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Bye Forever I Guess, by Jodi Meadows

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I have known Jodi on this here internet since forever.

This is an interesting category of book that I don’t think we saw as much of in years past: it’s a nerd book that’s not speculative. Ingrid, the protagonist, is deeply emotionally involved with her favorite fantasy novel series and her favorite online game; they are both crucial to the plot. But at no point does the game come to life, nor does she fall into a fantasy landscape. The realistic world is stressful enough.

Ingrid is terminally shy, and going into the eighth grade she’s been friends with Rachel, who is demanding and self-centered. Her best friend, Lorren, is through an online game, but having some in-person friends who don’t neg her and push her around–some friends who could notice the quiet girl in the corner–would be nice too. She also has a popular “scroll” on social media–under the name of Anony Mouse for a reason. Her hilarious wrong number texts have a large following, but only Rachel, Lorren, and Grandma know it’s her. Something has to change–and the arrival of new kids in town will be the spark of that change. Ingrid’s wrong texts lead to a new friendship just as her friendship with Rachel is crumbling to dust. But Rachel isn’t letting go easily–and the new friend maintains a mystery. She’d love to find out more, but he continues coy–for nefarious reasons or otherwise?

I really loved Ingrid’s relationship with her grandmother, and all the sensory details of the knitting and the food are spot on. Some of the social dynamics are frustrating, but they’re frustrating in the direction of realistic eighth graders rather than externally imposed melodrama. If you’re not in the mood for non-speculative older middle grade, this is definitely in that genre, but if that’s the day you’re having (or the stage of life you’re in!), this is a sweet story.

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Under the waves

I have a new poem out in the Jul/Aug issue of Analog magazine, “Panthalassa.” I’ve read a lot of people’s takes on Pangaea, the primal continent, but when there was only one land, there was also only one sea, and it was Panthalassa, and that is where we really come from. Thence my poem. You can get a copy here.

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Books read, early June

Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor. Reread. Gosh I still do really like this. I like the gentleness of it, how the earnest attempts to do things right don’t always or even mostly make things easy, the sudden immersion in largely unfamiliar social dynamics. I like seeing the beginnings of the pieces we’re later having drawn out in related works. I wanted something I knew I liked a lot, and this was a good choice.

Elizabeth Gaskell, A Dark Night’s Work. Kindle. This is not a Gothic per se, but it has a lot of the elements of murder and despair and cover-up and purity/innocence being touched incidentally by sin, and…yeah. I like to read Victorian works cold, and sometimes the result is that I have no idea I’m walking into, “Stop! You cannot hang this man, for he is NOT the murderer! He is merely an accessory to murder, which you think is great and will give a holiday in the country!” (Yeah, that was a spoiler. But there is much better Gaskell for your time.)

Rochelle Hassan, The Buried and the Bound and The Summer Queen. Back in the glory days of livejournal, I included both “interstitial arts” and “stitial arts” in my interest keywords list, and this is why: these two books are firmly in the middle of their contemporary YA fantasy genre, and I am here for it. They’re well done, the characters are compellingly drawn, and I had a good time. Are they doing something wildly different for their genre? They sure are not, and they don’t have to.

Peter Heather, Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300 to 1300. Really lovely book, tracing the spread of Christianity, why and how it went where it did, without resorting to “it was just so darn right, is why.” When you look at how accurately Heather maps the spread of Christianity in Scandinavia toward the end of the book (blotches! rather than solid polities!), you will see why I am so happy with his analysis. He also looks at why various things wound up heresies rather than orthodoxies and how things could have gone differently there. Good times.

Sarah Henning, The Lies We Conjure. Discussed elsewhere.

Lawrence A. Herzog, From Aztec to High Tech: Architecture and Landscape Across the Mexico-US Border. Oh what a sad and disappointing book. Poor Herzog, he was talking to us from the ’90s, when the shopping mall looked eternal and NAFTA was going to make all borders in North America dissolve. So uh. There’s a lot of “uh oh, oh dear, nope” going on here.

Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789. This one is coming to us from the ’50s, so it is very…which white men formed which science-related societies at which times. We live in a house where this information might be useful for any number of projects at the drop of a hat, but it is not more expansive than that in its scope, and in general you probably would like something else about this topic/period better. (Was I reading a lot in bed while sick? you bet I was. Did this mean I delved deep in the pile? I sure did.)

Sarah Orne Jewett, Old Friends and New. Kindle. Slice of life short stories about 19th century Maine. Gentle. Notable for me in their use of the verb “to matronize.” Let’s make matronize happen. (It doesn’t mean “the bad kind of to patronize, but done by a woman”! It means “to sponsor fun activities for younger people, to host them,” basically.)

Gideon Marcus et al, eds., Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963). My book club read one of the books in this series, and I bought this one with it as it technically comes first. We didn’t enjoy that one and won’t be doing this one, I don’t think; the editorial notes aren’t quite as maddening but are still pretty random, and the stories are not as well-filtered as one might hope. There’s that line between “I want to read the stories that aren’t immensely anthologized” and “oh I see why not.” Sigh.

John McPhee, Tabula Rasa Volume 1. This is the stuff McPhee isn’t going to get to, his false starts, things that he might have written at length about but won’t and how he thought about it while he was getting to that conclusion. It’s a very weird book and interesting for me as a professional writer. Don’t read it as your first McPhee, though, go read Annals.

Jo Miles, Ravenous State. The triumphant conclusion (gosh I love getting to say that) of its trilogy, and you’ll want to read the other two first. Good news, they’re available. Each one has a different sibling’s perspective, and it took me a minute to get used to Libbi, but I really liked what Jo was doing with point of view in the end, that this sibling really did not see the world the same way as her siblings did and that changed the dynamic a lot. Space opera, evil corporations, grass roots organization, yay.

Samantha Mills, The Wings Upon Her Back. Deprogramming from fascism, now, for mechas! There’s more depth to it than that, but also, really, if you don’t want to read a book that’s that, I don’t know what to tell you.

L.M. Montgomery, A Tangled Web. Reread. I remembered liking this as a small child and hadn’t revisited it in a while. The weird inclusion of the racial slur on the last page, irrelevant to the entire preceding book, is still jarring; the characters are still reasonably charming, but as I’m spending less time immersed in the dynamics of a giant family, I have less need of books like this that are basically “giant families, amirite?”

Su Fang Ng, Writing About Discovery in the Early Modern East Indies. Kindle. A short monograph about Portuguese and Malaysian writing about the era of early encounters between the two, highlighting some of the ways in which Portuguese travel writing varied from other European writing about early encounters with other cultures. Interesting, brief, would be happy to read more of this kind of compare-and-contrast.

Vaishnavi Patel, Goddess of the River. I really liked Kaikeyi, so I was pretty excited to see another retelling by Patel. I felt like this one was not quite as special–it’s interesting but very straightforward, a very linear narrative. Possibly if I was more immersed in the Mahabharata I would feel that it was wildly original in its divergences, but as things stand for this reader at least, it flowed from event to event following the mythic structure more than imposing novel structure upon them. Which didn’t make it a bad read, just not as outstanding as the related debut.

O.O. Sangoyomi, Masquerade. Discussed elsewhere.

Evelyn Sharp, The Youngest Girl in the School. Kindle. I’d read Sharp’s fantastical/fairy tale writing before. This is a fairly period-standard school story, complete with dramatic injury that draws the distant parent’s attention. (Gosh kids in that era fell off things regularly, if this kind of literature is to be believed.) If you like that sort of thing, this sure is a one of those, but it’s not particularly outstanding of its kind.

Noel Streatfeild, Skating Shoes. Reread. There was less in this than I remembered. Like–temporally, it just goes less far in the two girls’ lives than my brain had filled in as a kid. It is also very very wish fulfillment in the characterization directions. Which ends up being fine, it’s not one of the toxic Streatfeilds, but it’s not one of the best ones either, it’s just sort of there.

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The Lies We Conjure, by Sarah Henning

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I’m usually not the person for comp titles. In fact I usually hate comp titles–I find they’re often of the model “thing you like meets thing you found super-boring, phrased in a way that makes it impossible to tell what elements they might be drawing on!” Yaaaay. But the comp for this book was “Knives Out with magic,” and it is basically exactly that, yep, that’s what we’ve got here, we’ve got Knives Out with magic.

Ruby and Wren really need money for college, so when they’re offered a few thousand each to play a rich lady’s granddaughters at a dinner party, it seems like a no-brainer. Stick close to her, make small talk, how hard can it be? When one of their fellow diners dies, their erstwhile grandmother disappears, and the people around them start doing actual magic, they find out exactly how hard. But it’s too late: they’re magically locked into this gorgeous estate with a bunch of scared, angry witches who think they’re the scions of a death magic house, and the main way out is to solve the murder, lest they be trapped forever–or just plain killed.

The other teenage heirs to magical lineages have a great many reasons to suspect each other of nefarious deeds–their elders are certainly getting up to enough. So Ruby and Wren have to figure out who they can trust among the impeccably dressed, super-privileged, immensely powerful young witches–because going it alone is definitely not an option.

So yeah, Knives Out with magic, basically exactly the same kind of beautiful clothes and setting but eat the rich story as Knives Out, fish out of water characters combined with the ones who absolutely assume they belong there. Lots of yelling and running around in search of clues and catching feels for all the wrong people. A novel for the ages, probably not. A fun romp for right now, yeah, absolutely.

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Fourth Street Schedule

The schedule for this year’s Fourth Street Fantasy convention is up! I hope to see many of you there. My scheduled programming items during the con this year are:


9:20 AM Saturday

W.L. Bolm, Mary Robinette Kowal, Marissa Lingen (M), C.L. Polk, Shen Tao

For obvious reasons, we talk a lot about suspension of disbelief in the fantasy genre. But what about stories where the reader could stand to benefit from a healthy sense of skepticism? Plenty of speculative works make use of the good old unreliable narrator: a first-person protagonist with a precarious relationship with the truth, a 3rd-person ensemble impacted by their own limitations and biases, or even a seemingly omniscient narrator who looks away at some convenient moments.

How can authors best balance a narrative’s need for obfuscation, omission, or outright deceit runs up with the reader buy-in required for fantastic elements? How do readers navigate a story where the author is asking you to trust them about one thing, and lying to you about the other? And what specific possibilities can be unlocked by a story where the narrative tour guide to an imaginary world can’t be trusted?


11:20 AM Sunday

Lois McMaster Bujold, Marissa Lingen (M)

4th Street Fantasy continues to celebrate the rich history of Minnesota fantasy and science fiction. This year, we’re very pleased to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold, a book that stands as both a singular success and a powerful middle chapter in the Vorkosigan saga. Lois will join Marissa Lingen for a conversation about Dance and about how she confronted the well-known Middle Book Problem – how to produce a story that stands on its own and encapsulates a beginning, middle, and end without being a beginning or end in and of itself.

Fourth Street! Be there or be somewhere else nice of your choosing!

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Masquerade, by O. O. Sangoyomi

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Okay, so: Persephone retelling, sort of, set in fifteenth century West Africa (that part not just “sort of”). Warriors and blacksmiths and court politics and horrifying mothers-in-law and yeah, even an elephant or two: definitely stuff that gives us a very different angle on a very familiar shape of story. Òdòdó’s abduction is her own, her reactions to royal life and its darkness all hers, though her complicated feelings for her mother and husband have a very familiar tinge.

Òdòdó knows some of her own strength to begin with–hard not to, when you’re a blacksmith. But there is so much strength in her yet to find–and so much that isn’t there at the beginning, so much she has to build. She is not the same person at the beginning of the book as at the ending, which is what we all want to see–especially when she carries the change out into the world.

As for that ending…that was the part I found the least satisfying. Another 3-4 chapters of development and denouement and I might have bought it more; as it was, it felt abrupt and unconvincing when the rest of the book felt very clear and real. Ah well; nothing is perfect, and this is being thoroughly itself while being imperfect.

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Books read, late May

Madeline Ashby, Glass Houses. Discussed elsewhere.

Sanora Babb, Whose Names Are Unknown. This is the Dust Bowl novel that wasn’t published at the time because Steinbeck took her research and The Grapes of Wrath made it to press first, startling both Babb and her publisher. Tastes vary, and it’s trying to do something very different from the Steinbeck, but for my money it’s such a better book. Babb is writing from life experience, trying to write naturalistic character rather than symbolic theories in vaguely human form, and her eye for human detail is excellent. I wept at more than one spot–and not just over death, but over life circumstances, which is a greater achievement than melodrama. Highly recommended if you care at all about the Dust Bowl or the Great Depression–and frankly, these days, we all should.

Terry J. Benton-Walker, Blood Justice. Sequel to Blood Debt, a fun, fast-paced YA fantasy novel with racial justice considerations and New Orleans worldbuilding that is not stereotypes of Mardi Gras. A fun read, interested to see where the next one goes.

Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign, Diplomatic Immunity, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Cryoburn, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Falling Free, and Ethan of Athos. Rereads. This is the first time I’ve read the late series books in their chronological rather than publication order, and the first time I’ve reread Falling Free in this millennium. It’s also the first time I’ve reread Cryoburn since my father died of an aneurism. So–well. If you know, you know. In any case, my favorites come earlier in the series, but it’s a fun project I’m glad I’m doing.

Sylvie Cathrall, A Letter to the Luminous Deep. Epistolary and abyssopelagic, this is not quite like anything else. It’s also the first in its series, leaving me interested about where it’s going rather than fully satisfied with where it’s been.

Z. Z. Claybourne, The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan. Fast contemporary adventure fantasy that’s doing all the things at once, with a jaunty hat on. Once you know that the protagonists are Ramses Jetstream and Milo Jetstream, you’ve got the vibe. Probably still fun even if you don’t have a fever, but reading it with a fever was like, yeah, I’m just gonna…go with whatever ten things are happening on this page, and we’ll see what’s on the next page, cool, cool.

Paul M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Absolutely lovely and I would like more things that were both trying at this and succeeding. It really does do a thorough flip of POV, giving what events look important to the Islamic perspective of this era, what the records we have focus on and what they definitely do not focus on, and the Christian Crusader kings’ internal politics have about the same percentage of the text as Islamic rulers’ do in most of the texts I’ve read before. Great perspective shift, much needed, it doesn’t even start and end in the same places, of course it wouldn’t, yeah, wow, very cool.

E.M. Forster, Howards End. Kindle. This is the last of the Forsters for me to read as an adult–it’s technically a reread, because I read it when I was 14? I retained nothing of it from then, though I vividly remember some other things I read at 14. I’m glad I saved this for last, because this is one of the times when “one of the most famous ones he did” and “one of the best ones he did” absolutely are the same. I think Forster sometimes gets grouped with other people of a similar vintage who are also writing about class and society, but he’s doing so much more with at least people who are trying, people who actually want things to be better, for others and not just for themselves and possibly their immediate family, that it stands out so thoroughly.

Margaret Frazer, The Boy’s Tale. Kindle. Very much more into the “these really are tangled with historical politics” than some of the other volumes, but still in the basically gentle medieval murder mystery genre–and still with the structure where no one is dead at the halfway mark and the book is over the minute Dame Frevisse finds out whodunnit. Huh.

Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution. I have run into so many people complaining that nothing happens in mainstream novels and read so many mainstream novels in which a great many things happen (often even adding up to a plot!) that I had started to forget why people were saying it. This is why. This is a mid-century novel of observation, quite witty in spots, in which nothing happens, quite aggressively. Several times something thinks about happening, and then there’s another trenchant personal observation of a higher educational figure (that’s the institution in question) and nothing does happen after all. I did not regret the time spent reading these trenchant and witty sketches, especially since some of the characters turn out to be worthwhile, generally decent people, but I don’t think I’ll want it again.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness. Reread, for the first time this millennium. What I said to my online book club is that I don’t feel like this was intended to hold up so much as it was to break ground, and that’s a different kind of construction. Lots of politics here that didn’t work as well for me as some of what she did later with scenes of politics, and the climactic bit about fleeing across the glacier is shorter than anybody remembered it. Still not sorry I read it (again), but also of course it’s not a perfect shining work of eternity, it wasn’t supposed to be, it’s a thought experiment from a very specific time.

Ian MacLeod, Song of Time. Kindle. The prose in this near-future science fiction thing is very readable, and so I was happy to keep seeing where he was going through all the catastrophes, personal and global: what’s going on with this old-young musician’s life that we are having retold to us? The answer at the end is boringly cliched in a number of demographic directions (gender! race! oh dear) in ways that I think were probably unawareness rather than malice, but still it was enough for me not to recommend the experience at large. “And then her Black husband turned out to be abusive of both her and substances, and things unfold from that late twist”: oh, did they, huh, yeah, no thanks.

Ekaterina Sedia, Moscow But Dreaming. Reread. These vivid fantastical stories, largely set in Russia but some not, held up and were still enjoyable to read a decade later, which is always a relief.

Katie Siegel, Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective. A light, fun murder mystery about a Former Kid Detective dipping her toe reluctantly into the waters of adult crime-solving. Solid relationships with her friends and family, generally a good time and definitely what I wanted to read while sick in bed.

D.E. Stevenson, Winter and Rough Weather. Kindle. A disappointing end to its trilogy, it continued the second book’s tendency to make things the most socially cliched option possible. Stevenson can write sentences, she sometimes can write things that don’t go on rails, ideally the next thing I try of hers will be more in that line.

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife. Kindle. I am not opposed to people working things out in their fiction, truly I am not. I’ve read more than one lovely book that made me think, “right, you’ll feel better having said that then.” This, however, was a grim and horrific slog through the second half. Various ideas suggest themselves for the theme of the book, which could be “iron supplements and birth control for all!” or it could be “what these people need is something like zeroth wave feminism” or perhaps “seriously she’s HOW naive after six children, WHAT” but mostly you just…don’t want to be there with her, I don’t think. Let her work through it herself, you don’t have to stay for the horrifying conclusion.

Izzy Wasserstein, These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart. Some of the most interesting cyberpunk-ish stuff I’ve read in recent years, at novella length and with trans themes.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Clicking of Cuthbert. Kindle. I have all sorts of things on my Kindle for random perusal, which mostly happens when I’m sick or traveling (or, as in this interval, both), and I don’t keep track of what they are and why I have them. So that leads to me opening this collection and finding that it was Wodehouse golf stories. They ranged from mildly ridiculous to notably ludicrous, but there were funny bits, and the racism-nationalism wasn’t on the bad end of his fare (I discarded another that was, alas), so: okay, golf jokes! Golf jokes from the old days when the clubs had funnier names! Sure, why not.

Don J. Wyatt, Slavery in East Asia. Kindle. A brief monograph about the range and legal roots of slavery across East Asia in what we consider the medieval period. Not an in-depth or vivid work but extremely useful for the facts of the matter and who was doing what to whom where.

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Glass Houses, by Madeline Ashby

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Madeline Ashby should go in with Cory Doctorow and Jon Evans to get T-shirts reading, “You Don’t Have to Be Canadian To Tell the Truth About Shitty Startups (But It Helps).”

Should you get on a private plane with the rest of your startup senior staff all at once: seriously no, don’t do that, there are solid reasons that they should not want you to do that, so if they’re asking you to do that, red flags. Kristen does that. And Kristen wakes up on a tropical island in the wreckage of a plane crash with, uh, most of her co-workers. Stellar start to celebrating your company’s sale, there. The island is home to a single mysterious house that’s automated…for some members of the group and not others…and injuries and deaths keep racking up. Kristen has to figure out what’s going on–and what’s been going on–if she wants to have any chance of getting out of there alive. And her past has more to do with it than she really wants it to.

This is a short, tense near-future thriller. Ashby has nailed startup culture, as it deserves–but there are also fine details of language that point so clearly to the startup being Toronto-based rather than Silicon Valley or Research Triangle, and it’s beautiful to see those bits making the thing specific and real. Is it a nice book, no, it is very much not a nice book, but it was a gripping read, and you’re not always looking for a nice book.

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Skies are…well, lots of colors really

New story out today in Lightspeed! And the Dreams That You Dare to Dream is available for your reading or listening pleasure. I wanted to write a story about finding your place and finding your magic…only some of which is new. Yes, the title is an Oz reference, but actually it’s the Oz books that inspire me, not the movie. This one goes out to all of you who remember Ozma’s whole story and are newly delighted by it as adults. I wrote it for my friend J. R. Dawson and for all of the members of the Silent Queer Migration. Welcome home to Minnesota. We’re delighted to have your magic. I made you a story to say welcome.