R.A. Lafferty, The Best of R.A. Lafferty

Review copy provided by the publisher. Edited by Jonathan Strahan, with so many other contributors beyond Lafferty himself.

I think it’s a cop-out sometimes to say, “Oh, humor is so subjective,” instead of, “This story wherein the protag blows up a young woman for not wanting to date him: I did not find it funny. And then the bit where he builds a robot for beating teenagers into submission to adult dress codes and mores: I did not find that part of this story funny either.” I mean, sure, humor is subjective, but also “Eurema’s Dam” is one of the most mean-spirited pieces of un-funniness I have ever read. And I read a lot of Silver Age purportedly-funny SF, so I have a big data set to draw on.

A “best of” label can be problematic in a case like this, because you end up staring at the stories with sexually precocious seven-year-olds and constant anger at women who inexplicably do not want to sleep with particular men and going, “Well, huh, this is the best? Okay then.”

The structure of this volume is one that seems to assume that anyone who might ever want to read R.A. Lafferty has already read R.A. Lafferty and this volume is just a convenient place to have a lot of their favorites in one place. I say this because not only is there a collection introduction, but there is also an introduction to each story (by divers hands), and sometimes there is another note at the end as well. The latter structure is far less problematic, but at least half of the people writing introductions have written the sort of introduction that tells you exactly what will happen in the story you’re about to read. In most cases they don’t do it any better than R. A. Lafferty, in a few cases they do, and neither is particularly successful. I found myself grateful for the other half of the introduction writers, who talked about their own reactions more and plot summaries less.

And particularly for Kelly Robson, who actually grappled with the story in front of her, writing, “I try to forgive Lafferty the use of troubling racial epithets (should I?) even though they throw me out of the story (in 1978, no, there was no excuse), because he touches my world to his.” Robson is not trying to pretend that enjoying a story means condoning its faults–or even leaving the reader wondering whether she has noticed them, which is worse. Given the opportunity to look into how actual Romany people or various indigenous groups portrayed in these stories might regard them, the editor…didn’t. Opportunity missed.

Did I find any good in this collection, then? Well, some. The phrase “tall tale” kept coming up as a description of Lafferty’s default mode of storytelling, and it’s not a mode you find much in other places. I expect that most people would enjoy this volume more if they took it in little bites than if they read it all at once, and that’s in part because of the prevalence of that particular mode, which is better suited for shorter bursts. I think Lafferty’s strength is in surreal ideas that bend the world a little for the reader, and many of us can use periodic doses of that.

Terri Windling, The Wood Wife

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Terri Windling has crucially shaped the speculative genre over my reading lifetime, editing some of my favorite books and collections. The Wood Wife is her only novel-length adult work to date, and here it is back in a new Tor Essentials edition.

The Wood Wife is full of artists interacting with other artists and their work. It’s also steeped deeply in the desert, saguaros and scrubby trees as seen for the first time by those of us from wetter lands. With the shapeshifters that fill this story, the two intertwine, coyote girls dancing to local music. While there are various romances and families, the central relationship of the book is between two poets who are long-distance friends, who discuss their own and other people’s work in letters but have not, as of the beginning of the book, met in person. And then one of them dies and leaves the other his house, and the tale–from our perspective–is set in motion.

The old letters interspersed with the main narrative address themselves from a fictional poet to real ones, and to artists, agents, gallery owners, editors. Working in the arts is central to this book not just in characterization but in plot. I sometimes get tired of characters who work in the arts in urban fantasy, but 1) only when it’s done without thinking about what that means to them, which in this case it’s not and 2) this is one of the early examples, this is what sparked imitators. It holds up quite well from the perspective of a few decades of the field growing from its roots.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies

Review copy provided by the publisher.

There is a tendency among speculative writers and readers to use “literary fiction” to mean mimetic fiction, to mean “anything that isn’t us or maybe, maybe romance or mystery.” But Noopiming genuinely is a literary work, experimental and varied in its form, swerving from prose frament to poetry as the work requires. It’s very short–I’d estimate about novella length–but so intense that it’s still messing with my head a day later.

