Dionne Brand: On narrative, reckoning and the calculus of living and dying

Those in power keep invoking “the normal” as in “when we get back to normal.” I’ve developed an aversion to that word normal. Of course, I understand the more benign meanings of normal; having dinner with friends, going to the movies, going back to work (not so benign). However, I have never used it with any confidence in the first place; now, I find it noxious. The repetition of “when things return to normal” as if that normal, was not in contention. Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was white supremacy normal? Was the homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal? Were pervasive surveillance and policing of Black and Indigenous and people of colour normal? Yes, I suppose all of that was normal. But, I and many other people hate that normal. Who would one have to be to sit in that normal restfully, to mourn it, or to desire its continuance? We are, in fact, still in that awful normal that is narrativized as minor injustices, or social ills that would get better if some of us waited, if we had the patience to bear it, if we had noticed and were grateful for the miniscule “progress” etc … Well, yes, this normal, this usual, this ease was predicated on dis-ease. The dis-ease was always presented as something to be solved in the future, but for certain exigences of budget, but for planning, but for the faults of “those” people, their lack of responsibility, but for all that, there were plans to remedy it, in some future time. We were to hold onto that hope and the suspension of disbelief it required to maintain “normal.”

Dionne Brand: On narrative, reckoning and the calculus of living and dying

Wonderful piece by Dionne Brand.

#20BooksOfSummer Book Two – James Baldwin, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ (1955)

A e-reader with a picture of the cover of Notes of a Native Son. It shows a black and white photograph of the author as a young man wearing a white shirt with his arms crossed.

I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

James Baldwin, ‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son (1984)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was a novelist, essayist, playwright and a social critic who was active in the civil rights movement. He spent many years of his life in France where he went to escape the racism and homophobia he had experienced in the United States. Notes of a Native Son was his first book of non-fiction. It was published in 1955 when Baldwin was just thirty one, two years after his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The essays in Notes of a Native Son are grouped into three parts. The first considers representations of African American people in literature and film. The second is based on Baldwin’s experiences of life and politics in the US. The third is made up of reflections from his early years in France. It feels like this structure is quite deliberate and is intended to take the reader on a journey with Baldwin.

The book’s ‘Preface,’ written thirty years later in 1984, is fascinating. Here James Baldwin reflects on what he was trying to achieve when he wrote Notes of a Native Son. He discusses how the essays reflect his struggle to locate himself within his inheritance because, ‘one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance’. It’s unsettling to see that some of his observations in the Preface (itself now over thirty years old), could easily still be applied today. Baldwin talks about the way African American people are always told to wait for things to change and to be patient. He speaks of the ‘panic stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned’, something I think we have seen recently in the ‘debate’ over removing the statues of slave traders from public spaces.

For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend

‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son

As a white, British reader, one thing that feels a little strange to read is Baldwin’s use of the word ‘negro’ to refer specfically to African American people. It isn’t language we would use now, but it is important. Baldwin doesn’t use it as a neutral term to refer to black people; it seems intended to convey something uniquely American and highly symbolic, an identify, or perhaps a figure, that has been created through an immense weight of history and cultural meaning (Black people as seen by the white culture), meaning that Baldwin wants to engage with in these essays.

Quite a lot of the content in the first three essays went rather over my head because I haven’t actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Native Son by Richard Wright. Nor have I seen the film Carmen Jones. It’s still comprehensible, though, because Baldwin is discussing what these texts tell us about beliefs that underlie the representation of African American people. The essays in this section remind me a little of Roland Barthes’s book, Mythologies, which was published a couple of years later in 1957. Here Baldwin was already talking about the way certain ‘signs’ and ‘mythologies’ are created and imposed upon people. He is critical of all three texts and wrestles most, I think, with Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. It’s clearly an important work, which on one level Baldwin identifies with, but he argues that it turns its subject into a monster and leaves him nowhere else to go. Baldwin’s friendship with Richard Wright did not survive the essay.

The next section is based on aspects of Baldwin’s life in America. ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ is about ‘the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet’. It considers the role of black leaders, newspapers and religion in the struggle for civil rights, including the difficult subject of anti-semitism in the culture of Harlem at the time. ‘Journey to Atlanta’ is about Baldwin’s younger brother’s experiences of working for (and being exploited by) the Progressive Party. Again, as a white British woman, a lot of this went over my head! But it was an interesting read which uses humour to tackle the way Black people were being used by the party at the time.

The middle section contains one of the most powerful essays in the book, ‘Notes of a Native Son’. This is an incredble, searing piece of writing about Baldwin’s father who died when his son was nineteen, on the same day as his youngest sister was born. His father’s funeral took place on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. The essay’s place at the centre of the book, its doubling with the title, and the dedication of the work to Baldwin’s youngest sister, Paula Maria, indicates its power and central importance.

