Category Archives: Reviews

Opinions are always free. Here are mine.

January Reads

A quick rundown of what I’ve been reading in case you too are looking for a book to add to your pile in 2020.

Links are to my Goodreads reviews (where they exist) and Amazon (if you want a copy):


Non-fiction

We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom

Bettina Love | Nonfiction – Education, Race

Review on Goodreads | Amazon link

review of Bettina Love We Want to do More than SurviveI wanted to like this book. Really did. Hits the intersection of issues I care about (critical theory, education, freedom) and I was hoping it would be as helpful as Chris Emdin’s For White Folks who Teach in the Hood (Amazon link)

Spoiler: It wasn’t.

Super disappointed. Now more than ever, we need good discussions of how race and poverty and systems intersect to cut off non-white folks from power and influence in America. I’ve been reading on this topic for 10-15 years now and still have so much to learn. Really wanted this book to be something I could pass on to others and say “Read this! It helped me understand things.”

The book did help me understand stuff, but not in a way most people would find helpful.  If you’re a teacher, read Emdin’s book.  If you’re just generally interested, I found Ta Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power (Amazon) to be one of my favorite (and painful) reads of 2019.

Others:

  •  The Washington War is on my list, continuing my journey through WW2 and General George C Marshall that I worked through last fall
  • American Warlords – ditto; started reading this before handing it off to someone a few weeks ago. Need to find another copy so I can finish it!

Science Fiction & Fantasy – in progress

Enjoying all three of these enough to mention them; will post reviews once I’m done. 

A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker

Amazon 
Song New Day PinskerI love Sarah’s short fiction – her Hugo-nominated story “The Winds Will Rove” about a teacher / musician on a generational starship was one of my favorite things in 2018. This is her first novel. Imagine you’re the band who played the last show before The Thing Happened that ended civilization as we now know it, a Thing that forced people into their homes and ended public gatherings for good…. and you’re trying to find an underground music scene so you don’t shrivel up and die inside.  Great so far!

Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard

Amazon
I found Aliette De Bodard’s short fiction in the Hugo nomination packets and fell in love with her gorgeous prose.  Her novella “The Tea Master and the Detective” (2018) is delightful and I highly recommend it.  This novel is the first in her Aztec-inspired series, exploring the murder of a priestess and a priest’s journey to find the killer. It’s like NCIS in history with Aztec magic! lol  I’ve enjoyed the book, and I’m going to read the next one, though I don’t find her novel prose as rich as her short fiction writing.  Still, this is a rare opportunity to see Aztec culture in fiction and I have learned a lot!

Seven Blades in Black, Sam Sykes

Amazon
I’ve been following Sam on twitter for a while now and he cracks me up! One of my favorite twitter personalities, especially his 2018 series of painful tweets about trying to get up every day and work on his novel. So when I ran into the hefty Seven Blades book at B&N, I bought a copy and started reading.   It’s been a fun read with strong lead characters. I’d say Sal the Cacophony is one of my favorite female leads in all of speculative fiction. She’s brassy and mysterious and brutally honest.  I haven’t entirely love the prosaic style of the novel. So. Many. Short. Sentences.  But the action is pulling me along and the world is interesting and I genuinely enjoy the characters.


Professional Reading

I’m working on my doctorate in education / professional leadership, and I’m trying to identify my research agenda. Been reading a lot about adaptive leadership (giving a presentation on it at work next week). Also looking into scholarship on followership (it’s a thing) as well as critical theorists’ critiques of leadership theory in general (I dig what they’re saying).

When I have something more interesting to say here, I’ll say it.

 

So – what are you reading?  What should be on my list? 

2019’s good discoveries

Sometimes in the course of my day I stop and realize that I’ve been enjoying something good which others should probably hear about so they can enjoy it to. Those moments spark these kinds of posts. 😉 Enjoy this laundry list of things that have been bringing us joy…..


Wingspan – board game, 2019

Buy it: Amazon | publisher

We just came back from a board game conference where game designers are working to refine games-in-development and pitch them to publishers. Probably should post about that elsewhere; it was a fascinating weekend in many ways. But I mention it here to note that there still aren’t many women or minorities in the roomful of board game designers — it’s predominantly full of white guys between 28 and 50.

Thus, Wingspan stands out not only for its excellent game design and beauty on the table, but also as a game designed by a woman – Elizabeth Hargraves – and developed by Stonemaier Games.  She loves birds and loves games, and found a way to take her real knowledge of birds and their habits and habitats, and translate it into something that plays well as an actual game.

Read more about Elizabeth in this NYT article.

Wingspan is an “engine-builder” game about, well, birds.  In other words, as the game progresses, you’ll collect various birds and add them to your board, increasing the number of things you can do each turn because individual bird cards have different abilities.  It’s also a “point salad” type of game, where you can earn points toward your score in a whole bunch of ways, and it won’t be obvious till you add everything up at the end who’s won.

The watercolor aesthetic is just gorgeous, and the bird drawings remind me of the color plates in my parents’ well-worn Audobon bird-watching guide that sat near the back patio window in our house so they could identify unusual birds when they stopped by our bird feeder. My parents were avid bird watchers (out our window, at least) and I kind of wish I had a similar spot outside my window too.

