Women to Read: Where to Start: May 2017

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. If you’re new to the series, you can catch up with the tabs along the header, collecting my past posts by year. Basically, I recommend women whose work you should read, and point to a particular place to start. Here we go!

Queers Destroy Science FictionSusan Jane Bigelow is an author, librarian, political columnist, and is responsible for the Extrahuman Union series. My recommended starting place for her work is Die, Sophie, Die from Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, a special project of Lightspeed Magazine. The story centers on Sophie, a woman who finds herself the target of harassment due to an article in which she dares to express an opinion which proves unpopular with online trolls. She’s subject to rape threats, death threats, and doxxing – all the usual tools of online harassment. While most of the threats Sophie faces are sadly common, the uncommon element manifests in what appears to be a twitter bot with the power to circumvent all her blocks. At first it tells her to kill herself, as do many of the other messages she receives, but gradually the messages change until they seem to be asking for help. Sophie sets out to investigate, bringing her face to face both with an unexpected aspect of technology, and one of her all too human trolls. Bigelow states in the Author Spotlight accompanying her story that she’s luckily never been the target of online harassment in this way. However I suspect the story will strike a nerve with many/any women who have seen this very situation happen over and over again. The very fact that Bigelow considers herself lucky stands as a testament to how prevalent trolling and harassment are. What should be an aberration is sadly all too common. Women who express opinions in public have sadly come to expect this kind of treatment. In Die, Sophie, Die, Bigelow puts the horror of the situation front and center, showing the impact on every aspect of Sophie’s life. Bigelow gives her story an SFnal twist that offers a note of hope, but even this hope highlights the dark side of social media. Something new is born in the form of a singularity, however it makes itself known through harassment, realizing that hate is a surefire way to get itself noticed. The story serves both as commentary on a phenomenon impacting many women, and a satisfying SFnal tale. On both fronts, it is an excellent starting place for Bigelow’s work.

Next up, my recommended starting place for Khaalida Muhammad-Ali is Concessions published at Strange Horizons. The story is set against a backdrop of scarcity. The protagonist, Bilqis, is a doctor, one with the power to determine the health of mothers and the babies they carry just by touching them. Bordering the land of scarcity is a prosperous city, however entry requires the renouncement of faith. As a result, Bilqis and her lover, Sule, live in exile, scrabbling for their existence, and hoping for the best for the child Bilqis carries. The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. As the title implies, the story explores sacrifice, and the question of what compromises a person might be willing to make in order to survive. The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a lovely and painful story, and a worthy starting place for Muhammad-Ali’s work.

Lilliam Rivera is an award winning author whose YA novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, was released earlier this year. My recommended starting place for her work is The H8TE, originally published in Sucker Literary, and reprinted at Nightmare Magazine. On the surface, The H8TE is a zombie story, but underneath it’s a story about the complicated love between a mother and daughter, and navigating the cliques, jealousies, and relationships that come with high school. Sarah’s mother has been stricken by the N1H8 virus, or as it’s known, The H8TE, reducing her to mindless, hungry creature. Sarah keeps her chained up in a bedroom, doing her best to keep her alive while keeping anyone else from finding out about her. Her best friend, Brenda, has a new friend, Alison, who seems intent on turning Brenda against her. Sarah’s only real ally is Ray, who is like a brother to her. However accepting help from Ray means putting him in danger, and putting her mother in danger as well. Lilliam perfectly captures Sarah’s isolation, both self-imposed, and from her peers. She’s in an impossible situation, forced to shoulder too much responsibility for her age, and left with nowhere to turn. As the best zombie stories do, The H8TE uses the supernatural to reflect very real fears – the idea of losing a loved one, and the idea of a child forced to take on the role of the parent, caring for the person who is supposed to care for and protect them, and doing it alone. At the same time, Lilliam weaves in social pressure and the casual cruelty of teenagers toward each other as they try to find their place in the world. For many, seemingly the quickest way to ascend in the social order is to separate and metaphorically consume the weakest in the pack. It’s an effective story, encapsulating many fears, and its an excellent starting place for the author’s work.

Never Now AlwaysFinally, my recommended starting place for Desirina Boskovich’s work is the novella, Never Now Always, which will be published by Broken Eye Books in June, and is currently available for pre-order. Lolo lives with other children in a vast labyrinth, overseen by the Caretakers, creatures with staring eyes, but no mouths or ears. The Caretakers experiment on the children, forcing them to remember events from their past, though each time they do, the memories seem different. From the start, Boskovich plunges the reader into the same disorienting world that the characters inhabit, where dreams, nightmares, and memories all blur together. Reality itself is in question, but the one thing Lolo is sure of is that she has a sister, and that her sister was taken from her. Some of Lolo’s memories are beautiful, like a Fourth of July cookout, and playing in the grass with her sister and their dog. Others are visions of loss, her sister ripped away from her on a playground, a strange city where Harvesters devour children and fill the streets with blood. The narrative is threaded with uncertainty. Which memories are real, the idyllic ones, or the terror? What do the Caretakers want? Boskovich uses language effectively to capture this uncertainty, and the shifting nature of reality. The children’s sense of time and even themselves is fragile, threatening to unravel at any moment. While Lolo struggles to hold onto her truth, and searches for her sister, a sense of despair hangs over the narrative as well. Boskovich draws parallels between her nightmare world and the dark side of being a child. Everyone is bigger than you. You have no power. Your reality is defined by the adults around you, and if they don’t have your best interests at heart, what then? How do you fight back? Can you? Or will the ones in control of your environment, your food and shelter, of telling you what to think and what’s best for you, prevail in the end?

“There have always been taller ones, stronger ones, ones who knew what we didn’t know,” Gor says, hesitant. “Before the structure. Before the labyrinth. Before the Caretakers. They’ve always been there. They’ve always hurt us.”

It’s a chilling statement, but one that carries a ring of truth. Along with this dystopian vision, Boskovich also explores the importance of stories, the ones we tell ourselves and each other, and how they help us navigate the world. Even when the situation is terrifying, the story is beautifully written. Never Now Always is frightening, effective, and disorienting, and a worthy starting place for Boskovich’s work.

That’s it for this month’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations in June. As always, I would love to hear about your favorites. Drop me a note in the comments with women I should be reading, and where to start with their work.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

An Interview with Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, River of Teeth, which is forthcoming from Tor. As always, I’ll start things off making introductions by shamelessly stealing from Sarah’s author bio…

Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. Her fiction been published internationally; her most recent credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, the Colored Lens, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable, Tor.com, and the Boston Globe. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com. She tweets about dogs and makes dad jokes @gaileyfrey.

Congratulations on the publication of your novella! Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about River of Teeth?

River of TeethRiver of Teeth is a the first book in a duology about hippos and the cowboys who love them. In River of Teeth, a team of hoppers (that’s the cowboys who ride hippos, if you weren’t aware) are hired by the federal government to rid the Mississippi River of an infestation of feral hippos. They’re up against a cold-blooded riverboat kingpin and a brace of bloodthirsty ferals who have developed a taste for human flesh.

Without giving away the plot, I can tell you about The Crew! Winslow Remington Houndstooth, The Brains, is a handsome Brit with a thirst for vengeance and an eye for lovely things (“things” ranging from clothes to knives to, ahem. Romantic conquests). Regina “Archie” Archambault, The Con, is a fat frenchwoman who is more than prepared to seduce your wallet right out of your pocket. Adelia Reyes, The Assassin, is a cool and collected woman who knows a thousand ways to kill a man and would like very much to use all of them on the next person who gets into her personal space. Hero Shackleby, The Tech, has come out of retirement for one last job, and they’re hoping that their explosives expertise and poisoning skills will make this gig run smoothly enough to sail them right back into retirement. Bringing up the rear is Calhoun Hotchkiss, the river rat — he knows the Mississippi like the back of his hand, but frankly, he’s in over his head.

I adore the idea of feral hippos in the Louisiana bayou, and the people who wrangle them – I have to ask, where did the seed of this fantastic concept originate?

This is a real thing that almost happened! In the early 1900’s, our country was going through a “meat crisis” — there wasn’t enough meat to feed our growing population. A guy named Robert Broussard proposed that we import hippos for meat: they’d eat the invasive water hyacinth that was choking off the Mississippi, we’d eat the hippos, everybody wins. (Well. Except the hippos. They don’t win). I knew that I wanted to write an ensemble cast — a heist-ish narrative — and the hippo plan was a perfect fit!

Given that this is alternate history, how much research did you have to do to make the world feel accurate? Is there anything you included that actually did happen that people are bound to think you made up? Are there any fun facts, historical or otherwise, that you learned but just couldn’t fit into the book?

I cheated a little bit with River of Teeth by pushing the whole narrative back by 50 years. I wanted to have cowboys riding my hippos, and I figured that if readers could deal with hippos in the waterways of the Mississippi, they could also handle cowboys.

That said, one of my favorite parts of writing River of Teeth was the research. I had to do a good amount of looking into types of knives and explosives that would have been used at that time. I think that readers will be skeptical of the explosives that are used in the book, but I can tell them with absolute certainty that they were around in the 1890’s!