I’ve read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on The Mountain, which fictionalises his experiences as a child preacher and his difficult relationship with his father, so I knew something of the story. Baldwin’s father was a deeply troubled and damaged man who simply could not connect with other people. Baldwin says hauntingly, ‘there was something in him ‘groping and tentative which was never expressed and which was buried in him’. His father encouraged his son’s brilliance, as long as it manifested itself as something he approved (preaching), but he was also controlling and oppressive. As Baldwin leaves Harlem and encounters the racism of the white world, he begins to understand his father’s rage and trauma. This experience brings him to the point of breakdown and a confrontation that endangers his life. As he says towards the end of the essay, ‘I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain’.

The essays in part three are told from the perspective of Baldwin’s early years in France. There is an essay about encounters between the Aftrican American people living there and people from various countries in Africa and how hard that meeting is. There’s an essay about American students living in Paris while studying on the G.I. Bill which probably feels the most dated in the collection now. There is a funny and horrifying essay about Baldwin’s kafkaesque experience of getting arrested for stealing a bedsheet, being put in a French prison for eight days, and finding himself unable to communicate with the criminal justice system.

The final, and brilliant essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ brings the collection full circle. Here Baldwin uses reflections on his time spent living in an entirely white Swiss village to delve into the relationship betweeen white Europeans and Africa and how this has played out in the history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. In the Swiss village, Baldwin finds himself treated as ‘a living wonder’, a creature that is hardly even human, and realises that the people there have no idea about the history with which he lives: ‘People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’, he says. He discovers startling racist customs, such as ‘buying souls’ in Africa for conversion to Christianity (something my own mother did at school in the 1940s) and people ‘blacking up’ during carnivals. He considers the difference between being the first white man to be seen by black people in Africa and being the first black man to be seen by a village full of whites; the difference is conquest and power, what it means to be controlled by white culture and the inescapable rage this creates. As he says,

‘this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarecly Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconqured continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle’.

A decision which has shaped history and from which there is no way back to the ‘simplicity’ of this European village, ‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again’.

Baldwin talks about many things in Notes of a Native Son, but there are two striking silences. Women are almost entirely absent from the essays and Baldwin avoids talking directly about his sexuality. Women are mentioned here and and there, but Baldwin seems to be referring almost exclusively to men and addressing a presumptively male audience in which women appear to be subsumed and have no separate voice. Maybe it’s a 1950s thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with his personal attitudes because he was a close friend and supporter of many black women activists and creators, including Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansburry, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, so I’ll be interested to see whether he addresses this issue in later works.

The biggest silence, though, is the silencing of Baldwin’s sexuality which clearly couldn’t be spoken about openly in a book published in 1955. There are only shadowy hints beneath the surface of the text. It does feel like a big ommission because no doubt his sexuality had an enormous impact on his life experiences. He went to France to escape homophobia as well as racism. As with many LGBTQ people throughout history, sexuality can provide the motivation to get out and create new lives elsewhere.

Notes of a Native Son is a powerful collection which gripped me despite gaps in my knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading Baldwin’s later essays and novels now to see where his thinking developed, especially The Fire Next Time.

Read for #20BooksOfSummer20

More

Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

#20BooksOfSummer No One – Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam (1992)

A copy of Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely. It is a plain white cover with the title a sillhouette of a plump black woman wearing an apron.

Barbara Neely was a lifelong activist and a writer who was best known for her Blanche White mystery novels which feature a black female detective. I didn’t know anything about Barbara Neely until I read an article following her death in March this year. I’d been looking for a new mystery to read and it sounded interesting, so I thought I’d check out the first book in the series.

Blanche on the Lam begins with Blanche being sentenced to thirty days in jail for inadvertently passing bad cheques. She makes a living as a domestic worker for white people, but times have been tough since she moved back to her home town of Fairleigh in North Carolina where employers have been less than punctual with her wages. Terrified at the prospect of prison, Blanche uses a distraction at the courthouse as an opportunity to escape, but then she has no idea what to do next. As she wanders around a wealthy neighbourhood, a white woman mistakes her for the domestic worker she has requested from an agency. Blanche decides to go along with the story. After all, the family’s country house could be a good place to lie low while she waits for her tax rebate to come through. Then she can pick up her kids from her mother’s house and head back to New York.

But Blanche is about to get a lot more than she bargained for. Her new employer, Grace, and her husband, Everett, seem to be trying to get their hands on their eldery Aunt Emmeline’s money. The money has been left to Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man who has down’s syndrome, but the couple seem to have pursuaded Emmeline to change her will. Pretty typical behaviour for rich white people thinks Blanche, but as the days pass, the situation becomes increasingly sinister. Why has Aunt Emmeline suddenly become a violent alcholic? Why won’t Grace let Mumsfield see her? Why is the black gardener, Nate, so cagey about the family? What is the nature of Everett’s strange relationship with the local sheriff? Nobody is quite what they seem. Then someone dies and Blanche must figure out what’s going on before she finds herself coming to the attention of either the police or a murderer.

