Title: Book Uncle and Me
Author: Uma Krishnaswami
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library on the street corner. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.
A book whose protagonist is a little girl who reads all the time? Found on the shelves in a gift shop at the Asian Art Museum, how could I pass this up?
Book Uncle and Me is a delightful kids’ book about Yasmin who borrows a book from Book Uncle every day on her way to school. But then, the mayor wants to close the free library because Book Uncle doesn’t have a permit.
Through Yasmin we meet her community. Parents, friends, neighbors, classmates and teachers. All of them are concerned about Book Uncle’s street library getting closed down. As Yasmin talks to them, she hatches a plan to keep the library open.
It’s election time in the city and, as it turns out, the owner of the hotel on the corner where Book Uncle hands out books is hosting a wedding and wants to clean up the corner before the new in-laws arrive from out of town. Who owns the hotel? Hah! That would be telling, and spoiling.
Yasmin starts a letter writing campaign which gets the attention of the media and the mayoral candidates. The entire city is in a tizzy over Book Uncle and his books. Why would anyone want to take books from children?
Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Julianna Swaney, give readers a great lesson in civics and activism, as Yasmin and her friends learn how to make change in their community.
Krishnaswami has a delightful way with words, and Swaney’s illustrations make Yasmin and her friends, especially Book Uncle, come to life. Even better than that, they share their love of books, encouraging kids to read and get involved with things they’re passionate about.
Book Uncle gets to keep his free library on the corner, and the owner of the hotel gets a lesson in transparency.
Title: The Queen of Crows
Author: Myke Cole
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Publisher’s Blurb: In this epic fantasy sequel, Heloise stands tall against overwhelming odds—crippling injuries, religious tyrants—and continues her journey from obscurity to greatness with the help of alchemically-empowered armor and an unbreakable spirit. No longer just a shell-shocked girl, she is now a figure of revolution whose cause grows ever stronger. But the time for hiding underground is over. Heloise must face the tyrannical Order and win freedom for her people.
I’m just a woman who has been hard done, who has lost those who she loved. I am angry, and I am tired, and I am through making deals. (p. 245)
Let’s first acknowledge author Myke Cole’s feminism. Heloise is a hero for all times, but it also important to note that Heloise is a young woman leading the battle against the totalitarian religious government. In The Armored Saint, she literally had greatness thrust upon her. In The Queen of Crows she begins to accept the leadership role she finds herself in and works to be the leader her people need her to be.
Cole does not make a big deal out of making his protagonist a young woman, and I’d like to say neither should his readers. But it is a big deal because so much genre writing is overwhelming men fighting to save the day. Cole shows us a woman who is up to the task of leadership and fighting against the dangers of the oppressive regime called the Order.
Brother Tone, on the other hand, not only wants to put the village in its place as devoted to the Order, he wants to put Heloise in her place as woman. At every turn, he sneers and belittles her, and those who she has sworn to protect.
Heloise is imperfect. Stubborn, insecure, paranoid, with a narrow world view. At one point, she has gone through so much she refuses to leave her alchemy powered suit of armor for any reason. The armor has become talisman, protecting her emotionally from all the horrors she’s survived in service to both her village and the bands of Kipti they encounter.
The Kipti are led by the wisdom of women who have a few magical tricks in their toolbox to be used against the Order. And while the Kipti are nomadic, and suspicious of people who want to settle into a village, they recognize the mutual enemy and combine resources.
Reluctantly recognizing Heloise as leader, the two bands of Kipti come to realize that she in her armor, who killed a devil in The Armored Saint, is the best hope for a victory against the Order.
Victory doesn’t come in The Queen of Crows. It is an agonizing, brutal story which deals both with the realities of war and of going against a regime whose demand of loyalty to the Emperor grates against everything Heloise has come to question.
It is also a story of hope against tyranny as word spreads across the land that a Palantine, an Armored Saint has gone to war against the Order. That a young woman is delivering all from the hell that is totalitarianism.
“You are Heloise the Armored Saint, who turns back the tide, who delivers the wretched from misfortune, who will save us all.” (p. 250)
Heloise is no Joan d’Arc who believed in her God given leadership to support Charles VII, reclaiming France from England. Heloise doubts herself, and her role in her war. She is a reluctant leader, herself questioning her wisdom, her ability, even her gender to lead. But as people gather to follow her, she knows she must and follows her instincts.
