The Space Between Worlds

I normally don’t discuss covers much, but this time I will.

The anglophone books available to me are more often than not UK editions.  Sometimes there’s no difference from the US covers, sometimes there’s a huge difference, but never before have I encountered such a mood whiplash between the two.

US edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
US cover, courtesy Crown

Going strictly by the cover, I would assume that we were looking at a fluffy romantic comedy in a sci-fi setting. Either that or a parallel lives kind of story, similar to My Real Children but more light-hearted. Compare that with the UK edition:

UK edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
UK cover, courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

The latter more accurately encapsulates the mood of the book for me. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the US cover, but I have a feeling that it’s probably led to a lot of disappointed readers. Is there fluffy romantic comedy hijinks? Not really! Is there a lot of grappling with the unknown and with morally repellent choices? Yes!

Is there a fair chunk of domestic violence? Also yes.

There is a lot going on in this multiverse story and my brain isn’t really built to handle those kinds of ins and outs. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I don’t know how many times at this point, and I still can’t string together the chain of events surrounding Bunny’s disappearance, the ransom note, and her reappearance without sitting down and drawing a lot of diagrams and timelines. And that’s a story where the intrigue is just the background plot for brilliantly executed scenes and snippets of dialogue—in The Space Between Worlds the intrigue is basically the entire story.

Guess I need to adhere to a stricter drug regimen to keep my mind even more limber.

Getting back to The Space Between Worlds, all of this is potentially a Me problem and not a Book problem. In addition to my troubled relationship with intrigue, I also took a break from the book for almost a whole week, which couldn’t have helped. Keeping track of the different multiverse versions of characters wasn’t necessarily the hard part, but keeping track of all the different Earths and their politics was a lost cause for my addled brain. Earth 0 is the prime, principal Earth on which the bulk of the intrigue plays out, but events on Earths 22 and 175 are also important. Not to mention I think there’s a third Earth that our traverser protagonist Cara visits, but I don’t think it had much to do with the actual plot.

Likewise there are some world-building elements that were not really laid out cleanly for my addled brain, or that were introduced way too late in the story, or that maybe I just happened to skim over. Unfortunately those elements are kind of plot-essential, so from a technical standpoint I wish they had been made clearer earlier on in the story. (Assuming that I just didn’t miss them, which I totally might have!)

But I was able to overlook all of that because I could see that the point for Johnson wasn’t “wow multiverses sure are cool.” Instead, it was more “how would multiverse traveling get integrated into the world as we experience today” and “how can the idea of parallel lives and parallel selves be used as a metaphor for Real Life Stuff,” and I was along for that ride. It seems, judging by other reviews, that some people weren’t along for that ride. And that’s okay! But since one of my own paradigms for years has been the idea of alternate universe versions of myself, Johnson’s take on the multiverse was a lot of fun for me.

Into the Drowning Deep

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Cover of Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan Maguire, writing as Mira Grant.
Image courtesy Orbit Books

So I won’t be saying anything at all about Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, except that the quality of writing on display in this book makes her childish Twitter tirade in 2017 about the awful (“awful”) job her copy editor did even more cringe-inducing.

Shoutout to Storygraph, now my preferred choice over GoodReads, for allowing me to give a full-on 0-star review.

The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.

Catfishing on Catnet

The bulk of my reading seems, more and more, to be taken up by the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club. I’m not complaining; merely observing. The book for November was the underwhelming and skimmable Catfishing on Catnet.

Cover of Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer.

I went in cheering for this book. The original short story, “Cat Pictures Please,” is a fun and flawless gem of a short story. The voice is pitch-perfect. The way Kritzer is able to build the lives of the people in the story through the wake of their internet activity is masterful.

The novel ruins everything by adding teenagers.

I know, I know. Insert the Simpsons meme here:

Two shots of Principal Skinner from the Simpsons. In the top he looks concerned, and the text reads,
Have I inadvertently rendered myself even MORE old and out of touch by referencing The Simpsons, a show that is no longer funny? Oh well.

Let me say what I would have wanted to see in a full-length novel before I complain about what I read. I think that will maybe serve to highlight why I disliked this book so much, if I can properly sketch out my expectations.

First and foremost, I would have preferred to spend all of my time with the AI narrator. Maybe the premise would have worn thin, but then again, maybe it wouldn’t. I also would have preferred it to not be YA. The original story featured grown-up humans, after all, and I also can’t stand YA.