Blanche on the Lam takes the tropes of the classic ‘cosy’ mystery and turns them on their head to create something quite subversive. In classic crime fiction, servants are often the people who can see what’s really going on, although they rarely understand exactly what they’ve seen, and they sometimes pay a high price when the murderer decides to silence them before they can speak. In Blanche, Neely picks up this trope of the domestic worker who sees more and runs with it, turning the hired help into the detective. Blanche is perfectly placed to investigate. She’s used to noticing things, she has access to all areas of the house, she isn’t taken in by her employers and is largely invisible to them. ‘A family couldn’t have domestic help and secrets’, thinks Blanche on p. 85.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Blanche’s only ally in the house is Mumsfield, the other character who sees things differently and is a lot more astute than people think. Neely has taken characters who are usually marginalised in crime fiction – working class black people and disabled people – and made them central to her story.

Blanche is a tremendous character: uncompromising, intrepid, fiercely proud and independent. She is a mother who didn’t want to be a mother. She is lonely, but chooses to remain single. She fights with her mother, but also depends on her for support. She is a black woman who is relentlessly critical of white supremacy, but who has chosen to make her living working for white people. Her name means ‘white white’ conveying the complexity and irony of her position as she tries not to compromise or abandon herself.

She’d come to understand that her desire was to avoid pain, a pain so old, so deep, its memory was carried not in her mind, but in her bones’.

p. 99

Blanche on the Lam is a lot more than just a cosy mystery. Neely made it clear that she orginally intended it to be a work of social commentary. It’s a book about inner and outer worlds, about appearances and depths. It’s about black women’s lives and how to develop the internal resources and networks to survive in a world that will crush you if it can, a world in which you know you won’t be given an inch. It’s about white supremacy, the legacy of slavery, and contemporary racism and police brutality. It’s also a response (and antidote) to literature that has represented black women as the devoted servants of white people (I noticed the reference to To Kill a Mockingbird on page 70).

While people were reading the book to find out who killed who and why, they were also getting a lot of information about race, class, gender and all the issues that I cared about

Barbara Neely

I’m looking forward to seeing what Blanche will do next and will definitely be reading the rest of this series. A good start to my #20BooksOfSummer.

More

LA Times, Barbara Neely, creator of black female detective series dies at 78

NPR, Remembering Barbara Neely, A Pioneer in Crime Fiction

20 Books of Summer 20

A pile of books (that’s my e-reader on the top of to represent the e-books)

It looks like it’s going to be a good summer for a big reading project, so I’ve decided to take part in the #20BooksofSummer reading challenge again this year. Last year I managed to read fourteen books, which I didn’t think was bad going.

This time around, I’ve tried to create a balanced list with some serious works, some fun reading and a good mixture of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I’ll try and do better at actually writing posts about them too.

I’ll be starting on 1 June and stopping on 1 September. I won’t be reading the list in any particular order. I’ll just go with what I fancy. I don’t slog through books I’m not enjoying, so I reserve the right to ditch any that I don’t like, but I’ll replace it with a book of similar length.

The 20 Books of Summer logo

  1. Mike Ashley (ed), The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013) – short stories
  2. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955) – essays
  3. Ann Bannon, Odd Girl Out (1957) – novel
  4. Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918) – novel
  5. Christopher Isherwood, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) – novel
  6. Jackie Kay, Red Dust Road (2010) – memior
  7. Ursula K Le Guin, Always Coming Home (1985) – novel
  8. Ursula Le Guin and Others, The Eye of the Heron and Other Stories (1980) – short stories
  9. Elizabeth A. Lynn, The Dancers of Arun (Book 2 in the Chronicles of Tornor) (1979) – novel
  10. Jamal May, Hum (2014) – poetry
  11. Paul McAuley, Austral (2017) – novel
  12. Patricia Mckillip, Wonders of the Invisible World (2012) – short stories
  13. Alice Munro, The Progress of Love – short stories
  14. Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam – novel
  15. Sharon Olds, Selected Poems – poetry
  16. Mike Parker, On the Red Hill – non-fiction
  17. Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts – novel
  18. Sarah Schulman, Maggie Terry – novel
  19. Jane Trais (ed), Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories – nonfiction
  20. Bee Wilson, The Way we Eat Now – non-fiction

LGBT Bookstores

The shops, who supported each other by sharing news and ideas, became cornerstones of the communities they served, hosting political organizations and providing safe spaces for people to explore and embrace their sexuality. Such inclusiveness —  along with the spirit of the anti-war, anti-establishment revolution that fanned out before and after Stonewall — encouraged others to build upon the idea started by Rodwell and the Oscar Wilde. By the mid-1980s, queer bookstores were in more than 20 cities across North America as well as venues in Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands and the U.K.

