Queer Short Stories from Wales

New from Parthian Books, Queer Square Mile: Queer Short Stories from Wales edited by Kirsti Bohata, Mihangel Morgan and Huw Osborne

This ground-breaking volume makes visible a long and diverse tradition of queer writing from Wales. Spanning genres from ghost stories and science fiction to industrial literature and surrealist modernism, these are stories of love, loss and transformation.

In these stories gender refuses to be fixed: a dashing travelling companion is not quite who he seems in the intimate darkness of a mail coach, a girl on the cusp of adulthood gamely takes her father’s place as head of the house, and an actor and patron are caught up in dangerous game-playing. In the more fantastical tales there are talking rats, flirtations with fascism, and escape from a post-virus ‘utopia’. These are stories of sexual awakening, coming out and redefining one’s place in the world.

Parthian books

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters (2021)

My second January read is The Lamplighters (2021) by Emma Stonex.

In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers disappear from their lighthouse. When the relief boat arrives on New Year’s Eve, the door is found locked, the clocks are stopped and the table is laid for a meal. The Principle Keeper, Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, and their junior, Vincent Bourne, have all vanished. Arthur Black’s weather log describes a terrible storm which is not recorded anywhere else …

Twenty years later, a writer sets out to interview the women who were left behind: Arthur’s wife, Helen, Bill’s wife, Jenny, and Michelle, Vincent’s girlfriend. Three women whose lives are still constantly haunted by this unsolved mystery.

As the narrative moves back and forth between the experiences of the lighthouse keepers and the stories of the women who loved them, layers of truth slowly unravel. What drove Helen and Jenny apart? Who is the writer who wants to interview them and what is his agenda? What role was played by the rather sinister company, Trident House, that runs the lighthouse network? And, of course, what really happened to the men on the lighthouse during that last Christmas?

The Lamplighters crosses genres. It can be read as a mystery, a ghost story, and a psychological thriller. I did find the resolution slightly disappointing, but I’m not going to complain when the book is so compelling and beautifully written. In the end, it’s a story about love and grief and the difficulty in ever truly knowing another person.

With its ambiguities and genre blurring, I do think this is the kind of book that people will either love or hate, but give it a try if you enjoy the likes of Shirley Jackson, Hilary Mantel, Emily St John Mandel and Tana French.

The true story that inspired The Lamplighters is just as fascinating.

Daphne du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969)

My e-reader showing the cover of The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. It features the title surrounded by drawings of bottles in a laboratory.

My first completed read of 2022 is The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969). I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It reminded me that I really should read more of Du Maurier’s work.

The narrator, Dick Young, finds himself between jobs and borrows his friend Magnus’s ancient house in Cornwall, Kilmarth, while he decides what to do next. In the meantime, Magnus, who is a scientist, persuades Dick to act as a test subject for a drug he is developing which, he claims, allows the user to experience the distant past. Dick takes the drug and does indeed find himself transported back to the fourteenth century where he is able to witness, but not interact with, people who lived in the area at the time. This ‘time travel’ only occurs in the mind of the subject, so while on a trip, Dick is actually wandering around his physical environment, unaware of what’s happening in the present. This is clearly dangerous, but he quickly becomes obsessed with the drama unfolding in the lives of the people he follows in the past and feels compelled to keep on taking the drug. His addiction soon starts to cause problems when his american wife, Vita, and his two stepsons arrive back from the States earlier than expected. The situation esclates, as you might expect; there is a shocking death, violence, and everything eventually culminates in a suitably ambiguous ending.

The House on the Strand has all the elements that I’ve enjoyed in the other stories by Du Maurier. There is the unreliable narrator. There are elements of the gothic and science fiction. There are strong queer undertones: Magnus is gay and Dick’s relationship with him is far closer than with his bewildered wife. There is a narrative that can be read in at least two completely different ways. Is Dick really time-travelling, or is it all a drug-induced hallucination, a ruse practised on the suggestible mind of a man in denial about his life? There is the unresolved ending, which leaves Dick’s fate up to the reader.

The story can be read as an allegory about addiction and/or repressed sexuality, but I finished The House on the Strand with a feeling that it’s also about being a writer of fiction. Dick’s predicament represents the sense of conflict that being a writer can create between reality and the world of the imagination, where the writer would perhaps prefer to dwell, without finding themselves constantly being pulled back to the demands of ordinary, daily life.