Give Wingspan a try. If we’re friends IRL, stop by the house and we’ll play it!

*Update: There’s a new edition available that includes a “starter pack” to get your first game off the ground quickly if you’re a new player. If you’re very familiar with Euro-style, recent board games and like learning from rules or let’s play videos, you may not need that scaffold, but if you’re buying Wingspan for a less-experienced gamer, definitely get the one with the starter set. 

Buy it: Amazon | publisher


Native deodorant

Native DeodeerantI know deodorant is a weird thing to recommend, but personal care is important, and not swabbing aluminum  on your body every day is probably a good change given the link between it an Alzheimer’s disease.

I tried a sample of Native deodorant last year on a lark, and it was such a great experience that our household has switched over.  It’s a transition, for sure, because the consistency is different. But they offer a range of really lovely scents, and it’s extremely comfortable.

Native’s product is a genuine “de-oderant” more than an antiperspirant, so this product may not be for you if you’re really adamant about not sweating at all. (But, I mean, sweat is healthy so maybe reconsider?)  But Native works great in keeping me spelling fresh, and it doesn’t irritate my skin the way some of the other “natural” deodorant products do.  Also, it doesn’t make a mess on clothes, and it easily washes out of fabrics since it’s made of natural waxes and moisturizers. I think my shirts are going to write me a thank-you note.  (see below for more on this)

Last thing – Native is more expensive than deodorant in the store, but it’s also lasting me  longer than a stick of Degree ever did. And it shows up at my house every several months (I do a subscription), meaning I always have one on the way before I run out. You can grab 1 oz testers if you don’t want to commit.

They offer scents for women or men or very neutral scents that would make anyone happy.

Buy it:  Amazon (singles) | website (singles or subscription)

BONUSDollar Shave Club — if you’re still buying razors in the store, you are 100% wasting a lot of money (or using super crappy $1 razors).

C& I share DSC monthly – we bought two of the mid-grade handles (for $5 each) and spend $5 a month to get blades delivered. I change blades every 7-10 days (I don’t shave my legs every day) and C swaps his every couple weeks since he doesn’t shave daily.  He also loves their shave butter, so we get a tube of that about every other month.

Anyway, $5 a month for razors is hard to beat, and they show up without me having to remember them. Now that CVS puts razor cartridges behind Fort Knox *AND* charges like $15 for refills, I don’t understand why everyone isn’t a member of DSC or Harry’s or similar.  Seriously.  Make this change for yourself.

Dollar Shave Club (our sharing link)


Arcadia Power

A couple years ago, I stumbled across an ad for Arcadia Power and did quite a bit of research to make sure it wasn’t a scam.

It sounded too good to be true: Arcadia Power takes over your power bill (ie: they pay it on your behalf) and you pay a small upcharge (between 5-10% more) to allow Arcadia to buy renewable energy certificates on your behalf to offset your electricity usage.

In other words, you pay your power bill, but you also pay a little more to ensure that the equivalent renewable energy is put into the grid to offset your coal or nuclear or natural gas power.

Why bother?   Two reasons:  One, we need to make renewable power more of a thing. Climate change is going to hit us all (it already is) and this is a small way to make a difference in your own power usage if you can’t afford your own solar or alternate methods.

Second, the energy industry and our politicians don’t believe people will pay for renewables. Pretty soon, I don’t think we’ll have a choice, but for now, Arcadia offers a way for you to put your power bill toward renewables to help prove that you at least give a care.

We have a referral link. You’ll get $25 off your first bill and we’ll get a few bucks off next month too if you sign up.  Check them out:  Arcadia Power


Make better coffee

So vital, I’m going to turn this into its own post!


Piri-piri

Before reading an issue of Milk Street magazine, I’d never heard of this Portuguese spice until one of the recipes in the magazine mentioned it. A few days later, we ran into a small jar of this spicy-yet-not-too-hot blend plus a bottle of it in liquid “hot sauce” form. Bought both.  LOVE THEM.

It’s spicy without being overpowering.  Hot without taking out your sinuses or causing weeping.  It pairs super well with red meats or BBQ, but I’ve used it in nearly everything — I put the dried blend into marinades and rubs for chicken, pork, and steak; we stir both kinds into a big pot of pinto beans (which I try to work into our household eats at least twice a month).  And into our grain bowls, which I will describe in a minute.

You can buy piri piri at a lot of spice shops, or hit up Amazon for the liquid stuff or the dry variety, available from many sellers — or like me, get both and use them liberally. We found it at the olive oil store on north Main Street in downtown Greenville (near the Starbucks at the base of the Hyatt).

By the way, this is the brand we are currently using of the dry spice.


Grain bowls

This is like the home-run of the Ramey kitchen in 2019. I’m going to post the recipe as a separate post and link it here.

