Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.
Drugs are good. Well, maybe not all drugs. But as a whole, as a group, they’re meant to help. And usually they do.
In SFFH, better living through chemistry is brought about most famously by the “spice” melange, a drug absolutely essential to navigators steering around interstellar trading ships. Frank Herbert’s influential 1965 novel Dune focuses on the fortunes of those who own the planet Arrakis (melange’s sole source), but there are also memorable portrayals of the blue-eyed, spice-addicted members of the interstellar Pilots Guild and the secretive “Bene Gesserit” cult, and Arrakeen natives.
Of relevant recent science fiction titles the best is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Her heroine, Jack, fabricates bargain-priced pharmaceuticals that buyers around the world dose themselves with for effects ranging from hangover-less partying to long, productive workdays.
Perhaps it’s authors’ need for conflict that causes us to concentrate on drugs’ negative effects. Even melange, in its creator’s mind so beneficial, so widely accepted, is also imagined as addictive. The “herbal” preparations imbibed by sword-and-sorcery’s favorite freak, Michael Moorcock’s cursed hero Elric of Melnibone, are also de facto addictive: without them he would die.
From good drugs that do bad things it’s a short step to plain old pure evil. The soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the archetypal chemical oppression-enabler. Rendering the masses calm and mildly euphoric, self-administered soma greatly aids the maintenance of the novel’s global dystopia. There are scores of compounds with similar functions in later SFFH, such as the protein shakes consumed by slaughterhouse workers in Vandana Singh’s “Are You Sannata 3159?” (appearing in a collection reviewed below).
Often SFFH merely slaps a weird new name on an already existing drug. This is known in the trade as "calling a rabbit a smeerp,” and it’s annoying as fuck. Cute substitutes for the word coffee such as “klah,” “gvi,” or “caf,” don’t prove that readers have been transported to another realm. They prove that they’re in thrall to a short-cutting writer. Far more interesting are the stories casting aside well-worn tropes, as John Crowley does in Engine Summer, when his protagonist tokes up daily on pipes full of St. Bea’s Bread which is...not a drug.
Sometimes fantastical pharmaceuticals advance the plot, but don’t diverge much from the drugs we know; in her near-future novel Slow River, for example, Nicola Griffith’s heroine Lore may as well be ingesting heroine or meth or cocaine as the nameless drug that gets her through weeks of sex work. Sometimes they’re a collage of the traits of more familiar substances, like athelas or kingsfoil, the healing herb Aragorn uses in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (partaking of several characteristics of mints and basil). Sometimes, in some skiffy stories, future drugs are identical with currently available ones, but they’re produced differently — manufactured in a vacuum or a zero-g environment, or grown in moss or duckweed, or in genetically-engineered milk animals. Which is where SFFH leaves off and reality takes over. Because these methods are being used right now.
Samuel R. Delany is one of the baddest of literary badasses. In 1962, at the ripe age of 20, he published his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, and went on to win a slew of Hugos, Nebulas, and other major awards. Now he’s 76, and the latest entry in his decades-long career is The Atheist in the Attic, a collection from PM Press’s “Outspoken Authors” series. The title story posits secret encounters between Leibniz and Spinoza in historical Amsterdam — nothing sfnal here, but the novella’s Delanyesque explorations of meaning, mood, intention, and imagination are as delectable as any in his genre fiction, and as rich in the cognitive estrangement SFFH readers prize. It’s followed by “Racism and Science Fiction,” the influential 1998 essay which led to the founding of the Carl Brandon Society and which, sadly, proved all too accurate in its prediction of racist reactions to a growing nonwhite presence in the field. A brief interview conducted by Terry Bisson concludes this slim but essential book.
Another collection, Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (Small Beer) showcases a bit of what we’re fighting for. It’s a xenophile’s treasury of nonstandard plots, unfamiliar and finely crafted characters, and new ways to embrace the wonders of the universe, with particular attention paid to their scientific bases (Singh is a physics professor). My personal favorites are “Cry of the Kharchal,” a short story about birdwatching, time-traveling ghosts, and blocked poets; and a novella original to this publication, “Requiem.” Though the latter’s premise — a young woman seeks answers in the mysterious death of her aunt — provokes boredom by its mere mention, the actual story falls into none of the time-worn trope-traps you’d expect and delivered me, by its end, into a harsh but hopeful landscape.
