Poem of the Week, ‘Vanishing’ by Brittney Corrigan

Little hollow-boned dinosaurs,
you who survived the last extinction, 
whose variety has obsessed 
scientific minds, whose bodies 
in the air compel our own bodies
to spread and yearn—
how we have failed you.

From ‘The Vanishing‘ by Brittney Corrigan at Poets.Org

Julie E. Czerneda, ‘Survival’ Species Imperative #1(2004)

Set in the not-so-distant future, Survival is a SF bio-punk mystery and the first in Czerneda’s Species Imperative series.

Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a biologist who studies salmon at a research institute on the pacific coast of North America. Mac is surprised when she receives an honoured visitor, Brymn, the first Drhyn to come to Earth. She is even more surprised when he demands that she leave Earth and help him investigate a mystery.

Brymn is an archeologist who has been studying an area of space known as the ‘Chasm’ where all life has disappeared, although there is evidence that it once existed there. Brymn is concerned that whatever happened in the Chasm is starting to happen again. He also believes that his own species must have originated there and may hold the answer. However, the study of biology is forbidden to the Dhryn so he needs to get help from a biologist.

Mac, who has no interest in leaving Earth and her salmon, is unimpressed. But then the research institute comes under attack from mysterious invisible aliens known as the Ro who are enemies of the Dryhn and may be responsible for what happened in the Chasm. This persuades Mac to agree to Brymn’s request. They almost don’t get away as they are attacked again and Mac is horrified to discover that her best friend Emily is apparently in league with the Ro! She then begins what will be a very strange journey to the Dhryn homeworld and beyond.

The first third of this book is pretty slow. Honestly, I found it rather boring. I considered giving up, but the fun aliens and the interesting mystery kept me reading. Survival came to life once Mac left Earth and I’m glad I persevered with it. I loved the journey with Mac trying to survive on a ship with aliens who don’t even understand that humans need water.

The Drhyn home world is really well done. Mac discovers that Dhryn move through stages of life taking on different forms as they age. The transition can go wrong with horrific consequences and this seems to be the source of the Dhryn taboo on studying their own biology. Mac and Brymn find evidence that the Drhyn did indeed originate in the Chasm and after another devastating attack by the Ro, they make their way to a lifeless planet that must be the original Drhyn home world, where a horrific revelation awaits them.

Survival is well-written, has an interesting mystery and great aliens. The story and the worldbuilding are very good. The best character by far is the alien scientist, Brymn, who is just delightful. The biggest weakness is the human characters. Mac is alright, but rather one-dimensional. Nick, her love interest, is a cardboard cut out of a character and the book improves a lot once he’s removed from the narrative. Emily is probably the most interesting, but we don’t see much of her. A couple of the side characters are also good, but only make brief appearances.

Despite some weaknesses, overall I enjoyed Survival. It was refreshing to read something that’s quite slow and sedate. I’ll definitely read the next book in the trilogy and explore more of Czernada’s work.

The worldbuilding and style of storytelling reminded me of Babylon 5 so maybe give Czerneda a go if you enjoyed that show.

Ursula K Le Guin, City of Illusions (1967) – Hainish cycle re-read #3

‘I will tell you what I believe about you. I think you come from a lost world; I think you were not born on Earth. I think you came here, the first alien to return in a thousand years or more, bringing us a message or a sign’.

City of Illusions, p. 230.

And so I come to City of Illusions, the last book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy. The end of the beginning, you might say. The last time I read this book, I remember it as the one I liked least. Did that change on re-reading? No and yes. It’s still my least favourite, but I was much more impressed the second time around and I would now say that it’s the most ambitious of the three.

City of Illusions begins on Earth. A family living in an isolated area discover a naked man in the woods who has no memory. His amber eyes suggest that he is not entirely human. They take him in and call him Falk. Over the next few years, he learns to speak and function like a human, but still can’t remember his past.

During this time, we find out that the ‘League of All Worlds’, referenced in Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, has been broken and Earth is said to be under the control of a mysterious alien race known as the Shing who rule from a city called Es Toch. Zove, the old man of the house, believes that Falk may have come to Earth from an alien world founded by the ancient Leage before the fall. Determined to find out who he is, Falk decides to leave his friends and travel alone to the city.

About half of the book is taken up with Falk’s journey. He meets an old man in the forest who helps him. He is robbed by others. For a while, he is imprisoned in the camp of a violent group called the Bainaisha where he meets a woman called Estrel with whom he escapes. Estrel claims to be a wanderer who has been to Es Toch and tells him there is nothing to fear from the Shing. They become lovers although Falk senses there is something not quite right about her. Everyone he meets on his journey seems to give him mysterious, coded advice that he doesn’t really understand!

When they eventually arrive at Es Toch, Falk finds (rather unsurprisingly) that he has been betrayed by Estrel who was working for the Shing all along. This is conveyed in a long, hallucinatory sequence, from which Falk awakes to find himself in the hands of the Shing. They claim that they are ‘men’, not aliens, and that they sent Estrel to rescue him after he lost his memory in the ‘accident’ that destroyed his ship. He is introduced to a boy called Orry, the only other survivor of the crash who has been raised by the Shing. They claim that they want to help him remember his past, but unfortunately the procedure will destroy the Falk personality when his previous self is restored.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, Falk is quickly convinced that his hosts are sinister alien creatures masquerading as humans. They are suppressing the human population through a combination of terror, drugs and manipulation. He guesses that they probably want to find out where his home planet is so that they can attack it. But he agrees to undergo the restoration procedure in the hope that he will be strong enough to hold onto his memories of being Falk.

His real name, it turns out, is Agad Ramarren, and he is a descendant of Jacob Agat and Rolery from Planet of Exile. Generations later, their people finally left the planet in search of Earth and the League who abandoned them. Somehow, the Falk personality survives the restoration and now the two personalities must work together to escape the Shing and return to warn their homeworld.

My problem with City of Illusions remains the same as the last time I read it. It is a book full of ideas, but unfortunately ideas trump the character development and storytelling that are Le Guin’s strengths as a writer. The characters are not very well developed or interesting and it feels more like a series of scenes strung together rather than a coherent story. It’s like Le Guin is showing off what she can do and it’s a little too much.

But, reading it again, I did feel more impressed by her ambition here. I can see now that City of Illusions is very influenced by the new wave of science fiction with its hallucinatory qualities, it’s focus on subjectivity and the self, what’s real and what isn’t, and its attempt to push the envelope. Le Guin will pick up some of these themes again, more or less successfully, in her most new wave novel, The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Looking back on this early trilogy from the perspective of someone who has read all the Hainish stories, I say again that one of the most impressive things about this whole trilogy is what it reveals about Le Guin’s process as a writer. She had an ability to recognise and develop her own good ideas and drop the weaker ones. From these books, we get the ansible, mind speech and the beginnings of the Ekumen, all of which will become foundations of the world building in later masterpieces like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions are still very much worth reading, both as entertaining science fiction stories in their own right and for what they show us of a great writer’s early development. If you’re new to Le Guin, though, I wouldn’t recommend starting here.

This post is the third in my Hainish cycle re-read.

Wild Women in Josephine Tey’s ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948)

Josephine Tey’s 1948 mystery, The Franchise Affair, is so well-written, beautifully paced and gripping that I sat down and read it in one afternoon. The novel’s politics are problematic, to say the least, but it’s just so damn enjoyable to read.

Tey’s classic page-turner has stayed with me and, since I finished reading it, I’ve found myself pondering its more disturbing aspects. In her essay, The Lost Girl, the novelist Sarah Waters has written brilliantly about the troubling conservatism of The Franchise Affair, and the classist and misogynist allegiances within its narrative. The novel is packed full of simmering tensions about gender and class which are played out in the stories of two ‘wild’ women, both of whom are trying to live their lives outside the bounds of patriarchally-defined gender roles.

