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.

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Do you want a retelling of the story of Empress Wu as a teenage mecha pilot? because that’s what this is. It is a retelling of the story of Empress Wu as a teenage mecha pilot.

Do you need more information than that? Okay but WHY though. SIGH. FINE. It is an utterly ferocious flail against institutional sexism, “a triangle is the strongest shape” comes up in context, the Four Symbols get mecha forms, and there are aliens for the mecha to fight in dramatic battles. But really: Empress Wu as teenage mecha pilot, that’s the sort of pitch that sorts out the people who want it from the people who don’t pretty fast.

(I am a people who do.)

It makes me sad and angry that Zhao needed an author’s note saying that the institutional sexism examples in this book were Chinese because that’s the culture they were drawing on in this case not because Wow Those Sexist Chinese Good Thing No One Else Has Institutional Sexism. They were absolutely right that they did need that author’s note, because people absolutely would make that inference, and by “people” I mean “a certain subset of racist white people unfortunately too large to ignore.” I wanted to stand whitely next to them and make mean faces at anyone who did make that inference. Institutional sexism: it’s not just for one culture! It should be for no cultures, but here we are! In any case: if you can’t cope with portrayals of institutional sexism at the moment, put this aside until you can, but if you want to watch Wu Zetian absolutely trouncing the sexists, with help from lovely people of various genders, on with the show, here’s Iron Widow.

Books read, early July

Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer. Reread. I had forgotten how this starts with the trope from every abusive fantasy school and then spits in its face. I had forgotten how it ramps up the beginning of this thing. I’m going to reread the whole thing, eventually, but this: yes, this is a good start.

David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. They don’t let me pick the titles for these things, or I would have called it @#%&%$ Proto-Indo-Europeans, How Do They Work. But this was good too I guess. Lots of stuff about what we know about Proto-Indo-European and the people who spoke it and how to figure out things about animal domestication. I enjoyed it a lot.

Aldous Huxley, On the Margin: Notes and Essays. Kindle. Gosh, he was willing to just lean into his opinions, wrong or not. Mostly quite wrong, with the perspective of a hundred years. Just thoroughly, enthusiastically wrong, in very readable prose.

DaVaun Sanders, Sharise B. Moore, et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 19. Kindle. The first two stories of this issue were the stand-outs for me, in very different ways. I liked the non-traditional shape of “To Rest, and to Create,” by L.A. Knight; I liked that the conflict mostly predated the story and that the shape of the story was mostly the realization that it was okay not to be wracked with conflict now. And “Meditations on Sun-Ra’s Bassism” by Yah Yah Scholfield was a more traditional shape of science fiction story but with different cultural references than this shape of story usually has, and I liked that too.

Danna Staaf, Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods. Short, pithy, full of lots of squid taxonomy and archaeology. Squids have a fairly similar organ for direction sense to ours, did you know that? which means that squid could have a balance disorder similar to one of mine, which I find companionable.

Amy Stewart, Miss Kopp Investigates. Discussed elsewhere.

Tasha Suri, The Jasmine Throne. Lush and full and lots of hard choices and people struggling with fantasy worlds full of unknown consequences. So much fun with this.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art. A long and thorough look at what we know about our Neanderthal cousins and how they did things in various aspects of life and development, very cool stuff.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 41. Kindle. My favorite thing in this lovely issue was Octavia Cade’s poem, and I can’t wait to share it with you in August.

Nghi Vo, The Chosen and the Beautiful. In case you hadn’t heard the press about this one, it’s a retelling of The Great Gatsby with fantasy elements, and frankly I am not sure our neighbor Scott deserved it, but he got it anyway, thank you copyright term expiration. There’s papercutting magic, there’s literally demon rum (well, demoniac), there’s Jordan Baker getting dimension of her own, there’s Vo deciding that she wants her own set of metaphors and just going out and making some, and it’s lovely, as I said far lovelier, I think, than the original possibly deserved.

Helene Wecker, The Hidden Palace. The sequel to The Golem and the Jinni, and it is very very sequel-y, so really read the other one first, but just like the first one it had that very compelling nature, the quality that made curling up with it the thing I most wanted to do while I was reading it. Early twentieth century cultural clashes and combinations, yes please, so magical even in addition to the magic.

Miss Kopp Investigates, by Amy Stewart

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Oh lovely! I said to myself when I saw this title available. She’s written a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun. So…it turns out that this is the seventh in the series, not the second. Oops! Luckily for me this did not interfere with my enjoyment in the slightest, and I have all the middle volumes in the series waiting for me. (Whew.)

So. The Kopp sisters. They’ve been up to quite a lot since last I saw them, maybe less since last you saw them if you’ve been keeping up with the series better than I have. But still quite a lot. They’ve gone their separate ways in the First World War, which is now over, and their brother has died, and what on earth are they going to do to keep body and soul together and help their sister-in-law with the children in the changing postwar economic landscape? The answer varies quite a lot by personality, although none of them is quite pleased with the way that circumstance and family need have overturned her personal plans.

The center of this particular book is the youngest Kopp sister, Fleurette, whose plans for a life on the stage have been upended, and whose new experiences as a professional divorce co-respondent are showing her a side of domestic life that she did not anticipate and does not entirely like. And the things that Miss Kopp has to investigate are not the traditional murder mystery, but something entirely itself, historically based and interesting and well-characterized and frankly a lot of fun.

Books read, late June

Pat Barker, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. Rereads. I read these more or less in one go, as a trilogy, and that’s how I recommend doing it. There is an interesting phenomenon with some books that break a lot of ground in their time, because they sometimes do not look as astonishing in retrospect because people have gone on so much further after. Which is not to say that these are not still quite readable books–in fact I tore through them–but Barker was doing so much less with both sexuality and the war poets than I remembered. The first volume had such an incredibly light hand with sexuality, in fact, that I think a new reader to it would say, “I thought she said a theme of this trilogy was….” And the war poets rather the opposite: Siegfried Sassoon is a protagonist of the first, certainly, but I remembered him and Owen looming much larger throughout than they did. In short what she was doing here was not what I remembered her doing. Was it interesting, yes; but the things that were striking to me when I first read it nearly twenty years ago were less so now, and there were different directions. I’m still not sure what I think of the use of Rivers’s ethnographic work in the last volume. Huh. I’m not sorry I reread it, and I probably will want to reread it again in another twenty years for another look.

Nancy Marie Brown, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Assassins of Thasalon. Kindle. I like watching Lois think through all the different implications of the theology of this world and what it would do to actual people, and the compassion she approaches it with. This is very much the latest in a long series and I wouldn’t start here, but I enjoyed it as such.

Stephanie Burgis, The Disastrous Debut of Agatha Tremain. Kindle This was light and fun and just what I needed at its moment, the kind of 19th century-inspired fantasy that Steph does so well.

Elias Lönnrot (Eino Friberg trans.), The Kalevala. I was told that there was a new translation of the Kalevala, but alas, there is a new edition of a 1989 translation, and it does not even have new introductory material that could discuss use of words like “sq–w” that have no place in a translation of a Finnish poem, honestly what on earth was Penguin thinking. What are new editions even for. Why do they put introductions on things that tell me the entire plot of novels I haven’t read yet if they can’t put them on other things to apologize for (and/or amend…) racist language from past translators. Among my many gripes with the Friberg translation: it is mostly metrical but only mostly, so the places where it breaks meter are extremely glaring and do not appear to be for poetic emphasis or characterization, and mostly I could see how I would fix them myself in the moment I was reading it, which threw me out of the poem narrative. Also Friberg uses very cutesy translation words to try to keep meter in some places, like “snackbite” and “bigly,” which: stop that, Eino, what are you doing. Bigly. Now really. And when you have an epithet that breaks meter, returning to that epithet again and again when you could choose an epithet that does not break meter–oh, it’s dreadful. This is not what I meant when I said I wanted to compare translations. I hope the next version is better, or I’m just going to huddle in the corner with Francis Peabody Magoun and glare. (Magoun also uses “sq–w.” Why the fascination. Stop it.) Where is our Finnophone version of Maria Dahvana Headley? Where Emily Wilson? Whither Shadi Bartsch? I would give that person several of my very own cash dollars. I would rally my friends. I know several people. Is there a reverse Kickstarter where you put cash on the barrel and sort of a rope snare and translators wander through the forest that is the internet and when there is enough tasty cash they try to take it and translate poetry. I also want a Kalevipoeg more recent than W. F. Kirby in 1895. I don’t ask much. I’m a reasonable person.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares. Discussed elsewhere.