Bryan Camp’s debut, The City of Lost Fortunes, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was written in the back of a car escaping the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. It’s a novel haunted by New Orleans’ near-death experience. Filled with supernatural extensions of the cultural diversity the city’s famed for, Lost Fortunes introduces readers to Jude Dubuisson, a racially ambiguous demigod who’s tired of his divine powers. Dubuisson gets drawn into a rigged card game everyone tells him he can’t win, but since they expect him to play fair they’re in for a surprise. Camp clearly cares for the Crescent City’s soul, and he brings its scenes to sweltering life: the cafés, cemeteries, flood-damaged ruins, low-life bars, botanicas, pelican-skimmed causeways, diners, guard dogs, festivals — a phantasmagoric panorama of a true urban fantasy.
Once again I recommend attending WisCon. It’s a favorite both of mine and my mom’s: chock full of decadence, wit, and glitter-laden feminazgûls. There’s a transgressive rave, childcare, a quiet room for sufferers of sensory overload, and a bake sale. This year’s Guests of Honor, the indomitable Tananarive Due and the intrepid Saladin Ahmed, will give their rousing keynote speeches over a feast of meringues, brownies, mousses, and other sweets. Come. Partake. If you can’t save the world with chocolate chip cookies, it’s not worth saving.
Or perhaps you’d rather not make a trek to the Midwest during the humid warmth of May (WisCon’s held in Madison, Wisconsin). If so, try BayCon, just down the coast, ten minutes from Frisco. This year the theme is Patchwork Fandom: Stitching the Generations Together (appropriate, given recent kerfuffles over congoing fandom’s alleged ageism). Guests of Honor include our local Girl Genius, Margaret Organ-Kean, artist and Magic the Gathering card illustrator extraordinaire.
Josh Simmons is continuing a proud comics tradition of grossing people the fuck out using graphic violence and inappropriate humor. His books read like modernized, literary versions of those schlocky old EC Comics that came out back before the Comics Code Authority turned the freewheeling world of comic books into squaresville.
This Saturday at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, Simmons will be onhand to present his latest book, Flayed Corpse, which is a kind of one-man anthology written by Simmons and drawn by a passel of artists. (It's fitting that the book is launching in Seattle, since Corpse is a book with deep Seattle roots, too: artists include Seattleites like Eroyn Franklin, Ben Horak, Tom Van Deusen, Pat Moriarty, and Fantagraphics editor Eric Reynolds.)
It probably goes without saying, but this book isn't for everyone. In the second story, a slasher stalks a pair of nubile young women. "…I'm in need of a sweet, slow sexin'," one of the women announces while in the hot tub. "I could go for a slice of the ol' dick myself," the other replies. The story ends with an explicit, gory sex scene that would probably get the book banned in Alabama if a library mishap resulted in a copy of Flayed Corpse winding up in the wrong kids' hands.
But Corpse doesn't feel like a book that's out to get banned for the sake of cheap publicity. Simmons's intent is different than the intended-to-shock vibe of, say, a Johnny Ryan comic. He's genuinely interested in the vocabulary and cadence of horror comics - stretching out a tense scene using longer panels, or a spray of tiny panels to build up suspense, even while the plots of the stories resist the many clichés of the genre. There's no violence in the story by Simmons and Franklin - it's a literal day at the beach - but it's a genuinely unsettling tale in which the threat of violence is palpable in every day-glo panel.
Not every story is a horror show; some are quite amusing. In "Late for the Show," Simmons and Van Deusen draw an enormous manchild going on a cop-killing rampage on what appears to be the Boren overpass. In "The Great Shitter," Moriarty and Simmons tell the story of a giant Godzilla-like creature that eternally eats and shits onto a small town that devotes generations to feces removal. "The shit is pushed out to the river, where it washes away. We all keep our heads above the shit flow and live to work the shit show another day." It's an allegory for jobs like fracking and coal mining that destroy the environment, sure, but it's also a funny story about monsters and poo.
Like the best anthologies, Corpse is interested in keeping you on edge, never quite sure of what's coming next. Hell, don't tell DC Comics, but Simmons seems to have snuck an actual Batman story into the book, somehow. Even just calling it a horror collection is doing it a disservice: Simmons understands that to scare a reader, you can't keep sending unrelenting darkness into faces for a couple hundred pages. True terror happens when you don't know what's going to happen next.
The last Saturday in this month, April 28th, is Independent Bookstore Day - a celebration of books and the small businesses that celebrate literary culture year round. We'll have a lot to say about Independent Bookstore Day over the course of the month, but we thought we'd begin the conversation by talking with two owners of smaller local bookstores - Jenny Cole of Burien's Page 2 Books, and Annie Carl of Bothell's Neverending Bookshop - about their plans for the day, what they've been reading, and why independent bookselling is so important to them.
Do you have anything special planned for Independent Bookstore Day?
We do. We always like to have authors come in the store, so that day we have three different authors.
And are those reading, or signings, or are they both?
They're signings, and they'll be working here in the store. Generally what we do - it's my favorite way to authors in - we just have a table set up with their books and information about them, and then they wander around and talk to customers about what they're reading, and about their books. It's just very relaxed, informal.
We will also have lots of giveaways that day. We've got a couple of tables set up with [advance reader copies], as well as book bags, books that we're giving away, some merchandise. So everybody that comes in and shops here will get a little something to take home with them.
What's a book you've read recently that you've loved?
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is one that I absolutely love. It's a true story - young adult. Our book club read it, and I think everybody in the book club really enjoyed it. It's kind of a shocking book in what it deals with, but it's so well written. It's been winning lots of awards.
Why do independent bookstores matter to you?
I think it's very important. We had somebody place an order the other day - she lives in Illinois, and called our store because she was getting a book for her granddaughter who lives here.
And she sent a note shortly after placing the order saying, "these are the reasons why I love shopping independent." She called in the order, she got the book that she wanted, we wrapped it for her, we talked to her about the purchase. It was more than pressing a button on a computer or calling a big warehouse where maybe the person that answers the phone doesn't read or doesn't know about the books.
I just think the experience that people have is so different in an independent book store - as it is for any small business. I love to frequent small businesses because you get the personal experience.
Do you have anything special planned for Independent Bookstore Day?
Since the shop is so small, doing like really big activities is not much of an option, so instead I've got authors lined up pretty much all day; Laurie Thompson, who's a children's book author, will be there from ten to noon; and then Paul Boulet who self-published his book The Serial Murders of Mars, will be there noon to two. Jeff J. Peters - who wrote Cathadeus, which is a fantasy novel - he'll be there two to four; and then my friend Rachel who is a self-published author also is going to be there four to six. She'll basically help us close up the day.
And then in addition to that, we're going to be stamping passports, ringing books, and we're going to have book trivia again this year. That's the one activity we had last year, and it went really, really well. We have prizes - posters, advance reader's copies, other bookish swag for Indie Bookstore Day.
What's a book you've read recently that you've loved?
I'm currently in the middle of In The Country by Mia Alvar. It's short stories about the Philippines. But before that I read a book called Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, and it's thirteen essays about what being fat means around the world. Twelve anthropologists and one fat activist - as she proclaims herself to be - wrote essays for the book, and it's stunning. It totally put my body image issues, and our current cultural body image issues, in perspective. And it's kind of outside of what I usually read; I usually read science fiction, fantasy, and lots of young adult and children's books. So this was kind of something new for me and I really, really enjoyed it.
Why do independent bookstores matter to you?
I've always been an independent bookseller. I started working as a bookseller when I was fifteen and I just - boy, it's such a loaded question and it's such an easy question and such a hard question all kind of wrapped into one.
Indie Bookstore Day for me is just a major celebration of bookstores and all of the marvelous things that we stand for -promoting free thought, promoting new ideas, promoting banned books, fighting censorship, promoting all of these different authors who maybe wouldn't have a platform if we weren't available to give them that platform.
Indie bookstores are still well-known for promoting our local community. I'm the only bookstore in a two- or three-mile radius, and so I have a solid customer base of people that can walk to my shop. They're families that walk down to the bookstore, and to the cafe to get some coffee, and that's what community bookstores are.
Those dollars that come into the shop go directly towards feeding my family and my child, and they also go toward the education process that we do at the store. We help people talk about why books are important to them - even if it's a science fiction novel or a fantasy novel, or a romance novel, it brings new ideas to them. It's more important to have a free-thinking society now more than ever, and I think indie book stores help keep our nation and our world free-thinking.
For me, being an indie bookseller and running an indie bookstore is really important to make sure that everyone has a chance to present their thoughts and ideas. Whether it's self-published or traditionally published, or whether you're coming into a bookstore and picking up a book you didn't think you were gonna read before - that's what I exist for.
As you've already seen from this week's sponsorship, Lindy West is giving a talk about witch hunts and feminism this Sunday night at Benaroya Hall. If you're planning to attend but you haven't purchased tickets yet, I have some good news for you — your procrastiation has finally paid off!
