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Books read, late April

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Tainted Cup. A fantasy murder mystery that succeeds for me in both genres. The subgenre of both is darker and nastier than most of the fantasy murder mysteries I’ve read before, I think to its success–this is not a story that would benefit from a twee tone. Its protagonist’s disabilities are handled smoothly, and the bodily variation, both natural and induced, in this setting is very much part of its appeal to me. I hope Bennett has the chance to write more of these.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game, Borders of Infinity, Cetaganda, and Brothers in Arms. Rereads. For a project, and it’s interesting to take them from this distance, to see where the characters who have had a chance for full subplots and lives are brief hints in their first appearances. There’s a noticeable gear-shift in the middle of Brothers in Arms, a shift in what we’re doing here and why, toward more intensity, all to the good.

Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Water I Won’t Touch. Poems about healing from top surgery, poems about coming from a hardscrabble region and an abusive family, poems that reach for cool water in a polluted land. These were beautiful and harrowing, and I’m glad that my local librarians had them on a Poetry Month display for me to randomly pick up and experience.

Nino Cipri, Homesick. A collection of short stories, dark and witty and skillful. Cipri always has a different angle than anyone else has taken, and I’m glad these are all in one place to enjoy, even the ones I had already encountered elsewhere.

Aliette de Bodard, Navigational Entanglements. Discussed elsewhere.

Reginald Hill, Asking for the Moon. Reread. I was contemplating how the mystery worked at short lengths, and my recollection was that in this collection the answer was: not too well. Upon reread I felt the same, and I doubt I will want to return to it–the short form didn’t play to Hill’s strengths in reference and characterization, and these felt more like gimmicks than gems. I don’t really need to keep this one around, I have the novels in the series when I feel like returning to these characters.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Lord of Emperors. Reread. Not enough mosaics in this one per unit book about mosaicist, but still satisfying for what it is. Don’t read it first, read the other one first, it’s basically a two-volume novel. Once somebody mentioned all the women in Kay’s books wanting to sleep with his protagonists I can’t unsee it, but mostly to the point of it entertaining me rather than truly annoying me at this point.

B. Robert Kreiser, Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris. Do you want Jansenists? Because this is how you get Jansenists. Or rather: this is a lot of details about Jansenists. Interesting about that but not so outstandingly written that I’d recommend seeking it out if you’re not particularly interested either in early eighteenth century Paris or in Christian sectarian in-fighting as specific topics.

Jo Miles, Dissonant State. The second in its series of interplanetary fiction with multiple species trying to do labor organizing in the face of interstellar corporate skullduggery. Each volume focuses on a different main character but there’s continuity of cast from volume to volume. There’s no reason not to read the first one, it’s in print and you’ll get better context for this one, but this is an entirely cromulent middle book in a series I’m having such fun with. Gosh I love middle books. Gosh I’m looking forward to seeing how Miles wraps this up. They are really good at letting their characters make characteristic mistakes.

Michael Ondaatje, A Year of Last Things. Poetry, some of which touches on the end of a friend’s life. I didn’t end up aligning well with much of it, but I’m not sorry I read it.

Eleanor Parker, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year. This is a nice little book. I think sometimes historians are aware that they’ve written a nice little book and sometimes not, and this is definitely in the “aware” camp: Parker has brought together references from lots of poetry of this era to think and talk about the seasons and festivals of the early English year. Fun, light, short.

Julia Phillips, Bear. Discussed elsewhere.

Duane W. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World. This is the kind of history I like least, the kind that is entirely focused on who was king and what battles they fought. Did I still read it? yes. Did I start tearing my hair and wishing for information about what kind of roofing they used on their houses, how the king’s advisors were selected, what instruments they played and who constructed them, whether they were professional specialists or amateurs who mostly made other things, etc……also yes. Still, if you want information about the Pontic kingdom of this era, here it is.

Sofia Samatar, The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain. Class and academia and spaceship and limitation. Claustrophobic and fascinating.

Sheng Keyi, Death Fugue. This is the kind of dystopia you get written when the author has a lot to say very directly about specific things in the real world rather than general thoughts and philosophies. The aftermath of Tiananmen Square and the impact of that movement on a whole generation is clear and fascinating here–there are aspects that are classically dystopian and aspects that are very, very individual.

