Review: Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

WHAT. A GREAT. BOOK.

WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I confess that I delayed reading Ninefox Gambit, recent well-deserved winner of the Locus Award for First Novel, given that all the reviews I read of it said that it was SF as hell and explained absolutely nothing. And look: That was correct information. Several people explained to me in advance the whole deal with calendrical rot and what it all meant, and even so, I was at sea for the first AT LEAST forty pages, like to the point that I did not feel confident I had grasped the meaning of any of the events that had unfolded up to that point.

Ninefox Gambit

“Wow you are doing a great job selling this book Jenny” I KNOW I KNOW but let me get to the point.

Well, no, okay, I’ll summarize it first. I’m not going to worry too much about the technical aspects, since you won’t understand them anyway until you’re halfway through the sequel. Bear with me. A very orderly Order Muppet indeed, Cheris, has been tapped to deal with a group of rebels (heretics) who are adhering to a different belief system (calendar) that threatens the stability of the government (hexarchate). But she can’t do it alone. Too Orderly. To help her out, they are depositing the world’s most ever chaotic Chaos Muppet, Jedao, into her brain. Once upon a time he was the Ender Wiggin of the hexarchate, winning vicious battles against impossible odds, right up until the day he slaughtered millions of people — enemies and allies alike — and then turned his gun on his own staff. Does he have a hidden agenda? Read it and find out!

Okay, now I will get to the point. If you have interest at all in watching brilliant people be mercilessly competent while simultaneously battling their inner demons, Ninefox Gambit is your book. (Black Sails may also be your show but that’s going to be a longer, separate conversation.) The trick for Jedao is attaining a victory without any use of the hexarchate’s best magic tricks, against an enemy with unbreachable defenses. The trick for Cheris is not to be (ideologically) seduced by Jedao, who has nothing but his words and his brains for weapons but who tends to triumph against insane odds every time he gets the chance. And the trick for the hexarchate, of course, is to avoid another mass slaughter by a general they chose to put in the field.

I loved this book, y’all. I do not tend to enjoy SF (or fantasy, actually) where there is lots of new terminology to remember, but I fell into Ninefox Gambit like a ton of bricks. I had a severe and annoying case of mentionitis. I drove the far, far drive to a separate, far-away library branch because I couldn’t wait for the library holds system to acquire the sequel, The Raven Stratagem. This is going to be one of my best books of 2017, and I want you to love it as much as I do.

Here is what I can do for you. If you wish to read Ninefox Gambit but aren’t 100% sure you can roll with the very ess-eff-y SF-ness of it, I give you permission to tweet at me (@readingtheend) or email me (readingtheend AT gmail DOT com) with any questions you may have at any stage, and I promise I will answer them, to the level of detail that you require.

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

WHAT A DELIGHT. If you’re one of those people who laments the decline of the rom-com as a movie genre, and you remotely enjoy YA, I must insist that you read When Dimple Met Rishi. I yearn and yearn for it to be made into a teen movie. Whatever happened to teen movies? Where are the Can’t Hardly Waits of the new generation?

When Dimple Met Rishi

So the deal is that Dimple, a budding coder, gets permission from her parents to attend Insomnia Con, at which the winning app design will receive support and backing from legendary computer person Jenny Lindt. BUT THERE’S A CATCH. Unbeknownst to Dimple, her parents have set her up to meet with Rishi Patel, the son of their friends and a (hypothetically) perfect candidate to become Dimple’s husband someday. Are they paired up to be partners in app design? YOU KNOW IT, PAL.

Where to begin with things I loved about this book. Like, number one, I love a romantic comedy, and When Dimple Met Rishi is a perfect romantic comedy, from the disastrous first meeting to the wonderful side characters with their worthwhile subplots to the mushy, swoony declarations of love at the end. I truly do miss the era of fun, sweet, soft-hearted rom-com films, and When Dimple Met Rishi filled that hole in my heart.

Number two, I adore and cherish Dimple for her strengths — her brilliance, her drive and ambition, her love for her parents even when they’re driving her batty — as well as for her weaknesses. She acts quickly and on instinct in ways that can make her a little mean and dismissive, which resonated with me as a somewhat mean and dismissive person. I loved her for always coming back to her mistakes and trying to find ways to make them right, and I loved that she let herself see Rishi for who he was, rather than just what he stood for (the Ideal Indian Husband).

Number three and oh so much of this, I love that Menon let Rishi do emotions. This is a boy who wants to grow up to be a father and husband, and it is vanishingly rare to encounter such a boy in fiction (even though I have encountered several of them in real life). He’s gentle but not weak, and he stands up for Dimple from the first moment they meet, and it’s the damn best.

Is there Bollywood dancing? Yes there is Bollywood dancing. Are there rude rich kids who get put in their place? Abso-damn-lutely. When Dimple Met Rishi. Do yourself a favor and read it ASAP.

Thanks to Janani, among others, for raving about this book so hard that I had to read it. ETA: Aarti is my review twin today! Check out her review also!

Everything I Learned from the Best American Science and Nature Writing This Year

Ha, ha, just kidding. How could I possibly enumerate every single thing that I learned from this year’s edition of the Best American Science and Nature Writing? Impossible! I have already forgotten most of it! My brain is a leaky sieve and I am lucky even to remember my blog password in order to log in and write this post!

Best American Science and Nature Writing

I read this as part of the #24in48 Readathon, which was great except that right as I got to the end and I was all like “nailed it, book finished, no more science to be learned here,” and then they had an appendix with a list of like twenty more science articles to look up and read. I haven’t done it yet BUT I WILL. My thirst for science information is vast and all-consuming.

Or, okay, my thirst for science information is quenched by periodically reading a bunch of pop science journal articles, but like, better than nothing, right? And there’s no need for judgment anyway! Don’t you want to hear what all I learned? With links?

From Rose Eveleth’s “Why Are Sports Bras So Terrible,” I learned that there are many many obstacles in the way of us getting awesome sports bras, and one of them is that companies don’t want to sell sports bras in which women don’t look adorable BECAUSE APPARENTLY WE HAVE TO JUST LOOK CUTE ALL THE TIME GODDAMMIT.

I did not exactly learn about AA’s evidence problem by reading Gabrielle Glaser’s “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” but it reminded me how frustrating I find it that as a society we’re weirdly unwilling to consider alternative treatments for addiction than this one that’s ineffective for the majority of people who use it because it’s basically church.

By contrast, I had no idea that bed rest for pregnant ladies wasn’t backed by science. Apparently it’s NOT. Or so says “The Bed-Rest Hoax,” by Alexandra Kleeman. Gasp.

From Charles Mann’s “Solar, Eclipsed,” I learned a bit more about national efforts in India to figure out how to get electricity to the many rural areas that don’t reliably have it. The Modi government was for a time the darling of the renewable energy crowd for its apparent commitment to solar energy (although NOT the darling of the religious liberty crowd, given Modi’s Hindu nationalism, I understand? idk correct me if I’m wrong), but has since shifted more to the use of coal energy (eek).

For some reason I thought the only nail salon scoop we had recently was about the terrible pay in nail salons in New York. But no, Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” has made me feel that regardless of pay conditions at any given nail salon, it’s still p. unethical to go there. Because the nail salon workers apparently all have horrific health problems as a result of the terrible nail chemicals. This is exactly why I stopped eating microwave popcorn, guys.

Rinku Patel’s “Bugged” taught me something I am now furious I haven’t seen in science fiction stories: Astronauts have immune system problems when they get back from space! Space is too sterile! Astronauts get home from space and their systems are all screwed up and their immune systems go haywire and produce wacko allergies out of nowhere. Get on this, SF.