SPOILER ALERT: spoilers for the plot of The Franchise Affair below the cut

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Ursula K Le Guin, Planet of Exile (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #2

Planet of Exile, the second in Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy, is a significant improvement on the first, Rocannon’s World. The story is much more coherent, the world wonderfully drawn, and the characters far better developed than in the first novel. Planet of Exile is actually one of my favourite books by Le Guin; it’s a beautiful, evocative and, at times, frightening story.

Set at the beginning of winter on a planet in which seasons last 5000 days (around fourteen earth years), Rolery, a young woman from an indiginous hunter-gatherer tribe, visits the city of Landin, a place inhabited by aliens who came to her world hundreds of years ago. They keep themselves apart and are known by her people as the Farborns. While walking on the beach below the city, Rolery is almost caught by a fast moving tide and only escapes because one of the Farborns, Jakob Agat, warns her telepathically using mindspeech, inadvertently creating a bond between them.

I just love the opening. It’s so atmospheric with its images of the giant causeway leading out to the tower rock and the roaring of the tide as it chases Rolery back towards the city and Jakob.

Planet of Exile further develops one of Le Guin’s Hainish tropes, ‘Mindspeech’, a form of telepathy which first appears in Rocannon’s World – it becomes apparent that the ‘Farborn’ are the descendents of Semley and Mogian’s people from that novel. Mindspeech seems to be something that most people can develop with practice, but some have a natural aptitude, including Rolery, much to the surprise of the people of Landin who believe only they have the skill.

Planet of Exile is about the relationship between Rolery and Jakob and the relationship between their two peoples, as they prepare for the long winter and face a common enemy, the aggressive Gaal from the South who are coming in vast numbers to invade their lands and take their resources.

The Farborn are a dwindling people, their colony abandoned centuries ago by the League of All Worlds. They don’t know why they have been left in this exile, ‘Their records say only that the ship left. A white spear of metal, longer than a whole city, standing on a feather of fire.’ Now fewer children are born every year, so they turn to the Askatevar for help.

Jakob Agat goes to the chief of Rolery’s people, her father, an old man named Wold, to propose an alliance against the Gaal. Wold listens, but he must convince his own people and the other tribes which will be difficult. Jakob, meanwhile, struggles with the attitudes of his own people who look down on the Askatevarans. Neither really regard the other as ‘human’. Cultural tensions are inflamed by a burgeoning romance between Rolery and Jakob. Before they can heal the divide, the Gaal attack and the surviving Askatevarans take refuge in the city of Landin where both peoples must get over their prejudices and preconceptions and work together as they prepare for siege. The representation of the people of Tevar is deeply imbibed by Le Guin’s interest in anthropology, perhaps so much as to feel a bit unsubtle now.

There is a theme in the book of old ways dying out so that something new can emerge. This is symbolised in the two old leaders, Alla Pasfal in Landin and the old chief Wold in Tevar. Both are stubborn and difficult people and Wold’s attitudes are misogynist, but there is something powerfully moving in his ‘last foray’ as he leads the women with young children across the causeway to the league hall, ‘across the vasty dizzy air-road to the black and terrible house’.

‘To die, then, he must return across the bleak, changeless landscape of his boyhood, he must reenter the white world of the storms.’

The middle section of the book is a long seige of the city which Le Guin manages to make tense and exciting, but perhaps most frightening is the introduction of the Snow Ghouls, terrifying creatues of the winter with their small heads swaying on their long, curving necks as they run across the snow towards their prey.

During this time, Rolery and Jakob establish their relationship as two people who have found freedom in their very differences. Separate, they were frustrated and unhappy with their roles in life, but together they have joy and possiblity. I really like the representation of their love story and, if I have a complaint, I wish Le Guin had given it more time. The novel ends with Jakob and Rolery hopeful that they will be able to have children together, even as they face the daunting prospect of winter: ‘Five thousand nights of winter, five thousand days of it, the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives’.

In some ways, Planet of Exile feels like the precursor to The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an even longer winter, a deep relationship between two people from different worlds and has mindspeech as a central trope. But Planet of Exile is its own book too, one in which we see Le Guin really starting to play to her strengths as a writer of science fiction.

