Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

For years I’ve been rolling my eyes at people who said SFF needed more diverse characters, but if they had just handed me this book I would have been an instant convert. What a tremendous lot of lively fun Mr. Aaronovitch makes out of his protagonist’s encounters with a wide variety of Londoners!

The confidence is what shows most. Not only are there characters from different backgrounds — not only are they allowed to be individuals instead of exemplars, and allowed to completely ignore social issues — but there are enough of them that they even get to be members of groups. Peter Grant knows what to expect in a room full of African ladies, for instance, even if they happen to be river-spirits. This book is about people who actually live together rather than people who wonder whether it’s possible to live together. This milieu may be par for the course in modern British novels, but for me, coming out of the fraught discussions in US fandom, it was magic in itself.

The second stand-out feature was the thickness of Mr. Aaronovitch’s descriptions of London. I grew up reading British police procedurals, many of them set in London, but this book made me feel as if I was seeing it for the first time – as if those older books might have been written by ladies in New England with a Fodor’s guide in front of them. (Though a Fodor’s wouldn’t have been a bad idea, as the one thing I really wished for was a map of the rivers involved.)

The third thing that made me love this book was the flashes of insight — the forma — the protagonist has as he meets the different rivers. I don’t know quite what it is that makes them work so perfectly, but they call up different varieties of human pleasure so intensely in just a few words! Here he is meeting Father Thames:

I felt the force of his personality drag at me; beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.

This is the stuff of archetype. It reminds me of Sam and Frodo reminiscing about home as they trudge through Mordor, or C.S. Lewis’s tramp asking for toasted cheese in the bowels of That Hideous Strength. Suddenly, with just a few words, I’m on board with a lifestyle whose charms I never understood, wishing the men who like that sort of thing could have beer and skittles and uncomplicated women every day. More! More!

I’m the sort of person who always likes the stage setting more than the play itself, so the mystery and magic and various arcane creatures who strut their hour in this fantastic London get a solid ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ from me. The magic is interesting, the way it’s learned is neat, and the way the police interact with it is refreshingly low-key. I loved finding out how you get a warrant to arrest a ghost. The villain and what he does to people, on the other hand — well, it seemed arbitrary. I needed more, and earlier, grounding in the basic premise. The final solution likewise seemed to come out of some assumptions I didn’t share, but I was more than willing to go along for the ride just to see the scenery.

The author is very clever in handling the romance so that there’s real tension about whether the original love interest will survive. I was sure all along, however, that our hero would live through the magical procedure that had an 80% chance of killing him. Why do authors even bother telling us these procedures are dangerous and unlikely to work, when they always do work and the hero always survives them unscathed? The Martian is the only recent book I’ve read in which tension is actually heightened by mathematics, and that requires a lot more build-up … well, never mind. </petpeeve> Aaronovitch is not the first, last, or greatest sinner in this regard, and it did leave me with interesting questions about Molly.

All in all, Midnight Riot is great fun, with an engaging protagonist, marvelously drawn world, and a plot that kept me reading long past my bedtime. And there are sequels! I can’t wait to dive into the next.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

When do we get to talk in private?

So apparently this week’s news is that administrators at the University of Illinois used personal email accounts to discuss the Salaita case. I have to say, I don’t blame them one bit. They had a situation in which whatever they did was going to be dissected and every word was going to be criticized and parsed for evidence of wrongdoing, no matter what decision they made. The only surprising thing about this is that they wrote anything down  at all.

I’m in favor of transparency, in principle. But I’m also in favor of people being able to say what they really think, somewhere, sometime – if only so their friends can tell them what’s wrong with it. And I don’t know where decision-makers can do that nowadays. They’re not supposed to hold closed meetings, or to meet informally to hash out policies. They’e not allowed to keep their work emails private, and aren’t supposed to use their personal emails. So somehow, perhaps through divine intervention, they’re supposed to come to enlightened and wise decisions without ever discussing their preliminary ideas and concerns with anybody else who knows about the issues.

This sure isn’t how I work, but maybe that’s why I’m not academic administrator material.

Posted in academic happenings, in the news, life around campus, real life | Comments Off on When do we get to talk in private?

Ooh, shiny! The next new knitting rage.

Fox Paws didn’t use up my stash. I have a feeling that I could yarnbomb all of Milwaukee without using up my stash. But that doesn’t matter because I’ve just downloaded the most exciting new stash-buster pattern – Zanzibar by Kieran Foley.

zanzibar scarf pattern by kieran foley

Stacked increases! and stranded color work! and lace! This will keep me happy for a long time.

