My February Reading Log

The City and The City by China Miéville is actually a mystery, though set in a bizarre speculative world. Two cities occupy the same space, and the inhabitants learn to “unsee” and “unhear” their counterparts. There is bureaucracy surrounding interactions between the two cities, which we see when the protagonist, a detective investigating a murder, needs information from both sides. As usual with Miéville, the world is densely built, especially politically; it’s subtly and meticulously laid out for the reader bit by bit until all the weirdness seems almost normal. I’m still thinking about the themes, some of which I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet identified.

Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren is a young adult time travel novel with a lot of quirky, weird, entertaining banter as well as realistic relationships between siblings and step-siblings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even when I wasn’t sure what was happening, because of that dialogue. The one thing that annoyed me was the word waddling, which was used a couple of times to describe the plump younger sister’s gait. It seemed a cruel word to me, not an affectionate one, though otherwise the character is seen in a positive light. Perhaps other people comprehend this word differently than I do. I did like the storytelling theme that’s an important part of the book.

I reread two Walter Farley harness racing books that I had read multiple times as a child: The Black Stallion’s Blood Bay Colt (1951) and The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt (1954), its sequel. From an adult writer’s perspective, I found it intriguing that older male mentor figures were so important to the plots of both novels. Jimmy Creech is teenaged Tom Messenger’s mentor, with some of his opinions and angry outbursts about the current state of racing offset by Jimmy’s longtime friend and partner George; Tom also learns to get along with his opinionated old uncle. In the sequel, Alec Ramsay and Henry Dailey take over the plot, with Jimmy and Tom and George making appearances. The importance of “men like Jimmy” and their advice is emphasized repeatedly; but at the same time, new and different opinions about raising and training horses are debated and shown to vary in their effectiveness. There’s a lot less character growth for the young male heroes than one would likely see in a middle grade/young adult book today, though they make mistakes and have to surmount the results of those mistakes. Mostly, the young protagonists learn to trust themselves and use both advice from mentors and their own emotions to work with horses. For the first time ever, I read a brief biography of Walter Farley, and learned that his horsemanship mentor was his uncle, which to me answers the question of why older male mentor figures are so important in his fiction.

The books also offer a requiem for the origins of harness racing, when farmers would unhitch their horses from a plow and bring them into town to race, and the annual routine of racing at country fairs. Night racing at a giant track is shown as the future of the sport, but it leaves the old guard mourning what they are about to lose and wishing the new guard could see and appreciate the fairs in the same way. A young character like Tom Messenger appreciates both types of racing while feeling that the old style is still, in some ways, better.

What made this re-read particularly interesting to me in particular is that a good deal of it, especially the first book, takes place in Pennsylvania. As a child, reading these books, Pennsylvania might as well have been on Mars. As an adult, I have lived in Pennsylvania for many years, and the names of most of the towns mentioned were familiar to me.

Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan McGuire features killer!mermaids and a large cast of scientists and other interesting people, some of whom get their faces eaten, alas, so I had to stay braced for that. However, I loved the worldbuilding of the siren creatures and their physiologies and hunting techniques, the sort of thing that would have likely been left out had this been a disaster movie instead of a book.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon is a dystopia set on a generation ship, which I found gripping but also frustrating, which means it’s a great book to generate discussion. As usual, I wanted more exploration of how the society worked on a day-to-day level, for instance about how each deck had its own language and culture and even technology. Though there was some of that, I think the goal was more of a thought experiment about how people cope, or don’t cope, with an intensely stratified, racist and fascist society, using an analogy to chattel slavery and plantation culture in America. To me, it felt like speculative fiction leaning towards literary fiction.

Aster, the protagonist, is neurologically atypical and seems to have gender dysphoria or be non-binary; Aster also seems to be a genius, and has some advantages from association with The Surgeon, a highly ranked position. It’s stated that fertility is down and people are exhibiting more gender differences, but it’s unclear whether this is a result of radiation exposure are of the oppressive society, or both; oppression of women and to a lesser degree, non-cishet people happens throughout, but it’s a subset of the various oppressions happening. I speculated that fear of change resulted in oppression of anything not considered cis-heterosexual. Given the sometimes miraculous medical advances shown (for the healing of life-threatening wounds to Aster, for example), I was surprised there wasn’t more fascist intervention in bodily integrity.

It’s unclear how the societal structure on the ship, the Matilda, started out when the ship left The Great Lifehouse, the home planet; by the time of the book there are huge disparities between life on the privileged upper decks versus the oppressed lower decks, reinforced by racism and colorism. The dark-skinned lower deckers work the fields while the upper deckers are at leisure, with better food, environments, and medical care. I assumed this was meant to indicate that among humans, hierarchy always seeks to replicate itself. It explores slavery in a confined environment that reinforces the feeling of being trapped, hopeless, and enraged.

What left me unsatisfied with the book was disappointment with the resolution; I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was left feeling adrift, because it didn’t feel like the rather sudden final events solved anything except, maybe, for a couple of people. Perhaps that was the point, that there can be no good resolution to such pervasive inequality; there can be escape from the situation, but that escape may not be a total victory, and it might not be possible to save anyone but yourself.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly is a memoir by the astronaut, which frames the year he spent on the International Space Station with the life journey that led him there, from distracted, terrible student to test pilot for fighter jets to space shuttle pilot to astronaut (you get that title after you first fly in space). I got this book at a talk Kelly gave at the University, shortly after the book had come out, but didn’t start reading it until this month. I found it gripping, especially all the little details about being in space, and living in such close quarters with only a few people, for a long time. It was also interesting to read his perspective on various events throughout his time with NASA, including the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia; the people who died were his colleagues and friends. Things I learned: a space walk takes a really long time to prepare for and to finish up, and is utterly exhausting; it’s harder to defecate in space because gravity isn’t helping you; there is so much stuff on the ISS in so little space, and it’s so easy for things to float away, that it is easy to lose things like tools for literally years. Highly recommended if you want to learn more about the experience of being an astronaut. I am really looking forward to learning more about the “Twins Study” as it progresses; he and his twin, Mark, are both astronauts, and they gave permission for their DNA to be studied and compared, to see what changes happen from Scott’s long mission in space.

Though I bought Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide about a decade ago, it took me long enough to actually read it that there is now a reprint edition. The colonialism, racism, and gender disparities contributing to violence against indigenous women (and men) described in this book are sadly still extremely relevant, and though details today might be different, the systemic problems are still present and still harming people; but people are also still fighting those systemic problems.

Sex in Georgian England: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s by A. D. Harvey is more academic and more depressing than the title would perhaps suggest, though I did appreciate the author’s occasional dry humor. There were a lot of statistics about divorce and criminal proceedings brought against prostitutes and gay men. A useful book, but less ethnographic than I had hoped.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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