Monday Nights – Fast Whole Grain & Protein Bowls | RameyLady

If you’re making a shopping list and live in Upstate SC, hit Ingles for affordable sesame oil (check the Asian food aisle) and the downtown olive oil store for spiced Moroccan chili oil and sherry vinegar — and piri piri (mentioned above).


Sriracha & Honey

We’re dumb. We didn’t hop on the sriracha train till, like, last year.  *sigh*  But we’re on it now! Yeah, boy!

Use it: Sriracha-Honey glazed chicken with roasted brussel sprouts


Chocolate-covered Blueberries | Trader Joe’s

I know it sounds weird to combine blueberries and chocolate–at least, it was to me– but I promise this is a delicious combo!  We regularly grab chocolate for snacking at Trader Joe’s because  it’s a good quality chocolate at an affordable price, and we rotate through a winner’s list for end-table snacking:  dark-chocolate almonds or caramels or the shockingly good peanut butter cups.

(seriously, the dark chocolate PB cups will ruin Reese’s for you, forever)

But if you’re trying to “be good” with your snacking habits, and especially if you make hot cereal in the mornings, the chocolate covered blueberries are an unusual and delicious addition.

Buy them at Trader Joe’s, of course, — but if you need an online supplier, I was slightly surprised to find that you can purchase them on Amazon


She-Ra and the Princesses of Power | Netflix
The Dragon Prince | Netflix
Castlevania | Netflix

Look, I know that I’m not 9 years old and we aren’t in the 80s anymore. But if you also remember rushing home after school to catch She-Ra or ˆ cartoons, then take a minute to watch the Netflix reboot of the series which drops the exhausting moralizing in favor of good, solid episodic cartoon stories — child-friendly but enjoyable by adults too.  It’s happy and bright and carries a great message of empowering women to be all they can be. We’ve devoured both available seasons.

The creator of the animated series The Last Airbender (one of our absolute faves) has returned with a new series on Netflix called The Dragon Prince. The storytelling has been great, and it’s a nice reminder of how good Aaron Ehasz stories are. The characters confront difficult choices regarding family, friendships, and loyalty, and the series is poised to investigate the cost of grasping after power, even in hopes of using it for good. One of the key supporting characters is deaf – and I wish that weren’t so rare in media as to be notable here.

Finally, it’s worth noting the Castlevania short sereies on Netflix, if you’re in the animated mood. This builds on the lore from the beloved Playstation games, retelling Dracula’s story (kind of) and exploring the dark consequences of human tribalism, xenophobia, and power abuses.

she-ra-and-the-princessess-of-power-main


 

Cowboy Bebop

I don’t know why it took us THIS LONG to watch Cowboy Bebop. It’d been recommended to us numerous times by friends who love ainme, but we didn’t start watching until earlier this year — and it’s been a delight. We’re savoring the episodes, watching them slowly because you can experience something “the first time” only once, and we want it to last.

Take the best atmospheric storytelling you’ve ever seen on TV and move it to space.  Take the most beautiful framing in cinematography and make it anime. Hand the score to a blues + jazz group who assembled just for this soundtrack. Cap the story at the end of a single season so there’s an actual arc to the story (rather than dragging things out like Lost or nearly any other anime).  Offer some of the most singular characters I’ve ever seen on TV. Make your opening title season sizzle with graphic design hott enough to match the opening theme song (below). Steal style from mid-century Modern and marry it to film noir and pulp detective fiction. Throw it into the future.

That’s Cowboy Bebop

You can watch it right now on Hulu as part of your subscription, buy it on Prime, or watch on DVD/Blueray (Amazon).


Better cleaning, fewer headaches

All three of these products hit my radar thanks to those random Buzzfeed articles usually titled “25 products you can’t live without” or “15 ways to make your life easier.”  Don’t roll your eyes; I often find  gems that way.

I hate the chemical smell of strong cleaning products; they give me a headache.  I can’t even be near the bathroom if my hubby is using one of the strong tub cleaners, meaning he was always on tub duty.

So there was much rejoicing when I ordered Better Life Tub & Tile Cleaner from Amazon and gave it a try.  Short review: It’s fantastic.  Spray it on after a shower, give it 15-20 minutes to work, come back and rinse the tub; scrub if needed. We think the cleaner works even after you rinse it off; I swear the tub continued to brighten after the first time we used it.  And the smell is much less “chemical” than the typical cleaner. It’s not scent-free, but it’s bearable (open a window, turn on the fan) and I don’t get headaches

Better Life – Tub & Tile Cleaner – Amazon

Second, someone in one of those Buzzfeed articles said they’ve been mixing Castille soap with distilled water (5:1 water to soap) in a clean foaming soap dispenser, saving them quit a bit from buying hand soap.  Why not? I thought.  Ordered soap and dispensers (below) and set them up upon arrival.  The soap spells very nice and it foams well. It’s not as “sudsy” as what we were used to, but I’ll take the 75% savings over high-end soaps from BBW or the increase in quality and scent over cheap stuff from Walmart.

Quinn’s Pure Castille Soap with Peppermint Oil, 32oz from Amazon

mDesign modern square glass refillable soap dispensers – set of 2, from Amazon

I fill the soap dispensers about every other month in the kitchen and bathrooms. My bottle of castille soap is going to last for the year AT LEAST.

