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Books read, late December

I was traveling, and I have had a cold, and also it is for some reason A Very Novella Christmas. So…lo these many things read.

Michal Ajvaz, The Other City. This is a short Czech surrealist novel. It’s very, very much about Prague–very detailed about Prague along with its stained-glass surrealist imagery–but the strange thing is that it was written in the early ’90s and did not contain even a hint of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics in the very year this book was published. That was not only practically but as far as I could tell thematically absent. Which for me was an interesting statement on how creative brains work, which is to say, not always as one might expect.

Miguel Angel Asturias, The President. Beautifully written account of life under the titular dictator. It was censored at the time of its writing. There’s a lot of how evil flows downhill in this, a lot of how the people in the middle of an oppressive system end up complicit. Like a lot of books of the early 20th century, it is not at all sensitive to disabled and mentally ill people as people rather than symbols, so heads up on that front.

Charles S. Brant and Jim Whitewolf, The Autobiography of a Kiowa Apache Indian. Whitewolf talks to Brant about his childhood, his life, the traditions of his people as he knows them. This is not trying to be anything like comprehensive about all Kiowa Apaches, but it’s not as deeply personal as a solo-written memoir would be. Brant’s commentary sometimes feels extremely off to me (this is a book from the middle of the twentieth century, and Brant is not more culturally understanding/enlightened than you would expect of his time), but Whitewolf’s character continues to shine through the snarky footnotes. He is not in some way an idealized noble Indian figure, nor is he the stereotype Brant alludes to of a supposedly-dissolute people. He’s just some guy, some guy that you can easily believe is someone’s uncle, who tells you about how things were when he was a kid, what his family and their neighbors used to do and what they still do now, and Brant can’t ruin that.

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame. Adventure fantasy that I stuck with despite main character amnesia. I have often complained that the failure mode of novellas is to have the worldbuilding of a novel and the payoff of a short story, but while the novellas I read this month mostly followed the pattern of being worldbuilding-heavy, I wouldn’t describe it as failure for these specific cases.

Paul Cornell, Witches of Lychford. The characterization of this was sharp and individual. It was an urban fantasy with what seems like it should be a standard urban fantasy plot (faceless corporation interrupts structure of village life for nefarious magical purposes and with nefarious magical consequences), but the characters are so individual that this is not a problem…and when I ask myself for actual examples of other stories that do this, they are not abundant. I particularly like the inclusion of a vicar as one of the titular women; this is a varied and matter-of-fact treatment of faith and organized religion that we don’t see often enough.

Michael J. DeLuca, ed., Reckoning Issue 1. Kindle. I’m in this, and I don’t review things I’m in–too much potential for tackiness. However, I will say that several individual pieces got mentioned in my year-end favorites, and when they’re available on the internet I’ll link to them.

S.B. Divya, Run Time. Another worldbuilding-heavy novella that did not turn out to suffer unduly from that balance. This one is near-future adventure-racing SF. If you miss EcoChallenge since adventure racing went all reality TV, this is for you. The plot twists are not very twisty, but they don’t have to be; there’s a diverse cast doing adventure-racing SF, and there are several of you who will want that if you don’t have it already.

Elizabeth Dodd, Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World. Essays on nature and place. Dodd’s lens has some beautiful views from it, and some extremely quirky personal ones. I’ve gotten a lot more interested in personal essay/memoir lately, so expect more of this.

Jean d’Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, A History. Oh, what a weird book, oh, what a weird book. This is one of the rare places where the “a novel” style subtitles are really called for, because the format of this book is that it is a history of a place that never existed. It is written exactly like a history of the era it covers–I read a lot of history, so I know–and if you are prone to Clausewitz and Liddell Hart jokes, the footnotes are hysterically funny. If you don’t like reading history, for heaven’s sake don’t read this, it’s like that but nonexistent. The introduction may be daunting for genre-familiar readers, since the person writing it seems to be going, “OMG Alternate history! can you say ‘alternate history,’ children?”, but the book is better than that, the book is doing things with the stories we tell ourselves in different contexts, how we talk to each other and what’s given priority, what is this fiction endeavor anyway. Highly but narrowly recommended.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Public festivals, dancing mania, carnival, all sorts of expressions of group positivity. Interesting angle from which to take on various parts of history. I kept making wry faces at the fact that historians are divided on whether carnival-esque festivals are necessary for authoritarian regimes to keep the people blowing off steam or harmful for authoritarian regimes by allowing a place to conspire and invert the status quo. It can be both, people! It can totally be both, that can be part of how authoritarian regimes do not work well. Nothing on this earth guarantees that things that are necessary will not also be harmful to the entity that needs them.

Zetta Elliott, The Phoenix on Barkley Street. This was a chapter book, the stage before middle grade, so it was extremely brief and it did not attempt much in the way of nuance. City kids and their phoenix attempt to clean up a place where they can hang out safely. Probably you know some kids who could use some magic that doesn’t look like it’s just for dominant cultural groups; here’s some.

