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Women to Read: Where to Start: November 2017

Welcome to November’s Women to Read. I got a little enthusiastic this month, so I have five recommendations this time around. However, November is the perfect time to hunker down under a pile of blankets with a hot beverage and a good read, so here we go!

Bear and NightingaleMy recommended starting place for Katherine Arden‘s work happens to be her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, which weaves together myth and history in medieval Rus’. Pyotr Vladimirovich’s wife Marina dies giving birth to their daughter Vasilisa. As Vasya grows, raised by Pyotr, the nurse Dunya, and her older brothers and sister, she proves to be a strange child. She runs wild, talks to household spirits no one else can see, shows an affinity for horses, and many believe she is a witch. Even so, her family and her nurse love her fiercely, and she loves them. As time passes as Vasya grows, Pytor reluctantly decides it’s time to take a new wife. Like Vasilisa, Anna sees spirits everywhere, however unlike Vasya, she believes they are demons and thus hates her new home, and comes to hate Vasya as well, believing her to be in league with the demons. It’s a familiar trope, the wicked stepmother, but in Arden’s hands, the story is so much more. The novel spans from Vasilisa’s birth until she is a young woman, her path continually crossing with the pre-Christian world of old gods and magic. The story is beautifully told, full of fragments of familiar fairy tales and legends told anew. The characters are fully drawn – from Vasya’s fierce love for her family and desire to be independent, to Anna’s faith-based torment and fearfulness – the core of who they are moves the plot and makes even the “villains” sympathetic. Against a backdrop of magic and the harshness of Rus’ in winter, Arden delivers a story that feels epic, providing real growth for each character. The relationships are where the novel shines the brightest, and the magic and fairy tale elements surround like a delicate setting holding a beautiful jewel. The Bear and the Nightingale is a gorgeous book,  a wonderful starting place for Arden’s work, and I look forward to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, coming out at the end of the year.

Looming LowBetty Rocksteady is an author and an illustrator. My recommended starting place for her work is Dusk Urchin from the recently-released anthology Looming Low. Ashley is alone in her house when someone knocks at her door. She answers, despite her better instincts, and discovers her elderly neighbor, Mr. Peterson, accompanied by a child she’s never seen before. She assumes the child must be his granddaughter, but there’s something off about the whole situation. Her neighbor seems disoriented, and the girl is utterly silent. The neighbor asks for help. He claims the girl is his daughter, and at the same time he claims he doesn’t know her. He tells Ashley he killed the girl and buried her in his yard, yet she’s right there at his side. When she can’t get a straight answer, and doesn’t know how to help, Ashley guiltily sends her neighbor away. Then the silent girl shows up at Ashley’s door, calling her mommy.

Did she have a daughter? She must have a daughter. Her daughter was talking to her. Her daughter couldn’t be talking to her if she didn’t have a daughter. The knob of the closet was cold. She shouldn’t open it. She had to open it.

Rocksteady starts with a vague sense of unease and something wrong, and builds the tension to leave the reader with a sense of dread. There’s something truly terrifying about the idea of supernatural enemy that will not stop and cannot be reasoned with. There is no safe place, nowhere to hide; the little girl reaches Ashley even inside her own mind. The brevity of the story allows the reader to bring their own interpretation to the situation, delivering a perfect, bite-sized bit of horror that gets under your skin, making it an effective place to start with Rocksteady’s work.

Prey of the GodsNicky Drayden is a prolific short fiction author, but my recommending starting place is her debut novel, The Prey of Gods. The story is set in and around Port Elizabeth in the near(ish) future where animals such as rhinos and elephants are extinct, but genetically engineered replacement and hybrid creatures are common, and nearly everyone has a personal bot called an alphie. Through the alternating viewpoints of a teen named Muzikayise (aka Muzi), a councilman named Stoker, a pop singer named Riya Natrajan, a demi-goddess named Sydney, a young girl named Nomvula, and Clever 4.1, a bot in the process of gaining sentience, Drayden weaves a story about emergence, personal growth, and evolution. A designer drug is unleashed onto the market that not only causes hallucinations, but taps into the latent divinity of human beings. Meanwhile, Nomvula – a young girl whose mother was raped by a powerful demi-god – is accused by her mother of witchcraft when she befriends the demi-god and tries to learn about her own powers from him. As Nomvula tries to protect herself from the angry mob her mother calls down on her, she accidentally taps into her power and obliterates her village, drawing the attention of another powerful and ancient being. Sydney, a harpy-like creature, whisks Nomvula away, determined to use her for her own ends. Muzi is about to undergo the circumcision ritual that will make him a man. On the day of the ceremony, his best friend, Elkin introduces him to the new drug called godsend, which gives Muzi the power to control minds at the expense of reliving his targets’ worst memories. Councilman Stoker’s mother is determined to see him run for Premier, meanwhile Stoker’s heart is with his secret life as Felicity Lyons, a singer/dancer preparing to audition to be the opening act for superstar Riya Natrajan. The characters’ stories inevitably collide and intertwine as the world itself teeters on the cusp of change. Humans are experiencing emergent godhood, while bots are gaining sentience. The theme of evolution and growth plays out on a smaller scale as well, as Stoker becomes Felicity, Muzi and Nomvula struggle with their powers, and Riya tries become a kinder human being. Drayden offers up complicated characters, each on their own journey, with their own baggage and their own strengths. Prey of the Gods contains a wealth of complicated relationships – between Muzi and his grandfather, between Muzi and Elkin, between Nomvula and Sydney, and between humans and bots, to name a few. There’s plenty of action, and touches of humor as well. Drayden packs a lot into the novel, balancing it all perfectly, leaving no character’s growth or journey short-changed, while making the future setting feel real and fully lived in. It’s an excellent novel, and an excellent place to start with Drayden’s work.