An enjoyable start to my reading year. I think The Scapegoat is next on my du Maurier list. It sounds right up my street.

Like this? Try Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

Lockdown Crime Fiction Round-up

I’ve read more crime fiction than I usually do over the last fourteen months, so here’s a lockdown round-up bringing it all together in one post.

Ruth Ware, The Turn of the Key (2019)

A heart-poundingly addictive page-turner about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy family who just happen to live in a sinister ‘smart’ house located in the middle of nowhere. All is not as it seems, including our protagonist! The Turn of the Key is a wild ride and quite terrifying in places. Ware updates classic gothic tropes in a book that plays expertly on our fears about a world that seems to be increasingly controlled by invisible technology. The smart house is a masterpeice of the uncanny. She also has some things to say about gender and class. I loved it!

Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair (1948)

I’ll call this one my ‘problematic fave’ because I had issues with its politics, which I wrote about at length here. But this story about two women accused of kidnapping a young girl is just so well written, compelling and perfectly constructed that it gave me one of the most enjoyable afternoons of reading that I’ve had in a long time. I’m now looking forward to exploring the rest of Tey’s work.

Tana French, The Wych Elm (2019)

Readers seem to be divided by The Wych Elm. I liked it but I can see why. It’s a very slow burn and quite different to French’s Dublin murder squad novels, being told from the perspective of a suspect, rather than a detective. Toby is a highly unreliable narrator, a once privileged and ‘lucky’ person, whose life begins to unravel when he is severely injured in a burgulary. He and his girlfriend go to stay with his terminally ill uncle while Toby recovers, but things only get worse when the skeleton of a school friend, who disappeared years ago, is found stuffed into a hole in the elm trree in the back garden. Toby finds himself under suspicion and begins to wonder if he might actually be guilty, while also suspecting his two cousins of hiding something. The Wych Elm isn’t really about a murder, it’s about memory and privilege, especially the privilege that creates completely different experiences of the world and allows some people not to ‘see’ what’s really going on.

Barbara Vine, A Dark Adapted Eye (1986)

I’ve seen this book on ‘best of’ crime fiction lists for years and thought I’d give it a go. My goodness, this is another page-turner. A Dark Adapted Eye is also a novel about seeing and not seeing. It’s an incrediblly compelling story about a murder which works backwards from the execution of the murderer, Vera Hillyard, as years later her neice, Faith, tries to piece together what really happened. It’s more of a ‘whydunnit’ than it whodunnut. The twist seems obvious about halfway through the book, but Vine (Ruth Rendell) is better than that and all your assumptions will be undermined by the end. An addictively unsettling read and hugely influential on the development of the twisted psychological thriller that’s so popular today.

Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lamb (1992)

Barbara Neely’s novel, Blanche on the Lamb (1992) turns the cosy mystery genre on its head by making the hired help into the detective. It’s a brilliant twist on a genre in which servants often see ‘too much’ and may well end up dead as a result. The book is overtly political and delves into social justice issues. Blanche is a brave, angry heroine who uses the skills she’s gained as a maid to solve the mystery. A series I will be reading more of and one that deserves to be better known.

Alafair Burke, All Day and a Night (2014) and Long Gone (2011)

I read two thrillers by Alafair Burke, the fifth Elle Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night (2014) and one of her standalones, Long Gone (2011). Burke is very reliable and both books are good reads with her usual feminist themes. All Day and a Night is an intelligent thriller in which a young lawyer starts looking into the murder of her half-sister many years before. In Long Gone the daughter of a famous film director finds herself a suspect in a murder she didn’t commit. Long Gone has an absolutely preposterous plot, but was so pacy and enjoyable to read, I happily overlooked it (CN: rape theme, but not graphic).

Louise Penny, Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace (2007)

I read the first two books in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace. Set in Quebec, these are basically cosy mysteries (picturesque village setting, quirky characters, lots of descriptions of food and nice things), but there’s definitely an unsettling undertone that makes them interesting. Despite all the cosiness, I think Penny has quite a bleak view of human nature. Gamache is a bit of a ‘Gary Stu’ (he’s perfect, everyone loves him, except for people who are obviously evil) but if you don’t mind that too much, it’s a satisfyingly detailed world to sink into. Perfect reading for a rainy afternoon.

Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Taylors (1934)

My first Lord Peter Whimsy novel. I really enjoyed this book, which is often considered one of her best. After a car accident strands Lord Peter in the isolated East Anglian village of Fenchurch St Paul, he finds himself recruited by the local bell ringers club for an all-night New Year ringing session, only then to be invited back a few months later when a mutilated corpse is discovered in the grave of a local woman. As he delves into the matter, Lord Peter finds that the murder may be connected to the theft of an emerald necklace many years before. The Nine Taylors has a complex, multilayered plot, an atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters, including the bells that increasingly take on a life of their own. Some aspects of this book haven’t aged that well, but if you’re going to read Sayers I think you just have to go with it really.

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (1939) and Death on the Nile (1929)

I’ve been slowly working my way through Agatha Christie’s works. Over the last year I read And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile. I really liked And Then There Were None. I can see why it’s considered a classic. It’s so well constructed, it’s a pleasure to read and the idea of making everyone guilty is very clever. Death on the Nile is a tense read, but not as good as I expected. The characters are all so unpleasant and the reveal is silly.

Elly Griffiths, Ruth Galloway series

I read three more in Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, and The Ghost Fields. This series provided my bedtime reading for the first part of last year, but I found myself losing interest as the books got more and more bogged down in silly relationships between not very interesting side-characters. Also, I’ve completely lost patience with Ruth and her mooning after Nelson. For goodness sake, get a grip woman! I think I’m done with this series.

Historical crime fiction

I read two historical crime novels, Heartstone by CJ Sansom (2010), fifth in the Matthew Shardlake series, and The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor, which is the first in the James Marwood and Car Lovett series. I usually enjoy Sansom’s Shardlake books, mainly because he’s created a whole world to sink into and the story always inolves a well-researched aspect of the period, in this case the Court of Wards and the war with France that led to the sinking of the Mary Rose. This is one of the less gruesome installments, but content note for a rape scene towards the end. I thought The Ashes of London was very well done and I liked the characters, but this one has a nasty rape scene at the beginning and ongoing references to rape and sexual threat which run throughout the book. This is not my kind of thing and it did put me off, so I might continue with the series, but I’m not sure.

Disapointments

Two books really disappointed me. There was The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz in which a bit of charming meta fiction could not make up for a boring detective and a lot of misogyny. Finally, my last read of 2020, was also one I found most disappointing and it’s Elly Griffiths again with The Postscript Murders. I enjoyed The Stranger Diaries so I was looking foward to this sequel. There were some clever ideas in there, but I thought the narrative was a mess; it leapt all over the place and there were far too many point of view characters. I thought the ending was a bit of a cheat too.

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

Kay Ryan on poetry

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

Kay Ryan, On the Preposterous Beauty of Gerald Manley Hopkins

My Top Ten Books of the Year 2019

The ten best books I read in 2019.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

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

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

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home (2017)

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

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

Jane Hirshfield, After (2006)

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

Recommended if you’re grappling with life.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener (2000)

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

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

Amy Bloom, White Houses (2018)

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

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

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

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

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

Books that almost made the list …

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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?

Jenny Factor, Unraveling at the Name (2002)

These dense, formal poems demand a lot of attention. They need to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Presented in three parts, Unraveling at the Name takes the reader on a deeply personal and uncompromisingly sexual journey through the experiences of young womanhood, marriage, awakening same-sex desire, divorce and single-motherhood. The experiences described by the speaker are common enough, but by elevating them through highly formal poetic structures Jenny Factor captures deep emotional truths about how life feels. Marilyn Hacker, blurbing the book, praisingly calls her use of the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown an “extravagant gesture”. and I think that’s the precisely the point.

Unraveling at the Name is Factor’s only collection and I really hope she publishes another one day.

Poetry Foundation, Jenny Factor

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!

2019 Reading Goals

I mostly enjoyed my reading last year, but I would like to be more focused in 2019. In particular, I’d like to read:

More poetry books

I read plenty of poems online, but I didn’t commit to any collections by specific poets and there are so many that I want to explore in more depth.

More short stories 

I love short stories and have no idea why I neglected this form in 2018

More literary fiction/realism 

I haven’t been friends with ‘lit fic’ for a while, but I would like to get back into it because I’m sure I’m missing out on some good stuff.

