July Books Post: Oh. I guess this is next.

When last I rambled here, I was wondering what I’d do next, now that I was “fully promoted.” That answer came kinda faster than I expected. By way of a position in administration (Associate Dean of the College of Science) becoming vacant with no one to fill it yet, my chair is going to take that position while they search for a permanent Associate Dean (which could be her, as she likely will apply), and I was asked to fill in as Acting Chair of Biology until she comes back.

It was a bit more involved than that, but that’s the short version. As of July 1, I am the Acting Chair, no longer on sabbatical, and no longer “off” for the summer. The chair’s position is 80% year-round, so I am officially on duty 32 hours a week this summer.

So that’s what I’m doing next. I’m not teaching in Fall; instead, I am going to be the chair of my department. It’s a position I thought I’d like to have eventually (was thinking of running when my current chair stepped down), so having about six months to feel it out is almost the best of all worlds right now.

So, yeah. That’s what’s next.

But did I read in June? Yup, I did…

June Reads

I finished three books in June, but one of them I discussed in last month’s post (How Long Til Black Future Month?). So just two to talk about this time. First up: The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory. You may remember Jasmine Guillory from this post, where I talked about her novel The Wedding Date. This book is set in that same “world,” and, as is common in romance novels, features a supporting character from The Wedding Date as one of the leads. In this novel, Nikole Paterson, a Black freelance journalist, is attending a Dodgers game with her white actor boyfriend, who she mostly sees as a fun time, but isn’t planning anything serious with him.

So imagine her surprise and embarrassment when he uses the stadium jumbotron to propose to her. She says no, of course (actually, I’m not sure she says anything at first, and then when he presses her for an answer, obviously it’s gotta be “no”), and then he and his buddies stomp off, and the press is about to arrive…enter Carlos Ibarra, the best friend of the male lead from The Wedding Date. Carlos and his sister bail Nik out of the incipient press feeding frenzy and give her a ride home.

The rest proceeds like many romance novels, but this one has the same strengths as Guillory’s previous work: the female characters are strong women with careers who don’t seem to be waiting around for men to marry, there is actual diversity of characters (Nik is Black, one of her best friends is an Asian lesbian, Carlos is Mexican-American), and the setting is a big city (Los Angeles, in this case). I enjoy the “small town” romances when I’m familiar with the geography in question, but eventually it gets old – once you know everyone in town…anyway.

Romance novels are inherently formulaic, but that’s why we read them. This formula works for me, and I’ll read more of Guillory’s work.

Next up, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. You may already be familiar with this book, which is a pandemic alternate history that was published back in 2015.

Yes. Yet another pandemic novel. I’m a glutton for punishment. This one won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It’s one of those speculative fiction novels that is so highly praised that it can almost pass for a mainstream novel. In fact…I’m pretty sure it’s not shelved with science fiction and fantasy in most bookstores, and Mandel isn’t a genre writer (usually).

The story alternates between the early days of a civilization-ending pandemic, the current time (20 years later), and various points in the life (well pre-pandemic) of a character who dies in the first chapter. This character, Arthur Leander, is a famous film and stage actor who dies onstage during a production of King Lear on the first night of the end of the world. The rest of the story, and all of its major characters, connect to him in some way, and the novel spends much of its time showing you those connections, both in the past and the present (our future).

So…I liked this book, but I didn’t appreciate it the way the mainstream book world did. I think this is because it isn’t really genre fiction. It’s pretty straightforward conventional fiction, with a single genre trope (the alternate reality thing). Thus, it doesn’t “read like” genre fiction. Genre fiction has expectations and specific ways of telling a story, and most conventional fiction authors who try to write genre fiction fail on some level (because they don’t know the genre well enough to “fit in”). This is the case here – it’s a good-enough novel, but it’s not what I expected (and I don’t enjoy conventional fiction nearly as much as science fiction).

Oh and authors in general? Can we please stop with the viruses that are 90% lethal, incredibly transmissible, and kill you in a matter of hours? That’s just not a thing. If something lays you out and kills you within a day of exposure, you’re actually not gonna infect a lot of other people. You’re not getting on a plane, all unknowing, and exposing people without realizing you’re sick. If something could kill you that fast, you would not have a long “infectious but asymptomatic” phase. And if it kills almost everyone it infects, it isn’t long before it dies out. A worldwide pandemic (as we should know by now) results from something that you can be infected with and not know it, or not be all that sick, and/or which doesn’t kill a high percentage of the people who catch it. Covid is very infectious, but not all that lethal, and it takes a while to make you sick once you’re infected, so you can spread it about easily. HIV, another current viral pandemic, isn’t very infectious, and takes a LONG time to make you sick while you spread it, even though it kills pretty much everyone who catches it (without treatment). If you combine super-infectious, fast-to-symptoms-and-death, and high mortality, you get a virus that’s fairly self-limiting.

So stop it.

That said, the characters are well-defined and you care a lot about them, the story is reasonably compelling, and I do recommend it. Just go in with the right expectations.

Okay, that’s it. Right now, I am reading yet another Susan Mallery, but not a romance, and the last of the Kindred series by Nancy Kress. Hopefully I still have time to read with my new gig.

Talk to you in August!

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June Books Post: What’s Next?

The title of this post is more a reference to my life than it is to books. I got promoted to Full Professor this month, which, for those who aren’t immersed in academia, is my last promotion. “Tenure track” faculty start out as “Assistant Professors” without tenure, then after about five years “go up” for tenure. You submit a tenure and promotion dossier, which is basically the story of your life at work since you started, and then you wait for 8 months to find out if you get to keep your job. If you are tenured, you get to stay (pretty much forever, barring criminal activity). If you don’t, you have a year to find another job.

With tenure usually comes promotion to “Associate Professor”. It’s a mid-level rank. More responsibilities and power than untenured folk, but not the top just yet. After about four years at that rank, you can apply for promotion to Full. You don’t have to. Unlike the tenure decision, this promotion is not required to keep your job. You can stay an Associate forever. But it comes with the last significant pay raise you will likely ever get, at least if you work in the CSU (and don’t move into administration – become a Dean or something similar).

So as soon as I was eligible, I applied. I submitted yet another dossier of my life for the preceding four years, and waited. And everyone, including the President of the University, said, “Sure, yes, sounds good.” So…here I am. Fully Promoted. “Professor” French, with no Assistants or Associates in front of it.

Well, starting August 17, officially. When the school year starts. I’m officially not paid to work in summer (by the CSU).

So, what now? I have some ideas, including the aforementioned becoming a dean, but for now, we wait and see what this Full Professor thing is like. But it’s odd, to arrive, after 29 years, at the end of a particular road. I got my first lab job when I was 19, and just kept doing the next thing…until I ran out of “next things”. Lateral moves are the next thing, I guess.

But what did I READ while waiting on the final decision? A few things…

May Reads

My local library reopened for browsing in April, and so this month I have two library reads, both of which were pretty good. Okay, one was pretty good and the other was amazing.

