Monday, December 22, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 17: Lesley Hall

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014
by Lesley A Hall

Over the past two years much of my reading has been undertaken in the capacity of one of the judges of the Arthur C Clarke Award– last year’s submissions were still occupying my attention well into the early part of this year, and submissions for this year have been accumulating over the past months. Since I feel it inappropriate to discuss any of the works which were submitted, I wondered if I had anything much to say about my reading during 2014, but on reflection I did manage to read a significant number of works for personal rather than judgemental reasons.

There were indeed still works of sff I read that were not eligible for reasons of non-UK publication, appearing in ebook form only, or being considered by their publishers too much towards the fantasy end of the spectrum for an award which has historically been largely associated with the harder sf end of the spectrum. One that I (like so many others) found particularly admirable was ‘Katherine Addison’ (Sarah Monette)’s The Goblin Emperor. Beautifully written, with well-rounded characters and intricate world-building, this was a story on the theme perhaps too seldom told of a central character, who, in spite of past damage, wants to do the right thing and to get away from cycles of vengeance. Another work which posited civilisation as worth struggling for was Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, a work pitched at the YA market but breaking away from the tropes that have become perhaps tediously recurrent in the genre. The post-apocalyptic setting is vivid and the characters are commendably diverse and complex, as are their relationships. Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad brought together the short stories of this wonderfully fresh voice and perspective.

In the realm of literary fiction, there were outstanding new works by old favourites – Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila – but this year’s major discovery for me was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I devoured Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck in rapid succession, though found myself almost hesitant to begin Americanah when it came out shortly afterwards for fear it could not possibly live up to its predecessors (but it did). I undertook a re-reading (nearly 20 years since I first read it) of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: it turned out to be an ideal book for a four day train journey across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto (or maybe that was the ideal situation for reading so long and complex a novel with its many interweaving strands).

There was a small group of biographies/critical studies of several of the fascinating women who were part of the circle around the interwar feminist journal Time and Tide: Angela John’s magisterial study of its founder and owner, Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda; Lisa Regan’s Winifred Holtby's Social Vision (there was a certain period this year of Holtby obsession during which I also read Letters to A Friend, Winifred Holtby As I Knew Her, and Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain) ; Elizabeth Maslen, Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: A Biography. I also discovered from Julia Jones’s The Adventures of Margery Allingham that Allingham, so much better known as a crime novelist, also contributed, rather unexpectedly, to Time and Tide. I re-read a number of the novels of E. M. Delafield, which are far less cosy than her best-known work, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and its sequels, first published in serial form in Time and Tide (the world still awaits a biography of Delafield as good as those just mentioned).

In the realm of autobiography and memoir, two books which in their very different ways combined personal life histories with a broader view of social history were Kathleen Hale’s A Singular Talent (Hale was an artist who is probably best known for her picture books about Orlando the Marmalade Cat, but led a fascinating life in early twentieth century bohemian circles), and Rani Sircar’s Strains in a Minor Key: A Celebration of Sixty Years in Calcutta, a memoir which presents the changes in this complex and vibrant city from the final years of the Raj to the present, interwoven with glimpses of Sircar’s own life as an educated Indian woman belonging to the Christian minority community. I was privileged to receive a complimentary copy of this work, which seems (from my recommendations of it to friends) to be almost impossible to get hold of. Sircar’s earlier memoir, the delightful Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing out of British India, is also alas reported to have become virtually unobtainable.

Moving into more academic social history, I was particularly impressed by two studies of ‘below-stairs’ life which were very much counteracting nostalgic ‘Downton Abbey’ visions of domestic service in the past: Lucy Delap’s Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain and Katherine Holden’s Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny, both of which combined detailed research in a range of sources and analytical thought to illuminate their subjects and to explore the complex relationships involved.

As mentioned above, I was in Canada during the course of the year – in fact I made two visits in connection with conferences – so much of my ‘viewing’ activity was about its beauties, of which the cross-country train journey enabled me to see a splendid variety – mountains, prairies, forests (and one bear). I also spent a week on the lovely campus of the University of Victoria (though much of that was spent in the archive collections reading other people’s correspondence for a new research project), and took the spectacular Victoria-Vancouver ferry trip. My second trip was rather a mad round of lecture-giving, but friends did take me out for a brilliant day canoeing in Gatineau Park. Other viewing involved the tremendous paintings of Emily Carr (there is a major exhibition currently in south London that I long to get to) and the Group of Seven. 

Lesley A. Hall is a London-based archivist and historian, and author of several books on the history of gender and sexuality. She has also published a volume in the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007). Her biography of a pioneering British feminist sex radical and campaigner for reproductive freedom, The Life and Times of Stella Browne, feminist and free spirit, was published by IB Tauris in 2011, and the expanded and updated second edition of her textbook, Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 was published in 2012. Lesley's website can be found at

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Just Push the Damn Button Already

by Celeste Rita Baker

Eric Garner’s eyes. Art by Jeffrey Baykal-Rollins
Millions March NYC – Day of Anger. New York City, December 13, 2014

We are watching you. We’ve been watching you. And feeling the effects of every decision you make that has made life, not only here in America, but world-wide, a living hell for everyone but you. (Not all colorless people, but conveniently, enough to uphold the status quo.) And we know that your greed and total lack of soul has made you irredeemable. I will not list your crimes against humanity, just pick your favorite six dozen and take it as written. But let’s imagine that one of the things I’m thinking of is the attempted systemic destruction of colorful people as demonstrated by your need to take over, colonize, exploit and dominate every last one of us. We charge genocide. And when I say we, I mean me.

