Kindling. I’ve followed Jennings’s career pretty closely, so I’d read most of what had already been published here before, but not all, and in any case there’s a lovely new story and also it’s good to have things I previously liked collected in one volume, hooray, hooray.

John Bush Jones, Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of American Musical Theatre. I was doing all right with the early part of the book that was mostly names-dates-places, and then we got up to the part where Jones had really personal opinions about things he’d experienced and I’d experienced, and the wheels came right on off this bus. I found his opinions about Fiddler on the Roof pretty risible and it did not get better from there. It doesn’t help that this was a book from around the turn of the millennium, and events since shed a rather different light on American musical theater; he couldn’t have known where it was all going, nobody could have predicted Hamilton for heaven’s sake, but when you feel someone’s gone off the rails fifty years before that, you can hardly think not predicting Hamilton is the main problem. Not recommended.

Rosalie M. Lin, Daughter of Calamity. Discussed elsewhere.

Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. I loved this, well written and interesting, about four mid-century women at Oxford looking at the world as it unfolded and thinking that it absolutely had to influence philosophy and…not always finding that the men around them felt the same, and persevering in their own ways despite a university system that was not particularly interested in women in general and women who wanted to think about the horrors of our time in specific. Complicated relationships, still meaningful friendships all the same, more like this please.

Lauren Markham, A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging. I have to tell you, I’m sorry, this book is not as good as its title. Just look at that title, what an amazing title. Would it be possible to live up to that title? I think so. This, however, is a fairly ordinary book that interweaves Markham’s search for her own roots in Greece with how Greece and the rest of the world are handling refugees. It’s got some solid interviews and reporting. It is not the transcendent shining thing that title promises. Many of us can benefit from a workmanlike book about the current handling of refugees and won’t mind some musings about personal identity thrown in. Just…set your expectations.

Marianne Moore, Complete Poems. Moore’s line lengths are all off from my own sense of rhythm, and her references are all off from my own sense of reference, so she will never be one of the poets of my heart, but I still liked reading this all the same, and will almost certainly read it again later.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Delia’s Shadow. Reread. What I want to say here is that it is a very strange experience to have a memorial reread of a recently deceased friend’s book when that book is a ghost fantasy full of Tuckerizations of other friends.

Jared Pechaček, The West Passage. Discussed elsewhere.

Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno, Tone. This is short, this is very readable, and also I’m not sure it will tell you a lot about tone (in writing, prose tone) if you aren’t already thinking a lot about it on your own. This is a book that is part of a conversation with writers who are already knee-deep in this subject, not Baby’s First Tone Book.

Noel Streatfeild, Grass in Piccadilly. Kindle. The inhabitants of a large house turned into flats in the immediate post-WWII period have to sort their personal lives in the upheaval of that period. Streatfeild is trying something with a German Jewish refugee family that doesn’t entirely work–she was always terrible at writing German accent dialect even when it’s word choice rather than phoneticization–but is clearly entirely well-intentioned, she’s going out of her way to show what a lovely generous person the mother in particular is and that the children are–in the end the whole family is–British, dammit, that German Jewish refugees can by her lights be British. It’s one of those attempts at Philosemitism that go a little off but only in a mildly embarrassing way, not a hateful way. The ending is not as tied up with a bow as it might be, and I think that tying it with a bow would have been cloying but I’m not sure the suggested ending is more satisfying–I think among other things it relies on a concept of childhood resilience that I do not for a moment believe and a certain amount of biological essentialism about motherhood. There is some brief and absolutely gratuitous homophobia at the end. (Are there queer characters throughout? no, they show up to be sneered at in the end. Noel what are you doing stop it.) There is also interesting stuff about what you can and cannot get done in the immediate postwar period and how people of different classes manage to get along. Take from all that what you will.

Posted on Leave a comment

The West Passage, by Jared Pechaček

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Two young people are left to fend for themselves–and their home–in a crumbling castle of varied tower traditions and strange denizens. The Guardian and the Mother of Grey House each have an apprentice at the beginning of this book of shifting names and identities. Each is saddled with a quest that feels insurmountable: to warn Black Tower of the coming of the Beast, to fix the seasons back in their courses so that winter follows autumn in its proper time rather than arriving in the middle of summer. Each must travel through a landscape of fantastical people, thoughtful bees and apes, less thoughtful humans, all tied to their own roles and customs, each holding to fragments of belief that might illuminate the past or the future or both. There will be miracles, but they might not be useful. There will be giant Ladies, but their loyalties are unsure. But Grey House is home, and the two apprentices try to protect it and–at least some form of–the lives they have known.

It’s a very weird book, and it’s not doing the same thing as everything else, and I liked it. Also it stands on its own (unlike Grey House–little Grey House humor for my denizens out there). Also it’s got little illustrations Pechaček did for the chapter heads and that, rabbit-headed squires in their cotehardies and Schoolmasters trying to teach their apes when the apes already know more. It feels…colored like a medieval manuscript, is what I want to say. The prose is not medieval, but the colors are, the seasons, the sense of people having known places that aren’t as solid as they wanted to hope in their childhoods. Not the faux knights of cod medievalism but the Great Chain of Being and the wheels of the world shifting and also the uncertainty about weather and food of the actual medieval world. And sometimes people eating ortolans, that helps with the medieval feel as well, and the ravenousness of a baby Lady, and the rarity and importance of manuscript, and…yeah, there’s a lot here, it’s going to be hard to explain, and that’s the point, it’s an uncertain-world sort of book, it’s a book for an uncertain world. Are you having one of those? Well.

Posted on Leave a comment

Daughter of Calamity, by Rosalie M. Lin

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author a bit because we share an agent.

Jingwen is a cabaret dancer in a 1930s Shanghai quite a bit, but not entirely, like our own. She also goes by Vilma, for a little Western glamour when she’s lighting up the tiles with her fancy footwork and practiced flirtation. She loves her life of dancing, drinking, and beautiful qipaos and shoes. Her grandmother, a doctor with the ability to make people new limbs out of a magical silver substance, is disgusted by Jingwen’s frivolity. She has made her bargains with the seamier side of Shanghai life in the gang of the Blue Dawn, and she expects Jingwen to follow in her footsteps.

When another dancer is attacked in a horrifying and unnatural way, Jingwen can’t be comfortable running the occasional errand for her grandmother and her gang contacts any more. Gradually competing with the other cabaret girls for the richest patron feels less important–and the rich patrons look more dangerous. When her diurnal dance troop is bought out by one of them and its artistic director replaced by a mysterious figure who makes her the lead dancer, she knows she’s playing with fire, but she has to pursue justice for the other dancers–and safety for herself.

There are powers beyond the human in play in Jingwen’s Shanghai. She will have to try to sacrifice to them, embody them, control them, work around them–but she can’t ignore them, or not just her way of life but her life itself–will be in danger. This is not our Shanghai, quite, but it is still a crossroads of the world, keeping its culture and making it new in the face of dozens of outside forces and divided desires from its own people.

Posted on Leave a comment

Different Kinds of Defiance, by Renan Bernardo

Review copy provided by the author, who is an online pal.

The ten stories in this collection have a range of science fiction conceits, from an obsolete robot to the pollination of future farming. They’re unified by the warmth and determination of their characters, by their unflinching look at the way the world is going and what we will need to build a better way out of what we’ve got right now. Because there are different kinds of defiance here, but there are also different kinds of hope. Different kinds of optimism. This is not the “in the future everything will be shiny and happy” kind of optimism. It’s the “in the future, here are some ways people might work darn hard to make lives worth living on the human scale” kind of optimism.

You know. The genuine kind.

There’s a lot of Bernardo’s home nation of Brazil here, and Bernardo lingers on just enough telling details to give these short pieces depth of place, not enough to ever slow the pacing. There’s also quite a variety even within the explicitly Brazilian stories–it’s a big country with lots of room for science fiction in it. I can’t wait to see more from Bernardo and others.

