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Sarah Tolmie's latest book, Two Travelers, is a collection, just barely - it contains two separate works, a novelette, "The Dancer on the Stairs," and a novella, "The Burning Furrow." Both are stories of travellers, people caught between worlds, coming to terms with being out of place in the the place they find themselves.

"The Dancer on the Stairs" is about a woman, possibly from a world much like ours, who finds herself transported to a palace so vast and complex it is a world in itself. Confined at first by her lack of knowledge and status to the vast staircase that connects the various levels of the palace - where she finds many others, all exiles without the status or means to influence the doorkeeper stationed at each level to let them return - she slowly learns enough about the intricate and protocol-driven society beyond the stairs to gain entrance and place, though she is never truly one of them.

In "The Burning Furrow", a man called Eyo't finds himself moving between worlds - our own, modern world, and the world of his birth, where his people are oppressed and he is part of a resistance movement. He can bring other people with him, and so he has taken his family - wife, son and daughter - from his world to ours, where they own a restaurant and have access to education and medical care. Yet he continues to cross back and forth, bringing his family home with him at regular intervals for the rite that binds his people together. Events and new relationships formed in both worlds eventually force him, and the members of his family, to make choices about which world is theirs. At the same time, through her connection with Eyo't, the countess Ienne, a member of the ruling class on Eyo't's world, crosses the lines between class and culture.

Both stories are excellent, thoughtful pieces about making the best of changes one cannot control, adapting to new realities, learning to be at home despite being always the outsider.

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Andrea Hairston's novel Will Do Magic for Small Change is a celebration of the power of storytelling, the connection between past, present and future, and magic - the everyday magic that comes from such acts as taking a step into the unknown, opening your heart or trusting your sense of yourself - and how these things can heal, can make something that was broken, scattered, whole again.

Hairston gives us two narratives interwoven by magic, imagination and love. The first, set in 1980s Chicago, centres on a young black girl, Cinnamon Jones, child of poverty, myth and art. Her father is in a coma, shot while trying to help two lesbians. Her brother has died of a drug overdose that may have been suicide. Her mother, a city bus driver, is increasingly unable to cope. But in her blood is the magic and mystery of her grandparents, a hoodoo woman and a medicine man. What pulls Cinnamon forward is a love of theatre, the friends she meets at an audition - Klaus and Marie - and the gift from her brother of a mysterious book that writes itself, the story of an alien wanderer come to earth.

The second narrative is the story of this Wanderer. Starting in the late 1890s, the alien is caught up in the flight of a Dahomey ahosi, or warrior woman, after her defection from the Dahomeyan women's army. The warrior, Kahinde, names the alien after her dead twin brother Taiwo, for whom she left the king's army. Joined by Kahinde's sister-in-law Samso and her infant daughter, they travel to the new world of America seeking a place where they can write new stories of their lives.

Intersections of past and present, love and fear, the deep truth of storytelling, theatre, art - the tale of the wanderer becomes the tale of Cinnamon's life and as it finds completion, the path to Cinnamon's future is woven together and unfolds before her.

A magical book, with layers of meaning I'll be contemplating for some time to come.

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Karen Tidbeck, Jagannath

I was completely enthralled by this collection of short stories by Karin Tidbeck, translated from Swedish by the author herself. These are, for the most part, stories that inhabit the space between fantasy, science fiction and horror often refered to as weird fiction. Short-listed for the Tiptree award, many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of women, and deal, in one way or another, with variations on the themes of inheritance, bloodlines, reproduction. Tidbeck's brilliantly written tales are unsettling, disturbing, and rarely give the reader a clearly defined and closed off ending. Instead, she invites the reader to carefully consider the situation she presents, and come to their own conclusions about what happened, or will happen next.


Octavia Butler, Unexpected Stories

Octavia Butler died eight years ago. That voice of true genius was stilled. But sometimes the universe gives us an unexpected note of grace - or in this case, two notes, two early, previously unpublished stories by Butler, found among her papers by her agent and literary executor.

