My May Reading Log

Fiction:
The Shirt on His Back is tenth in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. I always buy her new ones in hardcover, and the line of unread ones on my shelf is a little embarrassing, so I dove in. Such bliss.

Alliance Rising: The Hinder Stars I by C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher is the first book set in this universe for a really long time, but since I’d read all of the earlier books in the series, some multiple times, I found I didn’t need to re-read anything to understand what was going on; plus, I think the book was designed for those who would be new to the Alliance-Union setting. This is space opera that gets into the nitty gritty of how economics might work in space, complicated by differing political systems, great distances, and cultural and linguistic shifts. And it’s showing us how the Alliance and the Union came to be. I think some readers might find it dry, and perhaps a bit info-dumpy, but I eat this stuff up with a spoon in each hand. Everything happens relatively slowly, until it doesn’t, and then semi-cliffhanger, agh!

I read Planetside by Michael Mammay based on a recommendation, and really enjoyed it. The first-person narrator is a grumpy colonel (his voice is terrific) sent to solve a missing persons case, except the missing person was fighting aliens on a distant planet. So I think the category is both military sf and mystery, and possibly even space opera because the humans have spread out into space. That said, it’s very much grounded in what this one person can find out and accomplish in the day-to-day, while staying within his orders. The ending was a bit more dramatic than I had expected, and though I could see why the narrator made the choice he did, I still found it unsettling. There’s a sequel now available; I’m curious about the fallout from book one, and will probably get it for a travel read at some point.

The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt is book two of a space opera series, but I think a new reader could manage without reading the first, if they don’t mind being spoiled for many major events should they go back to it. I think the first book was better, as it had a lot of exciting new ideas, but this volume is by no means boring, particularly if you enjoy banter. The cast of characters shifted a bit, and some issues from the end of book one were resolved. I would not mind reading the third book, which is out, and perhaps later ones if there are any; it has the feel of a serial, currently, and I like the comfort of serials. I don’t sound hugely enthusiastic, do I? But I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, which is the important part.

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse is also second in a series, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit because the villain is super-creepy and freaky weird and frankly terrifying; in fact, I would not have minded more of the villain. Second volumes are tricky, aren’t they? They have to remind readers of the events of the first book, and give background to new readers, while still making the plot and characters fresh and exciting. Maggie, the protagonist, is trying to be less of a killer and to create some relationships with other people, but she’s still a stubborn pessimist as well, and a lovely example of the Badass Heroine. There’s character death and supernatural beings that both help and hinder, and a touch of romance, and a stupendous climax that ought to be on a movie screen. I’m in this series for the duration. If you read or used to read a lot of Urban Fantasy sub-genre, I think you would probably like this series quite a bit; note that it leans a smidge towards horror sometimes because the depicted supernatural world is not human or knowable.

A Man of Independent Mind by L.A. Hall was several stories in one, or rather various events in the life of Alexander MacDonald, with appearances by his dear friend Clorinda Cathcart and many other characters readers have grown to know and love through the Comfortable Courtesan series. As with the previous “Clorinda Cathcart’s circle” book, I would recommend reading the main series first. You will probably read them in one huge gulp, and not regret it.

Firebrand by Ankaret Wells was loads of fun, a steampunk (airships!) adventure novel with a romantic subplot that was inspired by Gondal and Angria from the Brontë juvenilia. The first-person narrator, Kadia Warner, is the twice-widowed younger daughter of an airship engineer who inherits her mother’s crowning achievement, a gigantic state-of-the-art airship; the emperor, of course, wants the airship for purposes of further conquest and incidentally wants her as his mistress, so she travels to the single independent duchy remaining in the area and a whole lot of entertaining twisty plot happens before the happy ending. Kadia’s voice is delightfully practical and not in the least missish.

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles is, in my opinion, what sf writers used to call a “fix up,” where a short story was expanded into a novel, or several short stories were cobbled together into a novel. Narrated by a Watson-like character, most of the stories involve ghosts or mysterious supernatural happenings, linked together by the romance between narrator Robert Caldwell and the investigator of the title, Simon Feximal. There are horror elements, which I would judge as slightly darker than those in Spectred Isle, which is set later in the same universe, and which I accidentally read first. It was a good choice for a busy week, as I could dart in and out of it fairly easily.

Fanfiction:
The Persistence of Memory by st_aurafina takes the Moira MacTaggert from the X-Men: First Class movie and pairs her with Emma Frost on a spy road trip, with a bonus redhaired Russian spy, and do I really need to say anything else? It includes a little comics canon as well.

Love Stories for Tedious People by kristophine is a Captain America and the Winter Soldier AU in which Steve Rogers is a burned-out emergency room physician and Bucky Barnes is a recovering veteran he meets on duty. I think this would be a nice romantic read even if you were not familiar with canon, and portrays Steve figuring out what to do with his life that makes him less depressed, which is a plotline I highly approve of.

My April Reading Log

Fiction:
I finally read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which everyone and all their cousins has been recommending as a terrific Found Family space opera since it came out. And it is that. For me, it had a slightly retro feel, which is by no means bad. I enjoyed it a lot.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine follows the new ambassador, Mahit, to the powerful Teixcalaan empire as she tries to figure out how and why her predecessor was murdered. So far as names go, and a tendency to honor willing blood sacrifice, and physical appearance, the Teixcalaanli seem roughly based on the Aztecs, except in space, and possibly with more poetry. There’s a succession crisis happening, and a looming threat near the ambassador’s home space station, and a mystery surrounding Mahit’s imago, which is a personality/memory impression of the previous ambassador. This may sound like a lot, but it’s all tied together and the plot clicks over swiftly and entertainingly. I really liked it, and though the ending isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, it very clearly sets up the next book.

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a novelette, I think, but that was all I could handle, anyway. The first person narrator is stuck wandering a physics-bending alien space artifact out beyond Pluto, alone, while becoming more and more unreliable. It was not pleasant reading, exactly, but was gripping. I was left unsatisfied by the ending, but am not sure what I would have preferred instead. The setting was perfect for generating additional stories, though, so I’m curious if that was part of the intent.

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older is a Middle Grade fantasy set in an alternate version of Civil War-era New York City. The alternate part is there are dinosaurs living among people and being used as beasts of burden, though the possibilities aren’t as fully explored as they might have been in an adult novel; I got the feeling they were around because dinosaurs are cool, and dactyls are cool, and I think that’s cool, because why not? When I was a kid, I would not have blinked at this setup. (Adult me was wondering how the presence of dinosaurs would affect the Industrial Revolution and the development of associated technology, which appears to have happened here pretty much the same as in our world.) Magdalys Roca, the protagonist, is one of the kids from the Colored Orphan Asylum who get caught up first in the draft riots, then in a plot to rescue black people who’ve been captured to be sold in the southern states. The history is very beautifully integrated with the kid-focused action plot, and doesn’t shy away from the racism non-white people are facing. The assortment of kids have interesting characterization, even those with smaller roles. Trigger warning: early on, a kindly adult figure is discovered to have been lynched in the riots after heroically giving children time to escape. Recommended because dinosaurs.

Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold is set in an alternate universe Victorian London, where metaphysician is a common profession, at least for men. There’s an intriguing secondary female character, Miss Frost, whom I’d love to know more about, who’s been trained in metaphysics at a women’s college. Julian Lynes is a private detective and Ned Mathey a metaphysician; they’d been lovers while at a terrible boarding school, and are now figuring out their relationship as adults while solving a mysterious murder that involves cursed silver. As an added complication, one of their worst tormenters from school is related to the murder victim, and they have to deal with their feelings about that as well. I enjoyed both the romantic plot and the mystery.

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw is the second book about Dr. Greta Helsing, contemporary descendant of the Dracula Dr. Helsing, who is a doctor for supernatural beings. She’s traveled to Paris for a conference on supernatural medicine, as a last-minute replacement for someone else. Greta spends most of this book caught up in someone else’s revenge plot, but does quite a lot for other people (beings?) at the same time, which I found extremely satisfying. Winston was my favorite (I will not spoil Winston’s identity). I was happy to learn that a third book is now available for pre-order, and amused to learn that Shaw is married to Arkady Martine, whose book I read the previous week.

I also re-read The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I ended up switching between the electronic version on my phone and the hardcover at home; sadly, print books do not automatically synch with e-books, but I managed! Enough time has passed since the book came out that I’d forgotten some plot twists, which only added to my enjoyment of revisiting Maia and his world. I’m so happy there is going to be a sequel. It was a good choice for a difficult week, with so many terrible things happening all over the world.

Fanfiction:
After the Storm (I Look Up) by HoneySempai looks at, if Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes got married in Wakanda, what their wedding might be like. It turns out, their wedding would be really lovely. The best part of the story is the appendix, in which we learn the author writes and officiates weddings in real life, and goes into great detail about how this fictional wedding was created. Neepery!

The Way to a Man’s Heart by Niitza and whatthefoucault is a Captain America story in which Steve Rogers grounds himself in the twenty-first century through eating and cooking, and then uses food to help Bucky Barnes regain memories. Nom.

The Persistence of Memory by st_aurafina takes the Moira MacTaggert from the X-Men: First Class movie and pairs her with Emma Frost on a spy road trip, with a bonus redhaired Russian spy, and do I really need to say anything else? It includes a little comics canon as well.

Love Stories for Tedious People by kristophine is a Captain America and the Winter Soldier AU in which Steve Rogers is a burned-out emergency room physician and Bucky Barnes is a recovering veteran he meets on duty. I think this would be a nice romantic read even if you were not familiar with canon, and portrays Steve figuring out what to do with his life that makes him less depressed, which is a plotline I highly approve of.

My March Reading Log

Fiction:
Mira’s Last Dance: Penric & Desdemona Book 5 by Lois McMaster Bujold was delightful to read, but it felt like it ended too soon, not just because it leaves the door open for the next story, but because it felt like less had happened overall. It’s a transitional story, all of it escaping from one place to another.

Leverage in Death (In Death, Book 47) by J.D. Robb was a bit more interesting than some of the recent entries, alas due to an overly-complex murder method that seemed a bit strained to me; it could have benefited from, maybe, some more complex technology which ought to be available, given the futuristic setting. Maybe it’s a sign of more weird twists in the series’ future. There is a subplot relating to the Oscars and the movie about a previous book being up for several awards, and Eve Dallas’ discomfort with same. Apparently, in the future, it is still #oscarssowhite if you were wondering. It seems I am going to keep reading this series no matter what.

The Ironmaster’s Tale (Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle Book 1) by L.A. Hall ties in to the first several volumes of The Comfortable Courtesan, and I think is best read as a supplement to those, so you understand everything that is going on, because Josiah Ferraby, the titular ironmaster, takes a while to catch on to certain things. Anyway, I liked it a lot, particularly the scenes of Josiah and Eliza together, discussing events and going about their domestic business.

Nonfiction:
I devoured The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn on my vacation. Though I never read his last three novels, I have read the rest, some of them many, many times. The first science fiction book I ever read was Have Space Suit – Will Travel, and it’s one of my keepers. Mendlesohn’s book looks at themes that carry through all of Heinlein’s work, and explores how they fit in with biographical details and are refined or focused over time, taking into account how his politics align or don’t align with the politics of the time in which he was writing. I felt I understood his work far, far more after reading this book than I had before I began, and for that reason I strongly recommend it, provided you are interested in Heinlein, the history of science fiction from the 1940s through the 1980s, or genre criticism in general.

Fanfiction:
Four Letter Word For Intercourse by bendingsignpost is an erotic Supernatural AU in which Dean Winchester is going to college, somewhat against his will in order to please his brother and uncle, and ends up calling a phone sex line to relieve stress and explore the notion that he’s not straight, but bisexual. It’s extremely well-crafted male/male erotica, with quite a lot of self-discovery and eventual romance. The characters are established within the story, so no knowledge of canon is required. Highly recommended.

Neighborly by Spooks and thesuninside was an unexpected but interesting crossover between The Punisher and Supernatural, in which Dean Winchester is a teenager and Sam Winchester is twelve, and they happen to live next door to Frank Castle while their father is away. It was surprisingly moving. There’s a sequel, which I plan to read.

The Great War by Fabrisse puts the characters from Kingsman: The Secret Service into World War One as ordinary officers. It was nicely researched, which pleased me.

Also, Nightingale by The_Cimmerians explores MCU Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers’ life in Wakanda after tne end of Civil War, which only gets more complicated once Bucky Barnes emerges from cryo. Plus there is some excellent Shuri. There are a lot of delicious-sounding Wakandan meals in this story, and hot sex as well, eventually.

I skim-reread the first two volumes of From the Log of the Hellhound, a classic late 1980s Blake’s 7 series continuation that went on for a while but was never completed. I had expected it to be dated, as the characters were portrayed with very very New Wave clothes and haircuts; what I hadn’t expected was how dated the gender relations felt, despite complex characterization. This dystopic future is extremely heteronormative, and I think the writers meant to criticize that to some extent, but it is in fact difficult to tell. Phrases like “flaming faggot” are used, and a man being overdosed with an aphrodisiac as torture is considered funny until the characters realize it was painful and not pleasurable; lack of consent is apparently not considered torture. Several characters consider it disturbing that someone is bisexual. The bisexual man has developed rampant misogyny as a result of torture by a woman, which is unpleasant to read, even when he appears to tamp it down. Also, I remain extremely confused as to why an Original Female Character, a professional psychologist, ends up having sex with a man she’s been treating (or attempting to treat), and whose many many psychological issues she knows about in detail; in fact, he had previously tried to strangle her in a fit of rage at a perceived betrayal. (However, he is considered Hot Stuff by fandom and clearly by the authors as well.)

I was reminded of how much things have changed since then, and how (relatively) quickly. We are not even close to perfect today, but Consent is much more in the common discourse, as is identification and recognition of problematic relationship dynamics. It’s a terrific historical document.

My February Reading Log

Fiction:
The City and The City by China Miéville is actually a mystery, though set in a bizarre speculative world. Two cities occupy the same space, and the inhabitants learn to “unsee” and “unhear” their counterparts. There is bureaucracy surrounding interactions between the two cities, which we see when the protagonist, a detective investigating a murder, needs information from both sides. As usual with Miéville, the world is densely built, especially politically; it’s subtly and meticulously laid out for the reader bit by bit until all the weirdness seems almost normal. I’m still thinking about the themes, some of which I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet identified.

Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren is a young adult time travel novel with a lot of quirky, weird, entertaining banter as well as realistic relationships between siblings and step-siblings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even when I wasn’t sure what was happening, because of that dialogue. The one thing that annoyed me was the word waddling, which was used a couple of times to describe the plump younger sister’s gait. It seemed a cruel word to me, not an affectionate one, though otherwise the character is seen in a positive light. Perhaps other people comprehend this word differently than I do. I did like the storytelling theme that’s an important part of the book.

I reread two Walter Farley harness racing books that I had read multiple times as a child: The Black Stallion’s Blood Bay Colt (1951) and The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt (1954), its sequel. From an adult writer’s perspective, I found it intriguing that older male mentor figures were so important to the plots of both novels. Jimmy Creech is teenaged Tom Messenger’s mentor, with some of his opinions and angry outbursts about the current state of racing offset by Jimmy’s longtime friend and partner George; Tom also learns to get along with his opinionated old uncle. In the sequel, Alec Ramsay and Henry Dailey take over the plot, with Jimmy and Tom and George making appearances. The importance of “men like Jimmy” and their advice is emphasized repeatedly; but at the same time, new and different opinions about raising and training horses are debated and shown to vary in their effectiveness. There’s a lot less character growth for the young male heroes than one would likely see in a middle grade/young adult book today, though they make mistakes and have to surmount the results of those mistakes. Mostly, the young protagonists learn to trust themselves and use both advice from mentors and their own emotions to work with horses. For the first time ever, I read a brief biography of Walter Farley, and learned that his horsemanship mentor was his uncle, which to me answers the question of why older male mentor figures are so important in his fiction.

The books also offer a requiem for the origins of harness racing, when farmers would unhitch their horses from a plow and bring them into town to race, and the annual routine of racing at country fairs. Night racing at a giant track is shown as the future of the sport, but it leaves the old guard mourning what they are about to lose and wishing the new guard could see and appreciate the fairs in the same way. A young character like Tom Messenger appreciates both types of racing while feeling that the old style is still, in some ways, better.

What made this re-read particularly interesting to me in particular is that a good deal of it, especially the first book, takes place in Pennsylvania. As a child, reading these books, Pennsylvania might as well have been on Mars. As an adult, I have lived in Pennsylvania for many years, and the names of most of the towns mentioned were familiar to me.

Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan McGuire features killer!mermaids and a large cast of scientists and other interesting people, some of whom get their faces eaten, alas, so I had to stay braced for that. However, I loved the worldbuilding of the siren creatures and their physiologies and hunting techniques, the sort of thing that would have likely been left out had this been a disaster movie instead of a book.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon is a dystopia set on a generation ship, which I found gripping but also frustrating, which means it’s a great book to generate discussion. As usual, I wanted more exploration of how the society worked on a day-to-day level, for instance about how each deck had its own language and culture and even technology. Though there was some of that, I think the goal was more of a thought experiment about how people cope, or don’t cope, with an intensely stratified, racist and fascist society, using an analogy to chattel slavery and plantation culture in America. To me, it felt like speculative fiction leaning towards literary fiction.

Aster, the protagonist, is neurologically atypical and seems to have gender dysphoria or be non-binary; Aster also seems to be a genius, and has some advantages from association with The Surgeon, a highly ranked position. It’s stated that fertility is down and people are exhibiting more gender differences, but it’s unclear whether this is a result of radiation exposure are of the oppressive society, or both; oppression of women and to a lesser degree, non-cishet people happens throughout, but it’s a subset of the various oppressions happening. I speculated that fear of change resulted in oppression of anything not considered cis-heterosexual. Given the sometimes miraculous medical advances shown (for the healing of life-threatening wounds to Aster, for example), I was surprised there wasn’t more fascist intervention in bodily integrity.

It’s unclear how the societal structure on the ship, the Matilda, started out when the ship left The Great Lifehouse, the home planet; by the time of the book there are huge disparities between life on the privileged upper decks versus the oppressed lower decks, reinforced by racism and colorism. The dark-skinned lower deckers work the fields while the upper deckers are at leisure, with better food, environments, and medical care. I assumed this was meant to indicate that among humans, hierarchy always seeks to replicate itself. It explores slavery in a confined environment that reinforces the feeling of being trapped, hopeless, and enraged.

What left me unsatisfied with the book was disappointment with the resolution; I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was left feeling adrift, because it didn’t feel like the rather sudden final events solved anything except, maybe, for a couple of people. Perhaps that was the point, that there can be no good resolution to such pervasive inequality; there can be escape from the situation, but that escape may not be a total victory, and it might not be possible to save anyone but yourself.

Nonfiction:
Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly is a memoir by the astronaut, which frames the year he spent on the International Space Station with the life journey that led him there, from distracted, terrible student to test pilot for fighter jets to space shuttle pilot to astronaut (you get that title after you first fly in space). I got this book at a talk Kelly gave at the University, shortly after the book had come out, but didn’t start reading it until this month. I found it gripping, especially all the little details about being in space, and living in such close quarters with only a few people, for a long time. It was also interesting to read his perspective on various events throughout his time with NASA, including the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia; the people who died were his colleagues and friends. Things I learned: a space walk takes a really long time to prepare for and to finish up, and is utterly exhausting; it’s harder to defecate in space because gravity isn’t helping you; there is so much stuff on the ISS in so little space, and it’s so easy for things to float away, that it is easy to lose things like tools for literally years. Highly recommended if you want to learn more about the experience of being an astronaut. I am really looking forward to learning more about the “Twins Study” as it progresses; he and his twin, Mark, are both astronauts, and they gave permission for their DNA to be studied and compared, to see what changes happen from Scott’s long mission in space.

Though I bought Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide about a decade ago, it took me long enough to actually read it that there is now a reprint edition. The colonialism, racism, and gender disparities contributing to violence against indigenous women (and men) described in this book are sadly still extremely relevant, and though details today might be different, the systemic problems are still present and still harming people; but people are also still fighting those systemic problems.

Sex in Georgian England: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s by A. D. Harvey is more academic and more depressing than the title would perhaps suggest, though I did appreciate the author’s occasional dry humor. There were a lot of statistics about divorce and criminal proceedings brought against prostitutes and gay men. A useful book, but less ethnographic than I had hoped.

My January Reading Log

Fiction:
The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman is first in the contemporary Decker/Lazarus mystery series. A violent rape and then a brutal murder take place in a tightknit yeshiva community in California; we get the pov of Rina Lazarus, the widow of one of the scholars, and Peter Decker, the police detective. The two protagonists develop a romantic interest in each other that I assume is further addressed as the series progresses. I will probably read the next one in the series, once I get through some more of my TBR.

A Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles) by Claire O’Dell is set in a near-future dystopic America caught up in a new Civil War; Watson and Holmes are both women of color. I enjoyed the book but it didn’t feel Holmesian to me, mainly because Holmes was more of an opaque spy/intelligence agent than a detective. The book is more about Watson, which is fine because she’s an intriguing character dealing with post-traumatic issues and a badly-functioning prosthetic arm and veteran’s bureaucratic issues that resonate strongly with our present world. I’d call it speculative fiction rather than a mystery.

Spectred Isle by K.J. Charles is a post-World War One light fantasy with male/male romance. Protagonist Saul Lazenby discovers there’s magic in England in the 1920s, and ends up working with others to prevent paranormal disasters, in what feels like the setup for a Found Family series.

Dark in Death by J.D. Robb is…number forty-six in the series. I read this one in tiny bits and snatches, but was able to follow because I know the series formula. I think it was slightly better than the last one in the series, but not outstanding. There was a meta element that was moderately entertaining: the murderer is re-creating murders from a book series.

Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney is set in London during World War One, and had some nice historical detail including a zeppelin bombing raid that made me wonder if the author owns the same Osprey book I have on the topic. A possibly-triggery brutal injury to a woman (spoiler: she survives) happens right at the beginning, but thereafter the tone is cozy mystery, despite one other episode of a badly injured young man being rescued. The characters all felt bland to me, and their relationships were far too easy. I didn’t like it enough to see if there were more in the series.

I celebrated the new year with a re-read of The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. Reading in close sequence, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret present accumulated clues to what’s really going on in a most satisfying way; as the reader, I feel great satisfaction when I can figure things out before the characters, because I have more knowledge than they do, but there are enough twists and surprises that I am far from omnipotent. The Lost Steersman adds a new twist to the worldbuilding, and The Language of Power coalesces several parts of the story. I now sadly contemplate waiting for volumes five and six. I absolutely adore books with the appearance of fantasy that turn out to be science fiction, and this series is even more rewarding on a second read. Highly recommended, and now available in electronic editions.

Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare is fourth in the super-fluffy Spindle Cove historical romance series about a village full of unconventional women. This one loosely follows a “My Fair Lady” plot. While I felt no sense of historical reality, I did enjoy the heroine’s thoughts and opinions quite a bit, which for me outbalanced the usual Hero Angst. At least, this time, I felt the Hero Angst was justified; it wasn’t the usual Angst Trope. If you like fluffy historicals, such as Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare is in the same wheelhouse.

The Walls of Troy by L.A. Witt is contemporary male/male romance which started out with a bit of an intriguing mystery plot, but alas for me soon became a lot of sex scenes that I couldn’t muster up attention for. I was in the mood for mystery/thriller, and wasn’t getting it, because this was a romance. Bonus points for a Turkish-American protagonist in the Navy.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark is supercool steampunk set in an alternate 1912 Egypt, with a female detective and a cross-dressing lesbian and assorted supernatural creatures. The worldbuilding is utterly fabulous. Alas, it is short (46 e-reader pages) so there is way less of it than I was hoping.

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith is a short novel with fairly minor speculative elements that affect the first-person narrator’s emotions more than anything else, but are important to the story’s resolution. The protagonist is an athletic lesbian, director of an AIDS charity, who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She passes through realistic stages of dealing with not only the disease’s progress but with how society and her loved ones treat her while she organizes a new nationwide nonprofit that seems to have unexpectedly dangerous consequences. I suspect, in future, this will be high on the list of recommended #ownvoices fiction about people with disabilities. I was completely swept away by it until the ending, which to me felt too abrupt, even though it did what it needed to do and resolved a character arc.

Nonfiction:
The First, the Few, the Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I by Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall is exactly what is says on the tin, beginning with the decision to recruit women to serve as navy yeomen (clerks) on land to free up men to serve on ships, and ending with how some of their lives were changed, and the things they accomplished, some of which were as a result of their service. A lot more people remember the WWII WAVES than they do the WWI “Yeomen (F),” and I think that’s a shame.

Fanfiction:
fight like girls for our place at the table by napricot focuses on Sharon Carter, from the beginning of her assignment to keep an eye on Steve Rogers in The Winter Soldier, and features a slow-build romance with Natasha Romanov. Recommended!

Comics:
For one of my Arisia panels, I did re-read the first Morlocks story, which is two issues long, in Uncanny X-Men 169-170. I include image links so you can see the covers.

This story introduces a group of mutants who live underground and refer to themselves as Morlocks, specifically referencing The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; many of them have unusual physical forms or powers, and are angry at mutants who can “pass” as human. Some of them, such as Caliban (who can identify other mutants much like the computer Cerebro), speak in an affected dialect, which seems to be meant to indicate non-standard mentality. Caliban sounds weirdly formal but also childlike, and speaks of himself in the third person.

The leader of the Morlocks, Callisto, could easily pass as human. She kidnaps Warren Worthington (Angel) to be her husband. I found it amusing, on this read, that Warren has no lines, he’s just there to wear a little white loincloth and, at the wedding, a baby blue fetish harness. (He’s shown in costume on the cover, but nope, he was totally eye candy inside.) The X-Men track Warren down and clash with the Morlocks; it’s resolved by Ororo (Storm) battling Callisto in single combat. Callisto does not know Ororo grew up a street kid and is quite good at knife-fighting.

After Ororo’s victory, the Morlocks ask Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler) if he would like to stay with them, as he is blue-skinned with a prehensile tail. Kurt replies that he’s spent so much time already working to be accepted by the world at large that he doesn’t want to give up until he succeeds. However, he doesn’t tell them he thinks separatism is a bad idea.

The story raises the issue, again, of how mutants are treated by the outside world, but adds on how “ugly” mutants are treated by “pretty” mutants. There isn’t a huge amount of depth, but reading this as a young teenager, I remember feeling empathy for the Morlocks and noting that they make good points. X-Men has many flaws so far as representation goes, but I’m still glad it was around for me and for so many others.

My December Reading Log

Fiction:
Mile High Murder (A Hannah Ives Mystery) by Marcia Talley was a contemporary mystery centered around two women who take a fact-finding trip to Colorado to look at the marijuana industry, in preparation for creating legislation for Maryland. I was mildly entertained. The first person protagonist is an older woman, which was nice, but the overall tone felt, to me, a little coy and precious, possibly because the narrator abstained while those around her indulged, and maybe that made it feel weirdly judge-y despite clearly trying to be neutral or positive on the issue of using the drug. I didn’t like it enough to seek out others in the series.

Liz Carlyle is one of the first historical romance writers I got into, when I received a copy of her first book as a prize in a drawing; I read at least a dozen of her novels before I burned out on romance for a while. In Love With a Wicked Man is one of her more recent works. It suffered from using both “character with amnesia” and the “hero who thinks he is unworthy of love” tropes, which I feel get used way too often, but I still enjoyed it because the amnesia didn’t last long and the heroine was terrific, a baroness who did her job and took care of her estate and knew how to help cows give birth, and didn’t take much of the hero’s self-centered angst.

Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang started off feeling like a heist or organized crime plot but soon was giving me feelings of the X-Men, not in a “filed off serial numbers” way but in concept. I would like to read more of that latter story, and find out if there are more people with interesting superpowers and mysterious organizations with ambiguous goals. I loved that the first-person narrator is not always reliable but does not know that she is not reliable, for plot reasons which I will not disclose here; that kept the plot twisting along. Cas Russell’s superpower is mathematics, as in calculating odds and angles and physics in order to pull off seemingly-magical feats of derring-do; I could see in my mind exactly how that would be portrayed in a movie or tv show. It was a fun book. Trigger warning for one offscreen child death, fairly early on.

The Pyramids of London by Andrea K Höst had been in my TBR for quite a while. I liked it a lot, even though I don’t usually get into vampires, because these vampires had some intriguing details (eventually they turn to stone!) and in this universe, the British Isles have been strongly influenced by Egypt and Rome. And there are also Celtic gods in the British Isles, and the country is ruled by three women. There’s a lot of worldbuilding detail, and it’s all really, really cool. The plot loosely follows the mystery of why and how and by whom a couple of automaton designers/engineers were murdered, investigated by their three children and the children’s aunt Rian. It has elements of YA and old-school British kid adventures (from the pov of one of the kids, Eluned) as well as Rian’s adult point of view as she tries to deal with suddenly having to parent. There’s an ancient vampire, but he does not take over the story in any way, which I appreciated. Lots of fun, highly recommended.

Protector Panther (Protection, Inc. Book 3) by Zoe Chant is a light paranormal with a capture/escape from evil scientists plot. I especially liked the heroine, who is a paramedic.

The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman is first in the contemporary Decker/Lazarus mystery series, and made gripping airplane reading. A violent rape and then a brutal murder take place in a tightknit yeshiva community in California; we get the pov of Rina Lazarus, the widow of one of the scholars, and Peter Decker, the police detective. The two protagonists develop a romantic interest in each other that I assume is further addressed as the series progresses. I will probably read the next one in the series, once I get through some more of my TBR.

A Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles) by Claire O’Dell is set in a near-future dystopic America caught up in a new Civil War; Watson and Holmes are both women of color. I enjoyed the book but it didn’t feel Holmesian to me, mainly because Holmes was more of an opaque spy/intelligence agent than a detective. The book is more about Watson, which is fine because she’s an intriguing character dealing with post-traumatic issues and a badly-functioning prosthetic arm and veteran’s bureaucratic issues that resonate strongly with our present world. I’d call it speculative fiction rather than a mystery, and I think I would have enjoyed it even more without the Holmes/Watson idea.

Spectred Isle by K.J. Charles is a post-World War One light fantasy with male/male romance. Protagonist Saul Lazenby discovers there’s magic in England in the 1920s, and ends up working with others to prevent paranormal disasters, in what feels like the setup for a Found Family series.

Dark in Death by J.D. Robb is…number forty-six in the series. I read this one in tiny bits and snatches, but was able to follow because I know the series formula. I think it was slightly better than the last one in the series, but not outstanding. There was a meta element that was entertaining: the murderer is re-creating murders from a [fictional] book series.

Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney is set in London during World War One, and had some nice historical detail including a zeppelin bombing raid that made me wonder if the author owns the same Osprey book I have on the topic. A possibly-triggery brutal injury to a woman (spoiler: she survives) happens right at the beginning, but thereafter the tone is cozy mystery, despite one other episode of a badly injured young man being rescued. The swings in tone jarred me. The characters all felt bland, and their relationships were far too easy. I didn’t like it enough to see if there were more in the series.

Nonfiction:
Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage by Elaine Showalter came out early in 2001, and has been kicking around my TBR for about ten years now. It’s a chronological and biographical look at a series of feminist writers who were influential to later feminists, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft, and eventually including firsthand details about the author’s experience creating an early women’s studies program at Douglass. I am reasonably familiar with feminist history, but didn’t know much at all–practically nothing–about the personal lives of, say, Olive Schreiner and Eleanor Marx and Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag. I spent several weeks reading it, so my thoughts on the overall themes are attenuated, but mostly reading it made me feel hopeful and validated.

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken came out of a box of graduate school books, mostly ethnography and theory, that I had excavated from the closet. I think I picked it up because someone else was discarding it, over twenty years ago. It was published in 1984. So I read it! It’s what it says on the tin: reviewing mentions of the Christian movement in the first four centuries or so C.E., starting with Pliny the Younger and moving on to the pagan critics Celsum, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. Because the Christians eventually took over the Roman Empire, the works of the critics were usually burned, but fragments survive in the books that argued against them. I know practically nothing about early Christian history, or much about the Roman Empire after Caracalla, but the book gave me enough background to understand. The main criticisms the proponents of Roman religion had were that 1) the Christians didn’t support The State by performing the religious rituals that kept the empire strong; 2) they worshipped a man, Jesus, instead of the one high god that everyone was supposed to worship, even though they said they also worshipped one high god; 3) a lot of their theology didn’t make logical sense and they gave “have faith” as an explanation; and 4) they claimed to grow out of Judaism but really didn’t, which threw all their pronouncements into doubt. The Romans were more tolerant of Judaism because at least it was really old and had sacrifices and other rituals and laws, and because there were large communities of Jews in Roman cities who worked in civil service and otherwise supported The State. Recommended if you’re interested in the topic.

Fanfiction:
fight like girls for our place at the table by napricot focuses on Sharon Carter, from the beginning of her assignment to keep an eye on Steve Rogers in The Winter Soldier movie, and features a slow-build romance with Natasha Romanov. Recommended!

My November Reading Log

Fiction:
Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch had some resolutions happen in the series! I shall not spoil which ones. The plot raised some new questions in Peter Grant’s quest to understand how magic works, because it’s always much more complicated than it appears. As usual, I loved the neep about how to facilitate the use of magic in police work (creating procedures for training, etc.). Peter’s parents only have a brief appearance, but Abigail appears in several scenes, and there was a fair amount of Guleed as well.

Hollywood Dragon (Hollywood Shifters Book 2) by Zoe Chant was second in a series in which I had not read the first, but that was not a hindrance. It’s a lightweight paranormal romance about an opera singer who meets her dragon shifter mate in the process of participating in her best friend’s wedding. There’s a mild suspense plot happening as well.

Bear West by Zoe Chant is a short, sweet book about a contemporary arranged marriage between a woman from NYC and a bear shifter who just bought a ranch in Nevada. I think this is an early Chant, and much shorter than the later ones.

In high school and college I was a serious Mary Stewart aficionado, but I am pretty sure I had never read Rose Cottage before. I found it slightly unsatisfying; the mysteries were solved, but several character-related resolutions were left dangling at the end, and I was not in the mood for that sort of uncertainty. However, the loving descriptions of the 1947 English countryside and the varied village people moving on with their lives after WWII were excellent and satisfying.

Death of an Unsung Hero by Tessa Arlen is several into a murder mystery series featuring a partnership between an English aristocrat and her housekeeper; I chose it because it takes place during World War One. The country house has been turned into a hospital for shell-shocked officers, like Craiglockhart; Land Girls are helping with the harvest, though we don’t really see them; the son of the household, a pilot, is on leave with a broken arm. I enjoyed the setting quite a bit, and the way the various contemporary attitudes towards shell shock were integrated into the story. The mystery was of the sort that relies on alibis and timing, and kept me engaged, though not to the point where I couldn’t stop reading.

In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is post-apocalyptic, the apocalypse having been caused by aliens called the Vanishers who enacted all sorts of nasty genetic experimentation on people and the environment. A Vietnamese-type water dragon, whose goal is to protect humankind, tries to cure some of the now-rampant genetic diseases, while the human population, or at least the village we see, are focused only on survival, with a few using the opportunity to support their own power and enforce hierarchy. The human protagonist is caught in the middle. I enjoyed this a lot because the characters and worldbuilding were all so complex in ways that left me wanting more; many, many moral issues are raised that are relevant to today’s world, and I’m still thinking about it.

I finally read The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan. I haven’t been much in the mood for romances for a while, having read way to many for the previous while; I had only read her early novels for Harlequin. This is a short historical romance, but has a terrific conflict and characters, and I recommend it if you haven’t tried this author before. It’s the prequel to her Brothers Sinister series.

A Tryst with Trouble by Alyssa Everett is another historical romance, this one of the type where the hero and heroine dislike each other from the start and banter a lot, but the reader knows better; there is also a murder mystery to add to the complications. I found it light and pleasant and a good read for a train ride up to New York City.

Nonfiction:
The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by Iris Chang is a readable and thorough history. It begins with early, isolated immigrants from China to the United States (such as entertainers) before the California Gold Rush and bad conditions in China brought larger numbers and established communities in San Francisco and other cities as well as in small towns supporting the Gold Rush, needing agricultural labor, etc.. The author is a journalist, so it flows easily, mixing individual stories in with the more generalized events of waves of immigration, Exclusion Acts, wars, and political shifts in both China and the U.S. that affected immigration and immigrants. It shows how the work immigrants do and the businesses they go into are affected by available economic niches, local contacts, and legislation that supports or, more likely, impedes their progress. I was glad the book went into various civil rights lawsuits brought by Chinese businessmen and laborers, as well, as that tied in to some of my reading about 1960s black activism. Hooray for intersectionality! Several times, I found myself thinking, “Same shit, different day,” when reading about the Exclusion Acts or burdensome taxes and fees aimed at Chinese-owned businesses. Recommended if you want a good overview.

Fanfiction:
Turn, Archer, and Heed the Wild Hunt by Mhalachai is a crossover I would never have thought of – an older Susan Pevensie takes in foster child Clint Barton, the future Hawkeye. Yes, there is archery.

“Still Marching,” a tale of our times

Best Lesbian Erotica of the Year, Volume 3, edited by Sacchi Green, is out, and it includes my story “Still Marching.”

On Saturday, December 8th, there will be a release event for the book on the Lesfic Reading Group Facebook page. A list of all author posts about the anthology is here at the editor’s blog: Commenters on any of these posts will be entered in a drawing to win an ebook copy of the anthology.

Though I wrote “Still Marching” in 2018, I conceived the idea in January 2017, shortly after the first Philadelphia Women’s March, which I attended. I was with local friends, some of whom I had known since college in the 1980s, and we laughed bitterly and knowingly about signs that read, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this sh*t.” It warmed my heart to see women with gray hair and white hair still out on the streets, still standing up for their beliefs, and to see young women and families with children out on the streets as well.

The march sparked the initial idea for “Still Marching,” in which two older women are reunited after years apart because of the Women’s March. It’s the first time I’ve ever attempted to include contemporary events in a story, and the first time I’ve included details from a historical setting that I actually remember.

The fun part of the story, though, turned out to be exploring the divergent lives Mavis and Rhiannon lived after they drifted apart in their early twenties. Neither has arrived at the expected career. Both were influenced by family, and found family, to try paths that might not have occurred to them when they were college students. They’ve both experienced a lot, emotionally and politically, some of it humorous. Their views on the world and their place in it have changed. And yet they’re still activists, they still have feelings in common, and they still have hope.

I hope the story gives hope to readers as well.

My October Reading Log

Fiction:
Exit Strategy: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells concludes the series, at least so far, and made me very happy, except I still want more. There is a lot more world out there to explore, and a lot more for Murderbot to learn about itself and struggle with. Once I was done reading it, and it really helped me a lot to have something like this to read last week, I re-read the whole series of four novellas in order, keeping in mind that this is a specfic escaped slave narrative.

This time, I noticed how each story focused on different aspects of Murderbot’s growth as it related to interacting with different people, including Artificial Intelligences. First, there are human clients who learn it is sentient and feel sympathy for it, which Murderbot finds difficult to accept; then a more powerful AI who becomes an annoying and sarcastic friend who is both more powerful and more autonomous than Murderbot, despite caring deeply about its humans; then Miki, a bot about whom Murderbot is deeply conflicted because of the nuances of how Miki and Don Abene, its human, interact. Murderbot regards Miki as a child, I think, though it mostly seems upset that Miki is treated like a being in its own right, with love, by its humans, in ways that Murderbot was not. In the fourth installment, Murderbot returns to the humans of the first installment, and we can see how their relationships have changed. Murderbot has exercised its autonomy to a greater extent, and is somewhat more confident in expressing personal desires and emotions.

I devoured The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas, book three in The Lady Sherlock Series. Several characters had a lot going on emotionally, and I particularly enjoyed the journey of Inspector Treadles as he, shall we say, got a little more woke about feminism. The murder mystery is convoluted, but the outcome delighted me for seeming just as wacky as something I would have read in one of the original Conan Doyle stories. I am hoping there will be more of this series; a lot of plot elements were tied off, but there is plenty of scope for more stories.

I read Band Sinister by K.J. Charles on a trusted friend’s recommendation and found it was exactly what I was looking for: a male/male historical romance about good people who talk about their problems and solve them in mutually acceptable ways, with bonus found family aspects. A range of sexualities is presented, as well as a poly relationship, and everything works out all right in the end. Plus, the main female character is a Gothic novelist, so bonus.

Nonfiction:
Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail W. Jeffrey Bolster looks at how both enslaved and free black men worked as sailors, establishing some free blacks as middle class in New England, and how eventually oppressive laws and imposed segregation began to drive them out of the profession starting around the 1850s. This is a dense book supported by lots of statistics, giving a thorough picture of both the general run of black sailors and the outliers who profited, for example, as ship captains. I found the early chapters particularly interesting, as they showed how African seagoing practices, especially the techniques and boats they used in dangerous surf, were appropriated and reused for similar environments on the other side of the Atlantic, leading to many enslaved African pilots and coasters, who were able to enjoy at least some degree of autonomy. The book also shows the influences of black culture on sailing culture in general, for instance with the development of sea shanties as a distinctive musical form, and provides a case study of how cultural divisions showed up in black and white American sailors imprisoned in Dartmoor during war with Britain.

My 2018 Philcon Schedule

This weekend, I’ll be at Philcon, held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. My panel schedule is below.

Saturday, November 17, 11:00 AM, Crystal Ballroom Three
“A Tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin”

Simone Zelitch [moderator], Victoria Janssen, Miriam Seidel, Susan Shwartz, Kim Kindya
A discussion of the life and works of this massively influential author, and a celebration of the 50th anniversary of her landmark Earthsea series

Saturday, November 17, 2:00 PM, Crystal Ballroom Three
“Marvel’s Next Phase”

Jay Smith [moderator] Savan Gupta, Tauney Kennedy, Victoria Janssen, Kim Kindya, Glenn Hauman
In the last year, Marvel made us laugh with “Ant-Man and The Wasp,” cry with “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” and flat-out blew us away with “Black Panther.” And after spending the last ten years building up the teams, themes, and story elements necessary for “nfinity War,” the film appeared to tear the whole universe apart. So…what happens next?

Sunday, November 18, 10:00 AM, Crystal Ballroom Three
“Fifty Years Of Pern”

Victoria Janssen [moderator], Hildy Silverman, Phillip Thorne, Elektra Hammond
Anne McCaffrey’s longest-running series was a trailblazing hybrid of fantasy and science fiction. What impact has it had on SF, fantasy, and multi-genre works? How well does it hold up when viewed in the present era?