Heloise has her detractors. They don’t much question a female leader as much as they question how this young, inexperienced villager could possibly lead them against the Order. Further, these few wonder why they should be following her at all since it was at her hands the Order is now intent on putting down the unrest.
Both The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows can be read through a feminist lens celebrating the young woman who questions the status quo and leads her followers against tyranny. They can also be enjoyed as ripping good tales, which happen to have a leader who is a woman.
I am of the opinion that Myke Cole, and Heloise, should be recognized for deliberately making choices which demand more of genre, both readers and writers.
Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad Author: Jennifer Egan
Twitter: @Egangoonsquad Published: 2011 ISBN 13: 9780307477477 Publisher: Anchor Publisher’s Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read. A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe. Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar. Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.” But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.
The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting. The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes. Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich. No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone. Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The big theme is Time. It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book. “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage. Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well. It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.
Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience. There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident. I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.
Music, and the music business is another major theme. Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”
Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos. A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now. A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.
Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes. Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama. But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.
The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City
Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days. Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.
Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie. In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women. These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it. Nor should it ever be thought normal.
Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.” His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault. Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”
The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating. Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work. (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)
Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work. Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.
Title: The Forever Watch Author: David Ramirez Published: 2014 ISBN 13: 9781250033819 Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books Publisher’s Blurb:The truth is only the beginning. When a man is murdered on the Noah, a city-sized spaceship that is half-way through an eight-hundred-year voyage to another planet, his body is so ruined that his identity must be established from DNA evidence. Within hours, however, all trace of the crime is swept away, hidden as though it never happened – a strange occurrence in a world where deeds, and even thoughts, cannot be kept secret. Hana Dempsey, a mid-level bureaucrat who has been genetically modified to use the Noah’s telepathic internet, begins to investigate. Her search for the truth will uncover the impossible: a serial killer who has been operating on board for a lifetime, if not longer. And behind the killer lies a conspiracy centuries in the making…
There is a lot going on in this book. So much it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on. There’s enough in this book for at least two books, if not more.
First, there’s the story of Noah, the multi-generational space ship headed for humanity’s new home, Canaan. No one’s quite sure what happened to Earth which required this alien spaceship capable of holding an entire metropolis, to go on a mission lasting 800 years. All anyone of the current citizens on Noah is this has always been home.
Then, is there a serial killer loose? Bodies which look like they’ve been ripped apart are appearing. And people are disappearing , their records marked as “retired,” at a high rate.
There’s a love story between the “mission critical” Hana Dempsey and cop Leonard Barrens. Dempsey is gifted in many areas, including as a hacker. Barrens is portrayed as somewhat more brutish but capable of great softness for Dempsey. They work together to figure out what’s going on with the possible serial killer. They also work together well as a loving couple, despite the snobbery of Hana’s upper class friends.
And the conspiracy story concerning the children born aboard the Noah. Women are put into a nine-month coma and never see their children. At the beginning of The Forever Watch, Hana has just come out of her coma. What happens to those children is not for the squeamish, their hellish destiny is better left unknown.
Ramirez introduces an overload of technology and psychic abilities. We’re talking neural implants, heads up display, instantaneous communication, and entire cities built psychically out of a material called plastech.
And this is where I got lost. Ramirez has been so careful with his world building, thinking through every detail and going on ad nauseum about how the tech works. There’s so much information and it gets bewildering after a few pages. And then it keeps going on and on.
This is one of my main complaints about sf/f worlds, there’s just too much detail. If it’s accepted in an author’s world this stuff works, that’s all that’s needed. Authors don’t need to convince the readers, we’re happy to go along for the ride. That many pages shouldn’t be spent on explanations and details unless they are absolutely required to move the story forward. Most of the time, it’s not. (N. K. Jemisin is the best I’ve read recently in giving the reader just enough detail to move the story without getting bogged down.)
The horrifying revelations are nearly unimaginable. Ramirez obviously imagined them, I didn’t see a lot of them coming. Except for the “huh, what do you know,? the founders were right all along.” I figured that was coming, realized that what was happening was cyclical, leading to a moral conundrum for the survivors who find themselves in charge.
The Forever Watch is not a bad read, but it’s not exceptional either. There’s so much potential for great exploration of any of the plot lines, which makes the book feel incomplete.
Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance Author: Michael Moorcock Published: 2004 Publisher: Monkeybrain Books Publisher’s Blurb: … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.
“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.” (p14)
Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read. Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.
And yes, Moorcock is frustrating. He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments. His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right. And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?
“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” (p 18)
In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about. Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.” Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.
This too, resonated with me. “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.
“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story. Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes. The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.
Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves. Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.
Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.
Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance. Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.” While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.
Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external. The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.
An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft. “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated …” (p. 55) (emphasis mine)
And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.” (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.
Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters. Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man. (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)
Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy. Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).
Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot. Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind. So too should epic fantasy characters.
It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116) Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.
Chapter 5 “Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books. The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.
Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120)tickles me no end. And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.
Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive. Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)
This made me ponder how I read. I read books, in search of good stories, not genre. Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.
I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.
Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies. That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.
The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is. But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.
Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of. It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing. Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure. Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.
Title:The Geek Feminist Revolution Author: Kameron Hurley Published: 2016 ISBN-13: 9780765386243 Publisher: Tor Twitter: @KameronHurley Publisher’s Blurb: Outspoken and provocative, double Hugo Award-winning essayist Kameron Hurley writes with passion and conviction on feminism, geek culture, the rise of women in science fiction and fantasy, and the diversification of publishing.
The first panel I attended at WorldCon 2018 was M. Todd Gallowglas’ Lit Crit for Geeks. I was enthralled. One of the writers he mentioned was you, as doing some great work in feminism. I dutifully wrote your name down in my journal.
Since then, I’ve lost my job and spend my days reading and writing and thinking. I hash things out a lot in my brain, the one that never shuts up. And then I write stuff for my mentor to read.
One evening after dinner, a friend took me book shopping. Kepler’s is this fabulous indie bookstore whose customers banded together to keep it from closing its doors. There were two names on my list that I knew would go home with me that night, yours and N. K. Jemisin. And since I didn’t know where to start with you, I picked up The Geek Feminist Revolution.
Always a voracious reader, I am inhaling them now. This is my job while I figure out about the day job, I read and write about what I’m reading. Not only does it give me direction for a life which could easily be adrift and and feeding my food addiction, it makes me stronger in so many ways.
Never really shy about self-reflection, I now have the time and space to really look at some of the things coming up right now. And sometimes, it is some scary, sad shit.
“But because my body was coded female, I was never ever assumed to have the kind of knowledge or credibility that a man would have.” (p. 37)
I read the first 38 pages of your book and sobbed. I felt so completely bereft that I had to set it aside for a week or so. Because those pages were my story. The story of being a woman and the rampant sexism which had become so normalized I didn’t see it anymore. I read your story and began to understand that not only was I not alone in this mess, but that there were ways I could raise my voice.
But first I had to reconcile some stuff within myself. Because the stuff that was coming up was more than just re-evaluating my entire life in terms of how I’d been treated because I was female, it was looking at some pretty horrifying events and having the light bulb go off. Which led to, “Well shit, no wonder. I never had a chance.”
And without going into too much detail here, there were new realizations about my parents. Then there was looking at my most recent job and realizing that it had been a put-up job from the day I walked in as a temp until the day I walked out as a no longer employed here type. Things started slamming into place. And it was scary.
I’ve been following you on Twitter and reposting some of your articles on Facebook, because you speak to me in a way that no woman ever has before. And that’s valuable to me. I’ve learned a lot from you.
Taking a deep breath, I picked The Geek Feminist Revolution up again, and only put it down when other, more pressing matters demanded my attention. It made me wish I knew you well enough to take you to dinner and ask you to just tell me stories about your life. To talk about process, and yeah it sucks to have to have a day job for the insurance, and holy shit I hadn’t realized how bad the sexism is.
There are hard truths in your book.
At my last job there was a week when I had to actually go to my manager and explain to him what being a part of the team and having a voice meant. The group admin wouldn’t put me on the meeting agenda because I didn’t have Director in my title. She would only do it if my male manager said it was okay. I was pissed. So pissed I was vibrating. And that I had to explain it several times in very small words just made it worse.