Finally, in my search for a better laundry detergent (and I don’t have the patience to make my own), I stumbled across Charlie’s Soap, which is apparently a favorite among the community of folks who can’t handle artificial scents. We don’t have that issue, but some of our friends do and it’s made me more conscious of the sheer number of chemicals dumped into my life from all sources -for no good reason, really.

Charlie’s Soap is a simple white powder. A tablespoon or so will handle an entire load in our washer. Clothes come out sparkly clean (we wash in cold nearly all the time) and smelling “clean” without any added scents.  It’s been fantastic.

Charlie’s Soap – Natural Washing Detergent, Amazon

Also worth mentioning that since I’ve switched to Native deodorant, I don’t have to scrub white residue off my clothes before (or after) the wash.  Makes Native worth the extra dollars.


I’d love to hear what you’re currently enjoying in 2019 — whether media, food, good reads, or household helpers. Drop me a comment!

George C Marshall – the leader we needed – and still need

I’ve been reading a lot lately about General George C. Marshall. If you’ve heard of him, either 1) you grew up with me in Fayette County, PA and saw his name on the highway sign but didn’t know why, and/or 2) you have heard of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe in 1947-49 in the wake of total destruction from the war.
George C Marshall
Source: VMI
What I didn’t know (but Coart did, and he put me on to reading more about Marshall) is just how integral General Marshall was in creating the US military organization we have today, and establishing a US foreign policy for the Cold War era that might avoid hawkish bloodlust for destruction.

As Army Chief of Staff, Marshall transformed the US Military in 5 years from a woefully underfunded and unprepared force to the global powerhouse that punched the Nazis in the face. To list his accomplishments would require more words than you’re probably willing to read right now.

What really matters is that General Marshall was apparently one of the most incredible people. His unmatched personal integrity allowed him to unite a viciously divided Congress behind urgent causes like drafting men into the army in 1940 when most of America wanted nothing to do with Europe’s war (but Marshall knew it would come for us), or getting $2 billion in funding for the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) despite not being able to tell the congressmen what the money would be for, or convincing Congress to spend half a BILLION dollars a month in 1947-48 to enact the recovery program for Europe. His personal integrity anchored his reputation and people trusted him.

He was probably the finest organizational leader, personnel developer, and military strategist of the 20th century…maybe in America’s history. Churchill called him the architect of Allied victory in WW2. Time put him on the cover of Man of the Year twice in the 40s. He is likely the only active military commander to win a Nobel Peace Prize. He trained or mentored 150 of the WW2 field commanders (and higher) who supervised multiple field armies and led millions of men to victory.

Some viewed him as austere and aloof; his close peers saw his kindness, generosity toward others, deep concern for human life, love for the front-line soldier, and dry humor. The more I’ve read, the more impressed I am, and the more I wish we had leaders around right now who could muster even a slice of his strength of character, dedication to the Constitution, and wisdom.
I’ll post a couple recommended reads below, if you want to put a book on your Christmas list.
PS. For my hometown peeps – Marshall’s dad founded coke ovens in Dunbar, Fairchance, and Cheat Lake, and built his brickworks on what became the Pechins parking lot. His family lived just off the National Pike near the historic inn, not far from Jumonville / Fort Necessity, and they summered up in the mountains nearby. He did survey work on Chestnut Ridge and fished the Yough (maybe near Ohiopyle?) He left PA to attend VMI and never really returned except for a couple visits, but I feel like he’s got the stamp of Western PA all over him. Go listen to a video clip of him testifying before Congress….. I know that accent. 😉

Jumonville, PA was near Marshall’s home place and he fished, hunted, and played in this vicinity during his boyhood years from 1880-1898, when he left to attend VMI.

Recommended Marshall Reads (and Watches)

An excellent 90-min overview of Marshall that really highlights both his brilliance as well as his humanness.

The Marshall Foundation & Library offers a wealth of excellent resources. You can read plenty about Marshall’s work and biography, watch recorded lectures from visiting historians, and access quite a bit about Marshall’s life.

Ed Cray wrote a solid and informative one-volume biography of Marshall using many of the sources assembled by Forrest Pogue, Marshall’s official biographer who wrote four volumes. I don’t have time to read 5,000 pages. If you don’t either, then I recommend this one. It’s clear and easy to follow.

Jonathan Jordan is an amateur historian and practicing lawyer in Georgia who loves to write well-respected historical accounts.  Go, Jonathan!  This is the book I ordered my father-in-law for Christmas. It’s very very readable — almost to the point it would make career historians a wee bit nervous by how he leans hard into the storytelling part of history, and maybe filling in some details in between the facts.  But it’s a really good read about how FDR, Marshall, CNO King, and Sec. of War Stimson found a way through the infighting and bureaucracy to hold the Allies together during the darkest years of the 20th century.   I think you’ll like it, whether you’re a “history person” or not.