Jesse Q. Sutanto, The Good, the Bad, and the Aunties. From the afternotes this looks like it will be the last of its trilogy, and I think that’s just as well. Meddy has reached her honeymoon, her happily ever after visiting family in Jakarta with her new husband in tow. The criminal shenanigans that ensue are by this point more forced than successfully farcical, and if I thought it was going to keep on like this forever, I probably wouldn’t have read this one; as it stands, it’s a farewell tour with the four aunties, and I was willing to come along for the ride.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers. Kindle. I’m told this is the most famous one in this series, but I don’t prefer it; it focuses on people getting their comeuppance who don’t interest me as much, and basically every time Trollope tells me what I’m probably thinking, I’m not. There are still some funny bits, but if you were to ask me for a Trollope rec, this would not be it. Onward.

Kiersten White, Mister Magic. I was honestly not sure what I was getting when I picked this up at random: child stars all grown up? a children’s show that seemed to have disappeared? how many kids were on this show, anyway? Was this dark fantasy, psychological horror, what was the deal? But the writing was assured and personal enough that I kept reading. It’s not my wheelhouse–very much to the darker end–but the character relationships kept me going through the twists of trust, betrayal, magic, and warped community.

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Bear, by Julia Phillips

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is not a fairy tale.

It’s clearly got “Snow White and Rose Red” very much in its DNA–there are two sisters and the love of a bear–but this is not a magic story, it is not transformative, it is not just rooted in reality but stays firmly put there. Elena and Sam have been barely scraping by, their mother getting sicker by the week. Their existence was always precarious, and the pandemic knocked a large dent in their hospitality industry jobs–and made them worry about bringing home an exposure to their mother’s fragile lungs.

When they find a bear on their front doorstep, it’s Sam’s first flicker of awareness that the sisters’ reactions to the world are not always attuned. She finds the giant beast’s presence terrifying. But Elena seems exhilarated, even seeking out the bear in the odd intervals that her overwhelmed schedule allows. As their mother’s condition deteriorates, Sam expected the two sisters to be relying on each other, but instead their differing reaction to the megafauna is only the beginning of the wedge between them.

If you’re frustrated and appalled by people treating actual bears like teddy bears, this book will not disappoint you. Terrible decisions related to bears, finances, interpersonal relationships, whatever, are recognized as such by the narrative and not rewarded. As such it’s not always a cheerful book–but the unfolding of the tragedy is vivid, sharply observed, and incredibly realistic about aspects of contemporary life that are often genteelly ignored.

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Navigational Entanglements, by Aliette de Bodard

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend.

How much can one novella hold? Aliette has attempted to find out. Navigational Entanglements has space battles with tentacled space aliens! It has political intrigue among several clans of humans with shifting alliances! It has personal growth! And both leading into and following from that personal growth it has a love story! This is a novella, pals. It’s a novella that is not set in default-generi-white-American-space, so there’s cultural stuff to cue in as well. And it never feels rushed or crowded!

Việt Nhi would rather not be sent on this mission, and she has no problem saying so. She’s introverted and blunt, a good problem-solver, not a politician–and this mission is substantially politics. But when one of the members of the mission dies, Nhi has to discover ways to apply her problem-solving ability to the highly political situation–before the invisible tentacles of the alien Tangler cause more casualties. All while dealing with fragile new feelings for her teammate Hạc Cúc–who’s in just as much danger as Nhi if things go badly. The plot is fully character-driven and never stops until the triumphant end. What a rush of a novella.

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Two fun things

  1. Last month Meghan Smith’s Fiction to Features discussed a number of stories Smith thought would be fun in film–including my story, Monster of the Month Club, from Haven Speculative! I found all the discussion interesting, and you might enjoy taking a look at what elements Smith thinks could be provocatively pulled out into other media.
  2. Next week I will be making my second appearance on Story Hour! Wednesday, April 24 at 9:00 p.m. Central on their website I will be sharing the hour with fellow author Chloe Smith. You can come and hear a brand new story from me– not sure which one yet, still have to time two options and see which fits, but it’ll definitely be something new!
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Books read, early April

Robert E. Blobaum, Rewolucja: Russian Poland 1904-1907. Kindle. Interesting and focused, lots of useful stuff about schools and labor unions and other pieces of information that broader texts might not think to go into. I know lots about Finland under Russian rule in this period and very little about Poland, so the compare-and-contrast was valuable as well.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Rereads. For a different project than other recent rereads, and while I’ve read others in this series more recently, it’s been a while since I saw the very beginnings of things that are fixed reference points in my family and immediate friend circle discourse.

