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Books read, early November

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. French novel in translation; the title is the best of it. It has some lovely moments of disaffected youth and secretive age, but the ending was wholly unsatisfying in ways that would be a giant spoiler. Suffice it to say that I could go without seeing this form of ending ever again in my life and it would still be too soon.

Lauren Beukes, Moxyland. This is really really a cyberpunk novel. It’s from this millennium. And it’s a cyberpunk novel. I…like the occasional cyberpunk novel. But it’s confusing to still find them. The tech ideas were fun, but I didn’t feel like the plot/character arcs quite did enough in the end. Still worth a read if you like cyberpunk.

David Browne, Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. A history of white men making music in 1970. Lots of interesting and funny tidbits, particularly if you’re familiar with the music in question. Very weird, though, that in 1970 of all years, women and black people were treated as peripheral in music, as sidekicks or who knows what. But the white dudes were doing enough interesting stuff for a book, so okay, cool.

Thomas M. Coffey, Decision Over Schweinfurt: The US 8th Air Force Battle for Daylight Bombing. Grandpa’s. This is a very straightforward European theater account. It’s got a narrow enough focus that I expect it won’t be of great general interest, but what it’s doing, it does reasonably well.

M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating. I had already read the sections of this omnibus that I liked best, but Fisher is always interesting, and if you haven’t read any of her work, this has some very good stuff in it.

John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless. Reread. This is the first time I’ve been able to reread this since Mike died. I still love it. I still find the quantum superposition of angry teen perspective and parent perspective amazing. And the friend relationships, oh, oh. I could read it again right now just for those.

Nancy Goldstone, The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily. The title of this book will probably sell more books, but honestly, she was just not that notorious, at least not to the hand-rubbing evil level. Very interesting slice of history I have mostly neglected, and it included Hungarian stuff the way British history includes French stuff: throughout, as an essential part, because the kingdoms were so intertwined. Another piece of the puzzle.

David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, eds., Twenty-First Century Science Fiction. I follow a policy of not reviewing things I’m in, because it feels tacky. But this exists, and I’m in it, and lots of other cool people are in it. In case you were wondering.

Steven H. Jaffe, New York At War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham. Pretty much what it says on the tin. Interesting, fast read, not earth-shaking.

Alethea Kontis, Enchanted. I was so relieved to start reading this book. I had had a run of really bad library books, one after another, and I was bouncing off them like a kid in a blow-up castle. And then there was Enchanted, and I started into the first chapter and just went, “ahhhhh,” and my shoulders went down a notch and yeah. There’s a lot of stuff in one small book here–occasionally a bit too much stuff–but it was just the right thing to read that day, and I expect it will be just the right thing to read again on other days when I could use a good fairy tale or twelve.

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin and The Name of War; King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity and also The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. I discovered Jill Lepore with the first of these volumes and immediately demanded that the library supply me with everything else of hers they had. The Jane Franklin book was a fascinating angle on the period. I don’t actually recommend the Tea Party book unless you’re feeling the need to have your blood boil in particular ways, because the modern stuff is annoying without being new, and the insights into the actual Revolutionary War are similar to those in the Franklin book, which is much more worth the time. As for King Philip’s War, maybe I would have known more about it going in if I’d been from the Northeastern US, but as it was this volume filled in information I didn’t know I needed. One of the things about Jill Lepore is–you know when you’re reading history, and sometimes you stop and go, “Aughhhh how can historians deal with this stuff without getting so angry?” Jill Lepore gets angry. Jill Lepore is fierce. I will be getting more of her stuff. New favorite historian of US stuff, hurrah.

Miyuki Miyabe The Book of Heroes. Described to me as a Japanese YA portal fantasy. The world of the portal is not nearly so thoroughly-realized as I tend to think of for that description–it’s more a bubble universe, a side universe, something. I was reminded of The Phantom Tollbooth and Haroun and the Sea of Stories–this wasn’t quite so language-focused (and a good thing, too, since I was reading it in translation) but had a similar level of realization to the worlds visited. Pacing would have confused the heck out of me if this was my first Japanese novel ever, but it wasn’t, so: the beginning will last much longer than Anglophone conventions would lead a person to expect. Just FYI.

Issui Ogawa, The Lord of the Sands of Time. If Olaf Stapledon was Japanese, this would be the book he would write. It’s a millennia-spanning time-travel AI/aliens thing that does a lot of stuff Anglophone SF never really got interested in doing much of. And by the time you think you might get tired of that thing it’s doing, it’s done.

