Welcome to my website!

This is the official website of writer Victoria Janssen, author of A Place of Refuge, three science fiction hopepunk novellas following three former guerillas who’ve escaped to a utopian planet after losing their fight against a fascist empire. They’re figuring out how to live a life that’s not focused on the constant fear of death, with the aid of pastries, therapy, and other people.

You can also find these novellas at Goodreads, StoryGraph, and LibraryThing.

Twitter. cohost. Email: victoriajanssen [at] yahoo [dot] com.

You’ll find website navigation at the top of this page. Scroll down this page for blog posts, or if you’re looking for a particular post, use the search functions to the right.

I hope you enjoy your visit!

Last update: 1 November 2022.

Posted in writing | Comments Off on Welcome to my website!

#TBRChallenge 2022

This year, I’ll again be participating in the TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian. My goal is to post reviews of a themed book on the third Wednesday of every month. Feel free to join me! Tag your social media posts with #TBRChallenge. The monthly themes, and my choices to fit those themes, are listed below. All of the books are from my To Be Read shelves (physical and virtual) as of December, 2021.

January 19 – Quickie
Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories by Megan Whalen Turner.

February 16 – Fairy Tale
Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise.

March 16 – Grumpy
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki.

April 20 – Location, Location, Location
A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney.

May 18 – Tales of Old
Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

June 15 – After the War
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson.

July 20 – Vintage
Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

August 17 – Blue Collar
Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart.

September 21 – Animals
Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape.

October 19 – Flirting with Danger
Exile by Lisa Bradley.

November 16 – Lies
The Conductors by Nicole Glover.

December 21 – Festive
Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.

Posted in reading | Tagged | Comments Off on #TBRChallenge 2022

#TBRChallenge – Lies: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

I chose The Conductors by Nicole Glover for the “Lies” theme because it’s a murder mystery. However, it turned out to fit the theme in other ways as well: many of the suspects rewrote themselves and their lives to some extent after being freed from enslavement or moving up in the social order, meaning the investigators must constantly re-evaluate what they know and think they know. In addition, the protagonist Hetty Rhodes is a storyteller, and her thoughts about stories are relevant to the stories she and her husband Benjy are told about the murders.

“Where do you think my stories come from?”

“You heard them in the quarters and at your mother’s side as you shelled peas. You collected them from old aunties and uncles with more dreams than memories of African kingdoms. And most of all, you gathered them from the fancies of others wanting nothing more than to pass the time.”

“That’s one part,” Hetty murmured, “and it’s a very small part. A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new. They aren’t the books you love so much. Stories change with the tellers.”

The Conductors is historical fantasy set soon after the American Civil War; the protagonists are formerly enslaved people who now work as amateur detectives in Philadelphia, among the Black community there. Magic is common, but in this world’s version of Jim Crow laws, people of color are forbidden from learning or using certain methods of using magic, for instance the use of wooden wands. Before Emancipation, enslaved people with magic were used by their enslavers and kept in check via the use of punishing collars that inhibited their abilities, not all that different from limitations imposed upon enslaved people and their talents in our world.

The details of the magic systems, wands versus nature and stars, were well thought out, both complex and thematically meaningful. The plot flowed very quickly. The murder mystery begins with a body found in an alley. Hetty and Benjy realize they have to search among their friends and acquaintances for the truth, and along the way they uncover more than they’d imagined. I won’t spoil the mystery here; I did guess the guilty party eventually, but not until close to the end. For me, guessing the murderer has nothing to do with how much I enjoy the journey!

The thing I wanted more of was a sense of place. I live in Philadelphia, and have some knowledge of the historical community depicted in the book, at least the real world version. I used to live in that area of the city and regularly read the historic markers. I had been hoping for a lot more sensory detail and specificity about locations and institutions; instead, the setting felt very bland, a background but not a character in itself, if that makes sense. For example, I am pretty sure the church and cemetery that figure into the plot were created for the book, which is fine, but felt very neutral; when real locations are mentioned, there isn’t a lot of detail. Obviously, the setting of this book is an alternate universe, so the Philadelphia with people using magic is not the same as the one I live in. But I would have liked to see the Black history of my city celebrated to a greater extent. This might have been a conscious choice to separate the story from real people and their lives, of course.

Incidentally, here’s the Historic Philadelphia Burial Places Map if you’re interested – there’s a lot of concern in Philadelphia about burial places that were utterly destroyed by developers, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.

Anyway! Wanting more of a book I enjoyed is always a good thing. I love the characters and the lowkey romance and the twisty plot. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Posted in philadelphia, sf/f | Tagged | Leave a comment

My October Reading Log

Fiction:
Homicide and Halo-Halo by Mia P. Manansala is second in a cozy mystery series; I have not read the first book, but was easily able to follow the story. Protagonist Lila Macapagal has returned to the cozy small town of Shady Palms (Somewhere in the Vicinity of Chicago) to live near her family, who own and operate a Filipino restaurant; Lila and two friends, a lesbian couple, are in the process of opening a coffee shop that also sells plants and Filipino-inspired baked goods. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of food detail, which I enjoyed. The plot revolves around a local pageant for teen girls, and had some interesting detail on how this event was being updated to be more modern and rounded. Of course, all of this is happening around a murder investigation, and Lila’s lingering trauma from book one. I would have liked more of her gossipy aunties and their kitchen…they should meet. I will likely read more by this author.

My October #TBRChallenge book was Exile by Lisa Bradley.

Nonfiction:
Influenza 1918: The Worst Pandemic in American History by Lynette Iezzoni is copyright 1999, which is its most salient point so far as my reading went. (I have a couple of much more recent books on this topic in the To Be Read pile.) So, Worst Pandemic Ever? Anyway! This book was written as a companion to “Influenza 1918,” a PBS tv documentary broadcast as part of The American Experience series. It focuses, as you might imagine, on the United States. There were some first person accounts, mostly from people who were children in 1918, and reference to Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Philadelphia had a chapter pretty much to itself, given the carnage there likely following on the several huge Liberty Loan parades/rallies in late September (before the danger of Flu was evident). The author does a good job of explaining why and how doctors and scientists had little recourse: viruses had not yet been discovered, and everyone thought influenza was caused by a bacterium, which meant all the varying attempts at vaccines were futile. Masking happened, but masks were made of surgical gauze, which cannot stop viruses. And of course the United States had recently entered World War One, and though thousands upon thousands of soldiers were dying in Army camps, jam-packed troopships to Europe did not stop because the need for soldiers was considered a higher priority.

What I noticed again and again were the parallels between reactions to the Influenza pandemic then and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic now. People complained bitterly about mask mandates; some schools closed, others didn’t; people tried all types of folk remedies to try and prevent transmission and death; bodies piled up and there was a shortage of coffins. In the final chapter, the author summarizes how viral transmission was identified, advances in Flu vaccines, and how viruses shift and drift. “The question is not if another deadly shift will occur, but when,” (p. 214); she doesn’t mention coronaviruses, but does describe how interactions between humans and animals constantly contribute to new viral mutations, just as we’re are currently experiencing firsthand. So, it’s not the most up-to-date book on the topic, but I definitely feel it has lessons to impart.

As a final note, there was one incorrect fact which really annoyed me: “…Philadelphia City Hall, although capped with a statue of the city’s venerable architect, Benjamin Franklin…,” (page 133). No. The statue at the very top of City Hall is William Penn, please and thank you.

The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontlines of PTSD Science by Shaili Jain was published in 2019, so it’s also pre-pandemic. It’s a well-organized overview with short chapters on the causes, types, and treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, written by a specialist in that field. I found it very useful for its overview of recent research and new types of therapies. A particularly good section focused on the Partition of 1947 (in which members of the author’s family were killed) and the effects of its knock-on trauma that are still felt today.

Fanfiction:
chaos, yet harmony by rain_sleet_snow is a massive alternate universe mixing three flavors of Star Wars: the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy; Star Wars: The Clone Wars; and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The novel, which occurs between the canonical events of Clone Wars and Rogue One, posits that Jyn Erso (Rogue One) meets Ahsoka Tano (The Clone Wars) long before the events of Rogue One, and they subsequently team up, find trust in each other, fall in love, uncover secrets, and forge new paths. Despite the length, and knowing practically nothing about the animated Clone Wars series, I was completely engaged from beginning to end as two wary, hardened characters very slowly grow closer. I am assuming that Jyn’s future in this alternate universe is far different than in canon.

this town is a song about you by synecdochic is another alternate universe, this time for Stargate: SG1. Though I’ve seen some episodes, I’m not hugely familiar with the details of this canon, but this story, featuring a disabled Cameron Mitchell and a teenaged clone of General Jack O’Neill (who has all the memories of his older counterpart), did not seem to require much canonical background. I assume Mitchell’s large family were all original characters. The story begins after a crash has left Mitchell invalided out of the Air Force; he ends up working with the clone, named J.D., creating military software and forging a romantic relationship. But their old lives are still lurking, and waiting to drag them back in to save the world. This story is first in a series.

Posted in alternate universe, fanfiction, nonfiction, wwi | Tagged | Leave a comment

“Cut Flowers,” Ivor Gurney

Cut Flowers

Not in blue vases these
Nor white, cut flowers are seen
But in the August meadows
When the reaper falls clean –
And the shining and ridged rows
Of cut stalks show to the eye
As if some child’s hand there
Had ranged them, and passed by
To other rows, other swathes,
Moondaisies, pimpernel,
Eyebright, sorrel, the paths
Are shining, the heaps as well.
Violets in spring, are
In vases, a sweet heap
Better leave them by far
Under hedgerows or banks to keep.
Daffodills, wallflowers, Daisies
Of Michaelmas Time let still
Also, no gathering-crazes
Should spoil the sweet Spring-time’s will
Daisies best left alone,
Chrysanthemums of chill
Evenings of Autumn, gone
Soon to cold Winters will.
At the full garden-folk
Leave in their beds, but if
Under the steely yoke
They must be gathered, With
Cruelty of no need.
Then lay them in wide pans,
Or open jars; agreed
Best pottery that is man’s,
Wall-flowers, violets
Sweetest of flowers bring in
To the four walls, the china-sets
And table clean as a pin.
By books and pictures lay
These wild things cruelly tamed
Taken from the blowing day
Exiled, uprooted, hurt, lamed.
That the hedgerows miss and the copse –
O if flowers must be cut
To spoil an earth-plot’s hopes.
Take them with eyes shut.
Or give a small coin or two
To Children who may not care
So much as grown-ups should do –
Cut flowers in vases rare –
Pottery rounded with these
(Best of all) or with no care
Ranged in may-hap degrees
In wide pot or any jar –
Gather them, pluck not, please.

–Ivor Gurney

Posted in gurney, holiday, wwi, wwi poetry | Leave a comment

Rutabagas and Unicorns: The Windflower by Laura London

This essay was written in 2012 for Heroes and Heartbreakers; it is no longer available there, as the site is defunct. I’m posting the essay again because Sharon Curtis passed away on September 4, 2022.

Every lady of breeding knows. No one has a good time on a pirate ship. No one, that is, but the pirates. Yet there she was, Merry Wilding—kidnapped in error, taken from a ship bound from New York to England, spirited away in a barrel and swept aboard the infamous Black Joke….There she was, trembling with pleasure in the arms of her achingly handsome, sensationally sensual, golden-haired captor—Devon. From the storm-tossed Atlantic to the languid waters of the Gulf Stream, from a smuggler’s den to a gilded mansion, Merry struggled to escape…to escape the prison of her own reckless passions, the bondage of sweet, bold desire…

The Windflower by Laura London (aka Tom and Sharon Curtis) is one of those classics of the Romance genre perennially referenced as one of the best romance novels ever written. It’s unfortunately out of print, but used copies can be acquired. Originally published in June 1984, it was reissued in 1995.

The story is an epic of the sort that’s rarely published these days: It’s longer than most modern romances, told from an omniscient point of view, and the language is more elaborate, the sort of prose often parodied as purple. Occasionally, I did find the language so overblown it became confusing, but for the most part, the style really suited the epic sweep of the story. The language was a major high point for me, because it surprised me. How? Because The Windflower is actually really, really funny.

I don’t mean “funny” in a mocking sense. I mean that the novel is funny. Note that the pirate ship is named Black Joke. Even aside from the ongoing clever banter of the hero and heroine, there are multiple funny characters who say funny things.

This morning, when she had chanced to make a remark praising the sparkling seascape, Cook had said prosaically, “I can’t see what you find to admire in the ocean. Jeez, what is it besides diluted fish piss? When you think of all those fish in all those centuries …” And then encountering severely critical looks from Cat and Raven, he had added, “Oh. Sorry, Merry. Fish urine.”

Even funnier, to me, is the voice of the omniscient narrator. The narrator is very much in on the joke that this is a romance novel, and that the seemingly feckless heroine, Merry, is going to end up with Devon, the dazzling older man who seems completely out of her reach. It’s pretty clear to me that this joking is deliberate, almost a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” antidote to Merry’s dramatic adolescent emotional storms. This novel is all about the sexual tension, and the language used emphasizes that throughout.

There are repeated metaphoric references to sexual awakening, beginning from the very first page, that are in sharp contrast to the actual sex scenes in the last quarter of the book.

Merry Patricia Wilding was sitting on a cobblestone wall, sketching three rutabagas and daydreaming about the unicorn.

…The rutabagas weren’t coming out right. The front one had a hairy, trailing root that jutted upward at an awkwardly foreshortened angle. Though she had corrected the drawing several times, the result remained an unhappy one.

If there is a funnier vegetable than a rutabaga, please tell me what it is. A phallic rutabaga! I was immediately eager to read the rest of the novel and see where this narrator would take me. And the unicorn, you ask? We’re told that Merry has long dreamed of a unicorn. It appears again in her dreams like a portent, just before the story begins.

…until last night. It had burst through the window in a frightening rush of energy, glass flying everywhere, and it had reared in the corner of the room, pawing and snorting, looking bigger than it had been before, its muscles white and glistening beneath its creamy hide, its chest broad and heaving, its horn poised and thick.

Its horn is thick. I just thought I would repeat that, in case you missed it. Ahem.

He wants me to ride him, she had thought…

Oh, yes, honey. He does want you to ride him. The connection is made more explicit (heh) when Merry first sees Devon.

…this man was beautiful, in a way uniquely masculine, as arrogant and tender as a Renaissance archangel sitting in liquid, unattainable splendor…as she stared at him Merry felt the hot embers of that same confusing blend of yearning and fear that had brushed into her soul when she had dreamed of the unicorn.

At numerous places within the novel, nature also conspires to inform us, metaphorically, exactly what is ahead for Merry if she continues in her relationship with Devon.

The pool was fed by a warm underground spring…she leaned back luxuriantly into his arms as the warm, relaxing fluid lapped about her thighs. A mound of swollen scarlet flowers dripped from the limestone outcropping overlooking the pool, and the musky scent tickled at her nostrils…The sunlight…probed at her, awakening her…losing herself in the sudden penetrating sensation of hot, hard stone beneath her thighs…melted from the fabric [of her gown] and explored the inside of her thighs in an oddly dulcet manner.

There is a lot more going on in The Windflower than humorous sexual titillation, of course; there’s adventure, an intriguing relationship between hero and heroine, appealing secondary characters, and suspense. But for me, the rutabaga and the unicorn were the hooks that dragged me into the story and kept me there.

By the way, Merry ate the rutabaga.

I wrote two additional posts about The Windflower:
The Gorgeousness of Cat [3/19/2012]
Rand Morgan – Hot Pirate [5/7/2012]

Posted in romance novels | Leave a comment

#TBRChallenge – Exile by Lisa Bradley

Exile by Lisa Bradley is a post-apocalyptic, character-driven science fiction novel which I bought because I had met and liked the author. The apocalypse in this novel was local, affecting people living nearby with uncontrollable, violent rage. The federal government subsequently quarantined the town, and it’s remained shut away from the outside world, though they do have wifi at least.

Mother was pregnant with Sweet William when an unregulated semi biffed the turn into the parking lot for the QuanTex mixing plant. I was three, and we lived close enough to the industrial park that I heard the truck’s 6,500-gallon cylindrical tank rolling like a giant beer can across three lanes of traffic. Father, who’d been leaning under the hood of a pickup in our backyard, said I scrambled up his leg and onto his back like a chimp, said he nearly severed his thumb in the fan blade. The semi’s tank wasn’t properly annealed. It crumpled and cracked, spilling a toxin (to this day undisclosed) that ate into the surrounding vehicles, some of them ferrying other chemicals for QuanTex. Within minutes, a gangrene-yellow fog blanketed half the town. The neighborhoods nearest ground zero, like my family’s, became the Inner Radius; the ones farther out became the Outer Radius. Both zones were indefinitely quarantined by the federal government due to what the media called “Spill-Induced Rage.” Technically, Exile was half of an already-existing town (the other half cleared out by mandatory evacuation), but we rezoned and renamed ourselves. And if anybody called Exile by its old name, they got schooled fast with a blunt object.

Bradley tells this story from the point of view of Heidi, who is desperate to escape Exile and her ultra-violent family, enough so that she takes up with the outsider who killed her brother. Tank is an Outsider, a man who is not utterly consumed by the nonstop street battles; he came to Exile to run a construction business. Outsiders are only allowed to stay in Exile for five years. Natives of Exile have to pass a test in order to go into the outside world, and very few pass it because of course they have no control over what’s required of them.

The quarantine imposed on Exile was semipermeable. Just as we couldn’t see into the panopticons but the guards could see us via one-way glass, we couldn’t leave town unless we passed the feds’ 4-S test: you had to be strong, smart, sane, and sterile. (All defined, of course, exclusively by the feds.)

Heidi has already failed the test several times, being forced to wait years for each chance to attempt it again. One of the test requirements is “Sanity,” which seems like a difficult thing to prove, and not necessarily related to The Rage; another is “Sterility,” which has uncomfortable echoes of forced sterilization in the United States. There’s resonance with restrictive United States immigration laws, and our society’s treatment of disabled people, and people at the mercy of oppressive systems, all underlying and shaping the surface conflicts. Most dramatically, it’s about people who are trapped, both physically and by being Othered because of barriers between them and the rest of the world.

The novel has the claustrophobic feel of a zombie siege movie, tension ramping up to an explosive, tragic climax. Though the affected people aren’t dead, their unreasoning fighting and the potential contagiousness of the Rage felt, to me, a bit like a “Human versus The Environment” conflict. Please note there is a lot of explicit, bloody violence, some of it direct, some of it collateral. Bystanders are not immune.

Bradley skillfully layers in a plethora of ideas, bringing them to life with poetic specific detail. I am not a huge fan of either horror or apocalyptic novels, but Bradley’s prose style and intriguing setting pulled me in from the shocking first sentence. Heidi’s longing and scheming for escape and a better life felt extremely relatable. The story only grew tenser and more involving as a noose of danger tightened around the lead characters, but the payoff was worth the pain. Highly recommended!

Posted in sf/f | Tagged | 2 Comments

My September Reading Log

My September #TBRChallenge Book was Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape; I also read and wrote about Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield by Ed Hotaling in the same post.

Fanfiction:
The Lych Yew Gambit by Delphi for mimsical was an very excellent AU outsider-POV on Severus Snape. I liked this a lot and really wanted to know more about the narrator, a Soviet defector who used to be a chess champion.

A case of you by lotesse is a series of short AUs about the Ekaterin Vorsoisson and Miles Vorkosigan romance in Lois McMaster Bujold’s series.

The Rose and the Serpent by atalan recasts Crowley and Aziraphale from Good Omens, tv version, into the Beast and the Beauty, with some fun twists on the fairy tale characters and curse. It’s a very sweet story and I enjoyed it.

only fools rush in by andromeda3116 for FebruarySong very unexpectedly recast two of the main characters from the Star Wars movie “Rogue One” as a Christmas Holiday Fake Dating AU. Jyn Erso is a graduate student with unpleasant, very rich grandparents; Cassian Andor is her best friend who’s had a crush on her practically since they met, a fact which their friends recognize but Jyn does not. He agrees to travel with her to the annual family gathering on an English estate, where he defends her from relentless negging and Jyn slowly falls for him but has to learn how to communicate that. It works out for them in the end!

This month, I also re-read Infinite Coffee and Protection Detail by owlet, a particular favorite MCU post-Winter Soldier series in which Bucky Barnes overcomes programming to protect Steve Rogers rather than kill him, with poignant, hilarious, touching results.

Posted in alternate universe, fanfiction, reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Romancing the Beast – Embracing Monstrousness in Romantic SFF

I have a new post up at the SFWA blog: Romancing the Beast – Embracing Monstrousness in Romantic SFF.

Posted in blogs, promo, romance novels, sf/f, writing craft, writing process | Leave a comment

#TBRChallenge – Animals: Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape

And now for something completely different! I went with horse racing as the sport for this month’s theme. Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape is a biography of Black jockey Jimmy Winkfield (1882 – 1974), winner of the Kentucky Derby in both 1901 and 1902, the last Black jockey to do so and one of very few who managed it back-to-back.

Winkfield was the youngest of seventeen children; his father had been freed from slavery via joining the Union army during the American Civil War. His parents both worked to support their family in Kentucky, his father a sharecropper and seasonal worker and his mother taking care of the children, which would have been the equivalent of several full-time jobs. Winkfield loved horses and learned the business by hanging around nearby stables; at the time, Black horsemen were considered to have a special skill with the animals and found it relatively easy to find work. This didn’t last.

When Black jockies, many of them very successful, were being pushed out of the sport by Jim Crow laws, Winkfield traveled overseas to work. He went on to have successful careers in Russia and, after the Russian Revolution, in France, where he became a trainer until expelled by the Nazis, who confiscated his horses. He made and lost several fortunes; he loved a number of different women, marrying three of them, and having several children. His eldest son with his Russian wife Alexandra, George, was also a jockey, but died from tubercular meningitis at twenty-four. Winkfield himself passed away in France in 1974, and is buried there.

Black Maestro was informative about the subject and the surrounding history. I particularly enjoyed the section about horse racing in Poland and Russia, as that history was completely unfamiliar to me. The author researched extensively, using translators when necessary, and interviewed Winkfield’s surviving children. The author’s note and bibliography are an interesting window into all the different angles from which Drape researched.

Now for two birds with one stone! The second biography of Winkfield, also from my TBR, is Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield by Ed Hotaling. It’s more journalistic in tone, and with a few additional photos not seen in the Drape biography. Though I’d found Drape’s prose a little dry, I ended up preferring it to Hotaling’s; however, Hotaling’s sometimes anecdotal approach was an enjoyable read as well. Hotaling’s research also included interviewing surviving family members.

Here’s a brief documentary I found on YouTube:

Posted in nonfiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

My August Reading Log

Fiction:
Abandoned in Death by J. D. Robb is the fifty-fourth in that series, wow, and there are currently two more scheduled to follow. These are comfortingly repetitive despite being about sometimes truly gruesome serial murders, because the killer is always caught and jailed in the end. I also find it interesting to watch the near-future worldbuilding shift and change as it gets closer to present-day. This series began publication in July 1995; the story is set in the mid-twenty-first century. Time creeps very slowly forward from book to book, so as it now stands, I think the history of this alternate future needs to shift. Robb (Nora Roberts) early on has the “Urban Wars” or “Urbans” as a landmark event that seems to have resulted in mass destruction of neighborhoods, and induced societal changes such as the creation of paid professional motherhood, android servants and beat cops, and sex workers becoming Licensed Companions. Offworld resorts and prisons have both been frequently referenced but only shown once, if I recall. Early in the series, I thought of it as a “Jetsons future.” But it’s been quite a while since androids have shown up; I think it’s become clear to the author that they don’t really work with the timeline. Likewise, this current installment flashes back to the 1990s, but at no point are The Urbans mentioned as a cause of any difficulty in obtaining records, as has been an issue in past books. I am wondering when The Urbans are supposed to have happened. When did this reality split off from ours? I am overthinking this because I’m using my speculative fiction brain.

Prisoner of Midnight by Barbara Hambly is eighth and most current of the James and Lydia Asher series about vampire hunters and their uneasy vampire ally, Don Simon Ysidro. I was excited to find it’s set in 1917, with James on leave from serving as a spy at the front and Lydia recently returned from the front herself. I definitely need to find volume seven soon, as it’s set in the beginning of World War One. After a desperate call from Simon, who’s being held captive, Lydia and daughter Miranda end up on a luxury ship to America, trapped with a killer and hunted by German submarines. Hambly emphasizes the differences between first and third class passengers. A wealthy American capitalist, his thug/private detectives, and union labor struggles form a background. Meanwhile, back in Europe, James must negotiate with Paris vampires to help Lydia solve the mystery. Content warning for child deaths. There are assorted anti-Romany/anti-Semite/anti-Muslim/anti-Catholic/anti-Protestant sentiments among the passengers, including a little anti-black racism; a powder keg in a confined space.

Kindred of Darkness by Barbara Hambly is fifth in the series, set in 1913. I continue to read these out of order! This volume, like number eight, also includes a wealthy American capitalist with his own bully-boys, though he’s secondary to vampire villains, one the Master of London, Dr. Lionel Grippen. Gripped is on the trail of another vampire who fled the Balkans when war broke out; he forces Lydia’s help by kidnapping James and Lydia’s small daughter Miranda, along with her nursery maid. Meanwhile, Lydia has been dragooned into chaperoning her niece’s comeout, which unsurprisingly leads to have uncovering some vampiric connections. This one had a cinematic feel to me, especially the dramatic ending sequence.

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge by Ovidia Yu is third in the Singaporean Mysteries series. I figured out a key element of the mystery almost immediately, but there were enough indications of more going on with the murders that the plot held my interest. Familiar characters mingle with new ones as always-busy Aunty Lee struggles against feelings of uselessness while recovering from a sprained ankle. It turns out she can still solve a mystery even when she can’t walk far. Content warning for past animal harm, mental illness, and internet abuse; before the story begins, a fostered dog is euthanized unnecessarily, resulting in a storm of internet abuse aimed at the perpetrator, who very probably was mentally ill.

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather is a novella about Nuns! In! Spaaaaace!!! Basically, a small group who travel in a living ship to be of service. So they do things like weddings and baptisms, but also healthcare, especially for nasty futuristic contagious diseases. They’re roughly a generation past a devastating war caused by Earth trying to bring all the other worlds, both in its solar system and two others, under their thumb. The effects of the war are still very present. The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita have almost no contact with Earth and get news from the Vatican only sporadically, but they’re beginning to see disturbing hints of another attempt at central governance, which nobody in the colonies wants. The characters were great, each one having a different reason for having taken vows, including one who wants to be of service but has no faith. There’s also neat worldbuilding around the living ships, how they’re grown, and how they’re modified to be used by humans.

Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather built on the conflicts established in the first novella. It left the Nuns in Space ready to spring off into a new chapter, which I am totally ready for.

My August TBR Challenge book was Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart.

Nonfiction:
1973: Rock at the Crossroads by Andrew Grant Jackson is popular nonfiction ostensibly about how the popular music of 1973 (with a bit of 1972 and 1974 overlap) reflected and interacted with mostly American current events, including the end of the Vietnam War and Watergate. There is some of that social history I was hoping for, but I felt a lot of the wordcount was extraneous. The book is jammed with anecdotes about musicians’ drug habits, unwise relationships, and infidelity that I found tiresome and repetitive fairly quickly, as well as depressing. As the book wore on, I felt a single interesting point about, say, songs written about Nixon’s dishonesty, would go into a somewhat relevant anecdote about a musician and then spiral down a black hole of other anecdotes that let the topic wander off somewhere else. By the end, I was questioning the relevance of many of the anecdotes; Joni Mitchell’s boyfriends were not the ones writing her songs. Perhaps these rabbit holes were the intent, and those were the transitions. By the last half of the book, I was already tired. Good things: the author included women artists (which seems obvious but doesn’t always happen), and though the title refers to Rock, he also included reggae, rhythm and blues, outlaw country, and the dawn of hiphop.

A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee by Danny Fingeroth didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know about Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber), which is basically that he was exactly as gregarious and full of hustle and ideas as his public persona would lead you to believe. He seems to have been an extreme extrovert and very dedicated to his career, which was a bonus for some and a massive irritation to others (like Jack Kirby…though it seems to me their relationship had a bit of an “I love you, but I can’t live with you” vibe). Growing up with a father who was perpetually unemployed, after Lieber graduated high school at sixteen he immediately went to work and ended up at his cousin Martin Goodman’s publishing company, becoming an editor at age seventeen; he chose “Stan Lee” for his name pretty early, though he didn’t change it legally for a while. Part of Goodman’s company, Timely Comics, eventually became Marvel, with whom Lee was associated for the rest of his life. He also always had side projects going, just in case he could break into something bigger, or he lost his main job; he was determined to always be able to support his family himself. Numerous times, he wanted to get out of comics, into something more respectable. Instead, without at first realizing it, he made comics respectable.

What I primarily got out of this book was exactly how and how much Lee shaped what Marvel became. The responses he gave on 1960s letters pages, the Bullpen Bulletins and Stan’s Soapbox features, as well as the chatty meta narration in the comics he wrote, were all his creations and his voice, not something that other comics publishers did in that same way. (I wondered how much his comics narration owed to the radio shows he’d loved as a kid.) Fingeroth pointed out how those prose features created a community of readers who felt like insiders, which of course made them buy comics, but ended up helping to keep the company going through some rough times. The comics themselves were important, of course, and even when he didn’t script them in detail he added a gloss of his narrative voice to them, like a polish atop the storytelling provided by his collaborators. There were many, many battles, legal and otherwise, over who actually “created” the early Marvel characters, and the battles were never entirely resolved (I think it’s impossible that they could have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction). But I am pretty sure the Marvel brand as it is today would not be at all the same without Lee’s input.

Fanfiction:
gold in the seams of my hands by napricot is a post-“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” story in which Bucky discovers he has a measurable psychic power, with interesting implications. There’s also a good plot and a lovely romance between Bucky and Sam. Recommended.

To Be Where You Are by roboticonography is a lovely WWII-era Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers romance story, positing that Steve is demisexual.

this ocean is yours, and mine by inmyriadbits and rosepetalfall is a Star Wars AU set in our contemporary world; all the characters are academics at Theed University in Connecticut. Unusually, there’s a sweet romantic pairing between Religion professor and science fiction novelist Luke Amidala-Lars and new history faculty Poe Dameron. I enjoyed the cleverness of the conceit and how the characters were shifted in their new reality. It was fun.

Posted in fanfiction, mystery, nonfiction, reading, sf/f | Tagged | Leave a comment

#TBRChallenge – Blue Collar: Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart is one of those books I pre-ordered and then kept on my TBR for years afterward. Stewart is one of my all-time favorite fantasy writers, but he has gotten away from writing novels in recent years, and I don’t know if he’ll ever write another. These days, he writes interactive fiction and “mixed reality” games. My response to this change in his career was hoarding this last novel, waiting for the perfect time to read it. Rejoice! The time is now!!!

This review contains some plot spoilers for this 2004 novel.

Perfect Circle, which I belatedly learned was named for the R.E.M. song, fits this month’s theme, “Blue Collar,” like a glove. Protagonist Will “Dead” Kennedy grew up in Deer Park, a suburb of Houston mostly occupied by workers at nearby chemical plants. Most of his family members still live and work in the area. Will decamps to Houston proper, where he lives near his ex-wife Josie, his daughter Megan, and Josie’s husband Don.

Will has never gotten over his divorce or moved on with his life; he works a series of retail jobs while trying to stay ahead of rent and expenses. He only feels joy when seeing his daughter once every two weeks, and clings to the ghost of his marriage. In parallel to the gray drabness of his daily life, Will sees ghosts everywhere, and sometimes ghost roads that lead to unknown lands; he can recognize ghosts and ghost roads only because he sees them in black and white. Will has to learn how to deal with the presence of ghosts in his life, both real and metaphorical.

On several occasions, he sees the ghost of one of his uncles, who was vaporized in an industrial accident when Will was in elementary school. Though the chemical company was at fault, his uncle’s family was not compensated for their loss of income, a stark example of how corporations victimize workers and through them, their families.

Eventually, Will learns or rather is taught to monetize his ghost-spotting skills, but the main theme of the novel, to me, is depression. Will has a constant sense of futility; he can’t advance because he doesn’t have enough education or the means to obtain it. He has no examples on how to get ahead in life except for one cousin, who learned about computers while in Boy Scouts. A loner, Will is reluctant to reach out to his family when the book opens. Part of his journey is realizing, as the story progresses, that he has that resource, and that he has the ability to help his family in return.

Domestic violence is also a theme. Will’s favorite cousin was murdered by her boyfriend in her early twenties, and Will sees the ghost of a young woman murdered by a more distant cousin, Tom Hanlon. Will manages to escape being killed by Hanlon in his turn by causing a deadly fire; he’s subsequently haunted, and taunted, by Hanlon’s ghost, who exacerbates his fears that he or former Marine Don will harm Josie (spoiler: she makes it out of the book just fine).

There’s a lot going on in this story, but thanks to Stewart’s lyrical prose style and period-specific, location-specific significant detail, I read the entire novel in two days, unable to put it down. I highly recommend this author and this book; the unexpected ending felt like a transformative gift.

Perfect Circle was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist; a Book Sense Notable Book; and Best of the Year at Booklist, Locus, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Posted in sf/f | Tagged | 3 Comments