Maud Cairnes, Strange Journey. This is a Freaky Friday (body swap) novel from the ’30s, but the characters doing the swap are two women of different classes rather than a parent/child pair. It’s light rather than overtly hilarious, and nothing of great dramatic consequence happens; it’s a short and pleasant enough read, and if you’re interested in this trope, it sure is a one of those, but the two women’s classes aren’t so staggeringly distant that Cairnes was attempting massive social commentary: they are an upper class and upper middle class woman, this is not the ’30s of the bread line, nobody is coming out of this with a particularly raised consciousness.

Christopher Clark, Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849. I loved so many things about this. If you have any interest at all in the ’48 uprisings, I recommend it very much. For example, Clark uses women sources as a matter of course rather than as a separate, vestigial How Women Did In All This section; he is clear that Europe is not the entirety of the world and yet notices that the rest of the world affects Europe and says so. For a 700+ page book it goes so fast, you’ll hardly know you spent any time reading it.

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. Probably I wouldn’t be rereading this quite so soon after a previous project if it didn’t fit a current project so well, but it does, and I didn’t entirely want to stop myself, I just fell right in rather than consulting it for one or two references. I caught myself talking like Molly for a week afterward. I never regret a reread of this one, never.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Gate of Angels. Brief and light and concerned with the intersection of worlds academic and otherwise through the intersection of people from those worlds; I finished it and immediately added another of her books to my list.

E.M. Forster, The Longest Journey. Kindle. Less funny than some of his other work, and I think less well-conceived, the abrupt death in this one is toward the beginning and of an adult, so it’s not as upsetting as Where Angels Fear to Tread, but there are flashes of absolute cold-bloodedness about the death of a disabled infant and some weird ideas about disability in general, so while it has some virtues as its hero struggles toward a clarity of purpose, I think I will neither want to revisit it nor particularly recommend it.

Victoria Goddard, Till Human Voices Wake Us. Kindle. This is a corner of Goddard’s universe that’s new to me, the corner that impinges upon our own and has magicians moonlighting as actors. Much shorter than the ones I’ve read before but with similar themes.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium. Reread. Not for a project, I just felt like mosaics. I like the birds, I like the chariots, there are parts of this I don’t like but I know what they are going in, I’m ready for them.

August V. Koskimies and Toivo I. Itkonen, with Lea Laitinen, Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar. A compilation divided by type of folklore, including proverbs as well as stories. I think some of the proverbs are not adequately explained in English and would be happy to argue with the translator about them, and by “happy” I mean “what a fun time that would be, gosh that would be great.”

Ann Leckie, Lake of Souls. What I see in these stories is that Ann is short story lab person, which we used to see a lot more of in science fiction. You can watch her tinkering with theme and concept and making sure they work and then deploying them later at greater length in novels, but they do work at the shorter lengths, if there were experiments in the lab that didn’t work so well they didn’t make it into the collection. More than half of it is in one of her preexisting universes or the other, but I believe the Raven Tower stories predated the book, so it’s very much not the sort of thing where you’re getting the cutting room floor with a collection label slapped on and already have to be invested to care at all, more the opposite, that this is a fine road in.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home. Reread. For book club, and the sort of reread where I say reread, I know I’ve read it before, but that was before I started my booklog 25 years ago, so the things I remember and the things I don’t are an interesting study. This book is clearly labeled “a novel” on the cover, and I think it isn’t one, I think “a fictional experiment in science fiction anthropology” would have put people off but there’s no particular reason to look at the way Le Guin wrote this and think, yes, that’s definitely a novel, although when the bits with character continuity come around I’m glad to have them, glad to immerse with them. There isn’t a lot else that’s like this.

Jeffrey McKinnon, Our Ancient Lakes: A Natural History. This is actually mostly “fish in ancient lakes: speciation is weird and not maybe as clear or important as previous generations would like to think.” And he was cheerful and interesting about it, and I don’t resent the fish, but also I was hoping for more geology. Well, win some lose some.

Barbara Sjoholm, From Lapland to Sámi: Collecting and Returning Sámi Craft and Culture. A highly illustrated examination of which parts of Sámi material culture are where and why and how that looks culturally–mostly not sacred items, for example, but how craft was maintained against overwhelming cultural forces and where it was not entirely, that sort of thing. Interesting, and the illustrations are quite useful.

D. E. Stevenson, Music in the Hills. Kindle. This novel runs very much on rails: every twist goes exactly where you think it will, the ending is just what you expect it to be. Which is fine enough, I suppose; Stevenson can write sentences, and it’s not a very long book. But given that the running on rails undoes some of what was an interesting ending in the previous (but theoretically stand-alone) one, I was a bit disappointed. It’s a straightforward romance where much of the falling in love is various people falling in love with a farm.

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics. Reread. When I finished A College of Magics in March, I thought, why have I never read this and its sequel in close proximity? and the answer is: it is not a very close sequel, I now remember. You do not have to have the previous volume’s details close to hand, and it is considerably more idiosyncratic in structure (this is in no way a complaint, I like its singular nature a lot) whereas this is a lot more normal for fantasy novels. Except for having a cowboy sharpshooter falling in love with British magic, that’s not something you see every day, pure Caroline.

Noel Streatfeild, Luke. Kindle. This is one of the bad Streatfeilds, and I strongly recommend you skip it. There are no plot twists. Everything is just as it appears on the surface. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the creepy boy did it and his weak mother covered up for him, because you’ll know that right away, and there are never any twists that make you think, oh, but maybe not. No, it’s that, it’s always that, and it’s never any deeper than that, it’s always, you shouldn’t be too precious over your child or he’ll be a murderous creep. Thanks for that I guess? But no thanks? Ugh.

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Short stuff I’ve liked, first quarter 2024

Friends, I haven’t been reading much short stuff in the first quarter. I’m going to try to change that! But I figured I’d rather post a short list now than do a truly giant post at the half-year mark. Recommendations welcome in the comments, help me catch up when I’m between projects.

Do Houses Dream of Scraping the Sky?, Jana Bianchi (Uncanny)

For Kristen, Who Would Have Turned 47 Today, Melissa Frederick (The Deadlands)

Evan: A Remainder, Jordan Kurella (Reactor)

Pockets Full of Stones, Jennifer Mace (Uncanny)

Sparsely Populated With Stars, Jennifer Mace (Flash Fiction Online)

Further Examination and Capture of Candle Skulls Associated with the Baba Yaga, Mari Ness (Lightspeed)

“Hagstone,” Sonya Taaffe (Not One of Us, Issue #78)

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Books read, late March

Aisha Abdel Gawad, Between Two Moons. The moons here are metaphors and also the two moons that mark the beginning and end of Ramadan; they are not a fantasy element, and this is not a fantasy novel. It’s a novel about a contemporary Egyptian-American family in New York, and it’s really well characterized and beautifully written and I liked it a lot. I felt like the ending wasn’t quite as much of a strong punctuation as I wanted, but on the other hand it was not the obvious thing I feared it would be, so yeah, very much worth the time.

Samit Basu, The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport. Science fiction adventure Aladdin! Do you want a fun one of those? Because this sure is a fun one of those.

Frederic L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Does what it says on the tin. Are you interested in southern France before it was firmly France per se? I am. So is this book, using the lens of this historical figure to get there.

Elwin Cotman, Weird Black Girls. Discussed elsewhere.

Pamela Dean, Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. Reread. This was a reread with a purpose, but on this go-round I was really taken by how much the time sense portrayed in this book aligns with what my friends with ADHD describe of their experience. I don’t mean to say that Pamela wrote it with that intention–far from it, with a 1998 copyright date. But I do think that there are books that later get looked at metaphorically through lenses that work for people and I think this might be one of them? But I, Captain Executive Function, am the wrong person to write about this extensively–in the context of this book I am such a Becky–I can love this book, but I can’t be the one to chew on it from that direction.

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock. Reread. What is it with the bibliophile Tam Lin retellings, do we have any theories? There’s nothing in the ballad that’s like, kirtle green a bit above her knee and also lots of books. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I will take another if anyone wants to write a third one of this description and I will reread that one too.

Lyz Lenz, This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life. I was somewhat amused to have gotten this rec from a fellow happily married woman, but as I said to another friend, it was no threat to us, we didn’t have to get defensive about reading an interesting book. One of the several appalling things here that stood out to me–that I’ve seen before in bad husbands, and maybe bad partners of other genders do it too and I just haven’t seen it, who knows–is the conviction that there is an easy type of writing to do that one’s spouse just isn’t doing, that would be just as satisfying but far more lucrative per unit labor and could be swapped out for the type of writing one’s spouse is inexplicably doing, no problem. Why! Why do some terrible people believe this! It’s not the first time I’ve seen this belief in the wild, sometimes I’ve had conversations with the actual people who are espousing this belief. Where does it come from, this sense that all writing is basically equally satisfying to all people, so anyone can/should just swap out theirs for the “easier” one? What??? I mean, there’s a bunch of other stuff in here about marriage and labor and respect, it’s an interesting read, I just…that one piece jumped out at me personally.

