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Copperhead, by Tina Connolly

Review copy provided by Tor.

The first book in this series, Ironskin, was a fairly close Jane Eyre recasting. If Copperhead is an equally close retelling of anything, I’ve missed it. It’s temporally a fairly close sequel but in structural terms not at all close–the main character changes from Jane to her younger sister Helen, and I think it could be read on its own fairly easily.

The main problem I had with Copperhead is that it’s in a clearly alternate universe, but I wasn’t clear how alternate–so how much it was supposed to refer to the Civil War Copperheads was not clear to me for most of the beginning of the book. And frankly they strike me as a pretty important historical element, so the fact that ultimately they don’t have much in common with the Copperhead movement in this book was not in general a plus.

However, I really liked the shift to seeing from Helen’s point of view–rather similar to the most recent Mary Robinette Kowal book, Without a Summer, which, while it did not shift viewpoint character, did give a far more nuanced and interesting picture of the beautiful and flighty younger sister character. Helen found ways to make a difference–even in the resolution of the book–that were true to her personality and skill set, rather than having to become a more standard-issue fantasy heroine in order to make her mark. The fact that she, for example, paid closer attention to the lives of the servants than many heroines seemed of a piece with both her past and her personality. And the gigantic funnely fey-related machine…was both fascinating in its inception and in its climax. And that’s all I can really say there without spoilers. But the endings all did feel earned, I can say that much, whether they fit the standard mold or less so.

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Books read, late June

Leigh Bardugo, Siege and Storm. Too much boyfriend, not enough sea serpent. (Seriously not enough sea serpent. Even if you have more patience for teenage relationship dynamics than I do. Sea serpents! They’re awesome! Not to be squandered!) I will still go on and read the sequel, but the balance of elements is not really what I would prefer.

Alfred Duclos DeCelles, The ‘Patriotes’ of ’37. Kindle. Random Canadian history, filling in the gaps. Various placenames in Montreal now have additional reference points for me.

R. Austin Freeman, The Case of the White Footprints. Kindle. Old mystery. I did not see some elements of this coming because, “Hey, I bet this will have random racial implications!” was just not something I thought of. It was not quite as jarring as running into Josephine Tey using ethnic language, but it was pretty jarring. However, it seemed more like an artifact of his time than the constant essential fact of Freeman, so I will probably try some other stuff when I’m in the mood for old mysteries and free is the right price.

Edward P. Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt. This book badly needed a copy-editor, or possibly the author needed to have his stet stamp taken away. Not sure which. It was kind of a hot mess (yes, you saw what I did there), and it would more reasonably have been described as the Fall of William Jennings Bryan than the Making of Roosevelt. The heat wave information was interesting, a good counterpoint to more dramatic historical narratives and to people who act like everything in the days before a particular modern convenience (in this case AC) was Just Fine Dammit, rather than resulting in 40-100 dead babies in one city per day. But the text was marred by such howlers as misplacing the Mississippi River by several hundred miles (hint: it is nowhere the boundary between Iowa and Nebraska, folks) and spelling the same person’s name multiple ways in one paragraph. Probably not recommended unless you’re really interested in WJB, New York history, or non-standard natural disasters.

C.M. Kornbluth, The Adventurer. Kindle. Random Golden Age short on my Kindle, not very memorable.

James Michener, Space. Grandpa’s. This is one of the worst books I’ve read in a long time in terms of bigotry, and it was in some ways made even worse by the fact that you could watch him trying. And still failing so very badly. But when you write a slam on Jerrie Cobb and her cohort gratuitously into your book when you could have ignored them (or, y’know, treated them reasonably, but let’s not get crazy here), the fact that you have a “lady lawyer” is not going to appease me. And the stuff around non-white people in the space program…just stop, Michener. Just stop, and go write about moon rocks. You do fine with rocks. Tell us more about the rocks. HONESTLY.

Robert Sheckley, Bad Medicine. Kindle. This is one of the “classic” SF stories that has created its own cliches, but at the time I don’t think it was.

Walter S. Tevis, The Big Bounce. Kindle. The original flubber story. Too serious to call it flubber or involve basketball.

Abigail A. Van Slyck, The Lady and the Library Loafer: Gender and Public Space in Victorian America. Kindle. Reading rooms! All sorts of things about reading rooms. Short and interesting.

Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni. This was the big win of the fortnight, highly recommended. It’s a turn of the (19th/20th) century New York setting, with a golem who works in a bakery and a tinsmith jinni. Beautifully written, great characters and setting. Hurrah for this book.

S.M. Wheeler, Sea Change. Discussed elsewhere.

