Library Checkouts, July Edition

What did I get at the library this week?

First, a sff Tor Novella called The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson.  I’d seen her name here and there on book twitter, so when I spied this novella on my public library’s New shelves, I grabbed it.  The description says it’s Lovecraftian, which I’m not really into, but I read a Lovecraftian novella by Cassandra Khaw last month and really enjoyed it, so figured I’d give another reinterpretation a shot.

 

Second, I was surprised and pleased to see An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole on my library’s New shelves.  It’s a novel of the  U.S. Civil War, with a black woman protagonist, written by a black woman!  I’ve heard great things about this one in non-sff book circles, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.


                            AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION by Alyssa Cole

 

I also checked out Connie Willis’ All Clear, companion novel to Blackout, in my quest to read everything she’s ever written.

 

 

Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow

Black Feathers lives more in the horror end of the spectrum than sff, however some of the stories are by well-known sff writers, including Seanan McGuire and Pat Cadigan, so when I saw it at my public library I decided to give it a shot.  The stories are loosely connected by the presence of birds, as would be expected, but also by a sense of of impending horror, like a murder of crows lit on a harvested field on an overcast day.  Some stories, like Alison Littlewood’s “The Orphan Bird” dip more deeply into true horror, while Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” is more dark comedy that relies on cultural consciousness of mythology and popular media.

All the stories in this anthology, though, were well-written, however the standouts were definitely Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace,” and Cadigan’s aforementioned story.  “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is the second McGuire-authored piece of short fiction I’ve consumed this year, and both have been some of the most densely-plotted stories I’ve encountered.  McGuire’s characters reveal so much about themselves with so little active description on her part that it is almost as if the reader is directly absorbing the story rather than having to physically read it.  The protagonist, as it were, of this story is a teenage girl who I interpreted as being on the autism spectrum, who has developed coping mechanisms for when she has to deal with people who are unable to empathize with her way of experiencing the world, but who is also acutely aware of how the world could be, and of the constant  cultural requirement that she be a willing participant in making those people feel more comfortable around her.  And of her finally reaching a breaking point.

The presence of crows in this story could easily have been replaced by some other countable entity, and yet the corvids that get counted, every day, that get bound into a rhyme, are the perfect metaphor for Brenda’s life, being regarded as something other than human by her semi-abusive stepfather, as unfeeling and cold by her teachers and peers, but as something worthwhile and magical, as all individual humans are, by her grandmother and mother.  Ultimately this is a story about order and chaos, and McGuire’s prose binds the two together so artfully, so subtly, that the ending, though in many ways it could have been guessed at, is a complete surprise.  McGuire has a way of developing character and plot together, through each other, that makes her short fiction, as I said earlier, particularly dense, but in a satisfying way.

If you read no other story from this anthology, be sure to read Pat Cadigan’s.  Her short fiction reminds me a lot of Connie Willis’–an ironic self-awareness and a sharp eye for coincidence–yet with a piercing sense of just how complicated life can be.  “A Little Bird Told Me” is a story about dying, told by someone who, just for now, can’t die.  With echoes of Dante’s Inferno and a clear stream of world-weary prose laced elegantly with the pure heart of a science fiction writer’s simultaneous love and suspicion of technology, this story is a tantalizing glimpse into a world too much like our own, if we were living in a tv series of our own lives.  The themes are reminiscent of that long-ago and short-lived series Dead Like Me, inscrutable bureaucracy and all.

A great anthology for those who love their fantasy stretching towards horror, and vice versa, Black Feathers is for anyone looking for a side of wonderful with their weird.

Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

What
if you could get simple outpatient surgery and be able to know just how
committed your partner was, to feel their feelings and experience the intensity
of their devotion to you?  And what
if every person in your life, besides your partner, had a stake in your choice,
and felt no compunction about telling you just what you ought to be doing? 

Briddey
Flanigan just wants to do her job and enjoy her relationship with Trent Worth,
whose focus on advancing at Commspan is rivaled only by his commitment to send
Briddey flowers for every romantic occasion, including getting an EED—an
implant that is supposed to allow bonded couples the ability to feel each
other’s emotions.  But everyone at
work, and in her incredibly Irish family, has an opinion on whether she ought
to get it, and the grapevine at Commspan seems to know what she’s doing before
she even thinks about it.  Almost
like they can read her mind.

Willis’
brand of cozy speculative fiction is in top form in Crosstalk.  The
constant bombardment of communication, relationships, and work ramps up the
frantic pace of the novel right from the beginning, creating suspense and
obfuscating the secondary plot to allow a slow build-up that the reader can
savor.  Willis’ talent for
description and scene building shine in Crosstalk,
bringing Briddey, her friends, and family to life in a way that the reader
won’t want to leave.

Readers
who enjoy speculative fiction not tethered to hard science fiction or dystopia
settings will enjoy the questions Willis asks in Crosstalk while staying anchored in the human story of the novel.  Chance and chaos are prominent
motivators in this novel and it will appeal to those looking for a story that
feels real.  Anyone who has enjoyed
Willis’ work in the past should definitely check out this novel, as well as
those looking to dip their toes in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Inside Job, by Connie Willis

Taking on charlatans is a full time job for Rob, editor, writer and publisher of The Jaundiced Eye.  And for the past eight months Kildy, blockbuster movie star-turned reporter, has been battling the psychics, mediums, and other assorted con artists in the greater Los Angeles area with him.  Until they encounter a channeler with a particularly strange show, and find they just may have met their match.

Willis has crafted a page-turner that goes just far enough into the absurd to keep readers hooked.  Though Rob is the narrator, the story is told mainly through dialog, allowing the reader to discover the mystery along with Rob and Kildy.  Rob’s place as the somewhat unreliable narrator forms a nice contrast to his normally authoritative role as skeptic and collector of facts.  The novella takes many twists and turns within its 100 pages, making this more than the story of a man secretly in love with his co-worker it could be.  Being influenced by the crime noir genre, the characterization is somewhat underdone, but the story does not suffer for it.

This is a great, quick read for anyone who enjoys Connie Willis’ work, or noir-inspired fiction.  Those who enjoy science fiction on a micro level—rather than the universe spanning genres like space opera—will find much to like in the way Willis explores science vs. pseudoscience.  Readers of Twain will enjoy the quick characterization and punchy dialogue of this novella.

Bellwhether, by Connie Willis

Bellwhether explores
the intersection of chaos and order. 
Two scientists, Sandra Foster and Bennett O’Reilly, working at the HiTek
corporation meet through a chance encounter and find themselves drawn to each
other more and more as the story progresses.  Sandra studies fads and their causes, and her narrative is a
constant catalog of trends of every sort. 
Bennett is trying to study chaos theory.  Both keep finding that there are too many variables involved
for them to get anywhere in their research.

Into
their lives walks Flip, the inter-office assistant and cause of all the chaos
in everyone’s lives at HiTek.  Flip
is the embodiment of ineptitude and laziness, almost a caricature of the office
assistant that nearly everyone who has worked an office job has encountered,
and also a constant embodiment of current trends in Boulder.  As Sandra begins to notice shifts in
fad behavior, Flip is almost always exhibiting the newest fads and trends. 

Willis
imbues Bellwhether with multiple
levels of irony as she develops this novella.  It is an idea-driven narrative that, while giving every
character a well-developed personality, is not overly concerned with dramatic
plotting.  The action comes out in
the ways in which characters are drawn together and pushed apart, how they
respond to change and create meaning from the circumstances in which they find
themselves.  Above all, Bellwhether is a story about human
nature.  It explores how even the
most anti-social behaviors can become the norm and foundation of social
interaction; it examines how change can be both a movement from one place to
another and also a constant that defines us as societies.

Readers
looking for a quirky, thoughtful story with high concentrations of trivia and
history will enjoy this novella. 
It will also be of interest to readers who enjoy speculative fiction
for, while it doesn’t have fantastic or overtly science-fictional elements, it
still participates in a 3part of genre fiction concerned with what-if
scenarios.