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Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

4/5. I backed this collection on Kickstarter and got an early release copy. Took me a while to get through it, though, so it seems to be out now.

The introduction to this collection specifically notes it is not intended to be a full survey. Which it isn't, and shouldn't be. It's just unfortunate that – and I knew this going in – the Vandermeers and I have very different tastes. They really like the Weird and the surreal, and I often don't. I spent the full first third of this collection sighing a lot in boredom and complaining to my wife about stories whose entire purpose is to turn women into thematically significant animals or objects. You know the sort of thing. It's not my thing. Those of you who do enjoy it, I wish you well of it.

Anyway, I still enjoyed this, and do recommend it. This introduced me to a lot of authors I was only peripherally aware of before, and made me think. Some brief story notes on a few pieces that jump out as I look back.

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Sur" – One of my favorites. Tale of the women who were secretly first to reach the South Pole. Beautiful and restrained and warm and cold at the same time.

Susan Palwick, "Gestella" – This story of a werewolf aging at a different rate than her (misogynist) husband was the most viscerally upsetting in the whole collection, to my mind. I almost didn't read the last page, but ultimately made myself. I owed it to the protagonist.

Nalo Hopkinson, "The Glass Bottle Trick" – A Bluebeard story, told, frighteningly, from within his home.

Joanna Russ, "When It Changed" – Another version of 'men arriving into a society of all women.' And a good one. Not particularly subtle, but the thing is it needed to be unsubtle, because the patriarchal assumptions it is pushing against are too pervasive for many readers to see around without a lot of help.

Octavia E. Butler, "The Evening the Morning and the Night" – Hm. I had a lot of issues with this story of living with impending disability, and ultimately I shook my head over it. But I was engaged, I'll give it that.

Hiromi Goto, "Tales from the Breast" – One of the few Weird stories that really worked for me. Hallucinatory and disturbing story of post delivery and breastfeeding.

Carol Emschwiller, "Boys" – Hm. Sort of interesting (post apocalyptic? Unclear) story of a gender-separated society, that gets less interesting the more I think about it, because the more I think about it the more I realize the story doesn't work unless you base it on a lot of gender essentialist assumptions before the first word was in place. Which might have been part of her point. Or not. Also unclear.
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Get in Trouble: Stories

4/5. Specfic short stories. The first time I read Kelly Link years ago, I found her fuckin' weird to the point of incomprehensibility, and I liked it. Now I read her and I find her fuckin' weird just barely to the point of comprehensibility, and it's still great. I don't know if she changed her style or I became a more complex reader – both, probably – but it's still working for me.

One of the stories in this collection, "I Can See Right Through You," is available to read online. It's not my favorite from the collection, but it gives an entirely accurate sense of what she does and how: pop cultural commentary that almost fools you by pretending to be obvious, until you think about it a little bit and go wait . . . what the fuck? You can also read the opening story "The Summer People" online. I kept trying to reduce this story to a class metaphor, because yeah, it's totally doing that, but let's be real, that's the least of what it's doing.

My favorite story in this collection isn't available online, unfortunately. That would be "Secret Identity," the story of a teenaged girl at a hotel where a superhero convention and a dentist convention are taking place. She's there to meet her internet boyfriend, who thinks she's in her thirties. I'm making this sound tiresome, but it's actually about refrigerators and sidekicks and users and dentists and it's freakin amazing, okay.

And then there's "Origin Story," the one about the woman meeting her superhero boyfriend in an old theme park, and "Light," about the woman with a twin born out of her shadow and pocket universes and mystery sleepers and hurricanes, and and and.
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Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories (Abhorsen)Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Collection. Hrm. Turns out Nix is one of those authors who I like more at greater length. The Abhorsen novella that starts this collection was the highlight for me: it had all the creepiness and mounting pressure and young people being brave with difficulty that I like from him. The rest of the collection was hit or miss, and it really seemed like the shorter the piece, the more scattered or unclever (or, in one case, quite sexist) I found it.

I'm only writing it up at all to ask whether I should be reading this days of the week series of his? It looks a bit younger than the Abhorsen books -- yay or nay?



