Books for a World on Fire: Part 1

The world is still even more of a mess than normal. In the interest of getting through this pandemic with our sanity and spirits in tact, I am taking this opportunity to recommend some light, engaging fiction. Last week, it was podcasts. This week will be the first of two posts focusing on books!

These are are all books that I would describe as fun, and fairly light, the kind where you can relax into the story, trusting that good will triumph and bad will be punished. While I love a good investigation of the gritty realities of the human experience, we have quite enough of that in the real world right now. I’m tired. You’re tired. We need a break.

a pale of books, spine in, with a delicate floral tea cup balanced on top

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Murderbot has hacked their own governor module, and is using that new found freedom not to wreak havoc, but to download and watch untold hours of shows. And yet, to keep from being found out, it still has to do its job and protect the clients who the company assigned it to protect. Unfortunately, humans are kind of idiots, and keep getting themselves into terrible trouble, from which Murderbot must protect them.

I don’t know anybody who didn’t enjoy this book. In many ways, Murderbot is every introvert who just wants to be left alone. But Murderbot actually cares more than it admits to itself.

The very first paragraph made me laugh out loud. While the humor is generally wry and under-stated, this is a novella that delivers. Best of all, this is the first in a series of four novellas, so you can spend a decent amount of time following Murderbot’s adventures in self-discovery.

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I first encountered this book when I was in high school, and it was the first time I’d seen my own sense of humor – dry as the desert, equal parts amused and irritated by humanity – on the page. It was also my first taste of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. All of which is to say that I have loved this funny book about the apocalypse for a long time.

There’s a sprawling cast of characters, but at its heart live an angel and demon who have been on earth since the beginning of things, and quite like it here. It’s also about a twelve year old Antichrist, the professional descendant of the only accurate prophetess in history, and young man with truly dreadful luck around computers.

It’s a story about loving the things that you were not supposed to love, and refusing to give up, and I think it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1990.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

I already wrote a lengthy review of this novella for Luna Station Quarterly, so here’s the elevator pitch. Once upon a time, in the real world, the United States Congress seriously considered stocking the Mississippi River with hippos, as a meat source. Fortunately, they voted against it.

This novella takes place in an alternate time line in which that measure passed, and the Mississippi delta is full of hippo wranglers and feral hippos. It’s funny as hell, filled with the sorts of people who are usually erased from violent heist stories: a bisexual mastermind, a black non-binary munitions expert, a fat French con-woman, and a pregnant Hispanic assassin. The story is violent, so if that’s going to stress you out, consider looking elsewhere. If you really like it, there is a sequel, but you can stop with River of Teeth and feel satisfied with the story.

Until next time!

I’ll have more books to distract you from the chaos and save you from the isolation next time!

Podcasts for a World on Fire

A building engulfed in flames

Between U.S. politics and the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to deal with the ambient stress level. I’m not a politician or a medical professional, so there’s very little that I can do to help this situation. But what I can do, is recommend distractions.

Whether you’re under quarantine, or just need something easy to focus on as an alternative to twitter, let me share some podcasts that have brought me joy. I’ll write about books and TV shows in upcoming posts.

Kaleidotrope

Do you appreciate the tropes of fanfiction and romantic comedies? Have you ever wished that real life promised such happy endings and neat resolutions? Then I have the audio drama for you!

The entire story is told in a mere ten episodes, each of which is about thirty minutes long, so you don’t have to fear getting involved in something that you won’t have time to finish. Drew and Harrison are reluctant co-hosts of a radio show at the fictional college of Sidlesmith, where every student is guaranteed their meet-cute and happy ending, thanks to the magic of the university founders and their star-crossed romance. Over the course of the story, they help callers with their relationship problems, while also uncovering hidden secrets about the school.

I can not over state how much I loved this story. It’s utterly infectious, without being saccharine, and the actors have amazing chemistry. You can find out more at Kaleidotrope podcast, and listen through your podcast aggregator of choice.

Castle Charming

Do you love Discworld, but you’re in the mood for a slightly more gentle social critique? Do you like M/M and F/F slow burn romance, fairytale tropes, and messed up (if generally well-meaning) royal families?

The Sheep Might Fly podcast is much more than just the Castle Charming novellas – Tansy Rayner Roberts serializes all kinds of different novellas there – but they are my favorites. Over the course of the four novellas, you will get to meet a cast of unique characters, including a foreign princess under a lot of pressure to catch a prince, a beleaguered corporal of the guard and confidante to one of the princes, a tomboy magical princess who really does not have time for anybody else’s BS, a sweet young newspaper reporter who is new to kingdom, and so many more.

The entire Sheep Might Fly archives is helpfully broken down into its component novellas. Be sure to start with Glass Slipper Scandal. Or if you prefer to read them, the author has a new Kickstarter to publish all-revised editions. That runs until April 7, 2020.

And more!

I’m currently listening to Thor: Metal Gods on Serial Box. Since I haven’t finished it yet, I can’t officially recommend it. So far, it’s light and fun and does a surprisingly good job of translating the lengthy action scenes endemic to superhero comics into an audible medium. And who can resist Thor and Loki teaming up with a Korean tiger goddess and a non-binary space pirate?

So those are my top recommendations for some light audio fiction. What are some light, escapist audio stories that you’ve enjoyed recently? Please share your favorites in the comments!

February Reading Round Up

I’ll never understand how anyone could claim that April is the cruelest month, when February is sitting right there, a cold eternity condensed into 28 miserable days. I feel like I had to hike all the way to Mordor to get to March, but at least I read some lovely books on the way.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

I was not a huge fan of Uprooted, Novik’s previous fairy tale book, so I let this loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin languish on my TBR pile for months. Big mistake, as I absolutely adored this one! The kingdom (a sort of fantasy Poland) has always been plagued by magical beings of winter. But this winter is worse than most. We start off following the character of Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a money lender, in a sort of fantasy Poland suffering through a terrible winter, plagued by terrifying magical beings. The story rapidly branches out to include other points of view, most of them young women who are refusing to lay down and die under challenging circumstances. This is a fairly lengthy tome, but the pace never wavered. The plots intersected and diverged at regular intervals, carrying me along on their tide, but the real stars are the characters and relationships. This is a book about people, not action, so the pacing might feel slow to some, but I found myself thoroughly immersed in the world and in the lives of these stubborn women.

You Can’t Play in Our Woods, by Cat Scully

I quite enjoyed this southern gothic about college students doing things they should not have done, and suffering the consequences. This is a chapbook, so a short story in a lovely binding, and not nearly the length of a novel, or even a novella. I don’t have the constitution to read an entire horror novel – I think my nerves would after a couple of chapters – so this bite-sized story was just right for me, personally.

A Witch’s Kitchen, by Dianna Sanchez

This middle grade novel about a young witch who doesn’t think she can do magic brought me so much joy. As a grown woman, I’m not exactly the target audience for this one, but reading about Millie’s journey of self-discovery provided a welcome distraction when I was stressed out and exhausted. The story follows her as she enrolls in school for the first time (witches are traditionally home schooled in this setting), and gets to know the rest of the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest – trolls and dragons and pixies and so much more! – while also learning more about her own family and abilities. Millie’s love of cooking (a passion which her mother does everything possible to discourage) infuses every page, and proves to be more than just flavoring – it proves crucial to her self-discovery.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin

I have no chill when it comes to the work of N.K. Jemisin, so you know that I adored this collection of short stories. She includes all of my favorite genres, from near-future SF to steampunk to alternate versions of our contemporary world, to outright fantasy. I especially enjoyed the stories that were clear precursors to her novels. The story set in the world of the Dreamblood duology was particularly telling, and deepened my appreciation for those novels. Also of note is her response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” amazed me from the title, and does not pull its punches.

The Between, by L.J. Cohen

Lydia discovered that the family she has lived with for 17 years is not her real family, that she is really a fairy, hidden away in the human world. This lovely YA novel employs the usual fairy tropes – the fairy courts come right from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Oberon and Titania fighting for power in the wake of their falling out – but it does a really solid job bringing them to life. Lydia is every teenager – surly, defensive, but full of potential and genuinely trying her best. She constantly alludes to the Wizard of Oz in order to make sense of what is happening to her, which is all the more endearing because the comparison really doesn’t work for this situation. It’s an adorable bit of persistent characterization that made me smile every time it came up. While this is technically the first in a duology, it stands very well on its own.