The first of these was The Fold, by Peter Clines. The premise of The Fold is that government-funded scientists have invented a way to travel through space instantaneously, through the use of the concept of quantum entanglement (they say). The device they use (The Albuquerque Door) sounds, by description, a lot like a Stargate – you walk through it from this side, and you wind up walking out of the receiving device on the other. But things about the project are…weird. The scientists involved won’t answer any questions about how the Door works, and, recently, a couple of the people who have gone through the Door have had what appear to be minor (or major) mental health breakdowns. The story opens when a recent traveler comes home to his wife and attacks her, because he doesn’t recognize her and wants to know what she’s done with his wife.

The person in charge of the funding of this secret project (Reggie Lastnamenotimportant) decides it’s time to send in someone to investigate/inspect/see what the hell is going on down there, and taps an old friend, a high school English teacher by the name of Mike Erikson (actually Leland, but nicknamed “Mike” after Mycroft Holmes, for reasons that will become at least a little bit clear to fans of Sherlock Holmes).

Wait. A high school English teacher?

Yeah. Mike is, as it turns out, is a super genius. Eidetic memory, pattern recognition abilities off the charts, can learn almost anything if you just give him time and documents to study. He’s chosen to be a high school English teacher because he just wants an ordinary life doing something he thinks matters.

Mike is also one of the little annoying things about the book. He’s just too…overpowered…as a protagonist. Insufficient flaws, too. But, okay. Accepting for a moment that Reggie’s old buddy the super genius can be hired by the government, briefed, and then dropped into the project to see what’s wrong…what’s wrong?

Little things are wrong. The team of scientists seems on edge. They definitely don’t appreciate Mike’s appearance, which is understandable, but they also – well, they seem to not know what the hell they’re doing. And they sometimes just seem off. As for example when one of them goes on a rant about them pranking him by moving him to a new office and the others don’t seem to be in on the joke. He’s always been in that office, they say.

So, the “what’s wrong” was telegraphed a mile away, for me. You have possibly already figured it out for yourself, but if not, SPOILERS FOLLOW:

The Door doesn’t fold space for you like a tesseract, exactly. I mean, it does…but that’s not it’s primary function. What it DOES is shunt you into a parallel universe, and the person who comes out the other end? It’s the version of you from that universe. None of the folks on the project are the original folks on the project. Most of the time, the universe being tapped into is close in spacetime, and is thus very similar to ours. But as time and the experiment go on, the Door starts pulling from locales…further away in spacetime.

And other things that are even worse than that happen, too.

I actually really enjoyed this book, despite it’s obvious flaws (and there are a few). I’m not going to go into depth on how the Door was designed/built/created, but let’s just say that nobody who built it actually understands how it works, and, frankly, I find that impossible to believe.

The next book I finished was Already Home, by Susan Mallery. This one was an older book, one she wrote before most of her recent stuff set in imaginary towns in Southern California and Western Washington. It’s about a chef (Jenna Stevens) who returns to her hometown in Texas to open a cooking store after her marriage falls apart. Jenna is also adopted, and not long after she arrives in Texas, her birth parents turn up to introduce themselves. The story centers around her trying to figure out her life and how both sets of parent fit in to it. There’s also a subplot about her store manager, Violet, and here is where the story is actually pretty interesting. Violet has an unusually dark back story by Mallery standards, and an unusually dark present in the story. I don’t want to spoil it for those who enjoy reading Mallery’s chick lit (I really do), but it was a good read and I recommend it.

Finally, I just finished (literally yesterday) How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin. This one was AMAZING, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has previously read my reviews of Jemisin, and also knows about my “anything by N.K. Jemisin” policy. Black Future Month is a collection of short stories, which was first brought to my attention by LeVar Burton through LeVar Burton Reads (a podcast you should definitely be listening to). The stories in the collection range from hopeful to grim, and include science fiction, fantasy, and pretty much everything in between. Some are callouts to other fiction (notably, The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a callback and challenge to LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas). Some are stories in her now-novel worlds (The City Born Great is the short story that was expanded into The City We Became, Stone Hunger is set in the world of The Broken Earth trilogy, and The Narcomancer is set in her Dreamblood Duology). And all of the stories are good. Without exception.

Among the stories that stay in my mind: Valedictorian, The Evaluators, and Walking Awake. Walking Awake, in particular, is so very grim, and so very good. Oh, and the last story in the collection: Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters, which is about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina…but it’s so much more than that.

I want to take a second to notice something that others have probably noticed before me, but they probably noticed in a more useful way. Several of these stories involve the involuntary or coerced merging of humans with other beings. Sometimes the human minds survive and sometimes they do not (in one case, it’s not clear), but regardless – involuntary interbreeding or merging between humans and other creatures. The reason it’s even more striking to me is that this is a really common thematic element in the fiction of one of my other favorite science fiction writers, who also happens to have been a Black woman: Octavia E. Butler. Check out her Xenogenesis series, for example. Or the Patternmaster books. Even Fledgling (which is a vampire novel, but, you know, what are vampire stories if not involuntary merging of humans with…something else?). I think it’s interesting and probably relevant that Black women write science fiction that involves being assimilated into something else, and often in a violent way. And I’m sure others have noticed it before me.

Okay, I’ve gone on for a while now. This month, I plan to read a couple of the books I was given as birthday presents. First up: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandell. Yes, I’m late to the party here. Talk to you around Independence Day!

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May Books Post: What a difference a month makes

Most of my titles lately are actually pandemic-related, which is likely understandable. At any rate, last month, cases in the U.S. were on a Spring Break rise, and most folks hadn’t gotten vaccinated yet. A month later: the feared rise in cases in California never happened, because, apparently, we have higher-than-average trust in the vaccine and our state government, and that aforementioned government also knows that there’s a difference between having vaccines, and having vaccinated PEOPLE. So we still have our mask mandate (though not outdoors if you’re vaccinated – but how are people supposed to know if someone’s an asshole, or just vaccinated?), we still have limits on gatherings, capacity limits on indoor spaces are still at 25% or so…etc. Many businesses that could have indoor dining (for example) are still choosing not to.

So we’re doing it right, and it shows. California has the lowest new case rate in the nation right now, and the lowest test positivity rate as well. And things are getting better in the U.S. overall, too – as vaccination approaches 50%, we start to see the possibility of “exponential decay” in Covid cases.

So, what’d I read this month?

Not much. I finished two books, though not for a lack of trying. I read about 30 pages a day in April, which isn’t bad. But these books were long and I had barely started them at the start of the month. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The first book I finished in April was What Makes This Book So Great, which is not fiction at all, but rather a collection of blog posts about books, written by Jo Walton. The theme is “books she likes to reread” as well as why she rereads books. It’s ten years old, which means that every book discussed is at least that old, and many are much older. There are some books she discusses that I’ve read (note: this is almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy, as that’s what Walton writes and mostly reads), but many I have not. Overall, I really enjoyed this, and I got some recommendations for novels I will be reading, based on her description of them and why she reads them. For example, I bought Icehenge, which is a Kim Stanley Robinson novel about Mars (no surprises there), but which is ALSO only about 300 pages long, which – stop and marvel at the concept. I like Robinson a lot, but his Mars novels are…long and boring, honestly. But this one actually sounds really fun.

Walton also devoted far too much space in the book to specific series, though – as in, she decided to reread an entire series, and then write a blog post about each book as she did so, and THEN decided that this collection needed all of those posts collected together. Which…she’s wrong about. An example of this: she reread all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. And I had to read about it. I already tried this series once, in graduate school, and I didn’t care for the first novel (chronologically; not sure if it was the first one in publication order). I just…didn’t care for it. And I know the story isn’t about Cordelia after the first book…but I just didn’t care enough to keep reading. And I also know that many people LOVE these books. People have tried to get me to read them so many times.

