Friday, December 19, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 15: Cheryl Morgan

Aqueduct Year in Review 2014 
by Cheryl Morgan

My stand out book read in 2014 has to be We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. It thoroughly deserves all of the praise heaped upon it, and I was very sad that it didn’t win the Booker.

Running it very close was Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I have been a fan of Jeff’s work for a long time, and this series has seen his career take a massive step forward. I’m delighted for him.

Naturally I picked up Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword as soon as it came out. The story is very different from Ancillary Justice, but it is still an excellent read and now I am eagerly awaiting book three to find out … [no spoilers!].

Still with science fiction by women, I loved Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. To start with it is very funny, but mainly it is just so refreshing to read a book set in Nigeria written by someone with a good understanding of Nigeria and its people.

Moving on to horror, Mike Carey showed that there is still life in the zombie novel with the excellent The Girl with All the Gifts. Mike has been heaped with honors in the comics industry, but his novels have been oddly ignored. Hopefully this book will change that.

Superhero novels appear to be popular these days. Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century are very different works, but both show that there is a lot more to the genre than men in tights. Samit Basu’s Resistance was also a lot of fun, though not quite as impressive as his first novel, Turbulence. Then again, Indian superheroes; what’s not to like?

This year saw two fine novels by trans women. Roz Kaveney’s Resurrections is the third in her Rhapsody of Blood series. It does something utterly outrageous. I remember all of the fuss when Moorcock’s Behold the Man came out, and it has nothing on this. Content warming for blasphemy, I guess, though that rather depends on whether you believe in a god of enforcing societal norms or a god of love. Rachel Pollack’s The Child Eater is much more traditional fantasy, mixing a modern world narrative with one set in a world of wizards. Along the way it has things to say about psychologists, for which I am duly grateful.

Lots of mainstream literary novels dabbled in genre this year. One of the most prominent is David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I’m normally a big Mitchell fan, but I’m struggling with this one. That’s partly because the first section is essentially a YA story, and I came to it immediately after reading Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer. An awful lot has been said about that book, which I don’t have space to go into here, but I enjoyed reading it and Sullivan’s portrayal of a troubled teenage girl knocks spots off Mitchell’s tired clichés. Still with the mainstream books, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11 is beautifully written, but is a terrible piece of science fiction. If you want to read a book about making a new world after a global catastrophe, Pat Murphy’s The City Not Long After is far superior. Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water has similar issues. I loved the writing, but kept asking myself why this water-starved future world wasn’t making use of desalination technology. The best of the bunch may turn out to be Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, which I am very much enjoying thus far.

In October I was lucky enough to be asked to chair a panel at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. It was on dystopias, and as part of my research for it I read Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans. I now have another fine African-American writer to follow. The scene in the Superdome will stay with me for a long time. On the panel with me was Jane Rogers, so I finally got around to reading The Testament of Jesse Lamb, which is indeed a worthy Clarke winner.

This year I have been doing a lot of book related broadcasting with Ujima , a community radio station in Bristol mainly serving the city’s immigrant communities. We have a lot of Caribbean listeners, as a result of which I read Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson, Hurricane Fever by Tobias Buckell, Lex Talionis by Rhonda Garcia and Binary by Stephanie Saulter, all of which are very interesting in different ways. A collection of the interviews I did for the show can be found here . My most recent Caribbean discovery is Jennifer Marie Brissett, a Jamaican-British writer now resident in New York. Her debut novel, Elysium, is available from Aqueduct. I have a few issues with its treatment of gender, but it is marvelously ambitious book and a fine piece of science fiction.

The radio show has also had me broadening my reading to take in crime fiction. Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin is a fine modern police procedural dealing with domestic violence. I was also very impressed with Mark Wright’s Heartman: a novel by a white guy about a black detective set in the Afro-Caribbean community of Bristol.

Back with science fiction, I very much enjoyed Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which does interesting things with the idea of a future matriarchal society. If all YA science fiction is this good I need to read more of it.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Causal Angel is a fine conclusion to his Jean le Flambeur series. Hannu was a Guest of Honor at Finncon this year, and I heard him read a story called “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB,” which is about the women who sewed the spacesuits for the Apollo crews. You should all get his short fiction collection due from Tachyon next May so you can read it too.

Still with Finland, Johanna Sinisalo has a new novel available in translation. Blood of Angels is a modern day fantasy novel about the current crisis facing bee populations. Sinisalo is very concerned with environmental issues and, like Karen Joy Fowler, she has created a supporting character who is an angry animal rights activist. Also like Karen, much of what she writes about is firmly and terrifyingly based in fact. The other writer Guest of Honor at Finncon this year was Elizabeth Bear. This spurred me on to devour her Eternal Sky trilogy, which does some very interesting things with traditional fantasy structure. In particular she asks the obvious question: why would anyone willingly serve the Dark Lord? A lot of interrogation of fantasy tropes also happens in Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. Bear’s books are more polished, but Hurley is doing some very interesting things with gender.

I seem to have backed a lot of anthologies via various crowdfunding projects. The best of these include Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios; Long Hidden by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older, and Women Destroy Science Fiction by Christie Yant, Rachel Swirsky, Wendy N. Wagner, Robyn Lupo, and Gabrielle de Cuir.

I haven’t had time to read a lot of non-fiction, but I want to make special mention of Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing Wonderbook, which I will be dipping into for a long time to come. For feminist history I can recommend Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

My little small press produced a paper book this year. Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion is a selection of steampunk stories set in and around Bristol and by local writers. Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke did a fine job of editing it for me, and even managed to lick a story of mine into publishable shape. I’ve been very pleased with the sales.

I haven’t watched a lot of movies this year, but I was very impressed with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t hang together nearly as well, but it has a kick-ass sound track. I was pleasantly surprised by X-Men: Days of Future Past after the disaster of First Class. I am dreading The Five-Hour Battle of the Fifty Armies, or whatever the final(?) Hobbit film is called, but I’ll doubtless watch it anyway. On the TV, Agents of SHIELD blows hot and cold. I am very much looking forward to the Peggy Carter series.

I don’t have anything new to report on the podcast front, though I am still a regular listener to The Writer and the Critic, Galactic Suburbia and Coode Street.

Most of the music I have been playing on Ujima has been old stuff: Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and so on. I have also been reminding myself, and my listeners, just how good Nile Rodgers is; and my love for Janelle Monae is undiminished. The one new album I have played is the very science-fictional Art Official Age from Prince, through which I have discovered Lianne La Havas. Karen Lord has been enthusing to me about her, so I need to get some of her solo work. I also discovered The Vinyl Closet, who have produced a fine history of the Dirty Blues.

Cheryl Morgan is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press . She blogs, reviews and podcasts regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings. In addition to her story in Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion, this year Cheryl has a story in The Girl at the End of the World, book 2, which is from another British woman-owned small press, Fox Spirit. Cheryl co-presents the Women’s Outlook show on Ujima Radio, and has a monthly column on feminist issues at Bristol 24/7.

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