My July Reading Log

Fiction:
Demon Fighter Sucks by Katherine Crighton is short fiction at Apex Magazine. It’s speculative fiction about YouTube and grief.

After the Gold: A Twin Cities Ice Book by Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese is a contemporary romance whose protagonists are a pairs figure skating team. They’ve known each other since they were children, but their brief romantic fling ten years ago was followed by a messy loss in a big competition, so they skate with other partners for a time. When the book opens, they’ve reunited and are about to compete in the Olympics. It’s not a spoiler that they win, given the book’s title. Brendan Reid has been in love with Katie Nowacki for a really, really long time; but Katie, who struggles with anxiety, has never really thought about what she’s going to do when she can no longer skate. Plus Katie has always felt Brendan’s well-off family in the city of Minneapolis looks down on her for coming from a Wisconsin farm, an issue Brendan has to learn to understand. I liked that the characters had realistic issues as people, to contrast with their near-symbiotic relationship on the ice.

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer is an utter delight. I had read Kritzer’s story Cat Pictures Please back when it was nominated for a Nebula Award; it didn’t win the Nebula, but did win a Locus and a Hugo. CatNet is a social media site created and run by an Artificial Intelligence; Steph is a teenaged girl whose friends are all online on CatNet, because she and her mother are on the run from her violent father. The story begins with yet another sudden move to a small Midwestern town, but this time Steph makes a new friend in meatspace, artist Rachel. Then the rug is pulled out from under Steph when her father locates her, and it’s up to the AI and Steph’s friends to keep her safe with very little adult assistance. So much Found Family! So many robots! I enjoyed this book all the way through, and felt it really earned its happy ending. Highly recommended.

Star Wars: The Crystal Star by Vonda N. McIntyre is a media tie-in from 1995, which I finally read because of the McIntyre memorial guest of honor panel I will serve on at the 2021 online Readercon. I am not hugely familiar with the vast and complex Star Wars Extended Universe, but I was easily able to follow this story. Set during the New Republic after “Return of the Jedi,” Han and Leia have three children under six: a pair of twins and a younger son, Anakin, all able to manipulate The Force. The novel opens with the children being abducted, while Han and Luke and See Threepio are away on a mission to find more Jedi, and Leia is practicing politics. Leia and Chewbacca and Artoo Deetoo go after the children in Leia’s ship, Alderaan. The older children have their own plotline as they use their Force abilities to help them escape. Eventually, the plots link up, and in the course of the rescue, a threat from the old Empire is defeated. Among the elements of the adventure plot, McIntyre created several alien species and made use of some astonishing astronomy that would be a fabulous CGI creation if it were a movie today.

Enterprise: The First Adventure by Vonda N. McIntyre is a Star Trek tie-in which I read several times after it came out in 1986; however, I don’t think I’d opened the book in the last couple of decades at least. The story begins with the promotion of Captain Christopher Pike and the appointment of a young, recently-promoted Captain James T. Kirk to be captain of the starship Enterprise, whose crew is not expecting a young war hero to be competent. Expecting the “five year mission” of exploration, instead Kirk is assigned to ferry a vaudeville company on a tour of starbases, both to improve morale and to demonstrate a presence to the nearby Klingon empire. Original characters include Lindy, the young woman who manages the company and cares for a genetically engineered winged horse; Stephen, a Vulcan attempting to experience emotions; and the primary antagonist, a Klingon woman from the Rumaiy minority who is not fond of either Starfleet or the Empire. Sulu and Uhura have good roles. As you might imagine, the simple mission turns far more complex, and includes First Contact. This time around, I especially noted the theme of aliens who could speak to humans but nonetheless be so far beyond them, real communication is impossible.

Superluminal by Vonda N. McIntyre is one of my lesser favorites by this favorite author, mainly because I wasn’t terribly interested in the central plot or its conceit. To achieve superluminal (faster than light) travel, Pilots have their natural hearts replaced by mechanical ones, which they can adjust via practiced biocontrol; what they see and experience during the superluminal transit time is unknowable to unmodified humans. Unmodified humans who serve as crew must be unconscious during transit, or they die…until one human crew member does not. There are a lot of intriguing ideas in this book, but as when I first read it, I really only cared about Orca, a human Diver, from a group genetically modified to live underwater and communicate with The Cousins, who are killer whales. The Divers are in the midst of a discussion about further genetic changes to move farther away from land dwellers. Luckily for me, McIntyre also wrote about Divers in her four-book Starfarers series, and they even make a cameo appearance in her adaptation of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. However, reading these two books in sequence, I found they had the theme of impossible communication in common. In this iteration, some humans can perceive dimensions that others can’t: “I was trying to explain. But I don’t have any words you can understand.” Also, a blue whale speaks to a human, and he becomes driven by the need to understand her.

The Starfarers series by Vonda N. McIntyre [Starfarers and its three sequels, Transition, Metaphase, and Nautilus] posits a near-future expedition, sort of a college campus in space, intended to explore other solar systems. The idea originally came from McIntyre making up a fake science fiction television show for a convention panel. The crew of Starfarer are hampered by politics on Earth as well as internal politics, but soon there is interstellar travel, leading to encounters with aliens. There are many realistic details concerning the sort of ship that would work best in these circumstances as well as the issues they might encounter. The first book in the series came out in 1989, and the ongoing influence of the Cold War is evident in planetary fears of the “Mideast Sweep.” The computing is also a bit dated; the ship has a sort of AI web called Arachne, which hints at the internet we have today, but also strongly resembles the computers in contemporaneous cyberpunk novels. Starfarers is notable for its explorations of intersectionality. The characters are from a range of races, countries, and backgrounds; three main characters are part of a polyamorous family group; and there’s even some exploration of class issues. It’s not perfect by any means, but I still feel it’s an important marker in the historical development of the genre. Like the other McIntyre books I re-read this month, her Sense of Wonder about the universe comes through clearly, even though in this series that’s a bit cluttered up with a large cast of characters. Their interpersonal dramas can be a bit too real, or perhaps like the tv miniseries Starfarers never was.

You can read more about Vonda McIntyre in A Brief Guide to the Extraordinary Fiction of Vonda N. McIntyre by Meredith Smith, at Tor.Com.

Nonfiction:
Making Comics is by Lynda Barry, author of “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” which I used to read every week in our free local weekly print newspaper. Remember those? Free weekly newspapers?

Barry also teaches comics, and importantly, her students are not necessarily artists; she points out that a lot of us mostly or entirely stop drawing in childhood, which definitely describes me. Barry talks a lot about drawing in the moment, and she often feels that drawings are “alive” even when the artist is not satisfied with their work. I found her approach very heartening.

This book collects exercises she uses in class. Though I didn’t actually follow along with all the exercises on this reading [many required multiple people], I did do some drawing in a nice notepad shaped like an elephant, using some of her methodology. It was fun. I am pleased with the results, and will keep drawing for a while.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande is about aging and death, particularly in the United States, and how doctors aren’t always the best at handling inevitable decline. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this, but I felt I needed to. And it helped me start making some decisions about what I want my life to be like towards its end.

In their desire to fix things, to solve people’s overwhelming health problems, doctors can recommend treatments that harm a person’s quality of life rather than enhancing it. The most obvious example is courses of chemotherapy for late-stage cancers that debilitate far more than they help; Gawande talks about how doctors are mostly not trained to talk to patients about their death, so they tend to offer more treatments instead, even when they are sure those treatments will likely not extend the patient’s life. Obviously, it can be difficult for the person’s family, or even the patient, to talk about end of life as well. While discussing the inevitable process of aging, Gawande discusses the origins of assisted living, whether in a housing complex or remaining in one’s own home and receiving necessary services there. He also talks about the origins of nursing homes and how monetary concerns and safety regulations often completely overrule quality of life, for instance forcing a person who has a high risk of falling to stay in a wheelchair rather than walk, so the nursing home can avoid liability. And he talks about hospice care, which I knew about from personal experience with my parents. Mostly, what I got from the book was I need to talk about my end-of-life preferences with those who are close to me. It’s always better to have those desires known to someone, just in case. Recommended.

Fanfiction:
got no reason to smile by Lies_Unfurl is, on the surface, about Bucky Barnes’ birthday, but it’s also about both Bucky and Sam Wilson being left behind by Steve Rogers at the end of Avengers: Endgame, and about what makes our lives worth living. It’s sweet, but also poignant.

(hold on) when you get love by AugustaByron is a full-on sweet soulbond story, with poly relationship and a lot of kindness. You could probably enjoy this without canonical knowledge of Check Please! or the relevant characters Kent Parson (a professional hockey player), Larissa “Lardo” Duan (an artist and college student), and “Shitty” Knight (soon to be a law student).

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. Her blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and occasional author interviews.
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