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Reading: 08 February 2018

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire., 2018.

In the subgenre of portal fantasy, children are liable to stumble through a doorway into a world of magic, daring, and adventure. Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas asks the question: What happens to these children after the adventure, once they return to our world? Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school for such children as they attempt to process their fantastic experiences, adjust to life back upon our comparatively mundane planet, and dream of a chance to return to their magical homeland. Beneath the Sugar Sky is Seanan McGuire’s third Wayward Children novella to be published by McGuire’s second book in this series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was a prequel, and Beneath the Sugar Sky picks up shortly after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, the first book in the series.

I think Beneath the Sugar Sky was my favorite one yet. And that’s saying something, because both Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones were superb.

In the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire writes likable, delightful, and diverse characters, and I get seriously attached to almost all of them. In Beneath the Sugar Sky, we get introduced to a new character, Cora. She’s the main character, through whose eyes we experience the story. Cora is a new student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, and she’s a mermaid! Or at least, back in her portal fantasy universe, she was. She’s a swimmer and a runner, she’s kind, self-conscious, and brave, and she’s fat. I note that she’s fat because it’s important to her character, and Seanan McGuire writes and characterizes Cora so well. It’s sad and absurd to say it, but it’s unfortunately too rare that writers include fat people in their stories, and it’s even rarer when fat people are the main characters of a story (and even rarer when the story doesn’t centrally focus on the character’s size). Instead, Seanan McGuire writes a developed character through whose eyes I deeply enjoyed experiencing the story, a character whose size is only one fraction of her complex identity.

Although Cora may be the main character, I’m not sure she’s the protagonist. In Beneath the Sugar Sky, we also meet another new character, Rini, who literally falls out of the sky. Rini shows up with a quest: she needs to stop her mother Sumi from being dead so that Rini doesn’t disappear and get erased from existence. Rini’s from a nonsense world, which explains the unique logic behind her quest. Rini is a fun character; she pulses with nonsense, color, and energy, and she has high stakes motivating her to accomplish an impossible quest—if she can’t stop her mom from being dead, she won’t exist! The balance between Cora and Rini works great. Rini drives the story forward, and Rini’s nonsense is all the more strange and enjoyable when seen through Cora’s viewpoint. (Cora herself went to a world of Reason.) To my pleasure, Kade and Christopher, who both originally appeared in Every Heart a Doorway, also join in on Rini’s quest. I loved getting to spend more time with both of them, to learn more about their back-stories, and to see them take on a new challenge.

It has to be said: Seanan McGuire handles diversity so delightfully well. Basically all of her characters have a marginal identity along some axis (or more than one axis), and in the Wayward Children series, McGuire makes space for main characters with identities that are all too rare in fiction: Nancy, the main character in Every Heart a Doorway, is asexual; Jack, the main character in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is queer; and Cora in Beneath the Sugar Sky is fat. Another character in Beneath the Sugar Sky has a physical disability. Another character is Mexican-American, and another character is transgender. In all cases, Seanan McGuire pays attention to how these identities affect and shape the characters, but she also writes round, developed characters who are so much more than just their marginal identity.

Beneath the Sugar Sky significantly deepened the world-building for the entire Wayward Children series; I think this was my favorite aspect of the book. The first book, Every Heart a Doorway, introduced readers to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children and attempted to categorize fantasy worlds along two axises: Logic and Nonsense, and Virtue and Wickedness. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a beautiful and moving story, and it dove deeply into the back-story of two of my favorite characters, but it didn’t ultimately contribute much to the greater world-building of the Wayward Children series. Beneath the Sugar Sky does. It examines the connections between worlds and how those connections affect people, inter-world travel, and magic, and in doing so, Beneath the Sugar Sky answered a few questions I had leftover from Every Heart a Doorway.

Moreover, the world-building in this series is outstandingly unique. As Seanan McGuire further develops the universe in which this series takes place, she also deepens my own understanding of the whole subgenre of portal fantasies. After reading Beneath the Sugar Sky, I now swear that McGuire has hidden a dissertation on portal fantasy subgenre within her Wayward Children series. I want more of this series because Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books are fun stories told in beautiful prose with delightful and diverse characters, but I also want more of this series because I want to read more of McGuire’s developing dissertation on portal fantasies. In the meantime, while I wait for the fourth volume in this series, I find myself already wanting reread the first three volumes, this time in chronological order.

Seanan McGuire has written a fabulous series. If you enjoy portal fantasies, gorgeous prose, or delightfully diverse characters, read Sean McGuire’s Wayward Children series. I recommend you start with either Down Among the Sticks and Bones or Every Heart a Doorway.

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor., 2018.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up right where Binti: Home left off. So much so, that I recommend reading Binti: The Night Masquerade immediately after reading Binti: Home. I didn’t do this, and consequently I was a bit confused for the first couple chapters.

Binti: The Night Masquerade is delightful and surprising. There were at least two moments in the book that made me pause and ask myself, Wait, did Nnedi Okorafor actually just do that? I wasn’t just surprised, but blindsided. Near the end of the novella, I finally started picking up on what Nnedi Okorafor was actually attempting to do with Binti: The Night Masquerade (and the whole Binti trilogy actually). At that point, I started to have immense fun watching Okorafor put it all together. I’d say more, but I don’t want to risk spoiling a delightfully surprisingly book.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy of novellas is one of the most unique and surprising things I’ve read, and I want to re-read the whole thing so that I can better understand, appreciate, and savor it.

The Plays of Roswitha translated by Christopher St. John. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim was a 10th-century German canoness, dramatist, and poet. She’s awesome. She was one of the first, if not the first, person to write drama in the West since classical antiquity. In her plays, Hrotsvitha tries to Christianize the work of Terence, the Roman comic playwright. In a prologue to her work, Hrotsvitha mentions how many of the nuns of Gandersheim Abbey enjoyed the plays of Terence for his beautiful Latin and his comedy despite the immoral content of his plays. Terence’s plays not only offended the sensibilities of medieval nuns—his plays offend modern sensibilities as well. In Terence’s play The Eunuch, a man disguises himself as a eunuch in order to rape a woman whom he lusts after. But it all turns out okay (according to Roman sensibilities) because he marries her at the end of the play. You can imagine why medieval nuns would feel conflicted reading his work. So in her six plays, Hrotsvitha takes the comic disguises and misunderstandings of Terence and reworks them into plays that not only glorify God but also deeply honor women, celibacy, and faith.

Hrotsvitha’s plays are funny. Some of the humor is intended, such as one scene when a man attempts to rape three Christian virgins and instead, through the grace of God, mistakes dirty pots and pans for the women and ends up covering himself in soot. Some of the humor in Hrotsvitha’s plays, however, is created through the act of reading these medieval plays through our modern sensibilities. The characters often seem simple, naive, and overly zealous in their faith (as well as overly excited by the prospect of martyrdom). However, for being so committed to medieval values (especially celibacy) Hrotsvitha is refreshingly contemporary in her call. She values celibacy, yes, but she doesn’t stigmatize or look down upon the prostitutes in her plays. She doesn’t worship a harsh God of rules, as we might imagine of medieval Christianity. In Hrotsvitha’s plays, the paramount sin is despair, losing faith in the immensity of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace. Two of her plays feature prostitutes who convert to Christianity, and while the plays definitely look down upon prostitution generally, Hrotsvitha still treats her women characters with respect and admiration. Indeed, the heroes of Hrotsvitha’s plays are the women, not the men, which is—how to say—fucking awesome, especially considering her historical context.

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. 10th-century German canoness. One of the first, if not the first, person to write drama in the West since classical antiquity. Feminist par excellence. Yeah—I kind of have a crush on her some days.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard V. Reeves. Brookings Institution Press, 2017.

In Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves examines the problem of class in America. Although Reeves doesn’t absolve the “one percenters” of their sins, his critique is aimed primarily at the American upper middle class—the top twenty percent. Reeves argues that the upper middle class is not only privileged in general terms, but also engages in unfair “opportunity hoarding,” that is, privileged in ways that directly harm the rest of society. Reeves examines the role meritocracy plays in class stratification and argues that the upper middle class create an unfair “glass floor” to pass their status down through generations, at the cost of true upward mobility for the bottom eighty percent.

The book is written in generally accessible prose, is great on details, and gives the reader a few clear take aways and action items. If you’re in the upper middle class (or think you might be close to it), read this book and think it over carefully.

Posted on 8 February 2018.

Tags: reading

2017 in Reading

Here’s everything I read in 2017:

  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 5 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • “The Venus Effect” by Joseph Allen Hill
  • Liselotte and Witch’s Forest 2 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  • The Four Pillars of Investing by William Bernstein
  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • The Last Witness by K.J. Parker
  • Star*Line 40.1 ed F.J. Bergmann (poetry)
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  • Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Pansy by Andrea Gibson (poetry)
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 6 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • Our Super Adventure by Sarah Graley (comics)
  • Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker
  • Finding My Elegy by Ursula K. Le Guin (poetry)
  • How to Think About Money by Jonathan Clements
  • The Pocketknife Bible by Anis Mojgani (poetry)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Community and Growth by Jean Vanier
  • The Fall of Fergal by Philip Ardagh
  • Heir of Mystery by Philip Ardagh
  • The Rise of the House of McNally by Philip Ardagh
  • Arcadia by Tom Stoppard (play)
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
  • The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket
  • The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket
  • Liselotte and Witch’s Forest 3 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 7 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • “Semiotic Disobedience” by Sonia Katyal
  • Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 8 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
  • The Churn by James S.A. Corey
  • The 2017 Rhysling Anthology ed David C. Kopaska-Merkel (poetry)
  • Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
  • The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar (play)
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 9 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • The Things We Do For Love by K.J. Parker
  • Killing Gravity by Corey J. White
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 10 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt
  • Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 11 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • Fruits Basket Collector’s Edition, Vol. 12 by Natsuki Takaya (manga)
  • Y: The Last Man – Book One by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (comics)
  • Y: The Last Man: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (comics)
  • The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang
  • Theatre Topics: Volume 25, Number 3, September 2015 ed Gwendolyn Alker
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • Stunt Water by Buddy Wakefield (poetry)
  • Dwarf Stars 2017 ed Robin Mayhall (poetry)
  • The New Rosary in Scripture by Edward Sri
  • Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig
  • Star*Line 40.2 ed F.J. Bergmann (poetry)
  • Y: The Last Man: Safeword by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (comics)
  • Y: The Last Man – Book Three by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (comics)
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
  • Screaming by John Reinhart (poetry chapbook)
  • Y: The Last Man – Book Four by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (comics)
  • Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Y: The Last Man – Book Five by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (comics)
  • Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
  • Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell
  • Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace
  • Educating for Insurgency by Jay Gillen
  • Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
  • Nightmare Magazine Issue 49: POC Destroy Horror! ed Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid
  • Star*Line 40.3 ed F.J. Bergmann (poetry)
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie
  • Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 ed John Joseph Adams
  • How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks
  • Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

No joke, 2017 was a productive, delightful year in reading for me. As a slight disclaimer, however, I will note that on the above list, I have labeled which reads were plays, comics, and poetry, but I have not labeled which reads were novellas—and I did read a lot of novellas last year.

Now, let’s look at some highlights.

Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie is my new favorite author. She’s the space opera goddess for our times. Last winter, I read her Imperial Radch trilogy, a profound and enjoyable meditation on empire, identity, and justice. And this past autumn, I read her new book Provenance, which is basically most of the awesomeness of the Radch trilogy condensed into a smaller tale in a new, fascinating civilization. Ann Leckie is a masterful world builder. She pays careful attention to the details of dress and food, she has a keen eye for class differentials, power imbalances, and issues of justice, and she brilliantly and successfully experiments with gender, politics, and aliens. I kind of want to write a dissertation on her.

Fruits Basket

Fruits Basket is Danae’s favorite manga series. I understand why. I also love it. The series features a huge ensemble of well-developed, likable characters who grow and mature together within a beautiful web of mutual relationships. It’s one of those series where, by the time you finish reading it, the characters all really feel like your friends. It’s fabulous.

Y: The Last Man

My old community-mate Pat introduced this comic book series to me. Y: The Last Man tells the story of Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, the only two survivors of a mysterious plague that instantly kills every other mammal with a Y chromosome. It’s a post-apocalyptic adventure that’s fun, interesting, pulpy, enjoyably stupid, well-plotted, tightly-paced, and featuring great characters. It’s tons of fun.

Nonfiction Hits

I read some great nonfiction this year as well. Stand out nonfiction books are:

Awesome Novellas

I read tons of novellas this year. My four favorites are:

Unlikely Exploits

Philip Ardagh is one of my favorite children’s authors because of his Eddie Dickens series. This year, I finally got around to reading one of his other series, the Unlikely Exploits trilogy. This trilogy is one of the most delightful, genuinely surprising things I’ve ever read, and I actually like it more than his Eddie Dickens series (which is still very close to my heart). The three books in this trilogy are:

  • The Fall of Fergal by Philip Ardagh
  • Heir of Mystery by Philip Ardagh
  • The Rise of the House of McNally by Philip Ardagh

The Expanse

The Expanse remains at the top on my “Generally Recommended” list. Put simply, The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey is the most fun I’ve ever had reading—yes, I find it more fun than Harry Potter. The first book in the series is Leviathan Wakes. Go read that. This past December, I read Nemesis Games, the fifth book in the series, and like every other book in the series, it totally rocked.

The series also has a TV show (also called The Expanse) airing on Syfy. It’s third season starts soon. Go watch it. To my mind, it’s the best show currently on air.

Posted on 4 January 2018.

Tags: reading

Reading: 19 December 2017

Provenance by Ann Leckie. Orbit Books, 2017.

Last winter, I read Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie, which make up the Imperial Radch trilogy. I loved that series, and Provenance secures Ann Leckie’s place as my current favorite writer.

Provenance is a smaller tale than the trilogy, which is understandable—it’s a self-contained, standalone novel. Provenance takes place in the same universe as Ancillary Justice, after the events of Ancillary Mercy, but in a different pocket of the universe. This is a fun setup: we get to see fallout from the events of the trilogy, but we also get to be immersed in a whole new culture. I enjoyed reading Provenance after the trilogy, but it can also be read on its own.

Provenance takes place in a different society than Leckie’s Radch trilogy, which allows her to world-build an entirely new culture—one of Leckie’s signature strengths. Most of the action in Provenance takes place in Hwae, a republic obsessed with vestiges, relics of important persons and events. Leckie pays careful attention to gender, dress, food, politics, and power differentials in creating the Hwae civilization, and it pays off. Provenance has an enjoyable narrative, but for me the sweetest parts of the book were the world building. Especially the aliens. Ann Leckie is a joy when she writes aliens.

Interestingly, I noticed that the structure of Provenance is basically an miniature version of the Imperial Radch trilogy. Ancillary Justice and the beginning of Provenance are wild, space opera adventures. Ancillary Sword and the middle of Provenance are political dramas uniquely shaped by the idiosyncratic cultures Leckie creates. And Ancillary Mercy and the end of Provenance raise the stakes, neatly intertwining action, character drama, and political drama.

I strongly recommend this book, but I also have to note that it isn’t entry-level SF. Leckie makes casual, unexplained references to space elevators. The Hwae have a third gender, complete with invented pronouns. (Awesome!) Provenance isn’t hard science fiction, so you won’t get lost or confused about technical details. In fact, there are hardly any infodumps in the book, but that means there’s a good chance you’ll end up lost or confused if you’re not familiar with common tropes of the genre. I think Provenance is awesome and I recommend it widely, but I also want to note that if might not be for everyone.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 ed Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

My favorite stories were:

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Rosa Brooks is a Georgetown law professor and the daughter of left-wing antiwar activists who has worked with the State Department and Human Rights Watch. She is also married to a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and has spent a couple years working inside the Pentagon. That is to say, she’s in a really interesting position to write about the military, and she’s written a really interesting book. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything is a lot of things: a memoir, an anthropological survey, a piece of journalism, and a law journal article. It’s great.

Brooks begins with a survey of the modern US military. She writes:

Modern military personnel […] analyze lines of computer code in Virginia office buildings, build isolation wards in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, operate health clinics in rural Malaysian villages, launch agricultural reform programs and small business development projects in Africa, train Afghan judges and parliamentarians, develop television soap operas for Iraqi audiences, and conduct antipiracy patrols off the Somali coast. They monitor global email and telephone communications, pilot weaponized drones from simulated airplane cockpits thousands of miles away, and help develop and plan for high-tech new modes of warfare, from autonomous weapons systems operated by computers using artificial intelligences to DNA-linked bioweapons.

That is to say, the US military does a lot of things not traditionally associated with either the military or war. Brooks surveys these functions and outlines how this state of affairs came to be. Brooks is less concerned with the outsize role of the Department of Defense compared to, say, the State Department—where others might argue that the military should stick to just war, Brooks is more concerned that whatever the military does, it does well. Brooks is most concerned about the dangers of a degrading boundary between war and peacetime and how the post-World War II order is being subverted and challenged in dangerous ways. The nature of war is changing, Brooks argues, and we are sliding into a state of perpetual war. Brooks puts forth an important argument that we need to develop new institutions and norms capable of protecting human rights and the rule of law in this new era.

This is a kick-ass book, although I recognize it isn’t for everyone. I recommend this book if you get excited by questions of sovereignty, international law, and the use of force. I recommend this book if you’re intrigued or agitated by the drone war or Guantánamo Bay. I also recommend this book if you want to better understand the functions of the modern military. If this all sounds cool, but you’re not ready to read a 350 page book, click here to listen to Rosa Brooks discuss How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything on an episode of the marvelous Lawfare Podcast.

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey. Orbit Books, 2015.

Nemesis Games is the fifth book in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. I read the fourth book, Cibola Burn, back in August 2016 and blogged about it back then.

The Expanse is my favorite book series and the most fun I’ve had reading. Go read Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, right now. Also, The Expanse has been adapted into a TV show on Syfy. (The show is also called The Expanse.) The TV show is also amazing. Go watch it right now also.

Nemesis Games, in particular, was another solid addition to the series. It had great character moments, a couple fabulous moments of space adventure awesomeness, and marked a striking turning point in the series.

Posted on 19 December 2017.

Tags: reading