I’d like to talk about Archie for a bit. She’s fat, and you were quite firm that she be shown as such, and not slimmed down or thin-washed for publication. Could you talk a bit about her, and why fat representation is important to you?

I will warn readers now: Archie is the best. Everyone who has read this book has got a crush on her, and you will too.

First, let me say: I have been so pleased with the amount of pushback I got from Tor.com on having a fat character in my book and on the book’s cover. That amount of pushback was absolutely zero. That said, going into conversations around publication, I was very explicit about having her on the cover as a fat woman.

My attitude toward Archie’s representation stems from the same place as my attitude toward the rest of the cast, which is diverse along several intersections. A lot of people who I know and love (and, obviously, a lot more people who I don’t know) have spoken publicly and privately about the pain and frustration that they feel when they see themselves misrepresented or unrepresented in stories and media. My friends who are fat frequently see themselves represented in harmful ways — or, they see themselves erased altogether. When I think of them reading my book, I don’t want them to read something that hurts them or makes them feel unseen. So, the answer to “why is X representation important to me” is really… I don’t want to harm people. While I’m not the right person to tell a story about what it’s like to be fat (or to experience any other oppression that’s not personally mine), I can put a fat character in my book, and I can sure as hell put in the time and effort to make sure her story isn’t a hurtful one.

Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to ask about your wonderful Women of Harry Potter series at Tor.com. Obviously you’re a fan, but how did the essay series come about? How do you feel about the movie depictions of your favorite female characters versus the way they’re written in the books? Are there nuances you feel my have been lost from page to screen, and conversely, were there any places you felt the movies improved upon the written work?

Oh man, that series was so much fun! I went in knowing that I wanted to write about women for Tor.com, and they specifically focus on SFF. I wrote the Hermione essay right after my Defense of Villainesses, and it felt so right to explore this character who I think often gets short shrift in the narrative of the book. I asked my editor how she would feel about me exploring some of the other women in the series, and she was totally on board. As I wrote the series, I started to understand some of what I think J.K. Rowling was trying to do with the female characters that she wrote. Many of them are fierce, courageous, and principled, and they have an enormous impact on the story. They fight for what’s right, and they fight against tyranny, and I think the movie depictions lose a lot, partly due to ~*Hollywood*~ and partly due to time constraints. For instance, I think that we lose out on Hermione’s awkward adolescence in the movies (largely because Emma Watson is just unrelentingly beautiful). Rowling makes a point of telling the reader over and over again that Hermione is not pretty, and furthermore, that she’s sometimes really bothered by that. I loved reading that, because so often we either get an ugly girl who is obsessed with becoming beautiful, or who doesn’t care about or notice her looks at all. Hermione, on the other hand, was written as a pretty well-fleshed-out adolescent girl who is unsatisfied with how she looks and occasionally makes attempts to change how she looks, but who isn’t constantly focused on her appearance.

Conversely, I think the movies did a much better job with Umbridge than the books did. Rowling has a lot of problematic narratives, and the fatphobic lens through which she wrote Umbridge is one of them. I think the films handled her characterization better than the books did, by making her evil unconnected to any physical characteristic, and by eliding the focus that Rowling placed on her body composition as a sign of her villainy.

Now that River of Teeth is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything in particular you want folks to know about that you have upcoming or that you’re working on?

Right now I’m working on the sequel to River of Teeth, which is called Taste of Marrow. I can’t tell you much about it without spoiling the first book, but I can tell you this: there’s a kidnapping, some blood, a lot of fighting, several great outfits, and a lot of kissing. You won’t want to miss it.
Other stuff I’m working on: an unrelated novel which is not about hippos at all. Also, keep an eye on Tor.com for my upcoming essay series on iconic costumes of SFF!

Both of those sound fantastic. I can’t wait to read them. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Author Interview

Politics, Fungi, and Magic (aka Spring Book Love 2017)

In keeping with my effort to highlight books I’ve enjoyed in the year they’re published, and not leave it to the last-minute awards season to recommend them, here are a few recent reads I loved and I hope others might love, too.

First up, Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel, Amberlough. AmberloughFrom the first, I was absolutely captivated by the stunning cover art for this book, and found myself looking forward to it without knowing anything about it. After reading it, I was delighted to learn that two sequels have been announced, and I’m eagerly awaiting them. I’ll admit, on actually cracking the book open, the barrage of names, political affiliations, factions, and loyalties was a bit overwhelming, but a lot of that is down to my own reading preferences. The characters immediately won me over, and carried me past any initial difficulty in remembering who was loyal to who, and what each person had to gain by betraying/working with someone (or not). Cyril de Paul is a spy, who is vehemently in denial about his deep feelings for Aristide Makricosta, a flamboyant cabaret performer, and also a black market dealer in drugs, secret identities, information, stolen goods, and other things. Cordelia Lehane is one of Ari’s fellow performers at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, who agrees to run drugs for him and act as Cyril’s beard for her own ends. The relationships are complicated, but delicious. Every character has their own motivation, unfolded and explored more deeply as the novel progresses, and they are all fully realized, and beautifully drawn. The world is decadent and gorgeous, with settings, fashion, and meals described in loving detail. At the same time, the threat of political machinations, revolution, police crackdowns, and arrests, are never far from mind. The story is by turns heartbreaking, brutal, and tender. Watching Cyril and Ari deal with their feelings for each other, two characters who take great pride in their professions and never letting anything get past their armor, is wonderful and painful all at once. Similarly, witnessing Cordelia’s toughness and vulnerability as she deals with the changing reality of the world around her is incredible. She undergoes a harrowing journey, and emerges altered on the other side, but never betrays the core of who she is. Amberlough is a story of shifting identities and loyalties, with everyone living a double or triple life, but with each character staying true to themselves. At the heart of everything, it is a story about found family and profound devotion, with everyone doing the best the can to protect those who mean the most to them. It’s a slick and stylish book, and a fantastic read to boot.

Agents of DreamlandCaitlin R. Kiernan’s novella Agents of Dreamland is slick and stylish in a completely different way. Kiernan mashes-up Lovecraftian horror, suicide cults, off-the-books-men- in-black-style paranormal investigators, and real scientific phenomenon like Ophyiocordryceps unilateralis, the “zombie fungus”, which takes over ants and essentially forces them to do its bidding. An agent known as the Signalman is sent to investigate a suicide cult at a ranch house in the desert. What he and his fellow agents find there is horrifying – an unnatural scene of carnage with only one survivor. Following this harrowing discovery, the Signalman makes contact with Immacolata Sexton, a woman who also information about the cult to trade for what he knows. The narrative shifts between the points of the view of the Signalman, Immacolata, and Chloe, the sole surviving member of the suicide cult. The Lovecraftian touches are light, adding to the depth and richness of the story which feels like a small slice of a larger world. While the novella is completely self-contained, it does hint at a bigger story, with Immacolata seeming to be a semi-immortal being unstuck in time, and the Signalman being “a man with a past”. Chole’s viewpoint is particularly poignant, as a junkie caught up in the promise of a better world. The supernatural horror is grounded and lent extra weight with references to real life Heaven’s Gate cult, and the zombie fungus. As mentioned, the story feels like it takes place in a larger world, one that was unfolding before the reader arrived, and one that will continue after the reader leaves. At the same time, it’s a perfectly encapsulated bite of darkness, one with a strong and engaging voice. Lovecraft fans and non-Lovecraft fans should each find something to appreciate about this wonderful work.

Passing StrangeLast, but not least, another highly recommended work is Passing Strange, a novella by Ellen Klages. Like Agents of Dreamland, it’s a quick read, but one with a completely different tone. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, the story focuses on a group of queer women who exist on the margins of society based on their sexuality, their ethnicity, and their relationship to their families. The story shifts between multiple points of view, which can be slightly jarring at times. While the information delivered in each section is crucial, and all the characters engaging, these shifts mean the story takes a while to hit its stride and find its heart. That heart is the romance between Haskell, a pulp artist, and Emily, a young woman who struck out on her own after being kicked out of boarding school for her relationship with a classmate, and disowned by her family for the same. Helen Young is also a central character, an American-born lawyer/dancer who plays up her Asian heritage for tourists at the Forbidden Palace supper club. The city of San Francisco is also a character in its own right, as is the World’s Fair, and Mona’s, a club primarily patronized by queer women. The story is a romance and a beautifully-told slice of life, and magic and the supernatural is woven in with a light touch. Helen can fold space and time through the art of origami, creating short cuts through the city, and Haskell has magic of her own, inherited from her grandmother. Art, queer life in 1940s San Francisco, and the wonder of the World’s Fair, all have integral roles to play in the story. As mentioned, the characters are all strong and engaging, even though the transition between their voices can lead to their stories feeling fragmentary at times. In the end, the shifting narrative isn’t truly a detriment. Dipping in and out of various characters’ lives gives a fuller picture of the city, making the world feel real, lived in, and well-populated. Haskell and Emily’s story is charming, and their relationship feels real. The first moments between them have genuine sparks, and that moment of passion only deepens as the story unfolds. Along with everything else, reading the story made me want to revisit San Francisco. It’s a magical city in multiple senses of the word, and Passing Strange accurately captures that.

Now that I’ve recommended several recent reads I loved, I’ll close out with some upcoming titles I’m highly anticipating.

Horizon by Fran Wilde, the final book in her excellent Bone Universe trilogy set in a world of man-made wings and cities of living bone.

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, a novella about feral hippos in the swamps of Louisiana and the people who wrangle them.

Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, the final book in the Broken Earth trilogy, a world populated by, among other things, powerful orogenes who can manipulate the earth itself.

Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older, the sequel to his excellent YA novel about graffiti and magic.

A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw, the follow up to her Lovecraftian novella, Hammers on Bone, this one centered on a Georgia bluesman on the run from trouble.

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a decadent historical romance.

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, a steampunk-flavored alt-history with a dash of espionage thrown in for good measure.

Mad Hatters and March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow, an anthology of stories inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, a series of inter-connected short stories taking on the friged woman trope.

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, a novel about magicians in New York City vying for control of a dwindling magic.

The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang, a pair of novellas about twins who may just be the key to the fate of their world.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, a short story collection from a brilliant author.

So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories by A. Merc Rustad, a story story collection from a wonderful author, exploring sexuality, humanity, gender, and much more.

That’s by no means a comprehensive list of the books I’m looking forward to, but it’s a good start. Of course it doesn’t even touch on all the books I still need to catch up on either. If y’all could slow down with the writing of fabulous things for a while, it would really help me out.

1 Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Women to Read: Where to Start: April 2017

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. This month’s stories deal with families, ancestors, superheroes, and ghosts, among other things. Four short stories by four wonderful authors – away we go!

BlueBellowAlexis Pauline Gumbs is primarily a non-fiction author, but my recommended starting place for her work is BlueBellow, published at Strange Horizons. The narrator, Serena is flying to London for work. In the airport, she catches a glimpse of a woman who looks a lot like her sister, and in fact a lot like Serena herself. She passes it off as a coincidence, and boards her flight, but the strangeness only continues in London. Gumbs unfolds the narrative in a dreamlike manner. Time feels fluid, with Serena at some future point relating events that have already happened, but which also feel as though they’re happening in an eternal now. The voice of the piece shifts throughout as well, from first person, to third, to the collective we. Rather than being a distraction, these shifts add to the liminal feeling of the story, existing on the border between the real and the unreal.

First you think it’s jet lag. At some point you make a joke to yourself about how you have finally internalized their thing about how “all black people look alike.” At the beginning a lot of us just tucked it away along with everything else that didn’t make sense about our lives. And we moved on. As always.

Serena is not the only one who has seen her ‘twin’. In London, she discovers a group of others who have also experienced the phenomenon. Specifically, a group of black people whose ancestors crossed the water on slave ships, from Africa to the Caribbean, to America, and Europe. These ghostly twins, who some think of as mermaids, appear in reflective surfaces – mirrors, puddles, glasses of water. They want something, but it isn’t clear what. The shifts in time and voice also help connect the story to a chain of history. Horrors happened to the present day narrators’ ancestors, and horrors are still happening to the black community here and now. Gumbs also weaves in contrasts between black Europeans and black Americans, along with questions of diaspora, identity, and family. The story is gorgeously told, even when the subject matter is painful. It’s an uneasy story, one that doesn’t offer answers, making the point that the story is still ongoing, and there’s a long way to go. It’s a beautiful and effective piece, and an excellent starting place for the author’s work.

Next up, my recommended starting place for Kathleen Kayembe’s work is the novelette You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych, from Nightmare Magazine. Isobelle is staying with her uncle while she goes to school. There are strange noises coming from her cousin’s old room – a cousin who disappeared a few years ago – which her uncle claims are made by a dog.

But dogs don’t bang on doors with the sound of a shoulder or a fist. Dogs don’t rasp obscenities in jagged French with a voice as sweet as sugar cane. Dogs don’t make fear rise up in your bones from somewhere so deep you didn’t know it was there. They don’t make you afraid to turn away from whatever space they could inhabit, or to sit with your back to the door they are behind, or to close your eyes—even to blink—for fear they will be in front of you when your eyes open again. They don’t fill your chest to bursting with a haze of adrenaline and sluggishness. The whispers of dogs are not meant to haunt our dreams.

Even though Isobelle is content to let the room be and not meddle where things are clearly not right, the thing in the room has other ideas. One night Isobelle hears noises outside the room, and when she investigates, she and her uncle are attacked by something wearing the skin of her cousin who disappeared, Mbyui, now a tattered, rotting corpse. Mbyui means older twin, and as a child Isobelle always asked her cousin why there was no Kanku, no younger twin. What unfolds from here is a complicated story of family, love, betrayal, and loyalty, told in three voices – Isobelle, Kanku, and Mbyui. Once upon a time, there was a younger twin, but Kanku and Mbyui’s father believed Kanku to be a witch responsible for their mother’s death. As a result, he abandoned Kanku to die in in Kinshasa and took Mbyui to America. Kanku learned to possess other bodies, spending years moving from one to the next, waiting for revenge. The rotting corpse is not the real horror of the story. The true horror comes from the betrayal of the father against his son. The idea of a child left behind by a parent, the person who is supposed to love and protect him, is heartbreaking. While Mbyui never gives up on his brother, the love between them is complicated, twisted by what their father did. Ultimately, it is a story of reconciliation and forgiveness, one that just happens to have the supernatural woven through the family dynamics that ultimately bring the brothers back together. It’s a beautiful story, and often painful, but does end on a note of hope, and it’s an excellent starting place for Kayembe’s work.

On a far lighter note, my recommended starting place for Kristen Brand’s work is How Lady Nightmare Stole Captain Alpha’s Girlfriend published in Luna Station Quarterly. I’m a sucker for superhero stories, and this one has fun with the trope of the girlfriend kidnapped by the supervillain to get the hero’s attention. At the same time, it adds depth to the scenario, and some genuinely sweet moments. The story opens with Sara being tied up by Lady Nightmare who then places a call to Captain Alpha, delivering the standard “if you ever wants to see your girlfriend again…” ultimatum. The story could easily be cheesy, or paint by numbers, but it’s neither. As Sara waits for Captain Alpha’s arrival, she immediately beings worrying about the state of her apartment.

Sara didn’t drink, so no, but she couldn’t say anything as Lady Nightmare strolled into her kitchen. Oh, crap, her kitchen. There must be at least two days’ worth of dirty dishes in the sink, and when was the last time she’d taken out the trash? If Sara had known someone would be breaking into her home today, she would have cleaned.

It’s a nice touch, humanizing her, as does her interaction with Lady Nightmare. It quickly becomes clear that Sara isn’t exactly Captain Alpha’s girlfriend. They went on one date after he rescued her from an armed robbery because she was too polite to say no. He spent the entire date talking about himself, talking over her, and when she tried to indicate her lack of interest, he brushed her off. Everyone is interested; he’s Captain Alpha after all. The title of the story gives away the ending, but the point of the story is the journey, not the destination. The story makes a point about a certain kind of toxic masculinity, and the kind of men who believe they are owed something by women, as well as the pressure on women to be nice, play along, and not make a fuss. To counterbalance the darkness, there are sweet moments between Lady Nightmare and Sara, whose chemistry and genuine interest in and concern for each other is evident from the start. The characters, and their ultimate humanity, are what carry the story, and make it a worthy starting place for Brand’s work.

FiyahFinally, my recommended starting place for L.D. Lewis‘ work is Chesirah from the debut issue of Fiyah. Chesirah, the title character, is a fenox, constantly burning and being reborn from the ashes. She’s spent most of her life in captivity, a curiosity for rich men. Her current captor is Nazar, a dollmaker who wants her to be his muse. He alternately beats her and tries to bribe her with gifts, claiming to love her, while refusing to let her go. She’s been plotting her escape, and makes it, but once she does, she finds herself on the run with few options. She’s a murderer twice over, and there’s almost a sense that she never expected to escape and thus didn’t plan too far beyond getting out of her cage. While trying to come up with a plan, Chesirah encounters a mysterious woman named Esperanza, and her companion, a man named Vannish, performers from the Cirque Nocturna who invite her to join them. There is something otherworldly about them, and Chesirah doesn’t entirely trust them. She’s determined to make it on her own, hoping to stow away on an airship. When she’s recognized by someone who has seen one of the dollmaker’s carvings of her, and is cornered and threatened, Chesirah is left with no choice but to burn. She fears for the fate of her ashes, but she wakes on a airship under the care of Esperanza and Vannish, and decides to give the Cirque Nocturna a chance after all. The worldbuilding and descriptions are rich and lovely, and the story feels like a a first step in  larger tale. While the story is perfectly self contained, it’s easy to imagine Chesirah’s life of adventure with the Cirque Nocturna. Underlying the sense of adventure and fun however, the story has a lot to say about freedom and captivity, different kinds of power, and those who use and abuse others, claiming all the while to be doing it for their own good or protection. There are chillings parallels to domestic violence situations, however the power of fiction is to give us hope and offer better endings where those who have been abused regain power, agency, and freedom. It’s a wonderful story, one which I hope may have a follow-up one day with Chesirah’s continuing adventures, and either way, it is an excellent starting place for Lewis’ work.

That’s it for April’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations in May, and in the meantime, please leave your own suggestions for women to read in the comments!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Women to Read: Where to Start: March 2017

Welcome to March’s Women to Read! Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so really I should have had this post up yesterday. Actually, I meant to have this post up on March 1st, so I’m really late, but who’s counting? Any day is a good day to discuss work by women, so here we go!

KindredThere’s a good chance every one and their mother has already read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, but there are may also be folks like me who are embarrassingly late in reading it. Either way, with the recently-released graphic novel adaptation, now seems like the perfect time to read or re-read the original. Kindred is the sort of book that should be required on every high school curriculum. It’s far more relevant than many of the things that seem to be standard choices, however with the way required reading varies across schools, hopefully at least some teachers are getting this book into their students’ hands. The story centers on Dana, a young woman who finds herself repeatedly pulled out of her life in 1976, and flung back in time. Her fate, it seems, is linked to a white ancestor of hers, Rufus, the son of a slave owner. The first time she meets him, he’s  a young child and she saves him from drowning. She barely has time to speak to him, or anyone else, before she’s returned home, dripping wet and confused, where she and her husband, Kevin, try to determine what happened to her. Following this first brief encounter, Dana is pulled back several more times, always when Rufus is in danger. Extreme fear for her own life seems to be the key to sending her home, but beyond that, she has no control over when she’ll travel. From the start, Dana and Rufus have a complicated relationship. If he dies, she’ll never be born. She needs him, but he needs her, too in a way, despite the unequal degrees of power between them. When they first meet, Rufus is a frightened child; Dana is an adult who can protect him, but she’s also a black woman and he’s a white boy. Even though she doesn’t want to like him, Dana can’t help having  sympathy for him. He likes and trusts her, and wants her around. But each time Dana is pulled into the past, Rufus is a little older. The older he gets, the more he becomes like his father – a casually cruel man – which doesn’t pair well with Rufus’ natural spoiled, selfish behavior. On one hand, he’s cowed and terrified of his father, on the other, he’s indulged and spoiled by his mother, giving him a conflicted and confused world view. Dana does her best to guide him, but there’s only so much she can do. Things are further complicated when Kevin is pulled into the past with Dana on one of her trips. Now he finally sees the horrors Dana has witnessed for himself, however the privilege of his white skin protects him. They become separated, and Kevin is stuck in the past. When they are finally reunited, Kevin has been living in the past for years, and Butler shows the subtle ways it changes his attitude as a white man. He’s still Kevin, but not quite the Kevin Dana knew before. Every one of the relationships in Kindred is complicated, and Butler never shies away this fact. Dana’s relationship with her black female ancestor, Alice, is particularly complicated. Alice is married to another man, though Rufus claims to love her. When Alice and her husband Isaac try to run away, they are captured, Isaac is mutilated and sold, and Alice is savagely beaten. Rufus is still determined to have Alice, and Dana is faced with the horror of knowing that in order to exist, she will have to facilitate Alice’s rape. The last time Dana encounters Rufus, Alice has committed suicide, and their strange, intertwined relationship comes to a head. Now that he is older and has been fully indoctrinated into the attitudes of his time, Rufus’ love for Dana has become completely twisted. He wants to control her, possess her, and he hates that he cannot. He wants her to love him freely, replacing Alice in his life, but as with Alice, he is willing to break her in order to exert control. Dana ultimately kills him to save herself, breaking their bond, and returns home for the last time. Kindred is a relatively short novel, but it is packed full and feels epic in scope. The arcs Butler takes her characters through are painful, but as an author, she does not flinch away and she asks the reader not to either. Rufus goes from a somewhat sympathetic, scared and lonely child to a grown man who is terrifying in the ways he tries to fill the loveless hole in his life, whose selfishness has grown to the point where he doesn’t recognize the humanity of others. Dana, for her part, must viscerally live through horrors she’s always known about intellectually, and it leaves her scarred both mentally and physically. Kindred isn’t an easy book, but it is an important and worthwhile one, and an excellent place to start with Butler’s incredible body of work.

Next up, my recommended starting place for S.B. Divya’s work is Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story, published at Tor.com. It’s worth nothing that Divya’s novella, Runtime, is nominated for a Nebula Award this year, and would also be an excellent starting place for her work. That said, Microbioata and the Masses is an excellent starting place as well. Moena Sivaram is a brilliant scientist who’s been living in isolation for years in a biodome of her own design. Moena’s immune system is such that she can’t be outside her biodome without getting sick, however inside she’s in perfect balance with her carefully cultivated environment and it keeps her safe. The perfect balance is upset when a crack develops in one of the biodome’s windows. At the same time, a crack develops in Moena’s resolve as the repairman who comes to fix the window is incredibly attractive. In addition to working for the window company, Rahul also works with the Hariharan Ecological Group to clean up the local water systems, which only makes him more intriguing. Even after he leaves, Moena can’t stop thinking about him, but she’s convinced he won’t want her as herself. She’s a living legend in the scientific world, and she’s sick. Despite the risk, she decides Rahul is worth it. She invents a false personality, Meena, and leaves the biodome to volunteer for the water clean up project. Where the story could have easily been about Moena sacrificing her life’s work and her health for the sake of a crush, the story becomes about two people meeting in the middle, and Moena learning more about herself and her humanity. She stays true to her scientific brilliance, working to find a solution for the water problem. While she partially does it to impress Rahul, she also does it for the greater good, and for the love of science. Moena ultimately comes off as a young character, not necessarily in age, but in experience. Circumstances have separated her from the world, and as a result, she is emotionally stunted. She is impulsive, prone to dramatic gestures like the image of teenage love in Romeo and Juliet. Underneath the impulsiveness, though, she is lonely, and part of what she does is out of fear. Over the course of the story, Moena essentially grows up, learning the value of honesty, and learning to let Rahul into her world, both literally and metaphorically. The story presents a satisfying arc for Moena; she grows as the narrative itself comes full circle, back to the biodome. Another of the story’s strengths are the sensory impressions it leaves, contrasting the verdant, idyllic world inside the biodome with the harsh, crowded world outside. Overall, it’s an excellent story, and an excellent starting place for Divya’s work.

There are many starting places I could recommend for Damien Angelica Walters’ work. Her writing is lyrical and poetic, and she has dozens upon dozens of short stories to choose from, as well as her excellent novel, Paper Tigers. However my recommended starting point is Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion), which originally appeared in Interzone, and has since been reprinted in Walters’ collection Sing Me Your Scars, and in Apex Magazine. In addition to being all the things Walters’ work usually is – rich in imagery and full of gorgeous language – it will also break your heart. Andrias Kavaluaskas is the last magician in Lithuania, and his young daughter is dying. There’s nothing he can do but keep her company, tell her stories, and occasionally show her little bits of magic. While Russian soldiers, the same who killed wife, patrol the city, he tells his daughter stories of mermaids, and underwater palaces, conjuring snowflakes and rabbits to distract her from her illness. Inside the world of his stories, everything is beautiful, but outside, there is a sense of the world growing smaller, darkness closing in. Walters delicately balances hope and despair, and she perfectly captures the sense of an oppressive regime – people living in fear in their own homes, watching their friends, neighbors, and even family disappear, and knowing there’s nothing they can do against those in power. At the same time, Andrius does have power, his magic and his storytelling. Elements of the story are reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, and as with the ending of the movie, much of the end of the story depends on the reader’s willingness to believe in magic. Literal magic isn’t the only element at play, of course. Paskutinis Iliuzija is also a story about the power of story itself, the ability of words to bend the world around them. It’s a lovely story, even as it punches you in the gut, and it is an excellent starting place for the author’s work.

