Women to Read 2015

Women to Read: Where to Start (January 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to a new year and a new edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. Perhaps one of your resolutions this year is to read more works by women. Or to discover new-to-you authors. Or even just to read more in general. If so, you’re in luck! Here are four amazing women you should be reading, and a recommended starting point for their work. I’m going to combine the first two recommendations as the stories make perfect companion pieces, each looking at feminist issues through the lens of food. Women have long been associated with cooking and preparing food for their families, but there are also a whole slew of metaphors and descriptors that get applied to women and POCs in a way they rarely get applied to white male characters. Almond eyes. Cherry lips. Skin like coffee or chocolate or mocha. Caramel curls. And so on. Octavia Cade‘s “The Mussel Eater,” which appeared at Book Smugglers in November 2014, and Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl,” which appeared in the November 2014 Apex Magazine, tackle these tropes head on. Both stories center around the idea of consumption and possession of a female character by a male character, and using food as a means of domestication. “Candy Girl” has a woman literally turned into chocolate and eaten by her ex-boyfriend, touching on issues of cultural appropriation as well. “The Mussel Eater” retells the legend of Pania of the Reef, where a man uses food to try to change the essential nature of the sea-maiden he claims to love, trying to trick her into staying with him by making her eat cooked food, and trying to force human norms on her by applying various cooking-related scents to her skin to disguise her fishy smell. In both stories, the man is the outsider, looking in at a culture he doesn’t understand, but is determined to possess a piece of, as long as that piece (i.e. woman) conforms to his notion of them and his rules. And in the end, both stories turn the tables by having the male consumed, once from the outside, and once from within. Despite exploring the same theme, both authors have strong, unique voices to set their stories apart, and both as well worth reading.

My recommended starting place for Brooke Juliet Wonders’ has very little to do with food, although rainbow-colored cereal does make a nasty appearance. “Griefbunny” from the December issue of Apex Magazine centers a brother and sister whose father is dead and whose mother/stepmother has abandoned them. Lola does her best to cope by taking on the parent role in caring for her little brother. Teddy, on the other hand, adopts a mangy rabbit, insisting it’s a jackalope that speaks to him and can do tricks. One of the interesting things about Wonders’ story is the way it plays with the trope of a child insistent on magical thinking not being believed by an adult. In this case, the “adult” is a child herself, struggling with abandonment and responsibility above her age, faced with a brother who won’t be talked out of what she sees as an irrational and dangerous belief. The reader is never given conclusive evidence one way or the other as to whether Elijah is more than a rabbit. He grows to a monstrous size, seems to defy death, and protects Teddy in his own way. Beyond that, on the surface, he appears to be a regular, ill-tempered rabbit. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Elijah is magical or not. His presence allows Teddy to deal with his loss, and ultimately it brings the siblings closer together as Teddy tries to pull Lola into his games, insists on reading Watership Down with her, and asking her to retell the stories their father used to tell them about jackalopes.

Finally, for a complete departure from food and short fiction, my recommended starting point for Cherie Priest‘s work is her latest novel, Maplecroft. The amount of heart in this novel genuinely surprised me. The premise – Lizzy Borden fights monsters with her axe – could easily have been a straight-up adventure romp, or devolved into something cheesy. However, while there is action, there’s more darkness than adventure. Priest effectively describes several chilling and gruesome deaths, giving the novel weight and making the stakes real. She also makes them very personal. The heart, or hearts, of the novel are Lizzie’s relationship with her sister Emma, and her relationship with her lover, Nance. Lizzie is torn between her sense of duty to her sister, who is ill and dependent on her, and her desire to be free and to be with Nance. The relationship between the Borden sisters is anything but smooth. There’s a large gap in age between them, and while they love each other in their own way, and look out for each other, they often don’t understand each other. Their relationship, by necessity, is laced with resentment and guilt. Emma resents the weakness of her body, which makes her dependant on Lizzie, and Lizzie resents being tied to her sister, but feels guilty for thinking of her as a burden. When Nance is infected with the ‘plague’ tied to the monsters Lizzie has been fighting to, the relationship devolves even further. Priest does not pull punches. She shows the sisters growing farther apart as Lizzie throws herself behind the cause of saving her lover, even when Nance seems beyond saving, at the expense of her sister’s health and safety. Neither sister is painted as the villain. The reader feels genuine heartbreak from both of them, and witnesses genuine strength as well. To sum Maplecroft up: come for the intriguing premise, stay for the wonderful characters.

Women to Read: Where to Start (February 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. February is a short month, and by coincidence, I’m focusing entirely on short fiction this time around. Two are newer pieces, and two are slightly older (in internet years), but all are well worth reading.

Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu) appears in the current January/February 2015 issue of Uncanny Magazine, a new publication which is off to a very strong start. This is a story that takes a concept that would have been at home among the ‘gosh-wow’ idea stories of the past, and evolves it into a fleshed-out tale with complex characters, while examining issues of class and economic status. The story refuses to paint flat villains or heroes, presenting characters who feel real and human. Partway through the story, the protagonist, Lao Dao, is faced with a choice that ultimately makes him feel like a mercenary. This decision highlights the humanity of Jingfang’s characters. Lao Dao struggles. He tries to be a good man, and he has a strong sense of loyalty, but he needs to pay for his daughter’s schooling and in the end he accepts money to omit a truth. There are similar moments throughout the story, giving it an extra layer of realism. The privileged frequently don’t recognize their privilege, simply because they’ve never known any other kind of life and it doesn’t occur to them that there are others who don’t have the same advantages. Just like in real life. This examination of humanity and class is made literal through the story’s core conceit of a folding city divided into thirds, where each class gets a portion of the day to live, spending the others in a drugged sleep. The story calls to mind China Mieville’s The City and The City, where people co-exist in parallel worlds, but are trained not to see each other. Even though they play with similar themes, Hao Jingfang brings a fresh voice to the concept, with wonderful descriptions of the city folding and unfolding, and glimpses of humanity, compassion, and glimpses of beauty woven throughout.

Toiya Kristen Finley’s “Everybody Has a Twin Except for Me” was recently published in the newly re-launched Farrago’s Wainscot. I’m recommending it as a starting place partly because it makes for an interesting companion piece to Jingfang’s story. Although the two stories are very different, Finley also plays with the idea of a world (or worlds) within a world, and lives lived in parallel. Finley’s protagonist, CF, flees through a series of mirror existences, encountering ‘twins’ of people he knows, but never himself. The author avoids explanation, leaving it to the reader to decide whether these parallel worlds are fantastical, scientific, or psychological – born from CF’s feeling of isolation and alienation. Whatever the case may be, the shifting realities are real for CF, and he faces persecution in each one. There’s a sense of claustrophobia to the story. Even though the protagonist has infinitely worlds to move through, his options are limited. He doesn’t fit in with his family or their friends. They are prone to gambling and solving their problems through violence. He’s in love with a white girl with a drug problem, who he ultimately has to distance himself from rather than watch her destroy herself. The world, every world, constantly throws up rough edges for him to grind against, while everyone else seems to glide through life effortlessly. Finley suggests, without stating outright, that CF is the only self-aware individual in the world; everyone else’s existence is defined by posturing and self-delusion, but ultimately, they are the happy ones in the end, secure in knowing the world is filled with others just like them. While there is no solid ground in the story – reality shifts and drops out beneath you in a twisting, dream-like way – there’s a beautiful rhythm and voice to the piece to carry the reader smoothly through. After starting here, it’s also worth reading the author’s “Over the end, and over again”, published in Fantasy Magazine, which deals with similar themes of repeated/doubled identity, questionable reality, isolation, family, and adds in a healthy dose of ghosts to boot.

Stepping back a few years, my recommended starting place for Charlie Jane Anders’ work is “Six Months, Three Days,” published at Tor.com. The story won the 2012 Hugo for best novelette. Like “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado, which I covered in a previous column, this story plays with tension to draw the reader through the tale, but in a wholly different way. The main characters, Doug and Judy, can both see the future. For Doug, it’s a single, absolute outcome; for Judy, it’s a number of branching possibilities, which guide her choices in life. Through their shared recollection of the future, the reader knows their relationship will end in disaster. It is absolute, yet Judy has enough doubt that the reader doubts (or hopes) as well. The concept of remembering the future is only part of what makes this story so compelling. Anders plays with time as well as memory, blurring what has happened with what will happen, and casting doubt on both the past and the future through the imperfection of the human mind. The story is also an examination of a larger belief in pre-destination versus free will, embodied in Doug and Judy. In the midst of all these big-picture ideas, “Six Months, Three Days” also manages to be a story about the small moments, the little things that happen in-between the dramatic waypoints Doug and Judy measure their relationship by – the first time they have sex, their first big fight, him meeting her parents. The in-between moments, though they are largely left off the page, are the ones that make their relationship worthwhile. They know they are both going to suffer heartbreak and pain, but in the end, rather than avoiding the relationship completely, they take the bad for the sake of the good. The story explores in real-time a question most people have asked themselves at some point in their lives after a friendship gone bad, a nasty break-up, a soul-crushing job, or a trip that turned into a disaster: Was it worth it, and would I go back and change it if I could?

creation-of-the-birds1My recommended starting place for Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s work is another story from the archives, as it were. “The Song of the Body Cartographer” originally appeared in Philippine Genre Stories in 2012, and was subsequently shortlisted for the BFSA Short Fiction Awards. Like Anders’ “Six Months, Three Days”, Loenen-Ruiz’s story also has love at its core, and a character choosing to walk away from love for a different kind of happiness. Inyanna was born to fly, but cannot. She is sent by the Matriarch to Siren, a body cartographer, to unravel the trouble keeping her grounded. In learning Inyanna’s body, its pathways, colors, and moods, Siren discovers Inyanna was tampered with before birth. She can be healed, but she will likely have no memory of Siren when she wakes in her new body. In “Six Months, Three Days”, Doug chooses to walk away from the woman he is deeply in love with because he believes it is his fate, and possibly, deep down, because of a fear of pain. In “The Song of the Body Cartographer”, Inyanna believes she will remember Siren in her new body, and embraces her destiny of flight, thinking it will cost her nothing. Siren, on the other hand, is firm in her own belief she will be forgotten, and she is the one to distance herself first. In the end, despite their believes, Siren is the one who suffers heartbreak, as she remembers what is lost, and Inyanna goes on to a life that makes her happy. Rather than trying to forge a new relationship, Siren leaves Inyanna behind to start a new life elsewhere. Belief is tangled up with love in both stories, and both show how sometimes belief doesn’t matter. No one exists in a vacuum, and no matter how hard you try to protect your heart, it will get broken eventually as a consequence of allowing yourself to love in the first place. Loenen-Ruiz’s prose is beautiful throughout the tale, and the imagery of mapping a lovers’ body is a poignant one. Most relationships involve mapping another person in a way, and here it is made literal – a map that brings the two women together, and ultimately tears them apart.

Women to Read: Where to Start (March 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. By coincidence, all four stories I’m recommending deal with characters who are not-quite-human, and who are more than they appear.

To Megan, with Half My Heart” by Vida Cruz was recently reprinted in the January 2015 Expanded Horizons, and originally appeared in The Silliman Journal in 2012. The story is framed as a letter from an absent mother, explaining to her daughter Megan why she isn’t part of her life. Elena never fit in at school, but immediately bonds with Vince; they’re the only two English-speakers in their Tagalog class. He’s the only one who gets her, perhaps because he’s even more of an outsider. He hears voices, he has strange dreams, he doesn’t know who his father is, and suspects he might not be human. Vince and Leni’s relationship grows from the intensity of young love, to something increasingly complex over the course of the story. A subtle sense of threat underlies their time together. Vince would never deliberately hurt Leni, but he’s not wholly human. He doesn’t belong in this world, which makes hurting Leni inevitable, a situation that can be seen as a metaphor for the pain often inherent in first love. Vince’s heritage reclaims him, and he takes half of Leni’s heart with him. He returns for her years later, but here Cruz steers the story away from the fairy tale ending, offering a more considered and mature take on love. Leni’s first love scars her, she loses half her heart, but she isn’t the same person Vince left behind. She’s grown up, she’s married, and has a child. She follows Vince, but not because he’s the ‘one who got away’. She doesn’t have an idealistic view of their relationship, and she has no illusions about him. As an adult, she’s found where she belongs, and she wants the other half of her heart back so she can love her family as fully as they deserve. Cruz traces the way love can mean different things over the course of a lifetime – belonging, passion, loss, and sacrifice that returns as much as you give. As the best speculative fiction does, “To Megan, with Half My Heart” uses the supernatural to explore what it means to be human.

Be Not Unequally Yoked” by Alexis A. Hunter in Shimmer #23 is another coming of age story about a character finding their place in the world, but taken in a completely different direction. Hunter offers one of the most unique spins on the human-animal transformation tale I’ve ever seen. Joash is an Amish teenager, but he’s also a horse – a change he can’t explain or control. His horse-self, Belle, is female and this dual nature both isolates Joash and gives him strength as he struggles with his sexuality and his growing attraction to his neighbor Daniel. Further complicating matters, Joash’s dual nature risks his family’s place in the Amish community. He can’t stand to see a horse yoked to a plow, because he knows exactly what it is to wear a bit and be made to pull. Joash’s parents are wonderfully supportive. They hire out their plowing to English farmers, but this leads to suspicion from their neighbors and the threat of being asked to leave the community, something they’ve already had to do once before. Joash struggles to do what is best for the family, putting aside his own needs. He encourages his father to go back to the traditional way of plowing, as much as it pains him. As a dutiful son, he even tries to find a nice Amish girl to marry, knowing it’s what’s expected of him despite what he feels. Hunter provides a rich exploration of isolation and acceptance in this story, delicately balancing the two. The more Joash embraces Belle, the more she lends him strength, providing a kind of togetherness within one skin, but the story’s resolution is still bittersweet. Joash accidentally reveals his true nature to Daniel. Much to his surprise, instead of revulsion, Daniel calls him a wonder. However, even as Daniel’s acceptance gives Joash the key to seeing himself as something beautiful – gifted rather than cursed – Daniel makes it clear he doesn’t share Joash’s attraction. The author pulls off a neat trick here. She’s made you care for her main character and root for his happiness, but at the same time, it’s impossible not to appreciate Joash’s letdown, because life isn’t like a fairy tale. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow and become a stronger person from the experience.

Veering sharply away from the coming of age story, my recommended starting place for Brooke Bolander’s work is “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” from the February 2015 Lightspeed. In this case, the inhuman characters is an android/skin-doll who ventures into the virtual world to save her partner’s life. There are mythological underpinnings here, a fairy tale drenched in cyberpunk style. Bolander offers us a gender-flipped Orpheus and Eurydice, or a high-tech version of Janet rescuing her Tam Lin. Except instead of a Faerie Queen, there’s a mobster with a gun. These archetypes are the skeleton of the story, and Bolander drapes the bones in bloody flesh. The prose is cutting-sharp, full of jagged edges, harsh language, and a harsher character. Rhye resents the very idea of emotion, of caring for someone, let alone the idea she might succumb to it herself. She isn’t human, why should she be subject to their weaknesses? She holds her lover/partner Rack at arm’s length, constantly pushing him away, and yet she goes through hell for him, confronting her demons in the form of herself, as Rack once saw her – heartless, relentless, and without remorse. Rhye and Rack’s relationship is complicated, brutal, never saccharine, but also feels true. It flips the traditional gender roles by putting Rack in the role of caregiver and nurturer. He patiently patches Rhye up when she gets herself shot, stabbed, or otherwise broken, and continually offer his love without reserve even when Rhye refuses to reciprocate. Rhye on the other hand is a cast in the warrior role – a violent, distant woman with no patience for the trappings of romance. Bolander garnishes the story with the perfect tone. There’s a rhythm to the language, and the whole thing drips with cyberpunk atmosphere and killer turns-of-phrase.

lackingtonsFinally, “What the Highway Prefers” by Cassandra Khaw in the Winter 2015 Lackington’s offers a more subtle take on the extra-human theme. Subtle may sound like an odd descriptor for a story about a sentient highway populated by hungry ghosts, but on the surface, the old woman who cares for the highway is wholly unremarkable. Her knees ache. Her back complains. She’s rooted in her humanity, and at her age, her flesh is beginning to fail her. Despite this, she diligently cares for the shrines around the highway, clearing brush and making the long march no matter how slowly she moves these days. Even with its relatively short length, the story packs a punch, exploring the idea of roles and expectations imposed by society, and notion of people who are ‘invisible’ by virtue of their age/gender/race, etc. Khaw’s main character is not simply more-than-meets-the-eye, she is someone the eye does not meet at all. Old women are useless. They aren’t wives or mothers, therefore they can easily be dismissed and overlooked. Part of what makes her extraordinary is that Khaw’s main character embraces her role. She has no interest in glory or recognition; she does her work because it is necessary. Without her tending of the shrines, the ravenous highway would take its toll in innocent lives. She is human, but she is also extra-human because she is the only thing standing between those around her and death. She is a hero, and no one sees her. On top of all this, the story is full of gorgeous, poetic imagery, and it has a killer last line to boot.

Women to Read: Where to Start (April 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

It’s April, and spring is maybe, possibly just around the corner, or three or four corners as the case may be. Regardless, it’s time for another Women to Read: Where to Start, wherein I point out fantastic women writing in the speculative fiction genre and suggest a starting place for their work. As I was choosing stories to talk about, a loose theme of resistance and rebellion emerged, so I figured why not run with it? Enjoy!

Karen Russell’s “Reeling for the Empire” originally appeared in Tin House in 2012, and was reprinted in her collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. On a side note, the entire collection is wonderful, and any one of the stories would be a worthy starting point for her work. Each piece in the collection is infused with a weird, lovely magical realism. They exist on the border between real life and fantasy, presenting the world almost as it is, but skewed slightly through an uncanny lens. “Reeling for the Empire” is a perfect example of what Russell does with her work, and a particularly powerful one. It tells the story of several young women lured away from the homes to work in a silk mill. Rather than being mere laborers, the women’s bodies themselves are transformed to produce silk – a unique color for each girl – to be reeled away from their fingertips by a vast machine. The girls are fed on a steady diet of mulberry leaves, becoming less human the longer they remain at the nameless factory. The story examines the politics of women’s bodies in several ways. It puts a fantastical spin on the very real and deplorable conditions faced by many factory workers, historically and today, as they are treated less as humans and more as expendable pieces in a machine. The women in Russell’s story are all sold or given away by their families in exchange for a small advance. The exception is the story’s protagonist, Kitsune, who forges her father’s name on her own contract, and willingly swallows the tea that will transform her. It is an act of rebellion, as Kitsune takes control of her own destiny and makes her an active participant in trying to save her family. This aspect of the story also plays with the idea of victim blaming in the way Kitsune views herself and what is being done to her. She wanted to help her family with her sacrifice, but unlike the other girls, she can’t claim to have been forced into her misery. There are undertones of rape and abuse in the Agent from the mill’s “seduction” of the girls, in the promises made to bring them to the factory, and the drugged tea given to them to complete their transformation. While abuse is not overt, or explicit, the parallels are there to be read, adding an extra layer of terror to the tale. By the end of the story, it is clear to all the girls that no matter what choice they made, or didn’t make, to bring them here, they are not to blame. The monstrous thing that was done to them also offers a means to reclaim control of their lives. “Reeling for the Empire” is a story of transformation, fighting back, and finding inner strength. The imagery is lovely, layered on top of the dark themes, all of which makes it a perfect starting point for Russell’s work.

auroraAlice B. Sheldon/Raccoona Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. likely needs no introduction. Her name appears nearly every time the conversation about women writing science fiction is raised, which is part of the reason I haven’t covered her stories in this column thus far. Not that her work isn’t wonderful, or doesn’t deserve attention, however part of my goal with this column is to move the conversation beyond the same few names (or exceptional women), and to highlight to voices working in speculative fiction today. Why I’m recommending a Sheldon story now, and why my particular recommended starting point is “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light”, is it strikes me as painfully relevant to the conversations we’re still having about feminism today. The story originally appeared in Aurora: Beyond Equality in 1976 under the Raccoona Sheldon byline. The entire story can be seen as physical manifestation of an us versus them mentality. The story’s main character has created her own post apocalyptic world, one populated entirely by women, where nothing can harm her. She believes herself to be a courier, carrying messages and mail across the ruins of the midwest. In “reality” she is an escaped mental patient who has been subjected to shock treatment as a result of breakdown which led her to abandon her family. Those around her are incapable of seeing her reality, the ultimate breakdown in communication. They alternately dismiss her (a doubly marginalized voice, female and mentally ill), deeming her viewpoint unimportant, and blame her – a woman roaming around alone deserves whatever happens to her. Even her family seems less concerned about her safety than keeping up appearances. Her rejection of what every woman should want – to be married and living in the suburbs with a child – is incomprehensible to them. Her parents want to return her to her husband, not for her sake, or even his, because it’s the way normal people behave. The story also makes literal the threats leveled against women who dare to speak up about feminist issues – rape and death. Here again, we have victim blaming, and the ‘it’s not my problem’/’it’s not my fight’ attitude made viscerally real. The cops who were nearby as the protagonist was attacked, one of them a woman, did nothing because it wasn’t their job. All of the conversations we’re still having today are wrapped up in this story – the idea that women have to be the communicators, that it is their responsibility to reach out and bridge the gap, while at the same time knowing they will be ignored, dismissed, misunderstood, threatened, and ultimately punished for speaking out. The beauty of Sheldon’s piece is her main character does not break from her chosen reality. The act of rebellion here is a very private and personal one. Even as she is dying, the protagonist refuses the narrative the world is forcing on her. She sees wild dogs, not men, and she sees her sisters, their faces filled of light coming for her. The world does not break her, and she is not punished or put in her place; she is steadfast in her vision until the end. Aside from its powerful message and the examination of culture, gender roles, and everything else packed into this story, it’s a unique, apocalyptic vision. It’s no wonder Sheldon’s name comes up so often, or why there’s an award (open to recommendations right now) presented in her honor.

Continuing with the theme of resistance and rebellion, my recommended starting point for Lisa Bolekaja’s work is “Medu” the anthology Long Hidden. The story re-imagines and reclaims the legend of Medusa through the main character, Lil Bit, a black cowgirl with fierce, powerful, sentient hair. Lil Bit dresses as a boy to go out on the cattle trails – hiding both her gender and her true, mythical nature as a Medu. Her life is about control, not letting the outside world see who she really is, or what she can do. When danger threatens Lil Bit ‘s family and friends, she refuses to stay hidden any longer. She embraces her nature, unleashing the power of her hair to fight back without letting it destroy her the way her father feared it would. There’s another layer of rebellion in this story, evident in the background the author provides for the story on the anthology’s website. The very act of writing “Medu” was a rebellion against unquestioned cultural norms. The story was born out of anger, out of the author’s desire to see characters like herself reclaiming their rightful place in history, and not allowing them to be erased and overlooked. The story rebels against the generally accepted picture of the Old West, full of straight, white, square-jawed cowboys as the only important players in history. The story lashes out at other damaging cultural narratives as well. As Bolekaja says in her background piece: “Black hair is seen as negative. Nappy. Rebellious. Unmanageable. A lot of black women hate their hair because it isn’t naturally straight. Fuck that. Black hair is magic. Dreds are powerful. Where are the stories about fierce black hair?????” “Medu” gives us a story of fierce black hair indeed, and a wonderful character in the Lil Bit, the girl who wields it. As a relatively new writer (she was eligible for the Campbell Award in 2014), I look forward to seeing many more wonderful stories from Lisa Bolekaja in the future.

Since I tended a bit on the long side with my recommendations this time around, I’ll limit myself to three. However I’ll be back at it in May with more women to read, and possibly even some novel recommendations to change things up.

Women to Read: Where to Start (May 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Here we are in May. There’s no real theme this time around, but as promised, I did include some novels since I’d been neglecting them. However, I’m still going to get things started with some short fiction. Onward!

kaleidotropeMy recommended starting place for Zen Cho’s work isMonkey King, Faerie Queen from the Spring 2015 Kaleidotrope. What can I say? I’m a sucker for trickster stories. The Faerie Queen in this case is very much in her trickster aspect, stealing babies and changing shapes, refusing to play fair much like the Faerie Queen who forced Tam Lin to change shapes as Janet desperately tried to win him back, or Madam Mim fighting Merlin in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. What’s even better than a story with one trickster? A story with two. Watching the Monkey King and the Faerie Queen go head-to-head, trickster-to-trickster, is a delight. A particularly nice touch on the author’s part is the characters’ inability to understand each other. They are from different worlds, there is no reason they should be able to communicate, but most fiction hand waves that problem away for the sake of simplicity. Here, the language barrier, says something deeper about the characters – they simply don’t care to understand each other. They each have their own concerns, and neither one fully considers the other worth their time. Selfishness, after all, is also part of a trickster’s nature. The language here makes it feel true to the spirit of old trickster tales, while putting a fresh spin on it by mashing the tricksters up. Very nicely done.

Next up, my recommended starting place for Helen Oyeyemi’s work is Boy, Snow, Bird. I almost recommended Mr. Fox, and it’s a wonderful starting place, too, but Boy, Snow, Bird is fresher in my mind. The speculative fiction element is light here, and in fact, it may be nonexistent. Like Mr. Fox, much of the fantastic can be put down to unreliable narrators, or unreliable world views. Boy, Snow, Bird is primarily anchored in the speculative realm through its roots in fairy tale. The touchstones of Snow White are there – a stepmother, a preoccupation with mirrors, references to apples and the number seven scattered throughout. But the story strays from the expected path. Boy, the ‘wicked stepmother’, escapes an abusive father. She marries a widower with a daughter named Snow. Eventually Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, and the true heart of the narrative kicks in. Everything she thought she knew about her new family is turned upside down. They are light-skinned African Americans and have been passing as white for years. Boy’s daughter, Bird, is dark-skinned, like the sister-in-law she’s never met, who was sent away to live with an aunt and uncle to preserve the family secret. Patterns repeat, but rather than sending her dark-skinned daughter away, to the family’s chagrin, Boy exiles Snow, her light-skinned stepdaughter. As the novel explores identity, self-perception, race, and family, it continues to call back to its source material through the main characters’ relationships with mirrors. Boy is fascinated by mirrors, but doesn’t always recognize her reflection. Snow and Bird both claim mirrors don’t always see them. These conceits function as a speculative element, and commentary on invisibility in a larger sense. Dark-skinned Bird is frequently invisible in society (and with her family) because of her race. Light-skinned Snow is not seen for who she is because she can pass, and because of her great beauty (which is also tied to her ability to pass). Boy doesn’t know herself at all. While I’m torn on the ending, the last few chapters aren’t enough to detract from the whole. Boy, Snow, Bird, is a refreshing take on a familiar fairy tale that has been retold so often it should be played out. The characters are compelling, even when they aren’t always likeable. Overall, Boy, Snow, Bird makes for compulsive reading, and it’s a good place to start in order to get a sense Oyeyemi’s skill with language, characters, and imagery.

Jumping back to short fiction, my recommended starting place for Emily Devenport’s world is “Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine” from the March/April 2015 issue of Uncanny Magazine. (Though I was quite impressed with her “Postcards from Monster Island” from the April Clarkesworld as well.) “Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine” is a story full of subtle threat. I’m a sucker for stories told largely beyond the page, and Devenport leaves holes just the right shape and size for the reader to fill in the terrible and wonderful things happening beyond this story’s margins. The focus in on the mundane, centered around a character who would be overlooked in most stories – a janitor. A woman cleaning a hallway sounds dull, but Devenport turns it into a remarkably tense tale. Harris was hired to work one day out of roughly every 28. Her sole job is to clean the hallway around a mysterious phenomenon known as The Effect, and not ask questions. The Effect warps time and space. A machine whose function no one is entirely certain of was turned on and its creator disappeared. Now creatures which Harris has been instructed to never look at head-on walk the hallway disappearing through a Gateway in the bathroom at the end of the hall. Warping reality is a messy business. The Effect leaves urine, feces, blood, and other unrecognizable and inhuman bodily fluids behind. Harris cleans them, and does an exceptional job. The fact that she cares about doing her job well, no matter how disgusting it is, ultimately makes her special in the context of this story. She prevails not because she’s a hero, or chosen, but because she’s smart, competent, and follows the rules that make sense to her, not the ones imposed by petty bureaucrats looking to cut corners. “Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine” is the ultimate every-person story, and at the same time, an excellent sci-fi tale in a very subtle, unusual, and refreshing way.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Emily St. John Mandel’s work is Station Eleven. Quiet and post-apocalyptic are not words that necessarily pair naturally, but Station Eleven is exactly that – a quiet, post-apocalyptic novel that focuses on the inter-connectedness of life, the fragility of human civilization, and the wonder in everyday objects. Death bookends the story, one wholly unconnected to the plague that wipes out civilization. Arthur Leander, an actor, just happens to die of a heart attack the same night the apocalypse begins. In framing the book this way, Mandel pushes death to the margins, physically placing recovery, hope, and rebuilding at the heart of the tale. The characters have scars, literal and figurative, but that isn’t the focus either. It’s the personal relationships, all tying back to the dead actor, Arthur Leander. He is a flawed thread, which is part of the point, but a strong one, tying the whole tapestry together. The title refers to a fictional comic book within the novel, reminiscent of Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen. However the hyper-violence and grim world view of Watchmen is absent. Station Eleven is slow and meditative. Even the landscape emphasizes stillness – the hush of falling snow, the solitude of a world emptied of humans. Station Eleven is a character study, which just happens to take place during the post-apocalypse. In a way, that may make it a quintessentially Canadian novel (Mandel was born in British Columbia). All the stillness makes a nice contrast to post-apocalyptic novels full of zombies and violence, though those have their place, too. If post-apocalyptic fiction is meant to show that humanity can survive against all odds, why not focus on just that – humanity. People working together, keeping art alive, and mostly being kind to each other, rather than turning the future into a grimdark bloodsport.

Those are my recommendations for May. See you again in June!

Women to Read: Where to Start (June 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to another issue of Women to Read: Where to Start. This time, the accidental theme of unease ties my recommendations together. Not unease in the sense of horror, but more stories designed to sit uncomfortably, twist against expectations, offer truths that won’t stay put, narratives that can’t be trusted, and characters who refuse to hold their shapes.

First off is my recommended starting place for Siobhan Carroll’s work – “Wendigo Nights,” which appeared in Fearful Symmetries edited by Ellen Datlow. I’ve been meaning to recommend this story for a while; its recent Shirley Jackson nomination makes this the perfect time. “Wendigo Nights” is one of those stories that could be used to teach a class on short form fiction. It has a full arc, carries emotional weight, features developed characters, and a delivers a hell of a punch, all in a few pages. No words are wasted. The opening line is killer, and Carroll avoids the cardinal sin of a hooky opening with nothing to back it up. Instead, she drops the reader into the midst of a tension-filled story-in-progress, soaked in atmosphere and sensory detail. To quote: “[…]I think about her hair in my mouth. Paper-dry, tasting of smoke and strawberry shampoo. The strands would break between my teeth. The sound they’d make[…]that sound would fill me. I would not be so hungry after that.” “Wendigo Nights” gives us characters, trapped in an Arctic research station, starving. The setting and mood taps into a paranoia reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s classic Who Goes There? There is a sense of unease throughout, details that deliberately don’t sit right. Children where there shouldn’t be children. A mysterious canister. Hunger and hollowness that goes deeper than flesh. A cultural tale that transmits itself as an infection. The story is profoundly Canadian, with its themes of isolation and wilderness, but also universal, and either way, an ideal starting place for Carroll’s work.

For a different kind of unease, we go to my recommended starting place for Vandana Singh’s work – Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” recently published at Tor.com. The story is broken into three parts, presented as case studies within an examination being taken by someone wishing to study Conceptual Machine-Space. In the opening to the first section, Singh writes: “All machines grant wishes, but some more than we bargain for.” This idea lies at the heart of the story, but in much subtler ways than the traditional wish-gone-wrong story. Each machine presented (or maybe it’s only one machine, it’s ambiguous, see) links to the idea of desire – a yearning for something remembered, a restlessness, a desire to pursue knowledge lying just out of reach. Singh plays with expectation versus reality, and the notion that reality simply can’t contain some people – or some machines – they will always want more. Singh builds an intriguing pattern of repeated images woven through the story – stones and tiles and individuals out of synch with the world around them. These repetitions make the story itself a machine, a delicate network of circuitry made up of interweaving lives. There’s a hint of the mythic as well. What is literal and what is metaphor can’t be trusted. The machines here are the memory and face of loved one left behind, a courtyard that separates lovers through a walked pattern, a device that slips an entire group of people out of phase with the world. Themes of impermanence and loss run through the tales, but there’s beauty as well. A message that could be taken from the story is that our desires may never be fulfilled, but that it isn’t a tragedy, unless we make it one. It’s part of what makes life worth living, not resting easy, but following the drive to turn one more corner and find out what happens next.

Next up, I recommend “A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L. Hannett from The Dark nagazine. There are several things that make it compelling, and a good starting point. First, the rhythm of the language. With repeated references to music and the way the character’s movements are described, the whole story feels like an elaborate reel where everyone knows the steps except the protagonist. Billy Rideout, or Billy-Rid, is perpetually out of step with his friends and neighbors, refusing to accept what sits right with them, but doesn’t sit right with his heart. The second intriguing element is the gender flip of traditional roles. The story opens with a feast being prepared to honor the mermaids returning from sea. The mermaids in this case are fisherwomen who sail for months at a time, leaving only the ‘b’ys’ – their husbands, brothers, fathers, lovers, and those too old or young to fish, at home. The third element is the mermaids themselves. Hannett leaves it open whether they’re human women, changed by their relationship with the sea, or descendants of actual mermaids. The story leans to the second, as most women in the village get babies not from human men, but by fishing them out of the sea. This inverts another trope, that of the human child stolen from faerie. Here, the village women steal changeling creatures from the sea and raise them as their own, teaching them to live on land and on top of the sea, carrying on their fishing traditions. This last point brings us to the heart of the story. Billy-Rid’s wife returns from the sea with a child. Before she left for her ten-month stint on the waves, they’d been trying for what Billy refers to as a ‘real’ child, not a stolen one. Billy does his best to respect Beetie’s wishes, and go with the flow, but in the end, he’s unable to maintain the steps of a dance and hold with tradition. It’s a lovely, bitter-sweet tale, examining motherhood and fatherhood, among other things. Beyond the gender role inversions, the language, and everything else that draws the reader into the story – it’s a full of longing, as so many stories about the sea are, and a worthy place to start with Hannett’s work.

Last, but not least, I recommend Nimona, which started life as a web comic and was published as a paperback in May 2015, as a starting place for Noelle Stevenson’s work. The art is simple, yet evocative, while the story plays with superhero/mad scientist/high fantasy tropes. The story opens with Nimona, a young shapeshifter, showing up at local villain Ballister Blackheart’s door, and badgering him into hiring her as a sidekick. Grudgingly at first, but more honestly as time goes on, he finds himself growing fond of her and forming a true friendship. As the story unfolds, Stevenson adds layers that take it from merely charming, to charming with dark, sharp edges. Relationships lie at the heart of the story – the relationship between hero and villain, villain and sidekick, government and people. The relationships grow organically, revealing new depths to characters that are deliberately painted with broad strokes at first, playing on their archetypes. Since it is a visual medium, the art is worth discussing. Nimona is depicted with a mostly-shaved head, piercings, and a normal human figure. Given that she’s a shape changer, and could have unrealistic fantasy proportions if she wanted, this is important. It’s also worth noting that Nimona is allowed her imperfections. She acts like a human teenager. She’s impulsive, reckless, and often puts herself and others in danger as a result. She’s also angry at the world, and frequently lashes out violently as a result. The story has its tongue in cheek moments which help keep it from feeling like a retread. It nods to its source material without sinking into expected patterns. Nimona as a character is a force of nature, in more ways than one. It’s impossible to resist her, as Ballister discovers, and it’s impossible not to care for her and get wrapped up in her story. The print edition opens with a dedication ‘To all the girl monsters’, which sums up everything you need to know and why you need to grab a copy. Just a few pages in, Nimona already had me hungering to run out and buy Lumberjanes, another of Stevenson’s projects (with Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters). What better recommended starting point than a literal gateway drug into the author’s other work?

Women to Read: Where to Start (July 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to July’s Women to Read: Where to Start. Looking back, it appears I started this column two years and one month ago. Happy belated birthday, Women to Read! A birthday is the perfect time to focus on stories featuring youth and growing up. These aren’t traditional coming-of-age tales, but all my recommendations this time around deal with characters at an in-between time of life, defining who they are, and searching for their place in the world.

First up, my recommended starting point for Marlee Jane Ward is The Walking Thing from the June 2015 Interfictions. “The Walking Thing” can be seen as unique take on the zombie trope, an anti-zombie story, or something in-between. The protagonist is a young woman named Nita. As the story opens, Nita is fooling around with her quasi-boyfriend. Her mother unintentionally interrupts the moment to report on ‘the walking thing’ an inexplicable compulsion to walk, which has struck their town. Attempts to make the walkers stop fail. On the surface, it seems like a mild plague, but it continues to spread and eventually the inevitable occurs – those afflicted walk themselves to death. Ward offers no explanation for the plague, or for why Nita is the only one in town not affected by the plague. The why of the disease isn’t important. Nita’s emotional journey as she copes with survivor’s guilt is the heart of the story. Nita’s changing relationship with her mother, and with her quasi-boyfriend, Brian, are important markers on this journey. Before the plague strikes, Nita frequently reacts to her mother with eye-rolling, embarrassment, and resentment – a typical teenager. But when other families flee town, Nita can’t bear to leave her mother who has been afflicted. She sets up food and water stations for the walkers, but ultimately all Nita can do is keep them company and witness their deaths. When Brian returns to town after everyone else is dead, we see the completion of Nita’s transformation. Brian has been completely sheltered from the plague while Nita has dealt with death first hand. Brian’s main ‘trauma’ from the plague is that he got bored of playing the same video game over and over again. He hasn’t grown up at all, while Nita has been forced to grow up all at once – stronger for what she’s survived, but burdened by the loss she’s witnessed.

“RedChip BlueChip” by Effie Seiberg from Crossed Genres Issue 30 is my next recommended starting point. The protagonist, Mikila, lives in a near-future world where everyone is implanted with a chip at age fifteen to determine their brand preference from then on – Coke vs. Pepsi, Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks, etc. What keeps the story from feeling like a typical evil corporation/group-think story is seeing the world from a younger perspective. Mik’s friends fancy themselves counter-culture rebels. Instead of weary cynicism, we see an optimistic and youthful ‘I have it all figured out and I’m going to stick it to the man’ attitude. Like Ward’s story, the heart of Seiberg’s story is Mik’s journey as she attempts to fit in and impress her friends, particularly Sivvy, the queen of the cool girls. This pits her against Ant, another of her friends, who wins major cool points by introducing Mik and Sivvy to an underground coffee shop supposedly free of brand names. In her attempt to out-do Ant, Mik discovers the coffeeshop is nothing more than an alternate Starbucks brand, designed specifically to capture the ‘stick it to the man’ youth market. The story pokes gentle fun at the mindset of teenagers who think they are breaking the mold when they’re really just choosing a different aesthetic, usually one shared by their friends (i.e. being unique just like everyone else). But the story isn’t mean-spirited. It feels authentic to the teenage experience, down to Mik’s choise when she discovers the truth about the underground coffeeshop. She uses her knowledge to try once again to make herself popular with her friends; any dramatic reshaping of the world as a result of her actions is merely incidental. This is refreshing, as so many stories unintentionally age their protagonists. Yes, some teenagers want to save the world, but a lot of them just want to make it through the day without doing or saying anything in front of their friends that will keep them from fitting in. In “RedChip BlueChip”, Seiberg gives us a character who grows over the course of the story, but still feels like a real teenager to the end.

My recommended starting point for Nicola Griffith is Hild, which offers a completely different take on youth and growing up. Set in 7th century Britain, Hild fills in the untold story of the real historical figure, St. Hilda. Griffith uses the very little known about St. Hilda and creates a living, breathing, complex character. The story opens with Hild as a young child, but even then, she’s wise beyond her years. Her circumstances don’t permit her to be anything else. She’s the king’s niece, and thanks to a dream her mother claims to have had while pregnant, she is also ‘the light of the world’, the king’s seer, destined to lead through vision and prophecy. Hild spends her life embroiled in politics, forging alliances, watching for treachery, searching for patterns and information. Despite this, many of Hild’s struggles are still relevant to the teenage experience. Hild is isolated; she has trouble finding friends she can be herself around. She questions what she wants to do with her life. What happens when the king doesn’t need her anymore? Can she live with herself after the blood she’s spilled to keep her people safe? Will she ever find someone to love her and appreciate her for herself? The few moments when Hild is allowed her youth – running in the grass, climbing trees, laughing and talking with friends – are particularly lovely, underlining her weighty responsibilities. Hild isn’t a typical portrait of youth, by today’s standards, but it’s still a powerful one. The speculative element is light. Most of Hild’s ‘visions’ are simple careful observation, but there are moments – beautifully described by Griffith – where Hild’s understanding of the warp and weave of the world borders on the supernatural. She transcends her flesh, putting herself into the body of a bird and seeing the pattern of all of Britain laid out below her. The theme of weaving and patterns carries throughout the book, both literally and metaphorically. Hild weaves with the other women in the king’s household, and she also studies the weave of the world, noting threads that can be tugged to shift the balance of power. The novel itself is a tapestry, one whose details are dazzling close up, and work together to form a stunning picture of a richly built world when taken as a whole.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting point for Kelly Robson’s work is The Waters of Versailles, recently published at Tor.com. (On a side note, why aren’t more speculative fiction stories set in Versailles? It’s such a magical, lush setting!) Youth isn’t as front and center in this story, but it is key, running under the surface of the tale. The main character, Sylvain, is a soldier-turned-engineer, thought to be a wizard by many in the court of Versailles for the magic he works with its fountains, and for bringing indoor plumbing to the court. Yes, a story about toilets reveals a surprising amount about human nature as nobles fight for the prestige bestowed by owning their own toilet, then quickly tire of the fashion when everyone has one. Sylvain’s water-wizardry is at least partially supernatural. Some years ago, he captured a water spirit, and he’s been keeping her in the cisterns beneath the palace. When Sylvain’s friend Leblanc, who is also the water spirit’s only close companion, dies, things start to fall apart. Pipes leak and the plumbing begins to fail. Sylvain’s position at court, already tenuous due to his peasant birth, is put in even more jeopardy. This also starts Sylvain’s journey from a somewhat unsympathetic character, to a deeply sympathetic one. Early on, he is shallow, a social climber denying his true self. Here, youth comes into the story in two key ways. While she isn’t the main character, the water spirit is essentially a child. Sylvain even refers to her as ‘the little fish’, but it isn’t until he truly recognizes how young she is that he comes back to his humanity. She isn’t a malicious trickster trying to imperil his position – she is a bored, lonely, and occasionally frightened child. The more Sylvain comes to care for her, the more he reclaims his own childhood. Singing the songs of his youth to soothe the water spirit leads Sylvain to ultimately experience a second ‘growing up’ himself. He learns to stop caring what the nobles of the court think, realizing he’ll never be good enough for them simply by not being of noble birth. In the end, he sheds the trappings and glamour of Versailles, emerging as a kinder, more mature, and gentler person.

Women to Read: Where to Start (August 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start. August brings the deep heat of summer, so this time, I’m offering four short stories – brief journeys to dip into in order to escape the heat. But unlike a dip into a pool, these stories are far from comforting. If there’s any theme to loosely tie them together, it’s a thread of discomfort or unease running through each.

First up, my recommended starting point for Nicolette Barischoff’s work is “Pirate Songs” from the recently published anthology, Accessing the Future. The story opens with a crew of pirates assessing the salvage from a space ship found adrift, including a young girl found unconscious among the wreckage. The moment she wakes up, Margo vastly complicates the pirates’ lives. She has Spina Bifida and usually uses a chair to get around. On top of that, she just happens to be a diplomat’s daughter. The story features alternating points of view, but Margo’s are the ones that really shine. Through flashbacks, the reader see how Margo delighted in messing with the bots her diplomat mother set to tend to her every need, and how she outpaced the learning programs and pushed the limits of the virtual environments on her now-crashed ship. Once she adapts to the pirate ship, Margo similarly delights in making the crew uncomfortable, dragging herself around the ship and refusing to stay out of the way, despite not having her chair. One particularly effective scene has Margo barging in on the pirates’ meal and insisting on being included in their nefarious plans. She has no qualms about making the pirates uncomfortable in other ways, making it clear she’s smarter than them. Brief moments of fear keep her human, but she doesn’t dwell on them. Rather than letting herself be moved by events, Margo proactively includes herself in the pirates’ dealings, and ultimately comes up with a plan allowing them to deliver their illegal cargo, escape the law, and get her home. A self-rescuing princess indeed! (Okay, diplomat’s daughter, but why quibble.) On a selfish note, once you’ve read “Pirate Songs” and you’re hungry for more of Barischoff’s work, keep an eye out for her upcoming story in the Academia issue of Unlikely Story, which I co-edit.

Shimmer-26-July-2015-1000“The Star Maiden”, published in Shimmer #26, is my recommended starting place for Roshani Chokshi’s work. It plays with discomfort and unease in the way it sets the fantastic against the realities of growing up, creating tension between belief and what is generally accepted as true. Early in the story, the main character is perfectly willing to accept her grandmother’s claim of being a fallen star. She drinks in all of her grandmother’s stories as truth, and accepts that they will dance together in the heavens one day. As the protagonist grows up, she begins to pull away from her grandmother’s stories, embarrassed by what she now perceives to be fantasy, or possibility senility. The protagonist’s grandmother gifts her with a dress worthy of star maiden, and requests that she wear to the 85th birthday party the family is planning for her. The main character only sees the dress as tacky, and tears it while trying it on, refusing to wear it in public. The awkward teenage-to-early-adult phase is well portrayed here. Similar to the story by Marrisa Lingen, which I cover below, you get a sense of a teenager trying on personas, but here the reader sees the story from the inside perspective, rather than the outside. Throughout the story, the prose if gorgeous and poetic. The moments between the main character and her grandmother, and the journey she takes from acceptance to doubt to hope is lovely. From the author bio which accompanies the story, I see Chokshi has a YA novel forthcoming. Personally, I will be eagerly anticipating it.

My recommended starting point for Wendy N. Wagner’s work, “Three Small Slices of Pumpkin Pie”, from the July issue of Farrago’s Wainscot certainly fits with the theme of unease and discomfort. The story follows a woman named Janet from the sixth grade until she’s a middle-aged woman. Wagner’s opening line perfectly sets the tone for the story, and tells you everything you need to know (emphasis on need to know) about the world: “By the middle of sixth grade almost every girl had her pumpkin, small and effervescently orange, tucked beneath her desk, the green vine laying neatly against her leg.” Wagner offers no explanation for these pumpkins, nor is one needed. They are simply a fact of life in a story that shows our world as it is, with one fantastic detail setting everything slightly askew. The pumpkins can be seen as a metaphor for the sexualization, commodification, and restrictions put on a woman’s body. Early on in the story, Janet’s college roommate talks about how all her boyfriend wants now that their relationship is serious is to ‘do the pumpkin’. Later in the story, Janet brings her own boyfriend home and there’s a disturbing scene where Janet’s father expounds on his view of a woman’s place in the world while cracking pumpkin seeds between his teeth. There are elements of the story that harken back to O.J. Cade’s “The Mussel Eater,” and Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl,” both of which I covered in an earlier installment of Women to Read. Here again we see a woman’s body portrayed as something to be devoured, to be served up to a husband or partner, something not fully under the woman’s control. The ending of the story is somewhat enigmatic, and further ups the discomfort level. After her divorce, Janet seems on the verge of reclaiming her pumpkin, tearing at its flesh with her nails and climbing inside. As she’s on the verge of crawling completely inside the pumpkin, her ex-husband appears. The full implications of ‘doing the pumpkin’ are further illuminated, but it’s left to the reader to determine whether Janet reclaims herself, or gives into what her ex-husband has ‘always wanted’ in an attempt to win him back. There’s a visceralness to the story, and it packs a lot into a short space. Certainly a worthy starting point for Wagner’s work.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Marissa Lingen’s work is “It Brought Us All Together,” recently published at Strange Horizons. Like Wagner’s story, this is a piece firmly rooted in our world, with one detail setting everything askew. In this case, it’s a deadly mycological plague. Lingen keeps the story personal, setting it in a high school where one of the students has been killed by the plague. The main character is another student whose parents were early victims of the plague. What really intrigued me about this story is the way it deals with grief. Very often in media – both written and visual – we see the most overwrought versions of grief. Here, Lingen gives us a character who mourns for her parents, but finds most public displays of emotion around death to be phony. The story serves as a commentary on the phase many teenagers go through of trying out personas as they struggle to find themselves. Many do this on the public stage, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. In this case, the emotional response being tested happens to be grief, and it’s fascinating to see the story being told through the eyes of a character who has experienced death intimately, versus those around her who are experiencing it for the first time at more of a distance. The discomfort angle comes in as the main character refuses to participate in the more performative aspects mourning, taking part in the communal sadness and assuring everyone around her she’s ‘normal’. The scenario Lingen sets up here strikes me as very real, and again, shows an aspect of grief not as often dealt with in fiction. Some people don’t cry; it doesn’t mean they’re hurting any less. This story recognizes that everyone has the right to cope with trauma in their own way, and that’s an important message to get out there.

Women to Read: Where to Start (September 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

It’s September. Every now and then, a hint of cooler weather makes itself felt, just enough of a taste to remind us that fall is on the way. The cusp of the turning season seems like the perfect time to look at fours works touching on the theme of transformation. Three short stories, and one comic book series by four fantastic women whose work you should read. Onward!

My recommended starting place for Alice Sola Kim’s work is “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying.” The story appeared in Tin House #61, and the anthology Monstrous Affections edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, and was reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015. In addition to transformation, which is experienced in various forms by the three protagonists – seeing their wishes transformed into reality, then a kind of nightmare; seeing themselves and each other transformed into people they barely recognize; and having their world views change – the story plays with the idea of the feminine as monstrous. The story opens with three young women trying out a magic spell. They are at the awkward age between being child and adult, figuring out who they want to be and where they are fit in the world. All three girls are adopted and trying to strike a balance between their birth culture and their families. They are outsiders, other, and so they turn to the supernatural for help. Despite having happy home lives on the surface, there is something missing in each of their lives. As a result of their collective will, they summon a new mother, a ‘real’ mother to care for all of them. She is the idealized form of a mother, filling a need for them, but what starts as comforting soon becomes terrifying. The girls want an ideal mother, but the mother wants idealized daughters too, which means reshaping the girls to fit her vision for them, and potentially breaking them in the process. The line between self and other is blurred through the voice of the piece itself, which is brilliantly done – told from the perspective of the collective we, and dipping in and out of individual characters heads. The collective we also manifests in the joining between the mother and each of her daughters, as she uses their mouths to speak and essentially uses their bodies as puppets. Overall, the story is fascinating look at family, growing up, and where the line between love and monstrosity lies. It’s an excellent starting place for Alice Sola Kim’s work.

My recommended starting place for Delilah S. Dawson’s work is “Catcall” from the July/August issue of Uncanny. Catcall offers a different angle on the themes of both transformation and the monstrous feminine. The story’s protagonist, Maria, is once again painted as completely other. Because she is female, different rules of engagement apply. As a young girl, and as a young woman, her body is a public body, subject to unwanted stares, attention, commentary, criticism, touching, and of course, the catcalls of the story’s title. Sadly, Dawson describes an everyday reality for many women. If they do nothing, they are asking for it. If they refuse to engage, they’re cold and unfriendly. And if they fight back, as Dawson’s character does, they are monstrous. Here, Dawson takes it to the extreme. Maria discovers she has the power to cause pain, injury, and even death. A boy who gropes her in the parking lot suffers a heart attack. Strangers who catcall her outside a convenience store are shot in an armed robbery. As the story progresses, Maria decides she is no longer content simply protecting herself from direct action. She goes on the offensive, looking for and insincere pick-up artists and hurting them as well. Even as her power develops, Maria begins to grow close to a shy boy in her class, one who seems genuinely nice. By the time she realizes he’s a good guy, it’s too late. She has transformed into something poisonous. Her powers aren’t under her control, if they ever were, and she ends up hurting someone she’s come to care about. This underlines Dawson’s point of women being damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It’s a heartbreaking story on many level, and an excellent starting place for Dawson’s work.

Cat Hellisen’s “Serein” from Shimmer Magazine #26 deals with the theme of transformation in a completely different way. The story focuses on two sisters, Alison, and her younger sister Claire who has disappeared. At first, police assume she’s a runaway, but the details don’t add up – she abandoned her shoes along with their mother’s car. She took her passport and parked near the airport, but never bought a plane ticket. There’s no record of her; she’s simply gone. Later, people begin to whisper that she must have drowned, even though she was miles away from water at the time she vanished. Hellisen alternates between Claire and Alison’s viewpoints, unfolding a tale with echoes of the little mermaid, but focusing more on the family left behind. Unlike the little mermaid longing to be human, Claire never felt human, and longs for the water. More than that, she is water, and eventually the weight of holding human form becomes too much for her. The story can be read as a metaphor for depression, sickness, or any number of things, but it can also be read quite literally. Claire ‘practices drowning’ and one day Alison walks into the bathroom where her sister has been hogging the tub, and finds ‘only water, dark and strange and smoky with hair and blood’. This eerie imagery, along with the imagery of Claire walking bare foot on broken glass are two in particular that evoke the little mermaid whose every step on her human feet feels like walking on knives, and who ends her life as bloody foam upon the waves. Whether you read it as literal, metaphorical, or something in between, it’s a lovely, bittersweet story and a wonderful introduction to Hellisen’s writing.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for G. Willow Wilson’s work is Ms. Marvel Vol.1, collecting issues 1-11. It’s literally a reboot story, which makes it the perfect starting point for the series and for Wilson’s work. It also recently won the Hugo for Best Graphic Story, and is a nominee in several categories for both the Eisner and Harvey Awards. The transformation element is obvious here – it’s a superhero origin story and Kamala Khan is transformed by a mysterious green fog into Ms. Marvel with the power to shrink and grow all or part of her body at will and with super-healing ability. However, there’s is a secondary layer of transformation in the story as well. Like the protagonists in Kim, Dawson, and Hellisen’s works, Wilson’s hero is young. Kamala is a teenager, trying to find her place in a world, trying to honor her family and her religion, trying to fit in, be popular, and save the world. At first, she can only conceive of being heroic in the model of the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers before she took up the role of Captain Marvel. The first time Kamala transforms, she finds herself blonde, and in a skimpy costume. Eventually, she realizes she doesn’t want to be an imitation of another superhero; she can be herself and save the world. There is, of course, a learning curve as she discovers being a hero isn’t as easy as it looks. What takes this story beyond being a typical origin story is Kamala herself. She is adorably geeky. She worships the Avengers and writes fan fic about her favorite heroes. She’s a gamer. She loves animals. And she is fiercely proud of her hometown, Jersey City, which is not a location that gets a lot of love in comic books. The cute little details in the excellent artwork by Adrian Alphona only add to the charm: Kamala’s best friend Bruno sports a shirt reading Gigawatts 1.21; Kamala uses the word ’embiggen’ to describe her powers, and later eats Cromulent Crunch, both nods to the Simpsons; and as Kamala tests out her powers in an alleyway, she does so surrounded by a stack of World Famous Alley Boxes. Amidst these loving details, Kamala’s character is ultimately what makes this reboot shine. She’s caring, and filled with a sense of idealism, justice, and wanting to help others. She also has her moments of self-doubt, as we all do, and at times she can be goofy, using her world’s version of Instagram to document her first big fight, and going all fan girl when she meets Wolverine. I could go on, but I’ll sum up by saying Ms. Marvel is a lot fun, and it makes me want to seek out G. Willow Wilson’s other works, like Alif the Unseen.

Women to Read: Where to Start (October 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read. It’s October, so what better theme to focus on than ghost stories? However, instead of bringing you traditional ghost stories, I’m discussing four works that expand the concept of what a ghost story can be.

First up, my recommended starting place for Quan Barry’s work is She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Barry has published several books of poetry, but this is her first foray into novel territory, and it’s a hell of start. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born presents Vietnam as a country full of ghosts, both literal and figurative. The protagonist, Rabbit, is born in her mother’s grave and dug up by her father. She hears the voices of the dead, and sees ghosts all around her. The novel is contemplative and quiet, but full of violence and trauma as well. Barry’s poetic roots show in her use of language. The narrative moves with a dream-like quality, frequently breaking with (modern, Western) conventions. It unapologetically head hops, treating the story like a river, one that Barry guides the reader to dip into at various points, catching thoughts from this character, then that, before moving on. The story is both linear and circular, events and characters recurring, loops closing pages and chapters later just when you think they’ve been dropped. The story spans several years, and occasionally generations as it moves backward and forward in time. Always, there are ghosts reminding the reader of the violence visited upon, and born in, Vietnam, and showing it on both the epic and extremely personal scales. As Barry’s first foray into prose, it’s a perfect starting point, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

My recommended starting point for Gabby Reed’s work is Glaciers Made You,” recently published at Strange Horizons. This is another non-traditional ghost story, one where the tale itself is suffused with a sense of haunting. As a young child, Bonnie finds words written on the skin peeled away from her sunburns. They’re only fragments, but they point to geological features, moraines, and ridges, an incomplete map she struggles to follow. Reed pairs the literal writing on Bonnie’s skin with a moment written on her heart. It is a moment during a road trip Bonnie took as a child, where she and her father lay side by side in a dry creek bed in the Badlands, feeling how connected they were to the desert around them. The rest of the story ripples out from there, like rings around stone dropped in a pond. Bonnie’s father is dead, and “Glaciers Made You” is Bonnie’s ghost story. Reed’s descriptions are painfully lovely – wide open vistas that are the opposite of traditional dark, cramped, and claustrophobic ghost story settings take on an air of sorrow and the uncanny. As Bonnie grows older, it gets harder to peel away her skin. Life has given her a shell, a literal thick skin. It protects her, but makes her vulnerable as well. It severs her connection with her father, driving her to greater extremes to recapture what she’s lost. It’s a wonderful and poignant starting place for Reed’s work.

Next up, my recommended starting place for Lily Hoang’s work is “The Foxes” from the anthology Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. Like Barry’s novel, The Foxes presents Vietnam as a country of ghosts. In this case, the ghosts are foxes who are also the reincarnated spirits of seven murdered women. These seven women were the sole survivors of a deadly plague that wiped out their village only be captured by the colonizers who arrive shortly after the plague ends, tortured, and hanged as a source of evil. Their bodies vanish, and shortly afterward, the foxes appear, ravenous and implacable, destroying entire villagers and leaving only one survivor alive each time – a woman who is chosen to become one of them. Hoang weaves multiple threads throughout the story – descriptions of the plague, conflicting tales of the fox-women’s true nature, and a children’s game the reenacts the legend where certain girls (always the popular ones) are foxes who chose one girl to join them, while the other must play dead and are forbidden from speaking for a week. The question of who has a voice and who has power plays an important role in the story. It explores gender as well, particularly through the differing accounts of the fox legends the protagonist is told by her mother versus the accounts told by her father. As the anthology’s title suggests, “The Foxes” is a haunted story – and a haunting one – and it is a wonderful place to start with Hoang’s work.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Alaya Dawn Johnson’s work is “The Score,” originally published in Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. Similar to Reed’s story, there is a ghost at the center of this tale, but one defined by absence. Through a series of news stories, articles, interviews, and letters exchanged, “The Score” tells the story of Jake Pray musician/activist who dies under mysterious circumstances in police custody. Following his death, he becomes a symbol – a victim of police brutality, a conspiracy to discredit the police, proof of a higher power. Everyone claims him and everyone claims to know him best, his friends, rival musicians, his ex girlfriend. Even strangers begin to claim him after his death; reports of his ghost circulate, and every sighting is followed by a major violent event – a ceasefire ending, a bombing, a declaration of war. Johnson tells us of Pray’s ghost, but never shows us the ghost directly. Jake himself is never given a voice, highlighting the way people’s lives are often reshaped after their deaths – becoming more or less perfect, depending on who is telling the story. Beyond the obvious uneasiness that comes with a story that is painfully close to actual news stories happening today, there is a general sense of uneasiness pervading the tale. The truth of Jake’s death, how he died in his cell with a small piece of rope in his hand, and a microscopic tear in his heart is never fully explained. Again, it is left to the reader to fill in the absence, claiming a truth for themselves the same way the characters do. There’s a secondary layer to the story that is particularly fascinating, a friendship that develops between an internet conspiracy theorist and Pray’s former lover, Violet. Their relationship begins as antagonistic – he comes off as a crackpot reaching out to a complete stranger and demanding attention. Over time though, they develop a kind of respect for each other, or at least an understanding. They are constants in each others’ lives, there is a loneliness to each of them, and in the end, there’s a sense they know each other better than anyone else. This brings the story back full circle, speaking to the way we reinvent people in their absence – the fact that these characters never meet in person allows for a more honest communication between them. They know each other in a way that Violet and Jake never knew each other when he was alive. As ghost stories go, it’s an effective one, and a wonderful place to start with Johnson’s work.

Women to Read: Where to Start (November 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

November is an uneasy month – caught between fall and winter. The dark closes in, the air grows colder, and trees shed their leaves. It’s a dying month, the perfect month to explore works of fiction that touch on the uncanny, the shifting border between horror and fantasy, stories that flicker around the borders and carry with them a definite chill.

To start things off, my recommended starting place for Helen Marshall’s work is The Hanging Game, originally published at Tor.com and reprinted in her collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After. The story centers on a small logging town called Lawford where children play the Hanging Game of the title. As the name implies, the game involves a mock hanging, carried out differently in each town. In Lawford, children steal a bit of highrigging rope, loop it around an ash tree, stand on a wooden stool and lean forward until the rope is taut and nearly choking them. As they are being ‘hanged’ they speak prophecy, a truth they don’t remember after the game is over, and which no one is allowed to tell them about. Echoes of Norse mythology haunt the ritual, though Marshall never names them directly. The children play the game in the name of Hangjaw, the Spearman, the Gallow’s Burden, Father of Bears, who reads like an aspect of Odin who hung on the tree for nine days to gain wisdom, was pierced by a spear, and is often associated with the gallows. In addition to the Hanging Game, there’s a delicate balance between bears and humans in Lawford as well. Many of the prophecies spoken during the Hanging Game center on the way the children are called on to pay for their parents’ sins when a bear is killed. There’s an uneasiness in the way the plays the innocence of a children’s game against the idea of blood debts paid by later generations. The uncaring randomness of a balance that is satisfied as long as it claims someone, regardless whether that someone transgressed, is played against the formality and ritual surrounding the Hanging Game. It’s a work of tension, and the unexplained, but yet it still feels perfectly contained. It’s an excellent starting place for Marshall’s work, playing with many of the themes that recur in her other pieces, specifically elements of myth and fairy tale with older, darker meanings tucked inside them.

Next up, my recommended starting place for K.L. Owens’ fiction is July Story from Shimmer #27. Despite the name, it isn’t a summer story. Kitten is the prisoner of a mysterious house that stole him out of the world in the mid-1850s. The house feeds him, it keeps him alive as decades pass. Kitten is allowed to leave the house only in July, returning to the world while the month lasts before the house snatches him away again. While there are fairy tale elements to the scenario – a magical, traveling house that provides food and travels through time – there is horror in it as well. Everyone Kitten knows and loves is dead by the time he emerges from the house again. The house wants something from him, something he doesn’t know how to provide. The house rattles a sewing kit at him like an enraged poltergeist; it is a hurt and broken thing, unable to communicate its need. There is a warped room where all of Kitten’s lost years live, and the disturbing imagery of the house returning its first ‘pet’ home, depositing a child’s bones back in its room, exactly where it found them. Owens does a fantastic job balancing the horrifying and the fantastic, weaving in loss, family, and friendship, and combining the creepy and the poetic. Whether it’s a ghost story or a fairy tale largely depends on the angle from which you look at it, which makes it the perfect in-between kind of story for November, and the perfect place to start with Owens’ work.

The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club by Nike Sulway in the October issue of Lightspeed is another uneasy November kind of tale that occupies the spaces in-between. It plays with the uncanny nature of anthropomorphic animals, but rather than cute Beatrix Potter animals, these are rhinos on the edge of extinction, giving the story a darker edge. Clara is a member of the titular Karen Joy Fowler Book Club. She has a daughter, Alice, who takes care of children, but has chosen not to have children of her own. Clara’s husband has left her, and Clara co-owns a cafe with her friend Belle. Clara’s daily life and her concerns read as very human. She prepares meals, and organizes her library; she worries about her daughter, and she struggles to define herself and find her place in the world. But there’s is the added weight of her concerns of being the last of her kind. The biological imperative to reproduce versus enjoying relationships for their own sake play a large part in the story. The story also examines the way people define themselves at different stages in their lives – as a child, spouse, parent, friend, member of a species. During the course of the story, Clara and Belle become lovers. Rather than a happy ending, it’s a step in Clara’s evolution toward her ability to understand who she is an individual. There are layers to the story, with meta-references to other genre authors, and tropes. The uncanny and uneasiness comes in the play between human and animal characteristics, and the occasional questioning of what is metaphor, and what is literal. Overall, it’s an intriguing story, and an excellent starting place for Sulway’s work.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Tananarive Due’s work is The Lake, originally published in Monsters Corner: Stories Through Inhuman Eyes, and included in her recently-released collection Ghost Summer. As the title of the original anthology suggests, the story is told from a monster’s point of view, but of course, monsters rarely see themselves as such, do they? The idea of predation is woven through the story on multiple levels. A teacher moves to Gracetown, the setting of many of the stories in Due’s collection. She is warned to stay away from the lake, but ignores the advice. She swims almost every day, and the water begins to invade her dreams. In her dreams, there are alligators in the water, and whatever she has become, these apex predators are afraid of her. At the same time, the theme plays out through the threat of sexual predation shadowing the tale. The teacher invites one of her young students to her house so he can help her repair it throughout the summer. The threat remains largely under the surface of the story; it is never made overt, but it is present enough to make the reader uncomfortable. The main character’s literal transformation into something monstrous with gills and webbed toes parallels the mounting tension as the reader wonders exactly what sort of hunger she teacher feels for her student and whether she’ll act on it. The moment of consumption at the end of the story can be read as literal or metaphorical, and it’s chilling either way. Stories about monstrous women are rarely told from the woman’s point of view, which adds an extra layer of unease to the story. Due asks the reader to feel sympathy for her main character while showing her as monstrous, and as embracing her monstrous nature. Not only is “The Lake” my recommended starting point for Due’s work, it is the starting point for her collection, setting the tone for Ghost Summer with many of the recurring themes in Due’s work.

Women the Read: Where to Start (December 2015, Originally published at SF Signal)

Welcome to the last Women to Read: Where to Start of 2015. To close out the year, I offer you an assortment of fabulous women and starting points for their work, without any particular theme this time around.

First up, my recommended starting point for Arkady Martine’s work is “When the Fall is All That’s Left” from the October issue of Apex Magazine. This story is a masterful example of efficient writing, packing an entire world into fewer than 3,000 words. Gabriele is a living ship, a skilled pilot wired directly into the guts of her craft. As the story opens, Gabriele has just flown through a star. As a result, the instrumentation is a wreck, and Gabriele’s pilot and friend, Iris, is dying. The scenario is essentially Thelma and Louise in space, focusing on the moment after the car plunges off the cliff. Martine doesn’t specify what the women are running from. What matters is freedom, and the price of that freedom. If there’s even a fraction of a chance for one of them to survive, Gabriele must be removed from the ship, and fly blind as a human being again. Just as Martine doesn’t reveal what the women are running from, she cuts the story off before Gabriele can either fail or succeed at piloting the ship unwired. It truly is a story just about the fall, but with enough glimpses to allow the reader to build a full picture of the characters, their deep friendship, and the desperation of their flight. It’s a story about sacrifice, and about what makes someone human when almost everything associated with humanity has been stripped away. The story packs a punch without bogging down in text, and makes an excellent starting point for Martine’s work.

Shifting gears in setting and tone, my recommended starting place for Lesley Nneka Arimah’s work is “Who Will Greet You at Home” from The New Yorker, an eerie story with a killer opening line: The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. This is our world, but set slightly askew. Women create children out of yarn, plaster, mud, and sticks, each material coming with its own risks and rewards. Ogechi’s mother made her out of sticks and mud, but she aspires to something more for her own child. They argue, and Ogechi resorts to paying her boss for blessings to protect her child rather than facing her mother’s judgmental attitude. Determined to make it on her own, Ogechi steals hair from the salon where she works and weaves it into a baby, something old folk tales warn against, but which Ogechi, in her pride, ignores. Arimah builds a striking picture out of the story’s details. The child-building materials available to each mother reflects their socio-economic status. A woman who can afford to make her baby out of porcelain can give that child a soft, pampered life. A child built out of sticks and mud might be hard and ugly, but also tough and durable. The story’s horror elements draw from the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Unable to pay with money, Ogechi gives up bits of her happiness in exchange for blessings to protect her child, and literally gives up pieces of herself to feed it. There’s a full and satisfying arc for Ogechi, one that reflects how a daughter’s attitude to her mother might change as she becomes a parent herself. Ogechi resents her mother’s seeming lack of love and compassion, but in the end, after the failure of her hair baby, she builds a child out of ash and sorrow, similar to the way she was built; it will be a bitter thing, but strong enough to survive. Who Will Greet You at Home is complex and layered and an excellent place to start with Arimah’s work.

Shifting gears again, my recommended starting place for Nin Harris’ work is “Sang Riamu and the Medicine Woman” from the summer 2015 issue of Lackington’s Magazine, a twist on the trope of the fairy debt and the fairy curse. As a teenager, Cempaka encounters a fairy Empress surrounded by a palace made of golden filaments of light. The Empress speaks of a debt to be repaid, but rather than claiming Cempaka, the Empress offers her a mango before vanishing into thin air. When she tells her mother of the encounter, Cempaka learns of her distant ancestor who stole a prisoner from the faeries much in the way Janet reclaims her love from the Faerie Queen in the story of Tam Lin, holding onto him through multiple transformations, despite the danger to herself. However, even though Cempaka devours the fairy fruit, there’s no supernatural punishment, or reward. Harris frames the story as one of disappointment for Cempaka. After her encounter with the Empress, Cempaka is haunted by a were-tiger, Sang Riamu, who watches her, but never attacks. Both the were-tiger, and the fairy debt linger around the edges of her life, but she’s largely left to her own devices. The tree grown from the seeds of the fairy mango bears fruit that makes her slightly better at brewing love potions in her chosen profession as a medicine woman, but the man she loves still marries someone else. In the end, Cempaka makes her own way through the world, transforming herself into a were-tiger through her own determination, patience, and potion-making skill. She’s an old woman by the time she transforms, a nice change up from the way many (Western) fairy tales focus almost exclusively on youth, with ‘older’ women relegated to the role of dead mothers and wicked crones. In addition to being a fascinating inversion of many fairy tale tropes, “Sang Riamu and the Medicine Woman” is beautifully told, and it’s a wonderful starting place for Harris’ work.

Keeping with the jumps between styles and themes, I’ll close with a recommendation of Lovecraftian horror. Pandora Hope’s “Eight Seconds” from She Walks in Shadows edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles mashes up bull riding and the cosmic horror of Shub-Niggurath, aka The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. Like Arimah’s story, at its heart, “Eight Seconds” is about a mother and daughter who don’t get along, and the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Sam is a bull rider, whose daughter, Lula, doesn’t approve of her career choice, and leaves home at sixteen. Sam is content to let Lula go her own way, until she finds a pamphlet slipped under her door suggesting Lula has joined a cult and found herself a new mother. There are stories about ‘the Sick Place’, where radiation deforms people, which is where the cult appears to be located. At the urging of her friend Laurie, the rodeo clown, Sam sets out to find her daughter, and comes face to face with Shub-Niggurath. Being a practical sort of person, Sam tries to convince herself the horror of a goat-headed, goat-legged woman large enough to squeeze a horse to death with one arm is the result of radiation poisoning. Whatever the goat-woman’s origins, Sam uses her rodeo skills to save her daughter’s life, figuring if she can ride a bull for eight seconds, she can surely stay alive for eight seconds, distracting Shub-Niggurath long enough for Lula to escape. The story’s voice is wonderful, with Sam being bull-rider gruff and stoic, but still willing to do whatever she can to save her daughter without getting sentimental about it. Lovecraft has been mashed up with Westerns before, but I’ve never seen the show riding aspects of the culture combined with cosmic horror. It’s a fantastic blend, and a wonderful starting place for Hope’s work.

Hopefully these recommendations will carry you through the end of the year. I’ll be back in 2016 with more Women to Read. As always, please leave your own suggestions in the comments.