It’s like sushi, people. I tried it; I didn’t like it. I know the entire world likes it, but not me.

So, yeah, when someone goes on at length about something you already know you don’t like, you get bored. And a little irritated in this case, irrationally.

But the standalone posts? I really liked those. Especially this one, which is about how reading science fiction isn’t like reading “conventional” fiction – there is a different set of skills involved, and that is likely why people can’t just drop into reading or writing science fiction without lots of practice. It’s why your adult friends so often just “can’t get into” a book you loved and recommended to them.

So, recommended, but you should definitely skim or skip the “entire series” posts.

The other book I finished in April was Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang. This is a series of short stories, and it includes the longish short story (Story of Your Life) that was the basis for one of my all-time favorite science fiction films, Arrival. In fact, the collection has been retitled as Arrival, but be aware that it’s not a novel.

So I finally got around to reading the story that Arrival is based on, and…it’s good. But, unusually, the movie is actually better. The movie has a lot more emotional depth – elements were added or changed. (SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR BOTH STORY AND MOVIE)

For example, in the story, the daughter’s death is theoretically avoidable if she made different choices. I say “theoretically”, because the general thrust of the story is that it’s not, not really. There’s no real free will in this universe. Time simply IS – you’re moving through it as you do through space, and your choices and the outcome of every event already exist. Humans think they have free will because they experience time as a linear progression, and can’t see how things “will turn out”. So it feels like choices are real. The aliens in this story (in both book and movie) perceive the totality of time, always, so they know what is “coming next” – right up to the moment of their deaths.

But I digress. In the film, the daughter is dying of leukemia or some similar malignancy that she could not have avoided. In the movie, she dies in an accident we would perceive as avoidable. More on why this matters in a minute…

So, the story “begins” (if you’re a fan of linear time) when aliens arrive on Earth, and the protagonist of the story, Louise Banks, who is a professor of linguistics, is hired by the U.S. government to help learn their language. In the film, the language is entirely visual/written; in the story there are two languages – one spoken, the other visual. Over time, Dr. Banks becomes fluent in the language, and as she does so, she begins to perceive time the way the aliens do – all at once, rather than just the part of it she’s in right now. This is an old, mostly-discredited idea in psychology, that our languages help shape how we perceive the world. Discredited or not, it works really well here.

Dr. Banks discovers, as she begins to see the world differently, that she is “destined” to fall in love with, marry, and have a child with another scientist on the project, Ian Donnelly (a physicist). She also knows that their daughter (Hannah) will die, and doesn’t tell him. She knows, also, that their marriage won’t last.

Here’s where we encounter another change in the story. In the book, Ian doesn’t know about Louise’s ability to see the future. Their marriage dissolves due to ordinary entropy. In the film, though, he does know. And when he finds out that she knows their child will die of an incurable disease, but didn’t share this with him, didn’t give him a choice about whether to conceive a “doomed” child, he leaves her because of that specific betrayal. And the film is also ambiguous about whether she has a choice about telling him, and whether he’d really have a choice about having the child with her. Free will is explicitly addressed as not really existing in the book; it’s left as a point of discussion about the film.

I prefer the ambiguity and moral depth of the film. I prefer to wonder if she should have told Ian what she knew. I prefer to wonder if she had any real choice. I prefer to wonder what choices I would have made knowing what she did.

But the story is good. 😉

Other stories in the collection that are also worth mentioning: Understand (sort of a reverse Flowers For Algernon – what if the intelligence treatment really worked…and kept working if you kept taking it? What if you could take it too far, to the point where you were mentally not human anymore? And what if there was more than one of you?).

Division by Zero – what if you discovered a mathematical theorem that demonstrated that math was not actually internally consistent – that is has no meaning? That humans made it up, and it doesn’t represent anything “real” about the way the universe works?

Hell is the Absence of God – angels, God, Heaven, and Hell are all real. Demonstrably. And Acts of God (carried out by Angels) are routine occurrences, with the flavor of a natural disaster for most people they effect. And the actions of God are unknowable. Truly unknowable. You cannot predict them. Being a person who loves God doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Heaven. Being a terrible person doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Hell. There’s no rhyme or reason. So…how do you live your life?

Finally, Liking What You See: A Documentary. In this one, there’s a reversible treatment that can make a person impervious to beauty. As in, you can’t tell if a face is particularly attractive, or not. You can see it, recognize it…but it triggers no emotional response in you. How might that change your interactions with people (and advertising)? What would people be like who had had this treatment since childhood?

Overall: Ted Chiang is good and I recommend him.

Current Reads

Okay, so…what am I reading now? I’m gonna make this part short…I started another Susan Mallery chick lit novel, Already Home, which she wrote a decade ago. So far, so good. A bit grittier than her usual stuff. And our library reopened, so I have been checking out novels I’m not 100% sure I want to buy. The first of these is The Fold, by Peter Clines, which so far feels like, “We invented a tesseract, but it maybe doesn’t quite work the way we think it does.” I’m 100 pages in, and it’s a mystery so far. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Okey dokey. See you in June.

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March Books Post: What IS it with me and pandemic books?

So, yeah. One of the books I read this month is sort of accidentally a pandemic book, though…well, not really. But let’s just say it hit a bit closer to home than I anticipated when I first set out to read it.

At any rate, here we are, in pandemic limbo. I’m fully vaccinated, as are most of my colleagues, my mom and sister and brother-in-law, and about half of my kids’ friends’s parents. On the other hand, my husband is not, nor any of my kids (pretty much no kids are vaccinated yet, and mine will be a while, because they’re not old enough to be in the 12-to-16 group yet. So many activities are theoretically “safe” for me, but not for my immediate family.

So here we still sit. Cases are on the rise in the U.S. again, though not (yet) in California. Vaccination should prevent the incipient wave from being as serious as previous waves. But I’m so very disappointed in my nation – we should have adopted the “Covid Zero” strategy a year ago, but no. “Personal freedom” and “the economy” always win out. Ugh.

Ah, well. I already discussed one of this month’s books in my last post, because I finished it early in the month. So I think I have just two books to talk about this time around. Let’s get started.

March Reads

The first book I read this month was Sisters By Choice by Susan Mallery. I’ve noted previously that I’m a Mallery fan, but mostly of her “chick lit” and less of her straight romances. This fell solidly into the first category, and I really enjoyed it. It was another of her stories in which many of the characters you are meant to like have very unlikeable traits, and I like that she does that – it makes her people feel “real”. In this case, also, there is at least one fully unlikeable character, and one that I know a version of from my own life. So, yeah, this book may also have hit a bit close to home.

The book centers around three women, all related, which is one of Mallery’s standard patterns. In this case, there are two cousins and the daughter of a third cousin – so, two women in their mid-late 30s, and one in her early 20s. The book begins when one of the cousins (Sophie) returns to her childhood home, Blackberry Island, Washington, after her business burns down in Los Angeles. She takes the insurance money and starts again, and her part of the story revolves around her being a fairly successful businesswoman who has hit a ceiling due to being a control freak who doesn’t trust anyone enough to delegate to them. She makes mistakes that we can all see coming due to this, and it’s very frustrating. And very human. She also consistently underestimates the people she hires and the man she’s dating. And yet…we like her. We want her to learn what she’s doing wrong, and fix it.

The second cousin is Kristine, a (mostly) stay-at-home mom of three who married really young. She has a small baking/catering business, and dreams of opening a cafe where she can sell her baked goods…and the opportunity arises during the story. In Kristine’s case, her husband is the problem. He’s…well, I think he’s simply awful and I wished, right up to the end of the story, that she’d kick him to the curb. He’s one of those men who doesn’t want his wife to succeed…to be “better” than him. He’s afraid if she doesn’t need him for financial support, then she’ll leave him.

I hate that guy, and I WANT her to leave him. But, hey, that’s just me, and their story is compelling. I won’t tell you whether I approved of how it ended…

Finally, there’s Heather, who is the college-aged daughter of the third cousin (Amber). Amber also had her single kid quite young, by accident, and has never gotten her own life together. She consistently blames everyone else for her problems, has no income, and expects her daughter to support her (based apparently on the “fact” that having said daughter at 18 is why her life is a mess). Heather wants to go to college and leave Blackberry Island, but she feels trapped – what will her mother do if she leaves? How will she manage?

This codependency is something I’ve seen in real life. I have an aunt who is SO MUCH like Amber. She blames everyone for her problems, and expects her family to float her through life, despite the fact that she does nothing for them in return. Amber was an incredibly difficult character for me…hit really close to home in some ways. I just wanted everyone to STOP TAKING CARE OF HER. Adults need to learn to adult.

So, that’s the basic outline. Three women, all with issues they need to address, and all with goals and dreams they’re working toward, and their relationships with one another and the people in their lives. I liked it. Many Amazon reviewers who love Susan Mallery didn’t, precisely because the characters aren’t all fully lovable.

The other book I finished in March was If Tomorrow Comes, by Nancy Kress. This is the second book in her Tomorrow’s Kin trilogy, which started out as a novella I really enjoyed.

I’m finding that I enjoy the trilogy less. The idea was compelling – compelling enough for the expansion into a single novel, even. But the ongoing story, thus far, is…less so. In the original story, an alien spaceship arrives on Earth, but the people in it aren’t aliens, exactly. They’re humans, separated from Earth humans by an alien race tens of thousands of years ago. Their world is different from ours, enough that they look a bit different, but they are still the same species. Their world (called “World”, because of course that’s what people call their world in their language) is much more peaceful than ours, due mostly to it being a monoculture. It’s a lot like a Star Trek world – an idea about a culture, imposed on an entire planet.

At any rate, the Worlders have come to Earth looking for help, as they have recently lost a colony ship to an interstellar virus (“spore cloud”) which they don’t have a treatment or vaccine for. And which kills 100% of everyone infected by it within hours to days, by destroying their lungs.

Yeah. It’s a respiratory infection that causes lungs to look like “whiteout” or “ground glass” on X-rays. Too soon, Nancy.

But she wrote this before COVID, by a long shot. After SARS (now SARS-Cov-I), but before COVID-19.

Anyway, the spore cloud is bearing down on Earth, and its trajectory will then take it to World (convenient for the story that all three human-inhabited worlds are in the line of movement of this cloud in space). Can humans help to make a vaccine?

There’s a lot more in here – Earth humans are immune, mostly, probably because the spore cloud has been here before, and selected for a specific human mutation that is now present in 90% of everyone on the planet (basic evolution – the first time around, everyone who DIDN’T carry that mutation died, so most of us do, now), but the Worlders left before that, so most of them aren’t immune.

At any rate, the original story was basically that, with a race to cure the disease before it got to Earth and then World. But the trilogy is a lot more involved…and not a huge amount more interesting, if you ask me. Turns out, the Worlders have LESS advanced technology than humans, and the ships were constructed using plans left by whoever kidnapped them from Earth in the first place. They don’t understand how the ships work, and they don’t really have much of a technological society on their own World, something Earth humans discover when they build their own ship and head to World. So they haven’t managed to create a vaccine yet (Earth humans did, but finished it AFTER the Worlders left Earth), and they’re looking at the loss of the majority of their population in a few weeks, when this novel begins.

So, yeah. Another race to find a cure. Just with even less technology. World is a matriarchal human society, which Kress seems to think would be less violent and more socialist…and more authoritarian, too. Maybe, but it still feels more like a thought experiment than a real culture. Kress is far more interested in the Earth humans and their culture and interactions than she is in the Worlders…even though the entire novel is spent on World.

So, yeah…it was fine. I will read the third novel. Maybe it’ll recover from the sophomore slump. But you could also just stop with the first one.

(Also, just a quibble – Kress’ biology is usually pretty spot-on, but she messes up what a “virophage” is here, and it irritated me. They’re real – but they don’t work the way she describes.)

Current Reads

Right now, I’m reading What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton, which is a collection of blog posts she wrote about rereading books she really enjoys (and a few she doesn’t). I’m picking up a few new ideas for “classics” of the science fiction genre I haven’t yet read, and also comparing her thoughts on books I have read with my own. Fun, and I’ll have a few things to say about it next month.

I’m also reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. This is a collection of short stories by an author who is new to me in print, but who wrote one of my all-time favorite movies. The film Arrival is an adaptation of Story of Your Life, which is a longish short story contained in this collection, and I’ve been meaning to read it forever. So far, the other stories in the collection have been pretty good (I’ve read two of them at this point).

So that’s it, for now. I’ll check in with you the first weekend in May to see how things are.

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February Books Post: It’s Not Like He Didn’t Tell You

So…March, 2021. One year into the pandemic (for most of us – it started in December, really, but we only realized it was a pandemic in March 2020). The Covid Tracking Project stopped collecting/posting data yesterday, on their one-year anniversary, so this is as good a day as any to count as “one year”.

The good news is – there’s light at the end of the tunnel. For real. The decline in case counts I mentioned a month ago is ongoing in California (appears to have leveled out in most of the U.S., but still at summer-low levels again), and vaccines are here – importantly, availability of those vaccines is becoming more widespread, too. I myself will get my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Friday, as an educator, and President Biden intends to have all American adults (who want it) vaccinated by the end of May.

So, because it’s important: take any vaccine they’ll give you. Really. The faster, the better – and the more likely we’ll be able to contain those variants that are a bit more resilient to the vaccines we currently have.

Okay, so – what did I read last month?

I finished three books, though the last one was actually finished yesterday. But, per my own rules, if I finish it before I write the post, it counts. So…

February Reads

First off, Maddaddam, the final installment of Margaret Atwood’s waterless flood trilogy, which begins with Oryx and Crake. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that most people haven’t read the entire trilogy – that many might not even know it IS a trilogy. I didn’t, before I began reading. At any rate, this novel picks up exactly where the previous one, The Year of the Flood, ends. The Flood, in this case, is a humanity-ending (nearly) plague, which it turns out was engineered and spread by Crake. Crake, a genetic and bioengineer, decided that the current state of the world (climate change, deteriorating society, cruelty, etc.) is all due to the nature of its current dominant species, and so he engineered a solution – he created a new breed of humans, with all of the traits he considered undesirable engineered out, and new ones that he hoped will facilitate cooperation and peaceful coexistence with nature engineered IN. These people, here called “Crakers” are to replace humanity. Enter the second part of the plan – Crake’s bioengineered superbug, which causes what reads like a very rapid and very contagious type of hemorrhagic fever – think Ebola on steroids. Crake had this plague incorporated into sex-enhancement drugs, and triggered it when he was pretty sure the drugs had penetrated all of society, everywhere.

Maddaddam picks up many months after the death of most of humanity, and follows the lives of a few people who escaped initial infection and managed to wait out the plague until it subsided (everyone else had died, so no more hosts – so the world appears to be safe to move about in again, except for the dangers of “nature”, which now includes a lot of escaped bioengineered animals and not a small number of humans who escaped the plague but aren’t great to be around. The usual post-apocalyptic scenario, with added genetic engineering.

We also get lots of backstory on the remaining characters, which is a feature of all of these stories – they contain the current story, plus lots of biographical flashbacks. Those are intermittently successful, but sometimes a bit boring.

Speaking of boring, the Crakers…Crake apparently thought that all “negative” emotions should be bred out of people, and this includes jealousy, anger, and most fear. But without these things, the Crakers appear to also lack imagination. They have curiosity, but no real ability to extrapolate on what they’re told. As a result, they’re kind of dull. Though they do get more interesting in this book, as some of their added-in features are revealed.

I liked the book, and the series as a whole, but it’s hard to read. Atwood is always grim, but this is grimmer than most of her work, and it’s hard to read even if you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Nevertheless, recommended if you enjoy that sort of thing.

Last month, I also read Headliners, my first Lucy Parker romance. Lucy Parker came highly recommended by a few book podcasts, and so I decided to give her latest a try. Headliners is the story of two competing evening news show anchors in London, who legitimately hate one another at the start of the story. Or, at least, Sabrina hates Nick, and she’s got a good reason or two. At the start of the story, they’ve both managed to blow up their careers as evening headliners, and their bosses decide to give them the failing morning show to co-host, with the ultimatum that either its ratings improve by the end of December, or they are both fired and someone else will be given the show. Neither has the option of the evening shows on their current network at this point.

So you can probably see where this is going, and, yeah, it goes there, but it’s enjoyable. And the characters are more relatable to me than the small-town religious types that have been populating the other romance series I’ve been reading. It’s marginally more diverse, and the characters don’t moralize at me about things I don’t have any connection to. I really enjoyed it, and will read more of her work.

Finally, I just finished the final book in John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire series, and, damn, but he DID put it right there in the title. The Last Emperox is the story of the beginning of the end of a collapsing galactic empire, which is collapsing because of…physics. The Flow, a system of (something like) subspace tunnels that the Empire uses to get from one of their worlds to another is beginning to collapse, meaning that the various systems of the Empire are about to become completely separated from one another. Worse than that, there is only ONE world in the entire Empire that can sustain human life on its surface; the others are all either human-made habitats or hollowed-out lifeless worlds, and every system makes SOME of what it needs to survive and imports the rest. Which means, yeah…billions of people are looking at long, slow deaths.

So, what to do? That’s the story of the trilogy, along with the story of the accidental Emperox, Rachela the Second, who wasn’t ever supposed to become Emperox, and now has the fate of the known universe in her hands. This novel is the story of how she deals with the ongoing coup against her, as well as how she and her fiancé, a Flow physicist, are trying to figure out how to save most-to-all of humanity, rather than just the few million they might be able to get to End (the single human-sustaining world they have).

So…I liked these books a lot, but also they made me sad. Cardenia (the “real” name of the current Emperox) is facing a nearly-impossible task, and in the end (spoilers), there’s no saving the Empire, though it’s still possible by the end of the books that most of humanity will go on to survive. But we don’t KNOW. And poor Cardenia. The solution to her problem is, well, SERIOUS SPOILERS, to let one of the assassination attempts succeed. Sort of. I won’t explain the “sort of”, but let’s just say that the end of her story is sadder than I wanted, but less sad than it could have been.

Just read it. I don’t want to give too much away.

What’s Next?

Right now, I’m reading another Susan Mallery (not a romance, but one of her chick lit stories, which I like). Sisters By Choice is another of her Blackberry Island novels, and all I know right now is that I wonder what kind of mother Susan Mallery had, because she really does have every type of “bad” mother in these novels. In addition, I’ve just started the second book in Nancy’s Kress’ Yesterday’s Kin trilogy. More on that next month…

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January Books Post: Insert Catchy Title Here

Well, here we are in the first week of February 2021. It finally feels like 2020 might actually be over. The holiday Covid surge is fading (seriously, people, I hope you’re not at a Superbowl party right now), Donald Trump is in the rearview mirror (though his second impeachment trial starts tomorrow), and Covid vaccines are actually starting to get into people as opposed to sitting in freezers. I’m almost optimistic.

I read a few books in January, and they were mostly good, so here we go:

January Reads

The first book I finished in January was You Say it First, another of Susan Mallery’s Happily, Inc. romances. I’m not going to cover this in too much detail, since I went into my issues with Mallery’s straight-up romances last month, but suffice to say it was fine, it has the same basic issues her other Happily Inc. romances have, and I’m done with this particular universe. I’m not done with Mallery (see below), but I think her chick lit is MUCH better than her romance novels.

Next up was The Last Continent, by Terry Pratchett. This is a Discworld novel, and if you know Discworld, yay! If you don’t, just go pick one up. Any one – while they are all loosely connected, and sort of happen chronologically for the most part, it’s not necessary to have read any other book to enjoy any of the Discworld novels, in my experience. Characters do reoccur, and so if you’re clearly missing some backstory, it can be fun to, say, find out what the deal is with Rincewind and his Luggage, but overall, you can jump in anywhere. I highly recommend the novels about Death (who appears in every book, because of course he does, but also has his own storyline) or Granny Weatherwax and her coven.

The Last Continent is about the last continent to be created on the Discworld, and it seems to have been created last week and also millions of years ago, and don’t try to understand that. You’ll just hurt yourself.

It’s called “XXX”, which is how it appears on maps, pronounced “Ecksecksecks”. It bears a striking resemblance to Australia, and the story generally revolves around rescuing XXX from its current predicament, which is that it hasn’t rained there in literally forever, and the water (which has always just come from the ground) has run out. But that’s not even close to the full story. We also meet the God of Evolution, who is busy trying to create life that maintains itself once he sets it going, but who hasn’t figured out sex yet, so it’s not going well. He’s got just one of everything, and so evolution isn’t going as planned. But no worries, the wizards from Unseen University are here to help.

The God of Evolution creates a new beetle every time he’s feeling stressed out, which is really funny if you’re a biologist. There are a lot of species of beetles in the world. Really.

At any rate, it’s hard to describe a Discworld story to those who haven’t read one. Start anywhere, and just immerse yourself in the funny. (And read Hogfather in December.)

So, as I said above, I’m not done reading Susan Mallery yet, and my next book was another of hers, but this one was from one of her worlds that I know I enjoy reading. Evening Stars is set on Blackberry Island, which is a little postage-stamp sized island a half hour away from Seattle. The Blackberry Island novels tend to focus on women’s relationships with other women, and while there’s always a romance or two, as well, they’re in the background of the overall story. And this, in my opinion, is where Mallery shines. She’s good at writing women who are complicated and interesting, and not always in ways you like at first. She’s good at taking a woman you think you would NOT want to know in real life, and giving you insight into why she’s like that.

Evening Stars is a story about relationships between mothers and sisters, which is fairly typical Mallery fare. The main character, Nina, is a nurse in the local pediatrician’s office (the pediatrician herself was the main character in a previous novel, Three Sisters). Nina meant to go to medical school almost ten years ago, but wound up staying on the island, taking care of her own mother (who is an irresponsible woman who never matured after getting pregnant as a teenager, and Nina wound up being the parent surrogate in the family from childhood). Nina sent her sister to college at UCLA (the sister in question lives in Mischief Bay, another of Mallery’s small towns), but went to nursing school at the University of Washington in Seattle, never leaving home herself.

So…she resents this, and blames everyone for it – her mother, her sister…everyone but herself. This story is partly about Nina learning to accept that her choices are still her own, and to stop shifting responsibility to everyone else by, ironically, taking responsibility FOR everyone else.

As always, there are other women whose lives are a big part of the story, and their relationships all intertwine. The aforementioned sister has returned to Blackberry Island, having separated (temporarily?) from her husband after an argument over starting a family. And then there’s the mother, who, at nearly 50 years old, is still a child who lets everyone else take responsibility for her life.

In the end, all three women’s stories are variations on learning how to accept that your choices as an adult are yours, and accepting responsibility for those choices. It’s a story about how one person (Mom) transmitted her own inability to make decisions to both of her daughters, and the different ways that this is expressed in all three women.

And there are a couple of men involved, too.

Finally, I have just put down my first DNF (did not finish) of 2021, and while I started and stopped this book in February, my rules are that if I finished a book before writing, it goes in the post.

The book was Hidden Sins by Selena Montgomery. Selena Montgomery is the pen name of Stacey Abrams, the incredible voting-rights advocate and election organizer from Georgia. She writes thriller romances, as well, and as a way to thank her for all her work in Georgia, which wound up flipping both the Presidency and the Senate this year, I picked up one of her books. I’m bummed that I didn’t like it.

There are at least a couple of reasons I don’t like it: first, I think it’s just not what I like to read. I don’t like thrillers, as a rule. And this leapt from the page immediately as a “people chasing one another down to torture and murder them” thriller. Which, meh. For me.

Second, the writing style was also not to my taste. It was almost all internal monologue and description of action for the first 54 pages (which is where I stopped), and hardly any dialogue. That’s just not what I enjoy. I want interaction between characters (and I want the character interactions to be OUT LOUD on the page, not just described by the author). This is a matter of taste, and I think Selena Montgomery’s writing might just not be to my taste.

But she has my royalties, so I’m good with that.

Upcoming Reads

I’m currently reading Maddaddam, the final book of the Oryx and Crake trilogy (though it may actually be called the Maddaddam trilogy) by Margaret Atwood. It’s fine, so far, though not as good as the other two. Good enough to keep me reading to find out how it ends (though given the nature of the story, I’m not sure it will “end” in any meaningful sense). And, on the flip side, I started Headliners, by Lucy Parker, last night. Only 17 pages in, but already more compelling for me than Hidden Sins. It’s a romance novel set in London, and that’s about all I know at this point. The main characters are television news evening show anchors, I believe.

Okay, that’s all for now. I’ll let you know how these are in a month or so…

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December Books Post: 2020 Wrap-up

So, hey, 2020 is over, but it’s not really over until AT LEAST the 20th of January – Donald Trump committed another election-related felony just this weekend! – and possibly not until those vaccines start to do their thing. BUT…I do have official 2020 reading numbers to report.

In 2020, I read a total of 29 books, for a total of just about 2.5 books a month. I read about 900 pages a month, or about 30 pages a day, which doesn’t suck.

That said, it’s a measure of how hard 2020 was to manage that, even with so much more time at home, and no commute for 75% of the year, I read LESS than in 2019. I read 33 books in 2019, and over 1000 pages per month (about 34 pages a day). Overall, though, it’s only 4 pages less per day…so, yay? I guess? Part of that reduction actually comes from less travel time – I read when we’re on vacation (all that time in the car), and this year – well, no vacations to speak of.

At any rate, it’s not bad. I did read, and I managed to continue to read even during the worst bits of the year.

What did I read in the last month of 2020?

December Reads

The first book I finished in December was one of my fluffy Christmas romances – The Lodge on Holly Road, by Sheila Roberts. It was…fine. But (and I know I’ve said this before) I think I’m done with Roberts. Her romances are just too…well, the characters in them are just too different from me, and the diversity is severely lacking. Her characters talk about church far more than I’d like, and while I’m not anti-religion, I am somewhat uncomfortable with it being thrown at me in my fiction reading (unless I specifically chose the book because of its treatment of religion – see the Hyperion books, for example).

It’s not that some of Roberts’ characters are religious – it’d be weird if they weren’t. It’s that ALL of her main characters seem to be, and I think it’s getting more obvious the more of her stuff I read. Which ultimately is making me feel like the stories aren’t really meant for me. And that’s fine.

So, yeah. Nothing to say about this book, really – it’s what it’s advertised as – a fluffy Christmas romance.

I also read Happily This Christmas as an introduction to one of Susan Mallery’s romance series. I am a fan of Mallery’s Mischief Bay and Blackberry Island series, which tend to focus on the relationships between women, with some romance mixed in. I also read a Christmas romance she wrote last year, and enjoyed it a lot, so I decided to give “Happily Inc” a try.

Happily Inc is a small California desert town that is mostly dependent on the destination wedding business for its existence. Happily This Christmas focuses on a single mother, Wynn Beauchene, and her somewhat predictable romance with the police chief (Garrick McCabe) who lives next door. There’s a subplot about Garrick’s adult daughter coming to finish off her pregnancy with him (her husband is a deployed Marine), and it’s all…fine. But not particularly engaging. The stories have become predictable and the formula is obvious. I believe I will continue to read Mallery’s not-purely-romance stories, but I’m gonna take my romance search elsewhere.

These small town romance stories have the same set of issues – not especially diverse, formulaic, and overly traditional for my tastes. Though I have to give this one credit for at least a nod at diversity – Wynn is not a white woman (her race is unclear – probably mixed-race Black and white, but clearly coded as “not entirely white”), but the fact that her race isn’t made explicitly clear is part of what bothered me about this story. I got the feeling that Mallery was avoiding saying she was Black in order not to “put off” some of her audience. I could obviously be wrong about that, though.

That said, I enjoyed the “big city, not everyone is white” romances I read recently a lot more, and that’s gonna be where I focus my energies from now on. Kinda bored with the formulaic small-town romance novels.

Okay, finally: in December I also read The Consuming Fire, the second in John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. In this series, humanity has long since left earth, and what we know of it in the first book is that it is contained in a large, spread-out empire called The Interdependency, which is ruled by an Emperox from the Wu family (currently Cardenia Wu-Patrick, who calls herself “Grayland II” when she’s Emperox). The planets of the Interdependency are connected by this weird spacetime phenomenon called the Flow, which shortens the distance between far-flung star systems by allowing travel outside of “normal” spacetime. Think warp speed, but with specific routes that you have to take.

In the first book of the series, we learn that the Flow is collapsing, which will result in mass destruction and death (most of the Interdependency systems do not have planets in them that support human life – people live in orbiting habitats, etc. – so all the systems need one another to survive. Hence “Interdependency”.) The second book is about Cardenia’s plan to get her empire through the collapse, as well as the plans of others to depose her – lots of political intrigue.

Oh, and there’s a subplot about how maybe the Interdependency isn’t all that’s left of original humanity, too…

At any rate, I don’t want to be too spoilery. It’s good. Better than either of my fun Christmas reads. You should read the series. And Scalzi’s other stuff, too.

Okay, that’s it for now. See you all the first weekend in February, when I hope that the current scary state of the pandemic will be a TAD less scary.

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WW84: You can’t have that body

So, we just finished our Christmas Night pandemic viewing of WW84 (Wonder Woman 1984), and I have thoughts, but I don’t want to spoil 5,000 people on Twitter, so:

SPOILERS FOR WW84 BELOW

I liked it. I didn’t love it the way I loved the first one. But it’s a good story about how getting what you wish for is going to have tradeoffs, and whether the price is worth it.

I liked the Donald Trump-like villain, who ultimately is unlike Donald Trump in one important way: he actually loves another human being.

I absolutely ADORED the gender-flipped fashion show scene. Awesome. And some much-needed humor in a film that was lacking the funny by comparison to the first one. Please, don’t let Wonder Woman lose the joy that the first film had. I don’t want her to become like all the other DC heroes…

But it was also a bit on the confusing side. Unusually for a film, I needed MORE exposition. Or at least a succinct explanation for how this wish power actually works. They sort of gave one, but then it seemed to keep changing throughout the story. Guys, if you’re gonna invent a magical system, it needs to have a coherent set of rules.

Like: do you need to touch the person doing the wishing, or not? Can a person have more than one wish? These rules seemed to change as the story needed them to, which bugged and confused me.

But by far the biggest issue I had was this: Steve Trevor returns (due to Diana’s wish), but he appears in a different body. So, as a lifelong science fiction fan, my first question was, “Whose body is that?”

They they go on to definitively establish that Steve has inhabited the body of an existing person. And I’m all, “Well, where’d he go? Did he die so Steve could live again?”

But I’m the ONLY ONE who asked this. You’d think Diana would ask. She’s sort of blinded by love and loss here, but, still: you know he’s got someone else’s body. Where is the former inhabitant? Have you brought Steve back by killing an innocent person, or is that person just trapped inside a mind that now belongs to Steve?

Basically: That’s not your body; you can’t have it.

And so I knew from before the exposition that Steve couldn’t stay. Because they couldn’t keep that guy’s body. That’s not okay. There was no way Steve wasn’t going to have to die. Again. Sigh.

Anyway. I also didn’t expect to get The Day After’d, and really didn’t expect it to still be so effective. My fellow children of the 80’s, we really are still traumatized by the looming specter of nuclear war.

And then Steve had to sacrifice himself to save the world. Again.

Anyway. I still enjoyed it. I love Wonder Woman. But it was a little messy; enough that I couldn’t love this film.

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December Books Post

Okay, well. We got through the election, and it was…okay? I mean, we won, those of us who dislike fascism, and while the legal challenges are ongoing (and are they KIDDING ME? Really?), it increasingly looks like the Tangerine Tyrant is on his way to Mar-a-lago for good. For posterity, yesterday the Trump-packed Supreme Court issued a single-line answer to the first case to get near them, and that line was just marginally longer than, “No.” So this is all over except the violent unrest, I guess.

Also, my classes are over for Fall 2020, my first (and I hope only) fully online semester. I will be on sabbatical from roughly now until August 2021, and there are vaccines, several of them, so with luck the pandemic will actually be over by the time I have to teach again.

So, things are better. What did I read in November?

First, I read a really fun romance. The Wedding Date, by Jasmine Guillory, is about two professionals who have bad luck in love (because of course it is) who meet in an elevator that gets stuck in a nice hotel in San Francisco. Alexa Monroe is the Black Chief of Staff to the mayor of Berkeley, and Drew Nichols is a white pediatrician from Los Angeles who is in town to be the groomsman for his best friend and one of his (many) exes. He talks Alexa into pretending to be his girlfriend for the wedding, and the somewhat predictable happens. But one of the reasons we read romances is for the predictable storylines, yes?

The story is fun, and doesn’t shy away from the issues confronting interracial couples (especially the issue of the white dude not knowing those issues are a thing at first). I really enjoyed it, and will read more Jasmine Guillory in the future.

Next, I read Time Lord Fairy Tales, which is what it sounds like: a collection of short stories set in the Doctor Who universe, presented as rewritten fairy tales. It’s…fine. Mostly I was “meh” about it. The stories aren’t great, but they’re not terrible, either. Ultimately, though, I only finished it because it was easy. If you do plan to check it out, the best stories in the book are, The Garden of Statues (Weeping Angels) and The Three Little Sontarans.

Next I read Changing Planes by Ursula LeGuin, and, of course, it was lovely. This is a short story collection, and it highlights LeGuin’s anthropological tendencies beautifully. The central premise of the collection is that humans and other human-like species can “change planes” – as in planes of existence – using only the power of their minds. For humans, they have to be really irritated or annoyed to pull this off, the way one can really only get when waiting in an airport. (And this was written pre-9/11, so I have to assume it’s even easier now than it was then.) So, you’re sitting there, waiting on your flight, in a cold, uncomfortable chair, eating terrible food (or no food), and then…you’re somewhere else. A different plane of existence.

Each story is an anthropological take on a different plane. The humans or humanish people on each plane are described, as is some interesting aspect of their dominant culture. LeGuin’s ability to conjure up such a variety of different ways of living in what is basically the same world is impressive…as are those worlds that are decidedly NOT the same as earth. She’s funny and she’s dark and she never disappoints. Highly recommended, especially if you’re stuck in an airport.

Don’t be in an airport. There’s a goddamned pandemic.

Okay, that’s it. I am now reading my first fluffy Christmas romance of the year, soon to be followed by others. I’m reading some of Connie Willis’s short Christmas stories to the kids, and I am reading the second book in John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. Talk to you in 2021!

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November Books Post: Oy, with the poodles already

So, here we are. November 1st, 2020. TWO DAYS from the 2020 election. I’m honestly having trouble doing anything because part of my brain is sure the world won’t actually exist on Wednesday.

So, yeah. The polls say that Biden has a healthy lead, including in important state polls. The “tipping point” state is predicted to be Pennsylvania, where he SHOULD have a lovely five-point lead. But because of the 2016 polling errors in the Midwest, I’m not relaxed. At all.

Also, the Trump GOP shitfuckery, whereby they’re not only trying to keep people from voting (GOP standard practice for at least 60 years now), but are trying to prevent CAST VOTES FROM BEING COUNTED, well, that makes me just a wee bit nervous.

If you’re reading this from the future – due to the COVID pandemic, and the GOP shutting down polling places in heavily Democratic districts, it looks like the vast majority of the votes have already been cast. So it’s very likely Trump will get more votes that are CAST ON Election Day, and the GOP is signaling its intentions to challenge any vote that’s not counted by the end of November 3rd. Counter to all historical precedent (states NEVER certify election results on election night), and counter to the principles of democracy itself, they’re trying to force votes to simply be thrown away.

So, yeah. I’m terrified, here.

And yet. I read this month. So, here we go…

October Reads

I finished three books last month, which isn’t half bad with democracy crumbling around me. The first of these was Beachside Beginnings, by Sheila Roberts. Another fluffy romance, though this one was more serious than a lot of her previous stuff. This is the most recent of her Moonlight Harbor books – Moonlight Harbor being a small beachside town in Northwestern Washington, and one that I’m sure I’ve been to, though I can’t remember what it’s actually called. Moonlight Harbor exists in the same universe as Icicle Falls, her other semi-fictional Washington town (that one is clearly Leavenworth, WA).

The basic story of every Moonlight Harbor novel so far has been the same: woman breaks up with awful man (whether by her choice or his), runs away from her previous life in Seattle, and winds up in this lovely little seaside town that apparently is stocked with single men to cure your heartbreak. So, same here, except in this case, the woman who’s running away is REALLY running away – from an abusive boyfriend who has hit her many times, but this time he hurt her cat, and she decided enough was enough. And I get that – abusers get into a person’s head, make them wonder what they did to deserve the abuse, but when it’s a pet – clearly the pet didn’t do anything. I thought that was a nice touch, as a “break the spell” trigger.

So our protagonist, Moira, runs away to Moonlight Harbor. But Lang, the abusive boyfriend, is the romance novel equivalent of Chekov’s Gun, and we know we’ll be seeing him again in the third act. We see her make the mistakes that we know will bring him to where she is (don’t post for pics in the local newspaper in the age of the Internet).

And, of course, he does. Months later, when she’s happy and settled, Lang turns back up. And the outcome is predictable – because this is a romance novel.

There are multiple abusive men in this book, which I find interesting, as I don’t recall any actively abusive spouses in Roberts’ other work. The novel itself is also an exploration of how women get gaslighted into letting men hurt them and their children, and for that reason I found it more compelling than Roberts’ other recent novels.

There’s also the somewhat problematic (for me) new relationship – the one that makes this a romance novel instead of “just” chick lit. Moira takes up with one of the local police officers, and…well, let’s just say that I don’t LIKE the police much anymore. The novel actually acknowledges the (for white folks) relatively new realization that the police aren’t good, actually…and then lets the police officer defend them. Which, blech. He’s fine. He’s a good guy. He’s also a small-town cop in an almost all-white town, so it’s easier for him to be a good guy.

Okay, next up, we have a re-read: The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper. For those who don’t know, Sheri S. Tepper was a feminist, of the “the vast majority of men suck, and for that reason it often sucks to be a woman” sort. Much of her fiction is grim in this specific way. Including Women’s Country.

So, massive spoilers ahead, so if you want to read this book, don’t read this next few paragraphs. But since it was first published in 1988, it’s really fair game for spoilery content at this point.

The Gate to Women’s Country begins several hundred years after the apparent nuclear destruction of the United States – I assume that the rest of the world went the same way, but it’s not possible to tell due to the fact that technology has been set back centuries. The story moves between two different places in the protagonist (Stavia Morgotsdaughter’s) life – current Stavia, who is heading to meet her 15-year-old son Dawid on the day he must choose whether to remain a warrior, or return to his mother via the Gate to Women’s Country. The other part of the story takes place in Stavia’s past, which sets up the events happening in the novel’s “now”.

In Stavia’s world, the women, girls, boys under the age of five, and about 20% of the men live in the cities – cities names this like Marthastown and Mollyburg. The rest of the men and boys over the age of five live outside the walls, in the garrison. They are warriors and warrior’s sons.

The men only come into the cities twice a year, during festivals, during which time men and women have state-sanctioned sexual liaisons, which then lead to the birth of children nine months later. Or, at least, that’s what most of the citizenry think. If a child is a boy, he lives with his mother until he is five, at which point he is sent to his “warrior father”, though he returns to his mother’s house for festivals. Then, at the age of 15, boys must make a choice: to come back to the city, though the Gate to Women’s Country, or to live as a warrior. After the age of 15, they always have the choice to return through the Gate, but are less and less likely to do so as they get older. Peer pressure and toxic masculinity are like that.

If a man chooses to come back, he becomes what is known as a “servitor”, and is placed with a household in one of the cities of Women’s Country. Servitors are more like women – they get an education (ongoing for life, for all the women and the servitors) and an occupation inside the city walls. They are trusted advisors and respected members of the family. We learn, over the course of the story, that the proportion of men who choose to return has gradually been increasing over time – centuries of time.

Stavia makes a choice, as a young woman, to briefly run away with the warrior she’s been infatuated with for a decade, to have a liaison that’s not state-sanctioned (at his request, the asshole), and of course it goes horribly wrong. We learn about the people who do not live in Women’s Country, and who represent the worst type of patriarchal society. Stavia also loses her birth control implant, and becomes pregnant with the asshole’s child).

After Stavia is rescued, she has to choose whether to keep the pregnancy, and at this point it is revealed: it’s a particularly salient choice for her, because her child will actually be the child of a warrior – and very few are.

That’s right. The women, who founded the nation of Women’s Country after the cataclysm, have been carrying out an experiment in selective breeding. The women having sex with warriors are all implanted with birth control (and most don’t know it), and then pregnancies are created by artificial insemination with servitor sperm. That’s why more and more of the boys come back every year. They’re selecting for boys whose empathy and ability to choose for themselves is stronger than toxic masculinity.

The warriors father no children, though they think they do.

So. This is a really good novel. AND…now that it’s been 20 years since I first read it, I recognize some of the problematic elements that I didn’t notice then. Tepper is definitely a product of her time.

Two glaring examples: the use of the word “gypsies” to describe the semin-itinerant camp of prostitutes and drug dealers outside the walls is INCREDIBLY offensive to 2020 me, while 2000 me didn’t even notice. Also, the idea that there’s no homosexuality in Women’s Country because it was “corrected” before the cataclysm is also remarkably non-progressive for someone who writes so compellingly about toxic masculinity.

Finally, I read “Three Sisters” by Susan Mallery, another Blackberry Island novel (set in yet another fictional-but-not-quite Washington small town). I’ve written quite a lot already, but this one is about three women whose marriages are either falling apart, or have fallen apart, and, in two cases, the traumas leading up to it. One of the three recently lost a baby to a heart problem, and her marriage is doing what marriages often do, for couples who lose a child. One had her fiancé literally leave her at the altar. And the third…well, I took her a little personally. She’s an obsessive rule-maker, and her rules (for herself and her children) make her feel safe. But they also make her no fun and have led to her husband being miserable and wanting out.

Speaking as a person who has lots of routines and rules that make me feel safe, and who worries that it makes her no fun to be around…ouch. But it was also a useful read for me.

I’m not as bad as she is. But I have tendencies…

Current Reads

Right now, I’m reading Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales, which is…well, it’s fine. But not outstanding. I’ve also just started The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (not to be confused with the 2008 film of the same name). It’s fun, so far, but I’m only 46 pages in, so I don’t have a lot to say yet.

Well…catch you on the other side of the end of the world. Please vote.

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