On a more substantive level, I would have wanted to see a complex, philosophical and slow-burn character-driven story: maybe a coming out bildungsroman, maybe a queer romance…you get the idea. That kind of approach would have been truer to the spirit of the original story and a more interesting thing to do with the premise. Something with nuance, something with depth, something that made you work a little bit to infer what was going on off page. Off screen?

And I name queer aspects specifically because 1) that was the focus in one of the three vignettes in the original short story, and 2) because queer themes make perfect sense: the internet is where a lot of, well, everything happens these days, including awful Trans Discourse TM, and at the same time, it’s a place where trans and queer people of all ages can find support and information in a world that’s not quite ready to support them yet. An AI character is also a great means of examining social norms from oblique angles, like in the Ancillary Justice  and Murderbot series.

If Kritzer had written a book like that, it would have been amazing.  But alas, she didn’t! Instead she wrote a Wacky Spielbergian Young People Doing Scary Things adventure, where our gang of misfits all neatly check off a panoply of GLBTQ+ and racial identities in a way that feels like a white cishet writer trying to play representation Bingo.

The teenagers aren’t nearly as fun to spend time with as Alice, and I skimmed the human chapters as fast as I could without losing the plot. (Needless to say, I did not enjoy the portion of the book where Alice is taken offline.) Not only were the humans just naturally last interesting than Alice, but…

Look. I was once a weird teenager on the internet among many other weird teenagers on the Internet. Some of us did, indeed, form a tightly-knit “found family” of life-long friends. What Kritzer is attempting to capture here was basically my life from age 15 to 23, and since I know it so well, I can see all the more clearly where she failed.

The cloying syrupy sweetness between the teenagers in Catfishing doesn’t read as “genuine emotional connection” so much as “desperate fawning for approval.” The two or three mild-mannered interpersonal conflicts that arise, presumably Kritzer’s attempt to make the group dynamics more realistic, are all resolved within less than a paragraph of dialogue and thus have the exact opposite of the (presumably) intended effect. Where is the shitposting? Where is the trolling? Where are the Problematic Opinions? Where are the memes?

This failure to capture the sense of being at home on the internet is what ultimately tanked this book for me. If you’re like me and you want a thought-provoking story about how our lives, relationships and identities play out on the internet, give this one a pass. But if you want something mindless that won’t take a lot of focus or emotional investment, I suppose you could do a lot worse.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Right before the pandemic broke out, I stumbled my way into the neighborhood book club—loudly and awkwardly, because I’m an American and unable to stumble into anything except loudly and awkwardly. My original intent was to make sure I kept up with my Swedish reading, but more often than not any given selection will originally be in English. Their Swedish translations are of theoretical interest for me, even practical, and sometimes I read them (Dödsynden) and sometimes I don’t (The Fifth Season). This was one of the latter.

I was tempted to tag this as memoirs but chose not to, since the book is classified as fiction above all else—its (purported?) origins as a letter to Vuong’s mother notwithstanding. Since I don’t know Vuong personally and am hardly in a state to speak to the details of his personal life, taking it as fact feels presumptuous. Fiction it is.

This was an excellent book to follow The Crying Book, as their structures are rather similar. This might be another reason why I was tempted to tag On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as memoirs; it nestled into my memory alongside The Crying Book almost immediately. Vuong and Christle both favor short, brief scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order and are instead connected more by theme. Nonetheless, they both manage to keep narrative tension sustained throughout the book, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a random jumble of unrelated events. Maybe Christle was inspired by Vuong, in the end, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published a few months before The Crying Book. Maybe they’re in some of the same writing groups. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the same writers. Maybe it’s an artifact of being poets. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe, since both books also deal with similar subject matter, this sort of float-like-a-butterfly approach to tackling grief and too-young, too-tragic deaths.

That’s about the the only original thought I have about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It won an incredible amount of prestigious awards; I’m sure book reviewers and judges and all the rest have exhausted anything else there is to say. But that’s my thought and I’ve shared it.

Amatka

Amatka was the last selection of 2018 for the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I read the Swedish original; the others theoretically read the English translation, but this year is such a busy time for everyone that I might have been the only one to read it.

Swedish cover of Karin Tidbeck's Amatka
Image courtesy Mix Förlag

Author: Karin Tidbeck

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.82 stars

Language scaling: N/A, read in Swedish

Summary: Vanja, a government worker, is sent to the distant colony of Amatka for a new project. Things are not what they seem, and language starts distorting reality in unsettling ways.

