Monday, January 28, 2013

Rachel Swirsky's YA & MG Novel Recommendations 2012, Distilled

This is the distilled list of my young adult and middle grade novel recommendations from 2012, for people who just want to see titles for reference.


The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Diviners by Libba Bray
Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman


Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Ask the Passengers by A. S. King
Every Day by David Levithan
The Broken Lands by Kate Milford
A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

(a partial list)

Dark Companion by Maria Acosta
Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch
Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand
And All the Stars by Andrea Host
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Cinder by Melissa Meyer
Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Rachel Swirsky's Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel Recommendations, 2012

For people who want to see only titles without commentary, a distilled list is here.

This year, I read 40 young adult and middle grade novels that were published in 2012. (That I have a record of; it's possible that I read others during the year and forgot to document them.) I compiled my list through: 1) books that caught my attention during the year, usually because of familiarity with the author or because of recommendations, 2) contacting members of the Norton jury (the Norton award is the award for young adult and middle grade novels that's granted by the Science Fiction Writers of America) toward the end of the year for their recommendations, and 3) contacting young adult and middle grade authors of my acquaintance and asking them which books they'd felt passionate about during 2012.

The nice thing about this method is that it allowed me to skip straight to the really good books. I didn't end up reading the, say, 60 random books that aren't very good which I might have picked up otherwise. It's possible that one of those sixty would have blown me away and that's always a negative of using other people's filtering, but doing it this way meant that half of the books I read rated highly above average for me, thirty that rated above average, and only 6 that I rated below average.

Since I know the distinction isn't clear to everyone, young adult and middle grade novels basically represent two facets of the market for children and teens. Young adult novels tend to be marketed at ages 13-20, have main characters around 16, and feature more romantic content (e.g. the characters may be having sex). In middle grade novels, the characters are more likely to have their first kiss, and be around 12-14, and the novels are marketed at ages 9-14. There are finer distinctions than that, and of course the books vary individually from the broad template, but those are more or less the basics. To put this in movie language, CORALINE is middle grade and TWILIGHT is young adult.


I'm still taking some time to think through what exactly will be on my ballot, so here are some likely candidates (order is alphabetical).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bloodchildren, ed. Nisi Shawl

I've lifted this straight from The Bookview Cafe:

Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
edited by Nisi Shawl
$8.01 (Anthology) ISBN 978-1-61138-237-2
Donate $8.01 to the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Fund. Reap the reward right now.

Every year, the Carl Brandon Society, whose goal is to increase diversity in the field of science fiction, presents scholarships to two students of color accepted to the prestigious Clarion and Clarion West writers’ workshops. The scholarships, named in honor of the brilliant African-American writer Octavia Butler, pay workshop tuition and housing fees for the recipients. Since 2007, they have made it possible for eleven students to attend the workshops.

Give a little, get a free ebook.

If you contribute a mere $8.01 to the scholarship fund, you can download Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars, an ebook anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories by these students — the voices of the new generation of writers of color in speculative fiction.
Edited by Nisi Shawl, Bloodchildren includes an introduction by Nalo Hopkinson and a memoir by Vonda N. McIntyre of her friendship with Octavia Butler, which began when they were students together at the Clarion Workshop in 1970.

The collection includes ground-breaking stories by Indrapramit Das, Shweta Narayan, Caren Gussoff, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Lisa Bolekaja, Chris Caldwell, Jeremy Sim, Erik Owomoyela, Dennis Y. Ginoza, Mary Burroughs, and Kai Ashante Wilson.

Donate now!

This special ebook is available only until June 22, 2013, Octavia’s birthday. She would have been sixty-six this year.

Octavia taught at Clarion and Clarion West, and provided enormous support there — and elsewhere — to other writers of color. Through these scholarships, she continues to do so.

Help continue Octavia’s work.

Please support the scholarship program right now with a modest $8.01 donation, and then download your gift: this original anthology celebrating an international coterie of writers who are truly the children and inheritors of Octavia Butler.

Contents of Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars, edited by Nisi Shawl

Introduction by Nalo Hopkinson
Before Conception
“Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler
“Octavia Estelle Butler” by Vonda N. McIntyre

“My Love Will Never Die” by Christopher Caldwell
“Falling into the Earth” by Shweta Narayan

“Free Bird” by Caren Gussoff
“Impulse” by Mary Burroughs

“Dancing in the Shadow of the Once” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

“Légendaire.” by Kai Ashante Wilson
“Steal the Sky” by Erik Owomoyela

“/sit” by Jeremy Sim
“Re: Christmas, Bainbridge Island” by Dennis Y. Ginoza

“The Runner of n-Vamana” by Indrapramit Das
“The Salt Water African” by Lisa Bolekaja

How to donate:

To donate, click on the orange Donate (MOBI) button if you have a Kindle or Kindle app. Click on the orange Donate (EPUB) button if you have a Nook, Sony, or other ereader or app. After donating, you will be given a link to download Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars.
Share in Octavia’s legacy: a trove of new writers of speculative fiction.

Comments on Bloodchildren:
“This is Octavia Butler’s brood. Her bloodchildren, her kindred, scattered into the future. This is what she’s sown. And our world’s so much better for it.” — Stephen Graham Jones

“From magical revenge on a Louisiana slave plantation to inanimate objects becoming animated, the stories in Bloodchildren are a fitting tribute to the masterful artist who has helped spark so many creative dreams in all of us. This volume helps keep alive the legacy of Octavia E. Butler.” — Tananarive Due, American Book Award winner, author of My Soul to Keep and the African Immortals series

“There is a sentence in one of these fine stories, ‘Legendaire.’ by Kai Ashante Wilson, which is pure poetry: ‘As glowing coals in a fire are steeped with richer color than the fire itself, so, pale as moonlight, a shine appears in the air around Papa’s head, and where his naps grow, not black but indigo-color, round the edges of his hairline, the widow’s peak, sideburns, and kitchen: every curly strand fills with brilliance, the way hot coals do, but this light makes no heat, and it shimmers, blue as the sky at noon.’

“And it was at the moment of reading this line that something relaxed within me. I’d been impressed and entertained before that moment, but in reading Wilson’s story I realized that this collection really was inspired by one of the great modern masters of the SF form, inspired in the highest sense of the word. Octavia Estelle Butler was my friend, the most dedicated writer I’ve ever known, and a shy, sweet, generous giant of a woman. This collection celebrates her life and legacy, but more to the point, it is an opportunity for a generation of writers to announce their arrival in a burst of literary thunder.

“Rest well, Octavia: your legacy is safe.” — Steven Barnes

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A few links of interest

--Ursula K. Le Guin applauds the existence of the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Refusal, which she informs us is made to writers who've turned down awards. (I haven't been able to find any information on this prize on the internet; Ursula's source is the Nov. 23, 2012 issue of The Times Literary Supplement.) Interestingly, she talks about her refusal of the Nebula Award for her novelette "The Diary of the Rose" because of her anger at SFWA for having ejected Stanislaus Lem
It was in the coldest, insanest days of the Cold War, when even the little planet Esseff was politically divided against itself. My novelette “The Diary of the Rose” was awarded the Nebula Prize by the Science Fiction Writers of America. At about the same time, the same organization deprived the Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem of his honorary membership. There was a sizeable contingent of Cold Warrior members who felt that a man who lived behind the Iron Curtain and was rude about American science fiction must be a Commie rat who had no business in the SFWA. They invoked a technicality to deprive him of his membership and insisted on applying it. Lem was a difficult, arrogant, sometimes insufferable man, but a courageous one and a first-rate author, writing with more independence of mind than would seem possible in Poland under the Soviet regime. I was very angry at the injustice of the crass and petty insult offered him by the SFWA. I dropped my membership, and feeling it would be shameless to accept an award for a story about political intolerance from a group that had just displayed political intolerance, took my entry out of Nebula competition shortly before the winners were to be announced. The SFWA called me to plead with me not to withdraw it, since it had, in fact, won. I couldn’t do that. So — with the perfect irony that awaits anybody who strikes a noble pose on high moral ground — my award went to the runner-up: Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors.
What relates my small refusal to Sartre’s big one is the sense that to accept an award from an institution is to be co-opted by, embodied as, the institution. Sartre refused this on general principle, while I acted in specific protest. But I do have sympathy for his distrust of allowing himself to be identified as something other than himself. He felt that the huge label “Success” that the Nobel sticks on an author’s forehead would, as it were, hide his face. His becoming a “Nobelist” would adulterate his authority as Sartre.
Do go and read her reflections on awards generally.

--Nin Andrews interviews me for the Best American Poetry blog. The interview concludes with Liz Henry's "Mother Frankenstein."

--I read today that
The numbers are in: 2012, the year of a surreal March heat wave, a severe drought in the corn belt and a massive storm that caused broad devastation in the mid-Atlantic states, turns out to have been the hottest year recorded in the contiguous United States.

How hot was it? The temperature differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree, but last year’s 55.3 degrees blew away the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.

If that does not sound sufficiently impressive, consider that 34,008 daily high records were set at U.S. weather stations, compared with only 6,664 record lows, according to a count maintained by Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton, using federal temperature records.

That ratio, which was roughly in balance as recently as the 1970s, has been out of whack for decades as the country has warmed, but never by as much as it was last year.

“The heat was remarkable,” said Jake Crouch, a scientist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which released the official climate compilation Tuesday. “It was prolonged. That we beat the record by one degree is quite a big deal.”
While in Australia, which is suffering record heat and fierce wild fires, "meteorologists have had to add a new color to their temperature maps to reflect an "uparalleled setting of new heat extremes."
Wild fires continue to rage across Australia Tuesday and temperatures have become so hot the country's Bureau of Meteorology was forced to add a new color—deep purple—to show areas that have exceeded all-time heat records.

Previously the Bureau's heat index was capped at 48°C (118.4°F), but now recorded temperatures of over 50°C (122°F) have pushed the limit of the scale to an unheard of 54°C, which is equivalent to 129°F.

"The scale has just been increased today and I would anticipate it is because the forecast coming from the bureau's model is showing temperatures in excess of 50 degrees," David Jones, head of the bureau's climate monitoring and prediction unit, told reporters.

Indicating that the worst may yet to come, Jones added that, "The air mass over the inland is still heating up - it hasn't peaked."

Climate scientists in Australia—with Jones among them—say the fires and the heat are unprecedented in scale and intensity, but that Australians should understand the destructive temperatures and ensuing fires across Tasmania and southern sections of the country are the new normal of runaway climate change.
The reports keep coming in-- about the arctic antarctic melting at much faster rates that previously thought, about how levels of carbon in the atmosphere have passed the point of no return, about extreme weather, and so on. That these reports keep coming in ever thicker and faster curiously enough doesn't mean that the "issue" is getting the attention it needs-- here in the US, anyway. The public sphere (i.e., the US's elites) are still not paying attention. Why do you suppose that is?

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol.3,1

The Cascadia Subduction Zone has begun its third year! Hard to believe, isn't it? (But then this spring Aqueduct Press will be nine years old.) The issue leads off with Alan DeNiro's "We Have Never Been Postmodern: 'Walking Stick Fires' and the Knowability of Science Fiction," which joins the conversation provoked by Paul Kincaid's Los Angles Review of Books essay "The Widening Gyre"; Hiromi Goto engages with Ursula K. Le Guin's Tehanu for the issue's Grandmother Magma column; Nin Andrews, Care Santos (tr. by Lawrence Schimel) and Michele Bannister contribute creative work; and Victoria Garcia, Karen Burnham, Mark Bould, and others review books that caught our attention. Pam Sanders is our featured artist. You can find it at

Current Issue
Vol. 3 No. 1
January 2013

We Have Never Been Postmodern: “Walking Stick Fires” and the Knowability of Science Fiction
   by Alan DeNiro

Grandmother Ash
   by Michele Bannister

The Social Function of Property
    by Care Santos

    by Michele Bannister

Flash Fiction
On the Island Where I Come From
   by Nin Andrews
Grandmother Magma
Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
   reviewed by Hiromi Goto
At the Mouth of the River of Bees
   by Kij Johnson
   reviewed by Victoria Garcia

Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with the Mars Exploration Rovers
    by William J. Clancey
    reviewed by Karen Burnham

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana
    edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh
    reviewed by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

Rapture: Book Three of the Bel Dame Apocrypha
    by Kameron Hurley
    reviewed by Mark Bould

Revolution at Point Zero
    by Silvia Federici
    reviewed by Maria Velazquez

Heiresses of Russ 2012:
The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction

    edited by Connie Wilkins and Steve Berman
    reviewed by Cynthia Ward 
Featured Artist
Pam Sanders

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.33: Lucy Sussex

Best of 2012
by Lucy Sussex

The following represents a selection of the book reviewing this year. As my editors know, I have weird tastes, but I generally find something I like.

As for films, I recall with pleasure MARGIN CALL (quel script!) and Herzog’s THE CAVE OF FORBIDDEN DREAMS.


Chris Brickell, Genre

Robert Gant was the town chemist in Masterton, rural New Zealand, in the late 1800s-early 1900s. He was the life of amateur theatricals, and worked tirelessly for charity. That he performed in drag and had a large circle of young male friends went unnoticed—until his photographs emerged from the obscurity of history. Gant was a gifted amateur photographer, and in his recording of his leisure hours shows men tactile, relaxed and affectionate in each others’ company. The erotic charge is felt, even beneath layers of Victorian clothing. The book is a reminder that the ancestors were both not so different from us, and also stranger (as with the photos of shoes and mock-beheadings). Unlike Wilde, Gant avoided censure, and led a long and happy life with various male companions.


ME BEFORE YOU Jo Jo Moyes, Michael Joseph

Novels about heavy issues do not have to be heavy. Matter: a disabled man wanting to die. Style: light and wry. Narrative mode: the odd couple of romantic comedy. Heroine Lou is aimless but friendly, working as carer for quadriplegic Will. Their physical proximity sets hormones going. Moyes being English, class figures large: Will is Posh, Lou not. It could be a book that is truly sickening, but instead engages, even pleases. Memo to the readerspace: never underestimate chicklit. [Afterthoughts: a too-pushy PR-person almost put me off this book, but I was glad I read it]


We all need some levity in our lives, to keep the darkness away. Irish novelist Keyes bakes (her cookbook Saved by Cake) and writes brilliant comedy. This novel, written after a bad bout of black dog, juggles economic and personal depression—with great wit and observation. Through post-GFC Ireland stalks Helen, a private eye a few pills short of a breakdown. She has the task of finding an errant member of a 1990s boy band, gone awol from a reunion concert. All things Irish are duly sent up, including Bono. It made me giggle.

[Apart from a too-long break-in sequence, a perfect blend of comedy and darkness]

THE CONVENT Maureen McCarthy, A&U

Sometimes a writer changes gear, and their work takes off at speed. McCarthy is best known as a writer for teens, but this book is for women of all ages. It tells the story of the Abbotsford convent, via the lives of four generations. Sadie is an unmarried mother, who loses her daughter Ellen to the convent orphanage. Ellen’s daughter Cecilia is lost by becoming a nun. And Cecilia’s daughter Peach is quite unaware of her family history. Their stories are told in interlinked chapters, a rich tapestry. The Church changes, and so do the roles of women. Recommended.



Certain writers remain utterly reliable, utterly enchanting. Penny’s beat is Quebec, though here with the unusual setting of a Catholic monastery. Its reclusive order has recently had a world-wide hit with a recording of Gregorian chant. With the money has come murder, the suspect somewhere in the enclosed community. Inspector Gamache investigates, in a taut, deftly organized whodunit. Peaceful though the monks may seem, they have their secrets and tensions. The music is part of the plot, and in the chant lies the crime’s solution. For once, the title of the book describes it perfectly.

BLACK SKIES Arnaldur Indridason, trans. Victoria Cribb, Harvill

Indridason is perhaps the best crime writer alive. His beat is Iceland, and for the last two books he has banished his detective, the gloomy Erlendur. The subordinates take centre stage: here Sigurdur Óli. His coworkers find him annoying, but centre stage he is calmly efficient. Erlendur has interiority, Óli has none, being a young fogey, devoted to US pop culture. A favour to a schoolfriend results in a murder case; at the same time a parallel plot, of child abuse, unfolds. It ends with foreboding, Iceland heading for the GFC. Masterful as ever.

[My two favourite crime writers, in form. Bliss!]



American Krause was a folk musician, rock sessioneer to the likes of The Doors, and latterly an expert in natural sounds. Here he has sought the origins of music. For forty years he has recorded aural soundscapes specializing in ecosystems. Biophony is animal noise, which he shows to be a complex aural interaction. A frog chorus signals mating, territory, but also protects against predators. Hunter-gather societies read their soundscape like a book; but sadly this ability is vanishing with the natural habitats. 50% of Krause’s recordings are of lost environments. A wonderful read, and a plea for conservation.


The sequencing of the human genome in 2001 cost billions. Now the price has dropped, and the discoveries are legion. Disease genes have been identified, and Lamarck’s theories revived. The immense complexities revealed are the focus of this book, which takes in HIV, plant genes, and species-hopping DNA. A new world of medicine and crop breeding awaits, and the social implications are the stuff of either utopia or dystopia. A fascinating book.

FLOATING GOLD Christopher Kemp, 4th Estate

Ambergris is a contradictory substance: dung into perfume. It forms in the guts of sperm whales, is refined in the ocean, and finally becomes a fixative for the most expensive scents. Science cannot replicate it, and its rarity value is huge. This book of popular science is both highly specific—everything you never thought you needed to know about ambergris--and yet very readable. Kemp is a scientist, who can write natural history and delight in nature with ease. He obsessively searched for ambergris himself, on the beaches of New Zealand. He was unsuccessful, but his prize and ours was this splendid book.

[How to make an interesting book out of whale poo]



A proud point of difference between Australians and New Zealanders is their lack of convict ancestry. As this book shows, it is quite untrue. Given the short distance between the countries, several thousand felons, ex or not, simply hopped over the ditch. They found there jobs in sealing, or trading with the canny Maori. Some even became Pakeha-Maori, with tattoes. The treaty of Waitangi would obscure these disreputable early settlers, and their lack of literacy meant few of their stories survived. Excellent stuff—not least for the true story of the good ship Venus.

THE KING’S REVENGE Don Jordan & Michael Walsh, Little, Brown

Charles II is called the merry monarch, but he could also be coldly vengeful. This book details the fates of the 59 men who signed the death warrant for Charles I. Regicide was an offence against God, and bitterly personal for the King. Over thirty years, he either tortured and executed his foes publicly, or sent assassination squads across the known globe. It reads like a real-life spy thriller, with a cast including the Cromwells, Milton and Aphra Behn. But the authors also note the regicides’ reforms, their foundation of modern Britain. An informative, good read.

AGENT GARBO Stephen Talty, Scribe

Some characters are simply too outrageous for fiction. Consider Juan Pujol, one of World War II’s greatest spies. He was Spanish, undistinguished in career, but with a burning hatred of the Nazis. So he became a double agent. First he approached the Germans, convincing them he ran a team of spies in fortress England. Then he told the British what he was doing. This incredibly dangerous game worked because of Pujol’s ability to tell convincing whoppers. His greatest coup was to con the Nazis over D-Day, feeding them the wrong location for the attack. Fascinating stuff, well-told.


ALIF THE UNSEEN G. Willow Wilson, A&U

Wilson is an American woman living in the Middle East, a convert to Islam. She is also a journalist, and a worker in pop culture, writing comics. Her interests merge in this strikingly original debut. It takes the matter of the Arabian Nights, and updates it: hackers encounter djinns, and revolution. Islam thus enriches the modern fantasy genre. Like Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, the novel has intelligence, and a social conscience. Yet while Wilson agitates for change, she respects Islamic tradition. Although only just released, the book was completed before the Arab spring, in fact eerily predicts it. Recommended.

PYROTECHNICON Adam Browne, Coueur de Lion

Pyrotechnicon might be the most imaginative novel published in Australia for some years. The subtitle is: the further adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac. The source matter is Bergerac’s own scientific romances. Browne extends these fancies in his own wild ride around the solar system, with the writer/swordsman as hero. Thus we get a flower-powered ship, Orangutans with magic lantern heads, and Louis XIV’s cats. The name of this literary game is transmogrification. The style and setting draw upon the baroque, creating a word feast. It fits neatly into no literary category. Illustrated by the author’s drawings, weirdly and well.

RAILSEA China Miéville, Macmillan

Miéville is endlessly variable. He might operate within the speculative fiction genre, but can move from horror to metaphysics to space opera with ease. His work is always intelligent, and political. Railsea encompasses teen and adult audiences. What if steampunk met Moby Dick, with a female Captain Ahab? He also nods to Edith Nesbit. In an alien world, hunters on trains pursue moldywarpes, giant moles. Young Sham is an apprentice to the chase, watching with wonder and horror. Railsea is a coming of age tale, written with great zest and derring-do. The imagination is breathtaking, as is also the sense of sheer fun. Recommended.


A LADY CYCLIST’S GUIDE TO KASHGAR Suzanne Joinson, Bloomsbury

This novel dances between eras and narrators, with much charm. In 1923, Eva accompanies her missionary sister to central Asia, to write a cycling guidebook. In the modern day, refugee Tayeb has fled Yemen for London. He encounters Frieda, another traveler, adrift in an unsatisfactory relationship. She has inherited a flatful of personal history, including Eva’s diary. What follows is a tale of East meets West, of the unexpected kindness of strangers. Frieda discovers much about her family, and that the distances between blood relatives are greater than any geography. A delightful book.

LITERARY, WITH GUTS HHhH, trans. Sam Taylor Laurent Binet, Harvill Secker

Few books have an unpronounceable title. HHhH is also an acronym, referring to SS Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. He was brainy, efficient and brutal—until his assassination in Prague, 1942. The story of the killing is famous, oft-told. Binet’s innovation is to place the author within the narrative. How can he write history faithfully, while also doing justice to this supreme act of resistance? So he grounds himself in old, unchanging Prague, researches, and imagines. The notion is as risky as the assassination itself, yet Binet lays out his choices, his agonies—and succeeds triumphantly.

[About the only book on this list which figures in mainstream best-ofs for 2012. That, and the Earls]


MARJORIE BLIGH’S HOME Ed. Danielle Wood, Text

Bligh is a Tasmanian institution. She is a housewife superstar, but without Edna’s malice. Beginning in the 1960s, she self-published books of home hints. This book collects extracts, with endorsements from Bob Brown, or Matthew Evans. It is a mixture of great good sense, kitsch, and the gobsmacking. Cold porridge scones; how to cook wattlebirds; beetroot rouge. Her natural thrift made her a recyclista well before environmentalism. She knitted old stockings, and made rolled newspapers into logs. America has its Martha Stewart; Australia has Marjorie Bligh. No contest: Marjorie wins.

[Took this book to a Kris Kringle, and the recipient was overjoyed.]


I REMEMBER YOU Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Hodder

Icelandic crime writing leaves the other Scandinavians for dead. It depicts isolation, but also interiority. Here the GFC leads to a holiday home renovation—with horror results. The bones of a child are found. In a parallel story, a psychologist mourns his lost son while investigating a case of what could be a poltergeist. The two cases will link, in an ever increasing chain of human frailty. What seems like ordinary, mundane lives can suddenly become very strange: Nature here turns lethal unexpectedly, and so do the people. Superbly creepy—and not to be read when alone at night.


THE FEMALE DETECTIVE Andrew Forrester Jr, British Library
Crime Victoriana buffs know Doyle, Collins and Mary Braddon. Less available is this text, featuring the first female police detective. In 1864, such was impossible in reality, with no women police for another 50 years. Nonetheless two books with this subject appeared, of which Forrester’s showed a rare and genuine ability. Mrs Gladden features as the heroine, not romantically, but of a series of adept detective stories. She is the complete professional, deadlier than the male. The reprint here is introduced by Alexander McCall Smith. It deserved better than a scanned typeface, but the sheer quality shines through.

[I am not convinced that the same author wrote the Forrester stories, as they vary in quality. A shared or house pseudonym, maybe. But these are the best Forrester—up to Wilkie Collins standard]


MODIGLIANI Meryl Secrest, Scribe

Artist Amadeo Modigliani lived wildly, died young—and left a good-looking oeuvre. He began rich in Sephardic Italy, and ended poor in boho Paris. In his life he sold little, but his works now earn millions. Biographer Secrest argues against the myth of the self-destructive genius: Modigliani worked like a fury, and TB, not drugs, killed him. Saddest was his young lover, artist Jeanne Hébuterne—although eight months pregnant, she suicided shortly afterwards.

THE BARONESS Hannah Rothschild, Virago

Nica Rothschild was born to wealth, and a troubled family history. She was intended to be a good Jewish wife, but then she fell in love with jazz music. Its siren call enticed her from her children and titled husband. She moved to New York, becoming a patroness of the music, and also friend of its players. She gained infamy when Charlie Parker died in her company, but her major influence was on Thelonious Monk. She would even take the rap for his narcotics bust. Rothschild, a documentary maker, documents her bohemian great-aunt meticulously and with love. A splendid biography.


AFTER THE DARKNESS Honey Brown, Penguin

Brown’s last novel was longlisted for the Miles Franklin—and should have made the shortlist. This latest is more in the psychothriller genre, and an excellent read. A middleaged Australian couple take a beach holiday without the kids. What happens next upends popular thriller clichés of villains and victims. Wife and husband fight off a horrific attack together. Then they return to their lives as small business owners, ordinary people. But the violence has left its mark. They are scarred, and increasingly paranoid that the threat will follow them home. Are they going to become horrors themselves? Should make an excellent film.

FISH-HAIR WOMAN Merlinda Bobis, Spinifex

Bobis is a writer living in Australia, but vitally concerned with her birthplace, the Philippines. She also can do easily what very few authors here dare, mix the magical realism with the political. In this novel, a dirty war is being fought against Phillippine insurgents. Bodies are dumped in the river; and retrieved by a woman whose hair is a net for the dead. Parallel to this story is a young Australian, seeking his missing journalist father. The force of the writing does not allow disbelief; Bobis takes risks and no prisoners. The result is dark, angry, powerful. For the Stella prize, at least.

[Dear reader, I judged a literary award this year. Neither of these books appeared in the shortlist, but they were my Aussie faves]



In the history of censorship, Australia figures as an enthusiastic banner of books. Some of these works were pulp, but many had serious intent. In the process, a huge library of the prohibited was created, and hidden in the National Archives. Moore rediscovered it—and thus had a unique window into the wowser mentality. Sex was bad, also sedition: and some truly strange decisions were made. Huxley, Salinger and Vidal were banned, along with porn and science fiction comics. The decisions were secretive, with Australians never knowing what the censors were protecting them from. Moore provides a powerful and informative story of a changing Australia.


THE ALEPPO CODEX Matti Friedman, Scribe

This book is a mystery story about a sacred text, a tenth-century annotated Hebrew Bible. It is believed to be the definitive version, but 200 pages are missing. Supposedly the damage came from Muslim rioters in 1947. They set fire to the Syrian synagogue which housed the Codex. It was believed destroyed, yet re-surfaced in Israel ten years later. Friedman’s investigative journalism follows the Codex on its journeys, a tale of smugglers, spies, and finally human greed. What he unearths says much about the formation of Israel. It is also a bibliographic scandal. A fascinating read, for those intrigued by religion and the history of books.

[Not perhaps flawlessly written, but still engrossing]



‘Any revolution that doesn’t create equality for women will be incomplete’. Amen. This collection takes a global perspective on gender, examining unfinished women’s business. Part 2 is devoted to the Arab Spring, and its potential for regression in women’s rights. Afghanistan remains heartbreaking, but there are many other areas of concern. In California, thousands of evidence samples in rape cases remain untested. The book is sobering, but also a testament to courage, small and big victories: Somali Dr Hawa Abdi vs militias, a fatwa against FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sobering and enlightening.


WELCOME TO NORMAL Nick Earls, Vintage

Many essay the short fiction, but fewer actually succeed with the form. Earls is one of the shining exceptions. This collection is linked by the theme of travel, particularly people out of their comfort zone. Character and narrative are both important here: things happen, and resonate deep in the psyche. In “Range”, a US soldier drives home, with horror increasingly on his mind. Other stories show tourists: a feuding gay couple in Spain, or Australian wine-makers in Taiwan. Pick of bunch is probably “Merlo Girls”, about two ill-assorted males, and an act of kindness. Good stuff!

[I review quite a lot of short stories on principle, as they are neglected otherwise. Earls is one of the few authors I saw who knew what to do with the form]



Two murders of women twenty years apart, in Italy and England. Had one been properly investigated, the second would not have occurred. Reporter Jones was drawn into the case, and provides a masterful picture. At the heart of this book is a great love for provincial Italy, but also awareness of its faults. The first crime went unavenged through inertia, and the fear of upsetting the powerful. A major factor was the Catholic Church, who hindered the investigation. Justice was finally done, but at the cost of possibly three more lives. A powerful book.

[True crime shades into voyeurism far too easily. That this book also dealt with serial killing should have meant I tossed it aside. Instead, I read to conclusion, as Jones neatly soared above the competition like a Powerful Owl].

Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand in 1957. She has degrees in English and Librarianship from Monash University, and is a freelance researcher, editor and writer. She has published widely, writing anything from literary criticism to horror and detective stories. In addition she is a literary archaeologist, rediscovering and republishing the nineteenth-century Australian crime writers Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. Her short story, `My Lady Tongue' won a Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) in 1988. In 1994 she was a judge for the international Tiptree award, which honours speculative fiction exploring notions of gender. Her first adult novel, The Scarlet Rider, is about biography, Victorian detective fiction, voodoo and a ghost. Aqueduct Press published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty, in 2006.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.32: Karen Meisner

2012 Pleasures
by Karen Meisner

Maybe I ought to start jotting down little reviews every time I like something, so by the end of the year I'll have a handy list of my complete reading, viewing, and listening pleasures? But instead, I'll just sift through my blurry memories and pick out a few things that still shine brightly, now that 2012 is done.

Goblin Secrets by Will Alexander is a lovely sort of coming-of-age story, set in an original world full of strange magic with tangled roots that run deep. Beautifully written (it won the National Book Award, which is not a thing that often happens to debut novels about goblins). When I went on a long road trip in November with my husband and son, we brought the audiobook with us in the car. Listening to that story for a few hours transformed our travel into a fairytale journey. It's read by the author himself, who is a theater person from way back, and it may well be the best audio book reading I've ever heard. Recommended for anyone, but especially on road trips with kids.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, I've made do with a whole lot of heroines depicted through a depressingly sexist lens -- so I'm thrilled about what writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has done in the brand-new Captain Marvel. She's taken the vintage character of Carol Danvers and put her in a story that fits into canon (as well as any Marvel Comics retcon ever does, anyway) but creates an entirely new paradigm for how this character can be written. I'd say that Captain Marvel follows in the wake of the brilliant work Gail Simone did in Birds of Prey, in that it features tough, smart women for whom relationships with other women are central and meaningful. But Captain Marvel goes a step further in establishing its own modern style, from DeConnick's sharp writing to the painterly artwork by Dexter Soy, which brings out the characters as people of action. The dialogue is so good: smart, cool, funny, and utterly no-bullshit. I adore these women. The first six issues cover a time travel arc, highlighting Danvers' personal history as a fighter pilot within a wider history of American women pilots. It explores some of the struggles they faced, and how their fight to break down barriers opened doors for later generations. That's an aspect of history you don't often see in comics, especially presented the way it's done here, not as an abstract side note but as an active and ongoing part of Danvers' life, through her relationship to older female mentors and role models. Why is this sort of cross-generational friendship so rare to see that it deserves special mention? I find it tremendously moving and powerful. Don't get me wrong, though: this is no dry history lesson but a muscular action-adventure plot starring a fierce, difficult woman I'd want as a friend.

A completely different comic book that's making me happy is The Bravest Warriors. The writer is Joey Comeau, who's got a rare gift for merging sheer gleeful mayhem with a tender and genuine kindness. And through it all runs a sincere belief in the value of friendship. I've never seen the much-acclaimed show this comic is based upon, but I can't imagine it's any better, funnier, or cuter than the comic he's writing.

Babette's Feast: A 1987 Danish film based on an Isak Dinesen story, which I've watched now probably five times over the years. I always forget how much I love it. Each time it begins, I wonder: do I really want to waste two hours on this slow-paced, dreary thing? And each time, the movie pulls me in and lulls me with its subtle beauty, wraps me up in its pacing until my own modern impatience dissipates and I get attuned to its rhythms. From there, it moves through a story of emotional catharsis among all its characters. Never fails to stir and elate me. Incidentally, for foodies who like cooking shows: you may want to check it out. Babette's dinner can kick some Top Chef ass any day.

Speaking of tv! Yeah, I loved me a whole lot of television in 2012, like Scandal, Revenge, Lost Girl, Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, Parks & Recreation, and (god help me) The Vampire Diaries. Thanks to Netflix streaming, I could also revisit my two favorite oldies-but-goodies this year. I rediscovered the full run of Xena; it's a pretty goofy series most of the time, but also so freeform and creative and good-natured that I'm happy to just roll with it. Anyway, I'll put up with a lot to see Xena and Gabrielle stride through the world together. I'm in the middle of rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer now, and my love for that show only seems to deepen with time.

Many years ago, I read Charlotte Brontë's Villette and bounced right off it. This year, I picked it up again as an audiobook (ready by Mandy Weston) and oh, this time around the book blew my mind. What a badass Brontë was for writing such a thing! Audacious in its defiance of novelistic convention, with a narrator who describes continual heartbreak and sadness while perversely holding out on us, refusing to deliver the expected satisfactions either to herself or to the reader, and I need all my friends to read this so I can talk about it with them, because I cannot discuss the book without the context of the ending, that ending --! Wherein -- as it seems to me -- the narrator builds to a climax, then metaphorically flips the bird to reader expectations, drops the mic, and walks offstage. Oh god, I loved this crazy book so much.

I was knocked out by Andrea Hairston's novel Redwood and Wildfire (and got to be on the Tiptree jury that chose it for the award) in 2012. Hairston has written a gorgeous, painful story about people of color making their way through America at the turn of the (20th) century. In addition to being a wildly romantic and magical love story, it's also a thoughtful examination of human experience and the difficulties of creating personal identity, community, and relationships in a society that imposes false constructions and hateful damage. I found it exciting and hopeful.

Christopher Barzak wrote three stories and an essay in Birds and Birthdays, a slim book inspired by the surrealist painters Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo. The stories are wonderfully odd and dreamlike, spun off from bits of painting imagery into new magical creations. In his concluding essay, Barzak looks at the history of female painters among the male-dominated Surrealist movement, explores his own hesitations over his use of their work, and is generally awesome. As long as I'm writing about this on Timmi's site, by the way, I want to say: thank you for making Aqueduct Press a place where an oddball assortment like this can get published, because it's a beautiful set of writings, a much-deserved tribute to these painters, and one of my favorite things I read this year.

Hide Me Among the Graves: Tim Powers returns at last to the secret magical underworld of 19th century Romantic poets he first visited in The Stress of Her Regard, written over twenty years ago. This time around, the story is even more complex and richly imagined. Known history, weird facts, and imagination are woven together so well and seamlessly into a secret history that it feels like we're learning the truth about what really happened. All written in that clear Powers style, which somehow uses straightforward prose to conjure the most fantastic dark visions.

I guess I was in kind of a dark and spooky mood for much of this year, because my favorite new music is A Blessed Unrest by The Parlour Trick. Described on their webpage ( as "haunted chamber music and dark, dreamy ambience", this is a soundtrack for mythic moods. It ranges from beautifully evocative pieces like "Mare Desiderii" and "Half Sick of Shadows" to the ominous mystery of "Leafy Sea Dragon Nursery"; from the gentle dirge of "Pandora" to "Planchette" which sounds like something Erik Satie might have written after he was dead, with a ghostly backup band. And then there's "The Yellow Wallpaper", an epic seven minute work which achieves the rare effect of anguish and madness that rings true; it's both terrifying and gorgeous beyond words. The entire album is the work of multi-instrumentalists Meredith Yayanos and Dan Cantrell, and it's really something special.

 Karen Meisner concluded her eight year run as an editor of Strange Horizons this year, and went on to write for the BBC/Three Rings online game DOCTOR WHO: WORLDS IN TIME.  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Quote of the day

Approximately every 80 minutes, a US military veteran commits suicide in the United States; for Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers of veterans lost to suicide now outstrips casualty lists of those killed in action. The suicide rate for active duty personnel isn’t so shockingly high, but it’s still significant; in the first half of 2012, almost one soldier a day took his or her own life. Both veterans and combat personnel have experienced a steep rise in suicide rates since 2005, which notably marked a sharp increase in the intensity of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is a public health crisis and an epidemic; veterans alone account for 20% of US suicides. Clearly, the measures the Department of Defense is using to cope with this problem are inadequate, and it’s time to think about how to approach suicide prevention for this particularly vulnerable population. While the DOD is targeting privately-owned weapons, which are a common culprit in military suicides, clearly this is only the beginning of a long and complex approach.--Suicides Outnumber Battle Deaths in Armed Services, S.E.Smith, Care2

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.31: Eileen Gunn

The Pleasures of Reading, 2012
by Eileen Gunn

This past year, I have been reading primarily non-fiction, scores of books -- history, biography and memoir, literary criticism – related to the novel I’m working on. The single book that had the most immediate emotional and intellectual effect on me was a work of American history, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier, by Juliet E. K. Walker.

This is the thoroughly researched and richly detailed true story of Free Frank and Lucy McWhorter, who were born into slavery in the 1770s and married in 1799, in Pulaski County, in southeastern Kentucky. They earned money outside their enslaved responsibilities and put it aside: this was illegal by Kentucky law, but tolerated in many communities. Eventually, in 1817, Frank purchased Lucy’s freedom for $800 and continued working for his own. It took them another two years, and cost them another $800.

Why did he not purchase his own first, as his price in 1817 was only $500, and he would then have been able to earn money full-time? The answer is simple: Lucy was pregnant, and they wanted this child to be born free. She had borne thirteen children over the previous eighteen years of marriage. Four of them survived, aged seventeen, thirteen, six, and two years old when their mother was manumitted, and they still belonged to their previous master, William Denham. Lucy bore four free children, three of whom survived to adulthood. After Lucy and Frank were both free, they remained in Pulaski County, bought property, worked multiple jobs, and started saving to buy their enslaved children, who, as years passed, became adults, married, and had children of their own, who were also enslaved.

In 1826, their son Frank, then 21, fled to Canada, and Denham made it especially difficult and expensive for Free Frank to purchase Young Frank’s manumission, which was necessary if he was ever to return to the U.S. Eventually, in 1829, the determined father traded his saltpeter-manufacturing business -- the profit from which had enabled him to redeem himself and his wife -- for his son’s ability to return to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, he and Lucy sold their property in Kentucky and bought a farm in the free state of Illinois, about 400 miles away. They moved their free children and household goods by ox-drawn Conestoga wagon, a journey that took about six months, built a house, broke up the soil to create a farm, and resumed making the money they needed to buy back the rest of their family.

Even as a slave, Free Frank had shown an unusual aptitude for identifying a business need and filling it, and he had a reputation, townspeople testified, as “kind, benevolent, and honest.” He had managed business affairs for his owner, one George McWhorter, and had negotiated permission to run his saltpeter business while still enslaved. Later, as newly freed people of color in the slave state of Kentucky, he and Lucy successfully appealed a legal judgment against them, and in the process established the right of free blacks in Kentucky to marry and to enter into binding contracts.

Free Frank did this – administered his businesses, pressed and won lawsuits, acquired and sold land -- without being able to read or write. As Dr. Walker acknowledges, illiteracy was not unusual on the then frontier for either white or black people, but that does not refute his remarkable accomplishment. Illinois was becoming more and more restrictive of people of color, whether free or fugitive, and Free Frank and Lucy McWhorter were vulnerable to fraud, theft, and especially capture of themselves and their children by “slave catchers,” who would not hesitate to kidnap free black people and sell them into the deep south, where they could not be traced.

When Free Frank McWhorter died in 1854, 77 years old, seven of his descendants were still enslaved, but he left funds in his will entailed specifically for their purchase, which took another three years. He had leveraged his business acumen, over fifty-five years, to buy out of slavery four generations of his family: his wife and himself, four of his children and a son’s wife, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

As part of this effort, he purchased land and founded a town, New Philadelphia: platted it, promoted it, and sold lots to black and white folk alike. As the town prospered, it became both a residential community and a market center. Many families who lived in the town owned and worked farms outside it. New Philadelphia’s commercial success peaked during the Civil War, a decade after Free Frank’s death. After the war, the new Hannibal and Naples Railroad, running to Pike County from Hannibal, Missouri, looped rather widely around New Philadelphia on its way to Jacksonville and Springfield. It passed a mile or so north of the town and commercial activity shifted accordingly to nearby Hadley. Dr. Walker does not speculate on why this happened – racism, geography, graft or the lack thereof -- but ultimately the town declined, and it vanished in the early twentieth century.

The book that tells this story has its own remarkable history: it was written by Free Frank’s great-great-granddaughter, Juliet E. K. Walker, who is a history professor at the University of Texas in Austin; it builds on research by her mother and the archivism of earlier generations. The McWhorter family meticulously kept their manumission papers and other legal and business documents: the former were essential to prove their freedom, and the latter would prove critical in several lawsuits. The only reason any of these records still exist is that the author’s mother, researching the family history while she was a student at Fisk University in the 1920s, had taken small portion of the papers, with her grandmother’s permission, to show her professor, the African-American sociologist Charles S. Johnson. While she was at school, her grandmother’s house burned down, all the other family documents with it. Dr. Walker, an authority on African-American business history and entrepreneurship, provides copious detail and context for Free Frank McWhorter’s business acumen: how he developed his skill and knowledge. He and his wife more than once successfully used U.S. law to challenge white efforts to defraud him. In addition to the pioneer spirit inherent in his founding a farm and a town on undeveloped prairie, Free Frank had the single-minded determination needed to prosper sufficiently to amass the nearly $14,000 cash required to bring his family together. His descendants, rich in heritage and family history, are mathematicians, engineers, historians, architects, and business professionals.

While reading Free Frank, I became very interested in New Philadelphia, and tried unsuccessfully to find it by scanning Google maps of southern Illinois, its location overshadowed by the still-extant town of New Philadelphia, Ohio. On a road trip to Hannibal, Missouri last September, I drove through that area, which will figure in my book, and fortuitously happened upon a small, discreet roadside sign that read “New Philadelphia,” with an arrow pointing to a county road. I followed the road, that warm, sunny autumn afternoon, and on the side of a grassy hill I found what was left of New Philadelphia: a few weather-beaten outbuildings, a historical marker, a spiffy white gravel road, and a detailed map of the archeological research planned for the property. In 2005, thanks to the efforts of the McWhorter family and the archeology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, New Philadelphia was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2009 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, as the first town in the U.S. founded by a free black man.

I have since found several websites featuring the history and archeology of New Philadelphia:

The New Philadelphia Archeological Project

The Free Frank McWhorter website

And Wikipedia has pages for both Free Frank and the New Philadelphia town site

You can even fly over it in Google Maps:

All give testament to a remarkable, and mostly unexamined, aspect of American history. Free Frank and Lucy McWhorter faced and overcame challenges that were extraordinary for most pioneers, but all too ordinary for the tens of thousands of black people seeking to leave slavery and establish their families on the antebellum frontier. We are fortunate that even a portion of this larger story is accessible, and that it has been laid out by Dr. Walker in such compelling detail.

Eileen is the author of the collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) and the co-editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Volume Two, which Aqueduct published in 2008. She has received the Nebula and the Sense of Wonder Awards, been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy Awards, and shortlisted for the Tiptree. She is also the editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix and in the dead of night can hear it stomping around in the attic.  You can follow Eileen on Twitter here: and visit her website here:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.30: Cynthia Ward

2012 in Review: Flying Eyeballs and Latin Brass
by Cynthia Ward

"Entertainment Burns Over 90% of My Body" (Film, Television, and Music)

This year, my partner and I saw several movies. If only I could remember them all…but I suppose that's its own recommendation.

I do remember that we saw The Avengers, which was distinguished by cramming every Marvel Comics superhero/ine except the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Kitchensinkwoman into its 143 minutes. OK, not every single one, but it felt that way, or at least it did when I wasn't dozing. I like most of the actors and supercharacters, but the surplus meant no one got enough screen time. I wish this had been a television miniseries; then it might have worked. As it is, I emerged from the theatre thinking of movie critic Libby (Paul Rudnick) Gelman-Waxner's line: "I suffered entertainment burns over 90% of my body."

…Which brings us to triple threat (writer/actor/director) The RZA's American wuxia-meets-blaxploitation movie, The Man With the Iron Fists (presented by Quentin Tarantino). Like The Avengers, it had at least one character too many, and demonstrated that cramming a movie with ever-more action scenes can make it ever-less interesting. It's not that I require action movies to be works of high art, or even to make sense (cf. my appreciation of the wildly incoherent wuxia heroic fantasy movie Dragon Inn). I don't even require action movies to have many women characters. But my experience of Hong Kong and Chinese wuxia movies is that the women characters, however few, are all distinctive: interesting and strong, whether or not they ever touch a weapon. In contrast, Iron Fists delivered mostly cringe-evoking exoticized Oriental prostitutes who submitted interchangeably to the Russell Crowe character's magic fingers (he was clearly having fun, but his character was dispensable). And if I were casting the redoubtable Pam Grier ("the second Greatest Female Action Heroine in film history....[and] cinema's first female action star,"), I would've given her a whole hell of a lot more to do. Fortunately, Lucy Liu, as brothel owner Madame Blossom, portrays a tough, kickass woman (of Liu, more anon). On the whole, I wouldn't say 'Iron Fists gave me entertainment burns. But I did feel like I was being metronomically beaten with a lead club. P.S.: This is by far the most violent wuxia movie I've ever seen. Even the trailer at has a flying eyeball. Consider yourself warned.

(If you want to see a more representative wuxia movie, you might want to try Swordsman II, in which the formidable Brigitte Lin / Lin Ching-Hsia plays a sorcerer who changes sex to gain power

When we learned the 2012 movie reboot of Dark Shadows was set in Maine, Joe said, "We're going to see this, aren't we?" "Yes!" (It looked to me like the location shots got as close as Oregon, but apparently they only came as close to Maine as the United Kingdom.) As a peripatetic Air Force brat, I never saw the original supernatural soap opera. But I did enjoy the movie, which has something of a reputation for making oil slicks look deep. And that was my impression for much of the movie, until I finally noticed it had few and oft-weak male characters, embedded in a strong matriarchy (was the original TV show like this?). I enjoyed this reversal of the stereotypical Hollywood approach, and I also enjoyed the choice of time period (1972). The high point for me was the obligatory music-video interlude, which featured my favorite '70s group, the Carpenters (

Speaking of reboots, Joe and I saw the American remake of the Swedish film adaptation of the Swedish novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ( It would've really blown me away with the toughness of the titular character, if I hadn't already seen the Swedish adaptation and read the original novel. While the U.S. adaptation does emphasize Lisbeth Salander's impressive mental gifts, she is definitely subordinated to the male lead in this incarnation (a reversal of the previous two versions). Also, the American movie sexualizes the rape scenes in which Salander is victimized, though not - how very odd! - the one in which a man is victimized. The actress Rooney Mara does an outstanding job, but it's a problematic movie, at best.

The Hollywood adaptation of The Hunger Games did not greatly tamper with the YA novel's very tough, smart, and resourceful female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen ( (strongly played by Jennifer Laurence The tamperings with the plot made sense, given the different requirements of film. The adaptation didn't obscure the novel's acute awareness of class, but, judging by fan overreaction in some quarters, it enhanced the fact that many characters in the novel aren't white (though the casting director missed the mixed-race description of the main character and most of her fellow villagers, which is subtly buried in an obscure location: chapter one). The movie is not as good as the book, but certainly worth a view.

Speaking of adaptations, Joe and I sampled the new television series Arrow, which reboots the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow for the 21st Century. Perhaps they should have left him in the 20th, since the show unwittingly emphasizes how much of a Batman knockoff the non-superpowered superhero is. Not that I care that he's a pastiche; some Batman knockoffs are interesting in their own right (cf. Daredevil, Midnighter, and several of Green Arrow's comic book incarnations). However, Arrow demonstrates how a once-fresh approach to a trope can decay. In the 1980s, the comic-book miniseries Watchmen ( and The Dark Knight Returns ( radically revised the superhero concept for grownup Boomers; since then, we've been getting adult-oriented superhero updates across all media. With Arrow, the update has putrefied to the point that the hero's antiheroic behavior is indistinguishable from the one-dimensional villainy of mid-century comic books: the titular character exhibits not a trace of internal conflict while killing the upper-class villains' working-class henchmen and leaving the upper-class villains alive. How far we've come from the busted-flat, leftist Green Arrow of decades past. Call the 21st Century Arrow a hero for the 1%. (Nice costume design, though. Which I suppose is as it should be, since he can afford the very best.)

Having heard the buzz about the U.K. TV update of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous character, we watched the first two episodes of Sherlock ( The first episode was riveting, the second boring and annoying, since the characterizations of Holmes and Watson were stubbornly one-dimensional, with Holmes an abusive sociopath and Watson his ignorant, pathetic doormat. The latter's behavior seemed especially unbelievable for a highly educated military doctor; ultimately, the portrayal is insulting to veterans. On the plus side, I enjoyed the assumption by every other character that Holmes and Watson must be lovers, and I found the actor playing Sherlock fascinatingly intense; but he's a gem set in decaying paste. Too bad. We'll try the show again, but in the meantime, we have another series to watch.

Given my previous paragraph, you might think we'd really hate Elementary (, the apparent U.S. knockoff of Sherlock, starring Johnny Lee Miller as a modern-day Holmes relocated to New York City, and Lucy Liu as his reluctant companion, Dr. Joan Watson. The truth is, we're enjoying it far more. The plots are damned clever, which suggests this isn't actually a knockoff (though of course I could be full of shit). And--more to the point--the lead characters are in tremendous pain, which gives a far better explanation for Holmes' harsh behavior than "born that way." The characterizations have depth and the acting is powerful. And while she isn't a war veteran, Dr. Watson is (like the other Liu characters I've seen) no doormat. The show isn't flawless; but I can't remember the last time I uttered the words "can't wait for the next episode ("

We saw two of the three broadcast episodes of one of the year's quasi-Madmen-knockoff series, The Playboy Club, which was condemned on every front, from the feminist left to the Christian right, and swiftly met its doom. Not that I knew any of those things when we watched the eps and released them from the DVR, an act I now regret, since it would be interesting to revisit them. They featured the kind of strong women not particularly associated with either Playboy or the early 1960s (among them a [somewhat] older career woman, a young woman who kills an attempted rapist, a black woman with dreams of real estate mogulry, and a closeted lesbian in an affectionate and respectful marriage of convenience with a gay man). Far from perfect, or even from non-exploitative…yet, in retrospect, I have this sneaking suspicion that an episode passed the Bechdel test. I guess there'll be no verification.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 is the best of the movie franchise since the first, and shows the possessive vampire boyfriend/spouse finally lightening up on his repugnant control issue, while his newly-turned girlfriend/spouse finally gets out from under the doormat and does a little booty-kicking and decapitation; I also enjoyed the scene where Bella rapturously (if not always pleasantly) explores her superhuman new senses. These plusses do not, however, do anything to explain why, even with vampires converging from around the world, they're still a pretty Caucasian bunch. Snow White and the Huntsman stars Twilight's Bella (actress Kristen Stewart) in a more active role, though the movie is far too long for the content. John Carter, which is a far better action flick than rumor says, nonetheless has its problems. These start with the title's mystifying omission of the suffix of Mars, but do not end with the attempts to eliminate Edgar Rice Burroughs' outdated attitudes on race and gender by substitution of more modern racefail and genderfail. On a less uneven note, the local cineplex hosted some freshly digitized classics. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is good, but distinctly showing its age. All about Eve (1950) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) are extremely different from one another, yet equally tremendous. And, to return to 21st Century film, Les Miserables wins Most Accurate Title.

Via the Youtube vaults, Nisi Shawl introduced me to Obama's Anger Translator, and thereby the titular comedy duo of Key & Peele. The OAT pieces feature some of the best physical comedy I've seen in years. And did I mention they're great political satire? "Victory" is a good sample: I plan to check out the TV show.

In music, the most relentless hook to sink into my brain this year is Bostick + Fussible and the Tijuana Sound Machine's "The Clap" - go to to embed it in yours. My friend Ericka provides the link to another great Bostick + Fussible/Tijuana Sound Machine video, titled, strangely enough, "Tijuana Sound Machine": And, while I'm thinking of Tijuana brass, thanks to Nisi for introducing me to some re-whipped Herb Alpert classics that work surprisingly well. Here's one of the remixes:

Swords and Piledrivers (Prose)

Probably the author I read most this year is Melissa Scott, who's had several new and reissued novels appear in eBook form in the last few years. Excellent works all, but since I've reviewed or will review them elsewhere, and since Ms. Duchamp would undoubtedly like to see this post turned in before Christmas 2013, I'll just put links to my reviews:

Point of Hopes (written in collaboration with the late Lisa A. Barnett; reissue):

Point of Knives (new):

Point of Dreams (written in collaboration with the late Lisa A. Barnett; reissue): review forthcoming at

Lost Things (written in collaboration with Jo Graham; new):

While I haven't reviewed them yet, I want to recommend two more Scott reissues: the first and second novels in her science-fantasy Silence Leigh trilogy, which are Five-Twelths of Heaven and Silence in Solitude. I hope the concluding volume, The Empress of Earth, soon joins them.

Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is a beautifully written, genre-aware mainstream novel about subtly nuanced, wittily developed characters. Particularly well depicted are the male writer characters, whom I particularly wanted to piledrive through a concrete floor. The book is supposed to be a portrayal of how artists fail to grow up, which I guess means it's supposed to be about me and lots of other people of my acquaintance, or at least the male writers of my acquaintance, or maybe just the male mainstream writers of my acquaintance, which considerably narrows the field. However, I can't think of anyone I know, male or female, "artist" or not, who managed to commit so many stupendously stupid mistakes during adolescence. Why blame callowness for the plethora of spectacularly self-destructive acts committed by Chabon's adult wonder boys? Getting this fucked up takes decades of dedicated practice.

Anthologies I read this year include Milton Davis's Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, recommended to anyone interested in swords & sorcery fiction and/or Afrocentric fantasy and/or pulp fiction (; Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon's religion-themed horror anthology, Dark Faith (; JoSelle Vanderhooft and Steve Berman's best-of anthology, Heiresses of Russ 2011: The Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction of the Year (which I reviewed for The Cascadia Subduction Zone; and Connie Wilkins and Steve Berman's best-of anthology, Heiresses of Russ 2012: The Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction of the Year (ditto, but no URL as of this writing).

The most can't-put-downable book I read this year is Amy Wolf's memoir of the Great Recession, Don't Let Me Die in a Motel 6 ( Contrary to my expectations (pace Rashomon), I didn't find a lot of variance between my memories or knowledge of events in the memoir, and my friend's recounting of same. And, incredible as it may seem that all the recounted events (the WaMu Bank collapse, near-simultaneous spousal job losses, family meltdown, breast cancer, etc.) occurred in just four years, they did. It's not often you find a book as simultaneously humorous, horrifying, and brutally honest as this one.

While we're on the subject of the Great Recession, journalist Timothy Noah's The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It ( isn't flawless, but it is recent, timely, and a recommended resource for those wondering about the relationship between tax cuts for the wealthy and economic growth for the rest of the United States (spoiler alert: they're intimately and inversely related). Not cheerful reading, but it makes a difficult subject (economics) clear and interesting. And, like the 2012 U.S. election results, it gives cause for hope.

Cynthia Ward ( lives in the Los Angeles area. Her most recent fiction may be found in Pirates and Swashbucklers (Pulp Empire), edited by Nicholas Ahlheim; Tales From the Den: Wild and Weird Stories for Bears (Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press), edited by R. Jackson; and Triangulation: Last Contact (Parsec Ink), edited by Steve Ramey and Jamie Lackey. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press), which is now available as an e'book.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.29: Candra Gill

Books, Movies, Music, and Technology in 2012
by Candra Gill


I read fewer books than is usual for me this year. I blame finishing grad school. Of the books that I did have time to read, Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo [] was my favorite. It’s the story of Paama, who, soon after leaving an unhappy marriage, finds herself the keeper of a powerful magical object that lets her change the world around her. The word I keep using when I tell people about this novel is “delightful.” It’s beautifully written, with fun metatextual asides by the narrator, talking spiders, and chaos theory.

Disclosure note: I am on the steering committee of the Carl Brandon Society and am responsible for administering the Carl Brandon Awards. It was in this capacity that I encountered Redemption in Indigo. I read it after it won The Carl Brandon Parallax Award.

I also enjoyed reading Cory Doctorow’s For the Win []. It’s the story of teens around the world who play videogames professionally. These are not single gamers; rather, they work in groups as game miners, grinding for game money and big ticket items to sell. For the Win tells the story of these young people asserting their rights and identities as workers. They form unions, face potentially lethal real world obstacles, and manipulate economies (both inside and outside of their games).


One of my favorite movies this year was Brave [], Pixar’s first film with a female lead character. I loved Merida and I really enjoyed the focus on personal relationships. Yes, it would have been nice to have a female protagonist who wasn’t a princess and a story that wasn’t about whether or not said princess would marry. But I enjoyed it. There are worse stories to tell than that of a mother and daughter learning to truly communicate with each other, especially when such stories come with beautifully animated high adventure. Brave netted some great conversations for me this year. I recently watched it again, and it definitely stands up to multiple viewings.

Chronicle [] is the story of three teenaged boys who encounter a mysterious object and find themselves developing superpowers as a result. It’s told in a found footage style, as Andrew, one of the three, constantly records his life with a handheld camera. Chronicle is best when the guys are discovering their powers and when the found footage reveals the often harrowing details of Andrew’s abusive home life. I didn’t love the third act, but so what? It’s still worth watching, and it shows that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make a science fiction film with strong special effects.

It’s been months since I saw it, and I’m still not sure if I liked Beasts of the Southern Wild [] or not. I can, however, say without hesitation that Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy was outstanding. When you hear this child say in the film that people will read about her in history books one day, you absolutely believe her.

My favorite movie this year was Looper []. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a titular Looper—a hitman who kills people sent back in time by the mob of thirty years in the future. People who agree to be Loopers do so with the understanding that the last person they’ll kill in the job is their own future self. Things go wrong for Joe when his future self doesn’t exactly cooperate. Looper was clever, held up to multiple viewings, and has another outstanding performance by a child actor that I can’t say much about without giving too much away.

I also enjoyed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry [], which is a documentary about the life of the Chinese dissident artist named in the title. The film’s overview of Ai’s life as an artist is compelling, but the film is most powerful when it focuses on his work surrounding the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. After government officials refused to disclose how many children died in poorly constructed schools during the earthquake, Ai worked with a group of people to find out the names and birthdays of each of the children who had died in school. The final list is over 5,000 names long.


Natasha Khan, who performs music under the name Bat for Lashes [], is one of my favorite recording artists. Her first two albums were full of songs that told strange stories of wizards and evil doppelgangers (fun, right?) set to catchy, often ethereal music. Her new album, The Haunted Man, comes across as much more personal. There’s less whimsy than in her previous work, but the tradeoff is a stunning album by an artist who’s obviously pushing herself to grow.

Santigold [] is another artist who continues to grow. Her Master of My Make-Believe is full of catchy, genre-defying tunes that hold up very well live. I go to a lot of concerts, and her show was one of the best I saw this year.


As someone who plays guitar and who loves rhythm videogames like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, Rocksmith [] is amazing. It takes the rhythm game format and concept and maps it onto guitar tablatures. You play by plugging in an actual electric guitar into the game console. You can learn popular songs, unlock guitar and amp simulators, and do practice drills to improve your playing away from the game. Rocksmith does all of this while maintaining all of the fun of rhythm games.

I’m kind of late to the party with Evernote [], which has been around for a while. I’ve only been using it for a few months, but it has become indispensible. Evernote is cloud-based note-taking software that works across various devices and operating systems. It’s available in a free version and a paid version. Start a note on your mobile device, and finish it on your desktop, completely seamlessly.

The Raspberry Pi [] is a barebones computer that retails for $35. It can use a standard USB mouse and keyboard and can use most TVs as a monitor. It was designed to be an affordable way for children to learn about computer programming, but people of all ages have taken to it. There’s a thriving online community that shares project ideas and tutorials.

Zombies, Run! [] is a post-apocalypse-themed mobile videogame that you experience while running or walking. You follow the story on your mobile device as you exercise. The story unfolds as audio, with a single episode per workout. It gives you incentive to exercise in order to find out what happens next in the story. And the thing is, you’ll want to know what happens next. Turns out that clever format notwithstanding, Zombies, Run! is a good zombie story.

Candra K. Gill is a user experience designer. She’s on Twitter using the handle @ckgill.