That’s it for February. I hope that February was gentle with you all!

January Reading Round-Up

This is my least favorite time of the year. Any novelty that winter might once have possessed wore off long ago, but the cold and the dark are nowhere near over. At least I have books and tea to keep me going!

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri

I picked up this anthology specifically because I’ve been wanting to read more solarpunk – stories about humanity using green technologies to cope with ecological disaster, or just build a new and different future. I firmly believe that, in these trying time, we need more visions of a better future, and of different ways to live. If we can’t even imagine living without fossil fuels in our fiction, how are we ever going to face up to global warming? I feel like I got a real taste of all the possibilities of the genre from this anthology, which is exactly what I was looking for. Most of the stories are relatively brief, so this would be an ideal book to grab in short moments, for just a sip of a new world or engaging possibility.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick (read by Paul Giamatti)

I’ve been trying to read more classic sci-fi, so when a friend recommended this audiobook, I got it out from library ASAP. In retrospect, I think I should have stuck with my original plan, and read The Man in the High Castle as my introduction to Philip K. Dick. A Scanner Darkly takes a close look at 1970’s drug culture, and the ways in which drug users are basically reviled and taken advantage of. It’s based on Dick’s real life experience, and most of the characters are based off his friends. The main character is a narc, but also a drug user, and is slowly growing more and more distant from reality. I felt like the vast majority of the novel consists of him using drugs and then having spaced out, paranoid conversations with his friends, or else wandering off on lengthy internal tangents and monologues. It’s all really well done, and comes together at the end to a poignant conclusion, but it just was not for me. The narration is excellent, and helped me to stick with the story until the end.

Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys (read by Gabra Zackman)

I absolutely adored the first book in this series, Winter Tide, so I was eager to get my hands on this, the second volume. If anything, I enjoyed Deep Roots even more! Having introduced us to the world and the main characters in Winter Tide, Emrys was free to go deeper this time, even giving us glimpses into other points of view. This time around, Aphra and her entourage go to New York City in search of distant relatives in an effort to rebuild Innsmouth. On the way, she encounters yet more cosmic horrors, and has to distinguish between ancient prejudice, and the truth. The series continues to explore themes of duty versus freedom, found family, and the complexities of trust. Gabra Zackman does a fantastic job making Aphra and the other characters come alive in her narration.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde

I’ve had this book lurking in my Goodreads queue since the last Hugo award nominees were announced, but finally got it out of the library after taking a brief workshop on worldbuilding with the author. Then I read it in one evening (the book is less than 100 pages long, so I didn’t even miss sleep!). I loved the world. The Jewel of the title is a member of the royal family, and the Lapidary is a servant bound to her, who has the ability to command the magical games that are the source of the kingdom’s power. The main text is interspersed with excerpts from a guidebook to the region, ostensibly written far in the future. The contrast between those diverging accounts brought a real depth to the story, and also some humor. I look forward to seeing how the characters develop if there is a sequel – I did not feel like there was quite enough space in this book to get to know them as well as I could like, but that’s a risk with a shorter novella. I think that I went into this story expecting a more novel-like experience, where there’s more space for character, plot, and world to all be developed at leisure, but the pacing is more like a short story, which has to be tighter and more focused. That was a problem with my expectations, and not the story, though!

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

It almost seems disingenuous to list this as a January read, considering I started it back in November, but it took me that long to finish it. As you might have gathered from the three months I spent reading it, this is not a book to rush through, but is instead a weighty tome, best savored. I feel like this book needs no introduction – it spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list when it first came out – but that was decades ago. Women Who Run With the Wolves uses fairy tales and Jungian analysis to discuss the trials and struggles of a woman’s life, and how she can find her way back to wholeness. It’s not exactly a how-to guide – there are no easy answers or clear directions herein – more of a map to the territory. Not every chapter felt relevant to my life, but that’s to be expected. Other chapters absolutely stunned me. I never expected anyone could describe my personal pain with such a deft hand. If you’re a women feeling lost or trapped, I’d recommend checking it out. If the writing and general approach resonate with you, stick it out even if the first few stories don’t smack you over the head – the section written just for you may be coming.

That’s it for me this month. Did you read anything noteworthy in January? I’d love to hear about it!

