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C. L. Polk in Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar

It’s been over a year now since I joined Twitter, and yes, Twitter is too often shiny and distracting, but it’s also brought me a growing number of lovely things, and this post is about one of them. About a month ago I’d been seeing lots of good buzz about C. L. Polk’s new historical fantasy novel, The Midnight Bargain, and I also felt like placing some orders from independent bookstores because *gestures at the pandemic*. So I ordered The Midnight Bargain from Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul (it was their 36th birthday yesterday!), and it came speedily to Iowa by mail.

Book mail! The Magic Fish is also an excellent graphic novel!

C. L. Polk’s first novel, Witchmark, was one of my favorite books of 2019, and I still want to get around to reading the rest of the Kingston Cycle. As someone Polk thanks in her acknowledgments put it, The Midnight Bargain can be pitched as “Pokémon, but make it Jane Austen.” I’d call it a Regency romance set in a world where those born with the gift of sorcery become mages by making bargains with spirits who confer wealth or luck or strength or knowledge in exchange for the pleasures of sensory experiences. This is a patriarchal world: while women can be sorceresses, unborn children are vulnerable to possession by spirits, and so married, premenopausal women are locked into warding collars that rob them of their magic and dull their senses. Our clever and gifted heroine, Beatrice, wants nothing more than to practice magic and become a mage in her own right, if only to help her family’s fortunes, but to stave off ruin, her heavily indebted family needs her to catch a husband in this year’s bargaining season. As Beatrice plots a way to escape this fate, she falls in love with a fabulously wealthy, handsome, kind, and even enlightened young man. But is he enlightened enough to be worth giving up her ambitions for?

I loved The Midnight Bargain. It starts off delicious, but then it wades into complicated waters, tackling pressing social issues even as the characters attend card parties and picnic basket auctions under the cherry blossoms. But this post isn’t actually supposed to be about the book itself. Last week I spotted on Twitter an announcement of a book event with C. L. Polk and Amal El-Mohtar. El-Mohtar is an author I deeply admire (her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron” and her novella This Is How You Lose the Time War, co-written with Max Gladstone, have deservedly been showered with honors), and she also seems like an utterly charming person. So I can tell you that I leaped on that registration link. In these times, an author appearance is often only a Zoom link away!

The event was hosted by A Room of One’s Own, an independent bookstore in Madison, WI. When I connected, there were thirty or so other attendees. After introductions, Amal El-Mohtar expressed her deep love for The Midnight Bargain and asked C. L. Polk about its origins. Polk explained that it had all started with a list she had drawn up of things she wished she was writing about (e.g. balls with social maneuvering) at a time when she didn’t want to be working on her current project. She found her element of conflict when she decided to write about women’s choices in society (even today), and ultimately she wrote the book very quickly. El-Mohtar said she found The Midnight Bargain very immersive and felt the prose was beautiful without calling attention to itself. She alluded to the current valorization of “transparent” prose, and she liked how Polk, in response to her question about the writing style, said she “let” the prose be gorgeous.

The conversation veered toward how fantasies of manners are one of El-Mohtar’s drugs of choice. Then when she named the clear parallels in The Midnight Bargain to real-world issues like access to contraception, there was a little interlude in which she and Polk, both Canadian authors, wished healthcare upon their beloved friends (and probably most of the audience) in the States. Oof. (At least the election was over, right?) Polk told us to ask Santa for healthcare, and a conversation was struck up in the chat about petitions to Canadian Santa and what cookies would most please him (answer: maple).

Coming back to The Midnight Bargain, El-Mohtar, who is fond of using “super” as an adverb, said she super appreciated the complicated friendships between women and relationships with men. She liked how Beatrice didn’t settle for “better than I expected” in Ianthe, the extremely eligible bachelor. To her, this felt like a challenge to the reader to not be satisfied with the beats of a usual romance. She found it satisfying that Beatrice and Ianthe argued. El-Mohtar is an advocate for books having more conversations in them and for having the plot be propelled by people having conversations to try to understand each other.

El-Mohtar asked Polk if she had a favorite Austen novel, and Polk said almost ruefully that her answer had to be Pride and Prejudice (I mean, who doesn’t love Pride and Prejudice?). Both authors said they’d first read it when they were too young to understand it.