In bleak and terrifying news, Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One” told me that the Pacific Northwest is going to absolutely have a massive earthquake and it’s going to be devastating and we’re not prepared. It was scary af. Also, I learned that the length of time an earthquake lasts is a reasonable proxy for how severe an earthquake it is. Y’all California people probably all knew that already but I am an earthquake noob. I only know hurricanes.

Anyway, thanks, science. I am sad about some things and excited about other things. I guess that is the fate of deeply engaged science learners like myself.

Speculative Tales from the Caribbean

Happy Wednesday! We had to push the podcast back due to me not getting it edited in time, so I instead bring you the glad tidings of Akashic Books, by way of Karen Lord’s collection New Worlds Old Ways.

New Worlds Old Ways

Have you heard about Akashic Books? They are great. They are an independent publishing company that seeks out and publishes work by “authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.” As you might suspect based on that description, they are based in Brooklyn.

but seriously, Akashic Books is awesome
heehee that was a good burn on Brooklyn

Anyway, one of the many ways in which Akashic Books is great is that it has an imprint called Peekash Press that’s dedicated to the literature of the Caribbean. And one of Peekash Press’s books is New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, edited by Karen Lord. This is great because SFF was my first love and remains my true love, and I am always thrilled to expand my knowledge of SFF authors who aren’t white or American. You can zip through New Worlds Old Ways in a few hours (it’s short!), but you’ll come away with many new authors whose work you can investigate thereafter.

A few highlights:

“A New Life in a New Time,” by Portia Subran, is about a slightly hapless office worker called Bernard who works in cryonics; the story speaks to both office politics and the human desire for immortality, so naturally I was all about it.

“Daddy,” by Damion Wilson, starts like this: “It was the day I buried my sister that I discovered my father could teleport.” So. I mean.”

“Cascadura,” by H. K. Williams, is about the longest-lived woman in the entire world. She has seen the end of the world as we now know it and survived into a new world. I find immortality exhausting to contemplate, and “Cascadura” really did it for me. (Cf “A New Life in a New Time.)

Check out this collection and then dive into Akashic’s whole catalog. They’re great; you won’t be sorry.

Review: Beyond Trans, Heath Fogg Davis

So it used to be that I cared what words people used to describe their gender. Not a lot, but some. Enough to roll my eyes about this or that gender description that I suspected the youths had gotten from spending too much time on Tumblr. At some point, though, I stopped caring, and I have to tell you that it is a much, much better way of life. Society wants you to care a lot about gender, and my path as I have gotten older and older is to care about gender closer and closer to zero. Are women supposed to this? Are men supposed to that?

SANSA STARK

Heath Fogg Davis’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? is a refreshing reminder that many of the areas in which we think we care about gender could do with some reexamination. He’s not actually arguing that gender never matters, although as I get older and older I more and more think that it maybe does not. Does gender matter isn’t a rhetorical question for Davis; the book explores whether and how gender matters on personal identification documents, in various sports settings, bathrooms, sex-segregated schools, etc.

A government agency such as the CDC has legitimate public health reasons for collecting and maintaining sex-specific data. However, the agency should define its use of those terms and clearly articulate the “substantial” connection between its use of sex classification and its institutional objectives. Instead of using “female” or “male” as a proxy for particular body parts, the agency may find that the more targeted language of “people with uteruses” or “people with prostate glands” is more statistically inclusive.

That is just a really good idea? Because of trans and intersex people (intersex people are as common as redheads, a statistic I read recently in Hida Viloria’s Born Both and now can’t stop repeating to people), many of the common gender definitions turn out to be inadequate. Differentiating between sex classifications that depend on hormone differences, present or absent body parts, and present or absent chromosomes enables us to have clearer conversations about what criteria are being applied and why. As Davis points out, the alternative is that we depend on the discretion of individuals like TSA agents, bouncers, or bus drivers to determine whether a person’s gender/sex matches what’s on their documents. Which is unfair to the people whose gender is being policed, and also unfair to the people being asked to police gender without any clear definitions or guides on how to do it.

At a minimum, I would like to see individual schools clearly and publicly explain whether and how sex classification is related to their organizational aims.

This is basically what Davis is asking for: Not that organizations unilaterally eliminate gender as an identifier, but rather that they take a step back and ask themselves why they need to know and what goals will be accomplished by asking this question.

I don’t always agree with Davis’s arguments — at one point he makes the case for increased use of biometrics, which seems dicey as hell from a privacy standpoint — but Beyond Trans is an excellent book that asks its readers to stop taking gender for granted and instead to think critically about what gender differentiation is accomplishing in all the spheres where we think it’s important. Is it actually important? Davis asks, or is it just a habit? And if it’s the latter, why do we need to keep caring about it?

Thanks to the lovely Monika for reviewing this book recently and reminding me of how much I wanted to read it too!

Review: Take Us to Your Chief, Drew Hayden Taylor

Between Neil Gaiman and Nalo Hopkinson and now Drew Hayden Taylor, I may need to reconsider my stated position that I am not a fan of short story collections. The emended version of this position — triggered by my reading of Drew Hayden Taylor’s collection Take Us to Your Chief — is that I am not a fan of short story collections unless they are SFF.

Take Us to Your Chief

Take Us to Your Chief is a wonderfully charming, clever, melancholy collection of what Taylor describes as Native sci-fi. The author is an Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations, and indigenous traditions and ways of living and thinking inform every one of these stories. In one, dream-catchers turn ominous; in another, a newly born artificial intelligence tries to find a place for its soul within native beliefs.

I was aware of Taylor as a playwright — I keep trying to convince my library to order alterNatives but so far no dice — and, more recently, as a humorist, but this is my first introduction to his SFF. As he notes in the afterword, this book exists because he didn’t have enough money to pay potential contributors to a Canadian Native sci-fi anthology; so it may also have been his first introduction to his SFF. At times there’s a little clumsiness with conveying complicated premises, but his writing is very assured overall. He weaves Native influences into familiar types of stories (first contact, government’s-gonna-get-you, etc.) in a way that makes them seem utterly fresh.

I also love the idea of a Native SFF anthology. Does that exist? Can someone point me to it? Failing that, I’d love to be pointed towards more First Nations / Indigenous / Indian authors of speculative fiction. Any recommendations?

Review: Thorn, Intisar Khanani

“I don’t know what justice is,” I tell him. “But I am trying to get what I can right.”

The above paragraph is a perfect summation of why I loved Thorn, and of why I love Intisar Khanani so much as an author. In Thorn, as in all her books, she writes about characters who may be in bad situations but who are trying their best. Characters who are trying their best are balm to my frazzled soul in these difficult times, so I am pushing Intisar Khanani’s books on people like they are ebags dot com packing cubes. Consider them pushed upon you. Go get you some.1

Thorn is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” It’s a good fairy tale, full of details with that specifically fairy tale brand of weirdness. In this one, a princess is sent to marry a prince in a faraway land; on the way to her wedding, her chambermaid changes clothes with her and ultimately marries the prince in her stead. The true princess has to serve as the goose girl and comfort herself by talking to the head of her horse Falada, whom the chambermaid has had killed in fear that Falada would tell the truth about her. (Go with it; it’s a fairy tale.) Matters proceed from there.

Thorn does a typically (for Intisar Khanani) sincere and sweet retelling of this story, providing a backstory for the fairy tale weirdness that absolutely works. The maidservant, Valka, has made a deal with a wicked witch to switch bodies with the princess Alyrra, so that the witch can gain access to prince Kestrin. If Alyrra tries to tell what happened to her, the witch’s spell will choke her to death. She takes on the nickname Thorn and bides her time to see if she can save the prince from the witch’s curse.

In the hands of an author whose faith in people is less genuine, Thorn could have been a mess. Huge swathes of the plot depend on people appreciating Thorn for not being a jerk in a world where jerkiness runs rampant. If her goodness had felt forced, or their gratitude untruthful, the book would have fallen apart. But I am particularly in need of books where people are kind because they are trying to be good, even when the circumstances around them may not be conducive to goodness. In Thorn, the characters try to be good because they want to see goodness in the world, but they can only control themselves and their own actions. Which is, you know, pretty hashtag-relatable right now.

Who here still hasn’t read Intisar Khanani? How can I convince you to give her a go?

  1. I am still not being paid by ebags dot com although I think that I should be because I have convinced three people this year alone to buy their product.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang

Okay, so y’all know how I am on a quest to one day know everything?

What I have discovered on this quest is that it is possible to become interested in just about anything. Most things (maybe all things? I have not fully tested the hypothesis) are only boring until you know enough about them to get past the 101-level stuff, and then they quickly become very very interesting indeed. It’s like that thing where you’re never more than one really good story arc away from loving a certain superhero in comics? Seems weird now, but a few short years ago, I thought African history was boring.

I KNOW. I KNOW.

Or to give another example, I’ve never been hugely interested in East and Southeast Asian history, but recently I learned a little bit more about Chinese history while reading up on the terracotta army guy, and I learned a little bit more about Vietnamese history from my Enormous Genocide Book, and now I’m kind of feeling like I should start dipping my toe in those waters. Like, the Opium Wars? Gotta know about that, right? That shit was insane!

So I think the stages are:

  1. Don’t know/care about the topic and feel fine about it
  2. Don’t know/care about the topic but feel guilty about it
  3. Feel guilty enough to grudgingly read an article/compile a mini-reading list about the topic
  4. Read a little bit about the topic but then feel annoyed that I still don’t know enough to speak with any authority on the topic
  5. Become mildly-to-very obsessed with the topic

I have been at Stage Two with economics since oh, around the end of the Bush Jr presidency, when the economy was shot to hell and everything was terrible and I couldn’t understand one damn explanation as to why. (Of course, the definition of terrible has since been reset by the Trump presidency and now basically has no bottom so I shouldn’t have worried my pretty little head about it, really.) I reached Stage Three like around maybe mid-2014, and reading 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism has nudged me into Stage Four.

Everyone I talk to regularly is now glancing at the exits as they contemplate the prospect of living with me if I should reach Stage Five with economics, the topic I have always claimed is the most boring topics in the entire fucking world and from which, therefore, they have probably felt they were secure from having to hear all about nonstop for weeks.

–my friends and relations, probably

All of that is to say that while I appreciated 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism for the critical eye that it casts on myths of the free market and why they are misleading, I do not feel I understood more than, oh, 30% of what the book was telling me. 30% is a generous estimate, really. The thing is (this is always the thing at Stage Four) that I do not know enough information to have any means of assessing the information 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism was providing me. I am a babe in the woods when it comes to economics. I hate being a babe in the woods. I HATE IT.

Here’s the one single thing I feel absolutely certain I have grasped and can believe: Ha-Joon Chang says early on in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism that the free market only seems free because we take for granted many market regulations such as immigration control. Because immigration control prevents the “free” market in developed countries like the US from capitalizing on cheap labor from developing nations. As soon as Chang said it, it seemed obvious, but that had never occurred to me before.

Anyway, I guess I now have to learn everything about economics. God damn it.

Review: Strong Female Protagonist, Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

Who here follows webcomics on the regular? I need to know so you can tell me your secret, because I am always poking my head into webcomics and then forgetting to keep track of them. Even ones I really love, like Check Please! I just checked Check Please right now and guess the hell what, she’s updated since I last checked in, and I didn’t even know about it. Shit.

(WordPress’s SEO analysis feature right now is like WHY ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT SOME OTHER COMIC IN THIS POST ABOUT STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONIST yes yes good point WordPress, I’ll get down to business so you can relax)

Strong Female Protagonist

Strong Female Protagonist is an ongoing webcomic the first volume of which my library recently acquired (yay!). It’s about a superpowered girl named Allison Green who has given up on the superhero life and wants to be a normal girl attending a normal college (well, normalish — she goes to the New School). In the aftermath of her life as a superhero, she’s begun to question the very concept of superheroes, whether her work made the world better in the old days, and whether she has the capacity to make the world better now.

(The full run of Strong Female Protagonist is still available for free online, or you can buy the trade paperback.)

The grounding point for Strong Female Protagonist1 is its belief in the fundamental decency of human beings, which is something I need right now, even if at times it seems hopelessly naive. It’s been hard this year to keep looking for the helpers, and hard to keep being a helper or even believing that there continues to be value in being a helper. Allison faces these same fears, and she continues, throughout the book, to try to find the good in people and to be the best version of herself.

Also, there are jokes! And the comics creator have done something very sweet, which is to retain the hover-over text from the webcomic in tiny captions at the bottom of each page. When Nimona became a book, some of the little extra-features that came from being a webcomic were lost, and I was sad about that. Yay for Strong Female Protagonist for retaining them.

But seriously, please tell me how to keep on top of webcomics. Help me, Obi-Wan Ke-Internet. You’re my only hope.

 

  1. “Jenny are you saying the book title a lot in the hopes that WordPress will forgive you for not saying it at all in the first paragraph?” I dunno maybe.

Review: Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a copy of Spoonbenders from the publisher for review consideration.

Spoonbenders

Frabjous day! Daryl Gregory — one of my favorite new(ish) SF authors — has a new book out! Spoonbenders follows the adventures of the Telemachuses, who long ago achieved fame and fortune as the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing feats of telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis for secret CIA projects and live television audiences. But that is all twenty years in the past, and matriach Maureen Telemachus is long dead. Then Matty, the only son of human lie detector Irene Telemachus, discovers suddenly that he can astral project.

The above summary is roughly how the book was advertised, and it is a correct description of events. BUT, the thing that it does not convey is that Spoonbenders is one of my favorite type of books, wherein an array of disparate plotlines culminate in one massive, climactic Event where all hell breaks loose yet somehow still manages to resolve every plotline. In the case of Spoonbenders, that event is Zap Day, 4 September 1995, the date on which the clairvoyant Buddy Telemachus stops being able to his own — or anyone else’s — future.

I tell you this because Spoonbenders is slow to start, and I want you to stick with it. In the beginning, it prominently features the con-happy male members of the Telemachus family. Patriarch Teddy shops for ladies to pick up at the grocery store; eldest son (and sporadic telekinetic) Frankie plans a theft that will allow him to pay off his debt to a local mobster; and fourteen-year-old Matty discovers his new powers while lusting after his older step-cousin, Mary Alice. Yawn.

As the book goes on, though, we spend more time with Irene, whom I adore, and with Buddy, who is constantly trying to work around the bits of future he’s foreseen to produce the best possible outcomes for the people he loves. Daryl Gregory has a knack for teasing out the small, mundane implications of his wild premises, and he gets at some genuinely fun (and sad, and weird) ideas with Irene and Buddy’s powers.

Plus, Zap Day makes for a terrific climax: all the pieces click perfectly into place, and we get to see each of the family members at their strange, unselfish best.

There’s a very minor subplot that bugged me. (Spoilers.) In a flashback, Buddy goes to a prostitute called Cerise. The book uses she pronouns for her and casually makes reference to her cock — which I thought was terrific as far as it goes. Later on, though, Buddy finds this same person, who now goes by Charles and works as a waiter, and for whom the book now uses he pronouns. Again, fine, gender can be fluid, etc., etc. But Charlie says, nervously, “I’m not in that line of work anymore,” and I dunno. It felt like the book had set up Cerise as trans to begin with, in this refreshingly unfussy way, only to align her transness with her career as a sex worker. I wasn’t wild about it. I’d love to hear other folks’ opinions.

Apart from that and the slow start, I enjoyed Spoonbenders a lot. It’s Martin Millar meets Sylvia Browne meets American Shameless, and I’m about it.