Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2022, pt. 34: Cynthia Ward


2022 in Review: Reality is Not Governed by the Believability Constraints of Fiction
by Cynthia Ward


Neither my partner nor I have ever had a year like this. Financial disaster, vicious cancer, different vicious cancer, etc. And there were so many musical losses: country legend Loretta Lynn; Dead Kennedys drummer Daron Peligro; Specials lead singer Terry Hall; Fleetwood Mac singer/songwriter/musician Christine McVie; Seekers lead singer Judith Durham; Canadian folk legend Ian Tyson; fave singer of my teen years Olivia Newton-John….

 But it was good to get diagnosed with autism (so much is explained), and the year ended on a high note, with teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg hoisting an alleged-human-trafficking, kickboxing misogynist by his own...petard (if you missed it, Rebecca Solnit has an interesting report in the Guardian).

 Here are some other good things from my voyage through 2022.


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Thunder in Our Hearts (Music)

 "Close to You" by Rumer - My particular vocal catnip is a certain sort of melancholy tinge, and no one ever turned my head like Karen Carpenter and Sandy Denny, until Rumer.

 "Eres Tú" by Mocedades - I had wondered if any Eurovision songs besides ABBA's "Waterloo" had become an international smash; Spain's entry for the 1973 contest answers my question (and this lovely song was only the runner-up!).

 "Good as Hell" by Lizzo - A great song and video, and my gateway drug to this wonderful performer.

"Journey to the End" by Windir - You need some Norwegian black metal right about now.

The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever - These videos of flash mobs celebrating the iconoclastic entertainer Kate Bush's birthday by performing her famous song have proven a source of joy in a year in which it's been scarce—my favorite may be found here.

"Something" by Girl's Day x Boy's Day - The reputation of K-Pop boy bands for androgyny is not lost on K-Pop boy bands, which makes for some delightful videos, and my favorite is this one; it takes about a minute and a half for the androgyny to represent, but the wait will well repay your patience; plus, the song and performances are great (and you can find more of NU'EST's amazing Ren in this commercial for a Chinese mall).

 "Waterloo" by ABBA - Since I've mentioned it, here's the nascent ABBA's winning performance at the 1974 Eurovision contest, with their signature over-the-top costumes already in place (tangentially, England's finalist that year was Olivia Newton-John, who performed a much weaker song called "Long Live Love," not particularly an international smash despite ONJ also recording a German version. But ultimately all is forgiven).

 The Whole Story by Kate Bush - An excellent collection, but the lone disc of this best-of CD hardly offers the whole story at this point in Kate Bush's decades-long career—she has not been well served by record labels, at least in the U.S. (nor always well served by herself, as the re-recorded vocals here for "Wuthering Heights" demonstrate).


 * * *


Humans and Other Animals (Books)


The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek - Authoritative, useful, and utterly fascinating; I'm hoping there will be an updated edition, because it's almost a decade old now, and the science is fast-changing (the book mentions vaccines as a possible cause of autism, a hypothesis now thoroughly debunked and dangerously widespread).

 A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths by John Barton - A title of pure truth in advertising; a wide-ranging and erudite book from a respected guide; an even-handed, informative, and riveting (if sometimes repetitious) account.

 Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William J. Mann - Generally, I have zero interest in celebrities beyond their performances, but Mann's massive, exhaustively researched, and authoritative biography is a complex, fascinating book about a complex, fascinating, and not particularly straightforward woman...and a book which left me wondering if 20th Century America's most beloved actress would identify as straight and/or as a woman in the modern era.

 Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray - Gray is a lucid, blunt, and sometimes funny writer and thinker, and if you suppose he might favor atheists over believers, or vice-versa, you will swiftly be disabused of that notion; highly recommended (but brace for discomfort, possibly in abundance, whatever your flavor of skepticism, faith, or politics).

 An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong - This beautifully written nonfiction book on nonhuman sensoria unintentionally exposes how rarely science fiction presents truly-alien aliens, and will undoubtedly become an important influence on many SF writers; I hope it will also do much to improve the treatment of animals.


 * * *


 Amor Actually: A Holiday Romance Anthology by Zoey Castile, Alexis Daria, Adriana Herrera, Diana Muñoz Stewart, Priscilla Oliveras, Sabrina Sol, and Mia Sosa - In this sometimes-queer, oft-steamy assemblage of linked Nochebuena novellas by best-selling Latina authors, Christmas Eve changes many lives and hearts.

 And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed - This Nebula Award-winning dark far-future novella of crime and punishment and sex work reminds me very favorably of the late, legendary Tanith Lee's weird fiction, while entirely retaining its own voice and viewpoint; how often can you say that?

 Astreiant/Points series by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett - If there were any justice, this terrific, queernormative police-procedural series—set in an alternate world of two suns, where astrology and alchemy are working sciences, men are the disenfranchised sex, and magic facilitates crime—would be one of the most popular and influential fantasy series of all time.

 Bodyguard by Dassy Bernhard - A young man with mysterious powers and an even more mysterious background foils the kidnapping of a K-Pop group, thereby landing neck-deep in corporate intrigue and MM desire; the romantic element is a bit underdeveloped, but this is a fun, genre-blending page-turner.

 A Caribbean Heiress in Paris: A Historical Romance (Las Leonas Book 1) by Adriana Herrera - Sparks of many sorts are struck when an Afro-Latina rum heiress with everything on the line travels to the 1899 World's Fair, only to clash with a whisky-distilling Scottish earl.

Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen - A pair of Stanford University products profitably deploy Asian designer fakes as good as the originals, in a literary novel in which other things, too, may not be as they seem; this book is the real deal—why is it not festooned with mystery/suspense awards?

A Counterfeit Suitor by Darcie Wilde (who also writes as Sarah Zettel) - The 2021 installment of the Regency mystery series (which owes more to Jane Austen than Georgette Heyer) moves its slow-burn MF romance onto more solid ground as amateur sleuth Rosalind Thorne, a "useful woman" in a tenuous social position, finds herself collaborating with the enemy who seeks to banish her from genteel society.

 Delilah Green Doesn't Care by Ashley Herring Blake - In this perceptive nominee for Goodreads Best Romance of 2022, the titular New York photographer does care about her art, but she's not a fan of either long-term relationships or the Northwestern step-family with whom she was stranded in childhood by her father's death; then one of her stepsister's friends, a struggling, plus-size single mother in a complicated co-parenting situation, proves unexpectedly compelling.

 D'Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins - A particularly romantic romance novel, centered on a Black/Hispanic lesbian couple matched on a fake-engagement reality-TV show—a brilliant concept for making the reader (or at least this reader) extremely tense and involved.

 Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard - An interesting but choppy Vietnamese-influenced fantasy novella of colonial threat and sapphic longing, which would have benefitted from novel length.

 Garnet Run series by Roan Parrish - Parrish writes smart, deeply empathic, typically queer romances which typically center on the sort of individuals called "weird" by schoolyard bullies and "quirky" by reviewers; this MM series is a good place to start with the author (and it also includes a publishing milestone: the first-ever gay Harlequin category romance).

Hen Fever: A Sapphic Victorian Romance by Olivia Waite - I usually cannot engage with Christmas romances, but I greatly enjoyed this charming, secular historical novella of competitive chicken-showing which centers on a lesbian romance of unseasonal heat.

 High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson - In this sly novella, the survival-minded fairy folk have taken charge of human government (and perhaps also eliminated men), but when a novel human approach to genocide rouses the fae, humanity's only hope may rest on a ne'er-do-well young scribe more interested in a hot politician than in politics.

 The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish - In this fun geographic spin on the "trading places" trope, a Maine island-born lesbian and a New Orleans-based gay man swap housing to escape desperate situations, only to find romance; the NOLA section is reasonable as far as this tourist can tell, but…if writing about Maine as an outsider, please get in touch.

 In the Event of Love by Courtney Kae - In this light contemporary holiday FF romance, an event planner's drunken dance with a client's famous fiancé goes disastrously viral, and her retreat crashes her literally into her ex's business, with heated results.

 The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang - A contemporary interracial MF romance that's quite good in some ways and pretty problematic in others; one strength is that there's solid enough autistic representation for the author to discover she was autistic and the reader to hear certain bells ringing. Very loudly. Loudly enough to find out.

 A Lady for the Duke by Alexis Hall - I enjoyed this ground-breaking trans/cis MF Regency Romance, though it was rather a choppy read for my tastes; I could never get comfortable with the mix of fairy-tale and gritty elements.

 The Language of Roses by Heather Rose Jones - Taking a break from her Alpennia series of feminist Ruritanian fantasies, Jones reimagines Beauty and the Beast in an ambitious, deeply insightful, diversely queer, literary fantasy novella.

 Lavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen - It's an intriguing premise for a novel (hardboiled murder mystery set in a mid-20th-Century safe space for queer found family), but in execution, it's rather bland and sometimes anachronistic, with a solution I didn't find very surprising; of course, your mileage may vary (content note for suicidal ideation and a brutal queer-bashing).

 Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki - This diverse, gender-savvy, genre-blending novel is lovely and gentle and tough and (in so many ways) lyrical, and provides some original twists on the deal with the devil trope; at press time, I've learned it's the deserving co-recipient of the 2021 Otherwise Award.

 The Love Study and The Hate Project (Love Study Books 1-2) by Kris Ripper - Sensitive and smart, queer and genderqueer, these contemporary romance novels offer sharp portrayals of vividly-voiced protagonists with mental health issues which are significant, yet never trivialized, swept under the rug, an impediment to reader enjoyment, or magically cured by love; that's rare and impressive, and I'm eager to read the third book, The Life Revamp.

 Lupin Leaps In: A Breaking Cat News Adventure by Georgia Dunn - After the comic strip began irregularly crossing my internet path, I read one of the collections, and found a lot more depth than I expected, given the light, funny, cuddly surface; and I mourned, soon after, when the real-life Lupin (inspiration for not only the deaf lead anchor cat of BCN, but the series itself) passed away.

 Masters in This Hall by KJ Charles - And so we come to another Victorian secular holiday romance I enjoyed; it probably didn't hurt that this novella leans into the crime/caper/murder mystery genre, or that it's from the amazing KJ Charles.

 The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler - In a queer near-future novella focused on the sort of older characters rarely centered in speculative fiction, an aging diplomat may find a way to counter ever-worsening climate devastation...or she may be suffering from hallucinations and memory loss.

 New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine Issue #0 - New Edge refers to S&S with modern sensibilities and diverse awareness; the inaugural issue of this new magazine has fine fiction and nonfiction, and the eBook edition is available free at this link, while the hardcover and paperback editions are available at cost from various bookstores, physical and virtual.

 New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shawl - Few anthologies have such consistent excellence of contents, so it's a pleasure to see the project and its stories and editor lauded and awarded as they deserve; I eagerly await New Suns 2.

 Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro - A globe-spanning Victorian spin on the school-of-mutants subgenre, this intense and deeply atmospheric fantasy novel might have been still stronger had it been published as a trilogy (as an aside, this work is unusual for recent speculative fiction [in my experience] in having no romantic content and minimal overt identification of sexual orientation).


 The Perks of Loving a Wallflower: The Wild Wynchesters Book 2 by Erica Ridley - The motley Wynchester family functions more than a little like a superhero group, performing daring deeds to right wrongs; in this volume, a young bluestocking lady with an overbearing mother and a fraud or two to foil finds herself relying on the Wynchesters, and especially on their master of disguise, who sometimes goes by Thomas and sometimes by Thomasina (this has been described as F/F romance, but F/NB seems a more accurate description).

 The Plains of Shadow (Kurval Book 1) by Richard Blakemore and Cora Buhlert - With a metafictional auctorial twist to this short pulp eBook, Hugo Award winner Cora Buhlert launches her imaginative sword and sorcery series about a wandering barbarian swordsman who is a tribute to the creations of Robert E. Howard yet very much his own man.

 A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot Books 1-2)

by Becky Chambers - When the peripatetic/therapeutic tea monk Sibling Dex encounters the robot Mosscap in a post-capitalist, post-technocratic world abandoned by robots, questions about human meaning gain a new urgency; Chambers has quietly become one of our most interesting writers of philosophically informed fiction, and one who is also, I think, operating from a thoughtful secular perspective, which tends to be demoted in reviews to "doesn't understand religion/faith," when what she's doing is taking a whole other ontological tack (one which delights and fascinates me as an areligious agnostic atheist reader, and leaves me kind of envious as a writer, but in a good way).

 The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian - A fine MM Regency romance with fencing and political radicalism; I'm looking forward to the MF sequel, The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes.

 "Radcliffe Hall" by Miyuki Jane Pinckard - A literary gothic/ghost/murder mystery set largely in the titular residence hall of a WASPy turn-of-the-previous-century women's college in New England, this ambitious and involving novella will appeal to pretty much anyone who enjoys dark historical fantasies like Jordan L. Hawk's Widdershins series or KJ Charles's Charm of Magpies series (despite the title, the novella has no particular tie that I could discern to the ground-breaking British lesbian author Radcliffe Hall).

 The Red Man and Others by Remco van Straten and Angeline B. Adams - These gritty, graceful stories of a short swordswoman, a disabled scholar, a youthful con artist, the titular soldier, and other rarely-seen characters perceptively reimagines sword and sorcery through outsider, working-class perspectives, an approach which also puts this collection in the nearly-forgotten low fantasy subgenre.


 Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy - In this enjoyable if uneven novel of self-actualization, L.A. style (marketed rather misleadingly as a romance), the eponymous Savvy, a Black/Vietnamese-American woman of size, moves beyond life as an insurance claims adjuster married to her job, with the help of her supportive and insightful gal-pals and a sensitive and sexy home-remodeling contractor.

 Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult - My introduction to the English language's second-bestselling female author is a romantic, literary, melodrama-edged page-turner about legal inequities and a later-in-life lesbian relationship; it left me eager never to have a star turn in a courtroom, and also left me trying to parse the difference between the portrayals of queer characters by queer writers and those by straight writers (I think it's "isolated and crushed in oppressive society vs. supported in healthy and happy community"; but my cishet judgement is suspect at best).

 Siren Queen by Nghi Vo - In a subgenre (fiction about film) in which an original twist is a rare sight, Vo's alternate-historical novel of a queer Asian-American actress negotiating a literally magical and genuinely dangerous Hollywood never fails to surprise; this is one of the most impressive fantasy novels I've ever read, or most impressive fictions generally.

 Spear by Nicola Griffith - This women-centered literary fantasy novella of post-Roman Britain beautifully reimagines Arthurian legend with feminist acuity, overt queerness, and a rare and much-appreciated depth of research.

 Spirits Abroad (expanded 2021 edition) by Zen Cho - Nineteen unpredictable, gorgeous stories of ghosts and monsters, families and lovers, East and West, death and life, past and present and future, from the brilliant and essential author.

 "sturm und drang" by spit_kitten - This original (non-fanfiction) MM Regency romance at the famous fanfic platform AO3, a shorter novella, is better than most romances I've read at any length.

 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers - When technological breakthroughs permit a small exploratory crew to reach the stars, extrasolar planets may prove more than the human body and mind can handle; the ending opens outward, which works for me, but won't for everyone.

 Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison - The title implies a holiday tie-in, but this contemporary mystery novel (first in a series) is set in a warmer season, and the Christmas in question is widowed Church of England vicar Tom Christmas, whose new life is upended when he discovers a pair of bodies in bizarre locations.

 When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill - In this thoughtful, emotionally intense, romantic, feminist literary fantasy novel, a mysterious mass event in an alternate 1950s America turns thousands of women into, well, you know.

 Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell - This gender-savvy SF novel dances at the far-future edge of diverse space opera as a pair of men forced to marry for political reasons contend with imperial treachery and their own cross-threaded romantic attractions.


 Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov's, Nightmare, Startling Stories, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications, she edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2. With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the Locus Award winning fiction-writing guide, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. In Autumn 2021, Aqueduct Press released the concluding novella in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Golden Woman.