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Heather Rose Jones's delightful Daughter of Mystery, is a historical fantasy of the Ruritanian variety, taking place in a not-too-alternate Europe where the napoleonic wars (or something very like them) have taken place but where there is an extra country, Alpenna, nestled somewhere between France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria and having political and military involvements with all of them.

The fantasy element in the novel comes from the existence of the mysteries - real formal magic dependent on ritual invocation of the power of the saints. In that, it is somewhat reminiscent of the religious ritual magic practised by the Deryni in Katherine Kurtz' novels.

The novel combines a number of elements - coming-of-age, romance, political mystery. The protagonists, Margerit Sovitre and Barbara are both young women not quite of age, brought together by the will of the eccentric Baron Saveze, Margerit's godfather and Barbara's employer and bondholder.

Margerit, the daughter of a wealthy but untitled family, is just starting her dancing season, during which her family hopes she will attract the best possible match - but what Margerit most desires is to be able to study the philosophy and ritual of the mysteries. Barbara is Baron Saveze's armin - a servant of special rank, his bodyguard and a skilled duellist, the daughter of a man of noble rank who died impoverished in debtor's prison, who is at the same time his bondservant and as such a chattel and part of his estate.

When the Baron dies, he leaves the bulk of his estate to Margerit, including the bond service owed to the estate by Barbara - leaving to his wastrel nephew on;y the title and the lands that are legally attached to the Saveze name.

With her fortune dramatically increased, Margarit is now one of the most interesting single heiresses in the country. Her change in status means that she can persuade her family to allow her to occupy her new holding in the capital, where she can study at the university while seeming to circulate in high society and attract a suitable husband. Barbara, now her armin, and frustrated that the Baron had not freed her in his will as he had promised to, goes with her as bodyguard. And the Baron's nephew Estefen plots his revenge on them both.

The core of the novel is the developing relationship between Margerit and Barbara, which is a slow-moving and sweet romance with many obstacles, from the differences in their rank and the mystery of Barbara's heritage to the schemes of Estefen which draw them into a treasonous plot.

I enjoyed this novel very much, although it did move a bit slowly. The characters are very well delineated, and their romance a delight to read.

Jones has written a second Alpenna novel, The Mystic Marriage, and a third, The Mother of Souls, is due to be released later this year.

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Elizabeth Peters's novel The Murders of Richard III impressed me as being just the thing for reading when in need of light entertainment and amusement. So I tried another book in the same series, The Seventh Sinner, to see if the impression held. And it did.

Featuring librarian-sleuth Jacqueline Kirby again, this novel is set in Rome, among a small group of young research fellows and other advanced foreign students at an international institute for the study of art and architecture. Kirby herself is on a working vacation, improving her CV with an eye to an classics-related opening at her workplace back in the US.

The historical hook here is the remarkable architectural history of Rome, with particular emphasis on the history of Christian buildings, from secret underground churches and catacombs dating back to the early days of Christianity in Rome, to the proliferation of churches devoted to the saints - which leads to a delightful sidedish of hagiographic tidbits.

The murder mystery to be solved focuses on the eccentric theories of one of the young scholars of hagiocentric archeology, and in the process of solving it, Kirby leads us on a wild ride through the underbelly of academe.

I think i'm going to enjoy the rest of Peters' oeuvre.

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Invisible 2: Personal Essays about Representation in Science Fiction, edited by Jim C. Hines, is the second collection of essays about the visibility - and invisibility - of people who are not straight, white, cis, nominally Christian, able-bodied, and most likely male in speculative fiction.

I haven't read the first Invisible collection, but I am certainly going looking for it now that I've read the second.

These are essays about never finding someone like yourself in the genre that you love, or only finding yourself rarely, usually as a side-kick or bit player, or maybe a villain, but almost never a real hero. Or finding only caricatures of people like you, stereotypical images that are almost as bad as never seeing yourself at all. And some stories about what it's like to find somebody like you, a fully realised character, a hero.