Jason Villemez

Good article about the history of LGBT bookstores

Kay Ryan on poetry

A poem really has no beginning and end, although it does appear to. All the parts of a poem exist as a sort of plasma, simultaneously apprehended, existing in the mind all at once, as soon as we have become familiar with them. The word “blight” constantly and forever charges every word in the poem, shores every word in the poem. It is Indra’s net, everywhere is the center, reflecting all. This great capacity of poetry is seldom so well exercised as it is here. The fact that the mind can move around in a poem—is asked to do this—is why poetry is considered the supreme art. Poetry is the shape and size of the mind. It works the way the mind works. It is deeply compatible with whatever it is we are. We dissolve in it; it dissolves in us.

Kay Ryan, On the Preposterous Beauty of Gerald Manley Hopkins

Sapphic Link Love #11

From Ancient Rome to Judith Butler in this issue …

Cheryl Morgan blogs about the evidence for women loving women in Ancient Rome, Tribade Visibility Day

The Paris Review has a great piece on The Fabulous Forgotten Life of Vita Sackville West

them, 100 Years Ago, this Lesbian Doctor Helped Contain NYC’s Typhoid Epidemic

TIE Campaign podcast has episodes on Lesbians Against Section 28 and Anne Lister

A long and detailed article in Out History, A Tribute to Phyllis Lyon (1924 – 2020)

The Advocate, Netflix Doc Reveals the Queer Romance Behind A League of their Own

Interesting interview with Judith Butler about her latest thinking Judith Butler wants us to reshape our rage

A lovely blog from Torch, Women Retold: Eurydice and Portrait of a Lady on Fire

And a nice interview with the poet Jackie Kay, DIVA meets LGBTQI literature royalty, Jackie Kay MBE

March reading round-up

A hardback copy of My Real Children by Jo Walton. The cover shows a woman sitting on a beach and looking out to sea holding an umbrella over her head.

Jo Walton, My Real Children (2014)

I’ve been meaning to read Jo Walton for ages and My Real Children did not disappoint. The novel is the story of Patricia Cowan, a woman whose life splits into two timelines after a phonecall in which her boyfriend asks her if she will marry him immediately. One of her selves answers “yes” and the other “no”. My Real Children begins at the end of Pat (or Trish’s) life when she is elderly, has dementia, and is living in a care home. Somehow able to remember both lives, she tries to sort through the memories and understand what has happened to her. In one timeline, she experienced an unhappy marriage and terrible loneliness; in the other, she had a happy same-sex relationship, but lived in a far nastier world. This is a brilliant novel about society, about women’s lives and the choices we make. It has a powerful, if restrained, ending. I look forward to reading the rest of her books.

CN: graphic scenes of marital rape.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

A comfort book if there ever was one. Pride and Prejudice is a delight to read, of course, but as I get older I’m more and more impressed by what a clever, subtle and nuanced novel this is, with its layers of irony.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is another old comfort read. I went through quite a Sherlock Holmes phase when I was a teenager. It’s enjoyable, but I prefer The Return of Sherlock Holmes. ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ and ‘The Naval Treaty’ are strong stories, but there are others in which Holmes doesn’t do much detecting; he’s just kind of present as things unfold (‘The Yellow Face’, ‘The Gloria Scott’, ‘The Stockbroker’s Clerk’). ‘The Yellow Face’ is an attempt at an anti-racist story which is nice, but then ‘The Crooked Man’ really hasn’t worn well in terms of race or disability! ‘The Final Problem’ is ridiculous and to me just feels like a way for Doyle to get rid of Holmes, which of course it was. I mean, he has Holmes go on a walking holiday when he’s being chased by the two most dangerous men in England, without taking his revolver out with him. Still fun though and I’ve already started on The Return.

Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (2018)

I keep trying with Anthony Horowitz because I loved The Magpie Murders, but nothing else has come up to that standard for me. The Sherlock Holmes novel was okay, but overly grim and I thought Moriarty was dreadful! Like all his books, The Sentence is Death is very well written. It has a decent mystery and I liked the meta touch of the author inserting himself into the story as a character. It could have been annoying, but I thought it was the best thing about the book. However, I found The Sentence is Death really misogynist, to the extent of practically being a tirade against powerful ‘uppity’ women. The women who aren’t horrible are weak and flaky, or loyal, hardworking wives. I think Horrowitz was aware that he was straying into dodgy ground becasue there were a couple of defensive comments about being fine with feminism! (as long as it’s not too extreme). One of the characters is even a racist ‘dragon lady‘ stereotype. Finally, the investigator, Hawthorne, is so deadly dull and also unpleasant I couldn’t engage with him as a character. I finished it because it was like a car crash and I couldn’t look away, but don’t think I’ll attempt any more.

February reading round-up

Barbara Hambly, Dragonsbane (Winterlands #1) (1985)

I blogged about Dragonsbane here. It’s a fun fantasy adventure with interesting middle-aged protagonists, lots of action, and a great dragon. What more could you want? Perfect for a rainy afternoon.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2019)

I’m going to write a proper post about Burnout when I have a moment (hah!), but in summary, this is a mostly useful book. I found the chapters on the science of stress particularly helpful and have changed my own behaviour in response. It’s written for women and it’s nice to have a self-help book that actually names the problem (‘patriarchy ugh!’). However, I don’t think the book is so strong when it comes to long-term solutions and, while it nods to intersectionality, it lacks any class consciousness.

Elly Griffiths, The Outcast Dead (2014)

Book six in the Ruth Galloway series, which has been keeping me in bedtime reading for a few months now. In this one, Ruth is involved in a TV show about the bones of a woman accused of being a child murderer, while her police friends deal with the case of a mother whose three children have died in mysterious circumstances. Then another child disappears. I found The Outcast Dead enjoyable enough, although Griffiths has failed to make me care about Judy and her relationship with Cathbad, which is a major plot point in this one.

Nalo Hopkinson, Falling in Love with Hominids (2015)

Last, but definitely not least, Nalo Hopkinson’s fantasy/horror collection, Falling in Love with Hominids, was no question the best book I read during February. I’m hoping to write a post about it, so I won’t dwell too much here, but it’s a wide-ranging collection of thought-provoking and often startling stories, which ‘mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore’ (Goodreads). Hopkinson has an incredible imagination and a straightforward, direct style of writing that lures you into her tales of zombies, ghosts and monsters before usually subverting your expectations.

LGBTQ book legacy

An LGBT book collector “passionate about justice” has left his 30,000-piece collection to a university.

Jonathan Cutbill, a founder of Gay’s The Word bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury, died last May aged 82.

His collection, which dates back to 1760, will be moved from his Shrewsbury home to the University of London.

Geoff Hardy, a friend of Mr Cutbill, said the “incredible legacy” featured the history of LGBT issues and the oppression people had faced.

Mr Cutbill’s collection includes novels, pamphlets and newspapers, including all the copies of Gay News, which ran for 11 years.

BBC News Shrewsbury book collector gifts LGBT ‘legacy’

Barbara Hambly, ‘Dragonsbane’ (1985)

Dragonsbane begins in the bleak Winterlands, with a witch named Jenny Waynest meeting Gareth, a young nobleman who is seeking Lord John Aversin, a legendary dragon slayer. There is a dragon terrorizing the Southlands and Gareth has come to ask for Lord John’s help, with offer of a reward from the king. But when Jenny takes Gareth to meet his hero, he’s in for a shock. The famous Dragonsbane is a middle-aged, bespectacled scholar who is responsible for overseeing a small, muddy town. It’s true that he killed a dragon years ago, but by poisoning it and then sneaking up to hack it to death with an axe. John and Jenny are also long-term lovers and have two children together, much to Gareth’s disapproval. However, they agree to go with Gareth on the condition that the king will help them to defend their town against the bandits who plague the Winterlands.

But all is not as it seems. Gareth hasn’t been completely honest with them and the dragon seems to be a particularly ancient and powerful one. Worse still, there may be something even more dangerous than a dragon waiting for them in the shape of the sorcoress, Zyerne, who has wormed her way into the king’s affections and household.

Zyerne is seeking a source of magical power hidden deep in the caves of the gomes where the dragon has taken up residence. Jenny’s powers are average at best, and John isn’t much of a warrior, but they will have to find a way to defeat the dragon and prevent Zyerne from getting what she wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has her own internal battle to fight with the temptations and the price of power.

I’m not generally a fan of high fantasy, but I really enjoyed Dragonsbane. It’s a pacy, exciting read and the real strength is in the characters. Jenny and John are delightful protagonists. It’s so refreshing to have an older, experienced hero and heroine who have a healthy, adult relationship with each other. Gareth, the young, awkward man, trying to be a warrior, is also very endearing.

And then there’s the dragon. Morkeleb is the best dragon I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel since reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. A complex alien being with his own needs and desires, I loved him.

I had one problem with Dragonsbane and that’s the representation of Zyerne. The novel is clearly working through its own ambivalence about female power, and when it comes to Zyerne, this ambivalence tips over into outright misogny. Without giving too much away, the character is a one-dimensional villain who uses ‘sexy’ wiles (of course) to get her way. There’s no attempt to give her any nuance or complexity, or to really dig into her motivations. She just wants power, so she’s evil. I felt this could have been much better done.

But overall, I found Dragonsbane a very enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ll be checking out the sequels. Recommended if you’re looking for a fantasy world to sink into.