Soon it was time for the Q & A, and El-Mohtar picked my question! (Not that it was competitive.) If this had been an in-person event, I think I might’ve been too timid to ask a question, so another 10 points to online events with chat features. Anyway, I was curious to hear more about siblinghood in the world of The Midnight Bargain, because there were several brother-sister pairs who were named things like Ianthe and Ysbeta, Danton and Danielle, Ellis and Eliza, it was fashionable for siblings to have matching outfits, and Danton in particular was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to secure his sister’s happiness. Polk had actually already talked a bit about thinking about, with Ianthe and Ysbeta, a brother and sister duo who were really ride-or-die for each other. In answering my question, she said she hadn’t done it on purpose, but she supposed that in The Midnight Bargain children were raised with the idea that their siblings would be who they would rely on first and foremost in life. El-Mohtar mused a bit more on the sibling relationships in the book (she loved the relationship between Beatrice and her younger sister Harriet, who first seems like a silly girl who’s read too many romance novels but quickly proves to be smart, pragmatic, and highly capable).

Towards the end of the evening, Polk revealed, to El-Mohtar’s delight, that she was contemplating another book set in the world of The Midnight Bargain. She had ideas for a murder mystery centering Ysbeta or a book about Harriet’s bargaining season. El-Mohtar started talking about how she liked trilogies that widened the lens, which I must say sounded like an unsubtle hint to Polk to please write both books.

The last minutes of the event devolved into excitement and hilarity over a t-shirt depicting Gritty driving a Four Seasons Total Landscaping riding lawnmower. What started out as a joke turned into a major fundraiser for Georgia Senate candidates and voting rights organizations, but still, there was a certain 2020 absurdity about it all. Has this year made us punchy or what? On that note, we all signed off. 

The Best of Uncanny, Part II

Two weeks ago I highlighted some of my favorite stories from the first half of The Best of Uncanny. Now that I’ve finished this behemoth, I wanted to follow up with some personal standouts from the second half. I’m not going to use the words “favorites” this time because it actually doesn’t quite seem to fit. Poring over the table of contents again, I’m struck more by distinct impressions particular stories left on me than any kind of obvious ranking among the pieces. So consider this a collection of assorted thoughts.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine: I enjoyed the worldbuilding in this one, as well as the slightly twisted strangeness of the auction. I also liked being in this protagonist’s point of view, although I didn’t understand her ultimate motivation. This story reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read A Memory Called Empire for ages.

“An Ocean the Color of Bruises” by Isabel Yap: This one has a brooding, slightly unsettled atmosphere, with a tight-knit group of friends struggling a little bit with adulthood and its disillusionments. I liked the sense of magical friendship, although I felt like there was underlying anxiety about the preservation of those bonds post-college. The ending doesn’t exacerbate that anxiety, though. Rather the opposite, in fact.

“Those” by Sofia Samatar: This felt like a subversion of Heart of Darkness-type stories. There was a bit of a claustrophobic feeling throughout, but then the ending was beautifully empowering.

“Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney: Very bizarre, but delightfully inventive, as well as humorous and vivid.

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard: I recognized this one as related to some of de Bodard’s novels, which again reminded me that I want to read some of her longer works (I’ve only read a couple of short stories). The setting was rich and intriguing and the main character sympathetic.

“The Words on My Skin” by Caroline M. Yoachim: A brief but still affecting exploration of a thought-provoking speculative concept.

“And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker: Okay, this one is a favorite! Imagine you were invited to an interdimensional conference for all the yous from across the multiverse. Hundreds of variations of you, some of whom made Choice X instead of Choice Y and whose lives diverged accordingly. I’ve also read Pinsker’s “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye,” and to me both stories share a flair for the bizarre and some satisfying Holmesian deduction. This story gets a little bit mind-bending and surprisingly philosophical. How does grief change you, and how far would go to see lost loved ones again?

“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar: Isabelle first introduced me to this story, and it’s one of our common all-time favorites. I remembered the concept but not the ending, and on this rereading it ended sooner and differently than I expected. It’s still a lovely combination of fancifulness and warm human connection.

The Best of Uncanny, Part I

The blog has been quiet lately in part because I’ve been staying home, as one does during a pandemic, and not having any notable adventures. But I have been slowly reading my way through a doorstopper of an anthology, and since I’m just past the halfway point, I thought I could share some of my favorites thus far.

The collection is The Best of Uncanny, which brings together some of the best short stories (and poems) published in Uncanny Magazine, a dream market of mine. The book came out in 2019, and the editors, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, went on tour, visiting bookstores around the country. At these events, they were joined by local authors whose stories appear in the anthology. Back in February, when I visited Honolulu, flying in and out of the Twin Cities, Isabelle alerted me to the Minneapolis event at Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. Alas, it was the night before I came back from Hawai’i, so I missed it. But Isabelle had heard there might be extra signed copies available at the bookstore after the event, so I decided I’d go check the day I returned from Honolulu. The book is gorgeous, but as a nearly 700-page hardcover it was also not inexpensive, so I decided to leave it up to fate: if I could snag a signed copy, I’d buy it, but otherwise I wouldn’t.

I was also glad of the excuse to visit Uncle Hugo’s because although I knew of it, I’d never visited (there are far too many Twin Cities indies I’ve still never been to!). I think I knew where it was, because it’s across the street from the Midtown Global Market, but I’d never been there. So the same day I got back from balmy Hawai’i, I drove over. It was a pretty cold afternoon, with occasional snowflakes swirling in the air. I think a bell rang when I entered the shop? I was immediately delighted; I mean, the bookstore looked like this:

It reminded me a bit of Raven Used Books in Northampton. Except Uncle Hugo’s specializes in SFF; in fact, it was the oldest independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore in the country. I poked around for a bit (and saw my first physical copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, another dream market), and then I saw it on a book cart: a single copy of The Best of Uncanny protected by a plastic sheath. I checked the title page: the book was signed by the editors and Twin Cities short SFF author Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. I was so pleased, and I left Uncle Hugo’s the proud owner of that copy.

I returned to Grinnell and left the book there when I went to France (it’s hefty, and I was already taking two thick books on the plane). Of course, I ended up staying in France for months, so The Best of Uncanny languished in my lonely Iowa apartment. Then, in May, while I was still abroad, Uncle Hugo’s burned down in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. I was stunned. I’d hoped to go back, to show it to Isabelle someday. Little had I known in February that my first visit would also be my last. At least for the foreseeable future: if you’d like to donate to help the owner recover and rebuild, you can do so here.

But this was supposed to be a post about my favorite stories so far! Now, none of the pieces collected in The Best of Uncanny would have been included if they weren’t already excellent, so here are my very subjective feelings about some of the stories that I enjoyed the most.

“Blessings” by Naomi Novik: I really liked Novik’s novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver (I’ve vaguely meant to go back and read her Temeraire series). Anyway, this riff on fairy godmothers features a wealthy mother determined to secure some nice blessings for her newborn daughter, a very funny narrative, and a satisfying ending for the daughter when she grows up.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu: This novella is set in a fascinating future Beijing and has a sympathetic protagonist. Although I can’t really explain why, it also felt distinctly Chinese to me (I haven’t read tons of modern Chinese fiction, but I’ve read some), and it’s nice to read SFF with different sensibilities.

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad: I found this story hilarious and adorable even though I’m only fandom-adjacent, at best.

“Catcall” by Delilah S. Dawson: I hesitated on this one because I’m not sure “enjoyable” is the right descriptor. More like “horrifying.” But it was certainly memorable and raises questions about the limits of revenge.

“Wooden Feathers” by Ursula Vernon: This one has some beautiful and creepy passages, and I liked how the relationship between the two main characters was of a type we see less often (in this case, vendor-customer/younger person-older person/sort of apprentice-sort of teacher/sort of friends). Also, this sentence: “The moon was the eye of an ink-dark whale overhead, barnacled with stars.”

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong: A beautifully rendered setting (even if it’s a desolate one) and an intense platonic love story. I really liked this one.

“She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear: I’d read this story before I bought this book because Isabelle had told me about it. The main reason I like it is for its depths of possible interpretation. You could spend a long time talking about it.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon: This one was so wholesome and sweet! Farming > fighting.

I’ll stop there for now. There were even more stories in the first half of the collection that I really liked, and this list probably could’ve been twice as long. Maybe by next week I’ll have finished the book!

 

Contrepoint and The Braided Path

Content warning: CSA

While I was in France, I read yet another short story collection, this one in French. Entitled Contrepoint, it was edited by Laurent Gidon, published by ActuSF, and distributed for free with the purchase of other books from the publisher. The idea behind the anthology was to showcase stories without conflict. That is, “stories in which there is neither war, nor conflict, nor violence” (my translation). When I first read this, I wondered about the editor’s definition of conflict, since I think most stories, even if they avoid violence or antagonists, involve some degree of conflict, if only internal (but maybe this is my Western bias). I suspected some of the stories would still qualify as containing conflict, according to my definition, but I was intrigued by the goal of the anthology. I was also amused by the fact that most of the author bios before each story talked about whether the author was accustomed or unaccustomed to writing the kinds of works that would fit this particular collection. The allegiances tended to be extreme: for one author, practically all her stories were conflict/violence-free while for another, this was his only story ever that could possibly fall into that category.

Now it might be that I’m not well-versed in French SFF (I haven’t read much more than Léa Silhol), but the stories in Contrepoint were some of the weirdest, most bizarre things I’d ever read. The first story, “L’Amour devant la mer en cage” by Timothée Rey, left me pretty bewildered, although the ending seemed sort of sweet. (What did these entities look like? What were they?) “Le Chercheur du vent,” by David Bry, I would say is a story without conflict, though for me that meant it wasn’t quite a story. “Petits arrangements intra-galactiques” by Sylvie Lainé was sort of cute, but I found the drinking of delicious orange fluid from the aliens’ popped boils to be just too weird and off-putting. “Nuit de visitation” by Lionel Davoust was one of my favorite stories in the collection, but I wouldn’t say it was without conflict, insofar as the main character wrestles with regret. (Plus, references to WWII?)

I didn’t quite understand “Tammy tout le temps” by Laurent Queyssi, but I liked what seemed to be the love between the two characters. However, this story involved flashbacks of child sexual abuse, and it was hard for me to see how that didn’t count as violence in an anthology that was supposed to be violence-free. “Avril” by Charlotte Bousquet was simultaneously one of the strangest things I’ve read and another of my favorites in the collection. Cyborg falls in love with reanimated mummified woman? “Permafrost” by Stéphane Beauverger really confused me because the whole premise was about warring tribes, and even if those wars weren’t on the page, the story itself was definitely not violence-free. “Mission océane” by Xavier Bruce was the last of my favorites in the anthology; it was lyrical and mysterious. Finally, “Semaine utopique” by Thomas Day was…all about the narrator’s struggle to think of a story idea that could fit the anthology’s criteria. So, very meta. But also one of the first things the narrator thinks is, Oh, they said no violence, but at least they left us sex! So, yay, I guess? The narrator proceeds to describe a number of activities in his daily life that were very distasteful to me, so the whole thing left me pretty perplexed.

Anyway, while it was interesting to get a taste of a bunch of French SFF authors’ work, I was also interested in the concept of the anthology. What would stories without interpersonal conflict and violence look like? I was a bit disappointed by the execution in Contrepoint, but I went on to reread a beloved book that I think is a perfect example of what I believe the ActuSF collection was going for. This book is The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams. Isabelle had lent it to me a few years ago, and I’d loved it, and while in Paris I reread her copy.

The Braided Path is an expansion of the short story “Limits,” which you can read to get a feel for the lovely writing and wordlbuilding. The book is set mainly on a vertical world: a series of villages extending from near the mountaintop to the ocean below, connected by a single path that wends its way up and down a cliff face through different climes. There is exchange between the villages, but only barter, no money-based commerce. The villages are on a dialect continuum. In the higher villages, some consider the sea a myth, and in the lower villages, people hardly believe in snow. The main characters are Len, a widowed rope-maker who eventually journeys far lower on the world than what she thought her limits were; Cam, Len’s son, who never finds his limits and travels over the top of his vertical world to encounter new societies and languages; and Fox, Cam’s friend-turned-lover who gives birth to their daughter after his departure and formalizes a partnership with Len while she figures out her way in life.

Maybe now is the time for a spoiler alert?

To me, The Braided Path succeeds at what Contrepoint was trying to do: it is a novel where no one ever harms anyone else, where no one is malicious, where no one hates. That doesn’t mean there’s no conflict at all: all three main characters struggle with whether to stay or go, when they find themselves settled in a place but then a change comes along to disrupt the status quo. Fox isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life and sometimes feels restless. One thing I love about the world is that Fox is allowed to figure out what to do with her life at her own pace, even at her age (a young mother!). The people who love her will always take care of her (as everyone is cared for), even if she hasn’t settled on a vocation yet. I guess the world is utopian. When Cam and Fox are finally reunited, all isn’t rosy between them, and it’s clear they’re going to have to work through Fox’s anger toward Cam and the confusion each of them feels. But in general everyone always acts in good faith, and when conflicts, whether internal or external, do arise, loving people are around to encourage working through them in a healthy way. That sounds didactic, but it’s not; I wish I could convey how gentle and warm this whole book is.