Gilda StoriesJewelle Gomez is a writer and activist. My recommended starting place for her work is her Lambda Award-winning novel, The Gilda Stories. The novel returns to the roots of vampire fiction and one of the earliest works of vampire fiction, Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, with a story focusing on women and women’s sexuality. At the same time, The Gilda Stories goes so much deeper, refuting Carmilla and even Dracula with its idea of female sexuality, and sexuality in general, as a dangerous thing. As a runaway slave in Louisiana in 1850, the Girl is rescued by a white woman named Gilda and her lover, a Lakota woman named Bird. They take her in and care for her, eventually revealing their true nature as vampires and bringing her into their family. Unlike the traditional idea of vampires as predatory monsters, Bird and Gilda teach the Girl their way of taking blood, which is built on love, and always giving something in return. They only consume what they need to survive and always leave something in return – fulfilling dreams, inspiration, a sense of well-being.

Some are said to live through the energy of fear. That is their sustenance more than sharing. The truth is we hunger for connection to life, but it needn’t be through horror or destruction. Those are just the easiest links to evoke. Once learned, this lesson mustn’t be forgotten. To ignore it, to wallow in death as the white man has done, can only bring bitterness.

Soon after welcoming her into their family, Gilda chooses to end her life, giving the Girl her name. Bird continues to care for the newly-named Gilda, teaching her multiple languages and how to survive. Eventually, Bird leaves Gilda, needing to reconnect with her roots and shed her bitterness over the first Gilda’s death. The story picks up again in Yerba Buena in 1890. Gilda is with Sorel, the man who welcomed the first Gilda into her new life as a vampire. Gilda learns from Sorel and his lover Anthony, but also befriends Eleanor another vampire created by Sorel. This is the first of many female friendships Gilda builds over the years, but it is tinged with lust, and ultimately violence. In Missouri in 1921, Gilda befriends Aurelia, a widow. Older and wiser now, Gilda helps Aurelia become her own person, gain confidence, and start school for the poor. In Boston in 1955, Gilda works as a beautician, and helps save a young woman named Toya from her abusive pimp. The novel continues through the year 2050. Gilds works in a theater. She is a romance novelist. She is on the run at a time when humanity is collapsing in on itself, resources are scarce, and vampires are hunted for the promise of eternal life. In each time period, while Gilda has a core family in Sorel, Anthony, and Bird, her life intersects with humans. Just as it is with the blood, there is give and take; she learns from them as they learn from her. Each relationship is different – Gilda relates to those around her as a friend, a sister, a mother, a lover. When she turns to violence, it is as a last resort. For the most part, Gilda’s relationship is about seeing those around her truly, and giving them what they most need to flourish. In the stories that make up Gilda’s life, we witness women making space for themselves and each other in a world dominated by men, black people making space for themselves in a world controlled by white people, and queer people, making space for themselves in a hetero-normative world. Gilda chooses and builds her family, and ultimately weaves that family together into a larger community, making the novel a stunning contrast to most vampire fiction which is often about loneliness, rivalry, violence, and suffering. It’s a beautiful novel, and a wonderful starting place for Gomez’s work.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting point for the work of Jennifer R. Donohue is Aground, Upon the Sand, a flash piece that tells a story of loss, longing, and being a stranger in a new land. The unnamed protagonist is a selkie. Her skin is gone, and she doesn’t speak about why. She can’t go home, and only one sister comes to visit her on the beach, the one place in-between worlds where they can meet. Here, the protagonist shares things from her new life, soft boots that remind her of walking on water and pumpkin spice lattes. On the surface, it is a story about selkies, but it can just s easily be read as an allegory for the experience many immigrants have, finding themselves alone in a new culture, trying to adjust and make new friends while aching for home.

Candy corn, one of my favorite things, some sweetness in the salt of her life. A trio of leaves: red, orange, and yellow. My work apron, grease-smelling even after repeated washings. A calendar, because time is days and weeks and months here, not the change of the currents and the movement of the birds, the tidal instinct in our bellies that’s impossible to describe and unnecessary to understand.

Donohue  balances the selkie’s sadness and loss with a sense wonder, allowing her to take joy in small things like blue nail polish and shared music. It is a bittersweet story, full of gorgeous descriptions and poignant moments, making it an excellent starting place for Donohue’s work.

So there you have November’s reading recommendations. Stay cozy as the weather turns, and as always, I’d love to see your own recommendations for women to read in the comments!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: October 2017

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start! Last month’s recommendations were all about ghosts and the undead. This month, the themes range far and wide, and the forms include a web comic, a short story, a novelette, and a novella. Taken all together, they represent the work of four fantastic women, and four excellent starting points for their work.