In these stories - A Necessary Being and Childfinder - Butler speaks to us again, about power and difference and finding solutions - but not always satisfactory ones - to the ways such thing divide and harm us. It was both sad and marvelous to read new words from Octavia Butler.


Eleanor Arrnason, Big Mama Stories

Arnason's Big Mamas are the stuff of folk tales - marvellous creatures who span space and time by their whim and will, who have the kind of adventures that gods and folk-heroes have, meeting all kinds of incredible situations with confidence and wit - Big Mamas who enjoy the occasional company of Big Poppas, but don't need them. This wonderful collection of Big Mama stories, published by Aqueduct Press, is sheer delight to read. As Karin L. Kross notes in her review of this collection on Tor.com,
Arnason’s Big Mama mythos is a highly enjoyable and strongly feminist synthesis of science, history, and sheer imagination. Like the best fairy tales and folk tales, her stories sometimes go to dark and unsettling places, but they’re really about how to overcome the darkness—how to take a long view of the universe, where individual lives are at once very small but also very important and precious.



Eugie Foster, Mortal Clay, Stone Heart and Other Stories in Shades of Black and White

It's not often that you find a collection or anthology where every single story is a gem, but that's exactly what this was. Foster writes stories that are both technically sound and emotionally powerful. Her genre choices range from straight-up fantasy to something akin to magic realism, so I urge anyone who enjoys short fiction of that kind to check out her work.

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The Space Between, Diana Gabaldon

Interesting novella, set in France and featuring Joan MacKimmie, Jamie Fraser's step-daughter (daughter of his second wife, Laoghaire MacKenzie), and Michael Murray, his nephew. Michael is taking Joan to join a French nunnery as a postulant, and in the process they encounter the Compte Saint Germain - who has his own plans for the young woman he believes to be the daughter of Claire Fraser. What intrigued me the most about the novella was its portrayal of Le Compte (a character whose historical and literary appearances I have some interest in) as not just a magician and alchemist (or a con man of some notoriety) but a time traveller much like Claire and the others so far encountered in the Outlander saga.'



After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress

It's very easy to see why this won the Nebula for Best Novella. The story is intense and compelling, the prose lean and yet visceral, and the characters - after, before and during the fall - are so very human in their fears and choices.

The story unfolds in three time - 2035 (after the fall), 2013 (before the fall) and 2014 (during the fall), but characters from after and before connect in various ways, and all three merge at the climax of the fall - a convergence of natural disasters on a massive scale that sparks nuclear devastation and the end of almost all life on earth. But in that climax, the message that one woman from before the fall manages to pass on to the handful of humans surviving after the fall is one that may save the future.


In the House of the Seven Librarians, Ellen Klages

A simple fantasy about a closed and forgotten library, seven librarians who stay there after it closes, keeping order and eating tea and biscuits (the new library that has replaced their beloved home is too modern and soulless for these librarians) and the baby left in the book return chute. I suppose it's technically a children's book, but I loved it. Beautifully illustrated and published by Aqueduct Press.

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Brit Mandelo's momgraph, We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, is yet another of the wonderful volumes of feminist sf criticism and history published by one of my favourite small publishing houses, Aqueduct Press.

In this study, Mandelo examines what she sees as one of Russ' primary foci in both fiction and non-fiction - the telling of the truths that lie beneath, and are obscured by, the mystifications of sexism (and heterosexism), and by doing so, bringing those truths into everyday life.

It's hardly a secret to anyone who's followed this blog that Russ is one of my favourite wrtiers, both for her groundbreaking fiction and for her fierce and uncompromising feminist criticism (How To Suppress Women's Writing should be on the reading list of everyone who chooses to engage with the printed word/world). Mandelo's exploration of Russ's development as a radical truth teller deepened my appreciation and understandingof her work - and what more can one ask for in a work of criticism?

