Monday, May 21, 2012

What's On My Bookshelf 21/5/2012

Haven't done a Reading List update in a while, so rundown after the jump.

I reported earlier that I was super excited for "Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction" edited by Brit Mandelo and released by Lethe Press, and it really lived up to expectations.

It's a rare thing to find an anthology that's strong from start to finish. It's the sort of anothology I wish I'd had access to in my teenage years.

Kelley Eskridge's "Eye of the Storm" was a stand out. A different take on the sword fighting hero, the hero is never gendered, ends up in a polyamourous group, and discovers their sexuality through BDSM. The non-gendering absolutely delighted me, as it is a difficult way to write without constructed agender pronouns (I'm still experimenting with it, and it's so easy to fall back on social engineering even when you're conscious of what you're doing!).

The other stand out stories were Nalo Hopkinson's "Fisherman" - I adore her lyrical prose, it's like a familiar lullaby to be lulled into - and the very matter-of-fact ''The Metamorphosis Bud'' by Liu Wen Zhuang.

While still on the subject of editor and critic Brit Mandelo, her extended essay "We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth Telling" is available through Aqueduct Press.

Joanna Russ and literary criticism surrounding her work (fiction and non-fiction) is a complex beasty for me. I enjoy Mandelo's work on Russ - she has an ongoing column entitled "Reading Joanna Russ" at - because it is very accessible. As someone who has come late reading and utilizing literary criticism, I really appreciate this plain spoken yet intricate approach.

"We Wuz Pushed" is an excellent addition to Mandelo's work on Russ, as it gives Mandelo scope to examine themes she doesn't have the space for in online forums. It certainly helped me negotiate some of the trickier criticisms of Russ' work - her gay stereotyping and transphobia - and how these were resolved.

I REALLY wanted to like Kate Elliott's "Cold Magic". The elements were all there: a fantastic female heroine with intellect, wit, and (pleasantly sized) smattering of hormones; a bestie that passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours; an interesting shades-of-grey male anti-hero; non-human species; terrific world building; a reimagined Europe where those of African and Middle Eastern descent mixed far more liberally in the bloodlines.

However, there seemed only enough action for a book about two-thirds its size, and it kept interrupting the plot for great dumps of exposition. I know the "Well, as you know, Bob..." cliche of writing gets the piddle taken out of it regularly, but I'm still trying to decide whether seeing that ACTUAL line in a book was a piss-take or an accident. Whatever the weather, it threw me right out of the story, along with other massive info-dumps at inappropriate times. The possibilities that dragons even exist in this world don't even enter the story until over halfway through, which is quite confusing. I thought the story was about dream magic and other dimensions bisecting Earth, but no, the REAL magic is with the dragons apparantly and these other minutely crafted magical devices are just incidental.

Nice steampunk, magical, and romance elements, but a story broken by its exposition road blocks. I'll give the second book a go if I find out this has been fixed.

Mind BROADENED. "James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" by Julie Phillips is a definitive work on Tiptree, is extensively researched and annotated, and profoundly moving. Despite this, there are gaps in Sheldon's history and papers - for instance, I would adore to see the full correspondence between Tiptree and Joanna Russ, or Tiptree and Le Guin.

Phillips writing is a great balance between documentation and poignancy. Sheldon's stint as Tiptree was only a small part of her life in the terms of time, but the extensive back history of her life as documented by Phillips gives a fascinating insight into what made Tiptree. For how profoundly intelligent Sheldon was, it strikes me as strange that Tiptree was a whim, a name made up with little thought towards the social consequences of the experiment despite everything she had critiqued and done and railed against leading up to that point which made Tiptree's "birth" almost inevitable. However, this may also be the legend she wanted the world to know - Sheldon was not above creating different personalities for herself, experimenting with gender and sex, hiding her true self.

There is much about Sheldon's life that is difficult to parse - she did, after all, kill her husband before taking her own life - including her substance abuse, domestic abuse, mental health problems, and failures of privilege and feminism - for example, she expressed an inability to "like" women, though she was bisexual, and found it difficult to engage with modern feminism because she found women so "silly" and incapable of working together for their rights.

She would have been an equally fascinting and frustrating person to know.

Catherynne M. Valente's "The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge For Prester John Volume 1".

I am a Cat Valente fan-girl. 'Nuff said.

Oh, and this book comes with the pages ragged edged like a glorious old manuscript, and the paper is "meaty": heavy and rich as the prose.


"Beauty Queens" by Libba Bray is lots of silly YA fun with a feminist bent. What starts out as a gaggle of unrecognizable-from-each-other young pageanters stranded on a desert island, turns into a stinging critique on reality TV, Western ideals of beauty, privilege, race, gender and sexuality. Bray handles the [SPOILER] trans woman character [/SPOILER] with aplomb, and deconstructs female stereotypes with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The plot suffers near the end, and nearly falls apart, as so many threads have to be drawn together along with a racing finale, but this could also be read like the non-sensical reality TV/soap opera genre it apes. The whole book reads fast and fun, a good gateway to modern feminism for young women.

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