Upside DownTo round things out, my recommended starting place for Alethea Kontis’ work is a story that could easily have been goofy and groan-inducing, but ends up packing a surprisingly emotional punch, while being dark and gritty as well – Santa CIS (Episode One: No Saint) from the anthology Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. The trope Kontis tackles is the one of the old pro, long since retired and gone to live a solitary and guilt-ridden life, being pulled back in for one last job. As the title implies, the pro in this case is Santa. The story is a perfect mash-up of crime procedural, and well, Christmas. Kids have been going missing, and Buddy, one of Santa’s former elves, and now a special agent, sets out to find the big man himself as the only one who can help them. He presents Nick with a series of chilling letters from the missing children, all containing a phrase: Dear Santa, Please save me from the bad man. As Buddy is trying to convince Nick to join the cause, an NSA agent, Zhara Munin, shows up to further complicate things. This brings together all the genre essentials – the rival agents/agencies, each with their own priorities, the old pro, and the race against time. The fact that Father Christmas is involved gives it a delightful twist, even as the tone remains dark. Nick agrees to help, and the first step is tracking down the kidnapper via The List (yes, that one), which Santa accesses via a creepy wooden puppet who speaks with the voice of Christmas Future. The team track down their kidnapper, Dwight Griswold, but something feels off about the situation that none of them can quite put their finger on. When they find Griswold, it turns out he was once a frightened and hurt little boy who prayed for Santa to come save him, and when Santa never came, he lost his faith. Here, again, Kontis skillfully wraps the tropes of crime procedurals around a deeper mythology, weaving the guilt of the old pro’s past failures around the idea of belief, its powers, and holiday traditions from around the world. The blend is surprisingly effective, and again, never silly or campy. It works, and the story, while it comes to an end, is left open-ended in a way that perfectly suits the feel of episodic television. Genre mash-ups are always fun, and Kontis’ is one of the more unique ones I’ve seen. I never would have expected Santa Claus in a crime drama but it works, really well. The story left me hungry for more, which makes it a perfect recommended starting place in my mind. I do hope someday in the future, we’ll get another episode of CIS Santa, and perhaps even a whole season even.

That’s it for March’s Women to Read. I’ll be back in April with more recommendations, and hopefully I won’t be so late next time. Until then, please do leave your own recommendations in the comments. Who are your favorite women to read, and where do you suggest starting with their work?

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start – Part 7

Today is Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re into the holiday or not, around here it’s all the excuse I need to show some non-binary authors a bit of love. If you’re unfamiliar with the Non-Binary Authors to Read series, it’s a sibling-series to Women to Read wherein I recommend an author along with a starting place for their work, simple as that. If you’re new to the series, you can catch up here. Now, on to the recommendations.

Hidden YouthA.J. Odasso is a queer/intersex/neutrois author, poet, and poetry editor at Strange Horizons. My recommended starting place for her work is Feet of Clay from the anthology Hidden Youth, the follow-up anthology to Crossed Genres’ Long Hidden. Kleia is a young slave girl living in Byzantium, using clay figurines and sympathetic magic to try to make her ailing mistress well. Kleia’s master is also her father, and though he knows this, he doesn’t acknowledge her as a daughter. With his wife, Ireni, on her deathbed, he has his eye on Kleia as his next wife as she reminds him of her mother, a slave who died in childbirth. Elements of the story, particularly Kleia’s relationship with her father, call to mind the fairy tales Silver Hands and Donkey Skin. However all the relationships in the story are complicated. Ireni could never have children of her own, and thinks of Kleia as a daughter. The dynamic between mistress and slave, master and slave, and master and mistress results in a complex story of love, lust, and loyalty. The power imbalance between Ireni and Kleia means their relationship will always be tainted by their respective stations in life. This is true of almost all the characters in the story. For example, Laksa and Zakarias, two other servants in the household, treat Kleia like family, but Laksa also thinks of Ireni as a daughter. The story never shies away from the darker side of these relationships. Despite familial feelings, the knowledge that Kleia is property in the household is always in play. Odasso does an excellent job of showing people in the margins working together and protecting each other while also exploring their vulnerability. The characters are at the heart of this story, and the speculative elements add an extra layer of richness. Within a strong anthology, it was one of my favorite stories, and an excellent starting place for the author’s work.

JY Yang is a genderqueer author, and an editor at Epigram Books. My recommended starting place for their work is Secondhand Bodies, published in Lightspeed Magazine.

I have bad genes. My mother’s mother had a round face and a body that bulged like a beehive, a victim of bad metabolism that spared my mother but resurfaced in me, her wayward daughter. Much as clinicians have tried to iron out the kinks in my DNA, each body they generate still goes soft and gelatinous within months. This is my fourth body since I turned twenty. Nothing sticks, not diets, not exercise. Only overhauls.

Agatha lives in a world where the rich can afford to move into new bodies whenever their old ones become aesthetically unpleasing. Her family – particularly her obnoxious cousin Aloysius – is pressuring her into a new body. He has connections at company that can set her up with a permanent solution, eliminating the need to constantly switch bodies, but since the company only grows a limited supply, Agatha has to be willing to illegally sell her current body. While consulting with the doctor, Agatha sees a picture of the woman who wants to buy her secondhand body. Maryam is beautiful and Agatha can’t understand why she would want to trade for a less than ideal body. She immediately becomes fascinated by her – attracted in a way that combines desire, with a desire to possess and subsume. Agatha initiates a relationship, even though donors and buyers aren’t supposed to meet; money can circumvent a lot of regulations. Like Odasso’s story, the relationship between Agatha and Maryam is complicated. There is an imbalance of power, wealth, social status, and Agatha has something Maryam desperately wants. Yang manages to make Agatha both an unlikable character, and sympathetic. There’s a lost quality to her; she genuinely doesn’t seem to know what she wants, and the societal and familial pressure she’s been under her whole life leads her to lash out at others in ugly ways. The story explores class, desire, beauty standards, and more, linking them all together to show the ways the world can make monsters of people and trap them at the same time. The story also explores the ethics of scientific and medical advances, and the divide been the haves and the have-nots when it comes to access. Overall, it’s an excellent story, and an excellent starting place for Yang’s work.

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll close out my recommendations with a bit of kink. Corey Alexander, who writes under the name Xan West, is a queer transgender erotica author. My recommended starting place for their writing is A Wolf’s Yearning, published on the author’s website as a Valentine’s gift to readers. While it’s more of a story snippet than a full tale, it’s still highly effective. Rocky is a sadist who also happens to be a werewolf, imagining taking hir new lover for the first time. As one might guess from the set up, the story involves pain play and dominance, and it is explicit. While the story itself might be brief, West/Alexander builds a lot into the character of Rocky, and the story is important for several reasons – it embraces kink unabashedly, and not only that, it embraces queer kink, non-binary kink, gender fluidity, and features a fat, middle-aged character of color enjoying sex. All too often in fiction of any genre, these identities are erased. In mainstream media especially, there is a narrow definition of what is considered attractive and thus what types of characters get to fully embrace their sexuality. Those characters are largely white, thin, young, and heteronormative. Everyone else is pushed to the margins. Fat characters, queer characters, and older characters are supposed to be sexless unless their sexuality is played for comedy, an outside gaze, or is strangely chaste, limited to hugs and the briefest of kisses. Pushing back against these norms, Rocky revels in hir sexuality and is unapologetic about it. West packs a lot into a short space, also exploring dominance, consent, and animal nature. Rocky doesn’t want to simply control Frankie; ze wants to possess her and mark her, the way a wolf does, for all others to see. The desire isn’t about claiming Frankie as exclusive property, but celebrating their relationship visibly and publicly, which circles back to the idea of pushing back against marginalized sexualities and identities being erased. It’s also a story of anticipation, of the act of wanting and desiring being fundamental to sex. There is a sense that both parties are entering new territory in this relationship; it will require trust, consent, and a willingness to give up a certain degree of control in order to obtain it. The story perfectly encapsulates the tipping point of setting off into the unknown, whether that’s embarking on a new relationship, or going on an adventure – anything and everything is possible. Yet gratification is delayed, leaving everything in the realm of imagination. Not only is this story an excellent starting place for the author’s work, it’s an excellent way to treat yourself to a bit of Valentine’s Day kink.

That’s it for this installment of Non-Binary Authors to Read. Spread the love and leave your own recommendations for non-binary authors to read in the comments.

2 Comments

Filed under Recommended Reading

Women to Read: Where to Start: February 2017

Here we are in February, the shortest month, but just because there are few days, there’s no excuse to slack on reading fabulous fiction.

ClarkesworldMy recommended starting place for Kali Wallace’s work is First Light at Mistaken Point from the August 2016 issue of Clarkesworld. It’s a story about fractures – the ones that develop in families mirrored by the ones that can develop in memory, or even in reality. Charlie returns home for her mother’s funeral and to help her sister Cath clean out their mother’s house. Simultaneously, she’s dealing with a crisis at work. The manned mission sent to Mars has suddenly gone silent. The ship is still there, they can see it, but they can’t communicate. Then a message comes back, an unintelligible burst of sound, followed a few days later by a second garbled message 47 seconds long. It’s just long enough to make out voices, but not what they’re saying, or who is speaking. One voice seems to be Harris, leader of the mission, though one member of Charlie’s team claims it sounds more like Dr. Rivers, who was pulled from the mission at the last moment and is at home with his family. Charlie’s lover, Lisa, is also on the mission, and her voice can be heard in the background. The more Charlie listens to the clip, the more she convinces herself that the voices are saying Everything is fine. As the story unfolds, it plays with memory and the idea of branching realities. An eeriness underlies the narrative, a never-resolved sense that something is terribly wrong. It’s not a quite a ghost story, but it is haunted. When Charlie plays the clip for her sister, Cath distinctly hears Everyone is dying instead of Everything is fine. As Charlie tries to unravel the message, she’s also trying to unravel her own family history. She and her sister grew increasingly distant over the years – Charlie accusing Cath of giving up on her dreams, and Cath accusing Charlie of being too wrapped up in her work to ever let anyone in to her life. Charlie is also dealing with guilt over not visiting her mother more often, and never telling her family about Lisa. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s implied that Charlie was unwilling to admit to herself the strength of her feelings for Lisa and kept her a secret as a distancing mechanism. Wallace pairs Cath and Charlie’s differing memories of their childhood and even more recent events with the branching possibilities of what is happening on the shuttle. The early debate over the voice on the tape being Dr. Rivers or Harris is the first hint that two realities may be unfolding simultaneously. Dr. Rivers both is and is not on the ship. Everything is fine, and everyone is dying, two equal possibilities held in uncertain balance. With the possibilities presented, the story can be one of hope, or one of despair. Wallace handles both subtly, leaving it up to the reader to choose their own meaning. Family, space travel, the risks of loving someone – whether a family member or a romantic partner – are all wrapped into a kind of multiple choice ending make this an excellent starting place for Wallace’s work.

