New essay today in Uncanny! Failing the Marshmallow Test: On Not Saving Books for Later. I know that some amount of book hoarding is inevitable because nobody, not even me, reads instantaneously. But this is about deliberately putting off something you know you want to read for “later”–and why I think it’s maybe better not to.
Jennifer Ackerman, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. Oh this was lovely, lots of interesting facts about owls. If you, like me, have moments when natural history is just the most soothing thing you can possibly read, do I have good news for you, there is this book that will tell you several more things about owls. Also it has lots of picutres of different owls. It’s just owls all the way down, here, people.
Victoria Goddard, At the Feet of the Sun. Sometimes when there’s a very long book I think about whether it could have been done at shorter length and the author was just enjoying the longer length. This book meanders and meanders, but I actually don’t think it could have been done shorter, despite the repetition of character arc, despite the set pieces that could be cut, etc., because the meander is the point. Goddard was not trying to write a bijoux little thing that somehow ran away, this was meant to be a long journey, the entire form of the book is a long journey, that’s the book it is. Now, did I like the new fire of the sun better when I thought it was a metaphor, yes, but that’s me. This is the literal story of it, things keep popping up being not metaphors after all, and almost every time I sighed and went “oh well,” because I actually do like metaphors. But it’s clearly done deliberately and oughtn’t to be changed just because of my fondness for metaphor.
Marie Howe, What the Living Do. This series of poems is not only about the loss of her brother, but it is centered around that loss. I found them to be spare, moving, and also have the kind of life associations that grief brings, where you remember random things from your history with the person, distilled in poetic form. It is a good addition to my grief poetry library. (Some of us like companionship in grief. I do.)
Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China. I found this book interesting but frustrating. It was a history of monetary policy rather than money, in a lot of ways. It overexplained some things and then didn’t go into a lot of areas that would have been useful for the whole picture (basically there were no ethnic minorities in China who were acknowledged to have an effect on money…which is a pretty big omission given the effect on the silver supply of the Miao and other people in the hill regions…). It also jumped around in some ways, and in general was less coherently organized than I hoped. I liked having the different perspective than I usually can find on world history, and even on Chinese history, I just…probably expected too much here.
Juhani Karila, Fishing for the Little Pike. Northern Finnish Rural Weird, small-scale mythologies with large effects on the lives of individuals. Lots of small town social dynamics, including with magical creatures. I loved this, and I hope we get more of Karila’s work translated.
L.R. Lam and Elizabeth May, Seven Mercies. Second in a duology, definitely read the first one first, lots of shooty shoot space opera, mostly women characters, many of them prickly and damaged and doing the best they can in a cold hard galaxy with their friends at their back.
Suzannah Lipscomb, The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc. Late 16th/early 17th century consistory records give a lot of testimony from women who didn’t have opportunity to testify on their own behalves in as many contexts before, and Lipscomb has gone through that testimony to find out what we can say about the veryday lives of these lower an dmiddle class women. Their insults and reasons for getting into fights are particularly interesting. This is why we read history. Not all of why. But definitely why.
Erin Noteboom, A Knife So Sharp Its Edge Cannot Be Seen. And these poems are sharp too, very sharp about science and its rewards and costs, so lovely, dark sometimes in ways that I love without being–quite exactly?–in the category of grief poetry? but also not entirely not, because Noteboom is willing to look where we sometimes want to look away.
Shelley Parker-Chan, He Who Drowned the World. Another that’s second in a duology, another where you definitely should read the first one first. Almost every content warning in the world here, lots of violence including sexual violence, lots of horrible decision-making but Parker-Chan knows it’s horrible and doesn’t endorse it. I was a little surprised by how explicitly the ending metaphysically endorsed the Ming dynasty, that was…very clear. But it was a really interesting read and I’m glad to have it.
C.L. Polk, Soulstar. Reread. I think this is my favorite of the Kingston Trilogy, definitely worth sticking around for the ending, where there’s consequence piled on consequence but not in a zero-gravity-throwing-lightning-bolt way, in a doing politics that sometimes hurt people we care about accidentally and we have to deal with the fallout way. Everything ramifies in more than one direction, and we just have to keep doing the hard work. Yay. Yay.
