They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

Knife Children by Bujold

knifechildrenKnife Children
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

I love that Bujold is enjoying her retirement by writing short stories set in the various universes she created with her novels. Previously, she’d been writing in the Challion and Vorkosigan universes, but this story is set in the Sharing Knife universe.

And somehow I never actually reviewed any of the Sharing Knife quartet here?

sharingknife-series

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement (2006)
The Sharing Knife: Legacy (2007)
The Sharing Knife: Passage (2008)
The Sharing Knife: Horizon (2009)

They are each their own independent book, with plot arcs and character arcs that come to excellent conclusions, but they also form a quartet that has it’s own overarching plot arc, more so than just a series of four books. And the world they have is amazing!

It’s a fantasy world with a frontier era with towns and farms and blacksmiths homesteaders, etc, but also with a significant bit of cultural conflict between the Farmers (settlers and city people) and the Lakewalkers (nomadic tribes with a type extra ability that they consider normal but that Farmers consider magic). And then there’s the malices. (“Malices” to the Lakewalkers who hunt them, “blight-boggles” to the Farmers who don’t always believe they exist.)

The first book starts the romance between a young Farmer woman, Fawn, and a significantly older Lakewalker man, Dag, but it’s also about starting: starting, or starting again, and trying, and doing ones best, even if you don’t quite know where you’re going or how it’s going to work out. Sometimes you just have to do something and see where it gets you. I don’t want to spoil events by even starting to summarize the others books, but continue to follow Fawn and Dag as they find their place and places in the world. And a strong theme having to work to communicate across cultures but that it’s possible and it’s worth it, and it works if both sides are trying and not so much when either side isn’t.

And deal with malices along the way, because there’s a lot of adventure too, mostly to do with hunting (and being hunted by) malices.

The world building is amazing, especially when it comes to the malices, which are these magical beings that suck the life out of everything around them, and are immortal. Rather than the traditional definition of immortal (can’t be killed), Bujold has created these creatures that don’t know how to die. And thus the “sharing knives”, which are special bone knives capable of holding a death that can then be shared with a malice. And just the thought that goes into the magic and the culture and the misunderstandings and just, oh so good!

I recommend them all.

But coming back to Knife Children: it’s set a dozen or so years after the end of the book series. It follows Barr, a character introduced in Passage, as a young ass of a Lakewalker who slowly becomes a better person over the course of two books, and his teenage half-Farmer daughter Lily, who was not previously aware of her half-Lakewalker heritage. Unlike the books, there’s only peripheral malice conflict, and the plot is driven almost entirely by the character arcs, and those characters are wonderful.

I’m not sure how well the short story stands on its own, but it was certainly intended to. And I’d be interested in hearing if anyone tries it, what their thoughts are.

But mostly I want to reiterate that Bujold is amazing and I highly recommend her and all of her writing.

short stories on tumblr

Since the management of tumblr appears to be going insane as they implement rules to destroy their own user base, I’m going to recommend these stories while they’re still around to link to. None of these are fanfic, but they’re very much in that mode, ie, much more character driven than plot-driven.

How to Bury a Gentile
by Tentacular Investigations

This is a really interesting short story in the intersection of religion and supernatural fantasy, that strikes me as similar in tone to Manly Wade Wellman’s short stories in Who Fears the Devil?. If you haven’t read those, then you absolutely should as well. But in this as well as in Wellman’s stories, spirits and humans have intersecting needs and if you’re lucky, you can deal with the situation that occasionally arise without ever learning what the consequences of failure would have been.

In response to the prompt: You are the wind’s interpreter. What’s it saying? 
by CaffeineWitchcraft

This is hilarious and while I wouldn’t mind a full novel about it, it’s also a very cute if somewhat sketchy short story of high fantasy style with kings and castles and swords and sorcery. And it opens with the line, “Tell Miles, the wind whispers, that he’s a little bitch.” Which just cracks me up.

In response to the prompt: With all the instances of people getting retrieved from the fae, I think it would be pretty interesting to free a person that you aren’t looking for. 
by ElsewhereUniversity

This is really quite short, less than a full scene even, maybe half a scene?, that is pretty much exactly what the prompt says. And it’s hilarious!

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

mysistertheserialkillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite
2018

This book was very good and I highly recommend it, but it was also not at all what I expected even though I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. I’ll start by saying that it’s Nigerian noir. I haven’t read very much Nigerian literature or very much noir, so I’m not sure if it was one of those aspects or something entirely unique to the author that had the characters and their interactions fall into a sort of odd uncanny valley for me. It was unnerving and I was never quite sure what to expect. And despite it being less than two hundred pages, I had to take multiple breaks to relieve my poor nerves, as I walked around the house going, “oh no…., oh, no….”