Reading your book gives me such hope. For the first time in my life, at a time when people are looking forward to retirement, I realize I still have time to make change in my world. I have time to rearrange everything I thought I knew about myself and create a different life for myself. The life I want is one which tempers my very emotional responses and allows me to reasonably explain to someone why they’re not allowed to take my voice away.
I get to figure this out, and you have motivated me to keep doing that. To read, and write, for the sheer joy of it. To understand I need a day job for the health insurance benefits, and to pay my bills. And that all of it’s okay and necessary to survive. My writing can be my night job. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice anymore.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell my middle-school self to keep writing, because writing would keep her happy and sane. I would insist she not give it up and not worry about what it looked like or sounded like. I would tell her no matter what, do not quit writing, even if it’s just a sentence about how particularly shitty the bullies were that day. “Keep writing, always,” I would whisper in her ear.
I had so much to heal from, so much to learn, it’s hard to regret it took me this long to realize what I had been keeping from myself. Reading books like yours help so much, and I don’t know how to tell you what an impact you’ve had.
I close this with an open invitation, if our paths cross at any time, dinner is my treat. It’s the least I can do, aside from buying your other books and joining your Patreon once I’m gainfully employed again.
Publisher’s Blurb: Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities.
An evil book warbler called on my birthday and dropped sweet little nothings in my ear about a series featuring an interdimensional library and Librarians who time traveled to retrieve books in order to keep the balance of the universe in place.
Having just purged half my personal library and swearing no more series until I’d finished what I had on hand, I somewhat firmly told this book warbler I would have none of it.
And then he delivered the fatal blow, “it has dragons in it.”
That book warbler plays dirty he does.
“And at that moment the alligators burst into the room.” (The Invisible Library, p. 148)
Best line in a book ever. Ever. If I wasn’t enjoying myself before, that line sealed the deal. A line like that makes you sit up and take notice.
Irene is a Librarian with the Invisible Library and is sent to steal books from other timelines for the Library in order to maintain the balance of the universe. She reminds me of a very bookish Mary Poppins with all sorts of tricks “up her sleeves.” She gets stationed in an alternate steampunk Victorian London where she befriends the local esteemed private detective and the chief of police.
Kai is her assistant. A student sent along to train with her. He is gut-wrenchingly absolutely perfectly handsome in a somewhat otherworldly way. He and Irene develop a nice friendship and professional working relationship. But sometimes thoughts get in their heads …
And as it turns out, Kai in his non-human form, is a Chinese dragon. Part of one of the noble ruler clans who very much disapprove of Kai’s involvement with the Library.
There are adventures, both in Irene’s home base London and other worlds, which involve various amounts of chaos between factions of the Fae. And each adventure begins with being sent to retrieve a book and turns into solving a crime of some sort.
And, of course, there’s a big baddie named Alberich who was once a Librarian himself. He’s gone rogue and threatens the Library itself. Intent on killing Irene in the process, he also thinks he can outsmart her and Kai. Despite his prodigious powers, and many close calls, he has yet to kill either of them.
Don’t expect deep philosophical debates on weighty issues within. These are light hearted mysteries with absurdist tendencies. What can you expect when you’re dealing with an interdimensional library, time traveling Librarians, disguised dragons and, the Fae who are out to wreak havoc as only they know how?
The evil book warbler was right, and these were a great summer read. And the alligators? That would be telling.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
There’s so much going on in this book. It is dense and filled with dangerous adventure. It’s also filled with bigotry, sexism and violence. In many ways, it’s a difficult book to get through. Three story lines, three different women. Or so we think. Each on their own adventure. Each with a different narrative point of view.
There’s Essun, whose son has been killed by her husband. Her story starts with the discovery of her son’s body and carries us through as she searches for her daughter who’s been kidnapped by Essun’s husband. Along the way she meets the mysterious Hoa and gregarious Tonkee who delights in taking samples of things as they go along in search of a community which will take them in after the ground has started shifting under their feet.
There’s Dayama, a young girl whose parents exile her to the barn until a Guardian can fetch her. Exiled because she has a scary skill and people would rather her kind, the orogene, didn’t exist at all. Dayama’s story begins when the Guardian arrives and takes her off to school, on horseback, to be trained. Daya is treated better by the Guardian, Schaffa, than she was by her community and family. Yet his treatment comes with difficult lessons to learn, one of which is that because she is orogene, she will always be considered less than the rest of society. She will always be considered lowest of the low, unless someone needs her to use her skills for them. Even then, she will be asked begrudgingly.
Third, there’s Syenite whose story begins when she is assigned to a ten-ring orogene named Alabaster on what seems to be a simple mission to unclog a shipping port so trade can go back to normal. Syen is resentful and angry, and she takes it out on Alabaster, who returns her anger in kind. The first scene with Syen is almost literally her telling him that she’s there to fuck him (Jemisin does not sugar coat this). Syen believes the only reason she is traveling with him is to breed. His ten-ring genes with her four-ring genes could produce a super orogene to be used at one of the satellite stations for the Fulcrum.
“Everything changes during a Season.” (p. 185)
The Fifth Season refers to an extended winter triggered by cataclysmic earthquakes or catastrophic weather events. And one is on its way.
Then there comes a humdinger of a loop. One which threw me completely out of the story and made me feel betrayed. I had to put the book down and walk away for a long while. Truly, I didn’t understand why it happened, and it threw everything I thought I knew about this story into disarray. I wasn’t sure I could go on. The book won a Hugo, what was I missing?
After I calmed down, I did some reading of other reactions to The Fifth Season. What I read made me curious enough to go back and finish the book. It was worth it.
In a way, all the characters congregating at Castrima, the community run by orogenes, which welcomes everyone seems too easy. But there’s nothing easy about this book, you have to work for the payoff. Three women are actually the same woman, their stories set in three different times of her life. The stories of hardship, impossible choices, and survival come to a head in Castrima. Alabaster has the last word, “… have you ever heard of something called a moon?”
Everyone important to this story has gathered in Castrima, and it has something to do with a moon. What a great setup for book #2 The Obelisk Gate.
Publisher’s Blurb: (Calculating Stars): … with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.
(Fated Sky): Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars.
I am not kidding even a little when I say these books jumped to the top of my list of favorites. And getting to meet Mary Robinette Kowal was a highlight of my WorldCon experience. She really is kind, patient and generous.
The Lady Astronaut series is entertaining, even while discussing important topics like sexism, racism and, climate change, just to name a few.
And her publisher Tor has announced there will be two more books in the series.
The Calculating Stars
This book literally starts off with a bang. A cataclysmic event which takes out most of the east coast of the US, and precipitates a space race to move the world’s population to another planet.
It’s an alternate history of the US space program set in the late 1950s and grapples with the big question we find ourselves facing now, “How do we save ourselves?”
Elma is a mathematician who ferried planes around during World War II. She is smart, capable and, stubborn. Her only visible flaw is that she’s a woman in that time period. She has to fight so much just to have her contributions to the space program noticed. She’s fine out of the public eye as a computer. But that’s not what she wants for herself, or her friends who also fly.
Part of Elma’s story is her social anxiety. In school she was shamed for being smart. One of her coping mechanisms is to count prime numbers. But doing that doesn’t keep her from throwing up before she makes public appearances. So she does what any sensible person would do, she goes to the doctor for help.
Miltown prescription in hand, Elma is better able to handle her anxiety. It has to be kept a secret though, because open knowledge would cause those the men in charge to view her as an hysterical female and drop her from the program.
It would have been just as easy to not write this about Elma. It’s already nearly impossible for her to make any headway on equality in the space program. Giving her protagonist social anxiety, Kowal shows just how determined Elma is to make equality a realty.
The things the women have to do to prove their worth are demeaning. Something most women would identify with, no matter their generation or profession. And all the women striving to be in the space program paste their best smiles on and go through the paces. They know there’s a lot on the line for so many reasons.
By the end of The Calculating Stars Elma has earned her place in the program setting up the Moon as a way station to Mars.
The Fated Sky
There’s a colony on the moon now, and Elma rotates on and off, flying shuttles to Earth and helping prepare for the next big step, colonizing Mars.