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It seems that there has been a recent rebirth of the novella. I've been finding all sorts of books that are collections of three or four novella-length pieces - most of them in the urban fantasy and paranormal romance categories. Also, some publishing houses, notably Subterranean Press and Aquaduct Press, have been publishing a number of works in the novella to short novel range. And one finds novella-length pieces on various author and magazine websites all over the net. In the list below of novellas I've devoured this past year, if a novella was not acquired as a standalone publication (paper or edoc), I've tried to indicate the name of the book, or website I found it in/on.

As for the novellas themselves, there's quite a range. Many of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance novellas are much of a muchness. I was delighted to find a novella by Michelle Sagara set in her Cast universe, and found the novellas by Yasmine Galenorn and C. E. Murphy interesting enough that I intend to explore their novels.

On the other hand, I was very excited to read more tales set in Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam - Abigail Irene Garrett is a character I am very fond of. The same is true of the late and much lamented Kage Baker's steampunk sequence of novellas associated with her Company books. And I do like Diana Gabaldon's Lord John sequence of novels and novellas. And my devouring of Margaret Frazer's published oeuvre would not have been complete without the domina Frevisse novella.

Marjorie M. Liu, The Tangleroot Palace (Never After)
Marjorie M. Liu, Armor of Roses (Inked)
Marjorie M. Liu, Hunter Kiss (Wild Thing)

Yasmine Galenorn, The Shadow of Mist (Never After)
Yasmine Galenorn, Etched in Silver (Inked)

Mercedes Lackey, A Tangled Web (Harvest Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Moontide (Winter Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Counting Crows (Charmed Destinies)

Rachel Lee, Drusilla's Dream (Charmed Destinies)
Catherine Asaro, Moonglow (Charmed Destinies)
Michelle Sagara West, Cast in Moonlight (Harvest Moon) 
Cameron Haley, Retribution (Harvest Moon)
Karen Chance, Skin Deep (Inked)
Eileen Wilkes, Human Nature (Inked)
Maggie Shayne, Animal Magnetism (Wild Thing)
Meljean Brook, Paradise (Wild Thing)
Tanith Lee, Heart of the Moon (Winter Moon)
C. E. Murphy, Banshee Cries (Winter Moon)
Sharon Shinn, The Wrong Bridegroom (Never After)

Elizabeth Bear, In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Asimov's)
Elizabeth Bear, Seven For A Secret
Elizabeth Bear, The White City
Elizabeth Bear, Ad Eternum

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Succubus (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Haunted Soldier (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, The Custom of the Army (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Plague of Zombies (via author's website)

Margaret Frazer, Winter Heart (Smashwords)

Kage Baker, Rude Mechanicals
Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea
Kage Baker, Speed, Speed the Cable

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Robert Boyczuk, Horror Story and other Stories

This was a delightful surprise. To begin with, I know the author – I studied C and systems design under his direction in my second foray into the academic world about 25 years ago, and I remember at the time he did mention working on some short stories. So when I wandered across his name in a list of recent speculative fiction publications, I just had to a) see if was the Bob Boyczuk I remembered, and b) read the book. Well, it was and I did.

The stories in this collection inhabit the worlds between fantasy, science fiction and horror. They are well-written, original, sometimes very provocative, often very powerful, and always interesting. And they are available under Creative Commons licence (https://cs.senecac.on.ca/~robert.boyczuk/writing/collected-works.htm) if you can’t find a dead tree version. Read. Spread the word.


Peter S. Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
Peter S. Beagle, The Line Between

Beagle is truly one of the masters of the short form in speculative fiction. I savour every new collection of his stories that I read. Beagle tells such quintessentially human stories, with such range and depth, that his work regularly takes my breath away. If you are looking for a more considered examination, you could always look at the articles in this issue of Green Man Review devoted to Beagle and his work (http://www.greenmanreview.com/oneoffs/peterbeagle.html) or you could just go and read anything he’s written.