Sue Burke, Semiosis: A Novel of First Contact (2018)

I’m pretty sure that Semiosis is going to be one of my favourite books this year. This novel is a refreshing take on the classic science fiction trope of humans attempting to establish a colony on a distant, possibly hostile, alien world.

The story is told from the points of view of different characters over seven generations of the human colony on the planet they call Pax. From the struggle for survival of the first arrivals, to the rebellion of the next generation, which moves the colony to a long-abandoned alien city, through the development of a co-dependent relationship between the humans and a sentient plant called Stevland, and finally a confrontation with the ‘Glassmakers’, the original inhabitants of the city.

I wondered if I would find the number of point of view shifts irritating, but no, I found it an extremely effective way to tell the story. It’s almost like reading a series of interlinked short stories, which allows Burke to play around with different kinds of narrative. There’s a murder mystery in the middle and a war story at the end. Telling the story of Pax over different generations also helps the reader to invest in the worldbuilding as much as the characters.

I suppose Semiosis could be called eco sci-fi. The theme that holds the story together is the relationship between the people and the other intelligences that live on the planet, especially Stevland, a kind of sentient bamboo. It’s an ambivalent relationship. Stevland seeks to manipulate the humans to its own advantage, while the humans want to access to benefits that Stevlend can provides, including protection from predators, medicines and liaison with other plants. It’s an uneasy compromise until an encounter with the beings who originally inhabited the city creates a crisis that forces humans, plants and Glassmakers to revaluate their relationships with each other.

I LOVE first contact stories and for me Semiosis had it all. An exciting world to explore, engaging characters and interesting aliens. If I have any criticisms, I would have liked more developed queer characters. It’s often implied that some people are bisexual in this society, but it would have been nice to have had more details about how LGBTQ people would fit in. It felt like a bit of an omission.

Recommended for science fiction fans. Semiosis is ultimately an optimistic novel, which some might call ‘hopepunk’. Try it if you like science fiction by authors such as Becky Chambers and Adrian Tchaikovsky.

I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Interference

Content note: While not a violent book in general, the few instances of violence are pretty nasty. There’s a graphic rape scene in the second narrative ‘Sylvia’, some gruesome murders in ‘Tatiana’ and scenes of violence and torture in ‘Lucille and Stevland’.

Sapphic Link Love #10

January reading round-up

Sue Burke, Semiosis (2018)

The first book finished in 2020 looks set to be one of my favourites this year. I’m not going to say too much because I’ve got a proper post in the pipeline, but I loved this eco sci-fi story about humans trying to establish a colony on an alien world and their relationships with the beings that live there. Told through the interlinked narratives of different characters over seven generations, Semiosis is an exciting and satisfying read.

JRR Tolkein, The Hobbit (1937)

I hadn’t read The Hobbit for years. I picked it up when I was looking for a comfort read in the aftermath of the UK general election. I enjoyed it, but I had forgotten what a children’s book it is and I felt I should be reading it out loud to an eight year-old. Enjoyable enough, but it does go on a bit!

Sarah Perry, Melmoth (2018)

As a fan of gothic fiction, I was looking forward to this one, especially since I seem to be one of the few people who has read Maturin’s 1820 shocker, Melmoth the Wanderer. In Maturin’s novel, Melmoth has sold his soul to the Devil and spends the next 150 years trying to find someone who is in such a depth of despair that they will agree to take on his burden. In Sarah Perry’s version, Melmoth is the woman who denied meeting Christ after the resurrection. In punishment, she is damned to wander the Earth alone until Judgement Day. The legends says that in her loneliness, she seeks out people who are racked with guilt and who she may be able to persuade to join her. Patched together from different texts, but centering on the story of Helen Franklin, a woman who’s entire life is dominated by her guilt, Melmoth is is a beautifully written, creepy and extremely clever book. But I have to say, it left me a little cold. Too clever perhaps.

Elly Griffiths, A Dying Fall (2013)

Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series has been one of my comfort reads over the last few months. Apart from being an expert on bones, Ruth is an endearingly ordinary woman and her life is a bit of a mess. She and her oddball friends stumble into various murder mysteries and just sort of poke around until the murderer is revealed. The endings are ridiculously dramatic and it’s usually all good fun. Without revealing too much, though, I was really disappointed to find a well-worn transphobic trope waiting for me at the end of this one, so be warned if that isn’t something you want to deal with.

Rolling over to next month

I’m still reading Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski (very helpful).

I’m reading Nalo Hopkinson’s collection, Falling in Love with Hominids, which is excellent but the stories are very intense, so I’m taking it slow!

I started Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly and have been tearing through this one over the last few days. It’s so much fun.

I’m still slowly re-reading Jane Eyre.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

My Top Ten Books of the Year

The ten best books I read in 2019.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

The third book in Becky Chambers’s beloved Wayfarers series immerses us in the world of the Exodan fleet. Told from the perspectives of several characters, Record is a heartbreaking, but optimistic, story about the nature of ‘home’ and the search for meaning and purpose in our lives.

Recommended if you like cosy, character-based science fiction and Star Trek.

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home (2017)

Lucy Worsley tells the story of Jane Austen’s life through the places where she lived and stayed. The result is a fascinating, fresh and feminist perspective on the novelist, which roots her writing in her domestic life.

Recommended if you’re interested in women’s history and writing.

Jane Hirshfield, After (2006)

Beautiful, life-enriching poems in a wide-ranging collection that delves deeply into the human condition.

Recommended if you’re grappling with life.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016)

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Earl and Bette, a black gay actor and a white secretary. Schulman takes a small number of characters, living in restricted circumstances, and creates a novel of intense depth and meaning. This is the best novel that I’ve read in some time and one that will stay with me.

Recommended if you’re looking for a challenging, thought-provoking read.

Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (2019)

The Five is a meticulously researched work which recreates the lives of the five women who were identified as victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’. It’s an absolutely fascinating book about the lives of ordinary women in Victorian London and a brave intervention into ‘Ripperology’ that finally gives these women the respect and care denied to them by history.

Recommended if you’re interested in works that challenge male-dominated interpretations of history.

Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener (2000)

The Night Listener wins the prize for most gripping page-turner this year. A lonely gay writer enters into a telephone friendship with a young boy who is dying of AIDS. Or does he? This is a clever, twisty thriller that explores the darker side of our need to be loved. A couple of things in this book made me uncomfortable, but it’s one heck of a read.

Recomended if you want something gripping to read on a plane or train

Amy Bloom, White Houses (2018)

Another work of gay historical fiction, White Houses re-imagines the love affair between First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and reporter, Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickcock. Spanning a lifetime, the tenderness in the relationship between Eleanor and Hick as old women is particularly moving. There were a couple of things that I found problematic (CN: child rape), but it’s a beautifully written book that just carries you along.

Recommended if you’re interested in lesbian history and enjoy novels by people like Michael Cunningham.

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008)

Red Bird is the poetry collection that most got under my skin this year. A fragile speaker faces up to death and loss, and the various birds that appear in the poems represent emotional and psychological states. The red bird is a flash of hope in a wintery ‘landscape’. It may also have appealed because I’ve been getting into bird watching.

Recommended if you need some comfort through a hard time, or just like poems about birds.

James Tiptree Junior (Alice Sheldon) , Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990)

This collection makes the list because so many of the stories really are masterpieces of science fiction, but it’s the ‘best’ book that I least enjoyed. It took me ages to get through it because I found the stories so disturbing, if also brilliant.

Recommended if you want to experience a powerful imagination that has been hugely influential on science fiction, but be aware that it comes with a content note for pretty much EVERYTHING.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

I’ll finish with one of my favourite books of the year. Dreamsnake is a wonderful story, and far more optimistic than I anticipated. A young healer, called Snake, must try and find a new dreamsnake after hers is accidentally killed. An engaging heroine, interesting characters and a beautifully realised world, I loved it.

Recommended if you enjoy feminist science fiction and works by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin.

Books that almost made the list …

James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare (2005), is a really interesting book that puts Shakespeare firmly back in his historical and material context and, provides a fresh perspective on his work and life.

The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson is a gripping homage to Patricia Highsmith in which the author finds herself embroiled in something very like one of her own fictions.

Jane Harper’s The Dry (2016) didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, but was still a good atmospheric page-turner and one of the better crime novels I read this year.

Theodora Goss’s European Travel for Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) is delightful fun, but I found it a bit overlong.

Help the Witch (2018) by Tom Cox is a rather eerie but kind-hearted collection of short stories and a nice winter read.

Elizabeth A Lynn, ‘Watchtower’ (1979) #20BooksOfSummer

Ryke wakes after the battle is over, to find Tornor Keep has been overrun by the forces of a Southern conqueror, Col Istor. As one of the few surviving warriors, his life is spared so that he can assist with the transition to Istor’s rule, his obedience secured only by the conqueror’s promise not to harm the old lord’s heir, Errel. Ryke agrees to the terms and is horrified when Errel is forced to act as the Keep’s jester.

Just as it seems that resistance is hopeless, a pair of sinister messengers arrive, bringing an offer of truce from another keep. Ryke is surprised when Errel proposes asking for their help to escape, but all is not as it seems, and Errel knows more than Ryke can imagine. So begins a journey South to meet the dancers of Vanmina, a journey that challenges everything Ryke thinks he knows about the world. But before too long they will have to return to the North and face Col Istor again.