-Coart recommends Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn * if you want to read a more holistic discussion of just how completely unprepared America was in 1939 for a global war.  (Again! That’s what Marshall complains about in his WW1 memoir! We learned nothing!)  Atkinson’s first of three volumes (the other two are out as well) covers the North Africa campaign.

Marshall & His Generals * by Stephen Taaffe — I watched Taaffe give an excellent lecture on how Marshall selected top commanders for the European & Pacific theaters, and how well those men performed overall during the war.  Taaffe’s book is a combination of individual biography and overview of the major campaigns of World War II. Along the way, he offers analysis of how well each commander performed his duties in advancing the war effort and the interpersonal drama that surrounded some of them. It’s a neat lens if you’re interested in leadership studies.

Check your library for these:

Marshall —  Memoirs of World War I (1917-1919) — he asked that this manuscript be destroyed because he was so careful to remain politically neutral, and any military decision is eventually political or politicized. But his stepdaughter found this in the attic in the 70s and published it.  If you’re into WW1 history, you’ll find it interesting.  Young Marshall (he was a Captain when he went over; left as a Colonel I think) cut his teeth on the incredibly difficult logistical and organizational problems of making the US military a modern fighting force in the midst of trench warfare and horrible fighting. He would do that all again in 1939, and this shows you how he took in information, made decisions, experienced the war.

-Katherine Marshall – Together: Annals of an Army Wife — George’s second wife Katherine was his companion throughout the difficult 1930s-50s (his first wife died after they were married like 25 years). I really like her short book; it’s a nice window into a man who was so private and self-disciplined that people thought he was cold.  Nope. Marshall had a great sense of humor and was really personable to all types of people — all while being a rather imposing military commander. Her account is very sweet.

Forrest Pogue wrote 4 volumes of Marshall biography; the library will probably have them.  Overkill?  I prefer a more condensed analysis, but he’s got a billon details if you want them.
       I did read through much of the one-volume transcripts of Pogue’s Marshall interviews, and enjoyed seeing Marshall tell his own memories in his own words.  You’ll get all of the best bits in any of the standard biographies, but academic libraries probably have this work.
*These links go to Amazon. I get like a fraction of a penny from affiliate links, so click ’em if you want to tip me. 😉

Hugo Award Reads: 2019 Short Story Nominees

Howdy, all!  It’s Hugo ballot season for me, and I am in the thick of reading a lovely pile of fiction and non-fiction (and graphic novels and media and art….) so I can cast my ballot for the 2019 Hugo awards.

I’m happy to see the Hugo nominations overall return to what I’d consider an all-round high level of quality. The “sad puppies” years crammed some real crap onto the ballot, to little end. If anything, I feel like the Hugo nominations are breathtakingly diverse this year, and women writers have overwhelmingly earned nods in most of the categories.

As per my usual, I like to blog my thoughts as I complete categories. I haven’t settled on my votes in this category yet, but if I were to cast the ballot today, here’s how I would rank these excellent works.

SPOILERS BELOW  I’m not going to run any endings here, but I recommend that you try to read the stories without any prior information, including my comments below, if you can. These stories are all VERY short – you can read each one in 15 minutes, on average, so there’s no reason not to enjoy them unspoiled.

  • “STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)

Gailey packs into a very short story one of the best summarizations of the coming AI morality crisis that I’ve ever seen. It’s an excellent example of a highly crafted short fiction piece, not a word wasted, with most details implied rather than stated.

If possible, read this as a PDF rather than e-book, so you can see the markings as she originally intended. The piece is constructed as an editor’s handwritten notes on a galley, with the author’s responses. Their conversation in the margin amplifies the tension, driving home Gailey’s point with terrifying clarity. Her use of the short story form is exemplary, and I think she deserves top nod on my ballot.

If we do not begin now to recognize and address the moral code so thoughtlessly baked into our algorithms, we will not see the consequences coming until they’ve torn into us. Everything reflects a moral outlook; our choice is whether to acknowledge this and work to build tech tools that push us toward a society of fairness and goodness….or pretend that ignorance is an excuse for injustice.

Read Gailey’s story in the original layout, if at all possible. The handwritten notes make all the difference — they ARE the story here.

 

  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

As a former librarian and high school teacher and foster care relief parent, I found this story hit me in all the feels. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I processed this story in my gut, in the parts of me that carried the stress of kids who were deeply in danger when they had so little hope that life could get better. Seeing books as a balm in this world, the main character (a librarian) attempts to bring light to a young man’s existence by recognizing that “escapism” is sometimes a life survival skill.

The story structure is relatively traditional but with library catalog numbers inserted as a record of what the youth was reading, moving the plot forward.  It works.  I felt like Harrow gave us a good crisis (decision point) for the main character and a meaningful ending. Plus, I love books. And libraries.  Wins all around.

It’s possible that some might see this story as reinforcing white-saviorism, and I look forward to reading informed critique as more people read and vote in the Hugos. But I’ve known a lot of librarians and teachers who would throw lifelines to any kid foundering off the shore, so not sure that the racial tones here are the point or that they detract from the story.

  • “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)

It was really hard for me to decide which of the next two stories I would place third. What is the determining factor? Is it theme? Artistry? Precision? Interest?  The ballot-filler’s dilemma.

