Books read, early October

Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half. News that Brosh’s new book is coming out made me realize that I hadn’t ever read the old one. I had, however, read most of it in its original internet publication. Some of it made me giggle uproariously all over again. Some of it…it’s amazing how fast mores change, particularly around terms for disabled people, and I hope that she wouldn’t write it that way today, but this is the book she wrote then.

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. This was exactly the right choice for the mood I was in. The minute I picked it up and started reading it, I just wanted to keep going no matter what else I was supposed to be doing. This is one of the most-reread books of my adolescent + adult life, and I still love it and find new things in it every time. This time it was striking to me how much the change of technology between this setting and my college days didn’t change the basic difficulties in tracking down the person you wanted to talk to when you wanted to talk to them. Funny details like that, that you get to think of because you have the deep knowledge of the book to spot them. I’m still thinking about the last line again.

Michael J. DeLuca, Night Roll. Reread, sort of, because I read it in draft. This is also a Tam Lin story! A Tam Lin/Nanabozho near-future bike novella about very early parenthood. It’s lovely, I loved it in draft and I love it even more with the revisions Michael and his editor decided on. Check this one out.

Rosamond Faith, The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. It’s a very Anglo-Saxon time up in here, and this is probably the best nonfiction I’ve read on the topic so far. (Stay tuned etc.) Faith thinks interestingly and coherently about how it was that people changed what they were doing on an individual and small community level, and all the way up to the national scale. Good stuff, I’ve added her other books to my list.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Discussed elsewhere.

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night. I had not previously thought about the difference between cerebral and intellectual very much, but these poems are very much the former and not the latter, so that’s something to turn over in my head.

Laura E. Gómez, Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism. A 101-level book about Latinx identity and how it formed/co-evolved with prejudice around it. If you’re looking for a starter kit on how to think and talk about bias in this area, this is a good source, quite intersectional in the areas of class and other racial and ethnic groups. Not particularly interested in gender–my use of “Latinx” is mine, not mirrored by this text.

Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf. A less fun translation than Maria Dahvana Headley’s, very spare, very plain. I was left with the urge for More Beowulf when I finished Headley’s translation, so here we are and don’t be surprised if there’s more later.

Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. Of the books I’ve read on this specific topic, this is the one I’d recommend. Generally thoughtful, only a few places where he’s unduly confused by things that make total sense in Viking context.

Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. A young woman who wants to be a doctor when women mostly aren’t allowed, winning free of the various constraints of her family of origin, which are more interesting constraints than lack of support. Very well done, clearly paid a lot of attention to 19th century British painters, interested in more work by this author.

Christine Peel, ed., Guta Saga: The History of the Gotlanders. This is really only if you are feeling completist about reading basically every saga there is. I am feeling so completist. It is extremely short and not particularly outstanding in any way, except for some of its linguistic features. Still, now I’ve read it, and I know where it is on the shelf.

Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. This was quite good, absolutely recommended either as an introduction to this topic or for more insight/analysis if you’re well-versed in it. Lots of stuff for me to ponder here, which is quite rare in volumes with this subtitle, given how much I’ve already read and pondered.

London Shah, The Light at the Bottom of the World. Fun and pacey undersea YA SF adventure with a drowned dystopia. It hits some of the predictable beats but also is doing its own thing. The puppy comes out of the entire thing fine. I don’t want you to worry, because this is a book with peril and stuff, so: the dog is okay at the end.

Una L. Silberrad, The Good Comrade. Kindle. This is so charming. It has some Blue Castle-esque elements of satisfyingly telling off annoying family members, it has Silberrad’s recognition that women working for a living is sometimes tedious but not actually the end of the world, it has a heroine who is willing to consider her own values and not always come up with the choices the world assumes are obvious, it has a hero who belatedly realizes “what if wife but also good pal.” Oh yes, and it has random horticulture. It’s free on Gutenberg. Treat yourself.

Dana Simpson, Virtual Unicorn Experience. The latest Phoebe and Her Unicorn book, a charming escape that made me giggle.

Jonathan C. Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl. Blakiston’s fish owls are large, funny-looking owls, and Slaght studies them. If you don’t think owls are kinda great, I don’t know what to tell you. This is at least as much about field work as it is about owls, but both are interesting to me.

Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World. Look, I get that publishers want an exciting title, but…”most mysterious,” really, that’s pretty debatable. On the other hand, this book–like the owl book directly above–was interesting in part for what we don’t know about certain species of eel that you’d think we might–and, of course, for what we do know. I mean, they’re no owls, but they’re still pretty interesting. Also I find it a relief to read natural history right now.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Made Things. A fun novella featuring a young puppeteer and created creatures made from various materials, with more serious digressions into the nature of the soul.