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Labor Day: Birth Stories for the Twenty-first Century: Thirty Artful, Unvarnished, Hilarious, Harrowing, Totally True TalesLabor Day: Birth Stories for the Twenty-first Century: Thirty Artful, Unvarnished, Hilarious, Harrowing, Totally True Tales by Eleanor Henderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


For context, I should note that my response to this collection probably has a lot to do with the fact that I read two-thirds of it while repeatedly slamming my head into the emotional brick wall that is a stubborn breech baby. So in one respect, this collection was helpful because pretty much any group of birth stories, in the aggregate, will be all about how this shit doesn't go to plan. It just doesn't. It is peripherally comforting to remember that, as one's plans crumble around one's ears.

On the other hand. This is a collection of stories of singleton births and twin births; births in the hospital, at home, the birth center, the car; births after miscarriage; births after infertility; births of well babies and sick babies and at least one dead baby; complicated births and easy births; medically mismanaged births; traumatic births; beautiful births. That sounds like it covers a lot of ground, and it does. But for all that, there's a . . . sameness here. And I don't mean that this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of America's gestators. More like this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of well-educated, well-informed, married, intentionally pregnant women writers of New York Times notable books who seek out midwifery care and who have caesarians at a noticeably lower rate than the norm, which is to be expected as an artifact of economic/access privilege. I mean, some of that describes me, too, and yet this collection didn't truly speak to me, didn't reach me while I'm wrestling with this thing that is happening to me, which it should have.

I don't know. Maybe it's not the fault of this book. Maybe it isn't just that the experiences of women who write New York Times notable books (most of which I suspect I would loathe – the books, not the women) are so similar in essence, even while being different in facts. Maybe it's birth stories themselves. Maybe they are like relating a dream: so personal and vital to the teller, but rather strange and impenetrable to the listener, because that's just how it is with an experience so profound.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe this memo from the universe I am taking right now -- let go, you are not in charge here, there is no amount of smart that will fix this, let go -- maybe I still need to hear it a few dozen more times before I can hear anything else.




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Some Remarks: Essays and Other WritingSome Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Neal Stephenson existed to me entirely through his novels before, since he doesn't have any of the modern authorial infrastructure – no twitter, no blog, no Goodreads, etc. And apparently I had come to a number of conclusions about him based entirely on his books, which is one of those things we like to pretend we don't do, but, I mean, come on. I figured this out when I was trudging through the opening salvos of this book and thought, ug, what a fucking asshole, with a complete lack of surprise. So I ran an informal poll of some of my friends who have also read and greatly enjoyed his books (all women, come to think of it) along the not at all respondent-biasing lines of "Neal Stephenson, gut check, asshole or not asshole?" and got 100% "asshole" back without hesitation. Yeah. We all do it. It's just funny when we come to the same conclusion.

Anyway, this was really rocky. I dug the fiction, because even when he's writing about stuff I'm tired of hearing about (monetary systems) he's just so damn snappy and hilarious. And the (excerpts?) from the long piece on the fiendishly mad engineering endeavor of laying transoceanic cables were fascinating.

But the shorter nonfiction pieces. Save me. In the intro he puts an "I own this" stamp on everything by explaining it's a curated collection, it's the stuff he basically still stands by. So okay. He stands by the reductionist and defensive and obnoxious commentary on geek culture. I could write 500 more words on this, but suffice it to say he uses a lot of "we geeks all know" and "we geeks all feel," type of rhetorical gestures, and I? Yeah, I'm a queer disabled geek and I am really, really not in his "we all." And he stands by the way he never met a criticism rooted in the portrayal of people of color (or the lack thereof) in art that he actually understood and didn't have something snide to say about. And he stands by all the rhetorical us versus them cultural game-playing and the lecturing and the general obnoxiousness laid thick enough to make me want to argue with him when I totally agreed with something he was saying.

So basically I will never ever read his nonfiction again, and on the bizarre chance he ever gets a twitter, I'm blocking it instantly. But the fiction and I will still probably get on like gangbusters.