This post is the second in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Rocannon’s World (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #1

Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World, is one of those books that now feels more interesting for what it shows us about the development of a great writer, rather than for itself. If Le Guin had published nothing else, I think it would have been forgotten, except perhaps by the most dedicated of science fiction afficionados. This isn’t to say Rocannon’s World is bad – it isn’t – but when you compare it to masterpieces like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, it feels simplistic and underdeveloped. Still, it has good qualities and you can see Le Guin starting to find her voice as a science fiction writer. This book is the first in a loose trilogy of early ‘Hainish’ novels, along with Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967).

Rocannon’s World opens with a prologue, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, which was first published in 1964 as a short story called “Dowry of the Angyar”. A young woman called Semley leaves her pre-industrial, low-tech planet to retrieve a necklace for her dowry, which has fallen into the hands of a galactic power called the League of All Worlds and is being displayed in one of their museums. There she meets Rocannon who gives her the necklace. The story ends in tragedy because Semley cannot foresee the implications of faster than light space travel and returns to find her husband long dead and her baby daughter a young woman. Driven mad by grief, Semley disappears into the forest. ‘Semley’s Necklace’ is a haunting story in which we can already see themes that will feature throughout Le Guin’s work.

Rocannon later goes on an ethnological mission to this unnamed planet, where he discovers that an enemy of the League of All Worlds has established a military base and is killing its people. Rocannon’s ship is destroyed by this enemy and he finds himself alone with no way to contact the League and warn them, unless he can gain access to the enemy’s ‘Ansible’, a device that enables instantaneous communication across space. Rocannon allies with Semley’s people, the feudal Angyar, and with her grandson, Mogien, sets out to try and find the enemy base. He has several adventures along the way and meets the different sentient species that live on the world. Rocannon succeeds in his quest, but the ending, as you might expect, is bittersweet.

Rocannon’s World is still enjoyable to read because, even at this early stage in Le Guin’s career, her writing is lovely and the narrative is well-paced. However, the story feels like a series of scenes which are strung together, the worldbuliding is a bit of a mess (the enemy, for example, are just vague, off-screeen ‘baddies’) and the characters are thinly sketched. We know that the protagonist, Rocannon, is principled and good, but beyond that he’s hardly more than a point of view through which to watch the events of the story unfold. This is very different to the deep and nuanced characters and worlds that appear in the later books. The Angyar ride around on flying tigers called ‘windsteeds’ which is adorable, but not something you’d find in later Le Guin! The League of all Worlds is also a fuzzy, ambigous idea at this point; before developing into the more benevolent Ekumen, it appears to be a rather sinister and ruthless power that may be involved in exploiting less developed planets. The layering of a science fiction story over a high fantasy world is inventive and interesting, but also feels a little odd. It’s like a Tolkein world into which Le Guin has inserted characters with lazer guns.

Having said all of that, parts of the story are really very well done. The bit in which Rocannon and Yahan find themselves in the power of a group of thugs who want to steal the necklace is genuinely tense and scary. For me, the best part of the book is the creepy, mindless, winged beings that take Rocannon and his friends captive. It’s genuinely frightening, although that effect is somewhat spoiled by the introduction, immediately afterwards, of cute little talking furry creatures!

What you do see thoughout the book is the emergence of the powerful themes that will be explored much more deeply in Le Guin’s later works. There is the question of who is ‘human’ and who is ‘alien’? There is the influence of anthropology on her worldbuilding. There are power relations between high and low-tech worlds. There are intense personal relationships between people who come from these different worlds. There is an interest in the ways that perceptions and beliefs about skin colour can structure societies. There is an underlying sense of tragedy and a belief that all actions come with consequences.

Rocannon’s World also contains ambiguous, post-colonial resonances with it’s depiction of a nameless (?) planet being ‘named’ by the galactic power as ‘Rocannon’s World’ and in it’s opening prologue about a valuable necklace being stolen from a people for display in a museum belonging to that power.