Lavie Tidhar, HebrewPunk

Fantasy and alternate history that makes use of Jewish tradition, myth and archetypes is rather rare. I may be that I have been missing out on many such examples, but I am hard-pressed to think of many who have made significant use of Jewish culture and tradition in their works. The names that come first to my mind are Peter Beagle, Lisa Goldstein, Ellen Galford, Michael Chabon, Avram Davidson, and of course (though he is claimed by the literary fiction people as one of their own) Isaac Bashevis Singer. – and now, Lavie Tidhar. In this collection of four linked fantasy stories, Tidhar gives us a wealth of characters out of Jewish tradition. I am looking forward to reading more of his work.


Gwyneth Jones, The Buonarotti Quartet

Four stories set in the same universe as Jones’ Aleutian Trilogy, which use the existence of an instantaneous transit technology as the foundation for storytelling. Jones discusses these stories – which I found as thought provoking as I have come to expect Jones’ work to be – in a post on the Aqueduct Press blog: http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2009/05/gwyneth-joness-buonarotti-quartet.html

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Steve Perry, The Musashi Flex

After re-reading all of the Matador series books published back in the 1980s and 90s, I discovered that Perry had returned to the Matador universe and had written a prequel that harkened back to the origins of the fighting style used by the Matadors in their revolution. I am pleased to report that the first of the prequels was just as good as the original series. I understand from Wiki that two more prequels are in progress, and I’m waiting for them eagerly.


Linda Evans, Far Side of Darkness

This is a well written and rather enjoyable book. There’s a conspiracy involving scientists and the military and a few other assorted people who want the world to be run their way. There’s a co-opted top secret government project involving time travel. And there’s a group of ordinary people caught up in all of this, accidentally sent through time, who eventually manage to come together and start to figure out what is going on and realise they may be the only ones who can stop it.

But I cannot recommend it, because the book ends on a cliffhanger, with no resolution at all. It was clearly intended as the first half of a tightly-connected duology, and given that it was originally published in 1996, it seems unlikely that the second half will ever be available. So, as things stand, don’t buy it – you will find yourself with a severe case of reading interruptus. That said, if the sequel is ever published – grab both volumes and go for it.


Eleanor Arnason, Tomb of the Fathers
Eleanor Arnason, Mammoths of the Great Plains

Eleanor Arnason is brilliant. She thinks deeply and honestly about things like gender, class, race, colonialism and imperialism, and how they affect her characters and the stories she wants to tell. And then she folds these important considerations into fascinating tales with interesting and multi-dimensional characters. She writes with wit and grace. Her work is thought-provoking and satisfying. I was going to say something about the two Arnason books I read last year, but then I discovered a review by Kelly Jennings at Strange Horizons that says much of what I would have said abut them, so I will direct you there instead:
http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2010/08/mammoths_of_the.shtml


Lyda Morehouse, Resurrection Code

For those who know Morehouse’s AngeLINK series – this is a must-read. Mouse and Morningstar. Prequel and sequel. Betrayal and redemption. Cyberpunk and angels. Gender fluidity. Prophecy and portent. Everything that Morehouse does so well. For those who do not know the world of AngeLINK – this is probably not the place to begin, but I urge you to try your hardest to find Morehouse’s four previous AngeLINK novels (sadly out of print) and read them. I’ve never been able to understand why these books, which are full of amazing characters, provocative ideas about mind and soul and sex and technology, and complex and satisfying storytelling – all that science fiction at its best is about – have failed to find a wider market. Perhaps it is the moral (and gender) ambiguity of some of the characters – but Morehouse knows that all beings are complex, and contain multitudes and contradictions. If you haven’t figured out by now, I love Morehouse’s work in this series. She has written other books that are a joy to read – under the name Tate Hallaway – but this series truly is her masterwork. And it really should be in print again.

For those who are interested, here is a link to a review of Resurrection Code by Russ Allbery (where you can also find links to his reviews of the other AngeLINK books). http://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/reviews/books/1-935234-09-9.html



Elizabeth Moon, Hunting Party

While I do enjoy some milsf, I tend not to read it as often as I do fantasy, whether high or otherwise. So even though I love Moon’s high fantasy, I had never really made reading her milsf a high priority. However, after finishing the new volumes in the Paladin’s Legacy fantasy series, I found that I wanted more Moon – so I decided to try this, the first volume of volume in her Familias Regnant milsf series. And enjoyed it. The things that I enjoy so much in Moon’s fantasy are there in her sf too – strong female characters, well-paced stories with political intrigue. I intend to read more.


Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World

A darkly satirical post-apocalyptic action-adventure comedy which poses serious questions concerning the nature of reality and identity, Harkaway’s first novel is perhaps a bit excessive, but has moments of sheer genius and more than enough energy to pull the reader through the rough spots. To say nothing of the question that is likely in the back of every reader’s mind – what the fuck will he do next? I really can’t easily describe it – just check it out for yourself.

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My Death, Lisa Tuttle.

Lately I seem to have been reading, by happenstance I presume, books that in one way or another make me think about what I can only describe as the secret history of women, and the ways in which women as whole, real individuals are erased in our culture and its products. Sometimes it’s been an obvious theme, the writer’s intent being to examine either the reality of women’s lives, or some aspect of how women are disappeared and what they may have been doing that no one wanted to, or was able to, record. Sometimes – as in some of the classic SFF (written by men) that I’ve been re-reading of late - it has been about the total absence of women, or the absence of independence and agency in the women who are represented. Sometimes, it’s just been about a sense that there are untold women’s stories behind a narrative that’s focused more on the stories of men – something that would be less problematic if only there were as many narratives where men’s stories were left in the background in order to tell the stories of women.

Lisa Tuttle’s My Death is very much a story about ways in which women’s stories are erased – and reclaimed. It is also at some levels a vast metaphor for the act of creation when artist and subject merge in order to create a new vision.

In this novella, an unnamed narrator, an author still working through her grief at the death of her husband, is led by a series of apparent coincidences to embark upon writing a biography of an earlier novelist (supposedly a contemporary of Virginia Woolf et.al.) who influenced her when she was younger and which whom she has always felt a strange sense of connection. This novelist – Helen Ralston – had served as model and muse for her older lover and former teacher Willy Logan, whose paintings and novels became well-known, while Ralston’s slipped into obscurity. Ralston, thus, is simultaneously the women whose work is overshadowed by the man she is associated with, and the woman whose individuality is erased by her assigned function as inspiration.

The narrator’s quest to discover what happened to the real woman behind the muse leads her to the discovery of a painting by Ralston, titled “My Death,” which is a visual paradox, simultaneously picturing an island that she and her lover visit; and a woman’s body with the focus on her exposed vulva – yet another form of disappearing of the real woman, this time through the classic tropes of woman as the earth/the land/the soil and woman as sex.

There is much more to this novel, including a profound shift in perspective near the end that cannot be logically reconciled yet illuminates the core truths that Tuttle has to offer about the distinction between Woman as muse and women who themselves create art, between women who are observed, submerged, erased, and women who are seen, known, remembered for who they are as individuals and what they do for themselves.

It is only after this shift takes place that the speculative elements of this work emerge, but once they do, it becomes apparent that this novella – one of the Conversation Pieces series published by Aqueduct Press – lies securely within the scope of literary speculative fiction.

This not a book that can be understood wholly from a rational perspective, for like the painting that give the book its name, the story itself is more than one thing at once, and at the same time symbolic of other things entirely. But it works, and powerfully so, as a an exploration of women and their relations, historically and potentially, to art.
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Distances, Vananda Singh

There’s an image that’s not all that uncommon in science fiction, that of the being who physically and mentally connects with, inhabits or is inhabited by, perceives and encompasses, some aspect of space-time that other beings cannot access or comprehend. Often this ability gives these special being abilities to make otherwise impossible connections, bridge gaps between representation and understanding, navigate sapcewarps, see theoretical relationships, patterns, causalities,totalities, because of this multi-faceted kind of synesthesia.

Anasuya, the protagonist of Distances, has such a gift. When she is submerged certain fluids, she can perceive and explore complex mathematical formulae when expressed in chemical solutions, aided by tiny symbiont organisms in her body, transforming the chemical notations into transcendent vistas that she can somehow travel inside of – and then record her perceptions in holographic form via nanites for others to analyse.

This gift is one of many abilities shared by her people, who live a semi-aquatic existence on the shores and in the coastal waters of one region of her world. Unlike most of her people, she has left the sea and travelled to a stone city in the desert where people not her own have built, among others, a temple to mathematics. It is here that the technology that permits her unique way of seeing mathematically-described spaces and relationships to be recorded and used by others was developed.

It is also to this stone city that a team of mathematicians from the planet Tirana have travelled in search of help in solving an immeasurably complex mathematical problem that describes a previously unknown geometric space. Anasuya is asked to help them, but in the process, she discovers a secret that will change life on both their planets.

Distances, physical, emotional, and conceptual, how they are perceived, how they wound, and how they can sometimes be bridged, play a large part in the themes and imagery of the book. Both Anasuya and the Tirani delegation have travelled far to meet in this city that is alien to them both. Woven into the story are various accounts of myths and events that are centred on creating and covering distances. And Anasuya’s work leads directly to a change in the understanding of distances itself, and in the distances she has kept between herself, her creativity, her past and the people around her.

It’s a profoundly poetic work, and one that continues to resonate at levels that I don’t know how to express in words.

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The final two volumes of L. Timmel Duchamp’s absolutely enthralling and thought-provoking Marq’ssan Cycle, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto are on my list of the best books I read in 2008.

In this series of novels, Duchamp has written not only an engrossing science fictional saga story about the effects of a global intervention by aliens proves the catalyst for meaningful change, and the women who in various ways give their lives to that change, but also a truly masterful analysis of how oppressive and fascist states and organisations (and personalities, there’s more than a whiff of Reich and Marcuse in some of Duchamp’s characterisations of both states and characters in these books) function and respond to resistance, and of the various ways of resistance to oppression, whether it be at the level of the personal, the social, or the state. It’s also a deeply feminist analysis of power relations and how they can operate constructively or destructively, depending on the means, methods and goals.

Reading the series, following the lives and thoughts of the various viewpoint characters in your head, is a curiously multi-layered experience – each book is at the same time a complex political/psychological thriller and a workshop in identifying, resisting, subverting and ultimately, replacing the fascist architecture built up in one’s own mind from years of living in a society where authority is defined as coming from without and from above, difference is used as a tool of control, not a resource to be shared.

This series really is some of the most important feminist and political writing out there at this time.

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The Wiscon Chronicles, Volume Two, L Timmel Duchamp & Eileen Gunn (eds.)

The subtitle of this volume is “Provocative essays on feminism, race, revolution and the future,” which is about what one expects from the folks who frequent WisCon – or so I’m told, since alas it is not an experience I ever expect to enjoy at first hand.

This, the second volume in a planned series which documents the major themes and events of the WisCon phenomenon, attempts to archive the best, or at least the most interesting of WisCon 2007.

The contents include essays prompted by panels and events, summaries of panel discussions, personal mediations and remembrances of attendees, speculations on the future of WisCon, and much more.

As with the first volume, I can only express my thanks to L. Timmel Duchamp of Aqueduct Press for publishing this book, which makes it possible for me to know, even if only a little, and at such remove, what all the cool feminist fen are talking about.

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