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A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter FictionA Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Pratchett completists should jump on this, but otherwise I think I'd be irritated to pay full hardcover or audio price for a collection with so much juvenilia and so many punchline stories. I mean, his drabbles and short shorts and poems are often quite good – "They don't teach you about death, your mom and dad. They give you pets," – but still. Oh, and the A.S. Byatt introduction is awful, because apparently she can be judgmental and dismissive of genre fiction while she's talking about genre fiction that she likes, but what the fuck ever, A.S. Byatt, you just keep chewing those snotty sour grapes. A few scattered thoughts:

"The Sea and Little Fishes" – A Discworld story of Granny Weatherwax, and what it's like to be very very good but not very nice. I, uh. I might have identified with this a leeeettle bit. One of the standouts.

"The Hades Business" – Apparently written at the age of 13, and my God, it doesn't show. Well, I mean, it does in the prose, and in the ideas when put to scale of his full range of work, but honestly, he was so clearly already himself at that age, it's a little eerie.

"# ifdef DEBUG "+ "world/enough" + "time" – Life and death and virtual reality. Dated, sweet, apparently adored by the masses. But it made me very uncomfortable in some subliminal gender related ways, and that feeling has only worsened with thought.

"The High Meggas" – A 1986 short story that later became The Long Earth. Dimension hopping across alternate earths with bonus survivalist and truth dilemma. It did make me want to read the novel, largely because it's such a fertile concept. Most notable for being maybe the tenth time in this collection Pratchett says something should have been/wanted to be/eventually was a novel, which is apparently his form of choice. If you couldn't tell. And knowing that . . . I honestly wish a few of his books were short stories now.




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Manhattan in ReverseManhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This collection and I got along fine for the first 80%. I picked it up because it seemed like an easier way to try Hamilton without commiting to one of his doorstops. This was a mistake, since most of the collection is tie-ins to his cifi universes, and without that knowledge they're pretty limp. I did like "Watching Trees Grow," the one about the alt universe Roman semi-immortal who uses progressive technology to solve a troubling murder over the course of several centuries. Cool, if obvious, meditation on truth and technology.

And then we hit "Manhattan in Reverse," the last story. And, oh God. You guys. It is so bad. So creepingly, gapingly bad that I didn't even notice until halfway through, and then I went wait . . . what the fuck?

See, it's supposed to be a future reimagining of an old historical racial wrong. Except Hamilton needs to never ever try something like that again, because it is so clumsy and so badly thought out that what you get is a metaphor that collapses into offensive mush if you think about it with any critical faculty, and a topcoat of White Man's Burden to boot. This is a story that, blatantly but I can only assume unintentionally, draws a direct comparison between the white settlers cheating the native inhabitants of Manhattan out of their island and then forcing them out to what happens to a pre-intelligent and unevolved species when a more intelligent species comes a long and messes with it. For serious. I read that bit four times going wait, he couldn't have . . . no. No, he really just did.

Is Hamilton prone to this sort of tragic overestimation of his ability to tackle complex issues? Translation: should I bother with one of the doorstops?




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Dark and Stormy KnightsDark and Stormy Knights by P.N. Elrod

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Anthologies, you know. It’s like asking people to throw random things at your head and hoping they pick cotton balls instead of rocks.



The good



Rachel Caine, “Even a Rabbit Will Bite” – A surprise standout. I’m not a Rachel Caine fan (hello, deliberate impregnation without consent plotline in her series, unclean unclean!) but this really worked. Very ancient dragonslayer teaches the trade to her apprentice. There’s just one dragon left in the world now, and only on the brink of extinction can you ask if this should ever have happened. Nothing hugely surprising, but one of the most balanced, layered stories here.



Jim Butcher, “Even Hand” – Oh Jim Butcher, how are you so charming while still being . . . you? A mystery for the ages. Harry Dresden is Sir Not Appearing in this story, except for how when a story is about John Marcone, it’s really all about Harry Dresden anyway.



Ilona Andrews, “A Questionable Client” – A long night’s slugfest of bodyguard work, enlivened by some interesting worldbuilding and a nice ending. No real there there, but lots of color.