Let's Play WhiteNext up, my recommended starting point for Chesya Burke is Walter and the Three-Legged King, which is the opening story in her collection Let’s Play White. (And since you’re already there, I heartily recommend continuing on to read the rest of the collection. All the stories are fantastic, and I particularly enjoyed The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason, which closes out the collection.) In Walter and the Three-Legged King, Walter is a man with a rat problem. He’s a man with a lot of other problems, too. He’s out of work, and his shut-in white landlord who was given his job by his uncle hassles Walter for rent while passive-aggressively suggesting Walter’s inability to find work is his own fault. Walter knows the system is rigged against him. The ingrained racism in America makes it harder for him to find a job as a black man, something his landlord can’t understand. On top of all this, Walter can’t get rid of the damned rat in his apartment. After staking the rat out, he finally manages to catch it briefly, just long enough to get bitten, and tear off one of the rat’s legs. The next morning, he wakes to find the three-legged rat staring at him, and talking to him. The rat invites him to play white, telling Walter he has to acquiesce, and everything will be okay. Walter is justifiably freaked out and flees his apartment. Outside, looking ragged and disheveled from his harrowing experience, Walter sees a white woman trip. When he tries to help her up, she screams and accuses him of trying to rob her. After finally convincing the police to let him go, without an apology of course, Walter returns home to find the rat waiting for him. Walter decides to finally acquiesce, as the rat says, and they play white, putting on well-refined white voices, the voice Walter admits he uses for job interviews, and telling each other the world is fair and fine and there’s nothing to complain about at all. The encounter works a kind of sympathetic magic, but not the best kind. Walter finds a job as a doorman, but as the rat implied with his invitation, it means giving in. Walter has to conform to the racist system, or let it tear him apart. Walter and the Three-Legged King isn’t a cheerful story. It pulls no punches in pointing out the inequalities built into the system, as well as pointing out the privilege white people have in being blind to them. The story is brutal and effective, flipping the helpful talking animal trope into something sinister and disturbing, and making an excellent starting place for Burke’s collection, and her work as a whole.

People of Colo(u)r Destroy SFMoving on, my recommended starting place for Karin Lowachee’s work also happens to be one of my favorite short stories from 2016. A Good Home, which appeared in the People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is the story of a Tawn, a veteran who takes a decommissioned android designed for war into his home. Now that the war is over, there’s no place for either of them, and the government has set up an adoption program for the androids they can’t legally destroy. Tawn’s mother disapproves of and fears the android. Similarly, his neighbors are unnerved by the way it stands at the window all day, staring out at the street. Mark, as the android is called, refuses to speak. As a fellow veteran, Tawn can tell he’s experienced trauma, and has been scarred by the war. He does his best to reach out to Mark, reading to him from war novels like The Red Badge of Courage, and All Quiet on the Western Front, when a thunderstorm triggers Mark’s PTSD. They begin playing Scrabble together, which allows Mark to communicate without actually needing to speak, laying down tiles to spell out words like SAD, LOST, and COMPANY. A Good Home is a story about survivors, and about the casualties of conflict who must go on living every day in a world that no longer needs them, and would prefer not to see them as they are a reminder of the inconvenient truths of violence and war. Tawn and Mark are both cogs, part of war’s machinery, but Tawn is determined not to let that machinery grind him down, or grind Mark down either. It’s a touching story, but bittersweet as well, never letting the reader forget the situation – war – that ultimately brings Mark and Tawn together.

Mythic DeliriumTo round things out, my recommended starting place for Darcie Little Badger’s work is The Famine King from the January-March 2017 issue of Mythic Delirium. Irene suffers from sleep paralysis. As a child, she wakes one night, helpless and unable to move, and sees the face of her neighbor, Mr. Botello, at her window. He speaks to her of hunger before vanishing, leaving an eerie imprint of his face behind. That same night, Irene’s mother is wakened by sirens, and they see emergency vehicles swarming outside Mr. Botello’s house. In the morning, they learn that he murdered his wife and child before killing himself. As an adult, Irene sees a trailer for a movie called The Famine King while sitting in the bar where her friend Az works. It’s a movie about a wendigo, a father who devours his family during a snow storm. At the library where Irene works, people come in droves to check out books on the wendigo and cannibalism, inspired by the movie. A history of cannibalism haunts Irene’s town. In 1908, the Fiddler brothers were famous, one for butchering his wife and children for meat, the other for strangling people he believed to be wendigos, starting with his wife. Irene herself repeatedly dreams of being strangled, and dreams of the ghost of Mr. Botello. Her dreams, her town’s past, and the fictional account of real crimes all blend together. The fascination with cannibalism spills over into the real world. Irene catches sight of a vegan friend of hers at a burger restaurant, eating what clearly looks like meat and imagines it is vat-grown from human cells. A woman is attacked in a bus shelter, with the implication that the man who attacked her bit her ear. Irene sees the ghost of her mother walking the streets, mentally framing her mother’s death as an act of cannibalism. Irene starved her with a need for attention, for comfort, and literally through breastfeeding as a baby until her mother had nothing left for herself and died. Hunger, devouring, and consumption echo throughout the story to chilling effect. Irene’s guilt over her mother’s death pairs with the accounts of men murdering their families and the legend of the wendigo. In Irene’s case, a child – herself – is a parasitic creature, draining her mother and subsuming her life, the next generation literally taking the prior generation’s place. In the historical account and the wendigo legend, it is the opposite, fathers devouring their children to gain themselves a bit more life against the threat of starvation. The story calls to mind Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, about a baby murdering its parents, a metaphor for children taking over their parents’ lives. It also calls to mind fairy tales such as The Juniper Tree, and Snow White, which feature wicked mothers and stepmothers fearing their children taking their place and thus murdering and consuming them, or feeding them to others. It’s a powerful theme, one that speaks to the fear of aging, and the cycle of life. The idea of sacrifice, willing and not, plays out in the story, as well. A cow has no choice about becoming meat, but what about a willing human? The story is unsettling and effective, layering dread through patterns echoed through history, fiction, mythology, and the events of Irene’s life. All of this makes it an excellent staring place for Darcie Little Badger’s work.

Speaking of women to read, readers of this column may be interested in the upcoming anthology Problem Daughters edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael, and Djibril al-Ayad, which is currently running an IndieGoGo Campaign. The anthology’s focus is intersectional feminism, with speculative fiction by and about marginalized women often left out of mainstream feminism, including women of color, queer women, disabled women, and sex workers, among others. It looks to be an excellent collection, so please do check it out!

I’ll be back with more Women to Read in March. In the meantime, please leave your own suggestions for fantastic work by women in the comments.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

An Interview with Merry Jones

Child's PlayMerry Jones was kind enough to join me today to talk about Child’s Play, the latest novel in her Elle Harrison thriller series. Before we get to the questions, I’ll kick things off with an introduction…

Merry Jones is the author of the Harper Jennings mystery series, which includes Summer Session and Behind the Walls, and the Philadelphia-based Zoe Hayes series, which includes The Nanny Murders and The River Killings. Over the years, she has written a wide range of material in a variety of styles and for diverse media. In addition to her thrillers, she has written non-fiction, including Birthmothers, and the best-selling humor book I Love Him, But…, and has contributed articles to Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, and American Woman. Her books have been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, French, German, Norwegian, Turkish, and Dutch.

Welcome, Merry! To start things off, could you talk a little bit about your latest book, Child’s Play?

Hi Alison, thanks for inviting me to be interviewed!

So, Child’s Play begins with a second grade teacher, our protagonist Elle Harrison, preparing for the first day of school. She finds out that a former student, Ty Evans, has turned twenty-one and been released from juvenile detention where he’d served eight years for killing his father. Almost immediately, people against whom Ty has had grudges begin to get murdered—starting with the school principal, whose disfigured corpse Elle finds on that first day back. Ty seeks Elle out and, before long, she is assaulted. As she recovers, she worries for her own safety and that of her colleagues, and she questions her assumptions about family, childhood, female friendships, justice and innocence.

Child’s Play is the third book in the Elle Harrison series, and you have two other thriller series with recurring characters. What appeals to you about writing series? Is there a long arc for your characters that spans their entire series, or do you tend to have complete arcs within each book that build on each other as the series progresses?