Posted in lace knitting, real life | Comments Off on Ooh, shiny! The next new knitting rage.

You know you’ve read too much academic commentary when…

Every piece of academic commentary I’ve read this week has seemed to be going around in circles so fast that it was about to disappear up its own arse.

Folks are mad at a faculty member who said that increasing the amount of hours taught by adjuncts would decrease the number of full-time positions offered in their department. With friends like this, do adjuncts need enemies? commenters wanted to know. I guess it makes sense, if you think the goal is to retain the most people possible in adjunct positions…

Somebody wrote a whole essay about how they were perturbed by the comments on an article that claimed trying to avoid microaggressions stifled academic discourse. In particular, they wanted to know how comments agreeing with the premise could be stifled, lest they be experienced as microaggressions.

Someone else is baffled about why republicans keep saying higher education is about to fail, especially since that rhetoric makes states decrease their funding to higher education, making it more likely to fail.

Either we’ve entered the silly season or I have reached peak cynicism, but writing satires of higher education seems less and less necessary every day.

Posted in academic happenings, in the news, real life | Comments Off on You know you’ve read too much academic commentary when…

One advantage of being a writer

Tonight I was supposed to attend my book group. I was really looking forward to it, since I had suggested the book we were discussing. But when I got to the group, on the other side of town, there was no house corresponding to the address.

I knew it was somewhere around there – I’ve been there before – but I’d written the address down wrong. And I am the only person in the continental US without a cell phone. So I began to search, methodically driving along every street for two blocks and ten streets on either side of the address … no luck.

I tried to find a store that would let me look at a white pages. The white pages are extinct. Then I tried to find wi-fi so I could search for the address online, but this was a part of town where reliable wi-fi was unavailable.

I finally gave up and headed south, stopping at my office to download the address and discover that I had only been 3 blocks off and if I had searched one block further north I would have found it. I came home mad enough to spit tacks, with nobody but myself to blame.

But I also realized that this is exactly what my wicked magician will do to his students in the novel I’m currently working on, in order to make them angry enough to generate magic. So it’s OK.

Posted in real life, writing | Comments Off on One advantage of being a writer

State Fair II – results are in

I won two third-place ribbons at State Fair!

I am pretty proud of both. The lace shawl category was the most competitive at the fair, so to even place in it meant a lot; and my work was literally pale beside the two winners. If I hadn’t added beads, it wouldn’t have been in the running. Takeaways: I need more interesting yarn, harder and darker so it shows off the lace pattern, and I was lucky to win anything with a shawl that only had a lace border. Also, some booth at the fair apparently sells laceweight alpaca yarn.

The fox paws afghan came in behind two sold color lace-patterned afghans, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not interested in making solid-color afghans. I still count it as a major win because the judge is very particular about loose ends, and if I had not woven every end in perfectly I would have been out of the running altogether. And fox paws is nothing if not loose ends. You change colors every 2 rows … there must have been about 800 loose ends in that afghan, and she looked for them all and did not find one! She also asked me about the pattern and color choice, which is very unusual at a fair judging, so I went away feeling I had gotten all the attention I needed.

All in all a good day. Perhaps the most amusing part of it was listening to fair judges try to explain steampunk — there was apparently quite a fandom contingent this year, and one of the winners was a wonderful steampunk jacket that used a door hinge as a closure. And there was debate about the inclusion of a two-piece steampunk costume in bridesmaid dresses … I sat next to someone who won for a Frankenstein hat and lost with a pair of socks that included intarsia in the round, so I learned how that is done. The two red pillows I wondered about were almost in a class of their own, but lost out to a third pillow, and the elderly gentleman’s mirror frame took best of its class. And a good time was had by all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on State Fair II – results are in

The ‘go-to’ question

Long, long ago, in a land not so very far from here, I was appointed to Curriculum Committee. I had no opinions at all about the curriculum, so I attended my first meeting with an insecure feeling. What would I ask? How would I make a contribution?

I happened to be sitting across the table from a woman who had very firm opinions about the curriculum. She paged through the course proposal in front of us, fixed its author with a gimlet eye, and said: “The outcomes you’ve specified for this course don’t seem to match the abilities you say it will teach. Would you address that?”

At the next Curriculum Committee meeting, that woman was absent. I didn’t care; she’d been there just long enough to show me how it was done. I fixed the defendant– proposal’s author with a gimlet eye and said “Could you tell us more about how the course outcomes and the abilities it’s teaching are linked?”

Thus is a ‘go-to question’ born. I’m sure the poor innocents who limped away from curriculum committee that year, licking their wounds, said to themselves “All anybody in there cares about is how the abilities and the outcomes match up.” They might even have said to themselves “Nobody in there gives a darn about whether the content is important, or whether the course is integral to the program, or whether it’ll increase graduation rates. Just whether your outcomes reflect those dad-ratted abilities!”

As time went on I developed my own opinions about the curriculum and abandoned my go-to question. I watched newer committee members pick up on some of my priorities, and treat them as go-to questions, and outgrow them. Then I was off Curriculum Committee, and life went on.

I was left with a lot of sympathy for people who face go-to questions, though. Because they’d written their proposals according to instructions, made sure they met every specified criterion, and suddenly were being judged on a bunch of different issues. When that happens to you, you have a right to be furious.

A bunch of people who use one go-to question can change the whole game without ever going to the trouble of convincing the wider community that their concerns are legitimate. This is a recipe for impotent rage and resentment. Suddenly people who had been running their lives according to one set of community standards are being judged by a new set. Where the heck did that come from? Who died and made these people gods? The resentment is even worse when you suspect that 90% of these judgy loudmouths in fact have no real experience or opinions of their own, and are parroting what they learned in their most inspiring sophomore course.

OTOH, I teach such courses (at least I hope they are inspiring), and I am indeed trying to change the world bottom-up and slip new standards into an established field when I teach my students, for instance, the RIFLE criteria of renal dysfunction. I’m fortunate that my chosen field has lots of avenues for formal discussion of such standards, and that I can point to international task force recommendations when somebody asks who died and made me god.

What prompted these reflections was a review I read this morning of a book about books. It picked on the authors because only 30% of the books they mentioned were by women, and it came on top of a rash of posts from other sources about how many women were on conference panels – posts that mentioned nothing about the content of the conferences. It reminded me of the old joke about tenure portfolios and number of publications (“[insert administrator of choice] can’t read, but they can count”).

I am tired of this go-to question. I’m a woman, I teach women, and I want them included because and when their contributions are valuable and relevant. If a critic can’t be bothered to evaluate the conference topic, or the book’s underlying purpose, then his or her opinion on whether women should have been included is worthless. And it does no favor to the women being championed, when the person arguing for their inclusion cannot give one single detailed example of how or why their work deserves it.

If women’s work deserves attention – and I believe that it does – let’s pay attention to its content, not just reduce it to numbers. The story out there is that critics can read as well as count.

Posted in academic happenings, real life | Comments Off on The ‘go-to’ question

State Fair!

— doesn’t begin till August, but I got to start early by entering some knitted items. I really enjoy that behind-the-scenes look, in a room full of happy people with amazing projects to show.

Highlights of today included:

  • The two teenage girlswho each had a basket full of homemade clothing and an (apparently) identical red pillow. What is this ‘red pillow’ category? I’m presuming I will see the best red pillow in one of the display cases.
  • The lady who had made a picture out of ribbon embroidery. She was explaining to us that it was a landscape because of category requirement that it had to do with travel, but just then somebody walked through my knitting and I had to rush away.
  • The elderly man carrying a really unattractive old polyester quilt. When he was called up people yelled ‘He BOUGHT that quilt!’ upon which he removed it from the fantastic carved mirror frame it had been protecting.

In just a few days I get to go back for the judging, a longer event. Bringing lunch and bottled drinks is a good idea. I really wanted to sketch people today, but this is the kind of event where people pay attention to what you are making.

fox paws afghan

Fox Paws stash-buster

lace shawl

beaded lace shawl (pattern from Boo Knits)

Posted in lace knitting, real life | Comments Off on State Fair!

I Hate What I Just Read

Someone I trust recommended I read … I’m not naming it, because I see no point in tarnishing somebody’s work just because it did everything I absolutely hate. Besides, reading it was valuable because I hadn’t recognized that I hated all these things. Without further ado, my list of fantasy story squicks:

  1. Innocent victim has no personality beyond big-eyed distress.
  2. Villain has no motivation except the desire to destroy.
  3. Hero has given up violence, but is able to almost immediately develop a pacifist trick that does the job. Why does the trick work? We’re not told. We wouldn’t understand it anyway, since we know nothing about the villain’s nature or the rules of the world.
  4. Angsty separation at the end as the big-eyed victim abandons the hero for no reason.

This sort of thing made me squee when I was about thirteen, and used to see it in the ‘by our readers’ section of Harper’s Young People.* Nowadays, it gives me the pip. I ask myself, what did editors, authors, and reviewers see in this bowl of sugar lumps with honey? And why did I read it on a device I don’t want to throw against the wall?

*No, I am not old enough to have had a subscription to Harper’s Young People at thirteen. Only in spirit am I that old. Get off my lawn.

Posted in oh so cliched, rants, reading | Comments Off on I Hate What I Just Read

Stories from Red Rose Review

The Mermaid by Howard Pyle

The first thing that struck me on reading the summer solstice issue of Red Rose Review was the crossover cred of its authors. Several author bios mentioned awards and award nominations from mainstream fiction and publications outside the SFF genre, making me curious about the wider world of short fiction.

But on to the stories in this issue!

The narrator’s voice in Bloom by Sara Flynn caught my fancy right away. Everything about this story seemed to be stood on edge – though that may be my inexperience with selkie stories speaking! But the narration coming from a seal hunter, with all the conflicts involved, worked very well for me. The narrator downplayed the most troubling things in a way that seemed exactly right, true to life. What happened on the ice poked holes in my expectations in just the right way, and the fate of the sealskin seemed new, fresh and inevitable.

The woman in this story, however, confused me. She was interesting, but I felt as if I never caught on to what the author was trying to tell me through her, or why spring had the effect on her that it did. Is it something about seal behavior that I just don’t know?

Ken Poyner’s The Making of Mermaids was opposite in a lot of ways. The voice kept bouncing me off balance – first with unexpected word choices that I couldn’t quite figure out and then with the person using those words. Who was this woman? I kept wondering.

Fishermen’s wives, in the folk tales I know, are foils. They don’t do the growing or changing, except in their increasing demands. But this story begins with the wife anticipating transformation of her own, and indeed she seems to have already been transformed from a traditional fisherman’s wife. The way she tells her husband’s story is filled with what I can only read as theory:

I was four walls, the process of making his fish commercial, the everyday exasperation of respiration and unbroken gravity.  I kept him while he was the automaton of his own upkeep.

I wanted to know where she got this voice, because I couldn’t help reading the story as a criticism of it. She’s cold, analytic and mysterious even before entering the sea, and how is the transformation she now seeks related to that? What will it allow her to live out – her grief or her worldview? Will she escape her own voice or her circumstances?

Scander and the Red Briar Prince by Sean Robinson contained two things new to me and two that were familiar. The new things were the rivalry between cities and the nature of the monster; the old were the questing champions and what became of the loser. It felt like a familiar gem in an unfamiliar setting, and I wanted to understand the setting more clearly – until I got to the gem of the story itself, the quest, and then I was more than satisfied. The difference between the two champions came into sharp focus and fit exactly with the nature of the monster, giving the familiar aspects of the story a nice twist.

Dark-Side Dreaming by Christina Im and Frigg Mourns by Ani King also made use of the familiar. In Frigg Mourns the narrator’s voice weaves around and between the events of a well-known story, letting the reader pick it out bit by bit, like rebuilding memories. It had been a long time since I read Norse mythology, so I really enjoyed the rediscovery; and in the versions I had read, Frigg’s grief was always taken as given, so it was different and satisfying to see the story from inside her. The Frigg in this story seemed fiercer and more regal than the one I remembered. Catherine from Reign kept flashing into my mind...

Dark-Side Dreaming is a riff on Rapunzel, with some enchanting differences. The descriptions of climbing up the sky were full of childlike wonder, making me think of At the Back of the North Wind, and maintained that feel well enough for me to set aside the kind of practical considerations I am prone to like the nature of the hair, the braiding, the climbing back up after its owner had come down from the moon. The story followed the traditional plot closely enough to make me surprised by the divergences from it, and ended as it had begun with a well-sustained fairy-tale feeling.

Black Feathers, Beady Eyes by Caryn Studham Sutorus was odd-story-out in this issue, with its modern setting and time-travelling heroine. The problem she had to solve became most interesting when she failed to solve it – I always enjoy that ‘pop’ of discovering a mistaken assumption – and when she returned and discovered that there was another problem she needed to solve. The ending echoed the uncertainty in the rest of the story, where we really didn’t – couldn’t – know if things would turn out all right. I didn’t feel that I understood the crows or the altar, though, at least on the first reading – and when she didn’t remember what had gone wrong with her first attempt, I thought this was going to be an entirely different kind of story than it turned out to be!

Another group of enjoyable stories that leave me with interesting questions, as I’ve come to expect from Rose Red Review. The issue also contained poetry, which I feel completely incompetent to review. Discover it for yourself!

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Stories from Red Rose Review