The bad



Deirdre Knight, “Beknighted” – How am I supposed to take an author seriously when she says “preciseness” instead of “precision?” Also, the story is a floridly overwritten bit of nonsense that is supposed to be romantic and atmospheric but . . . isn’t.



Shannon K. Butcher, “The Beacon” – A story about a guy who shoots people before they can unknowingly pull demons across the void to kill everyone. Except one day, it’s a little girl, and you know shooting those old people, that was okay, but this is just not on, and also the girl’s mother is hot. The story isn’t great, but I hated it more than it deserved for its inept attempt at depth.



Vicki Pettersson, “Shifting Star” – It’s so awkward when you automatically assume the sexually harassing neighbor dude who can’t take no for an answer is one of the bad guys, only to discover he’s supposed to be the hero. Always an awkward cocktail party moment! Add in the bit where the heroine fucks with his memory and then makes out with him, and I pretty much had to scrub my brain out after reading this. But I think we already knew Vicki Pettersson’s sexual politics were this bad.



The indifferent



Carrie Vaughn, “God’s Creatures” – Unexceptional story about a werewolf hunt that does the whole “who’s the real monster here?” routine. Been there, done that.



Lilith Saintcrow, “Rookwood and Mrs. King” – Vampire detective gets hired to kill a woman’s undead husband, and then she pwns him all over the place. Vaguely entertaining.



P. N. Elrod, “Dark Lady” – Chicago, vampires, mob, etc. Fun, but not something I’ll remember two weeks from now.





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Pump Six and Other Stories Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Specfic collection, with a tilt towards smart, scary near-future dystopias. People keep comparing him to Ted Chiang. It's accurate in that they're both really good short storyists, but Bacigalupi is doing fundamentally different things than Chiang does. These stories stress-test individual pieces of what we think of as our normal infrastructure – safe drinking water, reproduction, renewable food sources. A few selections, with links to the stories where available online. I recommend the whole collection, though.

"Pop Squad." The problem with immortality is that you really wouldn't want new babies, would you? The one that's sticking with me the most right now. Ouch.

"The Calorie Man," and "Yellow Card Man." Two stories in the same universe, but different hemispheres. When food monocultures are intellectual property, and calories are contraband. Wow. Read them both here.

"The People of Sand and Slag." A different dystopic take on what it would be like if we were all immortal. This freaked me right out. It's prototypical of the collection: beautifully written and effective in its transparent manipulativeness. Read it here.

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Eclipse 2: New Science Fiction and Fantasy Eclipse 2: New Science Fiction and Fantasy by Jonathan Strahan


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Stories Jonathan Strahan likes round two: more scifi, fewer women. I picked through this over several months, so random impressions from stories actually interesting enough to remember:

Ted Chiang, "Exhalation": The reason I picked up the collection, and totally worth it. Classic Chiang, if a bit didactic in that way he can pull off. I won't bother trying to describe it, because it's available here and you should all go read it.

Stephen Baxter, "Turing's Apples." Classic Baxter: interesting Big Idea, terrible character work, that perpetual feeling that the sentence after next is going to really annoy me.

Peter S. Beagle, "The Rabbi's Hobby." I think I'm missing the Beagle gene or something. I can look at this ghost story and think about all the good atmosphere and character work, and yet? Meh. Nothing happens.

Paul Cornell, "Michael Lorits is: Drowning." Not really a story, about the future of social networking. Well-executed and entertaining.

Tony Daniel, "Ex Cathedra." Swear to God, I can't tell if this story about the end of the universe is great or utter nonsense. I think it's great.

Terry Dowling, "Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose." Maybe this would have been interesting if I knew the surrounding universe? *shrug*

Nancy Kress, "Elevator." People in a hospital locked in an elevator, with one of the worst and most idiotic disability clichés front and center. Yuck.

Alastair Reynolds, "Fury." Strangely disappointing and obvious story about robot brothers and a galactic empire. I expect better from him.

Ken Scholes, "Invisible Empire of Ascending Light." A premise that really grabbed me, and an execution that was almost there. Cool politics, cooler world-building that I won't spoil. It made me want to read his fantasy novels.

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The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Collection of stories about British family and the assorted magical exploits of the children. Cheerful and simple, with a charming quotidian feel. Like, "get off the unicorn and come eat your soup," kind of thing. Written over the course of fifty years, and it shows – the stories get more complicated and less 1950's strict gender roles as you go.

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A collection of fantasyish shortish stories . . . ish.

Utter crazycakes fantastico. These pieces feel like dreams in that they work almost entirely underwater, in whacked out right brain metaphor speech. The sort of stories that I finished and went "wuh-waaah?" because I was still working on what had actually just happened. And like dreams, these stories get you in the limbic system, so you're all tense and twisted up and upset and involved in something that doesn't even make conscious sense, but man is it getting at something deep down there in the subconscious well.

I generally don't like this sort of thing, but this was really quite wonderful. In that perturbed dream way where I'm not entirely sure I'd ever want to go back there again.
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Stories of Your Life and Others

I now officially have to STFU about how I don't like short stories. Because that? That was awesome.

Collection of skiffyish pieces from an author whose only serious flaw from where I'm sitting is that he doesn't write enough dammit. If there's a thread binding the set together, it's the way Chiang comes at you every time and asks, "okay, but what would the world be like if we changed this one little rule? Nothing major, you understand -- just cosmology or cause-and-effect or the existence of mathematics. You'll hardly notice. Except when you do."

Standouts for me were, well, all of them, actually, to some degree. But to cherry-pick: "Division by Zero" - risky as all hell, and more than paid off. Math and empathy and sympathy, yeah. "Story of Your Life" - I think I got my brain right way up again, but I'm not sure. "Hell Is the Absence of God" - perfect style, all about suffering. Hell is just there sometimes, but angels are bigger than natural disasters.

They're pretty much all like that, big risks that he just lands over and over again. A few wobbles, like I care right now.

File under: will read everything the man ever writes.
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A collection from the author of Heart-Shaped Box. Some horror, as you would expect, but also just a lot of fiction with a touch of the supernatural.

Damn but that's a good book. I knew for sure during the opening story, "Best New Horror," in which our narrator is an anthology editor who gives us a one-page synopsis of a novella manuscript he receives, and the compressed summary made me forget where I was. Right on through the weird and metafictional "Pop Art" (bad! Pun! Alert!) and the amazing little vignette "Dead-Wood" and the totally inexplicable but fascinating "My Father's Mask." The closing novella, "Voluntary Committal," about a boy with childhood onset Schizophrenia (or possibly not) who can build things that he shouldn't, gathers up everything good about this book. It's tense, rich storytelling, the sort that makes you feel like you have to figure out how to breathe again when you put it down.

It's not all great. This is a book about fathers and sons, if you know what I mean, and there aren't many well-drawn female characters who aren't also victims. Interestingly, though, what this book does have is a fair share of disabled people – Asperger's, Schizophrenia, learning disabilities. And, wonder of wonders, the disability isn't an outer manifestation of evil.

But yeah. Damn.
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A collection from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, cast in a similar scholarly tone, but focused much more specifically on the fairies.

. . . Meh.

Most of these stories are in the world of Jonathan Strange (who himself makes an appearance in the titular story). I liked the novel all right, though it didn’t blow my mind or anything. But the style which is bemusing and engrossing over six hundred pages is remote and rather inaccessible in short form. Clarke’s fairies are also universally vicious, tricky, and unpleasant, which was intriguing and alarming when woven into a larger alternate history but, in isolation, is just unpleasant. See the loathsome narrator in “Mr. Simonelli: or the Fairy Widower.” Perhaps I am something of a backward reader, but I generally require a hook into at least one character I don’t outright hate in order to enjoy a story.

The stories are presented as if in an academic anthology, and the packaging slips over into painfully self-conscious sometimes -- the deprecatory little mention of Jonathan Strange in the scholarly introduction made me roll my eyes. And mostly? I just didn’t care. “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” is a bit of fanfiction set in Gaiman’s Stardust, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I finished it and went, “so what was the point of that?” I said that more than once.

. . . meh.

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