Dorothy Heydt/Katharine Blake, The Interior Life. Kindle. In the introduction, Heydt/Blake (each name appears on my Kindle file once) notes that this book came out in 1990 “and promptly went back in again.” I can see why, and not because it’s worthless. It’s an interesting example of the domestic fantasy subgenre/superset/whatever it is. And yet the part of the novel that takes place in our world is deeply confused about time. I am the same age as the oldest children in the book, and…this is not the world I grew up in. It’s the world somewhere between half a generation and a generation older. Except with enough computer details that you really can’t just say, oh, fine, yes, it’s 1965-75, onward. The crossover between the two worlds is handled interestingly, and I cared deeply about the mundane details of this world–I loved the fact that fantasy was a positive force and not a negative one–but the weird handling of the sexual harassment subplot made it very clear to me that this came out the year before the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. So I find this book to be worth reading, I care deeply about the characters, it’s not quite like anything else…but I can see why the mass market of 1990 did not fall upon it with glad cries, and I’m glad that we have ebooks now so that the mass market doesn’t have to in order for it to be available. (Unfortunately it seems to have become unavailable again. -ed)

Rachel Ignotofsky, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. This is a book primarily intended for a young audience. It’s lavishly illustrated and does not always choose “the usual suspects” for its subjects. These fifty women vary considerably in nationality, race/ethnicity, and religion–and in what fields they represent. A great resource to inspire kids. (I do wish that the woman who used a wheelchair had been pictured in it, but at least Ignotofsky was clear that she had disabilities and worked through/around them.)

Emmi Itäranta, The Weaver. I’m always interested in whether people do something very like their first novel for their second or very different. This felt very different to me, much closer to the mainstream of stories that get told in speculative fiction (in this case fantasy). It was a fun novel with cool worldbuilding elements, not nearly as special as Memory of Water but not everything has to be.

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds., Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Issue 35. Kindle. A lot of this was deep into weird-for-its-own-sake. “The History of Harrabash” by James Warner was fun to read in conjunction with The Glory of the Empire (I read them on the same day), since the Warner story is a much lighter, younger voice on the teaching and learning of history even when it doesn’t exist. Jack Larsen’s “The Equipoise With Lentils” was I think the most successful for me at being unabashedly surreal and still keeping my interest.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars. This felt so very very much like a big fat portal fantasy of my early teens. It’s exactly like the best of the sort of thing I was reading daily in junior high…except without the worry that the suck fairy will have visited it with attitudes about race, gender, or sexuality that now feel like a slap in the face. Portal fantasy: probably you miss it, here is one, it’s not a jerk to people, go.

Emma Newman, After Atlas. This is set in the same universe as Planetfall but is not a direct sequel to it, and I think that’s to Newman’s credit. After Atlas is aiming at a completely different thing, rather than trying to replicate the appeal of the earlier book. I’m glad of that. It’s a procedural with the future tech worked in rather than ignored or only showcased when it was convenient for the author. The ending was not as abrupt as Planetfall‘s, but it does make the “very abrupt ending, several interesting questions unresolved” thing look like a pattern rather than a fluke.

Marta Randall, Islands. Kindle. I had not even heard of Marta Randall, and I know a lot about SF of ages past. Turns out she was the first woman VP of SFWA and also the first woman president of same. And she wrote this and some other novels that I also downloaded to my Kindle, and it was definitely worth reading. It felt far more modern than most of what was presented to me as “classics of ’70s SF” when I was a teenager. I wonder how much sexism played a part in it not joining their ranks, how much it was random midlist blues, and how much it was that SF was hurtling toward cyberpunk while Randall was musing about mortality, relationship, and environment. I think one of the things that was particularly appealing to me is that Randall reached for connection and understanding of others’ viewpoints. But scuba-diving sunken Hawaii was pretty cool as a set of images, too.

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. This was full of interesting tidbits that didn’t quite come together into the whole Solnit hoped it would be, in my view. Muybridge was extremely eccentric, and the times surrounding him no less so; lots of fodder for an interesting book here. But it felt to me like there was perhaps one or two steps of bringing things together missing between this book and a really great one. I’m still interested in Solnit’s work and looking forward to reading more of it, but this was not as good as A Paradise Built in Hell.

Fran Wilde, A Jewel and Her Lapidary. Worldbuilding-heavy novellas for the win. This one was also adventure fantasy, very vividly built, with relationships central to the plot.

Connie Willis, Fire Watch. Reread. I have been revisiting some of the old short story collections we have around here to see how they stand up. In this case: not well. The older I get, the more Willis’s time travelers seem implausibly foolish, the less they seem entertaining. Everything reads just a bit flat, all the emotions primary colors and very little nuance. I am a little worried about revisiting the longer works of hers I remember enjoying, in this light.

Kai Ashante Wilson, A Taste of Honey. You’d think with all the worldbuilding-heavy novellas I read this fortnight, they would start to run together, but they were all quite distinct–Wilson’s worldbuilding continues to be like no one else’s. This was a fantasy love story, tinged with melancholy but not depressing, the plot leaving room for the characters and their world to be the focus.

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From a Secret World. Forest health and tree tidbits. Stuff about how trees exist in community, how they share nutrients through the fungal network around their roots, other cool arboreal things. Yay trees.

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First of the year

I have a story out in the Jan/Feb issue of Analog, my first short story of the year. It’s called “Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns,” and it’s got companion frogs and genetically engineered flying squirrel people and much weirder stuff than I’ve had in Analog before.

Also it goes with “Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz” and “The Ministry of Changes” and “Surfacing” and “The Dust Gate” and “The Salt Path,” all of those. The folder with those stories in it is called “postnuclear fantasy,” but that’s not really specific enough that other people will know which ones I mean. Anyone who has read them and has suggestions for a series title, setting title, group title, whatever, please comment or email me. I’d appreciate any help I could get on that front.