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Books read, early October

Roshani Chokshi, The Bronzed Beasts. The culmination of a fantasy trilogy, many things much worse than chickens coming home to roost for characters who have been running out of time to save themselves, their friends, and their relationships with each other for two books now. Magical twists and turns. Glad to be here.

Jan Grue, I Live a Life Like Yours. A disability memoir translated from the Norwegian. Some of his approaches are very culturally and personally familiar. I will note that Grue leans extremely heavily on literal heteronormativity for his appeals to what “like yours” means: he has an opposite-sex partner and a biological child he is raising with his partner, and while he also has a “normal” job, I can’t help but think that some of what he’s doing here, while it isn’t wrong per se, leaves out some of the people I think he wouldn’t want to exclude. So that’s a very interesting balance point. He’s telling his own particular story, which includes those elements, and when he sticks to that part it’s great–it’s when he reaches for the larger point, for what he feels makes him really human, that I start to go, hmm, huh, this is…I think probably not completely what you meant, Grue.

Barbara Hambly, A Scandal in Babylon. 1920s Hollywood murder mystery. Drinking and debauchery generally at arm’s length from a nerdy heroine who is a bit out of her element. Not as much to my taste as the Benjamin January series, but still a fun read and worth the time.

Ada Palmer, Perhaps the Stars. Discussed elsewhere.

Gervase Rosser, The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England, 1250-1550. An interesting analysis for anyone who wants to think past default assumptions about the organization of society in this era, what’s important and why. Rosser’s ideas about guild and gender, for example, go past “everything in England must have been like it was in [preconceptions of] Italy at the time” by quite a wide margin. Not long but good.

Christopher Rowe, Telling the Map. Reread. Someone wanted to talk to me about the first story, so I was just going to reread that, and then I just…didn’t stop. Because I find Rowe’s prose and settings so compelling. I’m very pleased to have looked it up and found that there will be more Voluntary State fiction coming soon, but in the meantime, this is entirely worth its own return.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 42. Kindle. Two stories in this really struck me, Betsy Aoki’s “On a Branch Floating Down a River, a Wren is Singing,” and Rachael K. Jones’s “Six Fictions About Unicorns.” Quite different stories, but examining tropes that want a good look, very effectively too.

Cadwell Turnbull, No Gods, No Monsters. This pulled me in immediately, with its layered cast of characters and their varying monstrosity and relationship to their own and other people’s monstrosity. Turnbull’s ability to synthesize contemporary issues so that they can be woven seamlessly into a manuscript that is about other things (and is also about those contemporary issues of race and power and gender and attention management) is astonishing. Also this book is fun to read. What a balancing act. So well done.

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Perhaps the Stars, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by the publisher.

In some ways it’s hard to review a book like this, where I know not only the author but also many of the people closest to her. In other ways it can become a fun game, smiling along to see–oh yes, there’s another of her favorites, and oh, I think I know who she was talking to there.

One of my favorite things about later books in a series is that you go in knowing what you’ve agreed to. The parameters are set. If you have issues with the worldbuilding, you know what those are, you’ve decided that you’re up for them at the moment, or else you don’t go in at all. This is the culmination of everything you’ve liked or disliked about the worldbuilding of the Terra Ignota series. This is the moment when the factions plunge into a worldwide war of non-nations, when we see what it is for bashes instead of families to be torn apart or reunited. There are aspects of it that are thrilling, touching, funny, and moving. My particular favorite was when humanity was excoriated about learning to get better at First Contact with truly alien intelligences–indeed, we do need to learn that, and fast, not just in case of little green men but in the smaller ways that more mildly alien intelligences all around us require it of us.

Unfortunately, I am fundamentally in axiom lock with this book. There is a fundamental principle that both major sides of this war agree on: that making Earth a nicer place to live will make it psychologically harder for humans to choose to pursue space travel, to reach out for the stars and other potential intelligences who live there. They are simply in disagreement on whether they should or should not make this choice–in enough disagreement, in fact, to go to war over it. No one in the entire book seems to say, “Wait–do we have solid reason to think that’s how humans work?” And in fact I don’t think it is. I certainly don’t think it’s substantiated enough that everybody should just say, oh yeah, obviously, now let’s pick a team. There’s a point about three-quarters of the way through where a character well known to the reader from a previous volumes who has not been interacting with the others in this volume shows up and has this presented to them. And instead of examining evidence of this–instead of asking questions about, for example, whether people who do science in very extreme conditions (deep sea! Antarctica! space but not just space!) now tend to come from comfortably-off families and countries (I think they do) and whether most people who pursue extreme sports tend to come from comfortable circumstances (again, I think they do)–whether in fact having a safer nest to launch from allows people to fly farther–instead, this character, upon having this axiom presented, basically nods and says, oh yeah, I get it, and picks a side.

This particularly frustrated me for two reasons. One, because I have personal examples in my life of people who come from more, not less, comfort being the ones who want to take risks for what they view as something greater than themselves. (We all miss you, Maxi.) And two, because it was not actually necessary for the plot to work. It would be a major spoiler to say which faction(s) is/are aligned against the pursuit of space travel as primary and why, but there is a specific other goal the major group is pursuing that would be entirely convincing on its own without this axiom coming up over and over again unchallenged.

I think this is one of the hard parts about trying something really ambitious. If a book isn’t aiming for something world-spanning, it’s easier to shrug when you run into something like this: okay, perhaps these five people all have this axiom. But the very overarching nature of the scope of this series means that when nobody seems to be thinking of something, it’s really nobody–or at least nobody who, in the context of this world, gets a chance to matter. I was left at the end of the book hoping that the places where there was compromise and contact with alien minds would allow for this particular piece to open later, or at least for readers to open a door that the book’s context left firmly closed. Which I think, from what I know of the author, is exactly the sort of thing she would like to have happen.

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Books read, late September

Stephanie Burgis, The Raven Heir. This is a new series from Steph, and it’s lovely. It’s a family story, a magic story, a forest story, all the things I like best all at once, and the end made me cry a bit in the best way.

Gardner Dozois, Modern Classics of Fantasy. Kindle. Well. This sure is a collection of fantasy stories published in the mid-90s. I was reading quite a lot of fantasy by then, and the genre Dozois is outlining is completely unrecognizable to me. It’s also comprised entirely of white people, the overwhelming majority of them men; meanwhile I was reading…a…variety of people? It was particularly jarring because I wanted this collection for a Suzy McKee Charnas story that’s not readily available elsewhere. That story, at least, was quite good. Some of the others were quite good. A lot of the remaining ones were sexist gaze Silver Age blather, and I know times have changed and to some extent Dozois changed with them, but he felt he had to include two stories each from Avram Davidson and Fritz Leiber while ignoring, lordy, just about everything Terri Windling ever edited, there’s a Bruce Sterling story in here, he talked complete nonsense about what T.H. White tropes had become “universal” in other Arthurian fiction at the time–and I know it was nonsense because I did a gigantic survey paper about contemporary Arthurian fiction two years before this book came out. I spent most of this book just wondering how it is that I managed to come of age reading fantasy that was a completely different field than this one wanted to engage with and promote and use his clout in the field to attempt to set as canon.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. Reread. Just as I was about to start talking about this, a discussion of it broke out in a private forum I’m on. I still do like it, but I feel its age particularly in the shape of roles the women take–what kind of heroism is possible to the women characters. There definitely is some, but it’s a constrained heroism for reasons that seem assumed rather than built into the world particularly, and the focus is chosen rather than necessary. Still, the moments where no one else can hear the name of the obliterated homeland, where they strain to make out what word the Tiganan characters are saying…those stayed with me, ever since the first time I’ve read it, and that’s the core of the book I keep returning to.

L.M. Montgomery, Further Chronicles of Avonlea. Reread. This is another random collection of Montgomery stories. This one seems to be highlighting the places where our values do not align very well–if you believe these stories, the central problem of family life is that people are too proud, and I don’t really believe that’s true. Ah well, at least I’ve reclaimed the shelf space, and there are other Montgomeries I still do love.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Son of the Storm. This is a fascinating book, because structurally it is so very secondary world fantasy, and worldbuilding-wise it is extremely Africa-influenced. So if you wonder what that looks like…this is definitely the book.

Naomi Oreskes, Why Trust Science? A concise and thoughtful take on what science has to offer as a system of apprehending the world. This series about modern thought is set up to offer challenges to the main body of the book by other thinkers and then gives the author a chance to rebut those challenges, and Oreskes’s work in that regard is magisterial, a joy to behold.

Lucy Pick, Pilgrimage. Historical fiction that weaves a tale from a figure along the periphery of actual history: a blind minor noblewoman from what would now be Belgium in the 12th century, swept along on what becomes a pilgrimage into Spain. Her comfort and skill in her own world are repeatedly upended, and her resourcefulness (and her dog’s resourcefulness!) in dealing with new circumstances are beautifully drawn but not superhuman. Because this is based on an actual historical life, there are places where I could not predict what would happen next because they’re shaped by real human chance rather than narrative convenience. Interesting.

Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Refreshingly, Roach decided to turn her wry and anecdotal eye not on weapons of destruction but on the peripheral technologies of warfare and its fallout. This is not a book for the fainthearted–there are descriptions of genital reconstruction surgery here, there are discussions of intestinal distress in field conditions–but the focus is not on killing but on survival.

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, Fiyah Issue 18. Kindle. For me the standout story here was Marika Bailey’s “The White Road or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River,” but once again Fiyah does an excellent job of bringing a variety of new-to-me authors to my attention.

Lisa Sanders, Diagnosis and Every Patient Tells a Story. In some ways these two volumes are opposite views of the same author. The first is a series of 2-6 page essays, sort of a “best of” her column in New York Times Magazine about diagnosis. Each is a self-contained medical mystery, and as with many very short mysteries they can be a bit unsatisfying because there isn’t room for much other than exposition and solution. Frankly I recommend it as bathroom reading. The latter volume is where Sanders has the chance to talk about diagnostic medicine at length, conceptually and holistically but most importantly in its human context–to talk about where she feels its stories fit in the human story. It’s a much better book.

Greg van Eekhout, Weird Kid. A shapeshifting kid investigates strange happenings in his town, gradually becoming part of them. Mayhem ensues. Fun times.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, et al, Lumberjanes: A Summer to Remember. This series is clearly wrapping up, and this was a bit of a nostalgia tour rather than…the actual plot wrap-up. For which I’m getting more and more impatient. I am also getting pickier about the art as we near the end. Ah well.

Anders Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe. Okay so this was great. This actually looked at why Scandinavians converted to Christianity when they did, taking into account that Adam of Bremen was not an unbiased observer about…the topic of how great and holy Adam of Bremen’s bosses were. You can believe in sincere conversions while still noticing that things like when and how the French fortified their bridges had a serious effect on Viking raids vs. merchant connections in the world, and having an author like Winroth who is willing to treat the Scandinavians of that time as active rather than passive participants in their own conversion made all the difference in the world. I was very excited about this book.

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Books read, early September

Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue. A dystopian novel from an Egyptian writer after the Arab Spring. This is short, full of human relationships, not generally pleasant but interesting to have as part of the span of dystopian literature, a very different part than most of Anglophonie.

Kalynn Bayron, This Poison Heart. Briseis has a gift with plants–even poisonous ones. Especially poisonous ones. So when she and her mothers have a chance to move out to a mysterious house with a gigantic garden, it seems like it might be the best opportunity in the world, as well as a chance to find out more about her birth family. I loved the voice, and the fantasy elements were as captivatingly handled as the trust themes. Looking forward to the sequel.

Robert Darnton, Publishing and Pirating: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment. As thorough as Darnton generally is, going into detail about who had the rights to publish what, who did it anyway, who tried to skip town and leave their family in the lurch, what it all cost and how they scraped by. Mostly centered in Francophonie, and that’s appropriate for the period. The title gives you a fair idea of whether you’ll be interested.

Grady Hendrix, The Final Girl Support Group. This is 100% not my kind of book, and I unintentionally devoured it all in one sitting anyway. It’s a conscious examination of horror movie tropes, what life is like for the one girl who gets out of a massacre, how those lives might still be trauma-ridden afterwards and how there might be another thriller/horror story yet to live through. Absolutely not my jam, and extremely well done.

Hildi Kang, Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. This is a compiled series of interviews with elderly Korean-Americans who were living in Korea as young people during the Japanese occupation, on a range of topics about that experience. It’s really interesting and illuminates all sorts of topics I would not have thought to ask about, and it’s a view of colonized experience that is not western-centric in any direction, so that’s fascinating. Also reasonably short.

Lori M. Lee, Pahua and the Soul Stealer. Discussed elsewhere.

Yoon Ha Lee, Phoenix Extravagant. Art and revolution and dragon automata and…determined characters who screw up a lot. I think this is my favorite of Lee’s long form works so far. There’s a clarity and a drive to it that I find very appealing.

H. M. Long, Hall of Smoke. I really liked the tone of this secondary world fantasy and the way that its characters interact with gods who are not all the same type/level of gods, how the theological and metaphysical ramifications made the fantasy, how they wandered in the wilderness in ways that made total sense for their story and their world. I enjoyed this a lot.

L. M. Montgomery, Chronicles of Avonlea, The Golden Road, and The Story Girl. Rereads. For a long time I had a habit of assuming that if I loved one book by an author, I should get–and keep–all their other works. And so I have been hauling these books around since the late 1980s without…really…rereading them in adulthood. Because I love The Blue Castle and some of the others. It turns out that I heartily dislike The Story Girl and its titular character (and its sequel, The Golden Road–the characters are on the golden road of childhood, you see, this is the most saccharine end of Montgomery’s work) and while I read them often enough in my chronically book-short childhood that they fell apart upon the reread thirty years later, I have zero desire to replace them. Sara Stanley, the so-called Story Girl, is a mouthpiece for very minor L.M. Montgomery tales of the sort I’ll get to in a minute in Chronicles of Avonlea. She has every melodramatic tendency Anne Shirley ever had, but everyone loves her and tells her she’s amazing all the time. The protagonist of these two books–written in first-person, not a strength for Montgomery to begin with–is Bev, a thirteen-year-old boy and/or his middle-aged self looking back. Montgomery attempts to put in what she thinks a 13-year-old boy would think about a lot–how pretty the girls are, basically–but tries to balance both that and the fact that Sara Stanley wants to be Gasp Oh No An Actress with constant teeth-aching simplistic Sunday School moralizing. So: everybody is obsessed with who is pretty and/or fat but also it is VERY WRONG to be vain. The characters are shallowly drawn and boring, and in order to make up for the slight nature of the stories, Bev is constantly putting his thumb on the scales to tell us how captivated everyone was, how amazing Sara is, what a great story it is. That we can read on the page and go, eh. Not so great. (Major Menolly Problems here.) At one point she is asked to recite the multiplication table to demonstrate that she can make it fascinating. I CALL SHENANIGANS, NO SHE CAN’T. So yeah, that was a horrifying trip down memory lane. Chronicles of Avonlea is a slight but inoffensive volume, lots of people finding love by setting aside their pride, whatever, with the exception of one story in which a disability is cured by (bleh) really REALLY wanting it. Otherwise it’s entertaining enough. Although there are constant asides about “that Anne Shirley over at Green Gables,” which: eyeroll, but whatever.

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070. This is a history of early medieval Scotland, on the “kings and lairds and battles” front. Lots of the information about this period is from external sources and has to be triangulated from multiple languages, so there is quite a lot of “are we talking about the same person here because this is the Irish version of this Norse name” and “how seriously do we take the sagas that were written hundreds of years later as a source on this period vs. the chronicles that were written hundreds of miles away by a hostile power.” But if you get tired–as I get tired, I get very tired–of having Scotland as a sort of combination totally central crossroads of northern Atlantic politics of this period and mist-shrouded, uh, well, Brigadoon, this sort of thing is going to have to happen to help disentangle it all.

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Pahua and the Soul Stealer, by Lori M. Lee

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Pahua Moua isn’t the only Hmong kid in her small Wisconsin town–there’s also her little brother Matt. She’s also grown up with the ability to see spirits, which even her shaman aunt can’t do–her best friend is a cat spirit, and she has daily interactions with other spirits around her home and surroundings. Other than that, though, she feels pretty isolated. When she has a chance to go with a friendly classmate–and a couple of less friendly ones–to look at a spooky old bridge in the woods, she takes it.

Pahua’s ability to see spirits is a mixed blessing, though, because the bridge is not as empty as her classmates think–and the spirit staying there is pretty tired of being alone. Pahua doesn’t mean to upset the spirit, but before she knows it her brother is in the hospital, and she’s joined by a shaman warrior her own age–at least sort of a shaman warrior her own age–on a quest to save him before he gets turned into a demon.

The sub-genre of middle-grade fantasy that features contemporary American kids having magical adventures with legends from their own heritage has been really popular in recent years, and for good reason–because a lot of the writers who are exploring this sub-genre have been doing a great job. Lee’s Pahua is engaging and fun and a very welcome addition to the group. Long may it last–and also let’s see what other stories Lee has to tell, in and out of this category.

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Books read, late August

Ben Aaronovitch, What Abigail Did That Summer. A side novella in the universe of the Rivers of London series. Not Peter Grant for a POV this time but his teenaged niece, complete with footnotes of her teenaged British slang (…eyeroll a bit here, but I suppose some readers will want that, and at least the footnotes are in a certain other character’s voice rather than attempting to be neutral voice). A fun read but I wouldn’t recommend starting here–I feel like a lot of what makes this setting fun and interesting doesn’t have quite the expository punch in this one.

Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance: A Collection of Chinese American Short Stories. These are stories from the turn of the last century, and I found them interesting more historically than literarily. They have the kind of sentimentality and social conservatism that they had to have in order to be published, because their very existence was in some ways radical. Watching that balance was intellectually interesting but not something I expect I’ll want to revisit.

Rivka Galchen, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. Cracklingly well written, just beautifully observed, very intimate voice novel about Kepler’s mother’s witch trial. Galchen does not take history as something distant from us but as peopled with, well, people; these are small town dynamics laced with humor and poignancy, although the humor can be extremely dark because she doesn’t take the idea of a witch trial lightly, she understands that this would upend a person’s life and a family’s life. I loved this.

Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall. Early ’70s folk rock band stumbles into folklore in the English countryside, discovers that folklore is not particularly nice or comprehensible. This nails milieu in the way that Hand very much does with that era. Novella length.

Hebi-Zou and Tsuta Suzuki, Heaven’s Design Team Vol. 2 and 3. More of where it started, lots of weird animal trivia and silliness, a fun diversion into biology.

Meg Hutchinson, Let’s Be the Awake Ones: A Month in Poems. It’s strange sometimes to read the poems of a singer-songwriter, because you hear so many poets talking about making the language sing, and this is the stuff that Meg…did not think she was going to sing in any form. So her poems are very talky, very much the things she wanted to say slowly and turn over in her mouth, very idea-heavy poems–sometimes in very short poems, but still, compared to the rest of the poetry I’ve read recently, oddly less lyrical, because her lyrics are going somewhere else.

R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin. Satisfyingly varied, honoring rather than imitating. I think my two favorites in this volume were Amelia Gorman’s “Redwood Houses” and Jennifer Mace’s “Ossify,” but there will be a lot to return to here.

Li Juan, Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey With China’s Kazakh Herders. I learned quite a lot about sheep herding in far western China from this book, how you pen them and what you eat and so on. There was a lot that I couldn’t entirely tell about how aware the author was of some cultural things–how much she was oblivious to her role in the herders’ lives as a representative of Chinese imperialism and how much she had to write it that way to get it published at all in the Chinese system. Some of that was extremely uncomfortable, but in a way that was worth having–I know that Li Juan is a not entirely establishment voice publishing in China. So I think sitting with that discomfort is good and interesting. And also I like learning about different winters, different herding.

Michael Livingston, Never Greater Slaughter. Where was the Battle of Brunanburh? If you don’t know what was the Battle of Brunanburh, it was in the reign of Aethelstan, lots of Vikings and early English groups of various stripes and Scots and Saxons and who knows what, milling around killing each other somewhere, and Michael Livingston and I are greatly interested in where. But this is perhaps not where to start if you aren’t already also greatly interested in where. For example if you don’t think, oh well, I’ll put that with my other Aethelstan books. If you don’t have opinions on how reliable Egil’s Saga is likely to be in this matter. Then this is not the book for you. If you do, though, well, dig in.

John McQuaid, Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat. This was a disappointment. He started out debunking some things that do want debunking, but after that he veered off into regurgitating various common tropes without researching them or contextualizing them in terms of class or region or known genetic variation among humans, or…anything else, really, this is not a very useful book and goes off into all sorts of things that have very little to do with taste science or in fact science at all, and if you want to hear unresearched claims repeated, you can get that online for free. Not recommended.

Jan Morris, In My Mind’s Eye. This is a daily thought journal of Morris’s old age, and…I can’t say I recommend it. Some of it is on the level of the not particularly deep thoughts of your eldest aunt: computers are a bother! Things are different than when I was young! Be kind to people! And you think, well, okay, Auntie Jan, you wrote Hav, go on being annoyed by your computer, that’s all right. But then there’s stuff like “I expect Donald Trump will rise to the occasion of being President” and “I don’t like fat people” and “the UK will never have a right-wing problem like other countries” and “wasn’t there a lot of harmless nice stuff about imperialism really” where I just…got less and less interested in sitting through Jan Morris’s ill-considered old-age thoughts, and I cannot recommend them to you. Go on back and reread Hav, that’s a better use of your time.

Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin, eds., It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility. Several favorites reprinted here despite the fact that I am not its central target audience, and I also particularly liked a new story, Kristen Koopman’s “Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank’s Late-Night Starlite Drive-In.” Also I think it’s good to read things for which I am not the central target audience.

H. G. Parry, A Radical Act of Free Magic. One of the reasons that I love sequels is that my expectations have been set. I knew that this would be a fantasy alternate history in which the fantasy elements did not make the world diverge as much from our world as I thought it really should; I accepted that going in and could enjoy it for what it is that way, for Napoleon’s relationship with vampires and dragons, for Wilberforce and Pitt the Younger and Fina and all of it. And there is a thorough conclusion here. This is not a never-ending series. Parry has told the tale and finished it.

Sarah Pinsker, We Are Satellites. So extremely compelling. This is what I want out of near-future science fiction, this kind of intensely personal, intertwined narrative of different relationships with a new technology and all the branching paths it takes. This family story, this social story, this in several ways neurodiverse story. Yes. Definitely this.

Margery Sharp, Four Gardens. A very gentle story of a life around the conceit of the four gardens its protagonist grew, keen-eyed without being either justifying or judgmental. I think one of the things that was particularly interesting is that its protagonist was not thoughtful, not very self-aware, and Sharp was clear about that without being snarky.

Amy Stewart, Dear Miss Kopp. This is not the most recent one in the series–there’s one more–but it was the last one I hadn’t read, the wartime exploits of the three sisters as told in letters by each of them to each of the others, plus various other figures. I’m afraid I wanted more out of this–some of my favorite fiction and poetry comes from World War One narratives, and it’s a high bar to clear–so in some ways I think it would have been better for Stewart to spend more time and emotional energy on it, and in some ways I think it’s clearly not her forte, and moving on in the Kopp sisters’ lives is a better call. I definitely wouldn’t start here.

Mariko Tamaki and Yoshi Yoshitani, I Am Not Starfire. Graphic novel about the teenage child of one of the formerly-Teen Titans. Now just a Titan, I guess? Adult Titans? I don’t know. It felt weirdly generic to me, it felt simultaneously like it relied on being part of the larger DC narrative (major questions like “who is the protagonist’s father” were made central in ways they didn’t have to be, then held in reserve for other works) and…didn’t really do anything strong with that. Mandy clearly knew the other Grown Titans but her relationships with them were extremely unclear and didn’t seem to give much thought to their established characters. And her own teen angst was very paint-by-numbers. Unfortunately I think it is still rare enough for some teens to see a protag who is chubby and/or forms a healthy same-sex that having one done in a mediocre not-terrible way might be enough for some readers on those grounds, but in general I wish that that audience could have, y’know, actual excellent stories of protags of their demographic, and not just “I guess you might like this because it’s not all straight waifs.”

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Best of World SF, Vol 1. A large and quite varied compilation, with some new names and some favorites, including reprints of things I’m happy to have in one easy location. Will return to this, I think.

Esme Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias. I keep thinking about this essay collection not just as a friend and family member of people with schizophrenia but…I think it has all sorts of broader social implications. I keep thinking about the things Wang writes about having to do to prove that she’s doing better that do not map to doing better even a little. Her schizophrenia is real, severe, at times debilitating, but from reading these essays it seems that the things our culture knows to do to help her find her way through it are…of mixed utility at best. And I think we all owe that some thought, and this is a very good jumping-off point for that.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Kanesha C. Bryant, Julia Madrigal, et al, Lumberjanes: Horticultural Horizons. It’s clear that the Lumberjanes run is winding up toward its end, and this is another volume that mixes Lumberjanes present and far past. At this point I’m interested in the arc plot and would like for it to get where it’s going, as much as the diversions are fun.

Fran Wilde, Clock Star Rose Spine. This is a beautiful collection–this is where I got the lyrical poetry I was looking for this month. It contains several poems I’d already read and loved as well as some completely new to me. I think my favorite is the series of non-traditional self-portraiture, but I’m glad to have it all, and it’s so beautifully put together, too.

A. C. Wise, Wendy, Darling. I was delighted to see that Wise had a debut novel coming out but a little worried at its subject matter. I should not have been: she deconstructs the heart of the Peter Pan story with a deft hand and a sure eye for the exact pieces of the early 20th century that J.M. Barrie couldn’t help but include and definitely wanted to look away from. Both the beloved and the monstrous are handled beautifully and bravely here. Can’t wait for her next work of whatever length.

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Books read, early August

Brian R. Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography. This is, thankfully, exactly what it claims to be. Dott goes through 16th and 17th century rural gazetteers to trace when and where surplus peppers are offered for sale and what they’re called; he looks into when folk heroes are given chili-related nicknames. It’s a study of how and how quickly the pepper pervades a culture and its food and (inextricably in this case) medicine, and it’s brief and interesting.

John M. Ford, The Scholars of Night. Discussed elsewhere.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China. Gentle fabulism with different humanoid “beasts” focused on different emotions in each section. This is not, as I initially thought, a series of vignettes about them, in travelogue style, but instead an exploration of a city, a culture, some people who study “beasts” and how they feel, what they think. Poignant and interesting.

Rachael K. Jones, Every River Runs to Salt. Novelette I think? perhaps very short novella. Anyway it has the offspring of glaciers kidnapping the ocean and trying to hide under the protection of a university, and it is fun and interesting and does not do more than its length can support.

Kim Bo-Young, I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories. Three melancholy, romantic science fiction stories translated from Korean. I mean both romantic and Romantic, I think. Each story comes in multiple parts, two of them epistolary stories that are each other’s counterpart and the third something else completely, something a great deal more metaphysical. I’m interested in what else Kim does.

Ross King, The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance. This is about that point in time when some books started to be printed and others were still hand-copied, and about the people who sold books then and what they sold and to whom and how. I don’t think it’s the strongest of King’s works, but it’s full of fun digressions and generally worth the time, very much the sort of angle on history I like to have.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Strength. Kindle. Not a very direct sequel to Paladin’s Grace, but it nevertheless features the paladins of the Saint of Steel in their lives after the death of that Saint, in their collective life as an order as well. And it also features the Sisterhood of St. Ursa, whom I love, who are lovely and varied and…I want to keep them all, I want to visit them on a trading route, yes please, more of St. Ursa’s sisters. There were some moments of unusual recoil for me–when Kingfisher (Vernon) goes creepy with a villain, she goes all out–but it stayed firmly on the side of fantasy rather than horror. I enjoyed this a lot.

Erik Loomis, A History of America in Ten Strikes. This does not do what it says on the tin. It’s really more of a general history of labor and strikes in America; it goes into far more than ten strikes rather than doing a careful detailed history of ten. I felt like it would have been better served by either being longer or by sticking to its stated focus, but you could do worse, as introductory US labor histories go.

Katharine Norbury, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. I feel like the worst kind of nerd about this book, because it is a lovely memoir about finding your roots, figuring out who you are, and yet I…I thought it would be about fish. I like fish. I rallied, I enjoyed it for what it is, but do not be like me, do not go into it looking for fish, it is about a woman who was adopted looking for her sense of self, she does go upstream a little bit literally but that is hardly any of the book and there are hardly any fish at all.

Shelley Parker-Chan, She Who Became the Sun. The way this book sets reader expectations with the opening chapter is so beautifully done. This is historical fantasy; bad things happen in it, including bad things happening to children. The protag will try to fight past them, but: they will happen on the page, and Parker-Chan just does such a great job of laying out what tone and what range of consequences you can expect in this book. Which…is a mildly fantasy version of the rise of the Ming Dynasty. It was incredibly gripping, any time I was not reading it I wanted to be reading it again, and I can’t wait to see what Parker-Chan does with the sequel. But this is very much a case where the beginning is doing exactly its job, and if the tone is too dark for where you are right now, wait for when you’re in more of the mood for it, because there is not a part in the middle where the future Hongwu Emperor and the teddy bears have a picnic together.

Amy Stewart, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit and Kopp Sisters on the March. This is further catching up on this series as the US moves toward WWI. This series is based on the exploits of a real-life family of sisters, and the perils faced by the women in the books are quite real, including but not limited to forced incarceration on trumped-up mental health issues and threat to livelihood due to sexism. The ways in which women were badly treated historically are on parade through this series. There are fun things but also there are extremely upsetting things. Be aware as you go in. I do think that they stand reasonably well alone, though, as evidenced by the fact that I accidentally skipped from book 1 to book 7 with no loss of enjoyment. I only have one left at this point.

Giles Whittell, Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration. This is such a strange book. It’s about snow, just as it says, but it’s by an Englishman who seems to treat snow as something that you visit, mostly to ski on, or else something that you witness through your window before it disappears. And while he seems upset about the prospect of snow dwindling with global warming, he does very little to immerse himself in the mindset of any of the cultures for whom that would be…more overarchingly meaningful. Canada, the northern (non-skiing-focused!) US, and the Norden are all equally neglected here. He has lots of interesting scientific facts about snow and ideas about downhill skiing…and almost none about cross-country, sledding sports, snow sculpture, or any of a number of other things that someone actually culturally exploring snow might want to go into. Russia…is mostly in this book as a place that has skiing in inappropriate places, manufactured in Sochi, not a place that has snow in appropriate places. So what’s here is interesting, but what’s not here is just weird.

Isabel Yap, Never Have I Ever. Short stories, many of which draw on Filipino stories for their context and speculative elements. There are stories here that are beautiful, horrifying, tender, angry…basically Yap demonstrates that she has range, that if one story is not your sort of thing the next one very well might be. Will be glad to see more from her.

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The Scholars of Night, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dear Mike,

Well, they’ve re-released another of your books in a lovely new edition. The cover is brilliant. I think you’d love it. The introduction to this one was easier to get through, because Charles Stross was talking about the Cold War rather than talking about you.

But then there was the book itself, and you know what you did, Mike. You know all the things you left for us to find after you were gone. The lines about grief about the loss of a mentor–knowing you would understand how that hurt just when the thing that hurts is your loss. Gee, thanks for that, friend. (I mean, seriously, thanks for that. But also, ow.)

The thing about this book is that we’re always talking about how much you were ahead of your time. But Charlie was right to talk about the Cold War in the intro, because this is the book of yours that is most of its time. This is the one that reminds me that you live in the past now, that’s what being dead means. I can’t talk to you about the gender dynamics you portrayed and what you were thinking about them, some of which is pretty strongly implied and some is a little trickier to tease out. And I definitely can’t hear what you’d think of them now, in 2021. Because this book is of its time, and that’s where you live, and I don’t live there any more, and I can’t even visit you there.

One of the things that delights me about this book is how keenly you’ve observed that one of the joys of spy novels is men’s fashion. Women’s, too, but you can find more of that in other genres. You had a note-perfect eye for what the end of the Cold War was wearing, and you juggled that in as you were doing the Christopher Marlowe and the war games and all the rest. And I smiled every time.

And then the ending. Here, this part: The children were growing up angry, without any help at all. If he could teach Paul Ogden to think through his anger–If anyone could teach that to anyone, then there was hope. Oh Mike. Oh friend. Well, we’ll just keep trying, on that front. Because I’ve got to tell you, the children have not stopped having cause for that since you wrote it. Since you left us.

It’s a book of very different battles than we’re fighting now, Mike, but the overlap is definitely there. It’s much more of a period piece than The Dragon Waiting, strange though that is to say. And yet it’s so well-constructed, it’s so well done, that I return to it again and again, for all the snapshots, all the moments, all the ways you handled tension in this book. And: this is the book that made me go read all of Anthony Price. Because it works in either order. Now it’s out again, and the people who are missing you can read it again–and the people who missed you the first time around can read it too.

I hope they do.

As always, thanks.


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Books read, late July

Cassie Alexander, Year of the Nurse: A 2020 Pandemic Memoir. Discussed elsewhere.

Andrea Barrett, Archangel. Reread. This is a bunch of short stories with loosely linked characters, historical fiction around a theme of scientific exploration of the world. Beautifully done, and they hold up very well on the second go-round.

Carolyn Fourche, In the Lateness of the World. I kept failing to connect with these poems of global exploration. We did not meet each other the way I wanted to. Perhaps another of you will.

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Perfectly nice naturalist essays but not my favorite of her books, not where I would recommend starting with this part of her work.

Katherine Johnson, My Remarkable Journey. An autobiography from one of the outstanding “computers” from NASA’s era when that term was a person’s job description as a mathematician rather than a machine. This is labeled a memoir; it is not. It is very dates-and-places autobiography, very little internality. Both have value, but know that going in; there’s more factual material here than in Hidden Figures, but not a lot more of what was deeply personal to Dr. Johnson.

Abbie Gascho Landis, Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels. Does what it says on the tin, although it’s quite focused on mussels in North America, and particularly in the east of North America–it comes as far west as I am but really not much farther. But mussels: they’re interesting, here’s a bunch of stuff about them.

Ada Limón, Sharks in the River. This was the absolute perfect book for the day I was reading it. I kept marking poems to come back to. So many beautiful moments, start to finish. Highly recommended.

Sujata Massey, The Bombay Prince. The latest in its series, focused on the visit of the future Edward VIII to India and the protests thereof–and of course on a murder mystery unfolding around it. I think this is a series you can start in multiple places, and this is a fine enough place if you’re not attached to starting at the beginning or are having difficulty getting hold of the beginning.

James Morrow, The Cat’s Pajamas and Other Stories. Reread. Upon reread a lot of these felt shallow and self-congratulatory, and I really hope I like other things I remember liking of his better. Sigh.

Winifred Peck, Arrest the Bishop?. I didn’t find this late-1940s mystery as charming as her clerical slice-of-life, but it was still fun to read when I needed something to sort of refresh myself after one of the books below (it’ll become obvious).

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, eds. Fiyah Issue 17. Kindle. Occasionally Fiyah has an issue of well-done stories that aren’t really my jam, and you know what, I think they should, I am not the center of their target audience. This was one of those. Glad they’re doing what they’re doing.

Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Oh lord, what a difficult book. Sebba is not setting herself the task of proving that Ethel Rosenberg had zero Communist sympathies (good thing, because that’s clearly untrue) or any of a number of other things some people felt they had to do in talking about her case. She simply wants to examine: what evidence was there that she committed specific crimes, especially the crimes for which she was executed, specifically that she committed those crimes and not some other member of her family such as her husband, brother, or sister-in-law. Evidence looks pretty sparse, and there is clear and specific evidence that the people who tried her knew they were using perjured testimony, and that her brother knew that he was perjuring himself and never understood why she didn’t do the same. This is a book that is incredibly sad and upsetting in a number of ways.

Amy Stewart, Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. I’m catching up on this historical semi-fiction adventure series, and I continue to enjoy it. One of the things I particularly liked here is that a young person with a dream doesn’t have that dream magically realized on the first try, pivots, and manages to make other things work for a bit, while still trying to figure out what might work for her long-term. I think too often “follow your dreams” narratives are presented as binary success/failure rather than very weird tangents, and this is a weird tangent one, which is kind of great.

Carrie Vaughn, Questland. Some of Vaughn’s books are a perfect fit for me as a reader and some are well-written but just…fine, I guess, not special for me. This is one of the latter. It’s a love song to the segment of geek culture that’s now mass market, and many of the places where its commentary could have gotten deep or trenchant didn’t. Not sure why, since Vaughn certainly has that in her. Anyway, if you want animatronic dragons, this is that (literally, I am not being metaphorical), but I didn’t really feel like the plot threads came together into a greater whole.

Hywel Williams, Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Lots of good stuff about what was actually going on in Western Europe. If you ever feel like genre fantasy is too based on medieval Western Europe, go read up on the Carolingians and their squabbles with each other and their neighbors and find out that, lordy, does genre fantasy have a lot more to draw on. Anyway I think they’re fun, and this was fun.

Xiran Jay Zhao, Iron Widow. Discussed elsewhere.

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Year of the Nurse: A 2020 Pandemic Memoir, by Cassie Alexander

Review copy provided by the author, who is a Twitter-and-sometimes-conventions pal.

Cassie (not her real name) is an ICU nurse in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a very raw, very immediate memoir of how her year in went, in nursing and in life. It’s got all the blood, all the tears, and all the swearing left in. In another decade someone will write a cool, polished, considered memoir with considered perspective about what it all meant now that we’ve thought it through; in another century, a series of bugcrusher histories of nursing in the pandemic, using primary source. But this is what we have right now.

This is what we need right now.

Because Cassie talks not just about what she experienced but about what she doesn’t know how to do next. How she doesn’t know how to rebuild relationships with those who said they loved her and then turned away from her experience of this last year, trying to save lives in grueling and heart-rending conditions. And we all need to think about that, not just nod sagely about yes, how hard, but really think about that.

If you’ve lost someone in an ICU situation, COVID or not, there are going to be some tough moments, and maybe you’re going to want to time this carefully. If you feel like the previous US presidential administration did a great job with COVID response and you don’t have a lot of patience for blaming it for any choices…frankly I don’t have a lot of patience for that, read this anyway, maybe especially you. And if you’re prone to suicidal ideation and may be triggered by reading about someone else’s suicidal times, okay, yeah, skip this one, because it turns out that trying to save people’s lives while constantly being thwarted by an extremely toxic system is very hard on a human being, it was very hard on this particular human being, and this is not a book that lets you look away from that, but I think Cassie would be the last one who would want to harm you with the things that harmed her.

She says over and over again: she just wants us all to be okay. I believe her. Let’s just…do the best we can, okay? Let’s all do the best we can.