Monday, July 15, 2024

Cul de Sac Stories by Tamara Kaye Sellman


 

 

I'm pleased to announce the release, in both print and e-book editions, of Cul de Sac Stories by Tamara Kaye Sellman, as a volume in Aqueduct Press's Conversation Pieces Series. It's available now at http://www.aqueductpress.com. The volume includes an introduction by Cat Rambo.

 

 Read a sample from the book here: http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/samples/978-1-61976-262-6.pdf

 

The neighborhoods of Cul de Sac Stories are not precisely the safe spaces you might expect. This collection of quirky exurban tales houses the whispered fears of mothers and daughters, crones and maidens, neighbors both familiar and aloof. Here you’ll find the codex through a believably terrifying apocalypse, a primer for new mothers managing newborn shadows, sacred scriptures unspooled by a handmade doll’s magic promise, a village’s record of a fantastical war against mother nature, witness to a town’s sudden choreography with catastrophe, transcripts of prescient dreams from humbled charlatans, notes from a suburban commandeering, and a romantic liaison left hovering in the eaves.

“Maiden, mother, crone—the women in these stories are filled with magic and wonder, vengeance and tenacity. Keep an eye on Tamara Sellman—she knows how to cast a spell, weaving a grand tapestry filled with mystery, love, horror, and hope.”
 —Author and editor Richard Thomas (Incarnate, 2024), Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller Award finalist

 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Congratulations to LaToya Jordan!


 

 

 Big congratulations to LaToya Jordan: her novella To the Woman in the Pink Hat just won the 2023 Shirley Jackson Award in the novella category!

 


 

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Feraltales by Couri Johnson


 

 

 

 

   I'm pleased to announce the release from Aqueduct Press of Feraltales, a collection of dark fantasy by Couri Johnson. It's available now in both print and e-book editions at www.aqueductpress.com.

 

  


Read a sample from the book.

Not all women are sweet and docile princesses. Sometimes they are witches, foxes, or dogs gone wild and looking to bite. The retelling of old tales in this collection recognizes the feral lurking within them. And so, a young woman, abetted by a griffin, seeks to free herself from a literally heartless man, twelve dancing sisters lure men to their doom, business-minded witches peddle everything from moonshine to manufactured tragedies, and the desperate wife of a king demanding she bear him a son makes a deal with a fox. 

 

Johnson presents five thought-provoking stories that reimagine the framework of the European fairy tale with a focus on women’s perspectives and a sense of rewilding....[H]er prose evokes the timeless rhythms of folklore and the stories work even without familiarity with their referents. Balancing the timeless and the contemporary, Johnson’s latest is sure to win fans.-   (Read the whole review)
  —Publishers Weekly, April 3, 2024

Monday, January 15, 2024

Tales from Mnemosyne by Dennis Danvers

 


 

 

 

I'm pleased to announce the release of Tales from Mnemosyne by Dennis Danvers as volume 90 in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series in both print and e-book editions. You can purchase it now at www.aqueductpress.com.

 

Tales from Mnemosyne retells Classical myths, largely known from Ovid, in the voice and tradition of an Appalachian storyteller, in this case, the goddess Mnemosyne. As the goddess of Memory and mother of The Muses, she is uniquely qualified to set the record straight—to tell the true stories without the usual patriarchal propaganda, all the while keeping things fun and only slightly blasphemous. Mnemosyne as a timeless goddess knows now and then backwards and forwards and has as much to say about the here and now as way back when. These fourteen tales include the most famous—Daphne and Apollo, Europa and Jove, the Birth of Athena, Cupid and Psyche—along with some too-often-forgotten ones, such as Tiresias and his daughter Manto, and Oenone, the abandoned wife of Paris. Charon, appropriately, concludes the proceedings.  

 

Advance Praise for Tales from Mnemosyne

This cool little book came in the mail yesterday, from Aqueduct’s Conversation Pieces imprint. It’s by the author, Dennis Danvers. Tales From Mnemosyne. These stories were originally told by Ovid but here they are told with the local trappings and voice of an Appalachian story teller. I heard him read one of these at World Fantasy — what a unique and effective blend of influences. Check it out.—Jeff Ford, author of The Drowned Life and Pretty Good Neighbor      

                                     

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2023, pt. 32: Cynthia Ward


 

 

2023 in Review: The Godless, Pop Gods, and Others
by Cynthia Ward

 

Another less-than-stellar year, so on to the (mostly) good stuff

 

May we all have a vision now and then (Music)

 "Happy New Year" by ABBA - In hopes of a better year ahead.