One thing that really struck me on re-reading this book, is Le Guin’s ability to recognise her own good ideas and return to them later. The ansible, for example, functions in Rocannon’s World as a classic ‘MacGugffin’, but she obviously spotted its potential and goes on to put it at the centre of one of her greatest works, The Dispossessed. We never see the flying tigers again, but we do see the development of the ansible. Probably a good call!

I enjoyed re-reading Rocannon’s World more than I expected, but don’t start here if you’re new to Le Guin. Start with one of the later and more famous books.

Next up, Planet of Exile, which I loved reading the first time around.

This post is the first in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Cycle re-read for 2021

This feels like a good year to re-read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle from Rocannon’s World (1966) to the stories collected in The Birthday of the World (2002).

I’m going to read the books in order of publication because that seems to be the simplest approach:

  1. Rocannon’s World (1966)
  2. Planet of Exile (1966)
  3. City of Illusions (1967)
  4. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  5. The Word for World is Forest (1972)
  6. The Dispossessed (1974)
  7. Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)
  8. The Telling (2000)
  9. The Birthday of the World (2002)

I’ll use this list to link to any posts about the books.

Sharon Olds, Selected Poems (2005)

A copy of Selected Poems by Sharon Olds. The cover is black and features a burning sparkler.

This collection brings together poems published between 1980 and 2002. I hadn’t read much poetry by Sharon Olds until now and I don’t think she’s particularly well known in the UK. I only came across her when I started seeing admiring comments from poets on twitter.

Olds is a superb poet who is also very readable. Her main subject is herself. She is an autobiographical poet who mines her own life experiences to create poems that are both profoundly intimate and absolutely ruthless in their honesty about life: from her difficult childhood and her parents’ miserable marriage, to her father’s alcoholism, her sexual awakening and fulfilment, to raising her children and aging.

She is a tremendous poet of the body, heterosexual desire and motherhood, not all of which resonates with me for obvious reasons. But what did resonate throughout the collection was the way she conveys the truth of experinece and what it is to fully engage with life in all its joys and difficulties. I also admire her willingness to go there, to say things that most of us hardly feel able to admit privately to ourselves, let alone publish in a book.

It’s hard to pick out specific poems because there are so many good ones, but ‘After 37 years my mother apologizes for my childhood’ just takes my breath away. I mean, good grief Sharon Olds!

The series of beautiful and brutal poems about her father’s illness and death also stand out as something quite astonishing.

‘I might have wished to trade places with anyone raised on love,/ but how would anyone raised on love/ bear this death?’

‘Wonder’, p. 52.

When Olds does move beyond the personal, she’s just as good. The poem ‘Bible Study: 71 B.C.E’ about the crucifixion of 6000 members of Spartacus’s army is one that will haunt me.

I suspect that I will like her later poems even more. I’m very much looking forward to reading Stag’s Leap (2012) which is about the breakdown of her marriage and Odes (2016) which addresses the body.

I read this collecton for #20BooksOfSummer20

#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

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.

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

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.

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.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016) #20BooksofSummer

A copy of The Cosmopolitans resting on a brown wood table. The cover features a black and white photograph of a diner from the 1950s.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Bette, a white secretary, and her neighbour, Earl, a black, gay actor.

Earl and Bette have developed a close friendship over the course of thirty years, a friendship based in their shared experiences of being ejected, unjustly, from their families and having to make their own way in a hostile world. They have created a family of choice, eating dinner together, providing sympathy, celebrating birthdays and Christmas. But, Earl and Bette are also people who have, in a sense, become “stuck”, remaining in the same patterns as the world changes around them.

At this historical turning point, just before the beginning of the 1960s, Bette and Earl’s lives are invaded by Bette’s young cousin, Hortense, an aspiring actress whose disruptive presence will explode all the pain this relationship has been designed to contain.

