#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

A Trip to Gay’s the Word

Photograph of 5 books in a pile, with titles by Sarah Schulman, Jane Traies, Jill Dawson and Amy Bloom

A pile of lesbian books!

We were in London briefly last weekend, me for a work conference and my partner, lucky thing, to see the new production of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lilly James. But of course we still found time to visit Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, where I treated myself to a few books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Sarah Schulman is one of my favourite lesbian writers and I bought her two most recent books. Maggie Terry (2018) is a crime thriller about lesbian PI with addiction issues, while The Cosmopolitans (2016) is a historical novel about the friendship between a black gay man and a middle-aged white woman in the 1950s.

I’ve heard good things about The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson and White Houses (2018) by Amy Bloom. The first has Patricia Highsmith moving to a cottage in Suffolk to try and finish a novel while also carrying out an unhappy affair, only to find herself the protagonist in a thriller. The second is a love story about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist, Lorena Hickok.

Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (2018) is a collection of personal accounts from older lesbians edited by Jane Traies and looks absolutely fascinating.

I could have spent a lot more, but thought I’d better stop there. So much for not buying any more books until I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile!

Sapphic Link Love #7

The Guardian, Pioneering Bollywood lesbian romance opens in India 

Duke University Press, Esther Newton, My Butch Career, A Memoir 

The Guardian, ‘It has made me want to live’: Public support for lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall over banned book revealed 

The Paris Review, Hunting for a lesbian canon 

Catapult Magazine, ‘I should hate forever to be a burden to you’: Lessons in love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Lit Hub, The overlooked eroticism of Mary Oliver 

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. It follows The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I absolutely loved the first two books and was very much looking forward to reading this one.

What I most appreciate about the entire series is Chambers’s love for ordinary people and her determination to put their stories at the centre of a space opera. Sometimes I think I would sum the Wayfarers books up as, “Ordinary, average people – like you and me – but in space”.  This is refreshing because, as much as I love science fiction, it does have a tendency to focus on the high achievers! Chambers is more interested in the people in the background who keep everything going: the cooks, the techs, the shopkeepers and miners. In this sense, her world seems more influenced by Firefly (and to an extent Bablyon 5), than Star Trek, although the optimism probably owes a debt to Trek.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes us “home” to the Exodan fleet mentioned  in the earlier novels. These vast generation ships left a dying Earth centuries ago and wandered through space until they met some helpful aliens, slowly joined the wider galactic community, and settled into orbit around a star, developing into a ship-based civilisation.

“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”

Set on the Asteria, the story is told from the point of view of five characters. There’s Tessa, elder sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way, who is fleet born and bred, but starting to wonder if it’s the right place to stay and raise a family. Then there’s Isabel, an older woman, and the ship’s record keeper, who must deal with a visit from a distinguished alien researcher. Sawyer is a young man from a rough colony world who wants to try to make a life for himself in the fleet. Kip is a bored teenage boy who just wants to get out and go anywhere else. Then there’s Eyas, one of the fleet’s caretakers whose job it is to look after the dead. We receive a sixth perspective from the reports of the Harmagian scientist, Ghuh’loloan, on her impressions of life in the fleet.

The story begins with an appalling disaster, the accidental destruction of one of the other generation ships, an event that results in over 40,000 deaths and causes an existential crisis in the fleet. The tragedy reverberates throughout the novel and touches the lives of each character in different ways, causing them to question their understanding of the fleet as home.

Chambers’s ability to deal with painful, even heartbreaking subjects without ever losing a sense of hope and optimism is what has made her novels so beloved. They’ve helped me a lot over the last couple of years when I’ve been struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and despair. In this respect, Record did not disappoint. I cried several times (in a good way) and finished the book feeling like I’d received a warm hug.

Record is a slower burn and even less plot-driven than the others. Initially I felt that five or six points of view was too many. I struggled a bit to keep up with them all, which may have been partly down to having a cold when I read the book. I still think it might be slightly too many, but I can’t imagine the story without any of them, so I think that’s just the way it has to be. There were less aliens and I did miss them a bit.

If you didn’t like her other novels, you certainly won’t be converted by this one! Personally, I hope there will be many more books in this series.

Sapphic Link Love #6

Ransom Centre Magazine, The Ransom Center will digitize the papers of British author Radclyffe Hall and partner, artist Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge

Autostraddle, Revisiting “Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist” in a World Needing Her More Than Ever

Terri Windling, Hen Wives, Spinsters and Lolly Willows 

iNews, The lesbian ‘blood sisters’ who cared for gay men when doctors were too scared to 

2018 Reading Round-Up

I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Image shows the cover of Trail of Lightening which features a young woman dressed in black standing on stop of a red car driven by a young man. She holds a gun and lightening plays around her.

My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.

 

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.

 

 

 

The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.

 

 

400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.

Image shows the cover of All Systems Red. It features a painting of Murderbot in its full armour and helmetI read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial ConditionBinti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.

 

 

I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.

I re-read a couple of beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Crime Fiction

Image shows the cover of What the Dead Know. It features a photograph of a girl in a red dress walking behind a tree. As she emerges her body has faded and become translucent.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.

I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.

Image shows the cover of The Stranger Diaries. It features a painting of a flowering plant against a blue background with writingThe last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday.  I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.

 

 

Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.

Image shows the cover the novel Stoner McTavish. This edition features a painting of the Grand Teton mountains with a Stoner sitting on a black horse in the foreground.

 

Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.

 

 

I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.

General/Literary Fiction

Image shows the cover of Astray. It features a sepia toned photograph of a chain of old keys

I’ve been really off literary fiction for the last few years, so there isn’t much in this category. I liked the haunting stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray enough to write about it.

Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.

I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.

Non-Fiction

Image shows the cover of Forbidden Lives. It is a plain brown cover with the title and author's name in black capitals and a small Welsh dragon in black on the right hand sideMy favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.

 

I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.

Image shows the cover of Eat Up. It features cartoonish drawings of good on a pink background

Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.

 

 

 

The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.

Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Food

The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating.  I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.

The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.

If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.

How The Left Hand of Darkness Changed Everything

Lovely article by Becky Chambers about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’m currently re-reading for about the millionth time, How The Left Hand of Darkness Changed Everything.

I’ve got Chambers’s own third novel, Record of a Spaceborn Few, saved to read over Christmas.

Sapphic Link round-up #5

Autostraddle, The 15 Best Lesbian and Bisexual Movies of 2018

them., Sarah Schulman Talks her new lesbian detective novel Maggie Terry

Lambda Literary, Looking for Lorraine: The Radical and Radiant Life of Lorraine Hansberry

Hannah Roche, The Outside Thing: Modernist Lesbian Romance 

New York Times Books, Alone with Elizabeth Bishop

How the Haunting of Hill house Rewrote Horror’s Rules

The Guardian, Textbook Terror

Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”