The premise is pretty much exactly what the title says: at the beginning of the book, Korede’s sister Ayoola has just killed her third boyfriend “in self defense.” One time, sure: that’s terrible but good for her for defending herself. Two times, is terrible, how can these things keep happening to her just because she’s so beautiful. Three times, though, three times, Korede feels is just increasingly unlikely to be self-defense.

Then Ayoola shows interest in dating the guy Korede has a crush on. And events proceed.

The book was very factual and never gory but it sure ramped up the uncertainty of events as they happen while at the same time revealing in bits and pieces events from the past.

Anyway, I highly recommend this not only because it’s excellent but also because I desperately want to hear someone’s take on it. I’ve now read a bunch of other reviews online, but this is pretty much the perfect book for a bookclub where the members can get together later and talk about it with a lot of waving hands and inarticulate noises of amazement and distress.

The Book of Essie

41qvnhhvupl._sx336_bo1,204,203,200_I am obsessed with the Duggars. Yes, in this golden age of peak TV, I have devoted many, many hours to watching various iterations of their TV show and even reading gossip blogs. As someone raised as an only child, I have long been fascinated with stories about big families. As a kid, I used to LOVE the Boxcar Children books and a 1950s time capsule series called the Happy Hollisters about a family with five kids who solve very gentle mysteries. So the reality show genre following big families was made for me, and I have watched them all. The Duggars are obviously the biggest, in terms of family size, popularity, and scandal level, and they just fascinate me. I wish I could be embedded in the family, like an anthropologist, so I could truly see how their unconventional beliefs play out in real life and how much of what you see on TV is really just for the benefit of the cameras. Meghan MacLean Weir must feel the same way, because The Book of Essie is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes story of a religious reality show family, with all the hidden secrets and scheming you can imagine.

The book kicks off with Essie, the teenage daughter whose life has been lived on TV, revealing to her mother that she is pregnant. This will not fit with the family’s public image and Essie’s mother immediately starts strategizing how to spin this unexpected development. But Essie is not about to sit around and wait for someone else to decide her fate–she’s been planning for years and has her own strategy for getting herself and her baby out of the reality show rat race. The book’s point of view alternates between Essie, one of her high school classmates who get swept into her plan, and a reporter who has her own experience with how the media and the truth intersect. This cleverly allows you to see Essie’s perspective from inside her family, but also how the rest of their small town and the larger outside world perceive the reality show circus.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the book, although nothing particularly took me by surprise. The story largely goes where you expect it to and most of the twists are fairly well-telegraphed.  Although this is not classified as a YA book, as far as I can tell, it read that way to me–the main characters are teenagers and the story is presented entirely from their point of view, and it was a quick and easy read. But I enjoyed the peek into this family with its wildly different public and private faces, and I appreciated reading a story in which a cast of female characters are running the show, for better or worse.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Emotional behind-the-scenes drama

You might also like:  Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir, not a novel, but it was one of the best books I read last year and tells a similar harrowing story of a childhood in a family on the religious fringe.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

By Xiaolu Guo

chinese-english_dictionaryThis novel is described as “a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.” I was expecting a love story, quite honestly, though one with a unique approach. It is, uh…not that.

The hook, for me, was that the book is written in Zhuang’s voice, and over the length of the book, the text itself becomes more mature as her English improves. According to the inside blurb, Guo used her own journals from when she first came to London as a reference, and the developing language is really interesting to follow.

The thing is, the relationship stuff is…rough. I spent the vast majority of the book stressed over this young woman in a foreign country with very little support, convinced that any minute, things were going to go dangerously wrong. I wasn’t completely wrong, either, but traumatic events are written in the same sort of wondering tone as everything else she experiences in the West, which lessened the stress a little, I guess.

Less of a story about love, Guo is talking about how our cultural expectations, and even our individual wants and needs, can interfere with relationships, even when people love each other. Our society often addresses sexual incompatibility in romantic relationships (so many letters to advice columns!), but Guo delves into something that is mostly overlooked: emotional intimacy incompatibility. Some people like a higher amount of connective-ness in their relationship than others, and if you are very mismatched, like the couple in this novel, it will be frustrating and exhausting for both sides.

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief
by Ursula Vernon
2016

Some time ago I bookmarked this short story, intending to read it later, and then mostly forgot about its existence until I was searching through some old bookmarks wondering why I had so many of them.

It’s really good! It’s sort of magical-realism, fairy-tale like, with a cranky old woman as the main character and is a delight.

It reminds me of Zen Cho’s short stories, including “Prudence and the Dragon” which Anna reviewed previously, and the stories in “Spirits Abroad” which apparently I never got around to reviewing here, but are also fabulous.

But you should go ahead and read The Tomato Thief here.