Shattered StarlightNicole Chartrand is a concept artist and comic creator, and she just so happens to live in my home town of Montreal. My recommended starting place for her work is Shattered Starlight an ongoing web comic about what happens when Magical Girls grow up.  For those unfamiliar with the Magical Girl trope, think Sailor Moon – a band of girls is given magical powers by a mystical force, usually associated with a trinket that unlocks their power and transforms them, allowing them to battle evil. Shattered Starlight is reminiscent of Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap at times while being completely its own thing. Instead of an ongoing friendship with her team, Farah Shaughnessy aka Arcturus , Guardian of Heaven, former leader of the Star Guardians, is on her own. Her team mates are scattered, and as as the story opens, she’s being “reassigned” after using her powers to throw her boss through a wall because, in her words, he was being a sack of dicks. The Empress sends her to work at The Dead End Cafe, staffed by other former Magical Girls, in an effort to keep her out of trouble. However, trouble insists on finding her. Figures from Farah’s past begin to reappear, including a former teammate, and a former enemy, and the spell that’s supposed to keep innocent bystanders from remembering encounters with Magical Girls stops working, adding an unsuspecting human to the mix. The story is fun, without being cutesy. The world is edged in darkness. Farah’s handler is an alcoholic rabbit creature, and there are hints of tragedy in the Star Guardians’ past, causing their broken friendship. The art is striking, largely black and white with splashes of color, and it accurately capture the feeling of Montreal. I can’t wait to see where the story goes, and I look forward to seeing what else Nicole Chartrand does in the future.

C.S.E. Cooney is an author, poet, singer, performer, a member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, and a World Fantasy Award winner on top of all that. If you’ve ever seen her perform, you’ll understand when I say there’s a good chance she’s actually made of magic. If you haven’t seen her perform, you really owe it to yourself to find a way to do so. There are a good many starting places I could recommend for her work, but I’ve settled on The Big Bah-Ha, a novelette originally published by Drollerie Press, and recently reprinted by Apex Magazine. The Big Bah-Ha feels very much like a fairy tale, a story passed around playgrounds by children about the shape of their world, a legend in the process of being born. Beatrice wakes up dead, a victim of the Flabberghast. Only where she is now that she’s dead isn’t quite clear. She knows she’s left her gang behind – Tex, Diodiance, Granny Two-Shoes, and Sheepdog Sal –  after falling victim to the very creature she’d always warned them about.

And when they asked her why, she’d said, “Well, because he’s a Tall One. Because he appeared in the gravy yard with the other eight after the world ended. Because he’s here to eat the bones, and he’ll eat yours when you go.”

The end of the world is a hard place. The slaprash takes those over a certain age. Kids are left to fend for themselves against monsters, but they look out for each other, too. Even though Beatrice is dead, her gang is determined to parley with the Flabberghast to get her bones back, and perform a proper death rite. Cooney’s prose is lush and evocative, doing much of the worldbuilding just by setting the tone. The Big Bah-Ha simultaneously captures a sense of wonder, and a sense of darkness, underscoring childhood as the terrifying country it can be when everyone is bigger than you, and you don’t get to make the rules. It’s an excellent example of Cooney’s literary voice, and thus an excellent starting place for her work.

Future FireVanessa Fogg is a freelance medical and science writer, as well as being a fiction writer. My recommended starting place for her work is Taiya, published in Future Fire #42. Patrick and Karen have just moved to a foreign country. The country isn’t specified, but all that matters is it isn’t home, and there’s a ghost haunting their new residence. The taiya is a spirit that wails in their garden, whose name literally translates to ‘eaten’. There’s nothing that can be done to appease a taiya; the only thing to do is ignore it, and hope it eventually goes away.

Patrick turns off the water. It’s only then that they hear it: a thin cry at the edge of the world. They stand still, and it rises in pitch, comes close, and moves away—like a train whistle speeding away from them in the night, racing across empty fields. The sadness is nothing human. The sound dies, then rises once more, just once. This time it catches in something like a sob.

Patrick has a new job that keeps him busy and away from home. However, Karen’s former place of employment promised her contract work, but no jobs have come through yet, leaving her at loose ends. She tries to fill her days with language lessons, exploring the new city, meeting with other expats, anything to distract herself from the house and the ghost, but ignoring the taiya is harder than it seems. At its heart, Taiya is a story about loneliness, isolation, and depression. It’s a gut-punch, but one that’s beautifully told. Fogg neatly draws a parallel between a ghost no one can see, and a clinical condition many people misunderstand. The taiya cannot communicate its sadness, just as Karen can’t communicate what she’s going through, even to those closest to her. Depression here is literally an unspeakable disease; there is no way for those on the outside to know what it feels like to inside its grasp. It is not something one can simple ‘get over’, it is not a matter of being sad, or depressed with lower case ‘d’. Being clinically depressed requires medical treatment, and silence and ignoring it will not make it go away. Although Taiya is not a horror story in the traditional sense, there is horror here, and it comes from the way mental illness is too often viewed and treated in our society. Taiya is a powerful story, packs an emotional punch, and is a wonderful starting place for Vanessa Fogg’s work.

Water Into WineJoyce Chng is a prolific author and the co-editor of The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia. My recommended starting place for her work is her latest novella, Water Into Wine. The story begins with Xin inheriting a vineyard on the planet Tertullian VI from their grandfather. They are fresh off a divorce, with three children, and have never given a thought to viticulture before, but they pack up their family, including their mother, and make the move, determined to make the most of their grandfather’s gift and start a new life. They had been living as a man, the main source of tension with their ex-husband, but on Tertullian VI, Xin stops taking hormones. With this new phase in their life, they realize they are neither a man nor a woman, but simply themself. However, just as they begin to build a new life, learning about grapes, bottling and selling wine, and falling into a romance with a man named Galliano who helps tend the fields, war comes to their new planet.  Water Into Wine is a quiet story; the war is omnipresent, but largely happens off screen, with a few notable exceptions. Even so, it’s a driving force, shaping Xin’s family, and teaching them more about themself, their mother, their lover, and their children. There is a rhythm to the language throughout; spare, stripped back sentences contrast with and highlight moments of poetry where Xin describes the wine they are making, or their recurring dreams, born of the trauma of war. There is a satisfying arc for the characters, and by the end, Xin has undoubtedly grown, honed by their experiences into a truer version of themself: I give myself my own pronoun. I am qar. I am me. I am Ping Xin. At its heart, Water Into Wine is a lovely and contemplative story about family, building community, and learning to be yourself, which just happens to be set against a backdrop of war on an alien world. Overall, it’s a wonderful starting place for Joyce Chng’s work.