This story is Djeli Clark’s interesting and fantastical (yet gripping and historical) jaunt through nine Black slaves whose teeth (supposedly) ended up in George Washington’s dentures. I had to stop steveral times and hit Wikipedia to fill gaps in my historical knowledge of slave narratives and culture. I hope this story makes it into millions of literature textbooks for that reason. It’s artful and provocative.

It’s 2019 (2018 when he published it), and #resistance is more important than ever. So is deconstructing the white imperialism and colonialism that’s so tightly wound into American history, we aren’t even aware of it…..until someone sets it in our faces that America’s first president owned scores of slaves and everybody thought that was normal. Even his teeth.

  • “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)

Good fantasy stories nearly always involve magic (I’m here for it), and strong magical systems recognize that power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The best authors infuse their magic with a cost — recognizing that nobody gets something for free. If you want to bend the natural order to your will, somebody somewhere will hurt for it. And even more basic, that power comes at a cost.

Pinsker, who is one of my favorite Hugo-nominated authors in recent years due to the amazing quality of her work, gives us a reason to question the cost of power, and the way that people who wield power on behalf of a ruler are complicit in those decisions.  It’s a vital theme anytime we question the morality of our government, so I’m not surprised Pinsker wrote published this in 2018.

So. When you recognize the cost, how do you balance the personal expense (power always takes a toll) with the social benefits? And who decides who wins?

Excellent story.  I may have to move this one up. *decisions are hard!*

The next two stories sit in the growing tradition of spec-fic authors subverting fantasy tropes, usually empowering the women and breaking down class and gender stereotypes. Naomi Novik’s excellent novel Spinning Silver is on this year’s Best Novel ballot for this very reason. I enjoyed both stories, not sure how I will order them on my ballot.

  • “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)

Men. They are such heart-breakers. Erm, wait……

  • “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)

I’ve loved Brooke Bolander since I first read her blood-drenched story of cyberpunk revenge back in 2015 (maybe 2014?). Her style is straightforward with a strong focus on female empowerment. In the age of #metoo and #timesup, take enjoyment from this cross-species example of women sticking together to sort it all out.

**********

Honestly, I enjoyed every story I read in this category. Some are stronger Hugo nominees than others (depending on what criteria you use to make that determination), but that doesn’t diminish from each story’s value. If I were teaching this fall, I’d happily build a project around all 5 of these.

Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse- Hugo Award Reads

Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse, Review - Hugo Awards 2019Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first of a new series called The Sixth World (Amazon) and listed as a Best Novel nominee on the Hugo Award ballot in 2019.

I was so excited to read this book; I’ve enjoyed Roanhorse’s short fiction thanks to nominations in previous Hugo years, and I am drinking in stories from such a delicious variety of authors, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

However, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped.

The positives

Roanhorse sets this not-urban fantasy in a near future Southwest US Navajo reservation, a sliver of the 1/3 of North America that survived a catastrophic climate event which flooded much of the US and created vast upheaval.  She doesn’t take time to detail the disaster much; I appreciated not having to wade through a political or science treatise to get to the story. (I say that as someone who’s deeply concerned about the rate of climate change and the US’s stubborn refusal to confront it.)

I liked the setting and the general premise, that Maggie (main character) is a Navajo and also a monster hunter. In the fiction, the disaster has somehow awakened the old gods and some Navajo experience “clan powers” — their maternal and paternal heritage links them to powerful spirits? magic? demons? and thus they experience greatly enhanced abilities in crisis moments.  Kind of superpowers.

Maggie’s “powers” are speed and a bloodlust that lets her kill non-human monsters (and monstrous humans, if necessary) with relative ease. As a fan of the Witcher novels and games, I was ALL IN on this premise.

The atmosphere is …solid….but not so well developed that I can rave about it.  Roanhorse uses Navajo words and cultural elements to enhance the setting, and honestly I think the setting may be the strongest element of this novel.

I should highlight a great scene about 3/4 through; I won’t spoil it, but you get to see — really see — some of the magical/fantasy elements present among the Dine’e (Navajo) people, and I loved her descriptions in that chapter. I felt like Roanhorse’s writing hit its peak at that point; very little in the book otherwise comes close.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the presence of Coyote the Trickster in the story. Anyone who’s read indigenous folktales will recognize Coyote. Roanhorse uses the stock character from the tales as the basis for a genuinely interesting character who delighted me whenever he appeared.

The weaknesses

The story follows a basic mystery structure, introducing us to a few key characters and a former mentor/lover. (No spoilers; you learn that in the first chapter.)  I can’t really say this book has much “meat.”  There are some good fights, and they’re written clearly — you can follow what happens. That’s a decent baseline.  I wanted more.

Likewise, the characters are laid in with general strokes – a “strong bad-ass heroine with a dark past”; “a handsome yet mysterious partner who joins her”;  “the mentor who was also a lover but it’s complicated”; “the caring father-figure.”  And so on.  Flip through any TTRPG character creation guide, choose the urban fantasy setting, spin the wheel.

Perhaps the greatest flaw to me is that Roanhorse leans on two tired tropes. First, we have an emotionally stunted “loner” heroine thanks to past trauma. I don’t mean to downplay the traumatic impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, but violence against women is too easy of a crutch for an inexperienced writer to lean on, in place of creating a fully rounded character who makes deep and meaningful choices. I feel that Maggie is lacking here, and I hope Roanhorse gives her a better future in the next book(s). Also, her trauma isn’t linked to imperialism; it’s a tragic backstory and violent act of crime that reminds me of the boilerplate way comic books tend to substitute “gee that’s horrible!” for a genuine backstory.  I’m not asking for Roanhorse to write a book that confronts American imperialism, but … I mean…. can her story do its best work by ignoring this almost completely?

Second, the entire book is written in the present progressive. I try really hard not to be a prescriptivist grammarian, but I had to grit my teeth at this. True, the present progressive lends a sense of immediacy to the action, but this is — to me —  nearly always a gimmick to create energy in weak prose, unless it’s wielded by a genuine master craftsman. (Even then, I’m still not sure I can get on board with long fiction written in present progressive.) I desperately wanted Roanhorse to work with a better editor.

I do need to critique my assumptions regarding the grammar; for example, the folktales in Native American culture as I’ve encountered them use a simplistic story structure and vocabulary. That doesn’t make them simplistic stories or less valuable than wordy modernist novels. I guess the problem here is that I can’t tell if this book is weakly written or if it’s following stylistic choices rooted in an unfamiliar culture.  Given no clear evidence of a cultural underpinning, I see it as inexperienced writing.

I noticed that many Goodreads reviewers assumed this book is YA rather than new fiction/ new adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against YA, but most of what’s on the shelves won’t win awards for writing or deep themes and plot. Despite the descriptions of violence, this book probably fares better when compared to YA rather than the typical Hugo nominee.

*****

I did enjoy the book overall. It’s not a bad book. I’m glad to see new voices and perspectives flagged for attention in the sci-fi universe.

That said, Trail of Lightning is a very weak Hugo nominee. Not as weak as what the “Rabid Puppies” got onto the Hugo ballot in 2013-15 (hoo boy, there was some shitty writing there), but still – weak. I want to see Roanhorse succeed, and I hope this series improves as it goes, because this world deserves to be explored.

And I kind of wish a different indigenous author had been the first to land a Hugo nomination, because the first person past the post may be the only author from an underrepresented group that the average reader will ever encounter.  Roanhorse’s work does provide a perspective rarely seen in sci-fi/fantasy, and for that I am grateful.

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

Review: 2.5/5

Recommended for those who like urban fantasy or are craving a Native American viewpoint for their dystopian future. Content warning for sexual violence and violent crime.

Hugo ballot position: bottom

Review: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal – Hugo Award reads

Calculating Stars, Kowal-Reviews / Hugo Awards The Calculating Stars (Amazon)

I remember Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” from my award list reading a few years ago. It went through some nomination drama and eventually appeared on the 2014 novelette ballot (I didn’t vote that year), winning the category.  That story launched this series, as I understand it, by introducing us to Elma York – America’s first woman astronaut in an alt-history world where humans took to the stars much earlier.  You can read the novelette for free on Tor.com.

SPOILER BIT SO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE NOVELETTE:  To me, the strength of the novelette lies in the excruciating choice that Elma must make in the twilight years of her life, to accept the mission because sending an aging body into space means the radiation won’t destroy the health of a younger astronaut, but trade away her chance to spend time with her dying husband in his final weeks of life. I knew nearly nothing about Elma or Nate (obviously), but the emotional punch of that story has not faded in the least since reading that story.

OK, SPOILER FREE AGAIN.

So I was genuinely interested in this first book of a two-prequel series by Kowal that promises to fill in the background of this “Lady Astronaut” who clearly (we know from just the title of the novelette) made it to Mars.

The world Kowal builds in The Calculating Stars is detailed and precise. It’s a nearly exact 1950s USA with one HUGE difference – a meteor strikes the seabed just off the coast of DC and Baltimore, obliterating the Eastern seaboard.  The US is forced to confront the reality of impending climate change (this is a similar theme to Stephenson’s Seveneves, which I hated so much).  Two chapters in, I knew I was reading a better book than Stephenson’s.  Kowal packs in the necessary scientific explanations of how a meteor strike would alter the earth’s climate to be hostile to life (cf: dinosaurs, way back when) and man’s only option is to take to space. So… they do.

This is the story of Elma York, a Jew and “calculator” who crunches numbers in the pre-digital era, echoes similar themes that occur in Hidden Figures. (My goodness, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, drop everything and go find it (like on Prime). And I’ve got the book on my pile to read, because I’ve heard it’s far more extensive than what they could fit into a film.).

That said…. this just wasn’t the book for me. Maybe it’s me? The writing is very good – crisp sentences, solid plotting, clear structure.  The story has stuck in my brain and keeps returning to my mind, so clearly the characters meant something to me.  But it felt too much like a history book that I hadn’t signed up to read, you know?

Elma  discrimination as a woman; she’s told outright that no women will fly to Mars, though she knows (as should everyone) that eventually a colony would need women around.  Of course, she’s a crack WASP-era pilot and spunky intelligent woman….but not without flaws that could imperil her trip into space.

I’m so divided about this book. I feel like I’m supposed to root for it, like it, give it to everyone I know, and feel smug because it’s progressive and all.

I think that’s the problem. Maybe I didn’t need Elma’s history filled in for me, because I’d rather read the actual history of the women in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and for decades centuries previously) whose contributions to science have always been overlooked.

Somehow, the alt-history tale of American misogyny and innovation falls flat (to me) compared to the actual horrors of 2019 or 1969 or Jim Crow, or the actual achievements of the Apollo project and Grace Hopper and Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (America’s first black woman in space).

Rating: 3.5/5  – it’s not you, Kowal, it’s me.

Buy a copy: Kindle | Print

Recommended for folks who enjoy the space program, the nuts and bolts of the relevant engineering problems, and alt-history.

Hugo Ballot: Middle

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

Review-Record Spaceborn Few-Chambers-Hugo Awards 2019Record of a Spaceborn Few (Amazon), by Becky Chambers, is the first book I picked up this spring when the 2019 Hugo Award nominations were announced. Having read and enjoyed her first two – not without flaws, but a very promising start for a new writer — I was excited to dig into book 3 of the Wayfarer series.

Clearly, this book sparks strong reactions. Goodreads reviews fork between 4’s and 2’s. Chambers is quickly growing as an author with the sensitivity to personal and social issues relevant to space opera stories. She’s not LeGuin, but there’s a lot of Ursula in her.

RoSF is a quiet book. It moves smoothly from scene to scene, not quite as smooth and snappy as a Scalzi (he’s almost too snappy, honestly, in recent works, bordering on becoming his own cliche), but flowing from point to point like a backwood stream.

Chambers’s Wayfarers series tells unconnected stories (so far) of various people in the same universe, where Earthers had to leave our planet in generational ships due to the destructive effects of climate change. They were limping along in deep space when an alien race found them and share crucial technologies  (power production, materials, food, etc) and laid the foundation for the Terrans to join the galactic community.

This third entry in the series takes time to explore what earlier books had not — the life of the humans who have elected to live in the orbital community of still-functioning generational ships, rather than leaving to work on transport ships or moving to a planet.

In many ways, the Earth fleet is a backwater small town, and its citizens face many of the same questions as someone from Nowhere, USA:  do I stay? leave? Are there jobs here that I want to do? What will I lose by leaving my community? What would I lose if I stay?

And likewise, there are always at least a few folks moving back, either because they seek their roots, or there’s something about the life on the fleet that appeals to them. The promise of the Earther fleet: we will feed you, house you, clothe you. No one will go hungry, or be left without aid. But in exchange, you will work, you will conserve materials and resources, you will learn to be part of the community.

*****
The novel tells its story by weaving together the journeys of five disparate residents of one Earth fleet ship:  a teen boy trying to decide what he’ll do with his life, a woman whose husband is gone on long-haul mining runs while she raises their two kids alongside their extended family, a 20-something drifter who left his lackluster planet life to find his roots in the generational ships, an ship archivist who cherishes her role preserving culture and making interspecies contact, and a young woman who serves as one of the Collectors of bodies once a person dies – nothing is wasted on a spaceship; human remains are composed and become part of the life cycle of the ship.

I enjoyed Chambers’ quiet revelations of these characters’ lives and decisions. Sometimes books need to be all explosions and action — and there are moments of fast-paced drama in this novel, though not many.

But big setpiece spectacles can leave out the quiet questions that would follow any sentient being into space, until eternity — why am I here? What am I supposed to do with this life?  How do I balance the tensions of family and community obligations against my own ambitions?

Books hit you differently at different times in your life. Perhaps I would have tired of Chambers’s third novel had I read it as a teen, but as a 40-something woman staring hard at the second half of her life, I appreciated Chambers dedication to asking the human questions that persist, regardless of whether we take to the stars or stay here.

The Collectors’ rituals especially interested me. Death is part of life, so how could we make loss more meaningful and purposeful? I loved the image of a “caste” of caretakers who help families navigate grief partly through training and partly by helping return the bodies to the “ground” whence they came, to be composed into the soil for the ship’s gardens.  Rituals reveal what a culture values, and Chambers’s future humans offer us an inspiring template (though not without its flaws).

Some criticize Chambers’s world for being too optimistic, lacking the ugly edges of a real human society.  I prefer to see her as standing in the best of the optimistic sci-fi tradition o Star Trek (for example), holding firm in the belief that we all stand to gain much by seeing examples of humans who have solved some of the worst problems of humanity.

Buy: Kindle / print

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for fans of her earlier books, and those who appreciate the quiet social science of LeGuin (but don’t expect that level of craftsmanship in the writing).

Hugo ranking – I haven’t set my 2019 voting ballot yet, but I will put RoaSF somewhere in the upper half.