Things I’ve Been Reading (novel edition)

(You can also read this post on Buttondown.)

Hi all,

So I said I wanted to talk more casually, outside of a traditional book review format, about books that I liked or found thought-provoking. Now I’m putting my money where my mouth is!

It’s been an entire while since I posted any Things I’ve Been Reading, or any formal reviews either – like, checks notes since October, good Lord, and that was just a Short Story Smorgasbord. So rather than giving you a giant deluge of everything I found notable in every format in those last seven months, I’m going to break these next few posts down by genre/format until I’ve caught up again. This week’s newsletter is for novels and novellas. In upcoming weeks you can expect a couple of big dumps of short story links, poetry links, essay links and maybe (maybe!) a few other things.

Some of these are autistic books, and some of them are just books that I happened to like.

Malka Older, THE MIMICKING OF KNOWN SUCCESSES

I don’t know if Malka Older meant for Mossa – the lesbian Sherlock Holmes character in this cozy, queer, Holmesian mystery set on Jupiter – to be read as autistic, but I read her that way, especially given the autistic tendencies of Holmes himself, which are always being interpreted and reinterpreted in different retellings. Pleiti, Mossa’s Watson character and love interest, already tried having a relationship with her once and failed. Now the two of them are thrown back together by the apparent suicide of someone who works at Pleiti’s university, and Pleiti starts to wonder if it would be worthwhile to try again.

What I really like about this is the nuance with which it approaches the difficulties of a mixed-neurotype relationship. Mossa is brilliant and principled but it’s easy for her to get swept away in the intensity of a case, to neglect communicating with Pleiti or to forget to include her. Older doesn’t shy away from showing Pleiti’s anguish as she tries to interpret Mossa’s actions and wonders if there is really a place for her in Mossa’s life. But this isn’t the kind of romance where Mossa has to change herself to be worthy of love. Rather it’s a question of Pleiti deciding that she’s in a different place now, and that she has become capable of loving Mossa as she is.

Chuck Tingle, CAMP DAMASCUS

At this point, Chuck Tingle needs no introduction, but I feel like his status as an autistic author should be more widely known. People are like “How could this guy be so prolific? How could he write so quickly, so consistently, with such a particular schtick, all the time? Is he, maybe, three or six guys in a trenchcoat?” But no, literally this is just what it looks like when an autistic person gets really really dedicated to their special interest in writing a particular kind of thing, and decides to throw caution to the wind re: what other people are going to think of it.

CAMP DAMASCUS is an interesting departure from form, in that it’s a horror novel rather than a work of niche erotica. It’s super queer in ways that are obvious from the back cover blurb. It is also, low-key, stealthily, super autistic. Rose’s arc is so familiar to me, as someone who’s known so many autistic people who grew up in a high-control environment. She starts out a true believer, to the point of out-“good girl”-ing the other good girls, but then she finds one little inconsistency and can’t leave it alone, like tugging on a thread and unraveling a whole sweater. (It helps, of course, that this “little inconsistency” involves having creepy demonic visions and coughing up SO MANY FLIES, aaaaugh. 😀 ) Rose can’t help but be ruthlessly true to the facts that she knows, whether these facts support the faith she was raised in or start to go horrifically against it. The process hurts, but she can’t look away or deny what she sees. Her own wiring won’t let her.

Seth Dickinson, THE MONSTER BARU CORMORANT

So I finally read the first and better-known book in this series, THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, which I honestly should have read years ago. TRAITOR is really smart and well-done and also devastatingly stressful to read, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for a second round. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because MONSTER is one of those rare second books that I love even more than the first one. The world of the story gets bigger in MONSTER – not just in the sense of Having More Things, but in the sense that it feels more expansive and has more room to breathe. Baru is still having a very bad time and the stakes are, if anything, higher; but the clock isn’t ticking quite as hard, and there’s more space for the book to play with different ideas and different perspectives. It’s hard to really describe without a lot of spoilers, but I feel like there is so much theory of mind in this book. Everybody has different backgrounds and different motives and opinions and interpretations of the mess that they’re all in, and nobody’s opinion is ever held up by the book as, like, The Correct One. Things are just allowed to be messy! I need to see that in books more. Anyway, some readers liked how tense TRAITOR was and were disappointed by MONSTER being slower, but to me it’s a perfect sequel and a masterclass in how to write a second book that doesn’t just repeat the first one with slightly higher scope and stakes, but expands on it intellectually and emotionally.

Tim Pratt, THE KNIFE AND THE SERPENT

Okay, so I made Travel Friends with Tim in Barcelona and then he asked me if I’d blurb his book, so I did. It’s super-fun! It’s a loopy, goofy, quick-moving, self-indulgent space adventure with everything thrown in including the kitchen sink. It’s also kinky as hell, but in a wholesome way. I forget what I said in my blurb, but I still have positive emotions about it.

Clara Ward, BE THE SEA

All right, hands up if you like slow-paced books? Hands up if you liked the pause-y, “too introspective” parts of THE OUTSIDE and wished the whole book was like that? I don’t know how many people’s hands are up, but have I got a book rec for you. Reading BE THE SEA felt like diving into the rhythm of a character’s actual life – not “skipping to the good parts,” but watching everything, a day at a time, an hour at a time. It’s an interesting life, which involves sea voyages as well as a gradually unfolding set of psychic experiences and intrigues, but you get to watch not just the intrigues but the way they fit into a larger pattern of routines, career struggles, relationship negotiations, eating, sleeping, and storytelling as our protagonist, Wend, struggles to articulate why they’re here on this voyage and what they feel. The result is a weird feeling of realism – or, at least, I don’t know a better word for it. Because the rest of a person’s life doesn’t actually stop to make room when a speculative element drops in. It’s a cozy book [1] with so many loving and vivid descriptions of marine wildlife, sensory-friendly objects, eco-friendly architecture and delicious food. (Seriously – I’m not even vegan, but this book made me really hungry for vegan food.) I had a few quibbles with aspects of the plot, but overall I’m just so here for the type of experience that this book offers.

This book is from a small Canadian press that does a lot of good work, and they’ve been holding a fundraiser lately, in case that interests you.

Andrew Joseph White, HELL FOLLOWED WITH US

Meanwhile, if you want your queer autistic rep to be edgier, how about this book. It’s YA but it’s visceral, violent, and bursting full of the (justified) anger of a trans teenager against a fascist cult that has infected him with a bioweapon they’d like to use for genocide. Obviously, he escapes the cult and fights back, along with a ragtag group of other queer teens. The autistic character here is the love interest, Nick – a sniper who, to his own occasional bafflement, has managed to leverage his own natural deadpan and reliance on scripts into a reputation as a calm, tough leader. I loved Nick ever since the first page of his first POV chapter, which discusses how he slowly learned to lie (and then became “disturbingly good at it.”) I love a lot of things here.

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[1] I actually have no idea if I’m using this word correctly. There’s a ton of discourse floating around about what’s actually cozy and what’s not and I feel woefully unqualified to comment. I don’t think that I read books, generally, in the same way as the kinds of people who have impassioned discourse about tone labels. I felt an emotion of coziness while reading large parts of the book, that’s all I mean here.

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