Never Afters, by Kirstyn McDermott
I don’t tend to read the works of Kirstyn McDermott. Even though she’s a friend. And not for the usual reasons that friends give, either; instead, it’s because she is too good. Kirstyn tends to write horror, and I tend to find her work just too distressing.
We’ve also had fruitful and fascinating conversations about the nature of horror as a genre, so I’m not going to say that this novella series, the Never Afters series, isn’t horror. Perhaps they’re gothic and gothic is the overarching category and horror fits in that, as I believe Kirstyn would argue, and perhaps other people would formulate it differently; I don’t know. All I know is that these fairy tale continuations, while not exactly the stuff of Disney-fied dreams, also aren’t quite the stuff to bring me nightmares. So that’s nice.
#1: Burnt Sugar. Now adults, childhood long behind, Gretel is a baker and Hansel is drunk more often than not. So far, so not exceptional. But Gretel brought back more than memories from the gingerbread house…. I appreciated that the siblings’ past trauma was dealt with sympathetically without making them only victims (they’ve managed to build a life around it). I know I said these novellas aren’t the stuff of nightmares; maybe what I should have said is that it’s not more nightmarish than the original stories. Because the truth is that this is a horrific story, in the ‘being controlled is terrifying’ way. Very clever.
#2: The New Wife. I don’t think of Bluebeard’s story as being in the same category as Hansel and Gretel – perhaps my fairytale omnibuses (omnibi??) left it out, or I skipped over it in an early aversion to horror? Who knows! But this may be my favourite of the Never Afters. Unlike Burnt Sugar, this story begins within (what I remember of) the original: the new wife unlocking the room that she was never supposed to enter… and goes from there in a rather different direction, involving ghosts, and what I understand is a classic gothic trope – the terrifying house.
#3: After Midnight. How do you do a new take on Cinderella?? Add a few decades, make the prince-now-king as feckless as such types often are, and the now-queen mother to only daughters – and also hardened by her experiences (or maybe she was always so?). Make the story a diary, complete with crossed out sections. Make veiled suggestions about what other things might be happening. Maybe this is my favourite, actually.
#4: Braid. I’d read this one previously – I don’t remember where – but I do remember a conversation about how hair, out of its appropriate place, is surprisingly distressing. Because Zel’s hair is as surprising and unexpected as it was back when she lived in the tower. Like Burnt Sugar and After Midnight, this is set many decades after the time of the fairytale, and deals with what it’s like to live with the consequences of those seemingly romantic and dramatic events of youth. Zel’s life has been complicated, mostly in mundane but nonetheless real and emotional ways – good and bad, love and loss. You just keep living…
#5: By the Moon’s Good Grace. In some ways the least unexpected of the stories. Like The New Wife, it picks up in the middle of the classic story; this has Little Red learning important truths about who her family is, who she is, and the consequences of that.
#6: Winterbloom. Somehow I know the Beauty and the Beast story least well, since I had completely forgotten that the whole saga starts with the father picking a rose without permission. This final novella is another set some years after the fairytale. The Beast is a composer and musician, Beauty is intrigued by roses and creating hybrids; their marriage is generally fine but shows some cracks. And then they have a visitor, aaaand… well. That’s rarely without consequence. Maybe this is my favourite instead?
Alone, excellent; as a set, they show how old stories continue to have resonance, can be used to explore modern and perennial themes.
The books can be bought from Brain Jar Press.
OK: by Michelle McSweeney
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on January 12.
Another roaring success from the Object Lessons series. I had NO idea that OK had such a history. I DID know that you could use a tiny little object to illuminate significant moments in history, which is exactly what McSweeney does here: the connection between communication and technology, and the fate of OK in that – from the Penny Press in the 1830s in the US, to the telegraph and telephone and US cultural imperialism via TV and finally BBSs and social media… it’s all here.
I was also introduced to the term ‘phatic language’ and I love it. Phatic language is “language that is socially rich, but informationally empty”. All those markers that signal we’re listening and we care (in theory), including OK. I love that there’s a term for it, and I love that it has a real and important place in communication. I also love that the DARPA dudes thought email would be more like telegrams (terse, all info and no pleasantries) rather than a conversation, and HAHA sorry guys. Also apparently answering the telephone with “Hello?” was initially considered incredibly bad manners? This is a magnificent example of changing language and social expectations.
Meanwhile there’s also the fact that all those email suggestions that gmail throws at you were learned from “the Enron Corpus” – tens of thousands of emails from 2001 – is creepy and makes me even more determined not to use them.
For lovers of language and communication technology and micro history.
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind – anthology
I didn’t know this book existed until this year. It was published in 1985.
The list of contributors is just… I mean:
Joanna Russ (the only reprint)
Raccoona Sheldon! …
and that’s just the names that I immediately recognised.
It’s nearly 40 years old, so some of the stories have aged, I guess? But honestly the general issues in discussion still feel pretty real. Zoline’s “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire” – children kidnapped and swapped to stop a nuclear apocalypse – still feels like a chillingly appropriate concept. Josephine Saxton’s view of advertising is hideous and, again, not as laughably far-fetched as I might like (it is ridiculous, but also… ads…). Beverley Ireland’s “Long Shift” is remarkable for its focus on a single woman, just doing her job; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this published today. Pearlie McNeill is (was?) Australian, and I’ve never heard of her! Apparently this was her only piece of fiction? – SF, anyway. And this is where Raccoona Sheldon’s “Morality Meat” was first published, which is… a moment.
There are very few poor stories here. This is an amazing anthology.
She Who Became the Sun
Whaaaaaat a book.
And yes, I am incredibly late to this party, since Parker-Chan was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo this year (losing to A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, a massive favourite of mine so I’m glad I didn’t have to choose…).
This novel is just brilliant. One thing I will say is that it was a bit different from what I expected – which is entirely about me, not about the book. Because of the Hugo nomination, and my genre-leaning friends, I was expecting this to be a book with greater, or more obvious, fantastical elements. Nothing about the book itself made me think that! Parker-Chan’s bio says she was inspired by “epic East Asian historical TV dramas”, and my knowledge of such is below limited (although I am an Australian kid of the 80s and 90s, so does the original Monkey count?).
ANYWAY. It’s 1345, China is ruled by the Mongols – who think the ethnic Chinese are all barbarians, and vice versa. There’s famine in the south; two children in a family are told their destiny: he is bound for greatness, she is bound for nothing. But then he dies, which means his destiny is going wanting… so she decides to become him…
Epicness ensues as Zhu gets caught up in events far beyond what she imagined as a child. First as a monk, then as a warrior and a leader; always worried that heaven might catch on to the fact that the destiny she is grasping was not, actually, intended for her at all. She teeters on the precipice of failure and discovery – not sure which is worse – and sometimes through luck, more often through her intelligence and grit and sheer bloody-mindedness, she ploughs on through…
I believe this is a duology, and honestly the next one cannot come fast enough (which is rich, given how late I am to the party). The pacing was excellent, the stakes were high, Zhu is mighty and charismatic. The supporting cast are varied and intriguing – Parker-Chan writes a significant portion of the story from the other side, as it were: what’s going on in the Mongol camp, particularly from the perspective of a Chinese captive-risen-to-general, which gives the entire novel even more drama and intensity, emotion and high stakes.
What a book.
The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century
When the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist was announced, I was intrigued. I hadn’t heard of most of the titles, and I happened to have a book voucher from someone for my birthday, so I promptly went ahead and bought a number of the books.
This is the first one I’ve read. And it’s amazing. And it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize??
It’s 136 pages in length. Not all of those pages are filled, because the bulk of the book is made up of employee statements… and as anyone who’s ever looked at employee feedback will be unsurprised to learn, some people have written a couple of pages and a few have written just one sentence. And that’s it – that’s what you learn of this 22nd century workplace. It’s almost entirely from employee feedback.
It’s brilliant. There are devastating gaps, and hints at terrible and wonderful things. There are touching moments of humanity and grim reflections on work and the workplace. Have you seen Severance? It’s not exactly like that but if you put them together you are forced to start thinking more about corporate workplaces than perhaps the managers would like us to.
The workplace is the Six-Thousand Ship, and the employees are its crew. Where are they? Not quite sure; that is, it’s around a planet called New Discovery, and it’s not near Earth, but other than that – no details. Some of the crew are human, while others are humanoid: some who were born, others who were made. There’s sometimes tension between the two groups, and sometimes camaraderie. Most of their work is what you’d expect on a spaceship, but some of it isn’t. Some of the complaints are also what you’d expect – around isolation, for instance – but some of the comments centre around objects that are never fully explained, from New Discovery itself. It’s deeply familiar, because some Ravn suggests aspects of work won’t change no matter the situation, and simultaneously quite alien.
It’s very, very, clever; absorbing, wrenching, sometimes disturbing, and I loved it.
Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood
I read this via the publisher and NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.
This is an angry book.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that the anger is unjustified. Just that Mendelson doesn’t make much effort to hide the fact that a lot about Big Dairy in America makes her angry, and that the appalling lack of science around the claims for milk make her angry, and that the fact drinking milk is pushed as some mighty panacea when actually the ability to digest cow’s milk as an adult human is largely restricted to humans descended from north-west Europeans… that makes her angry, too.
Some of the most crucial sentences for understanding the point of the book comes early on: “… the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them… to digest lactose from babyhood to old age… That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults.”
The section I most enjoyed for itself was the first part, where Mendelson looks at the long history of dairying, and in particular points out that drinking “fresh” milk (which is a whole other discussion of terminology, given what happens to milk in most Western countries today) wasn’t something early herders did. Instead, they were using fermented milk – naturally fermented, from being left out in the heat. She goes through the science of what’s actually happening in this fermentation, discussing why the bacteria in the milk doing all of this doesn’t poison human consumers of such milk. There’s also a really interesting discussion about the archaeology and other evidence for dairying of various forms in numerous locations.
Science is a fairly big part of the book, which I also enjoyed. There’s a lot about what’s in milk of various types, and why, as well as how that’s connected to the digestive system of the various animals that humans choose to milk. Plus the discussion about how limited the ability to actually properly digest full-lactose drinking-milk is, among the adult human population. If you can digest milk as an adult, it’s you that’s the genetic mutation, not everyone else. Doesn’t that make all the soy milk etc-haters look like numpties.
The angry-making bit really starts when the discussion turns to the 18th century in Europe, and the way that ‘drinking fresh milk’ suddenly became imperative for children, in particular, and the idea that if children were denied all the milk they could possibly consume then somehow society was failing them. All of which is nonsense since… see above. And then, of course, it gets into how the industry makes claims, and medical types get on board, and honestly it just makes me really sad and horrified to see how outlandish claims based on ‘science’ (sometimes) that has now been superseded, or sometimes just based on a desire to make money, is still having a massive impact on how we think and act today.
Also? this insistence on drinking-milk all came as a) more people were living in towns and b) before good refrigeration and c) before adequate food-safety measures like pasteurisation (which gets a whole section here, because of the raw food movement) were in place. All of which meant a bunch of kids, in particular, actually got sick and many of them died because of the milk they were told they needed to consume in order to be healthy.
One of the reasons for the angry nature of the book is its focus on the modern American dairy industry. I’m not going to claim that the Australian industry is immensely better, because I don’t know all that much about it, but I do know that we do things a bit differently. And then there’s the way in which drinking-milk is still being pushed as necessary… to populations that are, overwhelmingly, unable to digest full-lactose milk as adults. I think that’s just appalling.
Don’t read this as a fun history or science of milk. Do read it if you’re interested in how drinking-milk got to be the thing it is today – which is genuinely fascinating, as well as infuriating. There’s discussion of Kellogg’s, and milk-drinking cults, and the furore around pasteurisation and homogenisation, and the raw milk fad as well…
Sewer, by Jessica Leigh Hester
I read this via NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.
OK, first thing to note is that you probably want a relatively strong stomach to read all of this… and you definitely don’t want to read it while eating. While it’s not revolting, there are some descriptions of sewers and fatbergs that are not the most pleasant of reading experiences.
Secondly, stop flushing wipes. No, seriously. Even the ones that say they’re flushable. Stop flushing them. They’re not really flushable. When you put something down the toilet it doesn’t ACTUALLY, magically, disappear. It still needs to go somewhere. And wipes? Oh, they do not disintegrate and become harmless like you might imagine. Stop. Flushing. Wipes.
This book is really remarkable. As with the best of the Object Lesson books, it’s personal and it’s deeply researched and it’s fascinating. Hester is convincing in her argument that sewers are vital to understand because they help us understand our past, as well as consider our future. She is also adamant that investing in sewer infrastructure is something that has been lacking (and I’m completely terrified and appalled by some of the stories about that) and is vitally important for our future. No one wants a return to typhoid and cholera in places like London. Which also means that those places without good, sturdy, reliable sewers – ones that DON’T JUST EJECT WASTE INTO THE OPEN WATER – absolutely need financial assistance in getting that done. If you don’t think that’s a priority… you’re wrong. Simple as that.
Highly recommended for the civil engineer in your life, or the person who’s always asking ‘why is it like that?”, or the person with the more-scatalogical-than-necessary sense of humour.
Also, STOP FLUSHING WIPES.
Lost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8)
Read courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in January 2023 (sorry).
It’s a Wayward Children novella. It’s always an exciting moment.
One thing I that both makes me happy and sad with some of the recent novellas is that they’re standalone. I love that they provide new entry points for readers, and also that McGuire is exploring such interesting variations on the ‘there are Doors that lead to new worlds and young kids who need them can sometimes find them’ thing.
The only reason I’m sad is that I love many of the original cast and I will always want to know more about them. But that’s definitely about me and not about the books.
So! If this is your first Wayward Children, how awesome! And if it’s your 8th, how awesome is this series??
As McGuire herself does in the Author’s Note, I will point out that the lead character deals with an adult gaslighting and grooming them. McGuire wants very much to let readers know that Antsy runs before anything actually happens, and I deeply appreciate this reassurance. I also appreciated, as the story progressed, the narrator noting that Antsy’s fear of not being believed was in fact unfounded. Which is of little use to Antsy, of course, but perhaps of enormous use to a reader.
Antsy: unhappy at home, runs away, finds a Door… which leads her to a shop with a talking bird and a very old woman, which turns out to be a shop where lost things turn up (yes, all your odd socks; kittens and my favourite frog ear cuff, too, I expect). The bird and the woman and now Antsy catalogue what turns up, help people find lost things if they can, and sometimes sell things when they know they won’t be claimed. Many Doors open from the junk shop – which is a very different premise from what happens in most of the other stories – and Antsy goes through to visit markets and to explore. It is, of course, an adventure… and things do, of course, turn out to be not quite as they appear.
I love Antsy; I thoroughly enjoyed the story; McGuire is still doing great work in this series.
Growing Up Weightless, John M Ford
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. The re-published edition, from Tor Books, is out in September 2022.
Honestly this book really shouldn’t work. It’s so full of lacunae it was like reading the second or third book in a series and not having the information to fill in the gaps. Another issue is the formatting, although I suspect that’s a matter of it being an e-ARC: there are sections where the POV suddenly changes but it’s not indicated by an extended break or anything like that. And if that’s an artistic choice rather than a formatting thing… well, I don’t particularly like it, but it did make me work harder and pay probably closer attention, so maybe that’s what Ford wanted for me. And thirdly, it’s not exactly a grand story. No explosions, no dramatic twists of fate for society, no incredible revelations.
It shouldn’t work, but it does.
It’s not a grand story: it’s an intimate one, a growing-up story – as the title suggest, ‘growing up weightless’: it’s set on the moon, not all that far into the future but far enough that there’s a settled, indeed governmentally independent, colony. And as children have done since time immemorial, some of the children of the moon are unsettled, feeling like they don’t fit in and want more/different/other. And they’re also playing games: surprisingly substantial parts of this story are the kids playing a role-playing game, as outlaws in Sherwood Forest (do I love the idea that this milieu could continue to be attractive for coming generations? yes I do).
Matt, the main character, is born into an important luna family, and is feeling the pressure to figure out what he’ll do as an adult; he basically knows, but he’s afraid to tell anyone else. He loves his friends, and acting, and the role-playing game they’ve had going for many hours now; his relationship with his family is a bit fraught. The moon is somewhere that teens can travel around quite safely, especially within their own domes; there’s excellent train networks, so you can travel between domes too – and so they do. This is pretty much how the main action happens, such as it is. This is, on reflection, a fairly claustrophobic story, as befits one set on the moon.
Along – or perhaps slightly behind – Matt’s story is his father’s, and this is where even more lacunae exist. Albin’s relationships with various figures, the decisions that need to be made for the moon’s future, even how he feels about anyone – all of this is very shadowy. Which mirrors how Matt feels about his father, really, so again maybe that really makes sense and I’m only realising as I write this just how clever and deliberate Ford was.
It probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and I am once again grateful that Tor is re-publishing Ford’s work, so that people like me get to appreciate it.
The Atlas Paradox, Olivie Blake
Read courtesy of NetGalley; it’s due out in October 2022.
This review will have some spoilers for the first book, The Atlas Six. And you really need to read the first one. Do not come to this with no prior knowledge.
This is an example of one of those books where very quickly I am pretty sick of the bullsh!t of every single character, impatient with their childishness and arrogance and lack of ability to see beyond their own selfishness… and yet I kept reading. Partly for the characters – I like Libby (and let’s not analyse that particular sentiment), and to my amusement I like Nico, and of course I like Gideon; Reina I am intrigued by. The others I find very frustrating if occasionally intriguing. But I also keep reading because I just have no real idea where Blake is going with all of this. I don’t know whether the characters are going to actually come together, or not; whether they will work with Atlas, or not; whether the world is going to end, or not. And so despite my impatience and frustration – all, it must be said, indications that Blake is skilful at creating characters; I don’t tend to waste emotions on 2D characters – I devoured this book, and am now also impatient for the third book. This situation cannot be left where it is and I need to know how it resolves.
So the book opens with Libby gone, her colleagues initially assuming she’s dead and then realising that she’s just… gone. Using his abilities, Ezra has dropped her in the past, hoping to save her or save the world or… honestly who really knows, Ezra is so messed up. The others, back in the Library mansion, are meant to spend their year doing basically an Honours project, researching their own thing. As may be of little surprise to those who’ve read the first, mostly they just don’t bother because have you ever met another group of incredibly smart people who collectively had so little interest in actually doing the work they’re expected to do? Reina is not included in that indictment. And I guess Nico isn’t either but he’s Nico, and like all the others is definitely running to his own agenda. It will also come as no surprise that things go badly for pretty much everyone at different stages of the story. They don’t cope very well with that.
There’s an enormous depth, here: Blake hints at a lot with Atlas, and with Dalton, and with Reina and Parisa in particular. There’s also terrifying potential for what could eventually occur. Both of these novels have been very well-paced; Blake uses the multiple-narrator mode beautifully to explore the variety of characters and give hints at what’s in their brains. I think, actually, that it’s using that format which makes these novels so very compelling.