Recommended audience: Dystopia fans

In-depth thoughts: The first thing I did after I finished Amatka was to text my friend and fellow book club member in Austin: “Amatka was weird…thought I didn’t get some parts because Swedish, but nope. It’s weird. I’d love to rep Swedish baked goods and sci fi, but….not missing much maybe with this one.”

And that about sums it up for me. Tidbeck signals towards a very ominous past but never really clarifies it. I spent the majority of the book taking this to be a “real world” dystopia (based on real Earth and real history and set in this universe, more or less), but the ending makes it very clear we’re in an entirely different universe with very different rules, which then seems to defeat the purpose of it being a dystopia. In the end you’re left with a handful of powerful scenes (a librarian being ordered to destroy everything but the “useful” books; parents longing for affection from their communally raised children who clearly don’t seem to pay them much mind) that have no real skeleton connecting them, no unifying purpose.

Gena/Finn: Book Review

Generally positive reviews of Gena/Finn were making the rounds through some of my favorite book bloggers and BookTubers (still not sure what the capital letters rule is for that one…), so I added it to my TBR and included it in my suggestions for my Discord book club. It ended up being our selection for August and like with My Real Children I decided to get ahead of the agenda.

The cover of "Gena/Finn" by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson

Author: Hannah Moskowitz, Kat Helgeson

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.37

Language scaling: B1+*

Summary: Gena and Finn are two fans of the same cop drama show, and become close friends offline.

Recommended audience: People who have made friends on the Internet thanks to fan culture

In-depth thoughts: I had really personal reasons for being interested in this book and for recommending it for my Discord book club. Most of my friends in high school were of the Internet variety, out of a group of fans of a particular TV show. Even though I was never really active in “fandom” as such (I don’t write or read fanfiction, I don’t hoard fanart, I’m not really interested in making the things I like the be-all, end-all of my identity), the way those friendships formed online were really important to how I grew up and where I ended up in life. I don’t think there are many books that really tackle the importance (and also weirdness) of online friendships; the last time I’d read about that sort of thing was in Pattern Recognition of all things, and that was just a brief aside in what was otherwise a cyberpunk thriller.

I was expecting a story that chronicled the kind of awkward budding friendships I was cultivating in front of the computer screen in high school, and what I got was something else. Those were the bits Moskowitz and Helgeson skipped right over in favor of the kind of melodrama that could happen between any two friends, regardless of where or how they met, but with a sprinkling of unrealistic lefthand turn plot points for good measure (former child actors! shoehorned romance! tragic deaths!).

And the nail in the coffin for me was reading the book summary after I had read the book.

Gena (short for Genevieve) and Finn (short for Stephanie) have little in common. Book-smart Gena is preparing to leave her posh boarding school for college; down-to-earth Finn is a twenty-something struggling to make ends meet in the big city.

If I need the book description to tell me that Gena and Finn have nothing in common, and that one is “book-smart” while the other is “down-to-earth,” then you’ve failed in your writing. In the book they come across as quite samey, except that one of them has a history of mental health issues.

I wouldn’t recommend this for ELL readers except maybe ones who are already knee deep in fandom anyway (hence the asterisk in the language scaling). It seems the book I want to read about Internet friendships has yet to be written.

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I’m no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don’t have to wait for a respective book’s month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it’s not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Cover of "My Real Children" by  Jo Walton

Author: Jo Walton

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Patrician Cowan is living out the end of her life in a care facility for dementia patients. Unlike most dementia patients, however, she also remembers two lives. Which one is the truth? Which children are her real children?

Content warning: Some scenes of emotional abuse; a couple of uncomfortable, coercive sex scenes

Recommended audience: Alternative history fans, actual history buffs, people who are anxious over the life choices they’ve made, readers looking for LGBTQ+ historical commentary

In-depth thoughts: My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it’s not just Patricia’s life that’s different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that’s never entirely resolved: did Patricia’s choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia’s choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that’s because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There’s no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia’s memory, or why she’s drifting between two timelines (it’s most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing); it’s simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

Whether or not you want to consider it “proper” science fiction, My Real Children is a great option for ESL students: no weird alien races, no futuristic technological terms, no fantastical elements to try and keep straight. It’s simply two alternate histories that readers may already be familiar with, side by side.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

This was another selection from one of my three book clubs, this one based on Discord and more generally YA focused. The earlier book I read with them was Roar.