Writing a series is fun for lots of reasons. You build a readership who have their own relationships with the characters. And these readers have expectations which are fun to meet/surpass. Also, you get to know your characters better with each book, so writing another one is like spending time with old friends. And it’s comfortable to begin a novel with “givens” about the protagonist and some of the other characters, not to have to reinvent new people with each book.

The arcs, I think, do complete in each book, enough so that if you only read one, you’re fine. But they also span the entire series in that the characters’ lives change and develop across titles. A divorcee might remarry, or a married person get divorced. A child might be born. A father might die. The characters’ arcs proceed through life after they survive the arcs of the individual books.

Crime and thriller novels often require authors to know grisly details about the ways people can die, what happens to their bodies after death, and how crimes are solved. How do you go about your research? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had to look up, or ask an expert? What’s the oddest or most unexpected thing you’ve learned while doing research? Do you ever get concerned looks from people while doing research, or when letting slip an obscure fact at a cocktail party?

I love this question. The concerned looks do happen. For example, I was in a bar with a friend, talking about a book-in-progress. “That effing rapist! I’m glad you killed him. He deserved to die.”

You can imagine the people in the next booth, overhearing this. So, yes, people do get uneasy with talk about murders and mayhem, but so far no one has called the police.

Research, though not always about cadavers and murder, provides some of the best fun of writing. In the course of a dozen suspense novels, I’ve had to learn about pre-Colombian religion, human trafficking, art smuggling, brain damage, sleep disorders, military secrets, Bible prophecy. Also about the juvenile detention system. Elective plastic surgery. Narcissistic personality disorder. Survivalists. I do a lot of research online, for sure. But I also interview experts like police detectives, surgeons, soldiers, prison guards. And I travel to relevant locations, for example, a sleep clinic, a museum, a national park, a funeral home. Getting details right is essential.

As to what I’ve learned during all this research, the list is long—Each book brings more information. Facts about rigor mortis, about how long it takes for bodies to start smelling. About the lack of an antidote for the puffer fish poison, and about its symptoms (which include sweating, hallucinations, a sense of flying, and horrible pain.) About the phase of sleep in which people are paralyzed but conscious, able to hear and see but not move or speak. I can list more examples, but you get the idea.

The research is important, but to me, the real terror in thrillers comes not from poisons or sleep paralysis or weapons of death, but from the characters who happily employ them.

A simple steak knife, for example, can be horrifying in the hands of a cheerfully sociopathic pre-teen. The tension and suspense about what she might do with that knife is far scarier than showing the hilt protruding from a victim’s chest.

Switching gears slightly, you’re a member of a group called the Liar’s Club in Philadelphia. Could you talk a bit about the group, how it came to be, and the work you and your fellow authors do to support those who are just starting their writing careers?

Sure, though this is my point of view, not an official mission statement. Loosely, Liars Club is an organization of writers of all genres who are committed to building and supporting their writing community. It was started by two Philly writers, Jonathan Maberry and Greg Frost, in a bar about a decade ago. Since then, we’ve spent a lot more time in bars, but we’ve also accomplished a number of projects, including touring and signing at Indie book stores, publishing an anthology, and holding monthly free Writers Coffeehouses to which anyone—new writers, longtime writers, or anyone else interested in writing–can come and talk about the business and craft of writing while bonding over coffee. Liars Club is growing, having already spread to several cities including San Diego, where Jonathan now lives. Philly Liars Club hopes to increase its impact, so we’re planning a podcast, workshops and other projects. It’s a group with great heart, and I’m proud to be part of it.

On a somewhat related note, there are quite a few authors in the Philadelphia area. Do you think there’s something particular about Philadelphia that draws creative types? Do you have a favorite spot in Philadelphia where you go to recharge your creative brain, or gather inspiration?

Honestly, I think there are creative people everywhere. Writers find stories no matter where we are. We can’t escape them. So, no, I don’t think Philadelphia in particular draws creative types. It has a lot of them, but so do other big cities.

When I want to recharge, I don’t have a particular place to go. I simply break my patterns for a while. Change my rhythm. I might travel, might not. Might clean the house. Might stop writing for a week or two. There’s no particular place or activity involved. It’s more about slowing down, letting go, changing perspective. Letting my mind breathe.

In addition to being a phenomenal and prolific author, you’re also a rower. Does rowing ever help you solve snarled plot points, or is it what you do when you need to completely get away from writing for a while? How did you get into rowing, and do you compete, or row just for fun?

Rowing, yes, is what I do to get away from writing and life. While I row I rarely think of anything but rowing—the condition of the water, the motion of the boat, the position of my oars, the fluidity of my strokes. What rowing might do is realign my brain so I can look at my work refreshed. But it doesn’t necessarily help me untangle plots.

As to how I started: It was eighteen years ago, when a community rowing program offered free lessons on the Schuylkill. My older daughter was then 12, and we signed up together. We both loved it and have been rowing ever since. I’m a member of Vesper Boat Club, but I race only rarely—most recently this fall with my daughter in a double. Mostly I row for the joy of being on the river. In fact, when my husband and I travel, we try to connect with local rowing clubs, so we’ve skulled on a bunch of rivers.

To finish things off, what are you working on next, now that Child’s Play is out? Are there any other projects in particular you want people to know about?

I think for writers, the next book is the most important one. I’m heavy into one but let’s talk about it when it’s finished. Not that I’m superstitious. Just that talking about it is bad luck.

Totally understandable! Thank you for joining me!

Thank you, Alison. This was fun!

1 Comment

Filed under Author Interview

An Interview with Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new Gothic Horror novelette, A Human Stain. To get things started, I will shamelessly crib some notes from Kelly’s author bio…

In 2015, Kelly Robson’s first fiction publications appeared in major Science Fiction markets Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, and in the anthologies New Canadian Noir, In the Shadow of the Towers, and License Expired. Her work has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Prix Aurora Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and the Sunburst Award. After years in Vancouver, she now lives in Toronto with her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica.

Human StainWelcome! Without giving too much away, what can readers expect to find within the virtual pages of A Human Stain?

A Human Stain is a lesbian gothic horror set in a remote Bavarian alpine schloss in 1905. Thematically, structurally, and in many of its plot elements, the story is the evil twin of my 2015 novella Waters of Versailles. It’s very dark indeed. Ellen Datlow says it’s one of the ickiest stories she’s ever bought for Tor.com.

The art is absolutely stunning. Did you have any input in terms of choosing the artist, or nudging them in a particular direction?

Not at all! The covers are always a complete surprise. I don’t see them until they hit social media. It wasn’t what I was expecting (it never is), but I love it. And the cover certainly lets you know what you’re going to get in this story isn’t pretty.

I’m a touch obsessed with your novella, The Waters of Versailles. Would you mind talking a bit about where the inspiration for the story came from, and how you made a story about toilets so damned amazing?

From 2008 to 2012, I wrote the wine column for Canada’s largest women’s magazine, Chatelaine. It was a great freelance gig with a lot of perks – free wine, free gourmet meals, free trips. All of a sudden I was hanging out with a lot of classy people, which is not my milieu at all. That “fish out of water” feeling definitely informed the story.

An important theme for me is the question of what people do when they are given power. Sylvian has an incredible gift – the love and devotion of a creature with complete control over water. What he chooses to do with it is kind of interesting. If I were in 1738, I one of the first things I’d miss would be toilets, so I can’t fault him at all for inventing them – I might do that too! But he gives them to people who can’t truly appreciate them, and that’s where he goes wrong.

I have two more novellas planned in this universe. They’re going to be about central heating and electricity.

I also have to ask about License Expired. You and Alyx both have stories in the anthology, which for those who don’t know is a Canadian anthology of James Bond stories, as the character is considered public domain in Canada. Did you grow up a James Bond fan? Did you and Alyx collaborate or consult each other at all as you worked on your respective stories? What was the best part of writing in Bond’s world?

Actually, Alyx and I kept our Bond stories completely secret from each other until we were both done. The reveal was a totally hoot.

My Bond story is absolutely my favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’m not a huge Bond fan, but I’ve always liked the honeypot/spy dynamic. It brims with sexy dramatic tension. I loved being able to turn that dynamic on its head.

The best part of writing in Bond’s world is it’s just one hell of a lot of fun. Having a massive canon behind the story means you can set events into motion without having to do the hard lifting of backstory, setup, or setting. You can just have fun with it, and the reader is right there, colluding with you from the first paragraph.

Shifting gears a bit, you currently live in Toronto, as do a good number of speculative fiction writers. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or science fictional about Toronto that draws authors there? What is your favorite spot in Toronto to gather inspiration, or to hang out in general?

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, so the concentration of SF writers is inevitable. But we’re a lovely coherent group because of the monthly SF readings ChiSeries on the third Wednesday of every month. When we moved to Toronto three and a half years ago, the gang there welcomed us with open arms. ChiSeries is definitely my favorite spot in Toronto!

I like to ask my fellow Canadians about the idea of “Canadian Literature”. Do you think there’s a particular theme, tone, or some common unifying thread that makes a piece of writing particularly Canadian? If so, do you find it in your own writing, either surfacing unconsciously, or something you actively work toward or against?

CanLit is generally obsessed with the unpredictability and danger of our harsh climate, unforgiving terrain, isolating vast distances, and unpredictable natural forces. I believe it’s said that the climate is always a major character in Canadian Literature.

I do write about the natural world and I can’t seem to keep from writing about water. But in my stories, it’s usually not an unspeaking force. It’s something the characters are aware of and are negotiating their lives around. I would probably never use natural or climatic disasters just to amp up the drama.

Now that A Human Stain is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or what else do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

For the past year and a half I’ve been working on a time travel novella. It’s out on submission now. *fingers crossed* Here’s the elevator pitch:

“The Last Landing of the Lucky Peach” is set several hundred years in the future. The world has just begun to recover from a mass extinction event, but the invention of time travel by secretive think tank TERN has blocked the flow of funding for long-term ecological restoration projects. Minh, an elderly fluvial geomorphologist, is enraged at having her life’s work disrupted by the illusion of quick-fix solutions to the world’s problems, so when she’s given the opportunity to travel to 2024 BCE for a past-state ecological assessment of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover TERN’s secrets.

It sounds amazing! Good luck with it, and thanks for dropping by!

Thank you for having me!!!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Author Interview

Women to Read: What’s Next

Hello, and welcome to 2017! It’s a new year, which means it’s high time for a new Women to Read post. From 2013 to mid-2016, Women to Read was a monthly series highlighting work by women and appearing at the much-missed SF Signal. When SF Signal announced their closure in May 2016, many kind people expressed their hope that Women to Read would continue, and few folks offered to give it a home, which I truly appreciate. Before I go further, I just want to say thank you to everyone who read, signal boosted it, said kind things about Women to Read over the years. I’m always delighted to hear of people enjoying the posts, and finding new-to-them authors. I’d hoped the series might end up somewhere that could bring it a wider readership and bring more attention to the work of some wonderful authors. Alas, several possibilities fell through, and rather than see the column vanish, I decided to experiment with hosting it here.

The column may or may not be monthly, we’ll see how things go, but I’ll do my best. I’ll also continue posting the sibling series, Non-Binary Authors to Read here as well. (For more general reviews, I also contribute a monthly Words for Thought column at Apex.) If you’re new to Women to Read and are curious about what I’ve done in the past, all the posts are archived by year and you can find them on the tabs below the header. I do my best not to repeat authors, and make every effort not to screw up identity, but if I ever make an incorrect assumption and mis-gender anyone, please let me know!

I hope people will continue to read, enjoy, and discover new authors through this series and spread the word about their amazing work. Here we go!

ClarkesworldCarolyn Ives Gilman has been nominated for awards including the Hugo, the Nebula, the Tiptree, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. There are many starting places I could recommend for her work, however I’m recommending Touring with the Alien from the April 2016 issue of Clarkesworld because I’m a sucker for a stories featuring truly alien modes of being. Too often aliens come off as thinly-disguised humans, different from us in appearance, but possessing human ways of thinking and human (frequently white and western) values. The only thing recognizably human about Gilman’s alien is that it is referred to with male pronouns, but that appears to be matter of convenience for the human characters in the story. Avery specializes in transporting dangerous things, and is assigned the job of essentially babysitting an alien and his human translator, Lionel, who like all translators was taken from his family at a very young age and raised among aliens. Lionel is almost as alien as the alien he translates for, and Earth isn’t home to him. As they set off on a modified tour bus, which has been loaded with a shipping crate containing the alien, Lionel slowly opens up to Avery. He does his best to explain the aliens; they exists in the realm of the unconscious, and their intelligence is an autonomic function, like humans’ breathing. However Mr. Burbage – as Avery comes to refer to the alien – is curious about consciousness, and has formed a unique bond with Lionel, one that is killing him. The act of being conscious is burning him up, and soon he will progress to the final stage of his lifecycle, dissolving into distinct cells and soaking into the ground. The story unfolds with a slow burn, raising questions about the nature of consciousness and living. What is it to be alive? What is the definition of a family? What role does free will play in the alien/translator relationship? Gilman leaves the questions open – a prompt to the reader rather than an attempt to provide a point of view. Touring With the Alien is a lovely, meditative, and touching story, even as it explores grand questions of thought and consciousness. Between that and the truly alien alien, it is an excellent starting place for Carolyn Ives Gilman’s work.

Apex 78Next up, my recommended starting place for Day Al-Mohamed’s work is The Beacon and the Coward from the November 2015 issue of Apex Magazine, a steampunk flavored story about the nature of heroism. Danville is a surfman at a lighthouse staffed entirely by black men. They’re all veterans of the Civil War, but unlike Danville, most of them have had metal limbs or mechanical eyes grafted onto or into their bodies against their will. Because they are black, the military felt free to experiment on them, and Danville is one of the few ‘natural’ men on the crew. He’s also a coward. When the order came to charge, he lost his nerve; this mark on his military record, and his conscience, has followed him ever since. As the story opens, Danville is preparing to leave the lighthouse. His past has caught up with him again, and even though his boss trusts him, Danville has no desire to deal with the scorn of his fellows. A massive storm and a passenger ship threatening to wreck on the reef cuts Danville’s plans short. Despite his fears that he’ll once again freeze at the critical moment, Danville joins the rescue. As a natural man, it’s up to him swim a line out to the sinking ship. Despite their increased strength, the soldiers with mechanical parts would sink and drown. Danville saves the lives of one of his colleagues, and a young girl from the passenger ship, proving his boss’ trust in him, and proving to himself he’s not a coward after all. The Beacon and the Coward is a story of redemption and second chances. It’s also a story about trust, and not being defined by a single moment of fear. That it is inspired by a true story, which you can read about on the author’s website, makes the story even more incredible. Al-Mohamed draws a thoughtful parallel between the two situations Danville finds himself in – a battlefield, and sinking ship. Even when fighting for a good cause, war can seem like a wasteful act. Danville saw friends cut down by bullets on the battlefield and was unable to act, but when a random act of nature put innocent lives at risk, he waded in (literally) and proved himself a hero. The steampunk element is incorporated with a light touch, and Al-Mohamed uses it to great effect to comment on the horrors of war and the colonial mentality often inherent in the genre itself. The Beacon and the Coward directly addresses the idea of brown bodies as lesser, disposable cogs in a machine, by making them part of the ‘wonders’ of the mechanical age without their consent. It’s a powerful piece, and a worthy place to start with the author’s work.

Superhero UniverseSticking with the heroic vein to round out the post, my recommended starting place for Leigh Wallace’s work is Bedtime for Superheroes from the anthology Tesseracts 19: Superhero Universe edited by Mark Shainblum and Claude Lalumiere. One of the tropes of SFF, and the superhero genre in particular, is that going on quests and saving the world is a game for the young. Older characters are sidelined as wise mentors, and those roles are typically reserved for men. Old Bruce Wayne mentors young Terry McGinnis, Hollis Mason passes the torch to Dan Dreiberg, Yoda and Obi Wan mentor Luke Skywalker, Dumbledore aids Harry Potter on his journey, and so on. There are fewer examples of wise old women passing their knowledge on to the next generation. There are plenty of wicked crones and jealous stepmothers plotting to stealth youth and beauty, as if those are a woman’s only assets, not her knowledge. In Bedtime for Superheroes, Wallace turns things around and gives reads what feels like The Facts of Life, but with superheroes. The story opens with Marie making tea for herself, then laying out three extra mugs, each with their own personality and flavor of tea. Just as she’s about to settle in, a ninja appears on her living room couch. The ninja is her granddaughter, Lacy, a superhero, lamenting the loss of buttons on her ninja costume and asking her grandmother to make repairs. Lacy is soon joined by a pirate and an angel. Each is given her own mug of tea, and Marie quietly listens to their complaints, tidying up after them and giving them gentle nudges toward good habits. She does all this unobtrusively, playing the role of an invisible old woman, just as society expects her to, stepping aside and making way for the young. Throughout the story, Wallace nudges the reader the way Marie nudges her charges, making it clear there’s more to Marie than meets the eye. The ultimate reveal of her true identity comes as a satisfying end to the tale. The quiet details of domestic life – the way Marie cares for her girls, preparing their tea, matching their mugs to their personalities, knitting and quietly gathering more girls into her fold – provide the key to Marie’s character. She notices everything, no action she takes is wasted, and every movement has a purpose as she directs the lives around her without anyone noticing. Like Al-Mohamed’s story, Bedtime for Superheroes expands on the notion of what it means to be a hero, and who gets to be a hero. There are different ways of wielding power, and not every path to victory involves kicking ass. Bedtime for Superheroes is an excellent addition to the superhero genre, and an excellent starting place for Wallace’s work.

Three recommendations seems like a good start for the series reboot, so I’ll leave things there for now. Keep an eye out for more Women to Read posts to come, and in the meantime, leave your own suggests for women to read in the comments!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading