An Interview with Desirina Boskovich

Desirina Boskovich was kind enough to drop by to talk about her new novella, Never Now Always, published by Broken Eye Books (out on June 27, available for pre-order now!). To start things off, I’ll make introductions by cribbing from Desirina’s author bio…

Desirina Boskovich’s short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Kaleidotrope, PodCastle, Drabblecast, and anthologies such as The Apocalypse Triptych, Tomorrow’s Cthulhu and What the #@&% Is That?. She is also the editor of It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, 2013), and together with Jeff VanderMeer, co-author of The Steampunk User’s Manual (Abrams Image, 2014). Her next project is a collaboration with Jason Heller — Starships & Sorcerers: A Secret History of Science Fiction, forthcoming from Abrams Image.

Never Now AlwaysWelcome and congratulations on the publication of Never Now Always! Without giving too much away, would you care to give a taste of what the novella’s about?

Thank you! The story centers on Lolo, who finds herself trapped in a futuristic labyrinth, surrounded by children like herself, and their alien Caretakers. She can’t remember how she came to be here or what came before; worse, her memories fade and fragment from day to day, so even much of her time in this place is a blur. The Caretakers appear to be experimenting on the children’s memory, but to what purpose, no one knows.

Together with her best friend Gor, Lolo embarks on a desperate search for her lost memories, and then her lost sister, who she is convinced is also somewhere near.

Hopefully this isn’t too spoilery, but I’m fascinated by the parallels you draw in Never Now Always between the nightmarish scenario Lolo finds herself in, and the idea of children being powerless in a world of adults. I’m also interested in your recurring themes of memory, time, and the power of stories. Were these themes you consciously set out to work with, or ones you found emerging as the story unfolded?

I think these themes have always been at the center of much of my work. I don’t know that I ever consciously set out to work with them, but they seem to be what preoccupies me, and they keep emerging again and again.

I know I am not one of those adults who thinks longingly of childhood or feels nostalgia for those days of “carefree innocence.” None of the hardships I’ve experienced as an adult can come close to the constant terror and dread of my childhood with an abusive parent: spending every waking moment trying to navigate a complex set of rules that can change at any time; never knowing when things will go wrong; never feeling safe, never knowing refuge, never having anywhere to hide. And always sensing vaguely that this isn’t right, this isn’t how things are supposed to be, but not really knowing anything else.

I guess, in that sense, Lolo’s predicament is an embarrassingly literal exploration of my own trauma. And those few beautiful and blissful memories she recalls mean so much to me, probably too much — an excavation or an echo of that pure and perfect childhood that could never really be.

(My brother just gave his therapist a copy of the novella with the instructions, “Read this, you’ll understand.” I’m not sure how that makes me feel.)

But anyway. Moving past that childhood and building a life that feels safe has been the greatest undertaking of my life so far, and “memory, time and the power of stories” — as you phrased it — feel central to that. And all the stories that feel most personal to me explore these ideas one way or another.

Up until now, you’ve primarily written and published short fiction. Is Never Now Always the first step in a new direction, perhaps a novelish direction, or is more a case of the story being the length it needs to be?

Heh. I’ve primarily published short fiction. I also have more than a dozen incomplete novels on my hard drive, which is my excuse for not being more prolific in the short fiction department. Idk. Writing a novel is hard.

But I hope Never Now Always is the first step in a new direction of actually publishing longer stuff.

The novel I’m working on now is Weird science fiction (with a touch of the mystical) about three young people in a cyberpunk-esque surveillance city, surrounded by an eco-apocalypse of unknown origins. I’m in the revising stage and hope to have a final draft this year.

Shifting gears a bit, how did It Came from the North come about? Were you working with translated fiction, Finnish work written in English, or both? What was your strategy in selecting works? Was there an overarching thesis, or did you take a ‘best of’ approach?

At the time I was a consulting editor for Cheeky Frawg, helping review submissions and pitching in on copyediting and proofreading, stuff like that. The Finnish anthology was a project that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had been wanting to do for a while. They asked me if I was interested in serving as editor for the project and I said “Definitely!”.

At that point my main exposure to Finnish speculative fiction was through Leena Krohn, the utterly brilliant author of Tainaron (which I wrote about in Weird Fiction Review) and Datura (one of the Cheeky Frawg books I helped copyedit, which meant I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to read the English translation). Since then, Cheeky Frawg has released Leena Krohn: The Collected Fiction (2015), which includes several new English translations, and is a truly impressive volume.

Anyway, being new to Finnish speculative fiction, I dove into the project and read as much as I could. I read works that were originally written in English, as well as works in translation. I read previously published works, solicited additional work from a number of authors and also read original work in an open submissions period.

I don’t think there was an overarching thesis; I chose works that resonated with me, that I felt were memorable and vivid, that I connected with emotionally. At the same time, I did want to select stories that would come together as a coherent whole. What emerged was an aesthetic of weird, quirky and surreal stories with a strong emotional core.

By the way, It Came from the North includes an excerpt from Johanna Sinisalo’s Not Before Sundown (published under the title Troll: A Love Story in the U.S.), which I found a very engaging and immediately captivating entry to her work. But I also absolutely freaking adore her novel Birdbrain, which is so weird, disturbing and subtly terrifying. It’s really a masterful work and I want everyone to read it, too.

A question I like to ask my fellow Canadians is whether they feel there’s a national character to Canadian speculative fiction. After working on this anthology, do you think there’s a particular national character to Finnish speculative fiction? Are there certain themes, tropes, settings that you don’t see as often elsewhere, or that make a work particularly Finnish?

I hesitate to make any pronouncements on what makes a work particularly Finnish — such an insight is probably better left to one of the many amazing Finnish writers working today.

But one theme that did particularly emerge for me is the uncanniness of nature, how big and deep and fantastic and strange it really is. This idea that the weirdness of the natural world is in its own way kind of speculative and kind of magical. I think that really comes through in the Sinisalo novel I mentioned above, Birdbrain, where the landscape is both its own character and a reflection of the human characters, radiating tension and dread. And then on the other hand, Krohn’s Tainaron uses the framework of a city of insects to build this beautiful and powerful meditation on life and death, metamorphosis and transformation.

I would venture to say that this fascination and exploration of nature and what it means stems from the territory of Finland itself… a country that’s 3/4 forest, home to nearly 200,000 lakes, and positioned partly above the Arctic Circle, with extremely dark winters and extremely bright summers.

Incidentally, I will be visiting Finland for the first time this summer to attend WorldCon in Helsinki. I couldn’t be more excited. I hope to spend at least a couple days exploring nature too.

In general, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

This is a wonderful question. I regret to admit, though, that I’ve worked very few unlikely jobs. In high school and college, I worked as a restaurant hostess, a library worker and then an administrative assistant.

My first real job out of college was as a copywriter at an allergy products company. I wrote lengthy and enthusiastic reviews of allergy-proof bedding, air purifiers, vacuum cleaners. I have forgotten more about the dust mite than most people will ever know. It was a strange time.

But honestly my most formative job was as a fledgling freelance copywriter in the heady days of 2006-2008. Because I was a baby freelancer and my whole portfolio was basically glowing copy about allergy products, I spent some time taking whatever work I could get, little one-off projects, through those online find-a-freelancer sites. The economy was so different then; looking back it feels like they were pretty much just giving away money. And everyone seemed to have some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, some internet side-hustle, some scam they were running.

So those were the kind of projects I worked on (I had to eat). Churning out content for hypnotherapy and diet fads and dot.com ventures and pyramid schemes. (So many pyramid schemes.) I was very young then and my perspective was limited but I could feel it, that something was coming. There was this sense of living on borrowed money, borrowed time. Everyone was talking about how we could all will our deepest desires into being if we just believed hard enough. I formed this idea of America as a naive, exuberant, delusional place, distinctly fueled by our fantastical optimism.

I tried to write a novel about it, anchored by the characters I encountered through those freelance gigs, but the story was too big. It’s an idea I keep coming back to. But as more time passes the story just keeps getting bigger too.

I will write that novel one day, though. I promise.

What are you working on next? Anything else you want folks to know about or keep an eye on?

The big exciting news is that I’m collaborating on an illustrated nonfiction book with Jason Heller: Starships & Sorcerers: The Secret History of Science Fiction, which will be published by Abrams Books. This book will feature lots of beautiful imagery and tell the stories of unsung creators, forgotten tales, books and films that were imagined and never made, shows that were canceled too soon. It’s a very fun project and I’ll be talking a lot about it over the next year.

On the short fiction front, I have two stories forthcoming. “Here Comes the Flood” will be in the anthology 2084 from Unsung Stories. “Cargo” will be in the anthology Ride the Star Wind from Broken Eye Books.