 

The cover of "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Author: Mackenzi Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: On the eve of his entry into adulthood, Henry Montague is going on a tour of Europe with his sister and his best friend and love interest, Percy. What starts out as a sedate tour of arts and culture ends up being a cross-continental treasure hunt.

Recommended audience: 19th century adventure novel fans; those interested in GLBTQ+ literature

In-depth thoughts: This was a book that I was really excited about. I watch a couple of Booktubers now and again, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had come up in a lot of their videos. The concept sounded interesting and these were people whose tastes I trusted, so when my Discord book club chose this book for February I was glad that, for once, I was going to read the new release I was interested in fairly close to release. (This doesn’t happen often! Too many books!)

Once, as a kid, I took a sip from a cup without looking and expected apple juice. It actually had milk. The moment of confusion where my brain tried to sort out expectations versus reality meant the drink didn’t really taste like anything, at least anything I was familiar with. It was just uncomfortable and disconcerting.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is that moment in book form. I think I was expecting a subtle, more character-driven slow burn romance; when it turned out to be a Return the MacGuffin adventure story I was disappointed and slightly uncomfortable for the remainder of the story.

Additionally, Henry (or “Monty,” as he’s known for most of the book) takes a breezy, ironic tone that feels anachronistic, too modern for a book taking place in pre-Revolutionary France. Confession: I love 19th century adventure novels, as racist and sexist and issue-laden as they are. And The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t read like one of those at all. This wouldn’t be a problem except I think Lee wants this book to be a more inclusive version of exactly those books.

To her credit, Lee gives a very thorough accounting of all of her research and inspiration for a number of aspects of the books (the Grand Tour, European politics, queer history, race relations) at the end. When it comes to Henry, she cites the journals of James Boswell as inspiration. This has made me rather keen to read them. His diaries about his own Grand Tour are a little hard to come by, but his account of traveling to the Hebrides is available for free on Kindle.

While my expectations may have soured the book for me overall (apple juice and milk), it’s still a good book that, thanks to the narrator’s unusually modern voice, can be a great choice for EFL students.

Book Review: Stone Butch Blues

It’s the end of January and I still haven’t finished reviewing all the books I read in 2017! There’s just one more after this, and then I’m back on the level (at least, as of this writing; by the time this goes up I may have finished another couple of books).

I’m in a few book clubs and lots of the books I read last year, especially towards the end, were book club selections. One of them is a bunch of random nerds on Discord and the theme is vaguely YA and SFF; another is the Austin Feminist Science Fiction club; the last one is a Facebook book club co-founded by one of my blogger friends. This one has no particular genre or focus, and so we tackle a pretty wide variety of books. Past selections that I’ve mentioned here include Madonna in a Fur CoatThe Road to Mecca, and Passing.

A cover of "Stone Butch Blues" by Leslie Feinberg, featuring a black and white portrait of Feinberg with their left hand on the side of their face, looking thoughtful.

Author: Leslie Feinberg

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Jess Goldberg, a young butch lesbian growing up in the McCarthy-era US, navigates gender, sexuality, and the labor struggles from the 60s up until the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Content warning: I’ll quote from the book’s introduction directly.

Dear reader:

I want to let you know that Stone Butch Blues is an anti-oppression/s novel. As a result, it contains scenes of rape and other violence. None of this violence is gratuitous or salacious.

Leslie

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in the history of the labor movement in the US; anyone interested in the history of racial justice in the US; anyone who needs a “GLBTQ+ 101” reader

In-depth thoughts: This book was a heavy read, but somehow compelling. Even through the worst of what Jess experienced I felt pulled along; I needed to read more. Would she be okay? Would her friends, lovers, coworkers be okay? How would everything turn out? As we get to know Jess and her strength and determination, we also meet a wide variety of characters who move in and out of her life, from sympathetic union leaders to hostile coworkers to mentors and lovers and co-conspirators.

Centered as it is on the American gay and lesbian and black communities and the labor movement in the 60s and onward, the language includes slurs and slang that might not come up in EFL classrooms (or then again, they just might). Either way, Feinberg’s style is otherwise crisp and direct, so context should make things fairly clear. At the same time, to say that the book is centered only on social justice issues is unfair. Really, the book is centered on Jess. If it’s an activist novel, it’s also in at least equal measure a character-driven bildungsroman with the beating heart of a human being desperate for love, family, and contact.

If you’re interested, Feinberg made Stone Butch Blues available for free online. You can download a PDF from hir website at the previous link, or order a hard copy from Lulu.com.