Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

I’m hooked.

A twelve year old Black girl goes from normal Chicago South Side pre-teen to staff-wielding “godling” when she discovers that her father is an Orisha, a god, and that he’s been captured by another god and taken to The Dark.

That’s a heck of a way to start summer vacation.

Maya and the other child characters in Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron are solidly twelve, sometimes afraid and willing to go to adults for help, and sometimes stubbornly unwilling to admit when something is probably out of their reach. The characters are majority minority, and South Side is represented as what it is — a place where there are risks above and beyond losing a bicycle. Maya’s not facing down the standard risks of Chicago, though. She’s facing down a god from millennia ago who is nursing a grudge against her father and planning to destroy all of Earth and its humanity to exact his revenge.

Maya is also anemic, which, well, it’s important for kids to see that even if they are half-god, they can get anemia…. and that even if they have anemia, they can save the world.

I, on the other hand, am a 44 year old white woman from rural Pennsylvania where the likes of David Eddings and other “traditional white high fantasy” authors made up the bulk of my library. I’ve been raised so far from the African mythology in the book that I have to keep checking the spelling of Orisha to ensure that I haven’t messed it up. These gods and goddesses were definitely not available for me at age 12, and I am thrilled to see that they’re available now.

A bunch of elves and the like marching around to save the world, the ones that I was raised on? It’s been done to death.

A bunch of Chicago kids who were attacked by the forces of evil first, and who have to discover the magic that lies within them if they’re going to save their families and prevent a war? Kids and adults that regret death every time it occurs? The possibility that the Darkbringers on the other side of the veil are no different from the Humans on this side, when it comes to raising families and doing some farming and trying to live their lives? Not something we normally see.

Even the character most associated with pure evil has strong motivation for his revenge. Not enough for us to root for him, but enough for us as readers to recognize that there have been wrongs on both sides of the veil.

This is a wonderful addition to the middle-grade science fiction / fantasy canon, and I look forward to the next one in the series.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon)

This book, y’all. This book.

The setting is somewhere between Saladin Ahmed’s Dhamsawaat (but much wetter) and Terry Pratchett’s Ank Morpork (but slightly less Ank Morpork) and any one of the adults could easily have been Commander Vimes or Doctor Adoulla…. but they were not.

For the matter, they were exactly the kind of fallible adults that anyone fourteen and up is embarrassed to find out adults are.

But A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking  isn’t about the adults, not directly. This book is about a fourteen year old girl named Mona who is good with baking.

REALLY good with baking.

I mean I’ve done my fair share of baking (around Mona’s age) and I never saved a single cookie by asking it not to burn. I never had a gingerbread man get up and dance off the cookie sheet (which was probably good), nor did I have a pet sourdough starter.

Maybe I should say a sourdough starter familiar because Bob’s a bit more than your average Covid-19 “the stores are out of yeast” bakery pet.

It would be difficult to say that Mona would’ve had a boring life, she was already an orphan when the book opened, and all the folks living in the area already knew she was one of the many minor wizards in the city. Still, one presumes that her life would’ve been a big quieter if Mona hadn’t found a dead girl named Tibbie on the floor of the bakery one morning, then been charged with the crime, then been found innocent, then been threatened by a high official then discovered the real murderer was trying to kill her.

Frequently in this book, Mona loses her lunch and I think it’s a very reasonable reaction to what’s going around her. Like many T Kingfisher protagonists, Mona is pragmatic, but in this case she’s only as pragmatic as a fourteen year old can manage, and let’s face it, that’s not very far.

But Mona’s got a sourdough familiar, a gingerbread cookie familiar, dough tricks up her sleeves she doesn’t even know she has, and allies in a ten-year-old thief, a crazy dead-horse witch, a Duchess, and an Aunt I want to grow up to be some day.

And if you’re going to save a whole city, it turns out those are good allies to have.

Unrig: How to fix our broken democracy by Daniel G. Newman

Having been raised in a mostly-white mostly-middle-class part of a purple state, I understood that the United States is a government for, by, and of the people. But for the last ten years or so that hasn’t felt like it was particularly true anymore… and it wasn’t just because of the presidential election or the current unrest. Nobody seemed to be able to tell me why, though, and the few that tried fell into traps of Democrat and Republican stereotype talking points and attacks on the other party.

Which didn’t make sense, really, because I know Democrats and Republicans and while everyone has points they differ on, we’re really not as far apart (on the whole) at the grass roots level as we believe. Heck, I was raised Republican, and the Republican party of today is definitely not espousing the same values as the one that existed when I was in high school.