And of course, there’s that novel I’m working on.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for having me, and for your thoughtful and interesting questions! It was a delight to talk about Finnish fiction again… and I hope I will see some of your readers in Helsinki this summer.

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An Interview with Curtis C. Chen

Kangaroo TooCurtis C. Chen was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his new novel, Kangaroo Too, the sequel to his Locus Awards Finalist novel Waypoint Kangaroo. To start things off, I’ll make introduction by shamelessly stealing from Curtis’ author bio…

Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen now writes fiction and runs puzzle game near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo is a science fiction thriller about a superpowered spy facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. A sequel, Kangaroo Too, is forthcoming in 2017.

Welcome, Curtis, and congratulations on the publication of your second novel! Without giving too much away, can you give folks unfamiliar with the series a little taste of Kangaroo’s world?

Thanks, Alison! I imagine Kangaroo’s world as pretty much our current one, projected a couple of centuries forward. I’m not trying to predict the future at all; I just wanted interplanetary travel to be reliable and affordable for civilians in this world, because I’m a big space nerd and I would love to go touring around the Solar System, myself. There’s also other advanced technology, like Kangaroo’s bionic implants, but nothing always works perfectly, because engineering is hard.

There’s something very evocative about the title of your first novel. Waypoint Kangaroo seems like a combination of words begging for story, so I have to ask (only semi seriously) – which came first, the concept or the title? And on a more serious note, what did spark your desire to write a sci-fi spy thriller?

The title of the first book hasn’t changed since I came up with the basic plot. But before finding that specific story, I first came up with the superpower (the pocket) and then the character. Kangaroo became a spy because it seemed like a perfect job for someone who could smuggle anything anywhere, but I also made him a very atypical secret agent for comedy reasons. And the thriller aspect grew out of that, when I decided it would be funnier for Kangaroo to be dealing with more mundane problems in a science fictional world.

Keeping with the spy theme, across any medium – tv, movies, books, games, or even reality – do you have a favorite spy? Have you ever fantasized about being a spy yourself, and do you think you’d make a good one?

If I had to pick just one, it would be Tara Chace from Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country series. I’ve never actually wanted to be a spy, though I was fascinated by Cold War history and tradecraft when I was younger. (Related to that: the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC is full of fascinating stuff, and their “Operation Spy” interactive experience was the first time I encountered anything like an escape room. Highly recommended if you’re in the area.)

Switching gears a bit, since Waypoint Kangaroo is a finalist, do you plan on attending the Locus Awards this year? Or will you be wearing your Hawaiian shirt at home, eagerly awaiting the results? (I hear they’re mandatory.)

Yes, I’ll be at the Locus Awards! A friend is even custom-sewing me a Hawaiian shirt using a unique patterned fabric. I don’t expect to win either the First Novel award or the Hawaiian shirt contest, but I plan to have fun regardless.

Hopefully you will at least share pictures of said shirt far and wide! In addition to your two novels, you’ve also written quite a bit of short fiction. How hard was it to make the transition between the two for you? Do you have different processes for writing for one length versus the other?

I’ve been trying to write novels since the early 2000s, so it wasn’t so much a transition as finally figuring it out. For the longest time I was a pure “pantser,” depending on discovery writing to drive the first draft of any story, but at some point I realized I needed to work on structure. Looking at screenwriting turned out to be really good for that. In the 2010s I started outlining and breaking down my short fiction, and then I was able to apply those same skills to longer works. I’ve definitely moved toward the “plotter” end of the spectrum now.

Now to topic switch entirely, I want to ask about the Portland area, since you’re a resident. I have an image of Portland (mostly drawn from Portlandia, I’ll admit) of a quirky city that fosters creativity and is home to a lot of makers, artists, and musicians. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a favorite spot in the Portland area where you go to get inspired, or a favorite place you like to take people visiting for the first time?

Yeah, the first few seasons of Portlandia were pretty much a documentary. There are a lot of people here doing really interesting, independent creative work, and I’ve been able to get to know quite a few of them through local tech conferences, writing meetups, puzzling events, and the co-working space of which I’m a member. My wife and I always take visitors to see Powell’s Books, waterfalls and the Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge, and usually at least one of the local gardens (Rose, Rhododendron, Chinese, or Japanese).

Waypoint KangarooNow I want to visit Portland even more than I did before! Back to writing to wrap things up, now that Kangaroo Too is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I’m working on a new standalone novel (not Kangaroo), some short fiction, and generally figuring out how to balance ongoing promotional stuff–especially travel–with writing. As a wise author once said, it’s part of the job, but it’s not the work. Hobby-wise, I help organize Puzzled Pint every month; that’s a free puzzling event that happens at bars in over forty cities around the world. Our July content theme is Game of Thrones, if that entices anyone to check us out: www.puzzledpint.com

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for the invitation!

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LGTBQIA+ StoryBundle and Queer Reading Recs

On Monday, I attended the 29th Annual Lambda Literary Awards. My collection, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, was a finalist in the SF/F/H category, and while it didn’t win, it was a fantastic event and I came home with a whole list of titles to add to my already staggering TBR list. Being a finalist along with such fine works was truly an honor, and since I promised queer reading recommendations, I’ll start by pointing you toward the list of Lambda Award winners. There’s fiction, poetry, erotica, non-fiction, basically a little something for everyone.

Speaking of good company, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories also currently finds itself in excellent company in a StoryBundle of LGTBQIA+ books curated by Melissa Scott in celebration of Pride Month. Melissa’s philosophy in assembling the works was to focus on small press works where queer characters are active players in their own stories, not relegated to the role of villains or fated to die tragically. The StoryBundles contains works by such fine authors as Heather Rose Jones, Steve Berman, Catherine Lundoff, and Geonn Cannon, among others. The basic bundle gets you 5 books for $5, or for $15, you get an extra 7 books in your bundle, including my collection. Not only is it a fantastic deal, you can choose to donate a portion of your purchase price to Rainbow Railroad, helping LGTBQIA+ folks escape Chechnya. The StoryBundle is available for another two weeks, so grab it now and add a whole slew of excellent queer titles to your library.

You didn’t think I would stop there, did you? Oh, no no no. Because your TBR pile can never be too big, I have even more recommendations for you – short fiction, novels, collections, and comics by queer creators, many also featuring queer characters, gathered here for your reading pleasure.

Novels and Collections

The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl both by Caitlin R. Kiernan – two truly unsettling works of dark fiction, featuring unreliable narrators and unreliable situations, both of which continued to haunt me long after I finished reading them.

The Devourers by Indra Das – a breathtakingly gorgeous and poetic work about the nature of humans and monsters, and the winner of this year’s Lammy Award in the SF/F/H category.

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson – a narrative moving fluidly through time and space, interweaving the stories of several women.

One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak – a story about life, death, growing up, and a friendship that transcends all of those things.

Hild by Nicola Griffith – an epic, historic novel set in the Middle Ages, based on the little-known life of St. Hilda of Whitby.

Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge – a brilliant collection of stories that – among other things – blend together music, dance, violence, sex, and magic, which includes one of my all-time favorite Eskridge stories, Eye of the Storm.

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages – a new short story collection featuring stories that echo with the themes of magic, growing up,  and friendship.

Short Fiction

eyes i dare not meet in dreams by Sunny Moraine – a brutal and rage-filled story about girls coming back from the dead.

Melioration by E. Saxey – a short, but impactful story about the power of language.

Nothing is Pixels Here by K.M. Szpara – a story that is by turns painful and hopeful, about reality, virtual reality, and being true to yourself.

Never the Same by Polenth Blake – a story about family, lies, and what we call monstrous.

How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps by A. Merc Rustad – another story that mixes heartbreak and hope, and explores identity, being true to yourself, and friendship.

The Color of Paradox by A.M. Dellamonica – a time travel story about people risking themselves in the past in a desperate attempt to prevent a terrible future.

Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee – a mash-up of giant mechs and trickster spirits, caught up in the midst of a war.

The Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson – a charming story about the importance and power of indoor plumbing, and about being true to yourself.

Kin, Painted by Penny Stirling – a story laden with gorgeous language and imagery, about family members finding and expressing themselves through various forms of art.

Things With Beards by Sam J. Miller – a chilling retelling of Who Goes There?, about queer identity, masculinity, and the masks people wear.

Second Hand Bodies by JY Yang – a powerful story about class and dangerous standards of beauty.

Forestspirit, Forestspirit by Bogi Tackács – the story of an unlikely friendship and alliance developing between a young child and an AI as they trying to save a forest from developers.

The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye by Rose Lemberg – a powerful story about those on the margins of society carving out a space for themselves in the world.