Kay Ryan, Synthesizing Gravity. I found these essays so compellingly written, I very much wanted to go back to reading them at all times when I wasn’t reading them, and also in many cases Ryan is either laughably wrong or, more commonly, has decided that a valid personal opinion ought to be applied universally to the writing or reading of poetry. At one point she asks why she couldn’t love Auden, and I do love Auden, and I do not love Kay Ryan, and I stared bemused at the page, because it was very much a–yes, okay, we will just be very different, that’s just how it is. I ended up having her voice in my head as one of the characters frequently played by Joan Cusack at the turn of the millennium, slightly over-enunciating and over-the-top and frequently wrong but very interesting on the way to doing it. (Just don’t go to the AWP if you don’t like conferences, Kay. It doesn’t make other people troglodytes to gather together and discuss the sonnet form. Get on over it. Lordy.)
William Shakespeare, Richard III. Reread, Kindle. I am doing a project, and I wanted to make sure there weren’t any more small touchstones I wanted in it, which there were. Gosh everything is right on its sleeve in this play. DID EVERYBODY CATCH THAT THE CURRENT DYNASTY IS THE CORRECT ONE AND IS IN ITS PLACE RIGHFULLY OKAY GOOD.
Margery Sharp, The [slur redacted] in the Parlor. Kindle. So to get the title out of the way first: this appears to be a pretty clear-cut instance of an early twentieth-century British person using a slur for Romany people to mean any person who fits that stereotype that they made up about Romany people. No person in this book actually is Roma, and I have no indication that Sharp thought for one second about what this kind of usage did to people of this actual ethnic heritage. (For extra fun, the titular character appears from her name to be Welsh while everyone else is very, very solidly–even aggressively–ethnically English!…Sharp is usually much better about spotting shitty things to do and not doing them than this.) So that sucks. Especially because it’s otherwise mostly an interesting novel about family dynamics, about gender dynamics in farm life in the mid-late 19th century, about attempts at undermining or weaponizing decency and how those can fail. Sharp has a good eye for children who are not miniature adults but do have internal lives of their own, one of whom is the narrator here…but you can have that with The Eye of Love and not have to wince every time someone asks you what you’re reading. I have become a Sharp completist somewhere along the way. If you have not, by all means skip this one.
P. G. Wodehouse, Something New. Kindle. This was fluff, and it was fun fluff, it was the good kind of Wodehouse. You’ll mostly read me saying that here because if I start reading and it’s the bad kind of Wodehouse, I stop. Sometimes things are stressful and people disguising themselves as servants and having hijinks in country houses is about what I can deal with, and there was this for one of those days.
Here are some short stories (and maybe a few poems, and some longer short works) I’ve enjoyed this quarter! Please feel free to recommend more in the comments, I make no pretense that I’ve gotten to everything good that’s come out this year.
Yours, Wickedly: A Story in Thirteen Letters, Stephanie Burgis (Sunday Morning Transport)
The Naming of Knots, M. A. Carrick (BCS)
The Sand Knows Its Way Home, L. Chan (Reckoning)
Merciful Even to Scorpions, Kay Chronister (BCS)
“Equal Forces Opposed in Exquisite Tension,” John Chu (New Suns 2)
“Between Truth and Death on the Murmansk-Saint Petersburg Line,” Zohar Jacobs (Sunday Morning Transport)
“Juan,” Darcie Little Badger (New Suns 2)
“Dragons of Yuta,” Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (New Suns 2)
“Bayanihan,” Maricar Macario (F&SF Sept/Oct 23)
The Kingdom of Darkness, Sarah Monette (Uncanny)
To Dust Returned, Rita Oakes (BCS)
“The Plant and the Purist,” Malka Older (New Suns 2)
SQUAWKER AND DOLPHIN SWIMMING TOGETHER, T.K. Rex (Reckoning)
Till the Greenteeth Draw Us Down, Josh Rountree (The Deadlands)
“Approved Methods of Love Divination in the First-Rate City of Dushagorod,” Kristina Ten (F&SF Jul/Aug 23)
What It Means to Love a City, Mo Usavage (Reckoning)
“Silk and Cotton and Linen and Blood,” Nghi Vo (New Suns 2)
The Three O’Clock Dragon, John Wiswell (Tor.com)
Juliet Barker, 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt. Very much does what it says on the tin. Do you want to read more about revolting peasants? Have thoughts about Jack Straw and Wat Tyler? Here we are then.