Noopiming is about a being called Mashkawaji, who is frozen in ice and experiencing the modern world through a host of other characters, human/tree/caribou/goose. The humanity of some of the characters is fluid, blending into other species and entities, ways of thought and modes of being. This is not genre fantasy but rather a piece about an interconnected multispecies community in Toronto and environs, figuring out ways to be all right, to heal and connect and learn.

It is honestly not like anything else I’ve read, and you know I read a lot. Fascinating, brief, vivid.

Books read, early January

Claire Eliza Bartlett, The Good Girls. Impeccably characterized YA thriller. CW for in-depth, thoughtful discussions of suicide, sexual assault, eating disorders, and more–this is a no-holds-barred journey, everything impeccably well done but may be difficult for some readers.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Oooof, the subtitle is the Content Warning here. This is unleavened terrible, and it is somewhat specialized terrible: Belew doesn’t do a lot with the links to past and current versions of these movements, she is very focused on the era immediately following the Vietnam War up through the early 2000s. Really interesting background on that era and the stories it tells itself, but probably not a good thing if you’re only up for reading one book on this topic.

Susan Berfield, The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism. Berfield makes a compelling case that both Roosevelt and Morgan felt that they should be the hand on the wheel of American capitalism, and that this brought them into considerable conflict. There are many moments where I feel like she wished she was writing biographies of someone else–several Progressive Era figures take her fancy–but there’s plenty out there about the two titular figures, so I didn’t really mind the sidetracks.

Tim Clarkson, Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians and Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. The first of these books was a disappointment. It was focused on Aethelflaed’s time, not her person, not even to the extent that we can know about her personally; Clarkson did not seem to notice that the female half of Early England might exist or be important. It was a very standard southern-England focused history from that period, which is a fine enough thing but not at all what I was looking for. The northerly-focused volume was much better, because I didn’t expect that he would have much to say about anyone but ruling-class men, so I knew going in that I’d get that and get what I could out of it. He’s the author of several more books about this area and period that I may well read, but lordy am I glad that there are other authors who know that farmers and women exist.

Elwin Cotman, Dance on Saturday. What an amazing collection. Weird and lovely and it unfolds in some deeply strange ways, sometimes right up front and sometimes slow burn. “Seven Watsons” was just astonishing. So glad to have read this, looking for his prior work soonest.

Rene Depestre, Hadriana In All My Dreams. This is billed as a classic of Haitian literature, and they got Edwidge Danticat to do the intro to it, in which she refrained from detailing every aspect of the plot, thank you, Edwidge, you are a true hero who understands why people read novels. As for this novel itself, it’s lyrically written and is an interesting demonstration of what actual Haitian people do with zombies thematically as opposed to what (mostly) white people have done with them since. (0% shambling hordes, 100% slavery-related zombies, thematically.) However, be warned: this is a book that has a sex butterfly in it quite a lot. Wow does this butterfly screw a lot of ladies. If you are just not going to be able to even, in the face of a giant sex butterfly, this is not the book for you. Hoo. It’s like the Canlit bear thing but they don’t have bears in Haiti, so I guess you make do.

Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California. Four different sections focus on four different families of tree and their role in the state of California and its self-image and external image and economy and like that. There’s some interesting stuff in here, but the closing line makes me think that Farmer thinks he did a lot better with his case for the native California scrublands than he actually bothered to do.

Rachel Ferguson, The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Kindle. I have been trying to figure out how to talk about this book, because I love it so much, and yet it has one of the best-constructed plot twists I have ever read in my life, and I really want everybody else who reads it to have the chance at the experience of “oh yeah, I see what she’s doing here…OH WOW I DID NOT SEE WHAT SHE WAS DOING HERE” that I had reading it. It starts out both criticizing and accepting its place in the genre of “funny, well-written books about wacky families of sisters” and…expands from there quite a lot. There are things about it that are astonishingly sweet and some that are astonishingly weird, and…wow, yeah. It is from the early 1930s, and there is at least one place where the ambient anti-Semitism of the period shows up in passing in the text, but in general it is not going to smack you with a lot of racist idioms while it’s rattling along doing its thing.

Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread — And Why They Stop. This book came out in 2020, late enough in 2020 to be able to talk about some COVID things and dodge some assumptions that COVID might have invalidated, although Kucharski quite rightly did not refocus the entire book to be about COVID. This book covers social and economic ideas of contagion as well as biological ones. Not more cheerful than you’d expect from the title, but not as bad as it could have been.

Matthew Loux, The Time Museum Vol. 2. A teen adventure comic through space and time. Wacky time loop hijinks, teen relationship hijinks…the jinks in this are extremely high, is what I’m saying. I’m…not that thrilled with the use of Richard Nixon, did not find it particularly thoughtful even in this context. Ah well.

Honor Moore, ed., Poems from the Women’s Movement. This is 1-3 poems by tons of different women, very much political/movement poems for the most part. Some of them are amazing, a lot of them are more the kind of writing that you get when people are new to a space and trying to feel out what can be done in it–expansion work rather than refinement work, which is interesting if you’re studying that but not a good representation of the best work women can do on political topics. Historically very interesting, though.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I’ve Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You. Full of dinosaurs. Full to the brim with puns and dinosaurs. A lot of series work makes me say, “don’t start here,” but go ahead and start here, you’ll pick up everything you need to know about Squirrel Girl and friends. And dinosaurs.

Arden Powell, The Faerie Hounds of York. Really does what it says on the tin. Between the type of magical setting and the type of love story, it sort of sits on a shelf with Emily Tesh’s work–I prefer Emily’s, but this is a fun read too.

Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. This is so great. Lots of stuff about the traditions of shamanism in this place and time, some of the best understanding and integration of Saami material into a book that is primarily but not solely about the adjacent Norse culture. Lots of research notes in here, yum.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. I think a lot of Americans should read this book. A lot of us (including me) were explicitly taught in school that outside the South, segregation in cities was a de facto segregation, not a de jure segregation–enforced by bigoted private individuals and custom rather than by the law of the land. Rothstein lays out chapter and verse of how that is very, very much not the case, and how federal government institutions worsened segregation conditions with explicit policy and in some cases created segregation in formerly integrated neighborhoods. I would love a follow-up volume called The FHA: Holy Crap How Did They Get So Completely Terrible, but this is still really valuable stuff. Especially since it’s the sort of stuff that ordinary citizens can easily live through in their own lifetimes and not know is going on, even as it directly affects them.

Stephen Spotswood, Fortune Favors the Dead. This extremely charming mystery is set in the ’40s and has a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin feel. The elder of the detective pair has relapsing-remitting MS, and the younger used to be a circus hand. They are fun and entertaining, and I want a whole bunch more of their adventures as soon as that can reasonably be arranged.

Lilah Sturges and Polterink, Lumberjanes: True Colors. I have now read enough Lumberjanes to have clear favorites in art style, and Polterink is right up there at the top. This is a beautiful volume with the classic Lumberjanes themes of being yourself with friends who appreciate just that.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 38. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing anything I’m in, and I have a story in this. But I did indeed read it!

Nghi Vo, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. The second novella in its series, storytelling from multiple cultural points of view, one of which is a tiger shapeshifter. So much fun, I want more of this, yay. I particularly liked the mammoth companion.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and Anne-Marie Rogers, Lumberjanes: Mind Over Mettle. Not as pretty or as focused as the previous Lumberjanes of this fortnight, but still good fun when we need just that.

Yi Lei, My Mind Will Grow Like a Tree. Poems from a Chinese woman poet in the 1980s and on. Fascinating to see some of the commonalities, having read a bunch of American women’s poetry of that era, and some of the differences. I’m a little perplexed by the translator wanting things to seem “familiar” to American readers, and I was left wondering which things and what they originally said. But if I was bilingual, this beautiful volume had all the original texts, so I could look and see.

Books read, late December

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapters 5 and 6. Kindle. The Martian boarding school adventure rattles breathlessly on.

Sarwat Chadda, City of the Plague God. Discussed elsewhere.