The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson – a haunting story about family, slavery, and the ghosts of the past.

Comics

Dates! An Anthology of Queer Historical Fiction – a collection full of drop-dead gorgeous art, and stories about queers characters across history. As a bonus, the collection focuses on happy stories, and features work by many emerging authors and artists seeing their work in print for the first time. A second volume is on its way.

Chaos Life by A. Stiffler & K. Copeland – a webcomic about nerd life, gender, sexuality, cats, earworms, usb drives, and generally everything that makes life chaotic.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson – a wonderful graphic novel about heroes, villains, sidekicks, monsters, and the blurred line between them.

And that is just a very small sampling of the amazing queer work out there. Please leave your own recommendations in the comments. As I said, one can never have too big of a TBR pile. Happy Pride, and happy reading!

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An Interview with Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new short story collection, Wicked Wonders, out now from Tachyon Publication. As always, I’ll start things off making introductions by shamelessly stealing from Ellen’s author bio…

ELLEN KLAGES is the author of two acclaimed historical novels: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell Award, and the New Mexico Book Award; and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book awards. Her story, “Basement Magic,” won a Nebula Award and  “Wakulla Springs,” co-authored with Andy Duncan, was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Her most recent books are Passing Strange (tor.com, 2017), a queer/noir/pulp novella set in San Francisco in 1940; and Wicked Wonders (Tachyon, 2017), her second collection of short fiction. Ellen lives in San Francisco, in a small house full of strange and wondrous things.

Wicked WondersCongratulations on the publication of Wicked Wonders! Can you give readers a taste of the type of stories they’ll find in its pages?

It’s a stew. The stories are a mixture of straight out science fiction, fantasy, some mainstream, and one non-fiction piece. Most of the stories in the collection have one foot in the fantastic, and one in the mainstream world.

What was your process like for putting the collection together? Were you going for a certain theme or tone with the stories you selected, or any overarching thesis?

Wicked Wonders contains every short story I’ve written from the last ten years, with the exception of Wakulla Springs, co-written with Andy Duncan. In speaking with my editor for the collection, we decided since it was a two-author story, and almost twice as long as anything already in the book, it would be best left out. The collection does include one new story, which is the longest and the last in the book.

You’ve written novels, but much of your writing seems focused on short fiction. Do you have a preference for one form over another? How does your writing process differ between the two lengths?

I love short fiction, but I also love the novels I’ve written. I’ve written two novellas as well, which is a lovely length. Short fiction is my first love however. There’s an essay in Wicked Wonders which explains my writing process, and my frustration before I’d written any novels with constantly being asked “when are you going to write a novel”, as if it’s a natural progression from short fiction. My process for the two lengths is roughly the same, though a novel takes longer, but I treat each novel chapter like a short story.

Everyone’s writing process is different, and I wouldn’t recommend mine to anyone else. It’s messy, but in the end, the important thing is whether it works for readers. On the other side of that, if I’m not happy with a story, I assume no one else will be. If I’m happy with the result, I figure at least half of the readers will like it. With Wicked Wonders, almost every reviewer differs on their favorite story in the collection, which is a good thing. It means I ended up with a balanced collection, and something to appeal to everyone.

I wanted to ask about your novella, Passing Strange, which I adored. I love the way your home city of San Francisco is another character in the novella. What kind of research did you do to capture the history of the city and the feel of the 1940s? What drew you to setting the story in that particular era?

I started writing Passing Strange in 1977. I was just out of college, and I’d just moved to San Francisco. I was completely and totally smitten with the city and all its layers. It’s a romantic city, not in the lovey-dovey sense, but in the sense of old film noir movies. I originally wrote four scenes with Emily and Haskel on a typewriter, and I kept adding more over the years. I also did a lot of research in 1977, which I kept it all in a file folder and added to over the years. Then I did an additional four to five months of research in 2015 before I started writing the novella.

In order to capture a sense of the historic setting, I used a combination of things, including View Master images and old photographs of the World’s Fair, Google Maps to show me what it would look like sitting on the Greenwich Steps and looking toward Treasure Island, and library books. I also walked around in the present day locales and took photographs and compared them to the old images. Google is immensely useful for visualizing a setting, and for little details like knowing what the top song was in a particular year. If you do your research well as an author, it’s like giving your readers a backstage tour of history. Of course, as with most research, I only ended up using about 2% of what I gathered for Passing Strange.

To me, research is the most fun part of the writing process, but also the trickiest. I want people to feel like they’ve been to San Francisco in the 1940s without overwhelming them with details. Having a hard upper word limit on the novella helped me strike that balance. The original draft was about 46,000 words, which I winnowed down. As a result, I think Passing Strange is the best thing I’ve ever written. Everything is distilled down to its essence, and there’s nothing extraneous.

However, if people do want to know more about the world of the novella, Wicked Wonders contains two stories featuring the characters and settings of Passing Strange.

On a related note, San Francisco strikes me as the ideal setting for speculative story telling. As a resident, are there any especially fantastical elements to the city that inspire you? Overall, do have favorite places to visit to recharge your writing batteries, or places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

I don’t think there’s anything that’s not fantastical about San Francisco! I love looking out my window at the old buildings and the landscape. I grew up in Ohio, which is very flat. In San Francisco, everywhere you go there’s a view of the water, or the sky, or colorful buildings. You don’t get views like that in flat cities. Also the food in San Francisco is really good. The first thing I like to do with visitors is find a good place to eat. Then I like to drive them around to things they wouldn’t see elsewhere, like a unique view of the ocean, or a little alleyway with one building that survived the great 1906 earthquake.

When my editor, Jonathan Strahan, visited San Francisco, I gave him the Passing Strange tour. Treasure Island is a naval base now, but I showed him where it was, and pointed out Haskel’s studio, and the house I based Franny’s house on. I even took him to the bakery to get raspberry rings. For those who can’t visit San Francisco in person, I put together a kind of virtual tour based on my research, which is available on YouTube.

A lot of my fiction, probably most of my fiction, involves real things and real places with my imaginary friends walking around in it.

One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I have a degree in Philosophy, so when I got out of college, I looked in the Want Ads under P, and there were no jobs in Philosophy. But I did manage a pinball arcade, worked as a proofreader, and as a painter. Most jobs I’ve had involved writing of some kind, including working for the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception. It was the best job I ever had, and it led to me writing three science books for kids. My boss at the Exploratorium also happened to be science fiction author Pat Murphy. When I was thirteen, I was certain I was going to be the youngest Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. That didn’t happen. In college, I wrote stories, sent them out, got rejected, and started to doubt myself, but Pat encouraged me to keep writing, and keep trying, and keep sending my stories out into the world.

Now that Wicked Wonders is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you want folks to know about?

I’m currently working on a middle grade novel called Out of Left Field, which is set in 1957 and is about a girl who wants to play Little League. It’s an examination of the history of women in baseball, which is largely unknown to most people, outside of A League of Their Own. It’s due out in summer 2018. A few characters from Passing Strange and from my first novel, Green Glass Sea, make an appearance. I think it’s nice when all my imaginary friends know each other.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

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An Interview with Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novel, Corpselight, the sequel to Vigil, which will be published this July. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Angela’s author bio…

Specialising in dark fantasy and horror, Angela Slatter is the author of The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Sourdough and Other Stories, the Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, Winter Children and Other Chilly Tales, A Feast of Sorrows: Stories and Black-Winged Angels, as well as Midnight and Moonshine and The Female Factory (both with Lisa L. Hannett). She has won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, a Ditmar, and five Aurealis Awards, as well as being a finalist for the Norma K. Hemming Award.

CorpselightWelcome, Angela, and congratulations on the upcoming publication of Corpselight. For those who may not be familiar, and without giving too much away, what can you tell readers about Corpselight and the series as a whole?

Thanks for having me over! Corpselight is the second book in the Verity Fassbinder series, which is an urban fantasy trilogy set in Brisbane, Australia. It’s a mix of fantasy and crime and a bit of kitchen sink drama that follows the investigator for the Weyrd Council, Verity Fassbinder, who tries to keep the Normal and Weyrd worlds from clashing, assisted (sometimes ably, sometimes not so much) by her ex-Bela and her colleague Ziggy Hassman. Vigil introduced us to Verity and her life, battling garbage golems, rebel angels, a witch who made wine from the tears of children, arguing with grumpy sirens and an even grumpier police inspector, and generally eating a lot of cake.

In addition to your novels, you’re also a prolific short story writer, and you’ve written novellas as well. Do you have a different process for short fiction versus long fiction? Does one come more naturally to you, or are you equally comfortable with both?

The basic rule for short stories is: CUT BACK! The basic rule for novels is: ADD MORE WORDS! The basic rule for the novella is: JUST FIND A HAPPY MEDIUM!