It isn’t until the director realizes that the navigational computer isn’t reliable and too hard to program that a woman is considered for the crew. Elma’s highly visible profile as the “Lady Astronaut” makes her the choice to go at the expense of someone else’s place. And living in close quarters makes it harder on everyone involved.
Seven people on a space ship to Mars. There’s a lot of tension. Affairs are revealed, old wounds are picked at, and Elma does her best to roll with it. We finally see what’s been festering between Stetson Parker and Elma York in both books.
We also get to see the astronauts try to work through the personal issues which could very well be the downfall of the mission to Mars. The best thing about Elma is she’s always trying to understand, and learn, when her privileged white background gets in the way.
By the end of the book, landing on Mars has become not routine, but is well on its way.
Publisher’s Blurb: River Queens is at once a romance of men and the river, a fantasy come to life, an unparalleled adventure story, one of the best travel journals around—and a glad picture for our turbulent times.
I received a copy of this book from the author for an honest review. Thank you Alexander Watson!
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant and the story of River Queens is so compelling I’m having a hard time finding my objectivity. I want to write a fair review without seeming to shill for him. But damn this book was good. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read over the summer.
The book releases mid-October, they haven’t even gotten this one out yet and I’m already asking what he’s working on next. That’s how much I want him to succeed and keep writing great books so I can keep reading them.
When I was in 6th grade, my family lived in Hannibal, MO. The three things which stand out in my mind all these decades later are the mannequin of Becky Thatcher with ankle long blonde braids, the address at which we lived, and the Mississip’.
We were a nomadic family and so were only in Hannibal for one school year. But the impression that big brown river made on me stays, and makes me homesick for a place I’ve overly romanticized in my childhood memories.
Which is to say, I can relate in some small way to the call of the river. And that is what Alexander and Dale, their spotted dog Doris Faye, and a left for dead 1955 forty-five foot Chris-Craft Corsair answer.
It starts in Texas where Alexander finds the wooden yacht, and ends with a refurbished beauty which they sail to Betty Jane’s home berth in Cleveland.
I was smitten pretty early on. A gay couple is gonna fix up their boat and sail it into unknown territory. In the South. They are going to sail right into the belly of unallayed bigotry, and count on the kindness of strangers to help them along the way.
I knew it was going to be good when Watson relates the story of finding The King & I (later renamed Betty Jane). The man who handles the transaction for the boat tells them, “They think wood boats just sink or break apart … for no reason. That’s bull. They fail ’cause somebody quit lovin’ ’em.”
This is a hard life they’re putting themselves into, and it becomes apparent they have enough love for all concerned. Alexander and Dale go into this knowing it’s going to be one of the hardest things they’ve ever done, and they do it anyway. And they keep doing it, even when it gets harder than anyone could have expected.
Watson does not sugar coat anything. Nor does he dwell on the difficulties. He writes about it all. And there are some heartbreaking moments in this book.
Awkward’s in there too. One that had I been within earshot, I’m not sure I could have looked either of them in the eye afterwards. Watson doesn’t flinch in the telling. Their loud argument has a good reason to be in the story, it’s not there as some sort of nod to, “See? We’re just like straight couples, we argue too.” Nothing in this book is done to make anyone feel Alexander and Dale are other than what they are.
And they are two men who love each other fiercely and work together to rebuild this boat and fulfill their dream. The people they meet along the way, for the most part, are polite and helpful. River folk in the South are friendly and say, “See ya down the river.”
Even when they question what two ho-mo-sex-u-als are doing in their river. And there are several encounters that make me wince for the state of grace which cannot allow people to just be people.
Gods and goddesses what adventures these two have. It makes me want to pay for adult beverages while they regale me with tales and tell me how they got through heartbreaking death, horrifying weather, and the sweltering humidity of life on a boat on a river.
There’s not a whole lot wrong with the way this book is written. It’s elegant in a way that so few books these days are. It’s evident Watson worked hard, and lovingly, on River Queens, but it doesn’t read like hard work at all. It reads smoothly, like a lazy day on the river when all is right with the world.
I am grateful Alexander Watson reached out to me and asked I read his book. And I look forward to reading more of his writing as it becomes available. The country could use a few more gentlemanly intrepid travelers.