December Reading Round-up

The last month of 2018 is nearly at an end! I feel like I should do some sort of an end of year review, but I don’t recommend holding your breath waiting for it – between a nasty cold and Christmas, I’m pretty wiped out. But stress and coughing means that I did plenty of reading this month, so onwards to the reviews!

Sin du Jour: The First Course, by Matt Wallace

I started listening to this audio book – a compilation of the first three novellas in the Sin du Jour series – back in September. When I got to the end of the first novella, I was not impressed, and moved on to other things. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, the story just didn’t hook me. But a couple months later I decided to circle back around to it, and I’m glad that I did! I don’t know if the series got better, or if I just wasn’t in the right mood for a bit of light fun in September, but I raced through the last two books. Sin du Jour is about a catering company that cooks for demons, goblins, centaurs, and other beings generally considered supernatural. The main characters are new line chefs brought in for a one-time event, but the point-of-view wanders to almost everyone in the kitchen, to the crew of brawlers who procure the rare ingredients the chefs need, to the various magic workers kept on staff for emergencies. It’s possible that the first book was not long enough for me to get invested in so many characters, which might be why the second and third felt stronger to me. Once I got into the story, I found it to be light, frothy fun.

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

I was so excited when this book came out over the summer! Native American legends pop up in a lot of fantasy, and I always worry about appropriation. Finally, a Native American author has arrived to tackle those themes (or at least, has achieved enough public awareness that I know about it – I’m sure Roanhorse is not the first to try), and I can enjoy the story knowing that the culture will be presented accurately. I was originally familiar with Roanhorse from her short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Native American Experience,” but this novel has a very different tone. It’s less serious, more pulpy, but still eminently enjoyable. The story follows the adventures of a Navajo monster slayer in a world where most of North America is suffering from a terrible drought brought on by climate change, while the Navajo nation has been spared, and even experienced a resurgence in magic. Maggie is in many ways a typical urban fantasy lead – violent, isolated, distrustful, but ultimately a good person – but that’s okay. I suspect she will gain depth as the series goes on, and I really came for the world-building, which did not disappoint.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire

Another audio book, because I had a terrible cold and a lot of crafting to do for Christmas. This is the sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, which introduced us to the ghost Rose Marshall. She died on her way to the prom in the 1950’s, and has been roaming the ghost roads ever since. Rose is resourceful, impetuous, and a bit whiny, and I love her unconditionally. This sequel did not go in the direction that I expected. A major plot point isolates her from the truly delightful extended cast that we met in the first book. However, the ground it did tread was fascinating and well-done, and will have profound implications for whatever comes next, so it’s really my own fault if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I shall await the third installment (I assume there will be a third installment?) with baited breath.

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland

This is a story about the power of stories, which gives it an unfair advantage in winning my heart. The main character and delightfully unreliable narrator is Chant, a traveling storyteller who has been accused of a variety of crimes that he is pretty sure he never committed. He’s kind of an asshole, yet thanks to Rowland’s writing, he’s just likable enough to be an enjoyable companion. Chant is an unusual narrator, in that he is in jail for the entire book, so a lot of the bigger world events are told second and even third hand, as he summarizes thing that he learns things from his visitors and even his jailers. Despite that, he manages to have an active impact on the larger plot, through the stories he tells, and his ability to improvise. Highly recommended for anyone who believes in the power of stories, or who enjoys a rascally first person point-of-view.

The Descent of Monsters, by J.Y. Yang

The third novella in the Tensorate series is a bit of a departure from the previous two (which you definitely need to read before this one). Most of the characters we’ve met before are only tangentially involved, and the story is told mostly through correspondence and journal entries. That’s a story telling device that I generally love, but I guess it did not fulfill my expectations, based on the prior stories. Still, it’s an interesting story that reveals more information about the world, and that’s not nothing. This is the only fantasy series that has ever made me long for more background information then it gives me. The world is amazing, but details are only made explicit when they are in service to the plot (a necessary bit of restraint when writing novellas!), which means that I have lots of unanswered questions. While this installment might not have given me the characters I wanted, it did give me new information about the world, and for that I am deeply grateful.

I hope you are all taking a moment to rest up in preparation for the new year. Take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you in 2019!