Learning the difference between writing the three forms was a challenge. I started as a short story writer and I hone the editing skills needed to make something nice and short and tight. Then I started to work on novels and OMG there were so many more words required. So, my secret now is planning the structure, knowing what points I need to hit, so I work things out on a spreadsheet, and set minimum chapter word counts for novellas and novels – that helps keep me on track.

Short stories are a lot more free form for me, but I keep a basic three act structure in mind. The first draft is always ugly, ugly brain-vomit. The editing process is when I tidy things up and impose a more solid structure over the top. And yes, it does take a mindset readjustment every time I start a new project. Initially I’d have said the short story comes more naturally, but this far down the track I’m kind of used to both now.

On a somewhat related note, you’ve also co-written work with Lisa L. Hannett. What was the collaborative process like between you?

We’ve written a short story (“The February Dragon”), and two collections (“Midnight and Moonshine” and “The Female Factory”). At first we brainstorm what we think the story/collection is about, then we do some overall very loose plotting. When it comes to something like the collections, we generally start at the beginning (i.e. the first story) and if one of us has a particular spark of an idea, then she starts that story, writes until the brain is empty (generally a chunk of about 2000-2500 words), then sends it back to the other. Then that one reads and edits what’s there, then writes another chunk of new words, then sends it back; so it’s a process of back and forth, editing and new writing until the story is finished, then we go onto the next story in the collection. When all the stories are done, then we do a mega edit to check on overarching storylines, etc, to make sure everything is moving towards the same big story conclusion. By that time there’s basically voice that sounds like neither of us, but also both of us.

At this point in your career, you’re a multiple award winner and nominee, but do you remember how you learned about your first ever award nomination, and what you did to celebrate?

I *think* it was for “Dresses, Three” (Shimmer Art Issue, edited by Mary Robinette Kowal – Hello, Mary!). I suspect I was at work, and as I worked in the Creative Writing School at QUT, so I think my MA supervisor might have shouted it down the corridor. It was exciting, it was my first nomination and I’d only been publishing for a year, I think.

There’s a question I like to ask my fellow Canadian authors, but I’ll ask it to you as an Australian author. Do you think there’s a particular national flavor to Australia speculative fiction? A common set of themes, or a certain voice that makes something especially Australian? If so, do you think it has an influence on your own writing?

Well, as I co-write with a Canadian and can put away vast amounts of salmon, I’m given to understand I’m practically Canadian! Just joking, sorry, Canada – I’m just truly envious of your Prime Minister (I mean, seriously, have you seen ours???)

Wait, what was the question? I think the answer is yes and no – it depends on what you’re writing. I think if it’s dystopian spec-fic or urban fantasy, then yes, there’s a definite Australian flavour to it: if you’re reading anything by Cat Sparks or Thoraiya Dyer or Robert Hood or Sean Williams or Kaaron Warren (to name but a few), then you will absolutely notice something uniquely Australian about it (a lot of that stems from how much we use climate and landscape in our fiction, what with our box seat for the oncoming apocalypse). If you’re reading authors like Karen Miller or Karen Brooks or Sara Douglass or Rjurik Davidson, the epic-y fantasy writers, then it probably doesn’t come through quite as much because that kind of fantasy relies heavily on a faux medieval kind of feel – and we really didn’t have a Middle Ages in Oz.

You run your own interview series on your blog. Do you have a favorite question to ask authors, and if so, how would you answer it yourself?

I think the one that gets me in trouble most is telling people they have to choose only five books to take to a desert island. I would take: Jane Gaskell’s Atlan; Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master; Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice; John Connolly’s Dark Hollow; and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.

Personally, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

Oh, wow. I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2011, and before then I worked at the Queensland Writers Centre for 3 years, and before that 3 years at the Creative Writing School, so I’ve kind of been in writing and publishing for a long while! My high school job was as a check-out chick at a supermarket, so I guess that taught me a lot about the creative ways people will try to shoplift – haven’t used that in a story yet!

Now that Corpselight is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything in particular you have upcoming that you’d like folks to know about?

Corpselight! Then I’m working on the third and final Verity book. Then I’ll be working on turning The Briar Book of the Dead from a novella to a novel and selling it (it’s set in the world of the Sourdough and Bitterwood collections). Then I want to finish off the Scandalous Lady Detective novel. And then, and then, and then!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for letting me come and play!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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?

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