P.G. Wodehouse, A Man of Means. Kindle. Wodehouse of a fairly standard type.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy). It was apparently golem time in Mrissaland this fortnight, but this had a completely different tone than the Wecker. It’s a middle-grade or YA (not sure where it’s being shelved, actually) book that has a klezmer-jazz-pop-rock fusion band at its heart, a group of misfit kids who come together against bullies and their own worse impulses. There are important things about adolescence and power between the lines of this book, and sometimes in the lines themselves. I really liked this.

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Biographical hazards and characterization ramble

Last night as I was casting aside a library book with great prejudice (people: if anyone tells you that Thor was the king of the Norse gods–as a casual aside in a work of purported nonfiction, no less!–regard whatever else they say as suspect, because they do not know what they do not know), Mark suggested that this was the wrong approach because if I don’t finish books, I don’t blog about them to warn people. And it’s true, this is the tradeoff I make for not wanting to be unfair about books I don’t finish: I don’t warn you in advance that they are unfinishable. I’ve seen a couple of low-rated books on my mother-in-law’s Good Reads because of this and felt mildly guilty. It still feels like the right balance, but occasionally I make the “why I quit reading your book” posts to talk about general issues.

This one is with biographies. In order to write a biography of any length, it’s easiest to find the subject interesting, or you will be screamingly bored with your book. A good biographer understands the difference between “interesting,” “likeable,” and “sympathetic.” You’ll see the difference between interesting and likeable extremely clearly if you read corrective biographies, which are easiest to find about recent politicians: some historian or political scientist will get fed up with their sense that everything about Politician X is better referred to as St. X, and will write up a biography that corrects that view. Mostly these people have to be interested in X, or at least in X’s effects on the world, in order to do it at all–but sympathy and liking are definitely not required. (Good examples of this include Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.) But outside politics, corrective bios are rarer, and the real pitfall is for the biographer to buy into their subject’s shtick. If your subject says, “I am the greatest musician of my generation!”, that’s an interesting window on your subject’s views, or at least on how your subject has tried to present them to the world. But for you to decide that this means your subject is the greatest musician of a generation–or more–is short-sighted and silly. And you should at least have some notion of who you are implicitly downgrading and why if you choose to accept the greatest musician notion.

The interesting/likeable/sympathetic split seems to come up with fictional characters, because a great many readers use the phrase, “I didn’t like any of the characters,” or, “I didn’t like this character,” pretty much interchangeably among these options. And I think the only one that’s really necessary for all readers is interesting. Some people really do want to read only about characters they’d be willing to have dinner with; some people really do want to read only about characters whose aims are compatible with their own. But some people don’t, in both of those cases, whereas nobody says, “This person is so boring to me, give me another hundred thousand words about them!”

One of the places this can go badly awry is if you need to kill off a major character. This can shift the balance of interesting/likeable/sympathetic in disastrous ways, because there will almost always be readers for whom Dead Guy A was the only one who fit the bill–they were reading for A. This is not a reason not to kill characters, but it’s certainly a reason to pay attention to what things people might like in your writing and why.

Last weekend a bunch of us were talking about bands that had broken up or carried on under the same name but without the exact group of people as before, and it looked to me like one of the most successful modes of carrying on is to not just replace the person who has left, but to add multiple people with slightly different (often overlapping) skills. Two of the places this has worked well for me are in the TV shows House and early seasons of MI5 (Spooks in the UK). One of the places it has not worked well despite my liking the show quite a bit is Criminal Minds. CM has a habit of replacing people demographically: Young Brunette Woman, Middle-Aged Dark-Haired Man, even a run at a substitution in the category of Young Blonde Woman. This encouraged me to compare directly or to scornfully refer to the replacement early on as The Fake [Character Name], whereas having a less direct substitution just shifts the dynamic overall.

Late seasons of MI5 have not succeeded nearly so well with this, I should say. The show is a bit infamous for being willing to kill or otherwise get rid of characters who would be pivotal in other shows–you really cannot count on any one character being around for the next episode. Early on, they were very good at fast characterization, giving me a quick hook to hang my caring on. Like many readers/viewers, I wanted to keep caring about a show I liked, so hey, look, it’s an older lady coming back to spy some more, and look at her doing the following things, hurrah! Ditto for various other characters. But by the time it got around to Tariq, it became clear that I wanted to like the character (young Near Eastern-British hacker nerd spy!) more than I was actually being given very much of the character to like. He was filling a role, and the other new S9/S10 spies even more so. I have three episodes left, and it’s begun to look a lot more like, “We need somebody to do such-and-such! You’re a warm body, and such-and-such is exciting! Go do such-and-such!” So if you’re going to substitute in a new bass player and keyboardist for your old bass player, you need to write pretty cool solos for bass and keys. Or at least let them improvise.

Biography does not have this benefit. Sometimes the person you find interesting is surrounded by interesting people up to a point, and then you run into the Great War or the Black Death or whatever, and suddenly everyone interesting has died and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is why I would not be a real historian if you paid me. All sorts of things happen that you cannot fix. Even Hilary Mantel can decide that somebody needs to have better lines than history might give them, but when you’re a real historian, you’re stuck.

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The Long Conversation: a 4th St. con report

One of the metaphors that comes up a lot at 4th St.–that certainly came up at 4th St. a lot this year–is genre as conversation, literature in general as conversation. And we kept emphasizing how far back this stuff goes, how people have been turning over ideas about the stories they tell and how they relate to the lives they lead for Quite Some Time Now Really.

It was a 4th St. It was so good. Oh wait: I already said it was a 4th St.

Con reports are hard, as better people than I have said before, because there is so much of the conversation about the con, and conversations are about flow, they’re about relationship, and so even when you remember great lines like Bear’s, “These Dead Marshes aren’t going to cross themselves!”, they don’t fit, they don’t give the full flavor, so you end up waving your hands incoherently.

I think starting with “Idiom, Character, and World Building” was a particularly good notion, because it felt like a lot of stuff in the rest of the con built on that. As usual I know that the panelists had cool stuff they didn’t get a chance to talk to, but that’s a sign that things are going well, not poorly. My own panels–Short Fiction, Tell Don’t Show, and That’s Another Panel (this year’s theme: Swearing)–felt to me like they went really well, and again, I was always left with more stuff I could say, and felt like the other panelists and audience were too. I did not, for example, have to resort to talking about James Michener on TDS, which would have gone better before I read Space this month. I think “fantasy of discovery” is a very useful framing of the lower-violence/variant-conflict fantasy, because it does an end run around the idea that if people aren’t fighting each other, nothing happens. I think Beth’s idea that deliberately broken structure can enhance reader attention will be very useful indeed. I think–a lot of things, honestly, but I’m full of tired, so getting them to come out coherently instead of just blurting, “I FIXED MY BOOK! Well, conceptually. The actual work of fixing my book is still to come,” is hard right now.

What you’ve probably already heard before: it was a 4th St. with nearly 24 hours without power. But that was okay, for most values of okay, for most of us. There were some really charming aspects: conversing by emergency light, or in the pitch dark. Doing music in the dark. Someone in the letters to the editor was predictably grumping about how we are not Resilient And Independent Like Our Forefathers Of Yore, and honestly: this is nonsense. Even people who had not packed for a power outage and didn’t have the candles and flashlights they would have at home managed to have a perfectly lovely evening using their cell phones for flashlights and their friends’ voices for beacons. It was fine. Modern humanity is fine. (Also, honestly, I had to wonder whether the power outage served as a convenient lightning rod, so to speak, for any crankiness anyone might have brought in. Possibly there was nitpicking elsewhere, but I didn’t hear any of it, and there’s always somebody who comes in grumpy and looks for something to blame. So hey, convenient, something to blame! Or else this was just an unusually good year. But past Fourth Streets have been awesome too, so I think probably something was a factor, and this seems logical to me.)

I don’t think we could replicate the experience by just turning off the lights in the con suite, and frankly that sounds pretty creepy to me. But having it occur naturally–I forget who was referring to it as camp–I think maybe Suzanne?–but at any rate we got some of the better parts of camp as well as some of the worse. (Hot water: do want.) And it was Fourth Street, so–yeah. I got to see some of my favorite people in the world, and they got me thinking about all sorts of useful stuff that will percolate out into the rest of my year. I love this con.

(PS Tim also has a con report. I think he captured much of the flavor of things.)

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4th St. swearing panel annex

I will get to my full and real 4th St. con report in a bit. But this year “That’s Another Panel” turned out to be a panel on swearing, and I realized I had more to say.

1. I have no idea how I managed to get through an entire panel on swearing without commending Bon Cop, Bad Cop to everyone’s attention. I do so now. The lesson in the uses of the Quebecois swear word “tabernac” is extremely instructive and amusing. Also the rest of the movie is great fun. Go thou etc.

2. I have heard people, even one otherwise very smart person, claiming that you could tell someone’s Real True Beliefs by how they swore–specifically, this otherwise-smart person told me when I was an adolescent that you could tell that atheists really believed in Christianity deep down, because they would say things like, “God damn you,” and would find it ridiculous to say, “Donald Duck damn you.” And I said to myself, “By Jove, he might have something there!” No. No, he did not have something there, and no, the late Victorian period was not filled with a resurgence in sincere devotion to the father of the Roman gods. Swearing, like all other language and proto-linguistic kipple, is highly, highly cultural. If your secondary world characters have grown up around people who say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” when they step on a rake, they too are likely to say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” even if they think Blaxnorg is a sham, or even if they think he’s kind of a wimpy god and they’ll do much better with Blarzoosh. Conversely, if Blarzoosh is a forbidden god, they are not likely to swear by her aloud even if they believe with a deep and heartfelt faith.

You can make all sorts of arguments for how people swear in a secondary world fantasy. If you have imagined highly interventionist gods, people might be more careful, or they might mean different things by swearing than you do, since you do not expect Jesus Christ to appear and cart some household object off to hell simply because you were unwary enough to say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, what is this damn thing doing in the middle of the stairs? I could have broken my neck!” Or you might well be careful about your own god, who has been known to grant petitions of yours, but swear freely by a neighboring god, who never did a thing for you. My point here is: swearing and belief: it’s complicated. Do not oversimplify in your writing. Do not oversimplify in your reading.

3. The Biblical prohibitions on swearing are on blasphemy and oaths, not on vulgarity. Many modern Christian subcultures have the idea that good Christians ought not to say “shit,” but in fact that’s because of purity codes/laws, the more general idea that your body–including your mouth and/or typing fingers–should be a temple, not because anyone writing any book of the Bible anticipated modern English bodily function language and divided the poops from the shits, with the former as sheep and the latter goats. Elise mentioned swearing as making a crank call to the Almighty, and I love that metaphor. That’s more or less completely separate from purity codes, and replicating the “religious groups should have neither in their language” divide from this specific moment in our culture when imagining religious groups in a completely different universe is weird and limiting and probably oughtn’t to be done without a good reason.

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Sea Change, by S. M. Wheeler

Review copy provided by Tor.

There’s a lot of discussion of grittiness swirling around fantasy and getting under my contacts lately. Wait. That metaphor ran away with me. Let me start again. So: grittiness. Yes. Sea Change has it. A lot. The example I gave to a friend in e-mail is that when someone in this book breaks a glass bottle, it shatters and gets little pieces of glass in someone’s skin, and they have to be picked out carefully. The grit here is pretty literal. There are viscerally unpleasant things going on here, and they’re neither stylized nor ritualized. S. M. Wheeler is not trying to buy anything cheaply here. She pays full price for all of it, and so do her characters.

That’s all about tone, though. As for the plot…best friends are at the center of it, not love interests, and there’s a kraken and a skinned witch and some gay bandits and complicated family relationships, and…yeah. It is full of a number of things. It is not attempting to be anything but itself. I will definitely be interested in where Wheeler goes from here, because this is the gritty/dark edge of what interests me, but some authors are worth poking the edges for.

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Cool stuff: the pen edition: Part 2

I swear to you people, I do think of things other than pens. But the previous one was local handcrafted ballpoints, and this is handcrafted fountain pens and ballpoints and styluses by an old friend. Michael McIntyre just made me my own, to my specifications, as a gift, and honestly, it’s better than I even expected when we were talking about what I wanted. The draw on the nib is prompt and smooth, and the pen itself! I said I liked blue. What I got was a blue dyed box elder wood that swirls around the grains in a way that makes me think of Starry Night without attempting to copy it. It’s so pretty. There’s also a satisfyingly firm click to the magnetized cap, and every piece of it fits together just as a good fountain pen should. Highly recommended.

More cool stuff to come as I stumble upon it.

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Cool stuff: the pen edition

One of the things I wanted to do when I started keeping a blog on my own site was blog more about random stuff I have found that I like. And then a week ago today was the first Eagan farmer’s market of the year, and I had an example present itself. The farmer’s market was still in semi-pathetic late spring/early summer mode (it has been a very late spring here), sort of in the, “Do you want rhubarb? We got rhubarb. And scallions. And rhubarb. You want something else? No you don’t, how about rhubarb?” mode as far as the produce is concerned.

But! The Eagan farmer’s market does not live by produce alone, so I came home happy and laden with other nice things. And one of the people whose entire table I wanted to bring home was this guy.

You guys. The circuit board pens. They are so cool. There’s also an array of other neat pens if that’s not your thing, but the black and the green circuit board pens are so nice. They’re not fountain pens, but the ballpoint/rollerball hybrid he uses is incredibly smooth. Not at all scratchy, very well flowing. (Of course I stood there and tested the nibs. Of course I did.)

Anyway. I thought you would want to know. More cool stuff to follow.