Given how conflict-free The Braided Path is, you might think it would be boring, but it manages to be engrossing. And it’s also supremely comforting. If you want to read about good people being kind to one another and gradually choosing their paths in life–and embracing change and unimagined possibilities–without any harsh pressure or impatience from those around them, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Conservation of Shadows

I’m still reading collections of short fiction, and the latest one I finished was Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows. I bought Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, from Small World Books in Venice a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read the next book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy, Raven Stratagem, and I regret that I’ve yet to read the third book, Revenant Gun. But the first two installments were enough to make me a Yoon Ha Lee fan, so when I saw Conservation of Shadows on Isabelle’s bookshelf, I knew I wanted to read it.

The short story collection is introduced by Aliette de Bodard, another SFF author I’m a fan of despite having only read a short story or two of hers. (I keep meaning to read some of her longer work. Also, fun fact: I have a trunked novel from before I’d heard of de Bodard in which the main character’s young cousin is named Aliette. I found the name in a French baby names book.)

Conservation of Shadows begins with “Ghostweight,” whose worldbuilding reminded me a bit of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. I read this story slowly. Recently I described Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting as not being cerebral or demanding (which was not in any way intended as a slight). Well, I find at least some of Yoon Ha Lee’s stories if not cerebral then certainly demanding. “Ghostweight” was one of those. But the payoff. The ending blew me away. Was every story in the collection going to be this breathtakingly good?!

Then I read the second story, “The Shadow Postulates,” and loved it. I decided after that one that I needed to buy my own copy of the book.

I enjoyed the desert wasteland setting motif in “The Bones of Giants” (is this a motif? I’m trying and failing to put my finger on something I feel this story has in common with some other settings, such as the one in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy). I liked that the protagonists of “Swanwatch” and “The Unstrung Zither” were musician-composers, since I often can’t help writing about music myself. Lee seems to have a thing for guns, and also math (of course), but also language! There were so many references to structural properties of language that were done so well that I kept wondering if Lee had a degree in linguistics as well as in mathematics. Or at the very least some kind of background. In reading interviews, I discovered he has a past as a conlanger, so that explains a lot. I have this urge to say more about the linguistics in Conservation of Shadows; we’ll see if that happen.

I appreciated all the Asian-inspired worldbulding, from the obvious, foregrounded, and central to the more subtle and understated. While I could recognize fictional cognates of Korea, China, and Japan, I learned more about Lee’s inspiration (one naval battle in particular) by reading the story notes, which I also found delightful. In another interview, Lee said he always enjoyed learning more about the author and the story from such notes, so he decided to include his own. This reader liked flipping to the end of the book to read the notes after each story!

Finally, I savored Lee’s excellent writing, which inspired me as I read since I’m currently novel drafting harder than I have in a long time (yay, confinement?) and everything I’m spewing onto the digital page feels like it’s horrible written. So it’s good to read some actual quality writing to remind myself what it looks like, take note of how it’s done, and reassure myself that I will fix the terrible writing in revisions.

What I’ve Been Reading: Confinement Edition

I arrived in France with Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (a library book), which I read with great pleasure. Pullman is such a good writer. Before the volumes of The Book of Dust, his new trilogy, started coming out, I hadn’t read him in many years, but each time I’ve picked up one of these new books, set in a beloved world, I’ve felt like I’m in such good hands. I remember being twelve or so and finishing His Dark Materials and simply being in awe. I was convinced I would never write something as great.

This isn’t supposed to be a post about The Secret Commonwealth, though. Since exhausting my own reading material, I’ve been raiding Isabelle’s shelves, and I’ve been on a short story collection reading spree.

Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino

This collection contains eleven short stories, each entitled “The aventure of an X,” where X is a soldier, a crook, a bather, etc. These were translated by William Weaver (whom I read in my translation workshop at Swarthmore), and apparently there were more of them in Italian! All of these adventures are love stories, in a way (sometimes a horrifying way), but I really liked many of them. Calvino writes in what could be painful detail about the minutiae of ordinary life, but he’s such a skillful writer that it’s enjoyable. In that way, he reminds me of José Saramago. Slightly ridiculous predicaments become suspenseful, and throwaway moments of everyday life become moving. “The adventure of a photographer” has thought-provoking remarks about the effects the desire to document one’s life has on actually living it.

This particular book also contained two novellas, Smog, also translated by William Weaver, and A Plunge into Real Estate, translated by D.S. Carne-Ross. I liked these much less than the short stories. They were rather depressing, and no one was a particularly sympathetic character. There were some darkly humorous aspects to the stories, I guess (construction never ends), but that was about all I took from them.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Inside this seafoam green book (the cover art is by Eric Fan, of the Fan brothers), there was a matching promotional bookmark, announcing an event at Magers & Quinn, that I think I picked up for Isabelle ages ago. It turns out Sequoia Nagamatsu went to Grinnell (!) and currently teaches at St. Olaf (!). As the bookmark says, these are stories inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture. Some of them were of a rather novel (to me) brand of weird, and many of them dealt with a couple’s complicated relationship, sometimes with a child in the picture. My favorites were “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost,” which was funny and featured a great voice, and “The Passage of Time in the Abyss,” which had a connection to the previous story but was very different in tone. I found it rather beautiful.

In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I had previously read some stories of Theodora Goss’s, and I knew of her novels about “the daughters of literature’s mad scientists,” which intrigued me. I’d also appreciated the references to academia in some of her work, since characters in grad school are relevant to my interests. This book, collecting stories published in Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony, AlchemyStrange Horizons, and elsewhere, as well as two new stories, was wonderful. One of the stories, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, I had read before, but I no longer know where.

I really like Goss’s style, which strikes me as somehow traditional and old-fashioned in that the writing is lush and lyrical (isn’t beautiful language out-of-fashion in some quarters?), not experimental (for the most part). It feels like straightforward storytelling done very well, so that it’s extremely compelling. I feel like I’m unfairly casting her as unoriginal in some way because she does do interesting things with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. But I’m trying to describe something about her writing here. It’s not cerebral or too demanding of the reader (not that there’s anything wrong with being or not being those things); it revels in beauty and human emotion. And even as her stories feel traditional, they also feel fresh.

I was intrigued by Miss Emily Gray and her eponymous story because I seemed to remember a Miss Emily Gray in Goss’s story in The Starlit Wood. I checked; I was right. Then as I kept reading In the Forest of Forgetting, I came upon this character again in “Conrad,” and then once more in “Lessons with Miss Gray.” I liked how this immortal witch (?) kept making appearances through Goss’s body of work. I wondered about the recurrence of (different) characters named István and Eleanor (never terribly sympathetic, the Eleanors).

My two favorite stories–and they might be my favorites because they’re related–were “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm” and “Lessons with Miss Gray.” The former was especially lovely, and in the latter I was happy to meet certain characters again and learn more about their lives. I also found the point of view in “Lessons with Miss Gray” quite interesting: the story is narrated in the first person plural, that is, “we,” but there is no “I”. Initially I thought I’d find out which girl was the individual narrator of the story, but there isn’t one: all the girls are referred to individually in the third person, but the narrator is still “we.” I liked this device because it gave a sense of a collective character, a sum of the four central girls.

That’s all for now. I’ve just barely started Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows.

 

The Books I Read in 2019

In 2019, I read 93 books, 19 more than in 2018 and the most books I’ve read in a year since 2015. I know this increase was driven by Isabelle’s and my coping strategy for the throes of late grad school: binge reading graphic novels, comics, and even picture books (we will never forget Trevor’s immortal line, “This is nice”) in between dissertation-writing sessions. I regret nothing. (I also continued to read SFF short fiction, and these days I usually tweet about stories I really liked.)

Here are the books I read in 2019, rereads bolded, with links to the occasional related blog post:

The Library Book Susan Orlean
Woman World Aminder Dhaliwal
Mimi and the Wolves Act I: The Dream Alabaster
Mimi and the Wolves Act II: The Den Alabaster
Mimi and the Wolves Act III: The Howl Alabaster
Starfish Akemi Dawn Bowman
Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border Francisco Cantú
Black Wings Beating Alex London
Along the Indigo Elsie Chapman
Emergency Contact Mary H.K. Choi
The Language of Thorns Leigh Bardugo
This is my letter to the world: The Omikuji Project, Cycle One Catherynne M. Valente
Half-Witch John Schoffstall
The Light Between Worlds Laura E. Weymouth
P.S. I Miss You Jen Petro-Roy
That Inevitable Victorian Thing E.K. Johnston
Tell the Machine Goodnight Katie Williams
Moonrise Sarah Crossan
Girls on the Line Jennie Liu
Nightlights Lorena Alvarez
Sleep Tight, Snow White: 15 Bewitching Bedtime Rhymes Jen Arena
The Lost Path Amélie Fléchais
Trevor Jim Averbeck
Tess of the Road Rachel Hartman
The Brilliant Death Amy Rose Capetta
The Afterward E.K. Johnston
American Panda Gloria Chao
The Female of the Species Mindy McGinnis
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Becky Chambers
Song of the Abyss Makiia Lucier
The Near Witch V.E. Schwab
Why Art? Eleanor Davis
Spiky Ilaria Guarducci, translated by Laura Watkinson
Aquicorn Cove Katie O’Neill
Anya’s Ghost Vera Brosgol
Witchmark C. L. Polk
In Real Life Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang
The Prince and the Dressmaker Jen Wang
Pilu of the Woods Mai K. Nguyen
The One Hundred Nights of Hero Isabel Greenberg
If You Want to See a Whale Julie Fogliano & Erin E. Stead
Espera, Miyuki Roxane Marie Galliez & Seng Soun Ratanavanh, translated by Pau Joan Hernández
The Witch Boy Molly Ostertag
Lou! #1: Secret Diary Julien Neel, translated by Carol Klio Burrell
Fish Girl Donna Jo Napoli & David Wiesner
What Do You Do With A Chance? Kobi Yamada & Mae Besom
You & a Bike & a Road Eleanor Davis
Koko Be Good Jen Wang
Spinning Silver Naomi Novik
How to Be Happy Eleanor Davis
Riverland Fran Wilde
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Sunday in the Park with Boys Jane Mai
Jane, the fox, & me Fanny Britt & Isabelle Arsenault
Drawing from Memory Allen Say
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant Tony Cliff
Dream Country Shannon Gibney
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling Tony Cliff
The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head David Gaffney & Dan Berry
Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules Tony Cliff
My Brother’s Husband Volume I Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii
Sadie Courtney Summers
My Brother’s Husband Volume II Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii
Gender Queer Maia Kobabe
Argonautika: The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts Mary Zimmerman
Snotgirl Volume 1: Green Hair Don’t Care Bryan Lee O’Malley & Leslie Hung
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer
Snotgirl Volume 2: California Screaming Bryan Lee O’Malley & Leslie Hung
This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story Kheryn Callender
The Little Book of Life Hacks Yumi Sakugawa
Seconds Bryan Lee O’Malley
The Little Book of the Hidden People Alda Sigmundsdóttir
Authority Jeff VanderMeer
Bloom Kevin Panetta & Savanna Ganucheau
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Shadow Scale Rachel Hartman
Out Stealing Horses Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born
are you listening? Tillie Walden
The Shining Stephen King
I Curse the River of Time Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson
Ordinary Wolves Seth Kantner
Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clarke
To Be Taught, If Fortunate Becky Chambers
In the Dream House Carmen Maria Machado
The People on Privilege Hill Jane Gardam
Blood Water Paint Joy McCullough
Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado
The Power Naomi Alderman
Binti Nnedi Okorafor
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them Junauda Petrus
Lotus Lijia Zhang
The Raven Tower Ann Leckie

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 93
  • Books in French: 0 (Whoops)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 54 (58%) (Still leaping up every year! Non-fiction/memoir/miscellaneous: 5; Short story/folktale collections: 5; Graphic novels/comics: 32; Picture books: 8; Novellas: 2; Plays: 1; Novels in verse: 1)
  • Books read in translation: 7 (8%) (Italian to English: 1; French to Spanish: 1; French to English: 1; Japanese to English: 2; Norwegian to English: 2)
  • Books read for the first time: 87 (94%)
  • Books read not for the first time: 6 (6%)
  • Books written by women or non-binary authors (where at least one co-author, co-editor, or contributor is a woman or non-binary): 71 (76%)
  • Books by authors of color (obviously, how someone identifies can’t always be deduced from a name and an author photo, so this isn’t guaranteed to be 100% accurate): 32 (34%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 30 (32%); Young Adult: 31 (33%); Middle Grade or Younger: 19 (20%); Indeterminate: 13 (14%)

Finally, my favorite books of 2019 (no rereads, I picked these on New Year’s Eve without thinking about it too hard, and I think I was pickier than in some years past):

  • The Afterward E.K. Johnston
  • Witchmark C. L. Polk
  • Spinning Silver Naomi Novik
  • Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
  • Gender Queer Maia Kobabe
  • Out Stealing Horses Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born
  • The Stars and the Blackness Between Them Junauda Petrus
  • The Raven Tower Ann Leckie

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!

What I’ve Been Reading: Christmas Edition

Merry Christmas! It’s the last Wednesday of the year, so if I was going to get in any more blog posts in 2019, it was going to have to be today. Here are a few things I’ve read and loved recently:

“Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey: This short story in Uncanny features a beautiful, tender, already established best friendship between two girls who understand each other and look out for each other in large and small ways and love each other deeply. Its triumphant ending shows how sometimes you can break free from self-imposed restrictions and dare to seize everything you want. I read it twice this fall, and I can see it being a story I return to again and again.

“As You Know, Bob” by Jeannette Ng: There were many bits I liked in this Uncanny article about the place of telling (vs. showing) in speculative fiction, especially for authors writing from a culture their readers may not be familiar with. I particularly appreciated this line about how, say, writers of Chinese heritage may not be explaining things just for a Western audience but also for each other: “We don’t all have the same story, the same traditions, nor the same cultural touchstones, despite sometimes sharing a nominal sourceland.” This rang so true to me. I’m Chinese, and I have friends who are Chinese, but our Chinese cultural heritage is not always the same, and so I’ve learned many things from them. Similarly, what I write about being Chinese-American may not be familiar to all Chinese-Americans. I also like the part about how we often engage in telling not to convey new information but rather to build a story and a relationship. It can be lovely to reminisce with friends about past shared experiences, and families often tell the same stories over and over again, sometimes because people clamor to hear them once more.

“Windrose in Scarlet” by Isabel Yap (who I first read on The Book Smugglers): I loved this dark and violent and tender and hopeful fairy tale mashup in Lightspeed. It’s about finding love and fighting curses and taking care of each other and also just…recognition. I think I want to read this one again too.

The Stars and the Darkness Between Them by Junauda Petrus: I usually can’t resist YA novels set in Minnesota (Minneapolis, in this case), and I loved the vibrant community Petrus brings to life in her début. The families and the friends are so great. Also, I thought I saw this book described as a romance (maybe I’m mistaken?), but it didn’t really feel like one to me. It is about romantic love, sure, but what stuck out the most to me, in a good way, was the focus on all the gestures, small and large, of deep friendship. This book is partly about how to be there for someone through the worst days of their life. It will probably make you sad and happy.

Carmen Maria Machado at Prairie Lights

About a week and a half ago I ventured to Iowa City for the first time. One of my new colleagues at Grinnell lives there, and it seemed like a literary paradise, with readings practically every day at the evocatively named Prairie Lights bookstore. Iowa City is home to the celebrated Iowa Writers Workshop, after all, and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature. What finally convinced me to make a trip was Carmen Maria Machado’s appearance; I was seeing lots of positive press about her new memoir, In the Dream House, so I decided to make her reading my first excursion to Prairie Lights.

I made the one-hour-and-a-bit drive and had to wander around to find parking, but it turned out to be a good thing, because walking west toward Prairie Lights, I ran right into the Iowa City Public Library. I had lots of time before the reading, so of course I went in. They had my books!

And in the lobby, there was a Literary Kiosk: a machine which, at the press of a button, prints on receipt paper a piece of writing for your enjoyment. The concept and the machine were developed in France. At this kiosk, you could choose between World Writers and Local Writers. I chose Local and received an excerpt from “The Farm at Holstein Dip,” a memoir by Caroll Engelhart.

I hastened on to Prairie Lights, which I discovered boasts three floors and a café. I bought a copy of In the Dream House, checked out the children’s and young adult books in the basement, and then climbed to the top floor where I spent a long time in the SFF section. There I experienced a moment of despair contemplating how many more wonderful books there are than I have time to read.

The top floor began to fill up for the reading. I snagged a seat in the middle of a middle row of chairs, and my colleague later joined me when she arrived. By the time the event began, the place was packed the way Skylight Books was when I saw Roxane Gay there.

A bookseller and Writers Workshop student introduced Machado, who then read excerpts from her book. In the Dream House recounts her abusive relationship with a woman she met when she herself was a student in the Iowa Writers Workshop. Each chapter corresponds to a particular genre or trope, such as Myth, Spy Thriller, Second Chances, or Choose Your Own Adventure. I finished the book last week, and it is indeed dazzlingly written. I admired many a deft bit of figurative language. I liked the reflections on how archival silence can make people feel alone, and I was touched by the gestures of care offered by Machado’s roommates John and Laura and by her uncle.

After the reading, the author Garth Greenwell joined Machado for a conversation about her memoir and how it came to be. This part was great, but the moment that had the deepest impact on me was when Greenwell asked her what the role of friendship was in her life as an artist. (I’m always up for a good conversation about friendship.) In replying, Machado mentioned that her mother used to tell her she always made such good friends. This struck me as an excellent quality–an enviable quality–to have.