Zin E. Rocklynn, Flowers for the Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Dorothy Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon and Lord Peter. Rereads. Here is where my sense of Bunter comes from. There is more Bunter here than in the rest of the series. I had been thinking my reader’s 50% was really more like 80% when it came to Bunter–which would be understandable for class reasons–but there’s a lot more of him here, hello Bunter, I’d missed you. There were some really interesting things here, and also some appalling ones. The last story in Lord Peter, in particular, is that thing that happens with people of that era: it is an entire story that is more or less completely written in defense of capital punishment. If you ever get to making the mistake that people of past generations who are sensible in one regard are sensible in all, read “Tallboys” and you will be soundly disabused, because it is start to finish a whole-hearted defense of beating quite small children with sticks and how great it is and how much they love it and how much people who say one oughtn’t to beat children are hypocrites who would do it at first opportunity. You often see this sort of thing among science fiction writers of the same age as well. It’s horrifying particularly in the context of a series that has been seriously considering the problem of equality in heterosexual relationships. It’s a very weird note to end on and makes me very strongly anti-recommend reading the short stories last.

Fran Wilde, The Ship of Stolen Words. I read an earlier version of this in manuscript, and I’m delighted that it is now published and available to the rest of you! Goblins steal Sam’s ability to apologize, and he has to chase them and their word-hunting pigs through Little Free Libraries to get his words back. Sam’s frustrations and struggles and joys are utterly charming and delightful. Highly recommended.

Flowers for the Sea, by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This debut novella is listed as both epic and dark fantasy, and I would say it trends strongly toward the latter. Until we got to the ending, I was inclining toward calling it horror–there is a strong component of what I would describe as body horror here, subcategory pregnancy body horror. If that’s a theme you struggle with, you may want to leave this one for another day (or even another reader), because pregnancy (and nursing) body horror is a substantial portion of what we’re doing here.

This is a story of the outcast, and it is a story of the sea. I was wondering if there would be sharp twists, but no, it’s more like the tide, it’s inexorable like the tide. The razorfangs, the sea, the survivors and their treatment of each other including the ostracized other among them…the question of her humanity…it’s all there, you know this song, it’s a question of how vividly Rocklyn brings it to its conclusion, and the answer is, very vividly indeed.

The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, by Nancy Marie Brown

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I found this book both interesting and frustrating.

Interesting, because there was a lot of good solid information about textiles and trading. Much archaeology, lots of reconstruction! If you want the details of what kinds of paint substrates were being used in the Viking era, Nancy Marie Brown has your back. I do in fact want that. I want that a lot. So this is very useful to me. I expect to some of you also.

Frustrating, because she is very much willing to make assumptions based on herself personally and go galloping forth with them. There is a little note after the main body of the book where she blithely tells the reader that Neil Price encouraged her to take a complex view of gender and she decided not to do so. Oh really, says this reviewer. Well, isn’t that a choice you made.

In Brown’s favor, she is willing to revisit previous positions when there is evidence that they are utter nonsense. Unfortunately this means that there are long sections of this book where the person she is arguing with is not me, not Neil Price, not any of a great number of other people who have been thinking thinky thoughts about the Viking era and gender for decades now (I have restrained myself from listing half a dozen personal friends in this location), but in fact…Previous Version Nancy Marie Brown. For example she says out loud! without prompting! that she personally did not used to believe in women wanting to fight with swords, which was so phenomenally stupid that I nearly shut the book and went off to go reread Neil Price instead. It’s always possible to consider other people having preferences unlike oneself, the more so when they are removed from oneself by an entire millennium, sort it out before you visit it upon the rest of us in several published volumes.

But really there’s quite a lot of useful stuff about dyes and paint substrates and that. Even if her “reconstructed” fiction sections demonstrate why she is not a fiction writer. If you’re thinking of a project in this era you might well want it just for what furs are common where and so on. If you take it all with a grain of salt about how willing this particular author is to generalize from the particular person she has closest to hand.

Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares, by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Review copy provided by the publisher.

When I saw that there was a sequel to Paola Santiago and the River of Tears coming out, I couldn’t request it fast enough. Pao and her friends had exciting, fun adventures, and I was excited to rejoin them.