Gideon Marcus et al, ed., Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women Vol. 2 (1953-1957). An anthology read for book club. I wish I could recommend it more strongly–the book club discussions were good, but not because the stories were a series of gems. There are some quite good science fiction stories by women from this period, and this book is mostly not them. It is also quite badly edited. I’m not clear on whether there was an overall editorial hand–some of the stories are fine, others have random line breaks in places the story shouldn’t have them, the standards for the notes to them are wildly inconsistent, and they don’t seem to have been put in a particularly thoughtful order. I feel like there are better ways to get at stories from this period’s women than this.

Zohra Nabi, The Kingdom Over the Sea. I enjoyed this Islamic-inflected middle-grade fantasy a great deal except for the ending, where the heroine’s success depended very, very directly on her blood line, which is not really a thing I enjoy particularly as key plot elements go.

Aimee Pokwatka, The Parliament. This is much darker than I usually enjoy, and it was so, so good. The characters are trapped in a public library and dealing with their own pasts as well as the dark forces trapping them there, and it actually copes with some of the violent social issues of our time in a respectful and thoughtful way but also has kid characters realistically interacting as kids (this is not a kids’ book, it’s adult perspective on them) and…yeah, beautifully done, love it.

Arthur Ransome, The Picts and the Martyrs. Reread. My other rereads this fortnight were at least thinking about a project, though not all of them will end up being for that project. This one was just random, I just kept thinking about this old children’s favorite until I took it down from the shelf. It was exactly where I left it, great-aunt relations and living in the woods and all.

Natasha Dow Schull, Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. This is not a book I was glad to be reading, this is a book I’m glad to have read, so that I have the information in it. Oh gosh was it upsetting. But no, it was not just stuff I already knew, actually, it was worse than that. The focus here was the design of video poker machines specifically to create as addictive an experience as possible, and what shape that addictive experience took. I was completely mistaken about the latter–I would have said that it was chasing a win, chasing a high, and the research says it’s not that at all, it’s locking into the repetitive experience, a sort of broken version of flow state, which is useful to know but extremely disturbing in its details. Worth thinking about. Oof.

Adam Shatz, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. I didn’t know a lot about Fanon or his role in Algerian independence or any related topics, and I felt like Shatz did quite a good job of focusing on him while keeping perspective about his flaws–for example, Shatz is extremely clear that Fanon could in no way have been considered a feminist or gender egalitarian–while not making the entire book only about those flaws.

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics. Reread. I always forget how little of the book is at Greenlaw College, but I enjoy the whole thing regardless, the travel adventures, the feel of the magic, the friendships, all of it.

Michael Walsh, ed., Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology. This takes an extremely broad view of both what constitutes queer poetry and what constitutes nature poetry. The poems are arranged alphabetically by author, which sometimes is jarring and sometimes leads to interesting juxtapositions.

Jo Walton, Among Others. Reread. Another of the rereads with a specific intention, and I really like Mori’s forthright attempts to cope through books–same, buddy, same–and also how successfully of her era she is, how firmly Jo resists giving her knowledge and attitudes she wouldn’t have access to–she doesn’t have access to the Oz books in the UK of the time, she doesn’t know how bras are sized because girls of her age and class aren’t necessarily told, there’s all sorts of stuff she knows heaps about and the stuff she doesn’t understand yet fits with that perfectly, it’s all human knowledge even with the book having fairies.

Aliya Whiteley, The Arrival of Missives. Short fantastical work dealing with a village in the aftermath of the Great War and some strange happenings unfolding in it. Hope and fate and choice are intertwined without having to take forever to do it.

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I may be whistling in the dark, but I like the song

I have a new story out from Lightspeed Magazine today, Islands of Stability. You can read or listen there, and also there’s an author spotlight with more from me about the story. This is one I wrote last year when I needed some positive eldercare thoughts, which actually still applies now and is likely to keep applying. I hope you enjoy it.