Roland Enos, The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization. Enos is coming at this from a biomechanical perspective, which is really interesting. He goes into the physical and chemical details of wood’s reactions to various inputs, and also into how humans biomechanically interact with some of them, and there are all sorts of technologies along the way, literally all sorts. He is very much a wood booster, but it’s okay, so am I.

Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms: The World in the Whale. Whales and their ecosystems. Do you like whales? Of course you do, and so do I, and so does Rebecca Giggs. Not everyone she writes about does, be forewarned, but it’s still a lovely book.

A. Kendra Greene, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, and Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. In addition to thoughts about whales, penises, and other Icelandic museum specifics, this very short volume is thoughtful about museums and collections and how and why we do them.

Barbara Hambly, House of the Patriarch. The latest Benjamin January novel takes our hero to the religious revival movements of western New York in the years before the Civil War. The constant awareness of Ben’s peril makes all of these pretty tense, but it’s short and not more tense than you’d expect for that setting. I feel like Hambly choosing to range within the setting available to her is a good thing, overall, even though there’s a lot more she could still do with New Orleans; I feel like it’s part of her trying not to get into too much of a rut with these but to deliberately explore different aspects of the theme and setting.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman, The Thread That Binds the Bones. Reread. This is very much id fiction. “We have to get married right away upon meeting each other! Never mind why! Also we are both amazingly magically gifted and I can instantly sift through your family and sort good from bad and neutralize your bad relatives!” I mean. If you want that, it is very that. Wish fulfillment and all. And sometimes people very much do want that. I didn’t remember quite how much it was that, though.

Kathleen Jamie, The Overhaul. These are beautiful local nature poems and personal poems, and I just love her. More please. (Her “local” is Scotland.)

Helen Jukes, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings. This title sounds like it goes with a very metaphorical, lyrical short story collection full of little lapidary stories that make you gasp. In fact it is about bees. It is a memoir of this author’s beekeeping. And it is very straightforward, it is not particularly lyrical. But if you’d like a person who finds solidity in her life through bees, this is that book.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Darkest Road. Reread. The last of the Fionavar Tapestry, and I 100% do not recommend reading it without the first two, although I know someone who tried going without the first one. It is high-contrast and mythic and thoroughly itself.

Madeleine L’Engle, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. Reread. Oh, this was terrible. Oh my God it was so terrible. She keeps telling stories of her father and her husband being just terrible and she does not seem to know that they’re terrible. And then she gets to the point where she’s trying to justify her Southern plantation-owning ancestors as somehow seeing their slaves as doing honorable work because they referred to them as servants. Aaaaagh. Like, the story about how her alcoholic father was rude to waiters and this was a sign that he was awesome and her mother just didn’t understand was bad enough, but then when she got into slavery and the parts that she is literally not the person able to forgive these people…aaaaaagh. Oh Madeleine no.

C.S. Malerich, The Factory Witches of Lowell. A lovely novella that is about what the title tells you: labor movement plus witchcraft in the mills, hurrah, this was so much fun, I want more like this.

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children. This is a sequel, and frankly I think you will do much better if you read Bodies of Light first; it actually gives weight to some of the consequences that are playing out in this book. I feel like this is one of the most elliptical books I’ve ever read. So many important, crucial things happen off the page, between scenes, and must be inferred. I also frankly found only one of the two viewpoint characters, Allie, to be interesting. I wanted to care about the lighthouse builder visiting Japan, but I really didn’t. Ah well. Still a topic and type of book I don’t see enough of.

Carla Nappi, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China. An interesting short book that deals with how we know things and how various cultures have approached that and how a shift in it works.

City of the Plague God, by Sarwat Chadda

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I am worried about this book.

It’s a romp through Mesopotamian mythology, transported into the present day in a story about a Sikander, an Iraqi-American kid who works at his parents’ New York deli. Gilgamesh makes cookies, there are some truly excellent cats and demons and fashionistas–generally it’s a really fun middle grade fantasy.

I am concerned that people might not find that out for themselves, because of the title and the year in which it’s coming out.

And I can’t even say, oh no, that’s just a marketing convention…because actually it’s not, it definitely is a book about a plague god ravaging New York, all sorts of people get horrifically ill in this book, including the protagonist’s parents. There is a section where the protag can’t visit his unconscious parents in their hospital rooms but can only observe them through the windows, and…yep, that’s a very real thing right now. If you’re not up for dealing with that in your fun kids’ fantasy, you’re going to want to steer clear of this quite well-done book, because that’s the book it is. With writing and publishing being what they are, I expect it was written before any of this, and yet…well. You can see why I’d be concerned. It’s sort of an “enjoy at your peril” situation.

Books read, early December

Claudie Arsenault, C. T. Callahan, B. R. Sanders, and RoAnna Sylver, eds. Common Bonds: A Speculative Aromantic Anthology. For me the absolute stand-out story of this anthology was Adriana C. Grigoire’s “Seams of Iron.” It played with speculative tropes in a deft way that had me captivated throughout. I enjoyed other stories, but “Seams of Iron” is one of my favorite all year.

Jane Austen, Persuasion. Kindle. My booklog does not list this book, and when I read it I had more the sense of having seen it discussed than the sense of having read it before, even back in the mists of time when I read some other Austen. In any case, it was keenly observed and very funny in parts, and everything came together very satisfyingly. As you’ve probably heard, since it’s Austen, but: yes.

Rachel Manija Brown, ed., Her Magical Pet. Kindle. I bought this to read Pamela Dean’s “Five Quests and the Oracle,” and I was not disappointed. Pamela’s family relationships and new adults finding their way never disappoint, and the theatrical setting of this one was particularly satisfying. I also found that Sara Joiner’s “Uncontrolled Variable” was a lovely nerdy piece of fun. Many of these stories are structurally romance genre stories with some speculative elements rather than speculative genre stories with some romance elements, which is neither good nor bad but something I hope helps the volume find its proper readers. (They’re all f/f romances, if that matters to you.)

Olivia Chadha, Rise of the Red Hand. Discussed elsewhere.

P. Djeli Clark, Ring Shout. This is not really my genre, since it’s pretty horror-y, but I am fascinated by the ways in which supernatural horror and psychological horror are blending in some works like this one, maybe…social horror? super-psycho-social horror? Where there are indeed monsters, and also there are humans who are (some of) the real monsters, and also monstrousness added to itself has sweeping social effects. With action scenes. Very well done.

Julia Corbett, Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday. This, on the other hand, is a fairly standard example of its local nature-writing genre. Basically everything it quotes is something I’ve already read and found more worthwhile than this volume. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with it, but that’s not, it turns out, the highest recommendation.

Megan Crewe, Fearless Magic. Third in a trilogy, all the pieces falling together in a satisfying action-packed ending but for heaven’s sake don’t start here.

Paula Guran, ed., The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Vol. 1. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in, and I’m in this one. Still: I read it.

Zeyn Joukhadar, The Thirty Names of Night. A beautiful family narrative, a beautiful trans narrative, two strands of Syrian-Americans working out who they are and who they can be, with art and birds and family interwoven. I found this captivating.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Summer Tree and The Wandering Fire. Rereads, and I’m in the middle of the third one now. There are obviously things that are not how Kay would do these books now–things that are not contemporary about them–for example, the fact that the characters start out studying the law and medicine in our world is basically irrelevant, in a way that I don’t think would be how he’d structure it now. But from the first sentence I could relax into these books and know that they were exactly the kind of high heroic fantasy they’d always been, that the suck fairy had not visited their heroism and left something nasty in its place. High drama, myths in a blender: sometimes you want that. This is how I learned to want it, and I still do.

Francois Neveux, A Brief History of the Normans: The Conquests That Changed the Face of Europe. Quite often when I read a book in search of an answer to a particular question, I end up with a bunch more questions, and that’s what happened here. Interestingly focused on the Normans rather than on one particular place they ended up, so this ranges over much of Europe.

Patrick Samphire, At the Gate and Other Stories. Kindle. And speaking of a wide range, these stories have a lot of different tones and elements, some funny and some serious, all sorts of different speculative elements. An interesting snapshot of a career at this point.

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 16. Kindle. Joy is such a great theme for a magazine right now, right on, let’s do this. For me the stand-out was Margaret Saunders’s “Ambrosia,” but the Fiyah staff continues to publish really solid issues.

A.J. Sass, Ana on the Edge. This is a charming kids’ book about a young competitive ice skater who is negotiating that extremely gendered world while figuring out her (for now, her) own nonbinary identity. For some kids this book will be life-changing; for me as a cis adult it was still a fun evening’s read.

Janine A. Southard, ed., Silk and Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology. Kindle. Lots of fun lovely stories in this! I basically romped through the entire volume, so glad I got it. If Her Magical Pet was weighted toward “romance story, speculative elements,” Silk and Steel is the opposite balance, “speculative story, romantic elements.” (Again f/f throughout.) Hard to pick favorites, but mine were Alison Tam’s “Margo Lai’s Guide to Dueling Unprepared,” Freya Marske’s “Elinor Jones Vs. the Ruritanian Multiverse,” Jennifer Mace’s “In the Salt Crypts of Ghiarelle,” and Aliette de Bodard’s “The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute.”

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 37. Kindle. Another solid issue. Favorites from this one included John Wiswell’s “The Bottomless Martyr” and Brit E. B. Hvide’s “Words We Say Instead.”

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen. Kindle. A charmingly odd bit of entertainment–a lightly fictionalized travel narrative from the very early 20th century, when a writer with a German husband could use the phrase “blood and iron” without knowing how horrifying it would get later. Mostly she is trying to circle a small Baltic island and being wry and observational about the other humans she encounters there.

E. Lily Yu, On Fragile Waves. Discussed elsewhere.

Ovidia Yu, The Betel Nut Tree Mystery. Second in its series, more of Singapore as a Crown Colony before the Second World War, more of its determined but quiet heroine Su Lin, more of her expansive and alarming family and circle of friends. I immediately put the third one on my list when I’d finished.

On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This debut is only gently fabulist, but what it lacks in magical fireworks, it makes up for in human relationships. It’s the story of a young Afghani girl whose family travels as refugees to Australia. She continues to have a relationship with a friend she meets along the way that is the most speculative element of the book, and also one of the warmest elements.

Because life in Australia is not the welcoming paradise of their dreams. Firuzeh, her parents, and her brother Nour have profoundly different struggles from each other, making it hard for each family member to understand the others’ behavior. Their stories diverge, but Firuzeh’s relationship with story is a major part of what gets her through some of her worst struggles and brings her family back together.

For me the chapter where “the writer” appears from America, doing research into her book, is the least effective part of this story. If Yu hadn’t chosen to apply the language of a calling to writing about this specifically, I would not have questioned it in those terms, but bringing it up felt like trying to stave off criticism rather than enhancing Firuzeh’s story–and some of the most pertinent questions remained unasked. (For example, “why was your ‘calling’ to criticize another wealthy nation’s handling of the immigrant crisis in ways that were impeccably researched to be specifically Australian rather than turning your thoughts to a similar system in which you personally might be implicated?” Not, apparently, on the list of earnest self-searching questions; ah well.)

But when Yu gets out of her own way, Firuzeh’s relationships and struggles are compelling, and this is a book well worth reading.

Rise of the Red Hand, by Olivia Chadha

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the second time in its comparatively short life that I’ve been surprised and impressed by Erewhon Books putting out something that is a very fresh, very modern instance of a genre I don’t see much. Olivia Chadha’s Rise of the Red Hand is dead-center-of-the-genre classical cyberpunk. It deals with a gigantic gap between the haves and the have-nots; it literally uses the word cybernetics for its concerns; there is even a character who gradually goes more and more by their hacker name over the course of the book.

But utterly modern. Yes. This book is set in South Asia, in a world divided into continent-spanning provinces by the powers that be. The environmental concerns are entirely pervasive, much more successfully so than in old-school cyberpunk. The way that issues of family and truth and social balance are handled are fresh and contemporary. The “punk” sensibility is on every page, with dismantling toxic systems on every level the main concern–including the way those toxic systems are reflected in individual and familial relationships.

So if you’ve been missing cyberpunk and yet know that you wouldn’t react the same way to old cyberpunk if you encountered it for the first time now–Olivia Chadha’s got your back. And since this says “book one of The Machinists,” it looks like she’s got plans for more. Yay.

Books read, late November

Melissa Bashardoust, Girl, Serpent, Thorn. Poisonous girls and Persian mythology. This was captivating and lovely.

Eileen Hunt Botting, Artificial Life After Frankenstein. Discussed elsewhere.

Hayley Chewins, The Sisters of Straygarden Place. This is a middle-grade book about a family in a magical house and the creepy and delightful things the house does and the sisters do and…how they put it all back together.

Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections. Elegant, insightful, lovely, offbeat short stories. Very excited to discover this author.

R.F. Kuang, The Burning God. The third in its series–do not start here–it is relentless in its follow-through, it is going all sorts of places that are alarming and inevitable.

Darcie Little Badger, Elatsoe. This was so much fun and so engaging. I read it all in one gulp while waiting in the car for a family member to have a medical procedure. The ghost dog is amazing! I love everybody here!

L.M. Montgomery, Emily’s Quest. Reread. This was always my least-reread volume of this trilogy, and I can now see why: it feels more like a summary than a novel. It’s as though Montgomery knew what was to happen in Emily’s life in broad career and romance strokes–and as a child I was thrilled that the career part got as much focus as it did, compared to Anne–there is all sorts of stuff about sending out manuscripts and how it all worked at the time. But the little anecdotes where Emily does something funny or Cousin Jimmy says something weird or whatever (hashtag Team Cousin Jimmy 4eva) are very sparse on the ground here. And the romantic relationships are…well, Dean Priest remains incredibly odious and terrible and I hate him forever, Emily forgave him but I do not. And Teddy Kent…is a Ken doll, basically; he is a label that says “childhood artist friend,” he is not a person. So when Emily achieves publishing success comparatively early in the book and her happy ending is, “hey also you get to be with this potted plant of a man,” well. I hope Ilse and Perry stop by often, is what I’m saying.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan, Laughing to Keep From Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century. Discussed elsewhere.

Jan Morris, Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty, and Irony. I had only read her Hav books, so when I heard the sad news of her death, I went to see what the library had of hers. And it was this: an exceptionally small book of photos and thoughts on the topic of the subtitle. As much as Hav connected for me, this completely did not; Morris had ideas about how “we” respond to war imagery that…I don’t, no, I really totally do not. Still interesting, and I’ll be curious to see how much her other nonfiction is alien in a way that Hav is not, if at all. Maybe this is an outlier.

Trung Le Nguyen, The Magic Fish. Graphic novel with fairy tale retellings tangled up in family stories in a beautiful way. Another one I read in one sitting. Just lovely.

Scott D. Seligman, The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City. Discussed elsewhere.

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Future. Sheldrake has that “we are our own best experimental subjects” attitude that you find baked into a lot of mycologists and mycological enthusiasts, but the enthusiasm is in some ways lovely and refreshing, and reading about a lot of nice fungus in the midst of this year is not a terrible life plan. I wanted some of this to be deeper, but not any more so than with most popular science books.

Shveta Thakrar, Star Daughter. I mistook the genre of this completely and thought the girl on the cover was a starship captain. In defense of the lovely people who actually worked on marketing the book, I could not have made that mistake if I’d read any of their copy at all instead of just saying “ooh Shveta’s book!” and sallying forth. Anyway this is a YA fantasy with stars and art and love and friendship, and it was a lot of fun, so go ahead and say, “Ooh, Shveta’s book!” and pick it up anyway.

Django Wexler, Ashes of the Sun. I think this is the best thing Django’s written. Siblings with divergent life paths, sometimes fighting at cross purposes, both stubborn and fierce and committed to their view of the right thing. Such a fun epic fantasy.

Joshua Whitehead, ed., Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. Lots of interesting work here, and the beginning of something good I think. My favorite stories were Kai Minosh Pyle’s “How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” and Darcie Little Badger’s “Story for a Bottle.”