As often happens, the sequel goes to a somewhat darker, more grown-up place. In many cases when people discuss a fantasy novel and say “darker,” they mean that the fantasy tropes are more horror-tinged, scarier, but the first volume of this series was pretty dark for a kids’ fantasy–the titles are giving you accurate information that the fluffy bunny content here is fairly minimal. But for me, the thing that gets darker and more mature is not actually the fantasy element, which is pretty consistent. It’s the friendship element: Paola’s relationships with her best friends have grown rather fraught, and all is not well between them in ways that are more complicated than the spats of the first book.

Which makes me squirm. And this is very much a middle book: if you’re looking for clear resolution and absolute redemption, this is not the book for it. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for lots of growth and characters figuring out interesting things and the author getting to play with a larger scope than she started with–plenty of Arizona desert, now heading into California and up to Oregon, with the legends to accompany–this may be your jam. It was mine.

Books read, early June

Zen Cho, Black Water Sister. An American woman goes to Malaysia with her parents and meets her grandmother. Who is dead. And learns a lot about her family, local gods, herself, and where she wants to be going with all this. This was delightful. Highly recommended.

Roshani Chokshi, A Crown of Wishes. Chokshi’s second novel and the last of hers I’ve gotten around to reading. There’s a darker feel here to the magical elements she’s brought to play in some of her other work, but two people still have to learn to trust each other and find their happy ending through tournaments and poisons and other stuff that’s much more fun to read about than to live.

Nino Cipri, Defekt. A sequel to Finna and along very similar lines: funny-horror-SF Ikea commentary. A quick good time at the edges of what I usually like in terms of its horror elements.

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest. The title kind of tells you what he’s doing here: people are gonna get killed. And killed and killed, wow, so killed. There’s a reason his later novels are more famous, because the structure here is just wild, but the sentences are all very very Hammett.

Graci Kim, The Last Fallen Star. Charming middle-grade fantasy about an adoptee figuring out her powers and her place in the world. Very centered on Korean-American LA in a way that was interesting and fun. I continue to love what Rick Riordan is doing with this line of books and the different authors whose voices get highlighted here.

Arthur C. Parker, Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. Parker was telling these stories from his own memory and interactions with his own friends and family members, and it has a certain feel of…drawing you into the cultural assumptions along with him. It’s the kind of compilation you got a lot in the early twentieth century, so it has that kind of writing, but in a very matter-of-fact voice, like, of course the person turned into a porcupine then, that’s what would happen! I enjoyed this.

Sarah Prineas, Trouble in the Stars. A light tale of shapeshifting alien kid. Since I just drafted one of those, I wanted to see if it was anything like mine, and the answer is, wow, no, could not be more different. Yay! This one has all sorts of different spacefaring aliens, not all of whom get along even a little bit in the early part of the book. Good times.

Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. The twist ending did not feel very twisty to me because I think a lot about story structure, but I enjoyed the relationships and how they unfolded, particularly in the early part of the book, and if you like thinking about Old Hollywood vs. new journalism, this is an interesting one.

J. C. Rudkin, Cthulhu: A Love Story. Discussed elsewhere.

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Rereads. It’s striking to me, on this reread, how much it looks like Sayers no longer wanted to write about murder after introducing Harriet Vane to the series. She still did it–it’s a murder mystery series, and the pressure from her publisher was intense. But she also found ways to do other things, and to make even the books that were clearly about murder also about other things. I like all of these. These are some of my favorites of the series. (I still maintain that if you’re going to read only one, it should be Bellona Club. Several of my friends suggest Murder Must Advertise works fine that way, but I think a major part of its appeal is the contrast of who Peter is pretending to be–who he might have been–with who he really is.) But I do wonder what it might have been like if she had been encouraged to wander off and written whatever novels appealed to her, what their structure might have looked like. Or whether it would have looked like this after all, since this was the structure she knew best.

Robin R. Wang, Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty. I don’t recommend this. Two reasons: one, this is the sort of book that goes with a particular course being taught by a particular professor, that they happen to have gotten published in book form. (It was a hand-me-down to me that was a gift to someone else.) There are loads of other things at least as good written about women in China over this two thousand year period; I can see the shape of the coursework around it, but even when it was published this was not a particularly special selection. But what’s worse is that this is an area in which fifteen years of scholarship have made a huge difference in how such a selection would be curated. Almost none of this work is by women, and its skew is very much in a particular direction. Several of the notes use identical language to that justifying basically every patriarchal culture–“oh but it’s fine that the women had huge restrictions because in this culture the family was valued“–check the literature, they literally say it about every single one, and what if…that kind of justification was not our job? what if we were observing rather than justifying? what if the role of this kind of book was to observe a diversity of thought (this book does not do that) and role in a gigantic empire over an immense span of time rather than to give a fairly narrowly curated view? Anyway you’ll want something else, this is not notably good commentary or selection.

Cynthia Zhang, After the Dragons. Discussed elsewhere.

Cthulhu: A Love Story, by J. C. Rudkin

This review copy came to me as a result of the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter’s Contributors Do Your Bidding effort: a nonfiction piece on the topic of the donor’s choosing was one of the possible rewards, and they chose me and a review of this debut novel. I was a little curious about being chosen to review a crossover Lovecraftian love story, since I am not the natural audience for either of those. Frankly I hate the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But as a reviewer I’m able to go into a work looking for what other people value in it.

It looks to me like that’s what J.C. Rudkin (a writing team of two) did with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, too. They’re part of the new generation of writers, along with Ruthanna Emrys, Victor LaValle, Premee Mohamed, and more, who are fascinated with the squamous and rugose but actively reject the racism and xenophobia that ol’ Howie brought to the table. Very early in the book, Rudkin’s narrator tells us, “It felt like the whole world had gone mad in the last few years. Chaotic weather, chaotic governments, violence, and fear across the globe. Admittedly, this had been great for my book sales,” and I felt like I had a handle on why they might have chosen Cthulhu as the focus of their love story.

And then we got to the romantic lead.

“I met Cthulhu when I was in college. I was young, naïve, and excited to be away from home, the place I’d considered a prison for most of my life.
He was one of those things.”

Yeah. If you think you made some unfortunate dating choices in college, consider horror writer Amanda, who finds out that her college boyfriend Ryley actually meant to tell her that he was from R’lyeh. Because it turns out Amanda dated Cthulhu, trapped in human form by evil cultists bent on controlling his power. They were mostly successful–mostly–so that a lot of the worst of his power is endowed in a twisted nautilus (later bestowed upon young Amanda). What’s left is a sexy demigod with improbably sea-blue eyes, bending passers-by and waitstaff to his will and giving young Amanda a very decadent introduction to the world.

Very decadent. As in, full of decay, chaos, and despair, ia ia.

There were several points at which I said, “oh my GOD! The REAL villain here is–” Trust me, this actually is a horror novel, there is no shortage of “real villains here.” Let’s start with Amanda’s mother Caroline, a controlling, petulant horror show on a very human level–although the way that unfolds comes with a tinge of pathos for the person Caroline might have been.

There are two separate sets of Cthulhu cultists, definitely villainous enough all on their own. And Cthulhu himself? Well, this may be labeled a love story. But he is definitely not “a nice guy once you get to know him, deep down”–or even down in the deeps. Is Cthulhu a real villain here? Definitely yes. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the way that the narrative played with romance tropes of the domineering alpha male and showed that they are frankly horrifying. “THE ALL-POWERFUL ROMANTIC ALPHA MALE TROPE AND HOW IT TWISTS THE PEOPLE AROUND IT IS THE REAL VILLAIN HERE!” I crowed.

Which is not to say that all romance novels do this–most of them do not, any more than most fantasy novels reinforce blood-based racism–but every genre has to own its share of gross tropes and figure out what to do about them. Watching how different the lush banquet and picking out special jewelry look when the hero involved is Cthulhu and he is destroying bystanders’ minds was a warping I didn’t expect coming in, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Because this is a debut and I don’t know the authors personally, I wasn’t entirely sure which direction the ending was going to take Amanda, and I was genuinely worried for her mind and her soul at several points–which genre would win? Would the Elder God in the form of a sexy man with eyes of Caribbean blue break the strong-minded girl who fought her way from working-class Florida to publishing glory despite a staggering lack of family support? Would extremely well-organized cultists thwart them both? Where was the FBI in all this, and would they come in at the right–or dreadfully wrong–moment?

And when Amanda said she didn’t expect to live out her plans, was she right?

A lot of smaller press publications have pacing problems, but this one flew right by, even though I was deliberately slowing my reading speed for review purposes. You can still see some of the first-novel scaffolding in some of the sentence construction, but if the idea of a successful horror writer having to deal with her past as Cthulhu’s college girlfriend–for the sake of the universe and its sanity–tickles your fancy, Cthulhu: A Love Story executes on that premise with some charming grace notes along the way.