So what the heck’s been happening? Why can’t we get along? Who the hell are the Koch Brothers and why do I care? How is Betsy DeVos in charge of education and why does it look like she’s purposely destroying public schools? Why are the elections swinging directions that we don’t expect, or don’t want?

When Scott McCloud mentioned Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy on Twitter I decided to give it a shot, and it’s done a very good job of describing the forces that are pressuring both our elected officials and the elections themselves.

Daniel Newman puts forth a case (with a sizable bibliography) that the ultra-rich in the US banded together and started playing a long game years ago with the intent to take control of the democracy out of the hands of common citizens like you and me. Dark money influences both elections and the elected. It changes how our electoral maps are drawn. It prevents fair elections. It increases the financial effects of corporate lobbyists to get what they want.

It’s a freaking mess.

But this book isn’t just an explainer for what’s happened over the last 20-50 years. It’s also an explanation for what we, the people, can actually do about it. It explains ranked choice voting, clean elections, the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, and many other political tools that we can use to make our democracy more or less fair, and then what we can do to wield those tools.

And look, if you’ve fully bought into the narrative that the government should be small and helpless and distrusted, or that people shouldn’t help each other or work together for better lives because it’s a dog-eat-dog world, you’re probably not going to be a big fan. This book assumes that neighbors help neighbors, we all want better lives, and we can work together to get them. It doesn’t ascribe to any specific ideology although it does make it clear that most of the dark money from the ultra-rich is going into the Republican party with the specific intent to undermine democracy.

This book is for disillusioned Republicans, frustrated Independents, confused Democrats, and everyone else who’s looking for an explanation of our current political and democratic situation in clear terms, with a compelling and precise visual and textual story. It’s for everyone that needs a graphic novel (graphic textbook?) refresher in that civics class you might not have had in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years. It’s for people thinking of getting into politics now, people thinking of getting into politics later, and people who are just sick of attack ads on television and always having the worst choices at the election box.

The book has an accompanying website for bringing people who want to unrig our democracy together. And it’s time.

James Acaster: Repertoire on Netflix

Just finished watching James Acaster: Repertoire on Netflix and wow.

It’s a four-hour standup special. Or rather it’s four different one-hour episodes.  But those four episodes are tied together as if it was a single four-hour standup with breaks.

It’s also some of the tightest writing that I’ve seen in any book, movie, or short story I’ve experienced. At least three different stories weave their way in an arc that has more twists and turns than a French braid, and has no loose ends.

If you like standup, or if you like storytelling, this is worth your time.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

I spent most of Hank Green’s  An Absolutely Remarkable Thing wanting to have Stern Words with the protagonist.

Maybe that’s because I’m 44 and April May is 23. Maybe it’s because April May made bad decisions that Past Me was quite good at making and hello I didn’t really need that kind of introspection in The Year Of Oh God Seriously 2020. Especially in 2020. Especially in June of 2020.

Maybe it’s because the world deserved better than what April May was able to deliver. Maybe it’s because the world right now deserves better than any one human being is able to deliver.

There’s also a part of me as a UX Designer that relates a little more closely with April May and the way that when we lock onto something fascinating it can easily become all-encompassing in our lives and shape who we are just as much as we shape what it is. The title is completely true and the driver of the book: the Carls are an absolutely remarkable thing. They’re the kind of thing that frankly would terrify the shit out of me and I would have definitely not gone down April May’s path because April May’s path is scary. (Some of where April May and I disagree definitely comes from “April May is an extrovert and anne gibson is much more willing to hide from all of humanity”.)

Or maybe it’s because this book doesn’t work at all if the protagonist isn’t deeply flawed.

But here’s the thing: in most cases, a protagonist that annoys the piss out of me is exactly the kind of thing that makes me put a book down and move on to the next book, and that didn’t happen here. Hank wrote real people who make real decisions and some of those decisions are really bad, and, most importantly, There Are Consequences.

And to that I give Hank profound credit. His characters are real. They all make mistakes. Some of them acknowledge those mistakes in the book. Some of them don’t. And the world is real, with all its warts and fights and distrust and fear and horribleness.

In that way, it reminds me a bit of Ferrett Steinmetz’s Flex series. Hank’s book is much more science fiction than magical realism, and Ferrett’s book is much more of an adult voice than Hank’s (mostly because Hank’s protagonist is a 23-year-old marketer and Ferrett’s is an adult bureaucrat). In both, though, the protagonist is riddled with bad mistakes compounding bad mistakes, and it’s only through their overall hope in humanity and their closest friends that they muddle through.

In tone, this is Young Adult For Actual Adults, which I love. In structure, it’s an autobiography written by a much wiser version of April May. It ends on a cliffhanger, so be prepared to get the next one in the series even if you want to have Stern Words with April May.