That does it for October’s Women to Read. I’ll be back in November with more suggestions. In the meantime, feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: September 2017

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. We’re still the heat of August as I write this, which may be why I’m already projecting ahead to fall, October, and Halloween, anticipating cooler weather. By the time this posts, it’ll be September, which means Halloween is really just around the corner, and it’s never too early to start celebrating, right? By coincidence, all four of my recommendations this month are in the Halloween spirit, featuring the otherwordly, ghosts, and things returned from the dead.

Winter TideFirst up, my recommended starting place for Ruthanna Emrys’ work is appropriately enough her debut novel, Winter Tide. She’s also a short fiction author, and a columnist for Tor.com, where she and Anne M. Pillsworth dissect and discuss the works of H.P. Lovecraft, along with other authors playing in his sandbox. Winter Tide is set in the same world as Emrys’ short story, Litany of Earth, both reclaiming Lovecraft, and specifically the people of Innsmouth, and giving them a rich, nuanced, and misunderstood history. Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb are the last surviving children of Innsmouth. When the town was raided years ago, they were put in a camp and forgotten until the location was re-purposed for Japanese internment during the war. As an adult, Aphra lives in San Francisco with her adopted family, the Kotos who took care of Caleb and her in the camp. She works in a rare bookshop with her friend and student, Charlie, who she is instructing in the rituals and rites of her people. Aphra also occasionally works for the government. Her sometimes boss, Ron Spector, calls her back to Innsmouth and Miskatonic to help track down a suspected Russian spy who may be using body switching magic derived from the Yith. Aphra sees it as an opportunity to reunite with her brother, and try to reclaim the books stolen from her people, and now housed at the university. Knowledge of Lovecraft’s works will enrich Winter Tide, but it isn’t strictly necessary. Emrys does an excellent job of giving the reader everything they need to know, peeling back the layers of Lovecraft’s mythos and making it more personal and sympathetic. In doing so, she touches on themes of cultural appropriation and theft, as Innsmouth’s heritage is locked up in libraries and museums, used by those who neither understand it nor respect it, and kept away from its rightful owners. While one of the prevailing themes in many of Lovecraft’s stories is the vast and uncaring nature of the universe, Emrys brings humanity to the race known as the Deep Ones. They aren’t monsters, just another branch of humanity – a fact Aphra asserts throughout the novel, refusing to let herself be othered. In addition to cosmic events, and potential spies, Aphra must also deal with the pressures of being one of the last of her people. Her ancestors who moved below the waves want her to help continue the species, something she isn’t particularly interested in, but feels obligated to consider. While Aphra is an individual, she is also part of a chain of existence, and the weight of its continuation rests with her. In Aphra’s circle, Emrys offers a well-rounded cast of characters, each with their own goals and desires. The world she builds is rich, making Innsmouth feels like a real place with traditions, rituals, and culture that needs to be protected and restored. Winter Tide is an excellent starting place for Emrys’ work, and as a next step there’s another book coming soon continuing Aphra’s story.

Apex MagazineAllison Mills is an author, archivist, librarian, and researcher. My recommended starting place for her work is If a Bird Can Be a Ghost published in Issue 99 of Apex Magazine. Shelly’s grandmother specializes in removing ghosts, catching them in her hair, and helping them to move on. She does most of her work for trade, or the occasional small fee, and she’s been training Shelly as an assistant even though Shelly’s mother doesn’t approve.

Grandma doesn’t get rid of every ghost she comes across. Sometimes ghosts deserve to do their haunting. Sometimes people deserve to be haunted.

“You don’t take ghosts from a graveyard,” Grandma says, braiding Shelly’s hair so she won’t catch any ghosts she doesn’t want. “Not unless they want to go, then you can let them out. Most of those ghosts, they’ll leave if they really want to. Same with churches and temples, sacred places. They deserve to stay.”

When Shelly’s mother dies, she can no longer accept the rules her grandmother taught her. She begins stealing ghosts in an effort to find her mother, wanting just a few more moments with her. Not every dead person becomes a ghost, but even though it seems Shelly’s mother has already moved on, Shelly finds herself unable to let go. It’s a beautiful story exploring family, loss, grief, and love. It packs an emotional punch, while offering moments of lightness and humor as well, and overall, it is an excellent starting place for Mills’ work.

Fiyah 2Eden Royce has been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and a stockbroker, as well as an author whose work spans multiple genres. My recommended starting place for her work is Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment from Fiyah #2. Prosper is a rootworker who uses the healing skills her mother taught her in order to brew tea to bring back the dead. She also saves a little for herself, just enough to ease her pain and extend her life by a few more years so she can keep doing the work that’s needed of her.

Even though most church-going Negroes claimed to be scared of me, saying I wasn’t natural, I eased their minds by returning their kin to them so they could rest on blessed ground. Whispers about me had been going around the city for years, in the parlors and in the paper mills, on the farms and in the ironworks. If you can find your dead, then you better find Miss Prosper next.

Most of those she brings back are lynching victims. Her work isn’t easy or pretty, but it’s important, bringing some small measure of peace to grieving families. A young boy comes to her after the remains of his brother, who had been missing for years, are found. They’re on the land owned by Runnin’ Jack, a notoriously dangerous man who deals in liquor and numbers and who doesn’t take kindly to trespassers. Prosper takes the job regardless of the risk. Jack finds her at her work, attacks her, and she discovers that not only is he a black man passing as white, he’s a serial killer who has been using lynchings and other violence to hide his crimes. Royce packs a lot into a relatively short story, delivering a powerful tale. Even though its set in the past, the story resonates with current events. It’s a story about those who are seen by society at large as disposable, against whom violence is so common that it’s almost expected, and therefore dismissed. For all the pain, there is a hopeful note to the story as well. It shares elements with Mills’ story, in its focus on healing and bringing peace to the dead and those who mourn them. Both stories also deal with community on a certain level as well. Royce’s story underlines how the death of a single person wounds a whole community, but also shows that community fighting back, as friends and neighbors who put their own lives at risk to help each other. It isn’t an easy or comfortable story, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s an excellent story, and a wonderful starting place for Royce’s work.

Six WakesMur Lafferty is a Campbell award winner, twice the winner of the the Manly Wade Wellman Award, and a Hugo finalist for her podcasting work. My recommended starting place for her work is her latest novel, Six Wakes. Maria wakes in the cloning bay of a ship, with dead bodies floating all around her, including her own. The gravity is off, there are clear signs of violence, and something is obviously very wrong. She wakes the other members of the crew, all clones, and even though they should have mindmaps from their previous selves, the last thing each of them remembers is boarding the ship. They soon discover the pilot’s previous clone hanged himself, while the captain’s is still technically alive, but in a coma. To make things even worse, the ship’s AI is unresponsive, and they’re off course. Since none of their cargo of cryogenically frozen colonists are awake, one of them must be the murderer. The basic premise could be likened to cult classics like House on Haunted Hill, and Clue, but instead of a guests invited to a creepy old mansion, clones are invited to serve on a spaceship. Each of them has a criminal past, accepting the job in exchange for wiping their records clean. Lafferty does an excellent job of slowly unfolding each character, and of course they all have secrets and a potential motive. The six wakes of the titles also gives the book its structure – from the waking of the clones, to the waking of the AI, to new knowledge being woken in the characters. The characters are well-rounded, and given new depths as the novel progresses. Lafferty manages to keep the tension high and maintain sense that any one of them really could be the killer. Among the grim circumstances, there are touches of humor, engaging character interactions, and excellent worldbuilding. The novel unfolds is tightly plotted and brilliantly executed, making it a wonderful starting point for Lafferty’s work.

That brings us to the end of September’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations next month when it’s actually Halloween season. In the meantime, please do leave your own recommendations for fantastic women to read in the comments!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: August 2017

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start. Last month, I focused on non-fiction, but this month I’m back to fiction with a mix of short stories, novels, and novellas. Away we go!

Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn has written for comics, has written essays on geek culture scattered across many publications, and her novella One Con Glory is in development as a feature film. My recommended starting place for her work is Heroine Complex, the first book in a trilogy following the adventures of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to superheroine Aveda Jupiter. The novel opens with Evie filming Aveda’s battle against a horde of demons who just happen to have taken the form of cupcakes and are wreaking havoc on a local bakery. With an opening like that, the novel has high potential to be goofy or cheesy, and while  what unfolds from there never loses its sense of fun, Kuhn layers in a serious examination of complex relationships while dismantling several tropes. Aveda and Evie are fiercely devoted to each other at their cores and have been since they were children, bonding over being the only two Asian girls in their kindergarten class, teased by the white kids. However that doesn’t mean their relationship is always perfect – Aveda’s obsession with pleasing her parents and living up to their ideal image of her often leads her to be domineering, bossy, and controlling, while Evie’s fear of her own superpowers lead her to push people away, or lash out at them in anger. The story explores female friendship, lust, family relationships, insecurity, and the desire for parental approval. While many of the characters present as stereotypes at first (e.g. the means girls, the tomboy, etc.) Kuhn peels back the layers of each character over the course of the novel to refute those stereotypes. The storytelling is slick and fast-paced, and as mentioned, never loses its sense of fun. For example, one of the epic showdowns with the villain takes the form of a karaoke battle. It’s not a typical superhero story, though it does hit some of the familiar beats – the hero/villain dynamic, the superhero support team, and a character coming into their powers. Kuhn puts her own spin on things though, and always keeps her characters at the story’s heart. The relationships in Evie’s life are the prime driver for everything that occurs – her loyaty to Aveda, her burgeoning lust for Nathaniel, her efforts to keep her sister Bea safe and give her a normal life, and her alienation from her father. Even Evie and Aveda’s relationship with the villain is important, playing with the idea of women cutting each other down because there’s only room for so many women in the world. There’s action, humor, sex, and genuinely touching emotional beats between the characters, and they all blend smoothly to make a wonderful whole. The sequel, Heroine Worship, was just released, and I look forward to reading it.

A Question of FaithTonya Liburd is an author and the Associate Editor at Abyss & Apex. My recommended starting point for her work is A Question of Faith published at The Book Smugglers. Ceke works in the Temple of Ra, researching the connection between the human mind and the concept of divinity. Her primary subject is a young man named Wahibra who was abandoned on the temple doorstep as a child. Wahibra is uniquely talented, manifesting psychoacoustic phenomena through singing, and Ceke believes he may be the key to unlocking higher planes of consciousness and essentially transcending humanity. Just as Wahibra begins to manifest some unusual results during his tests, he goes missing. Meanwhile, Ceke’s co-wife and co-worker, Ngware, is home on maternity leave getting ready to have their first child. Ceke has fears and doubts about raising a child. She wants to be there for Ngware, especially with the extra medical risks associated with child coming from two eggs and no sperm, but she can’t abandon work. Things become even more complicated when rumors begin to circulate of Wahibra performing miracles and attacking people. Ngware vanishes as well, and Ceke knows Wahibra is involved. She tracks him down, discovering he’s become something more than human and can’t control the divinity inside him, and she must help him fight it off in order to save her wife and unborn child. Liburd explores science and faith on multiple levels throughout the story. Ceke must learn to have faith in her relationship with Ngware and in the future of their child. This is paralleled with the idea of humans ascending to divinity and attaining godlike powers, questioning whether divinity is an external force or something that comes from within. The same parallels exist with the science in the story – the medical advances allowing Ceke and Ngware to have a child together, and the science elevating human consciousness and transforming the understanding of religion. Both big picture questions are also happening on a small scale, affecting very intimate and personal things within Ceke’s life, and Liburd blends them together seamlessly. A Question of Faith is an excellent story and an excellent starting place for Liburd’s work.

K.T. Bryski is an author, playwright, fellow Canadian (woot!), and a person who is extremely knowledgeable about beer. My recommended starting place for her work is La Corriveau, which is currently a finalist for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. The story centers around the legend of La Corriveau aka Marie-Josephte Corriveau, whose second husband died under suspicious circumstances, resulting in both Marie-Josephte and her father being accused of murder. Legends grew around her until it was rumored that she married and murdered seven husbands and practiced witchcraft. Bryski’s story attempts to reclaim Marie-Josephte from history, making her into a real woman with hopes and dreams. Marie-Josphte was ultimately found guilty of murder, hanged, and her body displayed in an iron cage post mortem. While some question remains as to Marie-Josephte’s guilt as a historical figure, Bryski offers up a sympathetic portrait of an innocent young woman married at age sixteen, learning to love her husband, losing him to war, and being forced to remarry an abusive man in order to support her children. Marie-Josephte’s hope for the future is palpable, and her loss  is crushing. The story underlines the relative powerlessness of women during Marie-Josephte’s time, as well as the power of history to write people out of existence. This is especially true of women and other marginalized people who were rarely the ones writing the official history, making it easier for their stories to vanish under sensationalism, convenient lies, and outright slander. Whatever the truth of La Corriveau’s life, this fictionalized version is a lovely and painful story, and worthy starting place for Bryski’s work.

River of TeethSarah Gailey is an author, a columnist for Tor.com and Barnes and Noble’s Sci Fi Blog, and a 2017 Campbell and Hugo Award finalist. My recommended starting place for her work is her debut novella, River of Teeth. The novella posits an alternate history where the US Government’s plan to farm hippos for meat actually came to pass. Set in the 1890s in Louisiana, the story follows Winslow Remmington Houndstooth as he assembles a band of outlaws and mercenaries to rid the bayou of the feral hippos that have overrun it and are interfering with trade. His team includes Regina Archambault aka Archie, a con artist and pickpocket, Hero Shackleby, an expert in explosives and poison, Cal Hotchkiss, the fastest gun in the west (or the world, if you ask him), Adelia Reyes, a deadly assassin, and, of course, their hippos. The first half of the novella sees Houndstooth building his crew, a familiar scenario, but one that is elevated beyond the ordinary but Gailey’s exquisite worldbuilding and wonderful characters. The world feels real and lived in, and her characters are people you want to spend time with, even though you’d have to constantly watch your back and your wallet.  Gailey gives each character a history, and many of them a history with each other, and these histories and unique personalities drive the story. The hippos have unique personalities in their own right, and they are every bit as much central characters in the story as the humans. The writing is smooth and sharp, highly visual and cinematic while not neglecting the other senses, and by turns fun, violent, emotional, and action-filled. The sequel Taste of Marrow, is out in September, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. While I am recommending River of Teeth as a starting point for Gailey’s work, I’d highly recommend her Tor.com and Barnes and Noble essays as well. They’re insightful, and in the case of her Women of Harry Potter Series, pack an emotional punch. Basically, seek out her work and give it a read!

That wraps up another Women to Read: Where to Start. Because one can never have too many things to read, I’d love your suggestions for your favorite female authors and a good starting point for their work. Fire away in the comments, and happy reading!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: July 2017

Welcome to July’s Women to Read: Where to Start. One of my reading goals in recent years has been to read more non-fiction, so it seemed only appropriate to put together a Women to Read column focusing on just that very thing. Here we go!

Tracy Beach is a Colorado author, and my recommended starting place for her work is My Life as a Whore: The Biography of Madam Laura Evens 1871-1953. I picked this book up on a whim while visiting Colorado. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of colorful local history? This book certainly doesn’t disappoint. Beach writes in a very engaging style, often using dialog provided by Laura herself from a series of interviews conducted by another local historian, Fred Mazzulla, before Laura died. She also builds the story from her own interviews conducted with those who knew Laura, and a wealth of primary sources including letters, diaries, and photographs kept by Evens’ family. Laura Evens was very firm about calling herself a whore, dismissing euphemisms such as “soiled dove” or “lady of the evening”. Beach honors that with the title of her book, and invites readers to meet Laura, a headstrong,  funny, caring woman with an occasionally violent temper, who was not opposed to a bit of mischief and chaos. Beach chronicles Laura’s journey from her choice to leave her husband and become a whore, to her purchasing her own parlor house and becoming a Madam. Had Laura been alive in the age of internet memes, I suspect she would have made liberal use of “Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it, and see that it is barren”, and variations thereupon. The book paints a fascinating portrait of the lives whores lived in Salida at the time, from the auditions to earn them a place in the houses, to their lodgings, and the way they spent their spare time. Laura was careful with her money, and was able to afford a certain degree of luxury for herself. She was also generous, buying the local school football team brand new uniforms. Her savings allowed her to purchase her own house, and become her own boss. She spent her life refusing to back down, and refusing to apologize to anyone. She wasn’t above throwing a punch if she felt a man was disrespecting her, and she wasn’t above causing property damage in the name of fun. One particularly charming (or possibly horrifying depending on your perspective) incident recounts how she brought her horse, Charlie, into a bar at the Ice Palace set up for a winter fair, and the ensuing chaos he caused when he spooked and kicked over a four foot tall ice display. It’s a fun book, and an enlightening one. It shows the humor and joy Laura found in aspects of her life, but doesn’t shy away from the hardships either. Overall, it’s a fascinating look at a slice of history, and a worthy starting place for Beach’s work.

A New Orleans Voudou PriestessA New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau is another book I picked up on a whim, and it’s my recommended starting point for Carolyn Morrow Long, who specializes in books dealing with religion, spirituality, and the history of New Orleans. In contrast with Tracy Beach’s writing, Long’s accounting of the life of Marie Laveau is often very dry. Rather than a narrative style, her writing reveals her research process, presenting legends and rumors about the famed Voudou Queen, and laying out the meticulously-researched evidence to support or refute those stories. Reading through the book is almost like watching a detective at work, as Long digs through old birth records, baptism certificates, marriage announcements, property records, newspaper articles, and more. Like Beach, Long refers to interviews with those connected to Marie Laveau, and does her best to reconstruct a life largely lost to myth and sensationalism. The ultimate conclusion of Long’s research is that some details may forever be unknown. One of the most fascinating things about the book is that it reveals how easily truth can be lost under layers of imperfect memory and incomplete record keeping. The amount Long is able to reconstruct is amazing when you see her sources and methods laid out. During Laveau’s time in New Orleans, everyone seemed to be known by at least ten different names, and the spelling of those names was highly inconsistent. Long’s dry style actually helps in reclaiming Laveau from the sensational legends that have grown up around her since her death, and even within her own lifetime. Long reminds us that there was a real woman behind the stories, one with a family and deep ties to her community. Long also gives readers a glimpse into the unique history of New Orleans, its racial politics, and its blend and clash of cultures. The thoroughness of Long’s research and the precise way she lays it out makes this an excellent starting place for her work, and has me wanting to read her other titles.2424

Sticking with the theme of books picked up on a whim that illuminate some aspect of local history, my recommended starting point for Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work is Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Today, Dr. Thomas Mütter is best known for the Philadelphia museum that bears his name, a museum of medical oddities containing anatomical casts, skeletons, medical instruments, and jars full of specimens. Rather than typical medical specimens, the collection focuses on unusual cases, and includes a plaster cast of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, the tallest skeleton on view in North America, and “the soap lady”, the exhumed remains of a woman encased in adipocere, a fatty substance formed in rare cases under certain burial conditions. Like Beach, Aptowicz writes in a very engaging and easy to read narrative style. Far more than a collector of unique medical specimens, Aptowicz reveals Mütter as a deeply compassionate and highly innovative man. He pioneered delicate facial reconstruction surgery in North America, using techniques learned in Europe, and giving new hope to those who injuries and birth defects were considered un-treatable by most surgeons at the time. He was also a fierce advocate for many things we take for granted today – anesthesia, basic hygiene in the operating room, including the revolutionary idea that doctors should wash their hands in-between treating patients, after-care and recovery rooms, and working closely with patients at every stage of their surgery, before, during, and after so that they understood the process. The book is as much the story of early medicine in North America, and particularly Philadelphia. It is occasionally horrifying, but always fascinating, showing how the pioneers of modern medicine shaped hospitals, surgical facilities, and even medical schools. Due to the subject matter, it’s not a book for the squeamish, but it is an excellent and informative read, and a wonderful starting place for Aptowicz’s work.

Natalie Luhrs is a writer, reviewer, editor, and finalist for this year’s Hugo Award in the Best Fan Writer category. She is co-founder and co-editor of The Bias, and her reviews and essays are thoughtful, informative, and well-researched. My recommended starting place for Luhrs’ work is her essay, Failures of Empathy, which perfectly captures the type of issues she writes about, and her style. The essay opens with an incident on twitter, where a writer brought up an issue with their copy editor, and another writer called them out for being unprofessional and threatened them with a “blacklist” that would damage their career. Luhrs uses this as a starting point to talk about larger issues of privilege, marginalized voices – who is publicly chastised or threatened for their actions and who is not – and the idea of empathy as a whole. She relates the situation to topics discusses in Daniel Goleman’s Focus, which outlines three types of empathy, along with how empathy relates to wealth. Within the SFF community (as a microcosm of society as a whole) there are imbalances of power. Luhrs outlines how imbalances of power can create the same gap in empathy that Goleman describes. It’s an excellent essay, taking a relevant, current situation and placing it in a larger context. This is something Luhrs frequently does in her essays, which is why I recommend it as a starting point. I also highly recommend her reviews, her essays at The Bias, Uncanny, and elsewhere, and her excellent weekly links curation posts. What I’m saying is – follow Luhrs and read her work wherever you find it.

That wraps up my non-fiction edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’ll be back with more fiction recommendations next month, but in the meantime, I’d love to see your recommendations for non-fiction books and essays by women in the comments.

