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Iron Cast

3/5. Boston on the brink of prohibition. Two girls – one black, one white, one the poor daughter of immigrants, one the daughter of wealthy socialites, one an empath through her music, the other able to bend reality with poetry – exercise their powers for good and for profit as the political tides turn against them.

I liked this. And, unusually, I liked it more the more I thought about it. I did spend the first third grumbling to myself about why this wasn't the queer romance it so clearly should be, but ultimately both of the male love interests turned out to be acceptable. Well . . . 1.5 of the love interests turned out to be acceptable.

This is jazzy and a bit flimsy to start, with more speakeasy! Gangster! Atmosphere than, you know, actual book. But it grows and turns and deepens as our heroines start to question themselves and the things they do. I mean, it could have deepened a lot more – for a book partly about bigotry, this one comes down awfully hard on the personal responsibility side of the scales, without giving adequate shrift to the role being the object of discrimination plays in a person's choices. But. I liked this.

Content notes: Some frankly disturbing depictions of institutionalization, medical torture, medical experimentation, etc.
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Kinda Like Brothers

3/5. It's all well and good for our protagonist's mom to take in foster babies. But the most recent baby comes with the baggage of an older brother, and that just doesn't work for our protag thank you very much.

I think this was a disabilityinkidlit rec? It had to be a rec from somewhere because I don't pick non-specfic YA lit without a prompt these days. But this is great. Well, okay, it's cringily great. Our protagonist is terribly eleven – he's convinced everything is criminally unfair and he's a little shit roughly 90% of the time, with the other 10% being overwhelming sweetness. And he's eleven, and this book is super honest, so there's enough social embarrassment going on here to make me use my one-minute audio skip button more than once.

But really, it's great, particularly if you have a thicker skin than I do. Non-traditional families of all sorts, relationships that don't fit a tidy box, complicated adults doing their best. And there's a lot in here about being a community of color, from the overt – a totally wrenching scene in which an older man teaches a roomful of pubescent black boys how to act when they are stopped by the cops because it might save their lives one day – to the more subtle work embedded in the unfolding of everyone's backstories. I'd definitely buy this for a kid.

P.s. The commercial audio is A+++. John Clarence Stewart is hilarious and pissy and sad and just perfect.
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If Then

2/5. Post economic collapse. A small community lives under the rule of The Process, an algorithm programmed to run their lives to maximize fairness and happiness. Then there's a lot of brain implants and philosophical arguments and violently awful World War I battle simulations, and it's all weird as hell.

The best book that I've viscerally disliked in quite a while. It is good – there's all sorts of chewiness to this. Pieces that you can keep turning and turning after reading. I could go on about self-determination and collective violence and collective inaction and whatever.

But. But I didn't like it's smug omniscient slant. And I really didn't like the way my back had tensed up by the 20% mark. I'm not sure I can put my finger on all the subliminal cues I was picking up, but I was just waiting for a steaming pot of misogyny right to the face. Which didn't quite happen – in so many words – except. You know when a dude writes a woman thinking about sex, and it is just so incredibly a dude writing a woman thinking about sex? Like, you can spot the dude component of that from space? Yeah.

Basically, I felt totally vindicated when I discovered, around the 75% mark, that the author is the sort who will publicly complain about a review of his book that he doesn't like. Which is just. Never ever ever a good look. Particularly when the reviewer is a woman who called out some potential misogyny.
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The Naming

3/5. Epic fantasy. Young girl is rescued from slavery and turns out to not only be magical but also the key to defeating the rising dark.

Things this book has:
• Original poetry by the author as epigraphs
• An interest in tracking when the heroine gets her period
• Swords with names
• Evil people whose evil is marked by their gender politics
• A prophecy.

And I liked it? IDK, here I was just speculating that I can't read epic fantasy anymore, and along comes this, so straight-faced, so Lord of the Rings with menstruation, so thematically significant weather and loving descriptions of the stones in everyone's magical rings, and I liked it.

Also published as The Gift
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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

4/5. Middle grade novel prequel to the popular comic. My wife loves the comic but hasn't read this. Below is a rough transcript of my commentary to her:

Ahaha, Squirrel Girl has just happened to a bunch of LARPers. . . . Aw, her parents are adorable. So supportive! They remind me of your parents when you came out*. . . . Aw, her deaf new best friend is crabby and adorable. . . . For the record, the villain's name is The Micromanager, just so you know. . . . Aw, she is adorable. . . . Oh now she's chatting with a bad guy about his poor life choices and how he really should be wearing a seatbelt when he's driving like that. . . . Ahahaha, she is texting with The Winter Soldier. Oh, now she's texting with Tony Stark about how she needs help from someone smart and resourceful, and she asked him for Bruce Banner's number, I'm dying, I'm dead. Ahaha she is trash-talking and her trash talk is that the villain "is going downtown without a bus pass."

There was also a longer conversation in there about how it seems that Squirrel Girl exists in a different genre than most of the other people around her. It's actually really interesting – the closer a person gets to her like her parents or her bestie, the more they become realized in Squirrel Girl's genre. That is, aggressively, unstoppably cheerful with a streak of zany. Whereas people in the background – like the mean girls at school – exist in a more typical high school novel whose rules Squirrel Girl doesn't so much ignore as just never notice. My wife says the comic has a similar function in the wider comics universe – Squirrel Girl is a streak of off-beat color in a grimdark sea. And that's the joke. And the not joke.

I loved this.

*She came out when she went home over her first winter break in college and when she got back to her dorm there were congratulations flowers waiting for her. How cute is that?
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Borderline

3/5. Millie, a double amputee, is recruited out of the psych facility where she is being treated in order to work for the organization monitoring the flow of fairies into Los Angeles.

This surprised and challenged me in a good way. For one thing, when you have a lot of friends with disabilities, as I do, you can't help but notice how often disability abhors a vacuum. It brings friends. And, yeah, no shit living in this world with a physical disability can precipitate a psychological disability, too. In Millie's case it's the other way around – her injuries are the result of a failed suicide attempt – but people don't like to write about multiple disability. It's "too much." But reading about Millie felt very familiar to me, particularly how the Nexis of oppression for her could shift from the physical to the psychological depending on the circumstances. I know this girl. I've known this girl a lot. She's had a hard life, every version of her. Her narrator voice does have an unpleasant tendency to 'splain Borderline Personality Disorder in such sweeping terms that she seems to reduce herself to her diagnosis, but it's in the service of explaining a lot of the things she does to readers who would mostly really not understand her, otherwise.

The challenging part is, well. Confronting my own internalized ableism as I read about Millie and screamed internally at her a lot and just wanted her to get her shit together, oh my god woman. But she can't. That's the point. And that was hard for me, whose presentation to the able-bodied world depends so heavily on having my shit together epically. I'm working on it.

Anyway. It's a good, surprising urban fantasy. The plot sort of runs on rails and you can, like, see where the author was working through her index cards or whatever, but it's good. And there's something rich to this world, to the link between fairy and the inspiration of creative work in Los Angeles. I will be interested to see where this goes.
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Infomocracy

3/5. A scifi thriller about a messily contested election in a future "microdemocracy," where the units of government are one hundred thousand person "centenals," each of which can vote in its own government – corporate, idealist, religious, policy-based, environmentalist, whatever. The supermajority is up for grabs, and the "neutral" information organization that makes the whole system run just wants to keep it standing.

More thriller than scifi. The world-building is both great and not – I kept going Okay, but… over things, but to be fair, if you take several steps back, you really ought to go okay, but… over our current concept of nation state nationalism too, so. And bits of this did make me snort painfully. Like how you can lead a citizen to information, but you can't make him think. But it's mostly a thriller with thriller problems: the women are compulsively sexualized, the male lead is a dull doof, there are weird and gratuitously pointless action sequences in evening gowns, you know the sort of thing. I think Ada Palmer's micro non-democracy in Too Like the Lightning is going similar places, and that's a much better book.

But. It did finish with this, as two of our main characters, both political operatives of different sorts, tiredly contemplate their post-election futures, and maybe, just maybe, leaving politics.


"You really think you could live like that?" Mishima is trying to imagine what it would take to slow her pulse down, how it would feel. She imagines the problematic mountain range of her psyche smoothing into a gentle, dull plane, the colors overlapping into blah. Even if she survived like that, even if she liked it, she can't imagine it would last. There would be an emergency somewhere, someone would call her, offer her payment and per diem, tell her she's the only one who can help, and that would be it.


Shut up, I thought savagely. You don't know me.
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Signal to Noise

2/5. In 2009, Meche goes home to Mexico City upon her father's death. In 1988, Meche and her friends discovered that she could do magic with her father's record collection.

Oh man, I so wish I could recommend this, because parts of it are really good – the portrayal of several different and contrasting kinds of poverty, for one. But the structure here so completely did not work, I feel like it should be an example in someone's class. The 1988 story is tense and mean; Meche's parents' marriage is imploding, and her friend group is splintering around teenage hormones and bad decisions, and the magic takes Meche to some pretty dark places. She does things – everyone does things – that are scary and awful (I actually kind of hoped at one point that the twist of this book would be that it was Meche's villain origin story). And the 2009 story moves in the opposite direction, to a slow kind of grace and forgiveness. Except that turn to hope at the end is structurally placed right along side the destruction at the end of the 1988 strand and it just . . . nope. It does not work. The two strands slide off each other, and the gulf of years in between is a blank. Could it have worked? Oh yeah. It could have been good, too. But it doesn't, and I was so frustrated by the structure that it dulled the enjoyment of so many of the small vignettes in this book, and the love of music.
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The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

4/5. A strange, rather inexplicable short short novel about a trade caravan passing through a jungle where, if you leave the path, you could end up in another time or another universe.

Which is only the palest description of this weird, frustrating book. It's a queer love story whose queerness is part in gender, part in the alienness of the protagonists with their "godlike" heritage. It's an exercise in code-switching from the trappings of epic fantasy to a very specific kind of scientific discourse to a range of equally specific dialects, most particularly African-American slang. It's playful and deliberately dislocating – there's this great joke that Wilson plays where the reader is caught out with all of their startled attention on the word "nigga" in a sentence, while the narrative lays attention on a completely different word. It plays games like that with language and the code-switching, and it is beautiful and playful and interesting.

Reviewers have said this is a novella questioning the underpinnings of traditional fantasy – its whiteness in a linguistic and cultural sense. I think that's right, but I also think there's a broader genre playfulness going on here. If you go off the path, who knows where you could end up, and this book goes way off the path.

And it ends ambiguously in exactly the way that I hate, but I'll let it go this time because this was otherwise such a unique trip.
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The Invisible Library

3/5. Irene works for a transdimensional library, which tasks her with retrieving a unique manuscript from a steampunk Britain with magic and fae and a Sherlock Holmes analog.

I liked this! I needed something uncomplicated – protip: don't read Illuminae when you are having a bad month – and this hit the spot. Bonus points for a protagonist who is some kind of queer, as yet unspecified; minus points for doing a lot of telling about the development of an unlikely friendship and not enough showing. But more bonus points for the actually terrible villain; minus points for the really really obvious setup for a later reveal which is going to be deeply wearisome Spoiler )no idea so mysterious gosh.
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Illuminae

3/5. Is anyone else old enough to remember the documentation challenge from SGA Flashfic way back in the day? That's what this is. A story of two teenagers, who happen to be exes, who survive the destruction of their illegal colony and flee the planet with the evil corporate ships chasing them, but then the zombie plague starts running through their ships like wildfire. Except this is told entirely in documents – interview transcripts, chatlogs, various military files, intelligence summaries, AI data, etc.

This is about 80% extremely effective space horror/fight-for-your-life and about 20% facepalmy teenager terribleness. I do, however, want to pause to say that the commercial audio of this is excellent. It's a multi-voice production, with people playing parts so the chat logs sound like conversations. But the real power of the production is in a few, tiny sections, put in purely for the emotional impact. Like the excerpts from a casualty list near the beginning, or fragments of the messages a couple dozen people we never actually meet send out into the dark when they know they are about to die. The audio bleeds one voice into the next for the reading, so it's just this wall of – yeah. It works.

Much of the book works. It's awful and scary and grim as our heroine begins to suspect she is being lied to, and the plague heats up, and the ship AI starts to go . . . a little weird. But it's sprinkled through with such poor choices. Like blurring out the profanity – it's supposed to be an ironic commentary on the blah blah blah. It's mostly just irritating. And the teenagers are so cringily teenagers. Like, I kept telling myself it was good writing that they're so melodramatic and emo and ridic, but that didn't mean I rolled my eyes any less.

Still. This book got me in the end. The last quarter is so … harrowing is the only word I have. This is what young adult is allowed to be now, after Hunger Games. I do think that massive spoilers for the end )
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The Memory Garden

3/5. In her late seventies, Nan orchestrates a reunion with her childhood friends. They have ghosts that need to be put to rest, and there are things Nan's daughter needs to know.

A deceptive book. I was impatient with the first third. Yes yes, I thought, they have dark secrets, their friend died under mysterious circumstances, Nan and her daughter both have a magical power, the garden is a symbol, yes. And all of those things are true, but none of them are quite what I expected. Yes, they have secrets, but they're much more complicated than the mere facts of what happened. And yes there are witches in this book, and they have a certain power, but the place where that power most readily intersects with the world is in supplying access to abortions. And yes, the garden is a symbol.

This book complexified and ramified as it went, and swerved into weird and back out into domestic, and over the other direction into scary, and then back to a quiet bittersweetness. It is exactly what I guessed it to be when I was impatient with it, but much more interesting and quietly rich. Lovely.

Content note: spoilers )
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When Genius Failed

3/5. Financial history. Story of the bond arbitrage hedge fund that rose – and rose and rose and rose – in the mid-90's, only to collapse spectacularly, over-leveraged, nearly taking the rest of the financial system with it.

Totally infuriating. And here I was hoping for some dry, soothing nonfiction. This is dry, and it isn't very good at explaining the financial instruments underlying the activity here, but boy. *Grinds teeth*. I know a lot of hedge fund guys – they're all guys, BTW, I mean that literally – and this book captures their arrogance, their secretiveness, their obsession with financial dick-measuring, their maniacal focus on making more more more money for no other reason than to have it.

Mostly, though, it's really hard to swallow that people continue to believe in rational markets, continue to teach that economic model, continue to trade on that basis. I mean, these traders watched their model go down in flames, then immediately turned around and said, "well, it was a hundred year flood, that's different, we were just unlucky, let's start again." Yeah bros. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the University of Chicago being full of crap.
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Everfair

2/5. Alt history turn of the twentieth century story of a nation state founded in the Belgian Congo by a mixed bag of black and white socialists and proselytizers, and how they aim for "utopia" and . . . miss.

Yeah, it's inadequate to say that this book did not get my attention. More accurately, this is the book I read on the cross-country flight I took a week after the Inauguration in spite of the metaphorical trashfire in my work inbox out to see my parents, from whom I have been estranged for years, and specifically to say goodbye to my father, who went from having a bit of pain to being told he is dying in the course of a week. So like. There's some stuff going on.

This book is okay? I think? It's not to my taste – it is written in hundreds of tiny fragments loosely strung over thirty years. Not so much a tapestry as a bunch of carefully placed but unwoven pieces of thread. The fantasy elements are strange and, as they are rooted in religious practice and conflict, somewhat off-putting to me. Oh, and there's a long, painful central lesbian romance between AU E. Nesbit and AU Colette which would probably have meant more to me if I knew anything about either of them. I wanted to like their conflict over not!E. Nesbit's racism, but I found its resolution unsatisfactory.

Basically I described this book to my wife, who got more and more excited the more I complained about the bits I didn't get, so clearly there is an audience for this who is not me. But mostly, let's be fair: I read this two weeks ago and for the life of me can't clearly remember a damn thing that happened in it now, so. Don't take my word on anything.
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Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

3/5. Sweet young adult about the princess born with a clubfoot who goes on the run with her handmaiden and an apprentice dragonslayer after her cousin tries to take control of her tiny holdings.

Perfectly middle grade, which means pitched just right for the age range and a little too simple for my complete enjoyment. And I object a little bit to the heroine's journey in this. She is ready to give up her kingdom because so many of her subjects dislike her disability and treat her badly because of it, and the book takes her on a journey to discover that she was wrong and some of them really do love her anyway. And I just . . . I'm not really interested in these (extremely popular) narratives. I mean, if a person with disabilities perceives ableism in her community and is harmed by it, I don't think she's the one who needs to go on a journey of self-discovery, you know?

But this book surprised me in the last third. Dragons lurk throughout its pages, alternately frightening and pathetic, but I wasn't sure what the dragons were really for. Then they were for something, and that something was a metaphor about feminism and power and anger and restraint. Nice landing, is what I mean.
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Serpentine by Cindy Pon

2/5. YA about the sixteen-year-old foundling girl serving as handmaiden in a wealthy household, except whoops she's half serpent demon.

Dislike. I should have liked this – it's an Asian setting rather than medieval europe, there's a secondary lesbian romance subplot! – but I just . . . didn't. But it's the sort of dislike where I sighed a lot in boredom and kept asking questions about the paper thin worldbuilding, and not the sort that would, say, make me not want teenage girls to read this.
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Shadowed Summer

3/5. Fourteen-year-old girl in a tiny Louisiana town accidentally calls up the spirit of a young man who went missing years ago, and she and her friends set out to find out what happened to him.

Slim and quick young adult, notable for a beautiful sense of place. Not just tiny town, not just Louisiana, but also summer as a place. And fourteen as a place; on the brink of sexuality and not particularly thrilled about it. There's a not really love triangle that's zero fun for anybody – our uninterested narrator and her boy crazy best friend and the boy who may like the wrong one of them – and the book is about how hard all of that is, and how to stay friends through it.

Also notable for actually startling/frightening me. The blurb made it sound like a gentle ghost story, but this ghost is not gentle. This ghost is angry.
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Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind

4/5. A three-strand narrative. A young woman in the fourteenth-century learns to paint from her artist father and is sent to a convent. In 2015, a girl goes with her artist father to China on a business trip while mourning her mother and working on her own art – hand-sewed jean jackets. In the twenty-second century, a young woman returns to the parthenogenic household she shares with her sister to take a job at a restitution institution, whose goal is to resurrect the reputations of women artists unfairly suppressed by history.

So I spent the first half of this book a bit bored and confused by it. Someone – I was pretty sure – had told me it was brilliant, but maybe I was misremembering? This writing was so plain, these scenes so straight-faced, these threads so disconnected.

Then a switch flipped and I sat up and said "Oh, it is brilliant."

It is. There is such a complex, folded structure underneath all that simplicity. About women's art and women's work and women's spaces – the convent, the cloistered partho household where multiple generations of women bear children without men's input. It all lines up not directly, but at unexpected angles, creating strange intersections of thought. And these three women, spaced over eight hundred years, are positioned to tell us with the shape of their lives about a change in women's places and spaces over time. It is far from a triumphalist story of women's liberation, but also not quite 'the more things change the more they stay the same.' But something complicated in between.

And over it all, this book is about the mind sliding off women's work and women's art. Dismissing it, downplaying it, ascribing it to men, contextualizing it by men. And to do this, the book's mind slides off women's work, too, in a way. A deliberate, telling way. This incredibly plain writing is so subtle, I very nearly missed it entirely.
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Catalyst

2/5. Star Wars. Prequel to Rogue One with the backstory of Jyn's parents. Given to me by my wife because it was described as "more philosophical" Star Wars, which, yikes. This is supposed to be about having your work and your talents suborned to a cause you oppose. In actuality, it is about Orson Krennic, galactic creeper and sufferer of Tiny Dick Syndrome. He spends this entire book obsessed with Galen Erso, jealous of his intelligence, plotting to control him and, eventually, to kill his wife and kid. I mean that's . . . pretty accurate? But zero fun to read. Also, this whole thing is so clumsy – and Galen Erso is so mountainously stupid – that by the end I was glad that Rogue One spoilers ).
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Radiance

3/5. An indescribably complicated and wonderfully weird palimpsest novel. In an alt history twentieth-century where the pulp scifi vision of the solar system as entirely habitable by humans is true, a documentarian has gone missing while filming on site of a vanished village on Venus. The backbone of the book is the movie her famous director father makes, and scraps, and remakes, and scraps, and remakes about her disappearance, each iteration in a different genre mode. On that skeleton are hung nonlinear fragments of script from both their movies, transcripts of their family movies, letters, diaries, etc. etc. It's about space whales and metaphors and layered stories, and it is great.

And I am a crank who has a hard time getting into this sort of metafiction, so I can appreciate that it's brilliant but also not feel it, you know? It is brilliant, though, and the more I think about it the more convinced of it I am. Some of you guys are going to go bananas over this. If a book that can reasonably be described as "decopunk" appeals to you, you probably know who you are.

Unrelated note: Thus endeth the 2016 reading. As mentioned before, I am going to spend 2017 reading only authors I have not read before. I am excited!

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