 "Journey to the End" by Haliok - My favorite song by Norwegian death-metal band Windir lends itself well to techno/electronica interpretations, as this cover version demonstrates.

 Omega Funk 10,000 by Benjiphonik - If you were wondering (as I'm sure we all do) who stands at the intersection of P-Funk, Run-DMC, Slayer, B-movie sci-fi, and Weird Al Yankovic, here's a link to a free streaming EP by SoCal singer/rapper/musician Benjiphonik (although this particular collection is, to be fair, short on metal).

 The Story of Zamrock! The Zambian Rock Sound 1972-1978 - Thanks to the writer Manjula Menon for introducing me to this short documentary and the fantastic psychedelic rock of 1970s Zambia.

 

It was strange to discover the world was a better place that you’d believed (Books)

 Nonfiction:

 

ABBA: Bright Lights Dark Shadows (updated 2014) by Carl Magnus Palm - Very thorough and mostly interesting, but probably not for the casual fan (or for someone who wants an update that includes ABBA's recent reunion)

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot - So everyone read it back in the '70s except me, and I wish I had, because I could have reread this charming account of a rural Yorkshire veterinarian's adventures and misadventures many times in the intervening years.


 

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks - In this justly praised

(though now dated) book from 1995, the late neurologist sympathetically discusses (from an outsider perspective) several individuals we would now describe as neurodiverse, including, most famously, the autistic animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin.

 Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End by Bart D. Ehrman - Fascinating and enlightening book by one of the leading scholars of the early Christian era.

 The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek - Excellent (though dated) book on autism from someone on the spectrum--which makes this something of a rarity in mainstream-published books, in my experience.

 Hijab Butch Blues: A Memoir by Lamya H - In this collection of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays, the pseudonymous queer Muslim immigrant author explores her relationships with her religion, her deity, her sexuality, her culture, her partners, and her family.

 


City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis - A classic sociocultural history of L.A. from an author whose political perspective is much like mine, but I didn't finish it because I wearied of the nonstop negativity.

 

Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All! edited by Harlyn Aizley - This anthology of essays by queer nonbirth mothers is wide-ranging and well-written (if somewhat dated), and it gave this childfree reader much food for thought about motherhood, parenting, pregnancy, birth, child-raising, and family.

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith by Richard Bradford - By all accounts, the brilliant mystery/thriller writer and trailblazing lesbian romance author Patricia Highsmith was a reprehensible human being, but the author of this biography is so busy making sure you know he doesn't like her that I abandoned the book, overcome by the sound of axes grinding.

The Family Outing: A Memoir by Jessi Hempel - What if nearly everyone in your family, including you, turns out to be queer and/or genderqueer, and oh, yeah, you might be involved in a cult?

Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life by R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick - A thoughtful, nuanced, non-insulting view of religion and irreligion in American life, and their iterative interactions with U.S. law and custom and with one another; the authors' reasonable thesis is that nonbelief has generally failed to provide much to fill the role (meaningful action/activism) of religions and faith groups, and they speculate on a more coherent approach to secular morality.

 Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein - A thoughtful and thorough exploration of not only the possibility, but the necessity of atheist morality and ethics, written the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University.


I Am a Bacha Posh: My Life as a Woman Living as a Man in Afghanistan by Ukmina Manoori with Stephanie Lebrun, translated by Peter E. Chianchiano, Jr. - A fascinating first-hand account (in translation) from a person who was assigned female at birth; was temporarily designated a boy so her family would have a male child, in accordance with Afghani custom; and refused to resume life as a girl--of interest to readers of Anna-Marie McLemore's novel When the Moon Was Ours (2016) or Jenny Nordberg's The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan (2014), or to anyone interested in gender, identity, feminism, Afghani culture, etc.

 Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America by Dahlia Lithwick - The gut-clenching account of how women lawyers across the U.S. fought back the Trump administration assault on democracy, and let's hope Lithwick never needs to write a sequel.

 Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions by Phil Zuckerman - This carefully researched (if now somewhat dated) exploration of the United States' fastest-growing religious/ontological demographic ("nones") is written with grace and balance by a leading secularist; the book's a useful guide, whether you're writing the other as a believer, or just looking for better understanding, whether as an outsider or as an insider.

 


 

 Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma by Claire Dederer - A complex, candid, and sometimes deeply uncomfortable exploration of art, creativity, monstrous creators, our relationship with them, and other relationships.

 NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman - The best book (and the most recent) I've read so far on autism.

The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life, and Mortality by Karen Fine - The memoir of a woman veterinarian and pet owner who entered the field when it was male-dominated and built a successful practice in a sexist profession that guarantees much suffering and death; if you don't cry, your heart is harder than mine.

The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America by Elizabeth Letts - An aging Maine farm woman diagnosed with terminal cancer loses her home to the tax man and sets out to cross 1950s America on a horse--Annie Wilkins is a quintessential Mainer, the author understands Maine better than any other out-of-stater I've ever read, and this is one of the best books I read all year.

 Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, and Philip Wang - This impressive, comprehensive, and sometimes very funny exploration of Asian American pop culture and historical/political/sociocultural issues includes a handy "appreciation-or-appropriate" flowchart for those of us who are writing the other, or who just want not to be assholes.

 


 

 She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boyle - A literate, insightful, candid, and drily funny memoir by the novelist, trans activist, and former Colby College professor.

 Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli - The subtitle is truth in advertising.

 Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein - The title and foreword make this engaging work sound like a true-crime book; the subtitle might have injected more accuracy by including the word "memoir."

 We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (and Maybe You Should Too) by Kate Cohen – This thought-provoking book covers considerably more ground than just whether a nonbeliever should identify and publicly come out as atheist.

 

What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman - Why morality dependent on divine command isn't moral, among other subjects addressed logically and eruditely.

 

Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn't Enough by Dina Nayeri - Odds are, if you're reading this blog, you are or have been part of a demographic or several whose experiences are routinely disbelieved and dismissed, and therefore might find this book of interest; but I have known people who couldn't finish it, because the dismissed people on which it is centered are refugees and torture survivors.  Harrowing and necessary.

Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora edited by Saraciea J. Fennell - A nonfiction anthology of graceful, powerful essays from a fairly diverse, broadly defined group of Latinx authors.

 

Fiction - Anthologies and Collections and a Story or Three:

 "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" by Arthur Conan Doyle - A fine winter mystery featuring an oft-stolen gem, Christmas geese, and an almost merry visit with Sherlock Holmes, who embodies the generous spirit of the season (included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

Bicycles & Broomsticks: Fantastical Feminist Stories about Witches on Bikes edited by Elly Blue - If you read the full title, you know exactly what you're getting; and they're fun and gentle visions.


 Futures That Never Were (Broadswords and Blasters Presents) edited by Cameron Mount and Matthew X Gomez - Jam-packed, pulse-pounding anthology/special issue of sword & planet and related pulp space adventure stories (disclosure:  I'm a contributor).

 The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh: A Society of Gentlemen Short Story by KJ Charles - What if you lose everything, only to gain what you really want?

 So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men by Claire Keegan - A slim collection of three graceful, insightful, deceptively simple fictions which serve as a corrective to any starry-eyed illusions about male-female romantic relationships, and which I should not have read back-to-back due to a certain monotony of theme; your mileage may vary.

A Sweet Yuletide by EE Ottoman - This short, gentle, historical holiday FF romance may leave you hungry.

 

Fiction - Novels and Novellas:

 All the Right Notes by Dominic Lim - Kind of uneven, this ambitiously structured, Filipino/Japanese American, MM romance novel is not a "hilarious comedy" as misleadingly promoted, but it is a lyrical love letter to musicals.

 The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison (who also writes as Sarah Monette) - A gaslight fantasy, a sort of re-envisioning of Holmes and Watson after significant alterations, set in a world of werewolves and vampires and angels, fallen and unfallen; sometimes a mess, but an entertaining novel.

 Astrid Parker Doesn't Fail (Bright Falls Book 2) by Ashley Herring Blake - In this insightful and sexy sequel to small-town Oregon romantic comedy Delilah Green Doesn't Care, Delilah's interior-designer stepsister/fellow monster-mother-survivor must stake all on a reality-TV remodel, but the cute lesbian head carpenter proves an obstacle to her goal, her identity, and her heart.

Babel by R.F. Kuang - Brilliant magic system, audacious novel, deserving Nebula Award winner.

 Bard: Book 1 by Keith Taylor - This Arthurian sword & sorcery fix-up novel about a wandering Irish musician/warrior/Druid is a compelling if sometimes dated page-turner, with as harrowing a werewolf as I've ever seen.

 Black Orchid Enterprises series by M.R. Dimond - With four titles released so far, this cozy, diverse, contemporary small-town Texas mystery series combines crime, cat rescue, an ABBA tribute band, the occasional holiday, and romantic pining to entertaining (and sometimes sobering) effect (two of the four titles are collections, not novels).

 Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken - I was primed to like this literary fantasy/magic realist novel centered on the endangered New England sport of candlepin bowling, but the prose was so busy being arch and clever that I gave up.

 By Way of Sorrow (An Erin McCabe Legal Thriller Book 1) by Robyn Gigl - Page-turner/voyage of discovery about a trans lawyer seeking justice, which left me wishing the character had queer/genderqueer found family instead of operating in painful isolation.

 Can't Spell Treason Without Tea (Tomes & Tea Book 1) by Rebecca Thorne - I finally tried some cozy fantasy, and found this gentle, romantic (FF), secondary-world novel a pleasant way to while away an afternoon, as well as a welcome change from ten-tome epic fantasy trilogies; it's worth a look if you love books or tea and don't mind anachronism.

 Chef's Kiss and Chef's Choice by TJ Alexander - Despite my lack of cooking skills, I greatly enjoyed these queer and genderqueer culinary romance novels, and found Book 2's Frenchman annoying but, yes! also charming.


 

 Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen - This terrific feminist literary caper novel should be marinating in mystery/suspense awards, but sadly isn't; don't miss it.

 

A Coup of Tea (Tea Princess Chronicles Book 1) by Casey Blair - This recent entry in the recently named cozy fantasy subgenre has a low-key (MF) romance and a narrator so keenly attuned to political and social subtleties that the novel might also qualify as fantasy of manners.


 

Death by Silver and A Death at the Dionysus Club by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold - Happy to see this alternate-Victorian fantasy mystery series (featuring characters loosely inspired by Holmes & Watson) back in print with gorgeous new covers, and delighted to read them again.

 

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie - The classic Hercule Poirot whodunnit now also serves as a window into the colonial English view of Egypt.

 Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver - This ambitious Pulitzer Prize winner has a wonderful voice that pulls you right along (which makes this grittily realistic contemporary literary novel no less dark or lengthy).

 Feel the Bern: A Bernie Sanders Mystery by Andrew Shaffer - Set in Vermont (who'd have guessed?), this light cozy mystery from the author of the Obama/Biden mysteries features the U.S. Senator as an enjoyable if cranky amateur detective.

 The Fiancée Farce: A Novel by Alexandria Bellefleur - When a lie blows up in this Seattle-set FF rom-com, a publisher's heir and a failing bookstore's owner agree to wed, a quick fix which proves not the simple solution they were hoping for.


 

Fire Logic and Earth Logic by Laurie J. Marks - Judging by the first two of its four books, Elemental Logic is a gracefully written epic fantasy series which considers imperialism, colonialism, and magic not as elements for a sweeping adolescent power fantasy, but intimately and thoughtfully--the first two titles are difficult, beautiful, sometimes aggravating, and always demanding and rewarding.

 

Have You Seen Luis Velez? by Catherine Ryan Hyde - This diverse novel stays too close to the surface of its difficult intersections and issues to avoid clocking out as Representation Lite.

 Hen Fever: A Sapphic Victorian Romance by Olivia Waite - For the holiday I re-read this historical Christmas romance novella, which offers just the right level of detail to feel wintry, yet cozy and warm.

 Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie - What's the holiday spirit without a bloody murder, a family riven by hatred, and a fiendish locked-room mystery?

 How to Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow - In this Hanukkah/Christmas romance, a young palaeoichthyologist/dog walker/trauma survivor literally runs into the girl of her dreams; can they work past their youthful awkwardness and inexperience as a DC blizzard piles the snow higher around them?

 Idol Minds by KT Salvo - A captivating (not to mention steamy) contemporary MM romance in which a closeted, Oscar-winning Korean American actor with secrets relocates to Seoul to coach a closeted K-Pop superstar fleeing his own secrets.

 Infamous: A Novel by Lex Croucher - Fun, interracial, sapphic Regency rom-com which felt rather more like Zoomers running with a Boho/hippie crowd than I suspect is strictly accurate.

 Iris Kelly Doesn't Date (Bright Falls Book 3) by Ashley Herring Blake - In the conclusion to the FF rom-com Bright Falls trilogy, a writer's deliberately single life runs afoul of an irresistible actor and an entire monster family; despite the novel's many strengths, it seems not nearly aware enough of the absolutely toxic levels of familial meddling.

 An Island Princess Starts a Scandal (Las Leonas Book 2) by Adriana Herrera - As this hot historical FF romance novel makes clear, Herrera really knows how to put her romantic leads--and her reader--through the wringer.

 Kiss Her Once for Me: A Novel by Alison Cochrun - Fun fake-engagement FF love-quadrangle romance that's a love-letter to the Rose City and the first portrayal of a demisexual character I've seen that resonates with my experience.

 K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee - Riveting romantic YA novel of a young Korean American woman who may land her dream job, if the try-out and training don't kill her first; I hope this is an exaggerated fictionalization of life in Korean entertainment, but fear it is not.

 Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay - I don't expect white American characters to be aware of cultural appropriation in writing professionally about Mexican food and recipes in the 1960s, but the additional material appended to this interesting but uneven short epistolary novel from 2022 make it clear the author is either oblivious to this ethical gray area or ignored it, which, together with some other issues, leaves the work as Representation Lite.

 Luke and Billy Finally Get a Clue by Cat Sebastian - A low-key yet riveting historical MM romance novella in which two prominent pro baseball players navigate possible attraction in 1953.


 The Master of Samar by Melissa Scott - In this terrific stand-alone queer fantasy, loosely inspired by Renaissance Venice, curses and genii loci are nothing like you imagined.

Masters in This Hall by KJ Charles - In this historical MM romance novella, there's no place like home for the holidays, especially when it's your uncle's grand house in Victorian England and you're on the trail of the thief who loved and double-crossed you, with far more dangerous men pursuing you both.

 Mecca: A Novel by Susan Straight - As good a writer about California as Steinbeck; a novel that's a master class in writing the other and the knowing chronicle of an Inland Empire native; a cri de couer against the injustices of race and class and gender and citizenship at the core of the Golden State and the United States; an ending that is unresolved yet all too clear.

 Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery by Agatha Christie - Short, tricksy mystery and thriller tales which are mostly, but not all, set in the winter season.

 Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall - An amusing historical fantasy romance (FF) novel, but your enjoyment may hinge significantly on your reaction to the narration.

 Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang - This recent release (2023) was published as a literary novel and I found it on a list of crime/mystery/suspense novels by Asian writers, but my primary impression is that it is a science fiction novel of body horror...and an unpredictable, thought-provoking, and deeply creepy one.

 Night Sky Mine by Melissa Scott - Excellent far-future cyberpunk novel of artificial life and the relationship of union and corporation.

 One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston - Seeking distance from her boundaries-challenged mother, a queer virgin Southern woman relocates to New York and becomes fascinated by the butch Chinese punk she sees on the subway...a woman who seems from another time, and perhaps is.

 Ocean's Echo by Everina Maxwell - The sequel to romantic (MM) far-future novel of political space opera Winter's Orbit is at least as strong as its predecessor.

 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - This decades-spanning National Book Award finalist, a historical novel of Koreans in 20th-Century Korea and Japan, is gorgeously and sensitively written, and a stone bummer.

 The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated by Tina Kover - In the alternating past and present storylines of this chilling novel/thinly veiled memoir, 21st-Century fascism and Antisemitism rise around a Jewish Frenchwoman barely aware of her heritage as she investigates an anonymous, threatening postcard sent to her bearing only the names of her ancestors killed in the Holocaust.

 The Princess Stakes: A Multicultural Regency Romance (Daring Dukes Book 1) by Amalie Howard - As part of my quest for the elusive feminist MF romance of consent-conscious equals, I started this romance novel; I abandoned it unfinished because I got tired of waiting for something feminist to show up.

 A River Runs through It and Other Stories by Norman MacLean - Graceful, elegaic, infused with love for the West and family and fly-fishing; reminds me greatly of Hemingway, except for leaving somewhat less grit in my gears.

 The Rivals of Casper Road (Garnet Run Book 4) by Roan Parrish - Parrish returns to her popular small-town Garnet Run series for a strong Halloween-set MM neurodiverse/neurotypical romance.

 The Romantic Agenda by Claire Kann - As in her previous ace/allo interracial MF romance novel, Let's Talk About Love, Claire Kann presents a complex, difficult Black woman character who may leave you tearing out your hair and/or wondering why the guy might stay with her; points for creating characters and relationships which really leave you thinking.

 Season of Love by Helena Greer - As Hanukkah and other holidays pass in this sapphic romance, the Jewish heir to a Christmas tree farm clashes and sparks with the Gentile manager.

The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (The Doomsday Books Book 1) and A Nobleman's Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel (The Doomsday Books Book 2) by KJ Charles - Crimes and secrets, sex and romance, manly love, KJ Charles--what's not to like?

 The Secret of the Lost Pearls by Darcie Wilde (who also writes as Sarah Zettel) - In the 2022 installment of the Austen-inspired Regency mystery series, "useful woman" Rosalind Thorne becomes entangled in a complex mystery that quickly moves far beyond a missing necklace.

 Self-Made Boys: A Great Gatsby Remix (Remixed Classics Book 5) by Anna-Marie McLemore - A gracefully written YA trans Hispanic take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic of the Roaring '20s, but perhaps not the novel for those who want no anachronism.

 Seoulmates by Susan Lee - Fun if kind of uneven YA MF rom-com with K-Drama.

 Shadow of the Rock: A Spike Sanguinetti Novel by Thomas Mogford - This opening novel of a Gibraltar mystery series turns out to be set mostly in Morocco, which is something of a disappointment, given the historical, ethnic, and sociocultural complexities of the Rock; additionally, the lead is a bit too much of a lucky cishet white guy that the women can't resist.


 

 Show Girl by Alyson Greaves - A modern spin on the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady trope, but also not really like anything else I've never read, and lovely, too; highly recommended.

 

 Sorry, Bro by Taleen Voskuni - Well written FF rom-com of finding self and of finding a love that may be shunned in the Bay Area Armenian American community; the narrator can be intense and irritating, so I would have preferred to see the PoV alternating with her more centered love interest.

 Sword-Dancer (Tiger and Del Book 1) by Jennifer Roberson - I wondered about mentioning this superior but trigger-filled heroic fantasy novel from 1986, because I wondered if anyone significantly younger than I could tolerate the entitled, misogynistic male narrator; of course, for a woman of my generation, his kind was legion, except typically less open to the possibility of change than the damaged Tiger is.

System Collapse (The Murderbot Diaries Book 7) by Martha Wells - Another fine novel featuring everyone's favorite snarky construct (but better appreciated if you do what I didn't, and read or re-read Book 6 right before this one).

That Summer Feeling by Bridget Morrissey - In this enjoyable FF contemporary romance, a premonition ends in a far different place than the viewpoint character expects when she attends a summer camp for adults.

 A Thief in the Night by KJ Charles - So you're desperate enough to rob a guy on the highway and assume a valet's identity, only to find out said valet's new employer is the guy you robbed--what could go right?


 The Verifiers by Jane Pek - In this superior literary mystery/thriller novel that may also be science fiction, a keen-witted queer Asian woman who scorns online dating, investigates online daters and can't seem to connect to anyone in real life uncovers a possible crime, with potentially deadly consequences.

 Water Horse by Melissa Scott - A terrific epic fantasy novel, which is unusual for the subgenre in being queer and possibly unique in completing its complex story in one (!) volume; the inspiration appears to be Celtic, but reading this novel as a Celtic fantasy would be confusing at best.

 The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang - This wuxia novel, which is set in an alternate Song Dynasty China and based (in queer and genderbent ways) on the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, is an exciting and thought-provoking sword & sorcery adventure, but if you have any triggers, they are probably in this book; and if you want your reads to comfort or reinforce your Western expectations, moralities, or pieties, you are in the wrong place.

 Wear It Like a Crown: A MM Royalty Romance by Zarah Detand - A gay prince threatened with blackmail takes on a handler who urges the prince's coming out while keeping his own secrets.

 We Could Be So Good by Cat Sebastian - In a 1950s New York newsroom, it can be a challenge to stay closeted; and what is it with this rather intrusive co-worker, anyway?

 


 Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov's, Nightmare, Weird Tales, and elsewhere. For WolfSinger Publications, she edited the 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 2021, Aqueduct Press released the concluding novella in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Golden Woman.

 


Monday, January 8, 2024

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2023, pt. 31: Nancy Jane Moore

 


 

Always Reading in 2023

By Nancy Jane Moore

 

 

We are slowly being crowded out of our apartment by books. We buy them. We pick them up on the street and in little free libraries. We check them out of the public library. We keep trying to get rid of the ones we don’t want, but that requires us to both decide we don’t want something and then for one of us to actually take it out of the place.

Things would be worse if it wasn’t for ebooks. I’ve got three reading apps and two library apps for those. Plus magazines also take up space, especially New Scientist, which comes weekly. We keep trying to throw magazines out (or put them on the street for others), but it’s hard to be sure we’ve finished with them.

And of course, I read magazines and newspapers and newsletters online as well, not to mention various and sundry articles and blogs I stumble across. The truth is that my partner and I are always reading. It makes figuring out which books and other things to write about a challenge, because I can’t write about them all.

So instead of trying to include everything I read this year, I want to focus on two books that affected me profoundly and deeply. Two very different books.

 

The first is Menewood by Nicola Griffith. This is the sequel to Hild, which I also loved, but Menewood is so much more than a sequel. First of all, looking at it as a writer, it is simply a brilliant piece of written work. It’s 681 pages long (not counting notes and maps) and every page, every sentence, every word matters. I, who often skim through long and exciting books because I want to know what happens next, read every damn word. It took me five days and cost me sleep because I had some important things I also had to do. I could not put it down for long.


My passion for this book goes beyond the sheer beauty of the writing. While it shows Griffith’s depth of knowledge of the history of England in the seventh century (long before it was even one small country, much less an empire), it is much more than a good historical novel. Yes, of course, a lot of is made up, for so much of the history of that time is unknown. But Griffith has wedded her knowledge of the things that did happen with her speculative fiction writer’s ability to come up with what could have happened within the context of that reality. She made it up, but it fits.

And even more importantly to me, she has written a book about what true leaders do, and should do. The “kings” of English history in this time are warlords contending with each other for land and power and wealth. Each kingdom is tiny, by today’s standards, and each king has  ambition for more. But, like all too many leaders even of large countries, not to mention corporate barons of today, they want that power and wealth for its own sake, not for what they can do with it for their people.

 Hild is a woman with a lot of power, but she is different from those kings. Reading this book makes one see what a world could be like with true leadership.

This is a masterpiece of literature and Griffith’s best book yet. I have read all her novels and a good chunk of her short fiction and have been a fan of her work for a very long time, but this book crosses a threshold.

If you haven’t read Hild, read it first. Menewood transcends that very good book, but the underpinnings are important.


The second book is completely different: How Infrastructure Works, by engineering professor Deb Chachra. This deeply important book delves into the many systems that underlie our modern world – electricity, international shipping, roads, communications, plumbing – and makes it clear how essential they are.

Chachra makes several important points in this book. First of all, infrastructure systems are, by their very nature, collective. They are used by many people at once and work best when they are operated with that in mind.

Secondly, most crucial infrastructure is relatively new, having been developed within the last couple of hundred years. While roads have been around for millennia, the sheer number of highways that were built over the 20th century to accommodate the automobile boggles my mind when I think about it.

Third, infrastructure is what makes modern life modern. Without it, people must devote all their time to the basic tasks of life. If your home lacks running water, you must fetch it. If it lacks refrigeration, you can’t store food. Without a sewer system, you face challenges in dealing with human waste. Off the grid life may sound “free,” but modern systems are what gives us the time and space to do more with our lives than the basics.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, infrastructure is something we humans invented. Unlike natural systems, it is not unchangeable. Not only that, but we can learn from our errors if we look at the system carefully. For example, people assumed that widening highways would solve traffic problems, but instead, that tends to increase traffic because more people use the road. And drainage systems that dump waste into rivers or even oceans have created new problems.

Much of our current infrastructure was created around fossil fuels, but here is the part of the book that gives me the most hope: Chachra says we can build a future that provides sufficient infrastructure to give all of us the systems we need to make life reasonable and comfortable from renewable energy sources. This will require redoing current infrastructure, which also will give us the opportunity to make different decisions about what we need. (Maybe we don’t need all those cars and roads.)

And once we do that, the energy to run our world will cost almost nothing, especially by comparison to fossil fuels. There are some technological challenges still, but the bigger ones are societal and political.

I’ve tried to summarize why I find this book so constructive, but I still feel like I’m not doing it justice. The writing is delightful, clear to a lay person like myself without being condescending. Chachra manages the trick of being honest about the challenges we face while still being optimistic about what we can do. The information is vital to everyone from the writer who wants to creature a non-dystopic future to the activist dealing with climate change to any person frustrated with badly run utilities and overcrowded highways.

I want everyone to read this book!

I’m so far behind on seeing movies that it’s almost silly for me to comment on them. But I do want to mention one movie that I think most people missed: the 2019 slasher film Black Christmas. (This is a remake of two earlier movies with the same name, so the date of release is important.)


 I actually saw this movie at the end of 2019, but I watched it again this year because I wanted to discuss it in an academic paper for WisCon. It’s one of the most feminist movies I’ve ever seen, which is not something you expect from a slasher film.

This particular movie roots the violence necessary to the genre in misogyny and most of the murder victims are women. In one healthy improvement to the genre, the camera does not dwell on dead female bodies.

But more than that, the women students fight back even though they are not superheroes or trained fighters, and they fight back collectively. This movie does not show women as powerless and it shows the importance of doing things together.

I found it much more inspiring than the various movies about women superheroes. Give me an ordinary hero any day.

I will confess that I found the movie a little harder to watch the second time because I knew that characters I was invested in were going to die. I don’t usually watch slasher movies or recommend them. But this one did inspire me and I’d like to see it get more of a following.

One other thing I did this year was become obsessed about so-called artificial intelligence as represented by the large language model (LLM) chatbots that were released into the wild with great hype and even greater flaws. There are many ways of looking at those programs; I know some writers very angry because their work was used in developing the LLMs and others who have lost the kind of steady freelance jobs that paid their bills because some fool thought they could be replaced with a program.

But while those things are a concern, I find them just one part of a much larger set of issues. Not, I hasten to add, the laughable idea that these LLMs will become true artificial general intelligence and either bring about some kind of salvation or destroy the word; contrary to the tech bro vision, neither the Terminator nor the Matrix movies are documentaries.

Unfortunately, much of the popular media coverage of these LLMs has been uncritical reports based on the hype laid out by Open AI and the other companies, leaving out the very real criticisms leveled by those who are generally called ethicists – people who understand what this tech is doing and who see a number of problems that aren’t even being considered, starting with the fact that most LLMs make some serious errors that can be dangerous if they are used for such things as facial recognition systems, just to pick one.

There is a lot of good material out there. I want to point to two good starting places for examining the deeper issues. One is the academic paper “On the Danger of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?” by Emily Bender, Timnit Gebru, Margaret Mitchell, and Angelina McMillan-Major. It was this paper that got Gebru and Mitchell fired from Google.

 The other is an article by Ted Chiang in the New Yorker: “ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPG of the Web,” in which he describes the chatbots as “lossy text-compression algorithms.”

Both these pieces undercut the popular narrative and make clear that we’re a long way from real AI. They also make it clear that we need to stop falling for tech bro hype and start questioning and regulating the products that come out of that world. The copyright lawsuits currently pending may help, but the problems created by LLMs are much broader than the immediate issues of writers and publishers.

As I was about to send this piece off to Aqueduct, I read the latest newsletter from Dave Karpf, a professor who studies the internet and politics. He suggests two things that may happen with LLMs that will change the pop narrative and perhaps even open up the much more important ethical discussion.

One is that copyright law may be strong enough to override what they’re doing, similar to what happened with Napster some twenty years ago. But his second point, that we might figure out that these stronger LLMs are useful for a lot of things such tech has been used for in the past, rather than the next step to artificial general intelligence. That is, it’s not the birth of true AI, but simply a better computing tool for certain kinds of analytical and tech work.

That gave me something cheerful to think about as I approached the New Year.

 


Nancy Jane Moore is the author of the fantasy novel For the Good of the Realm, the science fiction novel The Weave, and the novella Changeling,  all from Aqueduct Press. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines and in a collection from PS Publishing. She holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido. In other lifetimes she organized co-ops, practiced law, and worked as a legal editor. A native Anglo Texan, she lived in Washington, DC, for many years and now lives with her sweetheart in Oakland, California. Over the last few years, she has developed good relationships with her neighborhood crows. She is currently working on a sequel to For the Good of the Realm. Website (currently in progress): nancyjanemoore.com.