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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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Women to Read: What’s Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women to Read: New Voices

Time and time again, we hear: “Women don’t read science fiction. Women don’t write science fiction.” We all know that’s bullshit. Time and time again, this cry is answered with examples to prove the statement wrong. Unfortunately, the same examples tend to be trotted out each time: Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Mary Shelley, Anne McCaffrey, and Shirley Jackson. There’s nothing wrong with these examples. They’re perfectly fine examples, and I’ve even used some of them myself in my Women to Read series, both here and at SF Signal. But what about the new voices in speculative fiction? The Shirley Jacksons of tomorrow? The names we’ll be pointing to in ten, twenty, thirty years, when the same damned question rears its head again?

So, calling on the power of the internet hivemind, I asked for examples of women who made their first speculative fiction sale (pro or otherwise) within the last two years or so. And lo! The internet delivered onto me a glorious list of names, which I’m delighted to share with you. Some names from the list will be elaborated upon in at least one, if not more, Women to Read post at SF Signal in the future.

I’ve done my best to track down links where available for author websites and first publications. If you see any glaring errors, feel free to let me know. If you have additions to the list, let me know that, too.

So, without further ado, I present the Epic List of Mighty New Voices in Speculative Fiction:

Corrected! Ada Hoffmann has informed me her first paid sale was The Chartreuse Monster, which appeared in Expanded Horizons in 2010. However, I will still recommend Harmony Among the Stars, which appeared in Future Lovecraft in 2011. And I will continue with my editorial crowing and recommend Ada’s Centipede Girl was published in Issue #2 of the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, also in 2011, and reprinted in Imaginarium 2012 The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. Go, Ada!

Alena McNamara‘s first story Large as Alone appeared in Crossed Genres this year.

Corrected! Allyson Shaw has a website, which is primarily devoted to her lovely handmade jewelry. Her first story The Wintering Party appeared in Witness Magazine in 2011.

Anaea Lay‘s first story On Moonlit Wings appeared in the June 2012 Issue of Penumbra

Andrea G. Stewart was the 3rd Quarter Finalist in the The Writer’s of the Future Contest last year, and her winning story will be included in an upcoming WOTF anthology.

A.T. Greenblatt‘s first story, Tell Them of the Sky was published in Daily Science Fiction in July 2013.

Benjanun Sriduagkaew‘s first story appeared in The Future Fire in 2012, Courtship in the Country of the Machine Gods.

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam‘s first publication, They Come in Through the Walls appeared in Expanded Horizons in 2012.

Brit Mandelo started at the top, with her first story Though Smoke Shall Hide the Sun appearing at Tor.com in 2011. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she followed that up with another story at Tor.com in 2012, The Finite Canvas, which was a 2012 Nebula Nominee.

Brooke Bolander‘s first paid sale was actually in 2008, with Trickster Blues in Reflection’s Edge, though her next sale and also her first pro sale Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring appeared in Lightspeed in 2012.

Newly added 8/12: Brooke Wonders‘ first short story, Substitution, appeared in Daily Science Fiction in 2011. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, who recommended Brooke’s addition to this list, highly recommends Brooke’s 2012 story, Everything Must Go, originally published at Clarkesworld, and reprinted in the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2013.

Carlie St. George‘s first published story, Expiration Date, was part of Weird Tales’ One Minute Weird Tales Series in 2011. I’m not sure whether One Minute Weird Tales were paid or for the love, so I’ll also point toward the excellent This Villain You Must Create, which appeared in Lightspeed this year.

Carmen Maria Machado was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Award for New Writer’s in 2011. She’s been nominated for various awards since, but it’s not clear (to me at least), which of her stories was her first paid publication. That being the case, I’ll go with Inventory, which appeared in Strange Horizons in January 2013.

Newly added 8/12: Claire Corbett ‘s first novel, When We Have Wings, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2011. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jeffries Award and the Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Fiction. The first chapter is available as a free download on Claire’s website.

Eve Shi‘s first novel, Aku Tahu Kamu Hantu (I Know You’re a Ghost) was published earlier this year by Gagas Media in Indonesia.

Fran Wilde‘s first speculative fiction story, Everlasting appeared in Daily Science Fiction in 2011. If I remember correctly (never a sure bet with me), the first time I met Fran, she’s just made the sale. Poke into my archives, and you’ll see I highlighted Fran’s work as part of my first ever Women to Read post on this blog.

Hao Jingfang seems to have a story translated by Ken Liu forthcoming from Lightspeed, but I’m unclear whether it’s her first. Still, I’ll be keeping an eye on Lightspeed, and look forward to reading it when it comes out.

J.A. Grier has seen numerous speculative poems published recently, but I believe the first was A Zombie Anthem in Eye to the Telescope Magazine.

Jennifer Mason-Black‘s first story, Snowfall, appeared in Daily Science Fiction in 2011.

I don’t believe she has a website, but Jessica Barber’s first story, MonitorBot and the King of Pop, appeared in Strange Horizons in 2012, and I believe she was work forthcoming from Lightspeed as well.

Jessica Hilt also appears to be without a website, but her first story Kill Me Again was published in Bourbon Penn in 2012.

Jessica Meigs‘s first novel The Becoming: Book One was published in 2011.

The first book in Jill Braden‘s The Devil of Ponong Series, The Devil’s Concubine, was published in May 2013.

Joyce Chng‘s first published story, A Matter of Possession appeared in Crossed Genres in 2010.

Kali Wallace‘s first story Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2011. But just so you aren’t left without a link, her story The Liberators appeared in The Weird Fiction Review in 2012.

Karin Tidbeck‘s Augusta Prima appeared in Weird Tales in 2011, but again, for something to link to, I give you Drabblecast’s audio version of Jagannath, the title story in Karin’s recently published short story collection.

Corrected! Kat Howard‘s first published story was a Life in Fictions, which appeared in the anthology Stories. For something you can read immediately, I recommend Breaking the Frame, which appeared in Lightspeed in 2012.

Katie Young‘s first novel, The Other Lamb, is forthcoming from Musa Publishing later this year.

Kelly Lagor is another one who started at the top, selling her first story, How to Make a Triffid, to Tor.com, where it was published in 2012. Now, a small editorial plug, if you’ll pardon my boldness: Kelly’s story, the Tower is forthcoming in The Journal of Unlikely Architecture later this month, so keep an eye out for it!

Laura Friis doesn’t appear to have a website, but her story Ushakiran appeared in Lightspeed in July 2013.

Lauren C. Teffeau‘s first publication, Summer in Exile, appeared in Electric Flash in 2011.

L.B. Gale‘s first story, Spindles, was published in Lightspeed in 2012.

Leah Thomas doesn’t appear to have a website, but her first short story, Shards, appeared in Daily Science Fiction in 2011.

Liana Brooks‘novella Even Heroes and Villains Fall in Love was published in 2012.

Luna Lindsey brings me to another editorial brag. I’m trying to keep them to a minimum, I promise. Her first paid sale was Let the Bugs Work Themselves Out to the Journal of Unlikely Entomology’s ‘hello world’ mini-issue in August 2012.

Mandy DeGeit‘s first story appeared in Cavalcade of Terror in 2012, and now said story, She Makes Me Smile, is available for purchase as a standalone piece at Amazon and Smashwords.

Margret Helgadottir‘s short story, Nora, won Fox Spirit Books’ International Talk Like a Pirate Day story competition in 2012, and was reprinted in June 2013 in their Piracy anthology. For something you can read immediately, I recommend The Rescue, which appeared in Luna Station Quarterly earlier this year.

I’m not entirely sure which of Misa Buckley‘s publications came first, but Out of This World: Three Romances, Three Unlikely Heroes was published in May 2013.

Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas‘s first published story, Ahuizotl, appeared in Historical Lovecraft in 2011.

Pippa Jay‘s first novel, Keir was published in 2012.

Rachel Verkade doesn’t appear to have a website, but her first story is Blood and Ivory, which appeared in On the Premises in 2011.

Ray Whitter‘s first sale was to Wily Writers with The Comet Rider in 2012.

Shaenon Garrity‘s first story, Prison Knife Fight, was published in the anthology Machine of Death in 2010, and is available as a podcast on the anthology’s website.

Sarah Grey doesn’t appear to have a website, but her story The Ballad of Marisol Brook appeared at Lightspeed in June 2013.

Sarah Pinsker‘s first sale was Broken Stones to Every Day Fiction in 2012.

Sofia Samatar‘s first poetry sale was The Sand Diviner, which appeared in Stone Telling in 2011. Her first prose sale was The Nazir, published by Ideomancer in 2012.

Sophie Werely‘s first story, Ansa and the Lost Thing, appeared in Daily Science Fiction in 2012.

I’m not sure if it’s her first, but Tami Veldura‘s novella Closer Than Touch was published by Less Than Three Press in 2012.

Tamsyn Muir doesn’t appear to have a website, but I believe her first published story is The House That Made Sixteen Loops of Time, which appeared in Fantasy Magazine in 2011.

Theresa Bazelli‘s first story, Nine Nights, appeared in Innsmouth Free Press’ anthology Candle in the Attic Window in 2011.

Yukumi Ogawa doesn’t appear to have a website, but as far as I can tell, her first published story is Town’s End, which appeared in Strange Horizons this year.

Zoe Goodacre‘s first publication, Is the Cloud Safe, is part of the 100 Words into the Future micro fiction series at Forbes.

A few additional authors were suggested, but they all seem to have fairly steady publishing histories going back farther than my arbitrary past two years(ish) point, but their works are still well-worth seeking out:

Jennifer R. Povey

Phillipa Ballentine

Sarena Ulibarri

Sunny Moraine (who has appeared in the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and who I’ve had the honor of sharing several ToCs with.)

So there you have it! A massive, epic, wonderful list of new voices in speculative fiction. Read their works, spread the word, and recommend additional names so the list can continue to evolve and grow. I expect to continue seeing wonderful works by all of these women in the future.

Thank you to everyone who gave me suggestions to help me build this list. Hopefully I didn’t miss anyone. I’d also like to applaud Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Tor.com for regularly publishing new and upcoming writers.

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Women to Read: Where to Start Part 2

Women in Genre Month is over, but there are still several fabulous folks I want to highlight. So, as promised – and better late than never – I present part 2 of my list of women whose work I recommend seeking out, and a starting point (or two) to get you, er, started.

Fran Wilde : She connects authors with authors, and authors with readers, while illuminating an often overlooked aspect of worldbuilding through her fantastic Cooking the Books series of interviews: food. We all eat it, many of us love it, but we often take it for granted. Fran’s series of interviews focusing on food in SF/F/H has opened my eyes, and made me look at many works in a new way. For that reason, I recommend starting at her blog, looking up every interview she’s conducted, then proceeding from there to read all her other entries. Once you’re done with that, seek out her story Without in Nature’s Futures series, then keep your eyes peeled because her name will be everywhere soon.

Damien Walters Grintalis: Here is yet another author where I had trouble picking just one story to recommend as a starting point. There are so many works to choose from, all brilliant, and like so many authors on my list, she is just everywhere recently. But since I have to pick something, I’ll go with Dysphonia in D Minor, a story dripping with rich and gorgeous language, and urge you to seek out her other work from there.

Ekaterina Sedia: Another author who likely needs no introduction. I could point to any number of her works as a valid staring point, but I’ll go with The House of Discarded Dreams, a beautiful, hallucinatory novel that managed to simultaneously take me by surprise with its power and solidify my love of the author’s writing.

Maria Dahvana Headley: I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I only discovered her work last year. However one story convinced me to seek out everything she’s written, and that is Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream. Like other works on my list, it hits so many of my fictional sweet spots and it is beautifully written. I couldn’t help but love it.

Elizabeth Bear : Once again, an author who needs no introduction. She’s so prolific, I’m convinced she doesn’t sleep. In terms of a starting point, I can’t help recommending the place I started – Blood and Iron. I stumbled across a review, was intrigued, sought out the book, and it delivered so much more than promised. I was smitten in an instant, subsumed by the use of language, and Elizabeth Bear earned herself a permanent spot on my must-read list from that moment on.

Nnedi Okorafor:  At every turn I found praise for Who Fears Death, which is the novel I recommend as a starting point for her work. It was one of those books that upon finishing it, I despaired over the fact I would never write anything that powerful or important, but rejoiced that such a novel existed in the world. All the praise heaped on it is deserved.

Bogi Takacs: Is another emerging name in fiction – one I strongly suspect you will soon be seeing everywhere. Even so, it’s her non-fiction reviews that first came to my attention, and so I’ll recommend her blog as a starting point. She focuses on under-represented voices in genre fiction, and consistently opens the way for valuable dialogue on racism, sexism, ableism, and other topics in need of discussion.

Genevieve Valentine: Here is another author whose work I picked up after seeing praise for  it at every turn, and where every bit of that praise is deserved. I point you to Mechanique, a novel that swept me away, made me despair of my own writing (again), made me fall in love, and made me hunger for more, in all the best ways.

Livia Llewellyn: I cannot recommend highly enough her short story collection Engines of Desire. And I can’t pick just one story from it to recommend as a starting point. The collection is dark and brutal and brilliant and unflinching. Just go read it, and you’ll understand.

Kelly Link: Her stories are shapeshifters. Every time I re-read one of her works, I question whether I’ve really read it before, or whether I just think I have. It’s rare these days to find an author whose mastered the short story genre, and gained recognition for it without novel to their name. I admire Kelly Link for that, and for her ability to fold a multiplicity of stories into every single story she writes.  As a starting point, I recommend her collection Stranger Things Happen, so you can get a fine sample of what she’s capable of doing.

This is still just a fraction of the incredible work out there. There may be another post coming, but in case I get distracted by something shiny, here are more women you should be reading: Mari Ness, Tori Truslow, Camille Alexa, Rachel Swirsky, Liz Argall, Aliette de Bodard, Nalo Hopkinson, Nicole Cipri, Desirina Boskovich, Cat Rambo, Megan Arkenberg, Kit Reed, Ada Hoffmann, Erin Morgenstern, Lauren Groff, Kelly Eskridge, and Kij Johnson.

There are so many others, and my brain is sadly inadequate to the task of doing them all justice. So now it’s your turn. Introduce me to someone whose work you love, and tell me where to start reading.

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Women to Read: Where to Start

Last week, Kari Sperring launched a wonderful campaign to promote women in the sf/f/h genre(s). This got me thinking about the women I love to read, and what I would recommend as a starting point for people who have never read their work. This is by no means a comprehensive list, a logically organized one, or one with really any kind of rhyme or reason (though I occasionally try to ascribe one). This is simply a list of women in the genre whose work I admire, along with a suggested starting point for discovering their work. Some are established, some are just starting to make a name for themselves. Hopefully folks stumbling across this list will discover something new to love – an author, an editor, a novel, or a story. And hopefully they’ll go on to share that new-found love with the world.

Catherynne M. Valente: There are probably very few people at this point who haven’t read any of her work. She’s insanely prolific and multi-award-winning/nominated at this point. Still, if you haven’t read her work and are looking for a place to start, I recommend The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Why? Not only is the title awesome, but it’s a gorgeously written book for young readers (which can be appreciated by readers of any age) with a female protagonist, which never talks down to its audience.

Ysabeau Wilce: Another established author, but possibly not as well-recognized as Cat Valente. I would recommend starting with Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Why? Pretty much ditto all those things I said about Valente’s Fairyland series – defying gender stereotypes, never talking down to its audience, delicious use of language, and a kickass title.

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