So just push the damn button already, because this long slow march to death is unnecessary. (Although quite profitable for you. Your wallet is stuffed, guess we’re working on your ego?)

You are not going to stop. We understand that. Your inability to share and your fear of retribution goads you to try even harder to solidify your power. Making us, from America to Australia to West Papua, dependent upon you for food, (terminator seeds, anyone?) water (a commodity?), and a place to be, (What? You say you ‘control’ this land? But I live here!) Pushing your doctrine-driven education, not for the wonder of knowledge but to corral us into a self-defeating way of life that serves only you. Fomenting fear and hatred and violence because it pays so well. (And is so effectively distracting.)

But we’re not going to stop resisting either. How could we? Why should we? Your empire is not going to last forever. Your time has come and is done.

So just push the damn button already. Because we don’t have the weaponry that you do and we’re not going to fall for the trick of buying them from you, as so many other sufferers have, only to become just like you.

So just push the damn button already, and our survivors will show you what humans can be.

Celeste Rita Baker is a writer from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands living in Harlem, New York. She has a short story collection to be published by Aqueduct in 2015 and is completing a novel about a Black woman and a saint inhabiting the same body in a futuristic New York City.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014: pt. 16: Nancy Jane Moore

Pleasures of Reading etc.

by Nancy Jane Moore

Here’s how big a fan grrl I am of Rebecca Solnit: I bought a copy of Harper’s in the grocery checkout lane last month because she had an essay in it. Harper’s always disappoints me – this time was no exception – but Solnit never does.

I read Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell some years back. Her description of how people rise to the occasion in disasters – and how official efforts to “restore order” often do more harm than good – resonated with me at a time when I was also reading about the biological bases for human cooperation. And her writing was beautiful.

This year I read Men Explain Things to Me and turned the corner from casual appreciator to rabid fan. Solnit has a way of saying something important from a slightly different perspective, and of doing it in exquisite sentences. Here is an example of both from her essay on Virginia Woolf, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”:

“The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.”

I was very surprised to find that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was not on The New York Times 2014 best-of lists – not even the 100 “notable books” one. This comprehensive explanation of the systemic inequality of wealth and income in the world today provides a core education in how the system works. Any solutions to extreme inequity that do not take into account Piketty’s formulas will likely turn out to be mere window dressing. This book is an indispensable tool for anyone looking to change the world’s economic system.

I hadn’t heard of James McBride until he won the National Book Award last year, but I was intrigued by The Good Lord Bird and gave it a try. It turned out to be an amazing book; despite the satirical tone, it ended up breaking my heart – which is probably a crucial element in any book on slavery and the Civil War.

Browsing in Oakland’s Marcus Garvey Books a few months later, I discovered McBride’s earlier novel, Song Yet Sung, and read it as well. It was just as brilliant and just as heartbreaking. In these days when historians are recognizing the effect of slavery on this country, McBride is using fiction to get at the underlying truths of that era.

On a lighter note, I finally got around to reading Madeleine E. Robins’s Sarah Tolerance novels this year. These are mysteries set in a slightly alternate world in which the Queen, rather than the Prince of Wales, acts as regent for George III. Miss Tolerance is a fallen woman skilled in swordplay who makes her living as a private investigator.

These delightful books are grounded in the conventions of regency novels while providing a most satisfactory active and independent heroine. There are three of them: Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner. Robins is at work on a fourth, and I mention it here in hopes of moving that along. I would gladly spend many more hours in the company of Miss Tolerance.

Movies often disappoint me, but I did manage to see several this year that were worth my time. Twelve Years a Slave provided another powerful take on US slavery. Obvious Child is a romantic comedy that gets women’s lives right – including the choice to have an abortion. Laura Poitras made Edward Snowden’s efforts worthwhile by putting his story on-screen in Citizenfour.

I could probably come up with a large list of Austin musicians everyone ought to know, but I’ll confine myself to one: Ruthie Foster. Her latest album, Promise of a Brand New Day, is up for a Grammy, but her old ones are also an excellent introduction to her music. The best way to hear her, though, is live: She’s one of those musicians who brings added joy when she plays for an audience.

Nancy Jane Moore’s novel Seven Cities of Gold (working title) will be published by Aqueduct in 2015. Several collections of her stories are available as ebooks from Book View Café.

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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Listening, and Viewing in 2014, pt. 14: Liz Henry

Pleasures 2014
by Liz Henry

I have a lot of recommendations this year for works that I’ve enjoyed. It is an extra pleasure to get to pass them along to other Aqueduct readers and writers!

At you can sign up for a near-daily newsletter on the #Ferguson protests, with links and information from Netta and DeRay. Also follow them on Twitter as @deray and @Nettaaaaaaaa. This is a good guide to what’s happening and where your support may be useful!

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett. I’m recommending this with huge enthusiasm on all channels!
This is the story of Adrian(ne), Antoine(ette), Hector/Helen moving through time and identities as the world is fragmented and destroyed. Their love of each other and the world comes through vividly in each glimpse you get of their stories, interrupted by head injuries, dying or death, insanity, war, interspersed with a somewhat sly, poetic, internal computer dialogue in code. Gorgeous writing, haunting characters and a fast pace (but good if you slow down to savor it.) It has a great structural beauty and will make you think of fugues, both musical and mental.

The World of the Indigenous Americas, ed. Robert Warrior. This book was briefly free for the Kindle this year, but is now over $100. It is a good book to suggest to your local library. If you don’t mind academic writing, it’s excellent and mind-expanding. I’m still in mid-book, but have particularly enjoyed the chapters on the Zapatista concept of rights and collective decision making, the one on Alaskan native politics since the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act, and the article on Yoeme geographies which describe awareness among the Yoeme people around Tuscon but across the border into Mexico of their history of generations of fighting in several splintered groups over the last hundred years.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal. The Kingdom has the surreal feeling of a fantasy world or a fairy tale, but I’d call it speculative historical fiction. It’s set in a 16th-century Scandinavian palace. The story cuts between several protagonists who are in different social classes in palace life. The politics of sugar production and empire, and the horrible fact that everyone has syphilis, are central elements. I think it is a fairy tale about sugar and syphilis not just about syphilis and that’s important! Really, really not for the faint of heart. You know the part in Octavian Nothing where his mom dies of smallpox? This entire book is like that bit. Power and politics are rather horribly embodied. I am amazed anyone classified this as YA. Rape, intense racism, invasive gynecological “exams”, putrescence, and more rape. If you can handle that, this is an AMAZING book. It even has a happy ending, sort of.

The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1 by Kameron Hurley. Another weird and wild story with multiple realities and worlds. There is an inter-dimensional civil war! Sentient, scary plants! Weird magic and biological weaponry! Hurley’s usual lushly complicated, brutal, perturbing, and awesome world building, with bad-ass characters caught up in cosmic battles. I love super vivid epic fantasy with big casts of characters! I’m looking forward to the next book in this saga!

Framing the Rape Victim: Gender and Agency Reconsidered, by Carine M. Mardorossian. Great food for thought in here. I am very intrigued by how Mardorossian frames violence as always sexualized. This is an intense, thinky book that’s taking me a while to finish.

The Boy at the End of the World by Greg Van Eekhout. A fun and satisfying kids’ book good for middle grade readers. The protagonist wakes up in a sort of cold storage facility and realizes he’s the last person on earth. He roams around the post-apocalypse world, fishing, eating bugs, and looking for the other Arks along with a friendly but somewhat clueless janitor robot, a pygmy mammoth, and a giant talking mutant prairie dog who loves her blaster pistol collection. This is one of the books I’m recommending to people who ask for recent science fiction (not fantasy), not so intense or graphically violent as books that are classified as YA — along with True Meaning of Smekday, MM9, and Cryptid Hunters.

Ra by Sam Hughes. This hugely popular web serial is about a world where magic was discovered in 1970 and works kind of like computer science. It starts as the story of twin sisters, one a theoretical thaumaturge and the other more into experimental and practical science, exploring the use of magic as they re-think the tragic death of their mother who disappeared while trying to rescue an exploding space shuttle. This book one-ups itself every couple of pages as its characters discover what they thought was true has to be turned on its head. The way that it wipes out reality so quickly and the constant techno-magic babble made me laugh pretty hard.

Stranger by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown. A good read about life in the post apocalypse environmental disaster Southwestern US. There is great tension over who does and doesn’t have mutant psychic powers. Life in a multiethnic far-future small town. Hard to fail with mutant teenagers having drama, giant crystalline vampire trees, and a border war.

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor. Every single short story in this collection blew me away! Super
fabulous. I will always read everything Nnedi writes. She’s funny, deep, superb on every level in her far-ranging stories. This is a brilliant book!

Sansûkh by determamfidd. (Archive of Our Own). Thorin, Fili, and Kili wake up after death surrounded by loving family in the halls of the creator of the Dwarves. By gazing into a tv-like pool they can enter Middle Earth to watch and be present as the events of LOTR unfold. Thorin alone has the gift of being sometimes seen or heard by the living in their dreams or unconscious mind. The rich history of the Dwarves unfolds, including many explorations of the strong and powerful women of their clans, along with drawings of them. The dead watch and discuss the doings of the living collectively in a way that is very reflective of fan culture. G-rated by the way. This is a very long, epic book, and the writing is sometimes a little clumsy but well worth it as a total re-write of LOTR from the point of view of the dead, re-centering Gimli as a hero of great depth while exploring Thorin’s flaws and personal/political damage.

An Expected Journey by MarieJacquelyn. (Archive of Our Own). This is definitely not G-rated. Bilbo dies and goes back into his body when he was 50, just before the events of The Hobbit, with a chance to live it all over again and do things “right” this time. He so desperately loves Thorin and wants to save Thorin, Fili, and Kili from death.

Born from the Earth by venusm. (Archive of Our Own). This alpha/beta/omega Avengers fic is definitely not for the faint of heart and is for Mature audiences only. Some very interesting worldbuilding including biological details and social background here. It centers around Tony Stark as a severely traumatized abuse survivor who resists his social role. If you

A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare (Spindle Cove Book 1). This is the first in a series of romance novels set in Spindle Cove, a small seaside town where misfit debutantes come to enjoy an independent life where they get to be active, do scientific research, and learn to shoot in the company of like-minded women. A military regiment comes to town. Hijinks ensue. These are often funny and good. But sometimes veer into what I feel is rapey or non-con territory.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Everyone I know who read this enjoyed it and its insistence that we hold every object we own, and only keep it if provides us with a “spark of joy.” If you don’t feel the spark of joy, thank the object for its service and what it taught us. Then get rid of it. Also notable is Kondo’s charming and loving anthropomorphic descriptions of how socks feel if they are folded incorrectly in your drawer.

Cheesemonger by Gordon Edgar. (aka gordonzola). Edgar writes an interesting journey into work and the politics of food, describing what it’s like to work at the Rainbow Grocery co-operative and his years of learning about cheese. Honk if you like politics in your cheese!

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins. Every story in this anthology was good! “Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center," the editors wrote in the project description. "People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins.” Except in this book where they are front and center!

Nazi Literature in America by Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño is an awesome writer in general. This book is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. It parodies literary criticism in a series of essays about (fake) Nazi authors over the 20th century and their influences on various literary scenes.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. No question in my mind this is one of the Great American Novels. I could just suggest it every year.

I have been enjoying Spotify! For a low monthly cost it gives access to a very good selection of music. I’ve been impressed at how well their Latin American music coverage has gotten. You can construct playlists and download them for offline playing.

Tkay Maidtza. Switch Tape. Super fun hip hop with weird electronic or dubstep bits. Peppy and energetic! U-Huh is a very catchy song.

Kelis. An incredibly versatile artist. I have especially enjoyed her album “Flesh Tone” and recommend for your feminist science fiction playlist, 22nd Century, Brave, and Lil Star.

Janelle Monae, Electric Lady. Great stuff! Listen and watch!

Felicia Alima, Know Me. I only have found a few songs by Alima but they are very catchy hip hop. I hope to hear more work by her in the future!

The Best of Bootie series. This is a free, downloadable, yearly compilation of mashups. My favorites from 2013 are “Funky Black Party Starter”, “iwantthatPOWER” and “The Next Episode in the Thrift Shop”. Harking back to 2011 I have to mention Gucci Gucci Girl Power, a mashup of Kreayshawn, Toni Basil, Le Tigre, the Ting Tings, and the Trashwomen. This song includes meowing. Guilty pleasure indeed! (

The Red Aunts. Try Detroit Valentine if you like screamy punk rock! The Shitbirds. Oh Joy is also on this year’s “screamy punk rock” list. Brody Dalle, Diploid Love. Riot Grrrl action!

Viewing (with some listening included)
The “Internet Feminists are Watching You” sticker. This is available at the Double Union feminist hackerspace in San Francisco. It is hilariously effective to perturb people who notice it on my laptop.

It’s Raining Men, a music video by the Weather Girls. I spent an enjoyable day recently foraying into the work of Martha Wash, whose career spans disco, house, and club music. She backed Sylvester and then formed her own group with Izora Rhodes, the Weather Girls. You can hear her powerful voice in Everybody Everybody and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat”. She was regularly denied credit for her work on songs and albums. Music videos of her songs replaced her with a lip syncing model since music company marketing people declared she was unmarketable due to her weight. At some point Wash successfully sued to get vocalist credit and royalties. This case led to successful legislation requiring credit for vocalists in music videos and albums. Anyway, she kicks ass. We can count this video as speculative fiction, as well, based on its representation of Mother Nature and all those fabulous angels. Watch the video for a loving, hilarious, positive expression of desire straight from the 80s:

Monument Valley is a very beautiful and emotionally moving little puzzle game, for iOS or Android. It is a little girl walking around an Escher-like landscape. The plot is minimal but evocative. I played the game through twice along with its prequel, Forgotten Shores. I also watched my son play through both games and enjoyed watching him think through the puzzles, have his mind blown by the solutions, and react emotionally to the beauty of the art and music of the game. We both marveled at how strong our feelings were for the “Totem”, the friend of the princess, basically a stack of yellow lego-like blocks with a single eyeball. How can we love a stack of blocks with an eyeball on it quite so much? An impressive array of fan art is collected on

A Dark Room is a brilliant game especially if you’ve played a lot of text adventures and games of economic balance. Extra bonus if you know rogue-like games and played Nethack. Though I don’t think that is necessary, I felt many insights into those categories of games and my own enjoyment of them. This game has versions that aren’t quite right (or official) for Android. To play it fully, you need to play it on iOS. The prose is very minimal but affecting. The pace is brilliant. To say more would really spoiler it. It pushes the boundaries of what “text-only” means. I found the game’s impact to be emotionally devastating in the best of ways.

Clash of Clans is a MMORPG that looks very simple at first but which has some nice strategy if you like directing armies and tower defense games. I got a little bit bored with Kingdom Rush (which is still great) and feel this kicks it up a notch. I can play solo or attack other players with my barbarians, goblins, giants, and wizard armies. I joined my 7 year old nephew’s clan along with my sister, our dad, her husband, and my kids. The pace of the game is slow. It’s not something you really play for hours, but rather something you can check on and fiddle for a little while with every day or so, upgrading your elixir collectors and mines, sending out armies, watching replays of attacks on your village, and so on. It is pleasantly addictive without leading me to destroy my hands with over-play. Warning, if you give this game to a small child, be sure to disable in-game purchases, as they can “accidentally” spend real money to accelerate the game pace.

Ascension and Ticket to Ride both have good mobile game versions with the option to play an AI, play locally (with others on your wifi) or against remote opponents. They aren’t mind blowing but they’re fun and very playable. A good way to pass some time if you are stuck in bed on painkillers, as I sometimes am.

Ingress wins my pick of the year though. I have been playing it endlessly. It is a geographically based game which was bought by Google and has a huge, huge player base around the world. As you look at the game on your phone, you see an overlay on the actual map around you. Mostly, you can only affect things in the game that are close to you. The game’s premise is that works of public art, like statues or graffiti or murals, and including interesting signs on businesses, are portals leaking exotic matter from another dimension into our universe. Players are on either the Blue or the Green teams, Resistance and Enlightenment. (I am Resistance. Join us!) As you walk, or roll in my case, by portals, you can hack them to get equipment, or blow them up and place your resonators around them to occupy and defend them. You can also link a nearby portal to other portals to draw lines and fields. As you progress in the game, you often end up meeting and chatting with other players in your neighborhood. People are playing this game all around you!! It can be played solo and in many styles, not necessarily competitive or goal-driven. Or, you can pick various goals to drive your style and pace of play.

The creepy part of Ingress, of course, is that when you play it, Google has all your location data and knows a fair bit about your behavior. One of the nice parts of the game is the strong feeling I have of engagement with the map. I am now aware of this extra dimension of geography all around me. My family (also playing the game) refers to these half-imaginary landmarks. I can tell my son how to get to the post office entirely navigating by portals instead of street names. I realize that I will never forget the sequence of portals going down Mission in my neighborhood between 30th and Cesar Chavez streets or my many epic battles here. The murals and shops will change over time but it will remain a strong memory! That is pretty cool. There are other cities I have visited, Portland and Montreal, whose downtown areas I know much more intimately that I would have years ago, because I was motivated to roam around hacking portals.

Liz Henry is a true Renaissance woman. She blogs, hacks, writes poetry, and commits activism on a variety of fronts with panache, effect, and affect. Aqueduct Press published her book of poetry, Unruly Islands, in 2012, and a book she edited, The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 3 in 2009.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 13: Mark Rich

Notes on Readings, 2014
by Mark Rich

 A minor official from the state of Chaos reigned over my life in 2014, to judge from my readings: scattered hither and thither, in thicket and glen; begun and pondered clearly, then left off and forgotten until only visible vaguely, as through a fog; picked up as source for simple pleasures, or for nosebleeds -- as when I have placed said organ into books unusual in their elevation ...

Yet a few organizing principles emerged, over time. For I seemed to gravitate toward biographies -- chancing on them in thrift stores, by and large, in several states besides that of Chaos. One, whose discovery in a central-Wisconsin Goodwill store thrilled me, relates the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay; another, from a central-Oregon thrift shop, that of Yeats. In a used bookstore located across from the area where Martha and I set up our antique wares, summers in Baraboo, I bought a Woolf biography one Sunday, and a Melville, on another. Except for the last I read these with a promptness unusual for me. That last, by Lewis Mumford, I began reading just before a torrent of auctions, flea markets, and general runnings-around, which lasted in strength from late summer to just days ago (as I write), overwhelmed and obliterated my reading pile. At some point in my excavations I will find this Mumford, to begin again -- along with Andrew Wiener's book on Pragmatism and evolutionary thought, which I had read up to its last chapter, and Ytasha Womack's on Afrofuturism, which likewise I had nearly finished.

Among the biographies Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2001)
proved most satisfying, helped by my having felt greatly curious for so long about the person behind the poems. I had had not a clue that this book existed. It answered questions in my mind from reading Edmund Wilson -- such as why she rejected so astute a writer, and holed up in the countryside with a man who cast no literary shadows. The book does offer insights into that. The husband, Eugen Boissevain, now enjoys some existence in my imagination, even if I still cannot write his name without needing to check its spelling.

I like Arthur Ficke's calling her "the oddest mixture of genius and childish vanity." Milford must have liked this, too, in quoting him. I emerged from the biography, however, feeling that I had been exposed to the childish vanity without having been given enough looks at the genius. This may have been inevitable: for many must have witnessed the vanity, while few would have witnessed her in the throes of creation. Late in the book, Edna, or Vincent, as she was called by many friends, does appear in a passage or two actually toiling over her lines. Anyone who has read the poetry, who has any acquaintance with the act of composition, and who has any notion how exceedingly difficult lyrical clarity can be, must know that these labors formed an important, if not all-important, part of her existence. Yet they receive mention as a seeming afterthought, when the phenomenon that she was had neared its end. Nancy Milford previously wrote Zelda, which I have not read. The thought mischievously arises: did she learn from that biographical effort to focus primarily on the public, the social, the interpersonal, to produce the coffee-table bestseller? I see just now, on the present book's cover, a quotation from Newsweek: "An incendiary cocktail of literary ambition, fame, sexual adventure and addiction." Well, yes. That mix would suit Newsweek happy hours. I believe that the cocktail called Vincent, however, had its strongest alcohol in something we might better call literary ability than ambition: for she achieved the public prominence that she did because her early works astonished readers. That late-in-book mention of her struggling with dedication over her individual lines, and working out, through endless repetition, the difficulties encountered in her chosen poetic structures, I recall striking me as a refreshing element, after so many details concerning her outward personal and professional lives. It came across as a true image -- like a three-dimensional view of Vincent unexpectedly seen when a stereoscope is thrust into one's hands -- an image that briefly allows the artist to arise away from her chronology, and that makes one think: yes, it must have been so.

I overemphasize the book's weakness in this area, simply by mentioning it, since the book rates the highest marks. I should note that Milford wrote what would have been impossible before her: for she obtained the long-withheld help of a recalcitrant and resistant sister, who had been protecting Vincent's legacy and papers. I recall how transforming it was for me when I received a call from Cyril Kornbluth's son John, at a point when I had assembled a life-story but had no particular reason to believe in its full integrity: so I appreciate, in a way which may be different from other readers' feelings, the fact that Milford's book carries an authority beyond the ordinary. So allow me to let my quibble stand while contrarily stating that I have no real quibbles with this book.

That I will need to re-read this biography fails to distinguish it from those of Yeats and Woolf, two other creatures of the Modern who keep drawing me and whose works, and lives, I have taken in, but only in fragmentary ways. These slender but substantial works, W.B. Yeats (2006) by Augustine Martin and Virginia Woolf (2001) by Mary Ann Caws, each helped me put a little more flesh to my skeletal knowledge. Michel Butor's Extraordinary Journeys (1969), about Baudelaire, helped in a similar way, although Butor's oblique approach and my French, entirely inadequate to deal with quotations from poetry in that language, made my gains less than I might have wished.

Another biography left me less satisfied: Jonathan Eller's new book, Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014), a second volume of a biographical pair, the first of which I have yet to set eyes upon. I read this with interest -- and with a growing sense that the latter-years Bradbury cared mainly about stage works and film adaptations of his stories, while his new stories and novels occupied him relatively little. Since I previously nursed no great interest in his film or theatrical work, I entered the biography with curiosity about the writer, and emerged with that curiosity mostly intact. Clearly I need to read the first volume.

I appreciate the book for its effort to assemble a well-documented narrative encompassing the later years of the man. All the same, the short shrift given the later writings and the upsurging academic solecisms, here and there, give the book an other-than-hoped-for flavor. It remains impressive, scholarly, reputable. Ah, well! It may well be that Bradbury's aesthetic and creative senses, finding it heavy going against the demands of Hollywood, keeled over, thusly making Eller's depiction utterly apt. I did emerge from the book understanding more clearly the heavy tax imposed upon the creative soul by movie work. Yet to my mind Bradbury's later writings deserve deeper examination than do his attempts to court directors and studios. In his late years, simply from long-distance observations, I did gain the sense that a creative personality continued to exist. From this book's late pages, especially in its hurried ending, I received no similar sense. All this makes the book's title an odd choice, since the man as depicted seems all too bound.

Unexpected pleasure came from a book that called to me at a thrift store far to the south in Wisconsin, where we were staying for a night before setting up at a breweriana show. I never knew myself to be curious about George F. Kennan; but when I saw Sketches from a Life (1989), the thought of my leaving the store without it suddenly seemed ridiculous. This book contains little direct remembrance relating to his doings as a diplomat, which fill other books that I may now need to read. Instead it contains journal selections from in-between those diplomatic occurrences. I found these pieces thoughtful, affecting, and at times beautiful. While they fill an ample volume, they made me yearn for more.

Among other readings ... I took pleasure in a half-dozen Ravenna Press books, including Kathryn Rantala's Traveling with the Primates (2008) and John Burgess's Graffito (2011). Since I mentioned an editor's name here last December, I feel I should again: Marjorie Barrows, whose One Hundred Best Poems for Boys and Girls (1930) did satisfy the part of me that wanted to read it. Similarly I followed strands of interest from last year in reading What Is Philosophy? (1960) and Man and People (1957) by José Ortega y Gasset, and Jo's Boys (1886) by Louisa May Alcott -- among others from the philosophy-and-children's-novels department. In reading Dickens's Bleak House and William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham for the first times, I found myself greatly impressed. . Howells describes Lapham in such realistic terms that I imagine many readers may fail to perceive the man as particularly heroic, when he is, in fact, painfully heroic, even if quietly so. I also worked through some 1950s science fiction collections that I must re-approach this next year, along with Dianne Newell's and Victoria Lamont's frustrating Judith Merril: A Critical Study (2012). Why two who profess that they possess no grounding in popular literature except the Western novel should have undertaken such a book I have little notion. As to newer fiction, I have read much too little. I took pleasure, however, in Mary Rickert's The Memory Garden (2014) -- in particular due to the way her characters seem to draw themselves, rather than seeming drawn by the author.

Currently? Essays by Macaulay and Carlyle on Samuel Johnson ... and Karen Joy Fowler's latest -- unspoiled, it seems so far, from having lain buried in laurels.

Cheers ...

Mark Rich is the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. He has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. With partner-in-life Martha and Scottie-in-life Sam, he lives in the Coulee region of Wisconsin where an early-1900s house, a collection of dilapidated antique furniture, and a large garden preoccupy him with their needs. He frequently contributes essays to The New York Review of Science Fiction and The Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt. 12: Carrie Devall

The Pleasures of 2014 
by Carrie Devall

One of the biggest pleasures for me in 2014 has been a two-year-old Border Collie/Siberian Husky mix named Betty. The MN Border Collie Rescue saved her from an animal hoarding situation, and she was terrified of people, even after being with her foster hosts for almost a year. However, a ton of treats and a pack and comfort dog of her own have let her sneaky, goofy, bit-of-a-princess personality blossom. I spent a lot of time this year about the gross mistreatment of dogs and about their resilience on animal rescue sites. I'm realizing in retrospect that a lot of the books I read this year also focused on animal and human behavior, and in particular animal violence and human cruelty, or “inhumane treatment,” as they say.

I saw a bunch of international films at the the MSP International Film Festival, though not half as many as I wish I could have seen, looking through the catalog again. The best these were about harsh landscapes and human cruelty towards other humans and animals, except for one. Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border was a very personal film by Rodrigo Reyes, who came to speak at the showing. I though he ably showed some of the stark contradictions in life at the U.S.-Mexico border, where I once worked for legal aid, though some audience members did not like the part that showed the mistreatment of stray dogs to raise questions about treatment of humans.

Harmony Lessons was an engrossing movie from a young Kazakh director that used graphic images and a pattern of violence among high school boys in a metafictional discussion of torture, power, and control, I assume alluding to both the Kazakh and Russian governments. The documentary Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus followed a troupe of actors as they fought against repression while the dictator staged his re-election. This was another very well-made film where the graphic violence was not at all gratuitous.

On the flip side, We Are The Best was a fun and easygoing film about Swedish girls in the early 1980s Death to Prom was a locally-made film with a multiracial cast that I remember being very funny and charming though the actual plot has escaped me beyond the guy and girl who are artists and best friends competing for the hot new Russian boy at their high school. Belle falls more into the serious side as it was based loosely on a true story and explored the legal status of freed slaves in the eighteenth century through the vehicle of a costume drama.
who fought everyday sexism with punk rock, by Lucas Moodysson. It was refreshing to see a film that focused on girls without being difficult to watch or stupid, and the music and 80s hair is great. (Check out the trailer.)

I just finished Karen Joy Fowler's book from 2013, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I found to be very gripping and insightful, my two go-to words to describe books I read from cover to cover in less than a day or two. It's hard to have too much to say about this book without giving away spoilers, because so much of the style of the book has to do with surprises, revisions, and questions about memory. I also say “insightful” with a caveat: that sharp insight into human character and behavior and our treatment of animals, and into family dynamics, can be deeply disturbing.

Another novel that dealt with disturbing questions in a deceptively 'easy' style and is difficult to put into an elevator pitch was Tehran in Twilight by Salar Abdoh, a noirish novel of political intrigue set in New York and Tehran. Often reading like cynical poetry, this novel has a meditative pace but covers an immense amount of internal and external territory in amazingly few words.

I also just read the book I'd been waiting all year for, which got rave reviews outside the US and then was delayed in being released here. For the record, wikipedia would tell you that Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish writer who has won Nebula and Tiptree awards, respectively, for English translations of the short story "Baby Doll" and novel Troll: A Love Story (U.S. translation)/Not Before Sunset (U.K. translation), as well as the Finlandia prize for Troll in the original.

While waiting for her new novel, I reread her available fiction and the Daedalus anthology of Finnish Fantasy translated into English that she edited. That contains many intriguing stories, including a rollicking tale about a wily dog demon. I'm always surprised how few fans of feminist SFF seem to have read her work, because I can't stop rereading regularly for the pleasures of finding the deeper layers and more subtle nuances. I am hoping folks will work to make Worldcon go to Helskini in 2017(!) so the work of Sinisalo and other great Finnish writers will get more play. (See Cheeky Monkey Press, also.)

While Troll focused on Finnish characters and folklore, Birdbrain decentered Finland. The protagonists, a newly-coupled young Finnish man and woman, go on a trek through relatively “untouched” wilderness in Australia and Tasmania. Birdbrain explores, among many related themes and conflicts, the relationships of humans to animals and of Westerners and Europeans to the globe as a living entity and its many other peoples, also in amazingly few words.

Ostensibly moving back to Finland as the setting, Enkelten Verta, translated as The Blood of Angels, sets its gunsights on the dirty secrets and grimy underbelly of BigAg as well as the contradictions inherent in animal rights activism against it. Sinisalo uses blog entries as the lifeline that links the greater world, the “real world,” to the protagonist, a bee farmer in rural Finland who steps into and out of present reality/spacetime that is linked to the massive die-offs and disappearances of bees. The novel's action takes place in that kind of ethereal near-future-yet-already-here timeline that William Gibson has set up in his recent novels, taking that one small step from events happening now IRL (bee colony collapse) to the possible logical outcomes that may already be underway as we read and share the book.

The end result is a terse but lyrical hybrid of science fiction and fantasy similar to the other two nooks, here weaving speculation in with the characters' highly politicized opinions about the underlying causes of the bee colony collapse syndrome. Angels hides its feminist hand a lot more than the earlier two novels. However, for starters, the fact that the women of this world are so obviously missing from the web of relationships that connect the characters is a statement in itself.

The same translator, Lola Rodgers, translated another book I enjoyed this year, a science fictional noir novel with similar themes and setting in a near-future Finland in the midst of global environmental collapse. After working on learning Finnish through Teach Yourself books, I can say pretty assuredly that the challenges of translating the subtleties of Sinisalo's wordplay and so-dry-you-might-miss-them witticisms between languages as different as Finnish and English have got to be daunting. It also seems like misplaced energy to try and render judgment about a particular translation of Sinisalo when she reads so well across translations. I could say that Rodgers' translations seemed particularly smooth and skillful, but that would only really be saying that I found both books very readable.

In Antti Tuomainen's The Healer, a poet searches for his wife, a journalist who has gone missing while researching a story about a serial killer. The pacing of the unraveling of the mysteries of the wife's disappearance and the role of the serial killer was pretty brisk. Hamid, a recent North African immigrant who drives a cab, assists him for a complex mix of reasons. I had trouble deciding whether this was simply another Magical Negro role or at least a partial escape from that trap, but it seems to represent a small step forward for the prominent books in the “Scandinoir” framework. The generous handful of Scandinavian crime/noir novels I read over the last year discussed race and immigration mostly by having gangster and skinhead characters commit racial assaults as a showy backdrop to the anti-hero's battle against criminal masterminds. It was interesting to see a Finnish book, out of the few marketed to an English speaking audience, that tried to grapple with race in present-day Finland. Sinisalo's books have some characters rant about the history of global slavery and exploitation but do not really attempt that task.

I've really enjoyed the Skiffy and Fanty podcast series on World SFF, too, for the wide variety of people and con panels and in-depth discussions.

Away from SSF, Pissing In a River was the long-awaited follow-up for Lorrie Sprecher, who wrote Sister Safety Pin, another novel about dykes who love punk rock and get involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s. Both novels center on women who are navigating relationships with each other while dealing the impact of male violence against them in the recent past. I thought Pissing In a River had a more complex and emotionally moving storyline, but I like that both books deal with sexual assault (and PIR with OCD) as something the characters are dealing with in their busy and complicated lives instead of a gratuitous plot device.

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly Cogswell, pretty much explains its premise in
the title. This book got hella things right in terms of describing the in-fighting and ridiculousness of direct action affinity group activism in the most loving and nostalgic possible terms. It also also names bad choices, racism, and internalized homophobia for what they were in the moment and the movements of the time. This book is not just a list of the cool things a bunch of activists did or a recounting of how they did it, but also a parsing of what worked and what did not and why choices that proved detrimental to the overall project and individual actions were made. Cogswell was in an interesting position in terms of viewing and intervening in the racial dynamics of the NYC Avengers, and she also explores the challenges she and her Cuban partner faced in their relationship and with the Avengers.

I found Sarah Waters' new novel, The Paying Guests, to be one of her strongest yet, along with Affinity and The Night Watch. I am generally not a big fan of historical novels with rich period detail, but this is reliably the aspect of her novels which draws me into her stories. This one truly is ripped straight out of a tabloid headline, about a murder trial. It's not simply a bodice ripper and neither a murder mystery, but a little of both.

I read a lot of biographies of queer activists and artists focused on a certain era, the 1970s to early 1990s. Among the ones I liked the best were Just Kids, Patti Smith's book about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, because it touched on both the punk music and fine art scenes of the time and really got into both the spiritual aspects of the creative process, the business aspects of these arts, and the gritty realities of life as an artist. Cynthia Carr's biography of David Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly, was an eye opener for me because I had read his books but not seen his art, and the biography has great color plates of many of his paintings and photos. In a nutshell, both men died from complications associated with AIDS and were fierce fighters against right wing attacks on their art and arts funding for similarly challenging work, the not-coincidentally recurrent theme in queer artist/writer biographies from this era. I also finally saw The Dallas Buyer's Club, which had a lot of flaws but ultimately did a decent job of viscerally depicting the root of the raw fury that fueled AIDS activism before the cocktail.

Martin Duberman's biography of Essex Hemphill and Michael Callen, Hold Tight Gently, mines similar territory. Essex Hemphill was an African American poet from Washington, D.C., who founded, co-founded, and helped nurture a wide array of organizations and literary magazines, readings, etc. His life became closely intertwined with that of Joseph Beam, who edited the groundbreaking anthology In The Life, and they co-edited Brother to Brother. Michael Callen was a white singer and AIDS activist who bucked the gay and both the AIDS activism and industry establishments with a no-b.s. approach towards the scientific data available about longterm survival with HIV. All three men were heroes to me as a baby dyke. Duberman's biography delves deeply into the history of seemingly everyone and everything both subjects were involved in as well as their own personal histories, with all their human contradictions. Like Cogswell, he covers in detail many of the controversies and conflicts that came up in the artistic and activist organizations and movements they were involved in, making this a history of an era as much as a split biography.

Christopher Bram's biography of a generation (or three) of gay writers, Eminent Outlaws, was also a good read. While it is hard not to think of it as the story of the white gay canon plus James Baldwin, I found that I knew less about that canon than I thought, despite having read many of the novels and stories they wrote and a lot about their personal histories in the course of following gay lit over many decades. Bram provides concise yet detailed intertwined biographies of writers but also focuses on the larger social forces they faced, particularly publishing industry homophobia.

On a completely different note, I was surprised to enjoy Stephen King's sequel to The Shining as much as I did. The antagonists in Doctor Sleep were truly creepy, though not at all like the Overlook Hotel. This is one I would not recommend to people who are squeamish or reactive to repeated musings about child abuse or cravings for alcohol, but it makes a right proper horror story out of these longtime King themes without being a retread.

Carrie Devall lives in Minneapolis and has been told so many times that she spends too much time working and not enough time writing that it just might be true.