I’ve also decided to get a bit more organised about actually reading the books I already own. I’ve made a TBR list which currently stands at 82 books! I’ll be happy if I can get through half of that this year.

I am going to introduce a 50 page limit at which to ditch a book if it isn’t doing anything for me (or just after a couple of eye-rolls as Widdershins suggests)

I intend to continue reading as much SFF and crime fiction as ever!

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.

“The Good News is You”

This speech by Sarah Schulman is a must-read for queer writers

As we make our work, we also have to model behaviors and ways of having personal and social relationships that can facilitate a whole new and completely different way of living, a kind of – to be old-fashioned – liberation way of living.  And you know that for me, as I expressed in my most recent book, Conflict Is Not Abuse, part of liberation means a community ethic to stop shunning, pick up the phone and talk about your differences, get together in person with the people you’re in conflict with instead of enlisting your clique or community or religion or corporate shield or race or nation to obliterate them. Stop being mean to a person or a group because someone you identity with told you to hurt them. Instead, ask the contested person what they think it going on. Why do they think this is happening? And whether that is your friend’s ex-friend, or people excluded by the Muslim ban, hear what the excluded person is experiencing. And we have to stop calling the police as a way to cover up our own unjust anxieties. Because what we have got in America right now is a system that is just cruel, in which the people in power are criminals, and people’s basic needs are ignored, and lives are ruined at whims of political game playing. So, any queer individual making it in that system is not a signifier of actual change. It’s great for that person, which has its own value, but it’s not enough.

Sarah Schulman, Publishing Triangle Award Speech

Blistering critique followed by uplifting hope.

Read the whole thing!

There’s always room for another story

And there’s lots of room for just—I hate to say hack writing—I guess ordinary storytelling is really what I mean. There’s always room for another story. There’s always room for another tune, right? Nobody can write too many tunes. So if you have stories to tell and can tell them competently, then somebody will want to hear it if you tell it well at all. To believe that there is somebody who wants to hear that story is the kind of confidence a writer has to have when they’re in the period of learning their craft and not selling stuff and not really knowing what they’re doing.

Ursula K le Guin, Interview Magazine

Read the the whole thing. It’s great.

Life round-up: April – May 2014

Books

April was all about mysteries. I started by re-reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894). The stories are still enjoyable, but they no longer have the hold they had in my teens, when just one would set me off on a Sherlock Holmes reading frenzy. After that, I moved onto The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie. This is the first story featuring Hercule Poirot (because I like to do things in order).  Then I read the much more contemporary Blue Monday (2011) by Nicci French, which is the first in the Frieda Klein series and was recommended to me by @Gherkinette on twitter. It’s smart, easy to read, not overly violent and I really like the psychotherapist detective. To give myself a break from the mysteries, I also read American Primitive (1983) by Mary Oliver and it was lovely.

In May I finished the wicked, subversive Lolly Willowes (1926), by Sylvia Townsend-Warner, and Hilary Mantel’s life-affirming Fludd (1989). Although these are very different books, they both offer stories about transformation and the importance of owning your life. In non-fiction, I read Andrew Martin’s Ghoul Britannia: Notes from a Haunted Isle (2009) because I’m interested in our cultural fascination with ghosts. It’s an amusing take on the development of the ghost story, but it felt a bit underdeveloped and the text was full of editing mistakes.

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Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars (1956)

A billion years after the fall of the galactic empire, the city of Diaspar alone survives on the desert of a world that Earth has become.  Its people are all but immortal, their every need catered for by the city’s mysterious central computer. Living untroubled, decadent lives of leisure for hundreds of years, they then rest for hundreds more in the computer banks, until they are called forth again from the Halls of Creation. These people fear only one thing and that is the possibility of leaving the city.

Alvin is one of only a handful of “Uniques” to emerge from the Halls of Creation, a new being with no past life in Diaspar. He differs from his peers in one other crucial way; he’s desperate to find a way out of the city.  Alvin’s friends are appalled, but he gains some assistance from the city’s Jester, Khedron, a person created by the computer to keep the city from becoming too stagnant.

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The 10 short stories that got me into reading science fiction

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek.  I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old.  A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those nineties SF shows.

Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre.  When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.

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Gardner Dozois (ed.), Best New SF7 (1992)

If the stories in 2008’s Mammoth Book of SF 21 were particularly concerned with death, annihilation and endings, the overarching theme in this collection from 1992 seems to be a questioning of the relationship between concepts of nature and normality.  Some of the best stories collected here look into the ways in which nature, as a concept, is mediated to us through narratives and then go on to interrogate the role played by science in constructing these narratives.

Take Ian R. Macleod’s ‘Grownups’, which is one of the most unsettling science fiction stories I’ve ever read. Its world looks a lot like ours, but it’s different in one crucial way; in order to become a “grown up”, all adolescents must undergo a terrifying and painful maturation process.  Once they have grown up, they can get married and have children. Each marriage includes not just a man and a woman, but a third person, known as an “uncle”, and it is the uncle who bears the children.  Two of the young people decide that they don’t want to grow-up and attempt to avoid the process altogether.  Macleod manipulates our assumptions masterfully in this story and the ending packs one heck of a punch.  It’s an allegory about the terrors of growing up, but I think it’s also about childbirth, a painful and dangerous experience that’s considered natural in our society, but which might look horrific and terrifying to an alien with a different reproductive process.  And how often do adults respond to their daughters’ fears about childbirth by telling them they’ll understand when they grow up? I’ll never forget it.

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End of Winter Culture round-up

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2012 Reading Round-up

2012 was more of a thinking and talking year than a reading year. I read less than I usually do and didn’t get around to writing about many of the books that I did read, though I’m still intending to write about some of them this year.  My general preference leaned towards large works of fiction, which I think indicates a desire to lose myself in stories.

Book of the Year: Alison Bechdel, Are You my Mother? (2012)

Every now and then you come across a book that changes you. For me, there is a “before Are you My Mother?” and an “after Are you My Mother?” and that’s why it’s my book of the year. This book fundamentally changed the way I think about myself and my relationship with my own mother.  There was also something empowering about reading a book that takes seriously the subject of relationships between lesbians and their mothers, a subject that mainstream heteronormative society really could not care less about.

Literary fiction

Favourite work of literary fiction: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

Wolf Hall is a huge achievement in making a well-known story fresh again. I knew exactly what was going to happen and yet found myself utterly gripped from beginning to end.  I really liked Mantel’s direct style and this would be on my list of books that aspiring writers should read to see what can be done with prose. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Shirley Jackson’s chilling collection The Lottery and Other Stories (1949) is another book on my “must read list” for aspiring writers, especially for aspiring writers of short fiction.  Jackson has an amazing ability to encapsulate a situation or a character in the opening paragraph and is a writer absolutely in control of her material.

Toni Morrison’s Love (2003) was another tremendous read. I’m still thinking about it months after finishing it.  Love packs a huge amount into its 202 pages: civil rights, racism, patriarchy, relationships between black men and women, the nature of good and evil and more. I’m not someone who hangs onto books as a rule, but my copies of Toni’s Morrison’s works are going nowhere.

Alice Munro’s A View from Castle Rock (2006) is a sort of fictionalised memoir which I didn’t like as much as her other short stories. I thought the historical parts imagining her family’s move from Scotland to Canada were the best, but the ending dragged a bit and wasn’t as satisfying.

The only nineteenth-century novel I read this year was George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874). Reading it for the second time I was struck by just how funny it is, something I didn’t really notice the first time around. I still think this is one of the best novels ever written, just a beautiful book with a quietly devastating ending.

As for the rest, I enjoyed Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and even managed to write a post about it.  Michele Robert’s Daughters of the House (1993) is the sort of literary prize winning book that tends to end up filling the shelves of charity shops, but I found it pretty compelling, gorgeously written, and it just about managed to avoid pretentiousness. Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (2004) was a very entertaining historical novel about the eighteenth-century sculptor, Anne Damer, not Donoghue’s best work, but I’d recommend it as an excellent lesbian holiday read.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Favourite Book: Gardener Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth book of Best new SF 21 (2008)

This was my favourite simply because it turned me on to a whole range of science fiction writers that I haven’t read before. I’m now looking forward to pursuing the likes of Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, James Van Pelt, Alastair Reynolds, Vandana Singh and Pat Cadigan, among others.  It also contained Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact’ which makes my best ever short stories list and actually took up quite a large portion of one my therapy sessions.  Like most SF anthologies this suffers from a white, male bias but the quality is very high and there was at least an attempt at showing diversity.