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April. Kindle. Four women from ’20s Britain go on holiday to Italy together and figure their lives out in a beautiful rented Italian castle. I am a little skeptical of a few of the happy endings, but happy middles matter a lot as well, and this is a very gentle book in which things are generally okay. If I was in charge of Airbnb marketing I’d go around putting copies of this in Little Free Libraries. (…possibly there is a reason no one puts me in charge of marketing things.) You will still be able to enjoy this book if you have no fixed opinions about John Ruskin, but if you do have them it will be even funnier.

Wendy Williams, The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect. I didn’t actually plan to have a naturalist bent to this fortnight’s reading, it’s just that’s what came in on the long-term holds from the library. This was an interesting introduction to butterfly biology and another nice calm thing to read right now.

Harriet Wood Harvey, The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. And this is the less preferred of the books on this exact thing that I read in the last fortnight. She is more often baffled by cultural context, less thorough about sources, generally not an offensive read but not as illuminating, alas.

Xia Jia, A Summer Beyond Your Reach. Kindle. Always interesting to try to guess whether translated stories vary a lot in quality because of the originals or because of the translation, but in this case I think it’s at least partly the former because the structure of some of the stories seemed not-amazing to begin with. Some of them are amazing, though, in both concept and execution. So…a mixed bag, lots of interest in time travel and variously timed selves. Glad I read it.

Zoom panel for your enjoyment

Last week I recorded a panel about optimistic science fiction, among other things, hosted by Dominic Loise and the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum. Other panelists included Alec Nevala-Lee, Jake Casella Brookins, and Keisha Howard–we covered quite a range of professional interests and experiences and had a very collegial time of it.

If you want to watch the panel, it’s available here. I will warn you that I have not watched and will not watch, because that involves listening to my own recorded voice, which is a thing I avoid, and also look at my own recorded face, which same. But if those are not things you avoid, go enjoy!

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, by Catherine Coleman Flowers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Clean water is a cause very dear to my heart; it was my late father’s field. As a result, I know quite a bit more than the average person about water treatment, and I expected that to come into play in this book. And it did–but not in the way I expected.

Waste is not a book about clean water. It’s the activism-focused memoir of an activist whose long career has led her to fight for clean water and safe sewage treatment for some of the poorest people in America. Her personal journey has brought her to many famous politicians, celebrities, and activists–and not always the ones you’d expect.

There are some terms–“perc test” comes to mind–that go sweeping past that I know, because of my family background, but I don’t expect a casually interested reader to know them. Despite that, this is very much not a technical book, so if you come in wanting to know why some soils are more prone to drainage difficulties than others, how different diseases of untreated sewage spread differently with environmental factors, how climate change will only hasten this spread–this is not the book to explain any of that to you. What it is: a book that gives one woman’s road map to awareness, activism, and real change.

It also is a book that does not flinch from the present day. There is an epilogue that was written after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and puts the rest of the book in that context. If you’re not ready for that on a given day, that’s not the day to read Waste.

Books read, late September

John Joseph Adams, ed., Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies. This is an anthology full of familiar names doing a wide variety of far-flung space adventure. I particularly appreciated stories from Vylar Kaftan, Yoon Ha Lee, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (writing as A. Merc Rustad), and Caroline Yoachim.

Melissa Albert, The Night Country. The sequel to The Hazel Wood, this deals with the fallout from that book in a way that is extremely well-suited to its YA fantasy structure.

Claire Beams, The Illness Lesson. Major content warnings for sexual abuse and medical abuse here. If you hate Bronson Alcott–and Lord knows I do–here is a book by someone else who hates Bronson Alcott and wants to tell a 19th century story of personal discovery and liberation from Transcendentalist bozo dudes. Some quite upsetting sections, but generally beautifully written.

Stephanie Burgis, Frostgilded. Kindle. This is a short treat, labeled a coda to the previous novellas and very dependent on knowing the characters from them–but very rewarding if you do.

S.B. Divya, Machinehood. Discussed elsewhere.

Maria Dahvana Headley, trans. Beowulf. This is a rollicking translation, steeped in Saxon braggadocio. Fun alliteration, interesting angle. Depending on how emotionally intimate you feel with the Geats, Danes, and Angles, you might not want this to be your only Beowulf–but it increased, rather than decreasing, my enthusiasm for more.

Jordan Ifueko, Raybearer. YA fantasy with global inspirations centering on Africa, lots of fun, beautifully written, highly recommended.

Naomi Mitchison, The Delicate Fire. The introduction to my copy claims that this is Mitchison’s farewell to the Classical Greek world. I can believe it. It’s like a mosaic novel except that the pieces don’t all join to one thing. It’s like a mosaic workshop, in novel form. One of the things Mitchison is seriously thinking about is slavery, and another is sexual violence, so time your reading of it carefully if you’re interested.

Megan E. O’Keefe, Chaos Vector. Another example of a sequel that depends heavily on the first volume, but they’re in print so you’re all good. This one had fewer AIs (less AI?) through most of the book, and those were my favorite part of the first one, but it was still fun.

Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English. A tiny monograph about ethnoformation and what we know from archaeological evidence in an age when genetic testing can rule out certain kinds and timings of vast population difference. Pretty cool.

Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and What Now?. Two nonfiction volumes, essays by the author, very personal but only sporadically deep. Sometimes fun to read, sometimes just awful–the former volume, for example, has an essay about end-of-life care for her grandmother and another about end-of-life care for her dog, so, uh. Tread cautiously.

Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation. Mixed media: photos, illustrations, poetry, essays. Really compelling and sometimes beautifully-footnoted personal thoughts about race in America.

Valerie Valdes, Prime Deceptions. Another sequel that is full of ramifications. This one I think has a cover that is slightly more accurate for the sometimes-dark tone–it’s a funny book, don’t get me wrong, but not a perky one, and I worried about the previous cover giving the impression of sunshine and roses when it’s more blasters and (self-)recrimination. But with Spanish-inflected wisecracking along the way! And a supportive team…that has to be supportive because they get into some pretty deep shit….

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars. This is about five women writers who lived in the same square in the interwar period–Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and HD and two scholars I didn’t know much about before, Jane Harrison and Eileen Power. You get some Hope Mirrlees as a bonus, and my main complaint about this book was that I’m still not sure why Wade didn’t make it six and give Mirrlees her own section, instead of wrapping her in with living with Jane Harrison. But still, it’s just the sort of history packed with artistic and intellectual connections that I love to see.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and Anne-Marie Rogers, Lumberjanes: Birthday Smarty. This…okay, I’m going to be honest: this is not my favorite style, of the artists doing Lumberjanes, and the plot felt pretty paint-by-numbers. It was still fun–Lumberjanes are always fun–but I don’t think it will be one of their notable best volumes.

Annie Whitehead, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. If you notice a pattern lately, why yes, I am reading a lot about pre-Conquest England. This is not one of the catchier volumes but is still very good for what it’s doing.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and B. Sherise Moore, eds. Fiyah Issue 15. Kindle. For me the stand-out story in this issue was Vincent Tirado’s “Your Name Is Oblivia,” but it was another solid issue, well worth reading.

Machinehood, by S. B. Divya

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a classic science fiction form I’m not seeing enough of: near-future SF written from an intimate voice. The main points of view in the book are two sisters-in-law, Welga and Nithya, who are also close friends, and whose perspective gives triangulation on the future Divya has created. Most humans are constantly accompanied and assisted by their WAIs (weak AIs), machine intelligences that don’t quite make the full equal personhood grade by humanity’s current estimation. But they’re darn good at what they can do, and as a result humanity has chosen to enter an arms race of source with machines, taking a variety of designer drugs to enhance intellectual focus, speed, healing ability, stamina, and more.

Enter the Machinehood. The Machinehood is a combined human-AI group that is not the least bit satisfied with the status of AIs in the world–and not thrilled with the way human bodies are treated, either. They’ve gotten to the point where they are willing to engage in violent revolution.

Welga has been aligned with the status quo for most of her life–previously as a Marine, now in her work as a shield. But her mother died of bad reactions to drugs, and she’s starting to have some of those herself. Her sister-in-law Nithya has the biotech skills to help her if anyone can–if anyone human can. And they’re both ready to oppose the Machinehood for the safety of their loved ones–for humanity as a whole. They think. They hope.

This book has a few weaknesses. The exposition is often clunky, and the secondary characters (especially Luis, the man who ties the two protagonists together) are sometimes sketched-in ciphers. But if you like near-future hard SF that centers the lives of individuals and gives you close views of their thoughts, Machinehood is exactly what you’re looking for.

COVID Fall: Memorial

I wanted to know who she had been
They gave me adjectives–nice, so nice
The sweetest lady. I wanted to know her loves
And those fell rarely from their lips.
By chance, a mention: she loved
The river valley in autumn. Oh. Me too.
She was oak and birch, maple and sumac
Blazing? Yes. So am I. Then another:
Turtle sundaes, pecan and caramel
Sticking in our molars. Yes. Oh yes.
With that I start to build an idea,
The faintest image of who she was,
Who we would have been together.
As we approach a million,
Gather their loves: this one a sunset
Streaking wide prairie skies,
That one petrichor and sunshine,
Another varnished wood. This is how
We keep them. This is how we keep our souls.

Books read, early September

Ben Aaronovitch, Tales from the Folly. Kindle. Vignettes and side stories from the Rivers of London series across time. Fun but not a good place to begin, and not crucial unless you really like the series.

John Blair, Building Anglo-Saxon England. This is a literal title: it is about architecture and archaeology and what we know about this era of English history. Lots of cool details about how we know what we know, interesting research fodder for a project.

Desirina Boskovich, ed., Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Lavishly illustrated, including some illustrations that appear to be newly commissioned for this book–money well spent in my opinion, the Angela Carter one by Dea Boskovich was gorgeous. Many of the entries are house-written but some are guests. Most serious SFF fans will already know some of what’s in here, but which things which people will know varies–I expect there’s something new for everyone here, ranging all over the field including different media.

Marie Brennan, The Nine Lands. Kindle. These were fine short stories, but sometimes one is conscious of an author improving, and this is evidence that Brennan has. Still worth reading? Sure, yes, it was fun. But don’t make this your first Brennan book. They’re early stories, and she does keep getting better.

Christopher Brown, Failed State. The third in its series, and I recommend reading the other two first. It’s fast-paced and well-done and thinking very carefully about the near future of the environment and politics of the US–not always cheerfully. But carefully; and not hopelessly either. This book has forays into both the legal system and land reclamation projects, and does not neglect characterization along the way. Recommended.

Marcia Douglas, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. This is a female (feminist?) Rastafarian novel, across time and certain parts of local space. It’s an extremely different perspective from what I usually read and very interesting; I’m still thinking about it.

John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting. Reread. Discussed elsewhere.

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution. This is a magisterial history of that section of Haitian history. James is acute and unrelenting. There is one footnote from the second edition where he basically said, “this sentence has gotten a lot of criticism and it is still exactly what I think,” and I love this book for that as for so many other things. This book has the courage of its convictions–and has also bothered to significantly research its convictions.

Naomi Mitchison, The Land the Ravens Found. A retelling of the settlement of Iceland through the family of Aud the Deep-Minded. This is my jam and may well be your jam as well. If only it was longer.

Megan O’Keefe, Velocity Weapon. Are you short on charming AIs in your fiction at the moment? Would any number of charming AIs still leave you short on charming AIs? Megan O’Keefe has your back. I enjoyed this a lot and ordered the sequel basically right away.

Nunzio Pernicone, Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892. As I said to a friend in email, this book is very strong on the who, what, where, when, and not so hot on the why, how. If you want to know what conventions and schisms took place in Italian anarchism in the late 19th century, this is a solid resource. If you want to go any deeper about who these people were personally, why they felt the way they did, how their thinking evolved and why…you’ll have to find another book, because that’s not what Pernicone is here to do. Ah well.

Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. This is lovely. It’s got quite a few direct interviews with people living on disappearing or threatened land, it’s got Rush thinking about different American coastal ecosystems, it’s thoughtful and beautiful, hurray this book.

Dana Simpson, Camping With Unicorns, Phoebe and Her Unicorn In Unicorn Theater, The Unicorn Whisperer, Unicorn Bowling. I realized that I had not read the latest adventures of Phoebe and Marigold in quite some time, so I got them all from the library at once and (almost) caught up in one silly evening on the couch. (There’s another new one out. I’m in line for it.) I can recommend silly evenings on the couch with Phoebe and Marigold right now.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 36. Kindle. I am in this, and I make a policy of not reviewing things I’m in.

Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. If you’ve been feeling like contemporary people are uniquely terrible to each other, wow is this the book to remedy that. The staggering amount of racism in and out of both major American political parties during the Roosevelt presidency is quite a lot to deal with. Several remarkable people tried, and knowing about them is good. But yikes, the amount of blatant overt racism is nauseating.

Rebecca West, The Judge. Kindle. Oh this was so bad. Oh goodness this was so bad. It was not worthless, it was not without its charms or I wouldn’t have read it all the way through. (You have no idea how many books I don’t read all the way through.) And other Rebecca West is lovely! But this was long-winded, never taking a paragraph to say what five pages could. And it suffered from so many other flaws that West doesn’t usually, such as: Batman Villainitis! Wherein you can tell by looking at someone whether they are smart, interesting, and generally worthwhile! Expired Satire! Where the thing that was going to be cleverly sent-up doesn’t even really matter in historical context! Excessive Freudianism! Where instead of her usual observations of people, it’s Oedipal complexes all the way down! Improbable Staging! Where seriously, you can’t do that with any bread knife I’ve ever met. There is much better Rebecca West out there for you to read, and I suggest you do that instead.

The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dear Mike,

I miss you. There are signs of life in the atmosphere of Venus, the American West is on fire, and the world in general is in a state that would have gotten us at least four of your poems, maybe more. I don’t expect you could have fixed any of it, but it’d still be better to face it with you.

But we have your stuff. We have that. So I read The Dragon Waiting for the fourth time this week, in its new edition. Scott Lynch wrote a lovely introduction for it, and I had to go off and cry and swear like four times while reading it, because Scott didn’t get to know you, he’s very clear about that in the introduction, and he’s just the very tip of the amazing ship-shattering iceberg of people who should have gotten to know you. But he has The Dragon Waiting. Not the same as getting to talk to you about EMT/firefighter geekery or caper stories or whatever it is that you’d know in common that I don’t even know yet, but it sure isn’t nothing.

In some ways your books are where I left them, Mike. There are bits that I always remember, and I’ve never found them to pale on rereads. The parts I love, the horrible moment of the doctor realizing about the young prince, or the scene where [spoiler] is deliberately horrible to [spoiler] for strategic reasons, or the way that it all unfolds by implication–they’re all still there.

But they also change on the rereads. There are always things that hit me harder later. The line about how if Dimi’s father could die, so could any god: my dad was alive the last time I read that, so it was a softer blow, more bearable. But also I think of you when I read that, though you were neither father nor god to me. If Mike could die so could any friend. If Mike could die so could any mentor. If Mike could die so could any artist. You left us so many of the things we’d need in your absence, but friend, you never intended that they should sit easy, and they don’t.

The things you did with this different world were more graceful, more compact, more allusive than–my God, you wrote this in 1983. 1983. Some of it might look a little less astonishing now that other people have come along and said, hey, yeah, I think I’ll do that too, but it’s like our friend’s kid saying Hamlet was a lot of common quotes strung together. You were there first and best. Your Byzantium, your Margaret of Anjou, your Lord Rivers, the things you think to do that other people still don’t think of…backwards, on schees.

It’s September, which makes it 14 years since we lost you. That math is very hard to understand. And now there’s this new edition, so instead of scouring used bookstores we can just…tell people to pick up a copy. Just casual-like. At their favorite bookstore, if they can go there in this plague; online if not. It’s such a relief, Mike. We’re doing the best we can, but a new copy of The Dragon Waiting sure doesn’t make anything harder. I’ve written you a whole series of Nature stories, Jo’s got Richard and Savonarola and Ficino in Lent, so many others, we haven’t stopped wanting to talk to you. It’s just that now it’s going to be easier to ask more people into the conversation.

Thanks. For all of it.

Present Writers: Kate Elliott

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones, Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, Susan Cooper, Ellen Klages, Lisa Goldstein, and C.J. Cherryh.

Kate Elliott has had a prolific and varied career in SFF that is only getting stronger every year. She has even, conveniently, put together a page to tell you where you might want to start with her books depending on your tastes! I call that considerate.

My personal favorites are–and everyone who knows me will be shocked to hear this–the trilogy with “cold” in their titles–Cold Magic and its sequels. They’re funny and adventurous and doing an alternate history thing that is not the common run of alternate history things. (Phoenicians many years on!) But the other series range from space opera to epic fantasy with lots of non-standard stops along the way. Elliott is great at taking a genre and constructing it, rather than deconstructing it–deciding what makes an epic fantasy interesting to her and doing it that way from the ground up rather than borrowing bits and pieces of genre furniture. Many/most of her books are medium-to-long books that exist in series, but generally with defined endings rather than meandering around.

Elliott has been at this since the mid-90s, and while she’s definitely picked a few things up along the way, I still like the Jaran books quite a lot–I feel like they hold up. The other thing she’s managed to do since the mid-90s, and with increasing skill, is to be a supportive presence around the writer community. In both cases, we’re very lucky.