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Not the most pleasant book I read this fortnight, but exceptionally well done. Rosenfeld has been battling using the FoIA as his weapon to get the documentation for this book. It’s not shocking per se, but there are some things I did not know in specific (or did not know where to get the documentation for). Rosenfeld does not make the mistake of attempting to portray the student radical leaders as saints or their demonstrations as model behavior at every turn, but he also doesn’t twist the available data out of shape in an effort to make it look like a “both sides are equally flawed” question (it’s the word “equally” that often leads people astray). Important stuff.

S. E. Smith, The United States Marine Corps in World War II: Vol. I: Beginning’s End. Grandpa’s. A set of first-person accounts from Marines serving in early Pacific theater battles. For some reason I didn’t realize that it would be all first-person, and the variety of voice is charming (inasmuch as anything with this particular context can be called charming). I’m looking forward to Vols. 2 and 3.

Robert C. Wilson, Burning Paradise. Discussed elsewhere.

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The things we like best

Every job has things you like better and things you don’t like so much in it, no matter how much you like the job on the whole. There is no job that is all the good bits, start to finish.

Me, I’m happiest when I’m writing a novel. I know there are people who enjoy having written rather than enjoying writing, but I am not them, and sometimes I marvel that they can do this job at all, because it contains a lot of writing for people who don’t enjoy writing. More power to them for making it work, and we are all a beautiful rainbow and that. But what I like best in an ordinary day is to wake up and have unwritten bits of novel spread out like a quilt before me, being able to work on whatever bit I like and having it come together into something big and wonderful.

Next to that I like drafting short stories. And next to that I like trying to draft short stories and novels simultaneously–it’s really best to separate them out when I can.

Then there is a giant step down to revision and marketing.

The thing is, I am not actually doing this just for personal fulfillment. While I am comfortable with the idea that some of my work will be trunked at some point, I am not actually writing it for the purpose of trunking it. I believe in revision! I believe in it fervently, in the idea of being able to make things wonderful that did not come out quite as wonderful as I’d hoped. Revision is a gift we are given by the universe: the fact that we, we lucky ones, we have chosen an art that is, thank God, not a performance art, and therefore we can improve it after the first rush of creation.


However, waking up and saying to myself, “Today I will improve upon the thing that is suboptimal now!” is an intellectual pleasure. It is not like writing the thing in draft, which for me is an intellectual and a visceral pleasure all at once. I never wallow in revision; I can’t. That’s not how it works for me. And the drafts, sometimes I really do wallow in those.

At the moment, I have just finished one large and one small project in revision, and I have large ones ahead of me. There is the previous thing I ran past the writers’ group, which I don’t want to let languish indefinitely half-revised. And then in December the writers’ group will meet again, and I’ll get more revision ideas there. Revision will be with me for awhile; ideally it will be with me always. But it will be with me intensely for awhile even without adding to the revision queue, which I seem to be doing pretty constantly right now.

The spigot is still attempting to gush forth new story upon me. The spigot is undeterred by revision. The spigot also does not feel revision as work, though the rest of me does. This is how I managed to finish novel revisions Saturday morning and then turn to a new story with Alec without batting an eye.

I’m trying to find the balance here, between getting done useful things that really want getting done and letting myself do the really fun wonderful things–that will also, long-term, be useful. This last week, I’ve been feeling like I “earn” my time with new stuff by doing revisions on old stuff. But I don’t want to hedge things around with so many rules that I miss the really good moments. It’s not just a matter of a player on a streak having to respect the streak, because they don’t happen very often, although you can generally do worse for platitude-mining than Bull Durham. It’s also a matter of why we do this. Why I do this. And honestly, I do this so I can write scenes about a gigantic jeweled magical orrery, and also political upheaval, and also teenagers feeling confused about pretty much everything.

So I’m going to go do that. And tomorrow, I will try to do some more revisions. But also probably more of that. Because it’s what I like best.

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4th Street Registration is open!

My favorite con–the con that is my con, the con of my heart–is 4th St. Fantasy in June. Learn more here! And register: if you register before the end of the year, it’s significantly cheaper.

Also, the seminar before the con begins has a limited number of slots, so if you want to attend that, thinking about it early is a good idea. What’s the seminar like and who’s doing it? Well, the panelists for it are Elizabeth Bear, Seanan McGuire, Steven Brust, and, uh, me. More information here. We will be using a Metamorphosis theme this year. It will be awesome and ideally cockroach-free.

Hope to see you there! It will be awesome. Really. Awesome.

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Burning Paradise, by Robert Charles Wilson

Review copy provided by Tor.

Wilson is doing something that’s very much on the border of thriller here, with short chapters and characters that do not diverge much from everyman cutouts. There are things to like here–in one small scene that made me very happy, Wilson makes it clear that he understands (and does not approve of!) how sexual harassment gets minimized and swept under the rug in a community and the effects that behavior can have on working scientists, among others.

Unfortunately, I really felt that the thriller approach–as it often does–made for a far, far less interesting exploration of the SF premise. You have an alternate twentieth century without major wars and many of the major conflicts we had, and while the characters pay lip service to the difference, there isn’t much immediately visible. I find it very hard to believe that a truncated Great War, no WWII, and apparently no Communist revolutions anywhere (??!) would result in a society that looked pretty much identical to what we have now; even if you believe it, it’s less interesting than a divergence would be. Or there was room to explore the idea that Earth had been nudged through its radio communications by an alien species–what limitations would that put on the nudges? what changes could ensue and what couldn’t? But that wasn’t the direction Wilson took it. Nor did he spend very much time on the idea of an alien species fighting its parasites with humanity as more or less an irrelevant side project.

No, instead it was very much focused on a thriller-type monster show, with travel and monster-bashing narrative taking front and center. Reasonably readable from page to page, as thrillers tend to be, but ultimately unsatisfying–and even more so because of all the potential it just abandoned in order to focus on shooting people who ooze green instead of red.

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Produce trio: carrots

I almost didn’t do carrots, because really, carrots! They go in things! There they are, in things! Almost nobody ever says, “Carrots, oh how I need more ways to eat them,” because raw will do, or in most salads, and there you have that: carrots! And you can put them in lemony chicken soup, and you can put them in lamb stew, and you can put them in all the soups I haven’t written down, more or less, and in potpie with or without actual pie crust, with or without meat…carrots!

But the other night I made a new carrot thing that felt lovely and festive, so I thought I would write it down here. It even looks mostly like a recipe, with quantities and everything!

5-Spiced Maple Glazed Carrots
1#ish of carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal–you might do this with what the store attempts to pass off as “baby carrots,” but really the full-size ones mostly have more complex flavor, so I recommend bothering
2 T butter
1/4 c. maple syrup
1/3 c. water
1 T 5-spice powder
chopped chives if they’re still in season

Melt the butter in a pan with a cover. Throw the carrots in and toss them around a bit. Add the rest of the ingredients except the chives. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer, covering. Check every 5 minutes or so and stir; should take 10-20 minutes depending on how high your simmer is. When the sauce has almost reduced itself to a glaze, throw the chives in and cook a tiny bit more. Hurrah carrots.

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Books read, late October.

It was an epic fortnight for bouncing off library books. Epic.

John David Anderson, Sidekicked. On a page to page level, I found this book engaging and enjoyable. After twenty pages, I had put it on my Christmas shopping ideas list. By the time I finished, it was thoroughly off again. It is 2013, and this book made me blurt, snarl, and snap, “WHAT YEAR IS IT?” so many, many, many times in more than one direction. If you want the full version, ask on e-mail. Short version is: I was incredibly disappointed because Anderson is, as I said, very readable, clearly talented, and I wanted to like this book. And not only no but hell no.

Rae Carson, The Bitter Kingdom. A fitting end to this trilogy. I am usually a fan of reading series in order–and I am here too!–but I feel like Rae clued readers in enough on what had gone before that while someone starting here wouldn’t get the full emotional arc, they would have no trouble orienting themselves not just in the world but in the characters’ personal lives. So by all means get Girl of Fire and Thorns first if you can find it, but if you can’t, go ahead with this one. The backstory is cool, the characters are compelling, and the crucial moment with the godstone was simultaneously surprising and just right. I enjoyed this very much and will be eager to see what Rae gets up to next.

Linda Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History. One of the worst titles I have ever run across. Ever. “A Woman in World History,” seriously, publishers, what female-identified persons does that leave out? Most people will not recognize Elizabeth Marsh’s name except for being able to identify it as likely female, and the subtitle gives you nothing. Marsh was an eighteenth-century subject of the British Empire, and her travails took her all over the world–the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, a surprising lot of Africa, England, India, South America, lots of places. And she was remarkably ordinary, aside from that. Interesting stuff, more for people who like travel narratives and/or the eighteenth century than a general recommendation.

James S. A. Corey, Abaddon’s Gate. Last in the trilogy, with blessedly few vomit zombies to be seen, or at least seen as vomit zombies. (They might be classified as vomit zombie ghosts, but no one calls them that.) Considering how little I liked the premise and the first book, I’m glad Mark and Jo got me to read the other two, but really I’d mostly rather the authors focused on other things. I did like that the Methodist pastor in space actually acted like a Methodist pastor in space; it was a type of religious belief and practice that is not at all common in SF despite being pretty darn common in the real world.

Antonio Garrido, The Corpse Reader. Translation of a Spanish-language historical novel set in China, about the father of Chinese forensic science. Generally a fun read, with added interest for watching how a Spanish writer focuses on slightly different aspects of that era of Chinese history than English writers generally do. Not really a genre murder mystery per se, but probably should be shelved with them, since it has similar concerns.

Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet. This is the Sooper Seekrit Soodonym of Jon Courtenay Grimwood as he makes a foray into straight-up non-speculative historical fiction. My alternate title for it was The French Nobility: Boring When Not Disgusting (Often Both). If that appeals to you, onwards. As for me, I will be hoping that Mr. Grimwood spends more time back on the speculative side of the aisle, even though I love historical fiction and need more of it.

Jan Guillou, The Templar Knight. Swedish historical novel of the twelfth century. This has a Birkebeiner! And evil nuns and good nuns and Templars and Hospitallers and smiting and weaving. Second in its series, but should stand alone reasonably well. Exemplar of the idea that Scandinavian literature becomes 1000% less depressing once smiting enters the picture. Looking forward to the last in this series, and I definitely see why it’s been popular in Sweden.

David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. This book was horrifying. It was not particularly well-organized and kept going back and forth, but the historical events it was covering were horrifying enough to keep it compelling. Basically in the 19th century there were several Jewish children (including the titular kid) who were legally kidnapped by Italian Catholic government(s) (this was the confusing unification period and interrelated there, although Kertzer did not make the interrelations as clear as he hoped) because there was even a rumor that a Christian servant had baptized the kid. It was awful. The titular character was six, and he never entirely reconciled with his poor family even as an adult.

Scott Lynch, The Republic of Thieves. This book is structured in two timelines, a fairly distant past within the characters’ lives and the present of the series to date. I liked both timelines, which is rare for me, and I very much liked that the subtitle of this book could in some ways be Locke Lamora Gets Called On His Bullshit. Looking forward to more. Recommended.

Craig M. Mullaney, The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education. A thoughtful and detailed memoir of a young US Army officer’s training and deployment. It was more thoughtful and detailed on the training end of things than the deployment end, and I really wish there had been more about his post-Army life, but given the timing he really hadn’t had a lot of chance to process those things yet. I will be interested to see if he writes another memoir about becoming a civilian, though.

Chaim Potok, The Chosen. Interwoven stories of two young men who are friends and their relationships with their fathers, set in an American Orthodox Jewish community in the mid-40s into 1950. It was a beautiful book, and it did what SF readers often complain that mainstream fiction does not do: it put large-scale social change vividly into a very personal individual context. (Mainstream fiction doesn’t always do this, but SF doesn’t always do it either, so…I think we should all give that particular complaint a rest, frankly.)

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Fire Engine That Disappeared. Yes, those of you who are paying attention to the rules just noticed that’s two Swedish novels not just in one month but in one fortnight. Oops. The Templar Knight came in at the library sooner than I thought, and then there was the epic set of bounces off other library books, so…yeah. Anyway, this is another in their mystery series, and the title strikes me as unfortunate because it’s pointing in neon to one of the important clues. Ah well. That’s all of them the library has, I think.

Dan Snow, Death or Victory: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of an Empire. This book is very very very much about the Battle of Quebec and very very very little about the birth of an empire. Judge your interest levels accordingly.

G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. One of the things I love about this book is that it was present or very near future–the setting was not at all out of line for one of Cory Doctorow’s novels that get classified as near-future SF. And it was tech-savvy along those lines, albeit in a very different (Muslim) cultural matrix. However, it was fantasy also! This is good! I see no reason why the future (near or far!) can’t have fantasies in it. I wish I saw more of that. Also Wilson’s handling of “the convert” showed a sophisticated self-awareness I wish I saw more of in whatever kind of fiction. More please.

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Cool project you should see

I’ve talked off and on this year about Tim’s War for the Oaks project–how he was taking a series of photos of people reading Emma Bull’s seminal urban fantasy War for the Oaks in the locations from that book. Well, now it’s done! And you can see it all online here. You should go look, it’s very cool. He’s still working on the details of how to make the whole thing available in more concrete form, so stay tuned.