Summertime and the reading’s easy…
Yes, the weather is getting warmer and you know what that means? Now you can read on the beach! But what, you ask, should you read? Read on, reader, read on…
The concept of a summer read has always felt nebulous to me. What makes a story beach-worthy, or mai-tai worthy? I haven’t figured that out yet, I’m happy to read any book at all with a tasty drink by my side, but to me summer always comes hand in hand with the sea. And, as Patricia A. McKillip demonstrates so beautifully in her novella The Changeling Sea, the sea is not always a place of light and joy.
The story opens with Peri, a girl who has lost her fisherman father’s life and her widowed mother’s heart to the sea. She has gone wild as the waves — not bothering to brush her hair, nor replace the clothes she’s outgrown — and bends her will toward little acts of rebellion against the sea that’s wounded her. She makes trinkets of broken glass and crockery to toss into the sea to give it “indigestion,” scowling at the surf all the while. Eventually, she utilizes the knowledge an old woman once taught her — a woman who has also disappeared from her life — to throw hexes into the sea.
And then she finds a prince upon her doorstep who, for his own reasons, loves the sea as much as she loathes it.
A bittersweet and beautiful story unfolds, as Peri becomes entangled in the world of princes, magicians, sea-dragons, and more. It is a story that haunts the edges between fairy tale and reality.
Massive novels, trilogies, and vast series, with book after book marching across the shelves in lock step like so many soldiers, have their pleasures and their place. But, I have always loved short stand-alone novels and novellas. As someone who also loves both genre and literary fiction these two books have the best qualities of both. Thoughtful and immersive, these books will leave you with something to think about, and talk about, long after the brief time you spend reading them.
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
Karen Russell is considered a literary author, but almost all of her work has a speculative element, and this novella is one of her most science fictional. She imagines a world where a mysterious contagion deprives people of the ability to sleep, and possibly more importantly, to dream.
“No more active red daytime, blue evening dissolving. No longer is sunshine the coagulant of consciousness, causing us to clot into personalities, to cohere once more on our pillows each morning. These TV scientists predict ‘a global desertification of dreams.’ Soon, they promise, the disruption will afflict all of us. Sleep will go extinct. And eventually, unless we can find some way to synthesize it, so will we.”
Until a cure can be found or sleep synthesized, sleep donors must be recruited. Sleep can be extracted and provided, like a blood transfusion, to the insomniacs who are near death. Trish Edgewater works for the nonprofit Slumber Corps recruiting donors with the story of her sister’s death from insomnia. When she finds the perfect donor in Baby A, whose sleep is so pure that Slumber Corp wants to draw more and more sleep from the infant, it causes her to question her mission. The writing is gorgeous. The world feels completely realized even while being rendered through Trish’s somewhat flat aspect as she navigates her own enforced sleeplessness, a product of her unspoken survivor’s guilt.
This beautiful allegorical novella holds a mirror to our attitudes toward fear of contagion, guilt, philanthropy, modern medicine, and big pharma.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Poor hapless George Orr, a cog in the wheels of a dystopian society that is at least partially rehabilitated through the wrenching and surreal events of this brief tale. When George realizes that his dreams can change reality, he seeks help from a psychiatrist who immediately uses George’s powers to try to improve the world and his own place in it. But, with each iteration something new is broken and things go from bad to worse.
She begins with an image of a jellyfish in the ocean:
“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss…. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.”
This serves as metaphor for George Orr, and for all of us, as we are tossed in the magnificent currents of this life, and embraced by the chaotic and powerful ocean of reality. If Orr seems at times a passive protagonist, his strength is in his innate understanding of how little we actually control in our lives.
Her references, written in 1971, to the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan and to global warming are chilling. This book is a gorgeous fable about the abuse of power, and the results of tampering in complex systems. It illustrates how little we understand either our dreams or reality. It is also the most gentle and humane alien invasion story I’ve ever read.
Is it meaningful that I picked two books about dreams and sleep? Well, it has been a busy spring. Time to relax with a good book. To rest, to sleep, perchance to dream…
One: I am terrible with favo(u)rites. I tend to like ALL THE THINGS, and books—unsurprisingly—are way up at the top of my “ALL THE THINGS” habit.
Two: I have kinda broad reading habits. If my list gives any reader a nasty case of cognitive dissonance or genre/literary whiplash, I apologise.
(I guess I could have just gone with one confession: I suck at following directions.)
Pick 1: Loose Changeling by A.G. Stewart. (342 pages)
This is probably the closest thing you’ll get to a “summer read” on my list.
Nicole is quite happy with her perfectly ordinary life, up until the day she discovers her husband has been cheating on her by walking in on him and his mistress in bed. She reacts in just the way you’d expect: with anger, and by turning her husband’s mistress into a mouse.
Enter the world of Loose Changeling for a fun and well-paced romp as Nicole discovers that, far from being perfectly ordinary, she’s a changeling—and that a lot of fae want her dead.
Pick 2: Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball. (304 pages)
One of the cover blurbs for Ball’s Samedi the Deafness describes it as a book that “teeters on the edge of unreality, plunges right in, and comes back again full circle.” Another describes it as “Kafka meets Hitchcock.” Myself, I was reminded of GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which features a similarly twisty, turny, mildly reality-bending spy-style story.
Ball’s debut novel follows James Sim, a mnemonist, into a twisted sort of asylum to seek out the mysterious Samedi, a man who may or may not exist, and who may or may not be planning to enact a terrible plot of murder, intrigue, and other fun things.
Typical SFF novel it ain’t, but the premise and weirdness of Samedi the Deafness should appeal to readers of SFF—and what is summer for, if not stretching your horizons?
Pick 3: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin. (192 pages)
A modern SF classic that’s simultaneously pretty easy reading and mind-bendingly strange, LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven is as fascinating today as it was when it was published in 1971—even if we’re now 13 years past the date of the novel’s setting.
The dialogue struck me as a little dated when I read it recently, and some of its ideas have become so central to science fiction since its publication that they may seem familiar, but it’s still well worth a read.
LeGuin isn’t an SFWA Grand Master for nothing, after all.
Pick 4: Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. (256 pages)
Another pick that’s technically not genre, Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox is a novel about a writer who is in love with his (possibly) imaginary muse, and is put into a position where he’s forced to choose between her and his very real wife. The speculative element coming in when it’s less than clear whether his muse is real or not, and how exactly their relationship works.
Inspired in part by the Bluebeard fairy tale (Mr. Fox has a bad habit of killing off all his fictional women in horrible ways), the novel is written with beautiful language that dances around between the strange and the mundane with breathtaking leaps.
Normally, I hate, hate, hate stories about writers. But Oyeyemi gives the tired old trope a charm and resonance that makes this a fun and moving read.
(nb. If you don’t like post-modernism, meta-fiction, and things of that nature, this one is probably not for you.)
So there you have it. Four shortish reads for the price of one.
I started reading The End of the Sentence by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard after getting into bed one night. I finished it in the small hours of the next morning. It is that sort of book.
I was already a fan of both Headley and Howard, so I knew to expect lush prose and interesting ideas, often plucked from history. What I didn’t quite expect, for whatever reason, was the sense of entering a classic American horror story.
The protagonist, Malcolm Mayes, is fleeing personal tragedy and finds himself in possession of a strange house in rural Oregon. He is also in possession of a new correspondent, an ostensibly dead prison inmate named Dusha Chuchonnyhoof. He claims to be nearing the end of his sentence – two lifetimes and a day – and he needs Malcolm’s help.
The story is quite creepy, blending dark mythologies and driven by mystery. And the collaboration is graceful. The two authors forge a new voice, full of twisting words and meanings, as the title portends.
Some short books with rich language are best devoured in a few hours. The End of the Sentence was like that for me. Others are best consumed in selections of a few pages here and there, with generous amounts of staring off into the distance in between. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente is split into quite small chapters, many distinct in tone and setting. It is a gorgeous book. I found myself reading a chapter or two at a time, and then setting it aside to process it.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was in between these poles for me: I read it fairly quickly, but was slowed down in part by the ideas it provoked, and in part by the fact that the limited Subterranean Press edition I read had artwork on every page.
In fact, it strikes me now that my three choices are all Subterranean Press publications. They make good short books!
What good is the moon when what you want is the stars? That’s the question — one of the questions — that haunts John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless, a book that manages to be both intimate and epic in just 246 pages. Mathias Ronay and his friends are growing up on a moon that was once a frontier and is now a backwater, the first Earth colony to declare its independence — its political independence, at least, for by definition a moon can never truly be independent from the planet it orbits: the Earth “was always there,” Matt muses on the first page, “a filmy blue eye hanging in the black sky, winking side to side. Even on that high day of the month when the eye was shut, a blue halo, a crust of dirty air, stared on.”
Matt, too, is a satellite, son of a famous father in a famous family, one of the Names on the declaration of independence from Earth. Matt spends much of the book running away from his father, both physically — the main storyline of the book, from Matt’s point of view, revolves around an unauthorized train trip — and metaphorically, as he searches for a job, any job, that will take him off Luna. But the book is about his father Albin as well, and from his perspective we get both a clearer idea of what Matt is running from and a few hints of what he’s running to.
There’s a lot to love in this book. Ford was an unusually good predictor when it came to technology and society — his first book, Web of Angels, predicted both the Internet and the automated teller machine in 1980 — and this book is remarkable in the way that it predicted not just today’s surveillance society but how young people respond to it. Though it was published in 1993, it captures the way teens today see surveillance as simultaneously comforting and annoying, something to be avoided which is nevertheless a token of safety and love. The teens in this book value nothing more highly than their “coldspots,” and go to lengths to conceal and encrypt their communications that would make a Cory Doctorow character proud — except that, as in real life, their desire to escape supervision isn’t in response to a repressive dystopia but simply to escape their parents’ watchful eyes. (Government, to the extent that it impinges on their lives at all, is seen as just an extension of their parents’ authority — literally so, in Matt’s case.)
When looked at specifically as a short book, though, what’s most impressive about Growing Up Weightless is the way it manages to tell a half-dozen stories just by hinting at them, outlining their contours in negative space. I’ve written elsewhere about what I call the “iceberg theory” of writing, making your world bigger by showing less of it, and this book is a master class in that technique. We see only enough of Lunar society to take it on trust that it functions as described. (Ford eventually showed his work in an essay published in his collection From the End of the Twentieth Century, including an explanation of why there are trains — though of all things trains need the least explaining.) The same is true of the story: someone is trying to destabilize Lunar society; someone is trying to weaponize the faster-than-light drive; someone on Luna may have to die so that the others can have water; something is happening to spaceships that go to new stars, the same ones that Matt wants to leave on, so that one in three never returns. Between the perspectives of Matt, who is close to much of this action, and Albin, who is further from it but better able to understand it, we get pieces of these stories, enough that we can start to guess which ones are from the same puzzle. Tellingly, though, Matt and his father never compare their pieces, and in the end the book is much more about Matt, his friends and his family than it is about any of the big stories it alludes to.
A telling moment occurs near the end of the book when Sonia, Matt’s mother, is — like so many parents of teenage boys — reduced to communicating with her son by writing I LOVE YOU on his internal organs with a laparoscopic laser. This scene is another hint to how the book manages to do so much in so few pages: like Matt — and like a certain well-known time machine — Growing Up Weightless is bigger on the inside.
One of my favorite short novels is Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which I read approximately four hundred times growing up. I don’t know that I would call it “light,” but it certainly is immersive and captivating, like so much of McKillip’s lovely work.
For a lighter book, I’d suggest the linguistically charming Ella Minnow Pea (subtitle: A Novel in Letters) by Mark Dunn, about a town which begins losing its letters, one by one (and of course, the book does too.) Of course, this delightful novel is also an epistolary novel (i.e., a novel…in letters.) (ba dum ching.)
One of the recent short novels I really enjoyed was David Walton’s Superposition. It zoomed along through a whole bunch of twists and turns and is the perfect sort of thing I like to curl up with at my imaginary beach house on my imaginary beach vacation that is starting to sound really really good the more I imagine it.
The first choice my mind went to was Sharon Shinn’s The Shape-Changer’s Wife. It’s only about two-hundred pages long, but packs in a lovely story along with an ending that manages to get a full spectrum of right-wrong reactions. (For me, obviously, the original ending as the “right” one.) In this story, we have a motley household, including the wizard’s apprentice who, once he learns the truth about his companions, must decide what, if anything, to do about them.
Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is high on this list for me, and is still my favorite among her books. Yes, it’s listed as age 8-12 years, but I still enjoy the romance and sweep of the story (which I never read until I was an adult, by the way). I would also love to see this one made into a movie!
I periodically re-read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. If nothing else, these remind me of all the wonder and amazement that got me into writing fiction, and I love to watch the growth of Charles Wallace Murphy across the three books.
And to finish off my list of favorites, I would heartily recommend Teresa Edgerton’s Goblin Moon. Finally out for ebook readers, it’s a beautiful tale of intrigue and romance (yes, I like romance) with a ruthless hero, ever more ruthless villains, and the young ladies caught between them. (The sequel is not yet available for ereaders yet, sadly.)