Samuel R. Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon (1979) was an absolute joy to read. I loved the way Delaney wove critical theory and philosophy into his story in a way that was delightful rather than pretentious and didn’t get in the way of the narrative. Check it out for an example of how to write women as people as well.

The strangest fantasy novel I read last year was Clive Barker’s Imajica (1991). It was also probably the longest at over 1,000 pages. I found it too long in the end and didn’t think the male hero quite strong enough to sustain the epic narrative, but I really liked it too, especially the take on the suppression of female divinity by patriarchal religion.

I read and enjoyed two of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels: Inversions (1998) which had a sort of Ursula Le Guinesque feel and the more straight-up space opera of Consider Phlebas (1987) the first in Banks’s ‘Culture’ series.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling (2000) was a strong science fiction story with a lesbian woman of colour for a protagonist – it’s not her best, but it’s very good. Her young adult novel, Voices (2009) didn’t grab me and I won’t bother reading the third book in the trilogy, but it’s well written and would make a good present for any young teenager. It was refreshing to see a female character for whom “growing up” doesn’t equal romance, but rather coming into your own and exploring the world.

As for the rest, Caitlin R Keirnan’s excellent The Red Tree (2001) was quite terrifying and had a lesbian protagonist, one to check out if you like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  C.J Cheryh’s The Pride of Chanur (1981) was a bit of classic SF fun. I liked the way it imagined the arrival of humans in space from the point of view of the aliens.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992) wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I’m glad I made the effort to read it.

I was disappointed by George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings (1998). It kept me reading, but it was more misogynist, racist and padded out than the first book. I mean, really, it felt like there was a rape in almost every single chapter.  Also, Cersei Lannister is one of the worst written female characters I’ve come across in some time. I may give the next book a go because I sort of want to find out what happens, but it did turn me off this series.

However, the worst book I read in this category was Celia Friedman’s Black Sun Rising (1991).  I don’t know why I persevered with this since I’m way past the age of forcing myself through books I hate, but for some reason I wanted to give it a chance.

Poetry

I only read two poetry books this year, both by lesbian poets, and I can’t choose between them in terms of my favourite.  Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World (1988 – 1991) is challenging and difficult and I think one of her best collections, whereas the poems in Mary Oliver’s Dream Work (1986) are deceptively simple, but lead into disturbing territories. Both are haunting collections.

Non-Fiction          

Favourite book: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2010)

I read quite a lot of popular science books in an attempt to compensate for the appalling science, technology and maths education that I received at school.  My education may have denied me the opportunity to ever have a career in any of those areas, but I can still enjoy reading about them.  Bryson’s book puts the history of science into a narrative that is both hilarious and moving.  It’s another big book, but I tore through it in a few days.

The next best non-fiction was Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) by Kate Summerscale. This is a fascinating and often disturbing look at the position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century, when changes to divorce laws and developments in ideas about sex began to impact on British society

I read two books about Shakespeare, James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2011) and Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare (2012).  Shapiro’s book considers where the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him comes from. I really enjoy books that take this rather Foucauldian approach of taking a step back and instead of answering a question, unpack the politics that lead to the question being asked in the first place. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare was a delight and puts Shakepeare’s life and works firmly back in the historical contact that produced them.  Both these books renewed my interest in Shakespeare and sense of why the plays are so important.

My least favourite non-fiction was Lyndall Gordon’s Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feud’s(2010). This is not a criticism of the book itself, which is very good, but reading about the appalling behaviour of Emily Dickinson’s selfish, money-grabbing, narcissistic relatives really quite upset me.

Religion

I only read one book that could be called religious this year, Stephen Levine’s A Gradual Awakening (1979) which is a book about Buddhist insight meditation. I found some of it quite useful, especially the parts on mind, but it’s very ‘70s’ and got it bit weird towards the end.

Autumn Culture Round Up

I haven’t done one of these link round-ups in ages, but I’ve been inspired to get back to it by the quantity of good stuff I’ve read recently.

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The Best Books I read in 2011

Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)

Beginning the story in 1682, Morrison sets out to address the early colonial settlement of North America  through the stories of four women over just 165 pages.  Opinions vary as to her success, but this poetic book says something profound about the foundation of the USA in slavery, the suppression of women and a toxic mixture of capitalism and religion.  It’s been called a sort of prequel to Beloved and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who liked that book.

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