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Women to Read: Where to Start: June 2017

What’s that? June is almost over, you say? Well, better late than never. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

My Favorite Thing is MonstersEmil Ferris is a writer, cartoonist, and designer, and appropriately enough, my recommended starting place for her work is her debut publication, My Favorite Thing is Monsters. First off, the book is eye-catching and gorgeous. It’s designed to look like a ruled notebook, illustrated and narrated by the main character, Karen Reyes. The story starts with a dream, Karen transforming into a werewolf and being hunted by an angry mob. When she wakes, her appearance doesn’t change; Karen sees herself as a werewolf. The mob is what frightens her, not the idea of becoming a “monster”, and that tells you much of what you need to know about Karen. From there, Ferris introduces the people in Karen’s life in an ever-widening circle: her mother, her brother Deeze, the neighbors in her building – Mr. and Mrs. Silverberg, Mr. and Mrs. Gronan, and Mr. Chugg and his ventriloquist dummies. The city of Chicago in the 1960s is a character, too, sometimes filthy, sometimes beautiful, but always teeming with life. When Karen’s upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, is murdered, Karen sets out to solve the case, a werewolf detective on the prowl, hunting down clues and learning truths about herself and the people around her along the way. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a massive book; its pages are jam-packed, but it never feels too crowded. It’s the kind of book that rewards re-reading, with nods and winks hidden within its pages, and bits of information dropped early that circle back later. Along with a story that grows in complexity, emotion, and darkness as new layers are added and peeled away to reveal its secret heart, the book is also a love letter. It’s a love letter to a city, to classic works of art, and to horror pulps and monster movies. Karen frequently sees the world around her in terms of artistic masterpieces, referencing everything from Peter Blume’s “The Rock” to Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”. The sections of the book are divided up by Karen’s recreation of horror pulp magazine covers that pay homage to real world publications like Weird Tales, Horror Stories, and Spicy Detective. My Favorite Thing is Monsters also weaves in themes of friendship, family, growing up, race, gender, sexuality, love, loss, the ghosts of the past, and so much more. It’s a fantastic book, and I can’t wait to see what Ferris does next.

Forgotten BeastsNext up, my recommended starting place for Patricia A. McKillip’s work is The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. McKillip is a master of the fantasy genre, a multiple award winner and nominee, and has a huge catalog of novels and short stories to recommend. However, I’m picking The Forgotten Beasts of Eld because it feels like the sort of book that has always existed, a timeless myth or fairy tale. The novel tells the story of Sybel, a powerful wizard who lives apart from society, surrounded by her magical animal companions. She needs nothing and no one, except for her ongoing quest for the Liralen, a mystical white bird. Her life is complicated when a soldier shows up at her gate carrying a baby, a royal heir who needs to be protected and hidden. At first Sybel refuses, but eventually she relents and comes to love Tamlorn. Despite her attempts to remove herself, and by extension Tamlorn, from the world at large, Sybel finds the world determined to encroach on her. There are factions fighting for power, making and breaking alliances around her, and it is impossible not to get caught up in their war. Those around her want to use her, Tamlorn, and her beasts for their own ends, seeing her as a prize, and a pawn in their game. What’s most striking about Sybel is that she’s allowed to be frightened and overcome at times, and cold and hard as iron at others. She is relentless when she needs to be, uncompromising and even cruel to those around her. She uses those who would use her, and never wavers from her purpose, even when it threatens to cost her those she loves. It’s a role usually denied to women, unless they are cast as utterly heartless “wicked queens”. But Sybel is complex – powerful and calculating, but never losing her ability to love; fiercely devoted to her family, but willing to put her goals above others; unapologetic for her choices, but longing to be accepted and forgiven. On top of a fascinating and rounded character in Sybel, McKillip also offers up gorgeous prose and a timeless fairy tale feel in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, making this an excellent starting place for her work.

Wicked WondersLast (for now), but not least, my recommended starting place for Ellen Klages’ work is Singing on a Star, a World Fantasy Award finalist originally appearing in Firebird Soaring, and included in her new collection, Wicked Wonders. In fact, it’s tempting to recommend the whole collection as a starting point, since many themes echo across the stories  – childhood, friendship, loss, and magic. Singing on a Star encapsulates all of these themes, which is why I’m choosing it as my starting point. Becka is attending her first sleepover, staying at her friend Jamie’s house down the street. Upon arrival, Jamie puts on a record and drags Becka toward her closet, saying they have to go before the song ends so they can “see Hollis”. The closet becomes an elevator, transporting them to another world, one of neon and streetcars and somewhat seedy hotels. One of those hotels is the Farlingten, and that’s where Hollis works. He gives the girls money for candy bars, a kind Becka has never seen before, and takes them to the roof to watch the trains below. It’s electric and thrilling and a little bit scary. Becka feels out of her depth, lost, but enticed at the same time, and it’s over all too soon. Singing on a Star is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s stories, capturing that perfect point of childhood where the world is magical, and anything is possible, but with an underlying dread and darkness, as well. A sense of threat, of wrongness, hangs over the tale. Soon after their sleepover, Becka’s mother stops just short of telling Becka that Jamie has disappeared. Whether she’s vanished into the other world, or whether someone very real has taken her is left up to the reader to decide. Whatever Jamie’s fate, in all likeliness, it isn’t good. After all, every child knows bad things happen when you take candy from strangers.

That’s it for this belated and somewhat shortened edition of Women to Read. As always, I hope you’ll leave your own recommendations in the comments, and I’ll be back with more suggestions of my own next month. Happy reading!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women to Read: Where to Start: April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women to Read: Where to Start: March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women to Read: Where to Start: February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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