Gloria Dickie, Eight Bears: The Past and Imperiled Future. There are eight species of bear on earth now, and Dickie gives each of them a chapter, talking about their habits and habitat and relationship with humans. I learned particularly about the bears most distant from me here–there was little I didn’t know about the black bears we have here in Minnesota but quite a lot about the sloth bears and the moon bears. I find reading natural history soothing even when the news about habitat is not itself soothing, so this was a good book for its timing for me.
Heid E. Erdrich, New Poets of Native Nations. I’d already read about half of these poets, but in many cases I’d read them with great enthusiasm. It’s a really good volume, lots to discover here.
Joshua Hammer, The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird. This is an excellent example of how reality does not always produce delicately nuanced villains for us. Sometimes in reality people who do awful things are just people who think they can get some (often fairly low-grade) material benefit from an awful thing and get away with it. I learned a lot about falcon racing and the rare bird’s egg trade in the modern world from this book. Was I happier for knowing it, no, but I was probably better for knowing it, alas.
Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men (reread) and The Woman Warrior. Read in opposite order. I can definitely see why The Woman Warrior was revelatory both for Asian-American Studies and for memoir at the time. It shouldn’t be the only perspective you have about any Chinese-American ever, good grief, should I even need to say that–but it feels like some of the in-community criticism of it is of the “we’re not all like that” and no, absolutely, nobody’s memoir can be asked to stand for everybody, but that’s not the fault of a memoir, that’s the fault of trying to use a memoir, one person telling the story of one life or at most one family, to represent an entire gigantic group of people. It’s vivid and personal and familial, just don’t read it like it’s trying to be the word from on high about The Chinese Experience.
Karen Lord, The Blue, Beautiful World. I feel like I’ve been seeing more of 1970s tropes done in contemporary books without the sexism and racism, and this is a prime example of that. This has secret human space colonies and telepathy! But actually thinks about colonialism and human variation not in a horribly racist way! I felt like the pop star aspect was less pop star at the end, though, ah well.
Sujata Massey, The Mistress of Bhatia House. The latest in a series of reasonably well-written historical mysteries. It’s one where I’d recommend starting at the beginning of the series because there’s ongoing character relationship stuff here, and this one was not my favorite of the bunch, but it was still a worthy entry in series context.
Nisi Shawl, ed., New Suns 2: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. A really lovely anthology with several quite good stories and a bunch of entirely fine stories that weren’t as directly aimed at me, which is good, not everything should be aimed at me. Stand-out stories from Darcie Little Badger, John Chu, Nghi Vo, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Malka older. Great addition to the shelves.
D. E. Stevenson, Vittoria Cottage. Ah for the days when a book could just be called after its protagonist’s house, more or less regardless of its importance. This is a low-key story of middle-aged love and intended self-sacrifice. I was startled by how quickly it wrapped up until I found out that there are two more in the series; that explains it, I suppose.
Alice Winn, In Memoriam. Oh what a gorgeous book, oh what a wonderful, wonderful book. It’s about two quite young Englishmen–teenagers really–who go from their prep school to fight in the Great War, and they attempt to figure out their romantic relationship within the context their times have given them, and also within the literature they know very well, and it is not any “nicer” than you would expect from the trenches and the wounds and the POW camps and PTSD of the Great War, and I cried a lot and they thought about Tennyson as per the title, which I love, and lots of other poetry, and yeah, this was written straight at my heart. I’m so glad to have read it. Whatever Winn writes next, I’ll want to read. There was a moment when a character’s father says a particular thing and I said “OH NO OH NO OH NO” out loud and I was not wrong but also not sorry I was there for it even with the way it ended.
Patricia C. Wrede, The Dark Lord’s Daughter. The first of a duology, and you can tell that Pat isn’t done with everything she wants to do with this very Dark Lord Tropey book. It’s a portal fantasy. I hope this means MG portal fantasies are a bit more available now. I particularly liked the tablet that became a familiar.
Stephanie Burgis, The Raven Throne. Second in a duology, and you should definitely read the first one first, because this is a lot of follow-on consequences from it. It’s very much a “you thought your problems were solved? no, they’re just beginning!” novel. Some problems that might be more frustrating in older characters (why don’t they talk to each other!) are entirely understandable when the protagonists are literal adolescents: this is the time in their lives when they’re learning these exact skills, this is exactly when they figure out to do this, and having them behave like adults would be silly when they really are 12 even though they’re 12-year-old shapeshifter royalty. With a kingdom to protect from all sides but still, as with being 12, themselves to figure out.
Octavia Cade, You Are My Sunshine and Other Stories. Discussed elsewhere.
Matthew Connelly, The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets. This is one of those books that’s good to have read but not much fun to read: so much of it is banal and depressing with so little prospect of comprehensively fixing it. It really does what it says on the tin, though.
David Cooper, Badon and the Early Wars for Wessex, Circa 500 to 710. Archaeology focused military history trying to match up the written record and the artefacts we can find. Dang is Cooper mad when people get fixated on the “historical” King Arthur.
Robertson Davies, World of Wonders. The last of the Deptford Trilogy, and in some ways the most sordid–quite a lot of it is dedicated to the carnival boyhood of the entity eventually known as Magnus Eisengrim. Quite a lot of literal filth, some repeated anal rape of a child, this is not a book to read if you’re not up for an unpleasant time. It contrasts with the previous volumes and ties them together, but if you want the most magical version of stage magic, this sure is not it. But also you should know that by the time you get to volume three.
Deva Fagan, Nightingale. Stand-alone MG fantasy adventure about an orphan girl fighting a system that is designed to grind her down. Now with fun elements of worldbuilding and friendship. Aetheric swords, soda fountains, labor unions!
Victoria Finlay, Fabric: The Hidden History of the Material World. This is about 90-95% what it says on the tin and a quite good version at that. Lots of interesting facts about fabric! Finlay in top form! The other 5-10% is Finlay grieving for her parents. If you are not up for a parental grief memoir, it is not one, but it’s not not one, either, so…maybe wait until your own grief has settled another 6-12 months if that’s newly your situation, yeah? Because if this had been fresher for me, it would have set me off far more than the details about ramie and kinte cloth (consecutive, not concurrent) would have been worth it.
Carol Gigliotti, The Creative Lives of Animals. Gigliotti is very clear-headed about the places where people have decided that animals are not being creative as a matter of definition and…sort of deconstructing those, looking at the actual behaviors rather than being defensive about how special humans need to feel. Lots of good stuff across a range of animal kingdoms here, hurrah.
Theodora Goss, The Collected Enchantments. This is structured as a few poems and then a short story, repeat. Several old favorites and some stuff new to me.
Nick Harkaway, Titanium Noir. Harkaway understands all the important notes of classic noir, including/especially despair about the class system, and he hits those notes here in a science fictional context without bringing in the incidentals like the staggering sexism. Sometimes a bit too on the nose for my tastes but worth the time all the same.
Sarah Hilary, Someone Else’s Skin. This is a mystery novel with a cop protagonist, and it features loads of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and it has the most common and most annoying twist for that kind of book. If you’re willing to deal with all that, it’s a good one of those. I will probably read the next one in the series the next time I’m willing to deal with one of those. But it sure is one of those, nothing in the world will make it not one of those.
Jordan Kurella, When I Was Lost. By turns tender, haunting, lovely, this is such a good collection, I’m so glad to have these stories all together. I’d read most of them, but it’s a case of being able to return to them whenever I like.
Emily Monosson, Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic. Lots of stuff about fungal plagues and heat-resistant fungus, very interesting, not very cheerful.
Doris Langley Moore, Not at Home. The jacket copy made this look like a comic novel–the funny story of a middle-aged lady who takes in a lodger in the straitened circumstances of postwar London and devolves into an Odd Couple comedy. It was not like that at all. The lodger was not comic-awful, she was just awful-awful. The worst of this is that she borrows a friend’s dog and gets it killed and lies about it. The moral of the story seems to be “put your contracts in writing,” or possibly “have good boundaries,” or both, which is all very well but not worth a couple hundred pages of novel to say, and certainly not with horrifying illustrations of that type. Especially when one is looking forward to light fare with low stakes and instead gets two neglected children and a dead dog and some dead parakeets. Yuck.
Josephine Quinn, In Search of the Phoenicians. And can we find them, the answer is no, no such persons. But a lovely exploration of why not, how we know what we know about ancient identities, what the people in that area were thinking about themselves instead.
Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown. Kindle. One of Sharp’s upbeat funny books in which a midcentury young woman looks at the world and thinks, well, gosh, surely not like that, I’ll just do something different, then. And everyone around her is horrified but she’s basically right. As this book was set but not written in 1939 (it was in fact written in 1944), the bits where all the upper class people were terribly concerned about the impending war and whether the Polish political refugee character would be all right had a different shape than if it had been written in 1939 or in 2023. He is all right, it’s not the sort of book where he’s not all right, it’s a nice book where everyone is confused about their world and what it’s going to be like, which: scoot over, pals, I can sit on that bench with you.
Noel Streatfeild, The Winter Is Past. Kindle. If I had started with this one I would have thought that Streatfeild’s adult novels were fairly slight takes on serious matters. The protagonist of this book has suffered a miscarriage, and everyone’s attitude seems to be that she should get over it because loads of people have miscarriages, and the plot of the book is that she does. This is an oversimplification: there’s interesting business about having evacuees living in her house and learning to be nice to her mother-in-law, but it’s one of those plots that takes early 20th century women by the shoulders and says, look, nothing in your world is ever going to change except your own attitude so you just have to decide to accept your lot in life. Treat everyone around you, especially men but basically everyone, like giant children whose mother you are, including the fact that you are honor-bound to just deal with their temper-tantrums, and…yeah, no, I cannot really recommend this, and I really extra super cannot recommend it if you have had any experience of miscarriage/infant loss yourself. She has some astonishing gems and this is sure not one of them. If you’re fascinated with interactions between evacuees and their hosts and ready to steel yourself for the rest, go ahead, otherwise nope.
My poem Object Permanence is in Analog magazine’s Sept/Oct issue, and also featured on their website for the next two months.
A lot of writing about grief, including my writing about grief, is inspired by the loss of our nearest and dearest. This is not that, this is the next circle out–my dear little old great-aunt Bets, my ex-boyfriend’s delightful father Marc, all those whose pathways through the world were joys just one notch more distant from mine…until the day they weren’t, and I miss them still, in their own way.
Which is, of course, still a very nerdy way.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
I’ve heard a lot of discussion of climate horror in recent years. While the stories in this volume are plenty horrified, the dominant emotion is not mostly horror. It’s what I’d describe as anguish. There are so many animals, so many plants, so many habitats in decline or obliterated, and Cade is not looking away from it, she’s showing not just the devastated futures but the devastation from them. There are a few stories that are more upbeat, more whimsical, more of the places people are pulling up their socks and going on. But in order to get there we’re going to have to go through the hard years, and Cade is not flinching away from that part, not for a moment.
I think one of my favorite things about Cade’s writing has always been her grounding in both poetry and science. This is a work of prose, but the poetic language and the science grounding both inform it, both give it different kinds of precision, and I love that. I love that even when it’s ripping me to pieces. I love it perhaps especially then.
For my third story of the month, I’m going to need a field of study, a type of being, and a mode of entertainment. Anybody?
I heard “anthropology,” “alien,” and “comedy improv”! Great! Here’s Yes And in Nature Futures!
Daniel Abraham, Blade of Dream. Second in its series, more tightly focused than the first and more conventional, in some ways more successful in terms of pulling me in but less structurally interesting. I find myself not knowing where the third one is going, which is a place I like to be. But for heaven’s sake don’t start here.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Hill does an excellent job of not assuming inevitability: knowing what we do of which groups survived does not mean that they “had to” be the surviving groups. Absolutely full of Quakers, Diggers, Levelers, all the sort of thing you’d want, and I do want, and I’m glad to have it.
Eleanor Janega, The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society. This actually disappointed me a bit. It spent quite a lot of time on theories of the body that I already knew–which you might not, and if so, go nuts, this is the book for you–and not nearly as much time on work and social organization as I had hoped. The chapter on work was brief and fairly general, which felt to me like the exact opposite of what was called for to overturn assumptions about medieval women’s roles in society. Ah well.
Elizabeth Lim, Her Radiant Curse. Discussed elsewhere.
Anna Neima, The Utopians: Six Attempts to Build the Perfect Society. This is about utopian societies after WWI and the effects of that war on people’s theories of what a better world would look like. That makes it basically catnip for me. I also appreciated Neima’s willingness to go around the world to look at communities in different regions, not just one country or continent–especially as they interrelate in this period. Good stuff.
Noel Streatfeild, Saplings. Another of the books that has a surface-happy ending whose entire point is that it is really, really not happy. This one is about how war, in this case the Second World War, terribly damages children even when they’re on the “home front” rather than the front lines. It’s beautifully observed and well-characterized and terribly sad, and it further cements my belief that part of Theatre Shoes is not as it seems. (This is for adults.)
Stephan Talty, Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day. Briskly written and interesting work about a Spanish man who basically forced his way into being a double agent. Not terribly long.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, City of Last Chances. I have a gift for picking up grimdark I might otherwise like at the worst personal moments. Tchaikovsky does some really good worldbuilding with the gods of this world and with passing the story from character to character in a way that almost reminded me of Yourcenar (but without the coin), but he also writes some very successfully dark scenes, so be braced for picking it up on the right day.
Brenda Ueland, Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings. Ueland was more a newspaper opinion columnist than an essayist, and that was very clear from the depth or lack thereof in these writings. Sometimes it was charming to see how she presented social elements that now wouldn’t have to be explained; some ideas aged much worse than others. (Seriously, just…do not propose corrective rape of people whose opinions you disagree with. Just. Don’t. Not charming. Not okay.)
Izzy Wasserstein, All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From. A fun and varied SFF collection, some of which I’d enjoyed previously and some of which was new to me, glad to have it all in one place.
Katy Watson, The Three Dahlias. Three actresses who have played/are playing the same iconic detective are in a country house for a convention of her fans when murder strikes, and everyone is–of course–a suspect. They must use the skills they’ve learned from playing her onscreen to solve the case before one of them gets blamed. This was light and charming, but for me it ended up spreading the characterization a little too thin among a few too many characters, not leaving me with a strong sense of any one of them, including the one who eventually turned out to be the killer. I would probably read another if there was a sequel, but probably from the library rather than purchasing it.
Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems, 1943-2004. A lot of “collected poems” volumes start at the beginning and you get to watch the poet get better, and this did the opposite, and…it turns out I like that better? I don’t necessarily think that the latest work is the best work, but when someone does start to get more callow and less skilled, there’s that sinking feeling of “oh dear, this is it then,” and I definitely had that in the middle of this volume. Wilber turned out to be another poet I mostly connected with intellectually, and that’s okay.
New story out today! Translunar Travelers Lounge brings you Spark of Change, today’s new story about phoenix eggs, fraught sibling relationships, and a city on the edge of…whatever comes next. Go, read, enjoy!