Watchtower is the first book in Elizabeth A. Lynn’s acclaimed trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor, and it won the World Fantasy Award in 1980.  Lynn is one of many well-regarded women writers who were publishing science fiction and fantasy before the 2000s, but whose work is now rather neglected and in danger of being forgotten. Considering the way that women writers have been treated by SFF, it seems sadly appropriate that Watchtower is partly set in a ruthlessly patriarchal society where women are not truly “seen”.

I really loved Lynn’s short stories in The Girl Who Loved the Moon, so I was looking forward to starting on The Chronicles of Tornor. Watchtower is superbly written, at least on a level with Le Guin’s Earthsea in terms of quality. It has a compelling story and interesting main characters. It even has queer characters and a lesbian couple, although this is not too surprising when you realise that Lynn wrote A Different Light, one of the first science fiction novels to feature openly queer characters, and after which a famous gay bookshop was named.

I’m not a fan of high fantasy, but I did enjoy Watchtower and will read the rest of the trilogy. If I have any criticisms, I thought the middle section dragged a bit and Ryke does have to “hold the stupid ball” a lot for the plot to work.

Just a note, there are some depictions of rape during war towards the end. It’s not too much, or too graphic, but just be aware if you’re thinking of reading this and it’s something you’d prefer not to come cross unexpectedly.

Recommended if you like high fantasy or want to explore the writing of women fantasy and SF authors from the 1970s and 1980s (who are not Ursula Le Guin).  

20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

Theodora Goss, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) #20BooksOfSummer

I really enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Overall, it did not disappoint.

Our heroines, the gang of monstrous “daughters” from the first novel, also known as the Athena Club, continue their investigations into the nefarious activities of certain rogue members of the Societe des Alchemistes. Mary, Beatrice, Cat, Diana and Justine find themselves in peril again as they travel across Europe to try and rescue Lucinda Van Helsing who has been infected with a strange disease.  Oh, and they have to prevent Van Helsing and Dr Seward from taking over the Societe.

That’s basically the plot which unfolds slowly over 700 pages while our heroines eat a lot cake and make a lot of new friends, including Irene Adler, Mina Murray, Laura and Carmilla, not to mention Count Dracula himself. They also have to face some old foes, some of whom could be considered family, before finally confronting the President of the Societe, the mysterious Ayesha.

If, like me, you grew up reading the Victorian Gothic, this series is especially enjoyable. It’s like returning to a familiar world, but this time with women taking centre stage. It was great to meet Irene Adler and Mina Murray again and I thought they were very well done. It was also nice to see that things are working out for Laura and Carmilla.

If I have any criticism. I thought it was a bit too long and rambly and that there were too many characters. The final third dragged a bit, especially with Bea and Cat’s story. I felt that the author wanted to give all the main characters equal attention, but maybe that wasn’t entirely necessary.

At a whopping great 708 pages, this was not the best choice for a time-limited reading challenge, but I really liked it and will read the final book in the trilogy.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is the kind of huge, cosy, fun fantasy novel you can just sink into. Perfect for curling up with on a cold rainy afternoon with a nice cup of tea.

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008) #20BooksofSummer

Red bird came all winter …

I read Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, in one evening. Then I got up the next day and read it again on my commute to work. This is not her greatest work, but something about the poems really resonated with me. I rarely read a book twice in forty eight hours.

The poems in Red Bird are set in winter, which it soon becomes apparent is a metaphor for living through a time of grief and loss. The many birds, and other animals, that appear are metaphors for psychological and emotional states. The ‘big’ connecting theme in this collection is the inevitability and relentlessness of death: ‘Death waits for me, I know it, around one corner or another’ (p.38). The speaker is an older person, confronting loss and their own mortality, reflecting on the past, and fearful for the future. But, as ever in Oliver’s poetry, the poems convey a luminous quality of hope and resilience in the face of suffering, that has made her poetry so beloved. Oliver’s dog Percy makes a few appearances too.

I love bird poems and there are so many here. Goldfinches, night herons, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, crows, nuthatches, meadowlarks, teals and the ‘Red Bird’ of the title, who reappears in various guises, firing up the winter landscape with ‘the music of your heart that you wanted and needed’ (‘Red Bird Explains Himself’ p. 78).

There are some overtly political poems that address the destruction of the natural world by human civilization and the horrors of war (‘the terrible debris of progress’) in poems like’Red’, ‘Showing the Birds’, ‘From the River’, and ‘We Should be well Prepared’.

The collection includes Oliver’s famous ‘Instructions for living a life’:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it

‘Sometimes’, (4.) p. 37

Taken out of context (the poem is about death), it’s the kind of thing that gets her accused of being a bit ‘live, love, laugh’, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘live, love, laugh’, about Oliver’s poetry. She understands and fully acknowledges the pain and suffering of life, and wrote to try and help us deal with it.

As someone who has been living through their own ‘winter’ for the last two years, the collection had a special resonance for me at this time in my life. A reminder that the red bird is out there.