The encounter with Hortense creates a crucible, revealing the truth that despite their long friendship, Bette and Earl have never really understood each other’s pain. They haven’t truly seen each other. Bette simply doesn’t fully understand the extent of Earl’s anguish and loneliness, as a middle-aged, failed actor, who’s life is heavily curtailed by homophobia and racism. Earl, meanwhile, does not truly understand the way that Bette’s family’s betrayal has frozen her in a kind of emotional limbo, endlessly waiting for her opportunity to make the people who hurt her tell the truth.

The Cosmopolitans beautifully evokes the world of 1950’s New York and the emotional lives of its characters. It’s one of the most insightful novels about human relationships that I’ve ever read. This story, which has just a handful of characters, delves deeply and uncompromisingly into the nature of love and friendship. It is about cruelty and lies; it is about truth and accountability. It is very much a novel about ethics and picks up the theme of “shunning” that recurs in Sarah Schulman’s fiction and non-fiction. It asks a lot of difficult questions: why do we tell lies and destroy each other’s lives? What does it mean to love another person? What does it mean to really see another person? Without trying to reduce The Cosmopolitans to a “message”, I took away these thoughts: trying to annihilate another person in response to our own pain is never a good strategy; we have to talk to make things better, and healing can only happen when something is made right.

The Cosmopolitans is an intertextual work that engages with Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel, Cousin Bette, which sadly I haven’t read. It also speaks to the work of James Baldwin and, at the end, even becomes a little meta in relation to the author herself.

Recommended.

Jane Hirshfield, ‘After’ (2006)

A photograph of the collection 'After'. The cover of the book is a painting of a window opening onto a landscape with trees and sky.

But thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, is folding.

Jane Hirschfield, ‘Articulation: An Assay;

I’d read a few poems by Jane Hirshfield over the years and thought that I should explore her work, but I didn’t buy a collection until I came across the poem ‘One Sand Grain Among the Others in Winter Wind‘.

This poem articulated something about loss that I was feeling at the time, but was unable to express. When I read it, I realised that what I was experiencing was a kind of pleading with the universe, “No, not this too, don’t I get to keep even this one small, precious thing?” That’s the power of poetry, that “yes, this is what I mean”.

After is quite an eclectic collection, both in terms of form and content. The poems range across topics such as philosophy, language, nature, the self, grief and death, and are thematically linked by a deep interest in the human condition. Many of the poems are concerned with the relationship between thought, speech and action. There is also a sense that language is often an inadequate tool to express human experience, but we must try because it is all we have.

Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature. Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.

David Baker, quoted on Wikipedia

I find it difficult to write about the individual poems, possibly because they are so eclectic. As the blurb says, these poems are “an extended investigation into incarnation, transience and interconnection”. Some of my favourites include ‘Theology’, a poem about our desire to believe in miracles, and ‘After Long Silence’, which addresses the relationship between words and thoughts. I love ‘I Imagine Myself in Time’ a poem about that sense of multiple selves which develops as you get older and the realisation that a future self will one day be looking back at the person you are now, “And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades, what will she say?” ‘Letter to C.’ is a moving poem for a dead friend and fellow poet. There are the ‘Assays’ dotted throughout the collection, examinations/investigations into words and what language does. There are beautiful encounters with nature. There are seventeen tiny “pebble” poems. After concludes with ‘It Was Like This: You Were Happy‘, a blunt study of mortality which strips the entirety of human life down to a sentence:

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

This is an enriching collection which I’ll be keeping and revisiting again and again.

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

I missed this at the time it was published, but want to flag up Vandana Singh’s lovely and moving post, True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world.  Am I asking the hard questions?  Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.

Sapphic Link Love #8

Queer Bible, U.A. Fanthorpe

LGBTQ Nation, Meet the Harlem Renaissance dancer who made sure lesbian history wasn’t forgotten

Queer Bible, Natalie Barney

Autostraddle, All Bones and Blood and Breath: Remembering Barbara Hammer

Quill and Quire, The 88-year-old creator of mystery’s first lesbian detective reflects on the character’s return

Lambda Literary, review of My Butch Career by Esther Newton

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton