Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt. 11: Cheryl Morgan

Aqueduct Year in Review 2015
By Cheryl Morgan 

I seem to have read a lot of really good books this year, which is going to make award voting hard. I should probably start with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. People were really excited about this one on social media, and I can see why. I very much enjoyed it, and if you are into folk tales and sorcery with a capable and determined heroine, I’m sure you will too.

Of course there is a new Cat Valente novel out. Radiance is an absolute delight, and so good in so many different ways that I don’t really know how to do it justice. I just wish that more people loved such complex and ambitious writing.

At a time when diversity in fiction, and the concept of Own Voices, is getting a major push, two novels stand out. Planetfall, by Emma Newman is a great piece of science fiction but also a brilliant portrait of a woman plagued by anxiety. Emma has chronicled her own struggles with anxiety on social media, and it is clear that her book benefits greatly from personal experience. Similarly, Signal to Noise by Sylvia Moreno Garcia manages to be a wonderful fantasy debut reminiscent in some ways of Tim Powers, and a book set in Mexico City by someone who has lived there, and so knows the location far better than any tourist.

Signal to Noise is a book about the magic of music. So too is Wylding Hall. Liz Hand and I are of a similar age and grew up on the same music, so it is unsurprising that I loved this dark fantasy story based in part on the early history of Fairport Convention. Liz too, of course, is writing about things she knows well; in this case the music business. And with The House of Shattered Wings Aliette de Bodard brings her knowledge of the streets of Paris, and of Vietnamese folklore, to make something special from her fallen angels story.

Ian McDonald has embarked on a new venture with Luna: New Moon. That promises to be the first of a series of “Dallas on the Moon” books, and it has already been picked up for a TV series. Thankfully it will be on Netflix or similar, allowing the genderqueer nature of so many of the characters to be maintained. There’s a very nice ethnic mix amongst the cast as well.

Other books I have enjoyed this year include The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor; Glorious Angels by Justina Robson; Regeneration, the third and final part of the (R)evolution series by Stephanie Saulter and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Next on my pile is Dark Orbit from Carolyn Ives Gilman, which comes with some very impressive blurbs.

I’m pleased to see quite a few books featuring trans characters among the supporting cast. While I’m not always 100% happy with the representation, I’m delighted to see people trying hard to get it right. Check out Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, and Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper by David Barnett.

There are a number of collections and anthologies I’d like to draw your attention to. Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction is worth checking out even if you only do so for “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB”, which I adore. Still with Finland, Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn from the VanderMeers’ Cheeky Frawg is a massive tome containing some brilliant work by an extraordinary writer. The Kirkus review compared Krohn to Calvino and Borges, and I’m not going to argue with that.

The VanderMeers also produced the Sisters of the Revolution anthology of feminist SF, which I am sure you all know about. Probably less well known is Daughters of Frankenstein, an anthology of stories about lesbian mad scientists from Steve Berman. Any book that includes a Scooby Doo pastiche is OK by me.

One of the publishing events of the year was the first English language edition of Tales of the Marvellous, News of the Strange. This is a collection of stories in the tradition of The 1001 Nights, but older; much older. It’s not often that you get to read “new” stories that were written 1,000 years ago.

In non-fiction my primary interest this year has been in Letters to Tiptree, produced by Twelfth Planet Press. I’m biased because I have an essay in it, but it also gives me access to some of the letters between Tiptree, Russ and Le Guin, which makes me very happy.

It would be remiss of me not to mention books I have published. Juliet McKenna’s epic fantasy novels continue to sell very well. We are currently half way through the ebook re-issues of her Aldabreshin Compass series which is set in a part of the world of Einarinn inhabited mainly by brown people. Tor put the hero of the series on the cover of Southern Fire back in 2006, which sadly probably contributed to sales not justifying their picking up the rest of the series. I have also done ebook and hardcover editions of the two novels by the late Colin Harvey. I’m particularly pleased to be publishing Damage Time. Set in near future New York, it features a romance between a Muslim policeman and an intersex escort. Colin tried hard to do the diversity thing, and got little notice for it back when he was alive.

Some great things are happening in comics these days, both in terms of more queer characters and books aimed directly at teenage girls. I shouldn’t need to tell you about Saga, which is still going strong, or about Sandman: Overture which sees Neil Gaiman return to his much-loved creation and some absolutely stunning art from J.H. Williams, III.

You might also want to check out The Wicked & The Divine from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, which has a whole new take on celebrity culture. There’s the glorious Rat Queens from Kurtis J. Wiebe which may be the best piece of Dungeons & Dragons inspired writing ever. And of course there is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Ryan North and Erica Henderson, which is just delightful.

Having been a Marvel fan from a very early age I have been delighted by the transition of their heroes to film and television. Avengers: Age of Ultron was something of a mixed bag, but if you were annoyed by the goings on between Hulk and Black Widow you should check out the deleted and extended scenes on the DVD and listen to Joss Whedon’s commentary.

I’m delighted to see Peggy Carter getting a lot of screen time. The Agent Carter TV series was pretty good, though it took forever for it to air in the UK. She even got a cameo in Ant Man, which is a lot better than I had feared despite Wasp only getting a few seconds of screen time.

X-Men Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut is a fascinating artefact. Most movie DVDs come with a collection of deleted or edited scenes, but the changes in The Rogue Cut are really significant. It is like seeing an early draft of a novel before the editor has done the, “you need to get rid of these chapters, and this character, and move these scenes around” thing.

I will doubtless buy the Extended Edition of the Five-Hour Battle of the Endless Armies now it is out. I understand there is 11 hours of material on the Blu Ray. I expect that will be the three hours of the original movie plus an extra 8 hours of Thorin’s death scene.

I love Jupiter Ascending beyond all reason, despite it being desperately silly at times. It is Space Opera, it is supposed to be silly. Besides, the scene at the end where Caine has his wings back reminded me so much of Pygar in Barbarella.

The Wachowskis also did a great job with their Netflix series, Sense 8. I was particularly pleased with the character of Nomi Marks, not only because she was played by a trans actress, Jamie Clayton, but also because the script managed to show some of the horrific challenges faced by trans people without making it a transition narrative.

Talking of trans people, two reality TV shows have done a lot for public awareness of trans issues. I am Cait could easily have been a disaster because Ms. Jenner’s life is so far divorced from everyday reality. Thankfully her decision to involve a posse of other trans women paid off spectacularly. Jenny Boylan, Chandi, Candis Cayne and Jen Richards are the real stars of the show. I am Jazz is much more down to earth but, while Jazz Jennings is a much more relatable person than Cait, the show is even more obviously artificial. Reality TV is anything but real.

In film the big trans story of the year is Tangerine, a sharply observed slice of real life amongst trans hookers on the streets of Los Angeles, based on actual experiences of one of the trans women who star in it. Most media attention will go instead to The Danish Girl, which is unfortunate because it pushes some inaccurate and harmful ideas about what trans people are like.

There’s a big debate going on at the moment regarding two women-led superhero shows. Supergirl is basically Cosmopolitan does superheroes. Poor Kara seems to suffer from every neurosis that women’s magazine columnists love to lecture us about, but she’s Kryptonian so she can have it all. Sometimes. Thankfully the show doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. It is also great for eye candy. I could sit and watch Mehcad Brooks and Peter Facinelli all day. Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant totally steals the show.

So much for the fluff corner. In the noir corner we have Jessica Jones, which is the most impressive TV series I have seen in a very long time. It deals with some very serious issues, and isn’t easy to watch, but it maintains a firm feminist vision throughout. A show like that simply would not have been possible without the move away from broadcast TV. Huge respect to Melissa Rosenberg for getting the show made and keeping the vision intact.

In non-fiction I warmly recommend The Ascent of Woman, a BBC documentary series by Dr. Amanda Foreman. It is basically a history of women’s involvement in human civilization, much of which has been deliberately erased by (mostly male) mainstream historians. I think you can find all of the episodes on YouTube.

I am still working at Ujima Radio (whom I am delighted to report won a National Diversity Award this year), and this means that I am listening to a lot of early 20th century black women. Check out Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Big Mama Thornton when you get a chance. Thornton was at #1 on Billboard for 7 weeks back in 1952, selling just shy of 2 million copies of her single. The song was called “Hound Dog,” and you may have heard of it because some white guy did a cover version.

My big discovery for this year has been Lianne La Havas. She played the role of the lady scientist on Prince’s 2014 concept album, Art Official Age. This year she came out with a solo album called Blood which I love. Huge thanks to Karen Lord for recommending it to me.

Cheryl Morgan is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press. She blogs, reviews and podcasts regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings . Cheryl co-presents the Women’s Outlook show on Ujima Radio . This year she was honoured to give a lecture on “Exploring Gender Fluidity through Science Fiction and Fantasy” at Liverpool University, available online here.

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