Some of these were brand new to me, others old favorites (“old”–within the last few years favorites, okay), but it’s lovely to have them collected in one place to return to again and again. Recommended.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, late February

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility. Kindle, reread. I hadn’t reread this in decades, and it made me laugh as it was supposed to do (though it did not particularly make me cheer in the places it was supposed to, goals having changed). I had forgotten, however, that this book contains one of my Jane Austen identification characters, by which I mean Sir John, because: Sir John is always and basically only concerned with other people’s dogs. “We met Willoughby,” the Dashwood sisters tell him, and he immediately perks up and asks, “did he have his dog with him?” and starts describing the dog. Well done that man, one of the few people in literature to understand the proper focus of a conversation. Later, when he is angry at Willoughby: “and to think I offered him a puppy just yesterday morning!” Indeed, sir! You have moved me to indignation alongside you! And so on through the book. He is sharply observed, but also oh dear, he is me. Unfortunately no one else in the book is him, so I don’t know enough about his dogs, who I expect are quite nice also, if anything nicer. I wonder if this is what fanfiction is for, but I have too much else to do. Various people marry each other, but in only one case are we explicitly assured that their dogs are nice after, and he doesn’t deserve it. Ah well.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Demon Daughter. Kindle. The latest Penric and Desdemona novella, featuring a young Roknari girl adjusting to an equally young demon under the theology of this world. This continues the standing tradition of the Roknari being basically objectively wrong about the nature of demons and the Bastard God, so if that’s something that bothers you in this worldbuilding, there’s a lot of focus on it. It also has the protagonist family being quite nice to a child in need, so–it really depends on your focus and needs of this novella.

Adrian Cooper, ed., Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing. All fairly brief essays, all tree- or forest-focused, nothing particularly deep unfortunately, and the authors I’d read before were not at their particular best here. Fine but not outstanding.

Christine Coulson, One Woman Show. A “novel” (probably not by length, no, probably novelette or novella) told as placards at an art exhibition–the entire life of an unhappy wealthy woman, birth to death. Coulson was clever here but not particularly compassionate to any of the characters–basically none of them had any redeeming traits. Which is a choice she can make, and you can judge for yourself whether the cleverness of the conceit will be worth the time for you.

Genoveva Dimova, Foul Days. Discussed elsewhere.

Rose Fox (now going by Asher Rose Fox) and Daniel José Older, eds., Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Reread. Picked up for a memorial reread on the passing of one of the authors (S. Lynn), who was the dear friend of a dear friend though I did not know her at all, and the entire rest of the volume was engaging enough that I just kept going with the whole thing. At a decade on it was interesting to see that some of the new and unfamiliar authors had become household names at least in this very nerdy household. As with any anthology not every story could be a favorite but there were enough that qualified in that category that I had a hard time putting it down even though it was my designated “short bits” book.

Antonia Fraser, Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit. Fraser seems to be particularly taken with defending Lady Caroline on the grounds that the people who were most upset with her did most of the same things she did, and if she was appalling, so were they. For this she makes a pretty good case. She also makes a somewhat reasonable case that Lady Caroline’s mental health needs were not well-served by the medical care available at her time, although this occasionally strays into specific diagnoses in ways that I don’t find entirely well-judged for the level of historical distance we have. This is a very short book and probably should not be your first introduction to Whig society of this period (early 19th century).

Barbara Hambly, The Nubian’s Curse. The latest Benjamin January mystery, and the title refers to a statue from an ancient kingdom rather than getting cutesy about a semi-modern person. Probably not the best place to start with the series but a reasonable enough place to continue.

Florian Illies, Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War. Episodic flashes of how notable figures in various of the arts got by in Europe in the 1930s. Interesting, sad, engaging.

Catherine E. Karkov, Art and the Formation of Early Modern England. Kindle. A brief Kindle monograph on influences on the art of this period and how it, in turn, influenced its world. Not of great depth but with interesting bits about, for example, stone-carving and enamel-working.

Mark Monmonier, How to Lie With Maps. I was not the audience for this book. I’m frankly having a hard time imagining the audience for this book, which is an audience who is interested enough to read an entire book on map inaccuracy but not interested enough to have thought for even one moment about the topic before. It was so basic, and despite the catchy title it did not spend a great deal of time on things like gerrymandering. I kept waiting for the chapters where it leveled up. There were no such chapters.

Christopher Priest, The Prestige. Reread. I picked this up for a memorial reread after he passed away recently, and what a relief it was to find it still basically where I left it: the prose so readable, the characters as flawed as they ever were but handled so well by the author in their differing settings and voices, the stagecraft vivid and fun/horrifying to contemplate.

Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham. This is an example of how I will read whatever is lying about because another family member has it, but honestly it was fast and interesting, and I like Bull Durham a lot. What was particularly interesting were the places where Shelton was talking about scenes that were cut that…would not have added to the movie and he did not seem clear on why but I, with 25 years of experience as a short story writer, could totally have told him why. We don’t always understand our own work, this is why we get other eyes on it, I’m glad he got other eyes on his, I’m glad I have other eyes on mine. And I’m totally glad the studio person who wanted Anthony Michael Hall as Nuke LaLoosh lost out, because what tomfoolery is this.

Francis Spufford, Cahokia Jazz. On the one hand, I think it’s amazing that someone tried to write an alternate history this sweeping, of an America where smallpox did not actually kill off most of the Native American population, where there is a vast and thriving Native culture in the early 20th century, where St. Louis does not exist but the city of Cahokia, with strong Native traditions, does. On the other hand the farther back the divergence point with our history the more convergence becomes a statement of inevitability. And having a divergence back in the 16th or 17th century that…still leads to a powerful KKK and a non-identical but quite similar Birth of a Nation? is making a statement about how powerful and how inevitable those things are that I don’t like and don’t agree with. Also frankly it really rubbed me the wrong way to have a British man coming in and writing about the KKK racism of the German-Americans in his fictional Missouri when I know a great deal about the history of German-Americans in actual Missouri and how it was German 48ers who kept it Bloody Missouri instead of entirely rolling over and showing belly for the enslavers so excuse me if I don’t find it a compelling vision that oh it’s those Germans who are racist, certainly not the Americans of similar ethnic background to Mr. Spufford himself who were the actual founders of the KKK, sir, own your shit. (In case you think I’m being defensive, I am not myself of German ethnicity. I just find it awfully convenient when someone comes in and points so hard at Them when there’s a whole lot of his Us behaving badly to be had.) And the ending: I will give you three guesses as to what kind of ending someone who decided that his compelling vision of a future full of Native Americans featured a dominant KKK would give us for his Native hero. Heroic ending, certainly, but: happy or tragic, no spoiler here, you just guess though, you just give it one guess whether he wanted to imagine something good for a large, strong Native man in a strong Native culture…or not. I wanted so much better here. His prose is compelling. I have liked his other work. But the vision here is flawed in ways that I don’t think he was even trying to understand. I don’t think he knows what he doesn’t know here.

Noel Streatfeild, The Silent Speaker. Kindle. Very clear, very large content warning: this is a book about a suicide. There is a dinner party in chapter one, in chapter two one of the people at the dinner party kills themself, and the entire rest of the book is the other characters trying to figure out why that person did it. This book was published in 1961, the last of Streatfeild’s adult novels, and its mid-century status turns out to be very important to the plot as well as to its worldview. It’s actually not one of the preachier Streatfeilds–the people who are ready to blame themselves are generally wrong and given authorial compassion as well as compassion from some of the other characters–but because of the subject matter I would put this in the “only if you are quite interested in her work in general” list; it’s very much not for everyone for reasons that I would hope would be tolerably obvious.

Martha Wells, The Book of Ile-Rien (containing The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer). Discussed elsewhere.