As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Introduction,

The trouble with stories, of course, is that they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped, too, by the culture in which they were born—and worse than that, by the dominant culture. Stories tell you what to value, and what not to value—they teach you, over and over, that some people get to be heroes and some don’t. That some behaviours like violence are acceptable and heroic; others (like mothers sacrificing themselves to the bone year after year to raise their children) aren’t even worth a mention.

And stories, in the end, shape that dominant culture. Telling the same story that we ourselves have been told, over and over, erases all the others. It tells some people—those outside the dominant cultural paradigm—that they don't deserve to have stories told about them. That people like them never get their own books or their own stories; that they are not worth writing about; which a lesson no-one should have to learn.

These essays remind us of all the people who are all too often invisible in speculative fiction, the people we need to see if we are to have stories that reflect the breadth and depth of the human condition. The people represented - and representing - in this volume include people of colour - not just the generic Latin@, Asian, Black, Indigenous groupings, but Vietnamese and Puerto Rican and Japanese and Cherokee and other members of specific cultures who want to be seen for themselves, not as part of some general non-white conglomerate.

The people writing these essays are queer, and trans, and genderfluid, and asexual, and survivors of abuse rather than victims, and think that they deserve to have their stories told so that others, especially young people growing up without any one who shares their experiences around them, will know they have a right to exist, that they are not alone.

They are Jewish, and pagan, they are immigrants, they are older women, they are disabled and non-neurotypical, they are fat, they are people with life histories and experiences that lie outside the straight cis able-bodied white male paradigm that it so often seems our understanding of humanity is based on.

Some of them are even examples of that paradigm, talking about how they have come to treasure the stories that are not about them. And it's all good reading.

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Quite a few years ago, a person of my Internet acquaintance, who is known on the Net as The Plaid Adder, started writing one of the best fantasy series I have ever read. It grew to five volumes - a tight trilogy (Taken Child, Another Country and Darkness Bright), a sequel (Redemption) and a prequel (Better to Burn) - and it is in my opinion a great sadness that none of the books were ever published.

I've never really understood why my acquaintance was never able to get these published, unless it was that they were written from a deeply feminist perspective, featured mostly female protagonists, a goodly number of whom were lesbians, and provided, along with compelling stories well-written about interesting and fully realised characters, serious critiques about just about every aspect of Western culture and society, an invitation to really think seriously about things like love, good and evil, materialism and progress, religion, and other core stuff of life, and a meta-narrative about the process of creation. Plus, the core trilogy is somewhat of a genre-bender, encompassing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, suspense, romance and political satire, and while this kind of blurring of the boundaries has recently come more into vogue, it wasn't as salable back when these books were written.

I was fortunate enough to read these books chapter by chapter as they were written, and then to acquire printed copies of the complete and edited volumes from the author - which I of course reread. Then came my increasing environmental sensitivities, which made my treasured spiro-bound print copies unreadable. But now the author is distributing the novels as ebooks to those who know where to ask for them, and I've had the absolute delight of starting to reread these books again.

The first volume I reread was Taken Child, which introduces the land of Ideire and its low-tech, telepathy and magic-reliant culture, its somewhat eccentric semi-deity Idair and her nemesis the Dark One, the women-only order of magic-using clerics known as shriia who follow Idair and serve the people of Ideire, and their enemies, the female dark users of magic who receive their power from the Dark One.

At the centre of the trilogy is Theamh ni hUlnach, a shriia - albeit a somewhat unconventional one. In Taken Child, we meet as she goes about her duties, including the training of her apprentice Aine. In the course of this, she is sought out by a woman whose child has suffered the supernatural theft of its soul. In the process of trying to save the child, Theamh uncovers a horrifying secret linked to both an old enemy and a long-lost love, and a corrupt plot that threatens the very future of Ideire.

The second volume of the trilogy, Another Country, sees Theamh and Aine following the tracks of Theamh's nemesis, Lythril, into the neighbouring, technology-reliant Cretid Nation, which is in many ways a dystopic distillation of much that is wrong with our own society, as civil war erupts at home. A deft blend of heroic quest, political thriller, biting satire, and poignant love story, Another Country is genre-bending at its best.

The final volume, Darkness Bright, sees Theamh and Aine returned to an Ideire in chaos. They join up with the resistance - both martial and magical - fighting corrupt shriia and their secular allies who have overthrown the legitimate leadership of the country. An unflinching portrayal of the horrors and sacrifices made in war and the tragedy of a country torn apart by lies and greed, Darkness Bright is also a story of courage, commitment to the good, and enduring love.

If anything in what I've written here seems interesting to you, the author can be contacted on tumblr as

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Jason Rosenhouse's Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Frontline is an interesting look at the culture of creationists from the perspective of an outsider - a mathematician and atheist - who has spent time observing and interacting with creationists.
This book has three main purposes. It is a memoir recounting some interesting experiences I’ve had socializing with people whose worldview differs greatly from my own. It is also an explication of the beliefs and attitudes that are common in the anti-evolution subculture. And it is a discussion of certain questions about the relationship between science and religion that arose naturally through my experiences.
Rosenhouse structures his account around his personal experiences in visiting specific sites - from "creation museums" to bookstores - and attending pro-Creationism conferences, both to see the way that "creation science" is presented within the Creationist community, and to engage with actual creation believers.

Rosenhouse's approach in this book is not to "prove" evolution, or "disprove" creationism through recounting the scientific evidence for evolution, though he does present a reasoned account of the evidence for the former and the errors made in asserting the latter. Rather, his primary goal is to describe and critique the nature of creationist arguments and the Biblical Christian worldview they are derived from, and explain why the concept of evolution is such a threat to that worldview. Another aspect of his argument focuses on the general lack of understanding of science and the scientific mindset that seems common to most advocates of creationism, a lack which results in most arguments either presenting a completely false summation of the scientific evidence, or setting up strawdogs based on misunderstanding of scientific data and conclusions.

In the process of reporting on his experiences with both "Young Earth" creationists and those who propose Intelligent Design, Rosenhouse discusses the history of Christian opposition to the concept of evolution and how that has manifested in American judicial and educational history - as well as examining the positions of those who have attempted to reconcile Biblical Christianity with evolutionary theory. In this undertaking, he covers a great deal of theological ground, often making his points and illuminating contradictions by the juxtaposition of quotations from both modern creationists and Christian thinkers from the pre-Darwin era on the one hand, and scientists, progressive theologians, philosophers and historians on the other.

What I found particularly interesting about Rosenhouse's work is that, where other science-minded critics of Creationism have turned first to the scientific evidence of evolution to discredit the claims of Creationists, Rosenhouse mounts a significant critique based on the interpretation of Biblical texts, demonstrating the problems in arguing Creationism from a literal reading of the Bible. He also examines arguments that have been made attempting to reconcile allegorical and other ahistorical readings of the Bible with the evolutionary record and its implications for the nature of humanity. Ultimately, he demonstrates that many of the basic tenets on which traditional Christianity is based, from the special relationship between God and man, and the idea of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and the source of all good, are seriously threatened by the scientific understanding of evolution.
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We live in millennial times - at least those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar - and it's not that much of a stretch to think that this, and the general state of instability in global politics and society have had something to do with the growth industry that is the Christian myth of The Rapture. Books, movies, ranting television evangelists, and even American politicians with the power to start wars have been part of this strange cultural phenomenon.

Barbara R. Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, takes on The Rapture mythology from two perspectives: first she traces the history of the idea that the chosen of God will be taken up alive and in the flesh into heaven while everyone else suffers through tribulations of immense proportion and scope; and second, she delivers a thorough and scholarly critique of the theology of the Rapture from the standpoint of a mainstream Christian with a sound understanding of the Biblical texts and their place in the historical and religious context of their times.

As one reviewer notes,
The strength, one of many, of Rossing’s text is that she takes what has become known as premillenial dispensationalism and surgically dismantles it due to its lack of any significant scriptural foundation. Rossing takes a longer view of Scripture than rapture proponents…that is, she seems to be looking at how God has worked throughout Scripture rather than simply piecing together a handful of verses, many out of context, to create a much-anticipated time-line of rapture, destruction, and death. Along the way, she highlights criticisms of this theological worldview form all camps, liberal and conservative, evangelical and mainline, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, and the list of opponents goes on and on. (
Finally, Rossing looks at the potential for violence and war in the kind of mindset that reads current events as milestones on the road to the Second Coming, and believes that the world must suffer in flames before that event can occur.

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In his alternative history novel Lion's Blood, Steven Barnes gives us a world that is in many ways very similar to our own 18th century. It is a world where several strong and technologically advanced nations, sharing one continent and one religion, have embarked wholeheartedly on imperial projects in the western hemisphere, forming colonies and engaging in acts of aggression against the peoples they find there. And, like our own world in the 18th century, it is a world where the slave trade flourishes.

But in this world, Alexander the Great became Pharaoh of Egypt. Carthage, with the help of Egypt and
Abyssinia, destroyed Rome. Saul of Tarsis died in 30 AD, before taking that transformative journey to Damascus. An Islamic Africa colonised much of Europe and developed technologies such as steam power much earlier than Happened in our own world. And by the time this novel takes place, the western hemisphere has been colonised by people from the great African powers, Egypt and Abyssinia, and it is the technologically backward Gauls, Franks, and Celts, living on the fringes of the civilised, Islamic world who are the slaves.

The primary focus of the novel is the coming of age of, and growing relationship between, two young men - Aidan, a Celtic slave taken by raiders from his home and, along with his mother and sister, transported to the New World; and Kai, younger son of the Wakil Abu Ali, a government official living in Bilalistan, a colony settled by followers of an Islamic spiritual leader named Bilal. The Wakil assigns Aidan to be Kai's body servant, but over time the relationship changes as the two boys, master and slave, come to respect each other as human beings.

The novel is a multi-faceted one, examining not only the horrors of slavery, but also issues of religious diversity. Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many of the characters. Through them, Barnes explores the complexities of the Islamic faith, and shows how Kai's search for religious understanding leads him to question the injustices in his world and seek his own moral standpoint. At the same time, he envisages a Celtic-hued Christianity that developed without the influence of Saint Paul, but was influenced by the Gnostics and particularly the Gospel of Mary.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and am very sad to learn that its sequel, Zulu Heart, is out of print. I would so much like to read more about this alternate world, but until someone decides to bring it out in ebook form, I will just have to wait.
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With 20-odd books in the Saint Germain series, by now one knows what to expect - impeccable historical detail surrounding yet another of the ancient vampire's travels and adventures. I love these books, and Night Pilgrims delivers all of the trademarks of Yarbro's successful blend of the historical and the supernatural.

It's 1225, not long after the Fifth Crusade, and Saint Germain is back in Egypt, living as a secular guest in a Coptic monastery while attempting to minister to the medical needs of the community's elder. Political developments, both internal to the monastery (the ambitious monk who seeks to become the community leader and is suspicious of Saint Germain's true nature and intentions) and external (unrest stemming from the advance of Ghenghis Khan) make it necessary for the Count to leave his place of refuge. Fortunately, a party of European Christian pilgrims require a guide in their journey south along the Nile to sacred sites in Ethiopia. The Count, a well-travelled polyglot with great skill as a healer, is the perfect choice.

The novel details the world of medieval Egypt through which the group of pilgrims pass with painstaking detail, and I must admit that this for me is one of the greatest draws of the Saint Germain novels. The other draw is the idea of Saint Germain, the millennias-old being who has seen the rise and fall of civilisations, the best and worst that humans can contrive - and still moves among them with pity and compassion. The vampire healer. The peacemaker (when possible) who needs blood to survive. The eternal contradiction.

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Unlike the other of George's biographical novels i've reaf, which are grounded in historical fact, well preserved in existing documents, this treatment of Mary of Magdala draws equally on what is known of the times from secular documents, and on Biblical and other religious sources, without any questions concerning the historicity of the latter. George tells a compelling story about the most well-known of Jesus' female disciples, but writes of prophetic dreams and visions, miracles, driving out demons and the death and resurrection of Jesus as literal truths, without the devices that, in her novel of Henry VIII for instance, allowed us to see where the subject of the novel may be an unreliable narrator with respect to their own motivations and beliefs.

I enjoyed the book, but as a non-Christian, I read it more as historical fantasy than straight historical fiction. It was much like reading a novel of King Arthur where the writer has done detailed research into the historical period and presents that faithfully, but includes all of the supernatural tales of Merlin and Morgana's magic, the tale of the Green Knight who, beheaded, returns to life, and other such elements of the mythos as if they too were undisputed historical fact.

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I've just finished Kate Bornstein's achingly honest autobiography: A Queer and Pleasant Danger, expansively subtitled The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later To Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today. Before reading this memoir, I "knew" Bornstein as a writer, playwright, performance artist, gender theorist, BDSM practitioner and trans activist, and respected her work and her stance as an out gender outlaw. Now I know more about her journey to becoming all these things, and my respect is if possible even greater than before.

Bornstein's journey contains more than a few difficult turns. She details with clarity the story of her long slow struggle to transitioning, and her realisation of the role BDSM played in her sexuality. She speaks openly about addiction and coming to see the experience of hiding her sense of her real identity as a half-lifetime of trauma that left her a survivor of PTSD. And she traces the thread of performance that runs through her life from her early years exploring acting to the multi-faceted artist and communicator she is today.

She also talks at length about the time she spent as a Scientologist and member of the organisation's inner cadre, the Sea Org, where, while still living as Albert Bornstein, she worked with L. Ron Hubbard. Some of the most moving parts of her memoir deal with the separation from her daughter that she has experienced since being expelled from the Church of Scientology - who remains in the organisation to this day, and holds to the policy that a Scientologist must avoid all contact with "suppressive persons" such as Bornstein. Indeed, the final chapter of the book is an open letter to a daughter who may never read it - and that was heart-breaking to read.

I finished reading this book on the same day that I heard of the death of another great transgender warrior - Leslie Feinberg. And so I close this with thanks to Bornstein, who is still fighting cancer - and kicking its ass - and Feinberg, who has made hir final transition in this lifetime. I learned so much about identity and personhood from both of you, without ever having met you.

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An early work by the acclaimed writer on religious issues Karen Armstrong, The First Christian: St. Paul's Impact on Christianity, explores the life and writings of St. Paul, giving insight both into how his became the voice that shaped the philosophical core of Christianity, and why it was his views that prevailed over those of other early interpreters of christian ideas and ideals.

It places the source of many key elements of Pauline Christianity - the most important of these for me being the anti-sex and anti-woman sentiments that strongly informed church teachings - in the cultural milieu, the nature and survival needs of the nascent Christian church, and the deeply felt millennialism of Paul himself.

Interesting read for anyone curious about the history of religions in general or Christianity in particular.

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And finally, the last few books from 2013.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Magnificat

What would happen if, following the death of the Pope, the Conclave met and somehow unanimously elected someone whose name they had never heard or seen before? Who was everything a Pope should never be - a middle-aged magistrate from communist China, an atheist, a woman? Yarbro imagines it, and it is quite wonderful to read.

Simon Clark, The Night of the Triffids

A quite enjoyable sequel/homage to Wyndham's classic The Day of the Triffids, which begins 30-odd years later among the human survivors on the Isle of Wight. The narrator and protagonist, David Mason (son of the narrator of the original novel) is a pilot who hopes to find evidence of other surviving colonies to unite in the face of increasing indications that the triffids are intelligent and have plans to destroy the remaining humans. In the course of his quest, Mason, like his father before him, is harshly reminded that triffids are not the only threats to the survival of humanity.

Ellen Galford, Queendom Come

Galford's satirical, feminist, woman-centred view of the world is in high form in this novel. Set in Scotland during Thatcher's Blue Reign, the narrative focuses on the sudden appearance of an ancient Caledonian war-queen, called upon, like Arthur, to return in the hour of her nation's greatest need, and the near immortal seer/sorceress who was the queen's counsellor centuries ago and has awaited her return. Funny as hell.

R. A. MacAvoy, The Third Eagle

MacAvoy is a brilliant fantasist, but this foray into space opera is, while pleasant reading, not among her masterpieces. The protagonist, Wanbli Elf Darter, a skilled member of a clan of bodyguard/assassins who traditionally serve the landed classes on the planet of Neunacht, leaves his people and culture behind to travel in space. After many picaresque adventures, he ends up on the "revivalist" ship Commitment, which is crewed by survivors of generation starships sent out centuries before. The crew of the Commitment have adopted a mission to hunt down other such sleeper ships drifting through space - whereupon they decant a few of the frozen people aboard. The rest they kill, because there is no place for them to go - the colonised planets won't accept them, and the Commitment can only take on enough to replace crew lost to injury, illness or old age. Wanbli, of course, finds an answer that allows the sleepers to live. Despite the grim situation of the sleepers, this novel is mostly light-hearted and fun.

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Eleanor Arnason, Moby Quilt (novella)

A Lydia Duluth novella, thoughtful, as Arnason always is, but also funny. Well wprth reading.

Kage Baker, Empress of Mars (novella)

Taking place in Baker's Company universe, although not a Company story, it's one of those 'ornery Martian settlers outwit the authorities' tales, and it's quite good.

Ken MacLeod, Intrusion

MacLeod is very, very good at exploring various kinds of fascist states. In this case, he gives us a dark and satirical look at world in which women are defined primarily as childbearers who must be overseen by the state to ensure that they do nothing that might endanger their children, even if that means heavily restricting the freedoms of all women to manage their own lives. Thought-provoking as always.

Keith Roberts, Pavanne

Classic work of alternate history in which Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and Roman Catholicism retained its stranglehold over European politics, culture and innovation. In a series of linked novellas, Roberts introduces us to a mid-20th century England still in a state of feudalism, controlled by the Church, and relying on steam-powered technology. But even though it is long delayed (as measured by our own timeline), change begins to force its way into this rigidly structured world.

Maureen McHugh, Nekropolis

McHugh is always worth reading. This novel tackles such varied elements as life in a repressive fundanentalist theocracy, the rights of artificially constructed people, the ethics of love when people can be programmed, chemically or genetically, to want to please others, and the experience of being a refugee trying to adapt to a strange new culture.

Terry Bisson, Fire on the Mountain

Another alternate history - the fracture point here is John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, which succeeds and sparks a revolution leading eventually to a socialist nation called Nova Africa in the former southern states. Great reading.

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I did not read a lot of non-fiction this year, and what I did read was mostly personal narratives, biographies, and books about science fiction and fantasy.

Thelma J. Shinn, Worlds Within Women: Myth and Mythmaking in Fantastic Literature by Women
Gwyneth Jones, Imagination/space: essays and talks on fiction, feminism, technology and politics
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Suzie Bright, Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir
Nancy Mairs, Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith
George Takei, Oh Myy! There Goes the Internet

Jack G. Shaheen, The TV Arab

Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower
Tracy Borman, Elizabeth's Women
Stacey Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

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I must being your attention to a wonderful small press. I mean, what else can you call a publishing house whose co-founder says things like "The challenge, I think, has always been not only to better inform 'the movement', but to figure out how to get the ideas across to everyone else. In effect, how do we actively contribute to building a movement (however defined) which is genuinely going to take on Capital and the state."?

PM Press publishes both fiction and non-fiction, everything from classics of anarchist thought to vegan cookbooks to science fiction with a left wing consciousness.I've already mentioned one book I ordered from them, Eleanor Arnason's Mammoths of the Great Plains. I actually bought three books from PM Press last year (and plan on buying several more this year). All three books are from their Outspoken Authors series, which showcases authors like Arnason, Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson among others. Each volume contains one or more pieces of shorter fiction (novella length or less) plus an interview and a biographical sketch. And they are publishing some very interesting work in this series.

Terry Bison, The Left Left Behind

The title piece in this volume is an absolutely hilarious satire of the Rapture movement in general and the scenario presented in the Left Behind books in particular.

Actually, this is what the publisher says about this piece and the other short piece in the volume:
The Left Behind novels (about the so-called “Rapture” in which all the born-agains ascend straight to heaven) are among the bestselling Christian books in the US, describing in lurid detail the adventures of those “left behind” to battle the Anti-Christ. Put Bisson and the Born-Agains together, and what do you get? The Left Left Behind--a sardonic, merciless, tasteless, take-no-prisoners satire of the entire apocalyptic enterprise that spares no one--predatory preachers, goth lingerie, Pacifica radio, Indian casinos, gangsta rap, and even “art cars” at Burning Man.

Plus: "Special Relativity," a one-act drama that answers the question: When Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and J. Edgar Hoover are raised from the dead at an anti-Bush rally, which one wears the dress? As with all Outspoken Author books, there is a deep interview and autobiography: at length, in-depth, no-holds-barred and all-bets off: an extended tour though the mind and work, the history and politics of our Outspoken Author. Surprises are promised.
And it's all true.

Ursula LeGuin, The Wild Girls

Constant Reader must know by now that I believe Ursula Le Guin to be a goddess. Possibly an avatar of the child of Athene and Kwan Yin. A beacon of wisdom and compassionate understanding, while remaining a warrior of the mind determined to bring light to that which brings about injustice. The Wild Girls is pure Le Guin, compressed to diamond sharpness. The story cuts into heart and mind and lays bare the power relations of a rigid and hierarchical society built on inequalities of class, race and gender. Of course, it's only a story. Or is it? I love Le Guin's work because she makes me feel and think.

There's a good traditional review of the book by Brit Mandelo on Tor.dom.

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I did not read much non-fiction in 2010.What I did read, I found very interesting.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest

Shiva is an environmental activist and eco-feminist who writes most powerfully on the ways in which the global agribusiness project is negatively affecting the land, the people and the culture

Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready

Fascinating look at the "rapture" culture among various fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S.

Barbara Ehrenreich, This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation

Ehrenreich as always delivers provocative insights into the American social, political and economic zeitgeist.

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The as-yet unrecorded short speculative fiction read in 2009:

Report to the Men’s Club, Carol Emshwiller - a collection of Emshweller's short fiction, many of the stories with distinctly feminist overtones, which greatly pleased me. My introduction to Emshweller.

A Mosque among the Stars, Ahmed A. Khan & Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmed (eds.) - I was very pleased to see this anthology; as Constant Reader is surely aware, I have a strong interest in seeing the experiences of all sorts of people represented in speculative fantasy, and there has been a definite scarcity of stories about Muslim people - and particularly positive stories about Muslims.

Gratia Placenti, Jason Sizemore & Gill Ainsworth (eds.) - sometimes I like me a little dab of horror in my speculative fiction diet, and I've found the short story collections from Apex Publications do very well at feeding my kink. This volume was no exception.

Trampoline, Kelly Link (ed.) - a solid fantasy anthology, notable in my opinion for its inclusion of Vandana Singh's "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet."

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Unquenchable Fire, by Rachel Pollack

Jennifer Mazdan lives in Poughkeepsie, in the house that she and her husband bought before their marriage fell apart. She has a decent job, working for the Mid-Hudson Energy Board as a server. She enjoys her job, tending to the guardian totems who watch over all the various parts of the county energy supply grid, washing them with sanctified cleaning fluid and performing the proper rituals as she re-aligns them so that they always face toward the sun. She once wanted to be a Picture Teller – one of the Living Masters who has the ability to tell the great sacred stories in such a way that they come alive with meaning – but instead, she dropped out of college, got married, and moved with her husband to a respectable suburban hive development.

But on the 87th anniversary of the Revolution, during the annual celebration of the Day of Truth, the most important Recital Day of the year, as the great Teller Allan Lightstorm recites The Place Inside, one of the most difficult Pictures, first told by the Founder LI KU Unquenchable Fire, Jennifer Mazdan’s life is changed forever.

For one thing, she misses the recital. Just as she’s about to get into her car and head to the Recital Mount, she falls into a sudden sleep. And while Allan Lightstorm tells the Picture, Jennifer has a dream that is unlike any dream that anyone has ever reported to the National Oneiric Registration Agency. And although she doesn’t realise it until some time later, Jennifer Mazdan conceives a child, who will bring a new vision of divinity to the world.

Rachel Pollack said of her book Unquenchable Fire, in a 1994 interview, that:
I've been interested in tribal religion and shamanism and prehistoric religion for a long time. But I'd see books about aboriginal people set in the Australian outback written by somebody who lived in L.A., who not only had never been to Australia but had no contact of any kind with aboriginal people.

So for Unquenchable Fire, I thought, what would happen if that stuff was on the streets of Poughkeepsie, and nothing else changed? America was totally into shamanism and story-telling, but was still America. So I had tremendous fun transplanting bizarre rituals from all over the world onto mainstreet. And I would say, how would these people act that if they were total literalists, if they believed everything was real? So none of it is intellectualized.

This is a picture of a society in which the power of ritual, of story, of symbolic meaning, has taken the place of science and materialism. In addition to the story of Jennifer and the people in her life, the book is full of retellings and reshapings of the divine stories and rituals of many different peoples, sometimes recast into modern times, sometimes told in the timeless landscape of myth and dream. This too is part of the incredible wealth of this book.

But it is also much more than these thingst. It is itself a Picture, a teaching tale, and its inner meaning is that Truth must keep changing, growing, always being renewed and reinterpreted for a new generation.

Jennifer lives in a world that many of us would call a world of magic, of wonder, where strange and astonishing things can happen and great truths are constantly being revealed. But most of the people who live in Jennifer’s world have come to take all this for granted. They follow the external rituals without making the internal emotional and spiritual commitment. A generation in Jennifer’s past, the Revolution shook the world and made everything new and fresh and full of meaning, but in the decades since then, form has driven out substance, and the raging fires of the soul have been codified and bureaucratised. Jennifer is the channel through which will come a new revolution that will shake world and its truths again.

What’s also quite remarkable about this story is that it tells the story of the coming of a messiah from the perspective of the woman who is the gateway between the divine and the world – and who isn’t exactly pleased to find herself and her body taken over by Divine Agency. In this sense, it’s the story of every person who has ever been called upon to transcend the ordinary and commit blood, sweat, tears, even life, for the exceptional. It’s the story of Jesus in Gethsemane, of the artist driven to speak what lies within no matter what, of the martyr, the sacrifice, the Dying King, of anyone who asks “why does it have to be me?” – and does it anyway, because there is no other way to act. This is the unquenchable fire, the ecstasy, the “being out of place” that saints and mystics model for us. It can be hidden, for a while, but it cannot be destroyed.

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A Mortal Glamour, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

In A Mortal Glamour, Yarbro turns her not inconsiderable talents at researching and writing historical fantasy to a story of sexual tensions and repressed longings – for love, for freedom – and their consequences in the tightly controlled environment of a Catholic convent during a time of social and religious unrest.

It is the 14th century, the time of the Avignon popes, when Catholicism was split between two competing political factions within the Church. Plague is abroad in Europe. Groups of wandering, often violent adherents of assorted heresies have created an internal threat, while the Eastern borders of Europe are once again facing invasion, driven by the migratory pressures that have periodically pushed new populations westward out of Central Asia.

Trouble is brewing in a remote French convent, la Tres Saunte Annunciation. A young nun, Seur Angelique, child of a wealthy family, in love with an unsuitable young man, rages against the unyielding father who has given her an ultimatum – marry an older man she fears and despises for dynastic reasons, or face permanent incarceration in this community of religious women, many of whom are not themselves in possession of a true vocation. Into this unstable set of circumstances comes a new Mother Superior, who may not be exactly what she seems.

Yarbro has written a fascinating account of the consequences of mixing religious hysteria with sexual repression, and if, in this work of fantasy, she gives a supernatural flavour to the proximate cause of the events she recounts, the underlying causes are clearly delineated.

Fascinating reading.


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