We're giving away a few pairs of tickets to Sunday night's show, and all you have to do to enter the drawing is retweet this here tweet by 5 pm today:
Retweet this tweet by 5 pm for a chance to win a pair of tickets to see Lindy West read at Benaroya Hall this Sunday night! More information about the reading here: https://t.co/Zx2i028g4Y pic.twitter.com/uqBujotuF5— The Seattle Review of Books (@seattlereviewof) April 11, 2018
That's it! Just a retweet. Don't have a Twitter account, you say? Just join Twitter with a throwaway account and retweet the dang thing to your zero followers. It's free!
The American Library Association's annual report The State of America's Libraries 2018 is now available to read online and in downloadable PDF form. In it, you'll find lists of the year's most frequently challenged books, trending topics in library science, and likely areas of growth for the year ahead. It's an important resource, and it's absolutely free.
The color in the room was yellow.
I don’t know if I knew then why,
or that yellow is as much the color of nerves
as it is of cowardice, as I stood stiff-straight
in front of Father Panda and examined his face.
It was wide, porous, ruddy, full as a moon beneath
a wave of curly hair the color of the pews.
We both wore white, he in his vestments,
me in my dress, all decked out
with the things I knew I must have done wrong.
From the vestibule, the smell of incense wafted in.
Outside the room I could hear the sound of children
trying hard to be quiet. A bit of holy water
splashed from someone’s finger to his forehead.
I was bad. I was definitely bad. I thought. The bell
tolled. Father Panda’s wide face split into a smile.
I amused him with my silence. I was not a sinner,
after all — was it possible? No. I gulped, stammered,
dug in: “I can’t think of anything.” That was the sin.
Here's what Lindy West had to say on Facebook about her April 15 show at Benaroya Hall: Huge news! I'm speaking at Benaroya Hall! All by myself! For a long time! WITH A HUMOROUS SLIDESHOW!
Frankly, she had us at "I'm speaking"; by the end of that string of phrases, we were ready to see her twice. These are trying times, and they deserve to be skewered, as only Lindy West can. Get tickets here or get more information on our sponsorship page.
Many thanks to returning sponsor Northwest Associated Arts for supporting the site and for putting events like this in front of our readers. If you're interested in joining our community of sponsors, check out the last dates available in the first half ot he year. We'd love to meet you.
Photo credit: Jenny Jiminez.
Portland author Julia Stoops started writing her debut novel Parts Per Million in 2002, when liberal America was trying in vain to keep President George W. Bush from going to war with Iraq. It's hard to recall now, after Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the Women's March and the March for our Lives, but 2002 made activism feel like a fool's errand. It seemed - to me, anyway, and to many of my friends - that the age of protest had passed, and that the people were powerless in the face of such relentless evil.
Parts Per Million is a kaleidoscopic novel composed of dozens of short chapters from the perspective of three activists in this time of little hope for activism. They're all compelling characters. Jen is an embittered computer hacker. Irving is a former soldier who dedicates his time to fighting the system he defended. John is optimistic but becoming exhausted that they're not making any progress. They record a radio show, but they're not sure anybody's really listening. They don't know if anything matters.
"The Marysville firebombing was the start," Ian warns us at the beginning of the book, "But what blew up in our faces that year was bigger than that blaze." The three activists find themselves at odds, serving as a kind of microcosm for the way progressives always tear themselves apart.
Parts Per Million is an ambitious first book: it's a thriller and a novel about a friendship in peril and it's a critique of protest culture and it's a love letter to those who are willing to earnestly fight for what they believe, even when it seems that everyone else has given up. (In case you were wondering where Stoops's loyalties lie, the book is dedicated to "environmental activists of every stripe," because "One day you will be considered heroes.") Fans of Edward Abbey's seminal The Monkeywrench Gang will enjoy the way Stoops rethinks and enlivens the concept for a new generation.
This Wednesday, April 11th, Stoops will read and take questions at Third Place Books Seward Park starting at 7 pm in the Seattle debut of her book. If you've ever felt helpless in the face of a giant, uncaring machine, you'll recognize something of yourself in Parts Per Million, and you'll likely find kindred spirits at the reading for the book.
Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
There’s not much new in this Weekly Standard article on homelessness in Seattle for any resident of “this picturesque city nestled on Puget Sound” (ahem) who’s paying attention. Still, it’s a good stop against complacency, to see ourselves through an outsider’s eyes — and especially the casual mention of Seattle’s “energetic NIMBY movement.”
For book lovers (that's you), this piece by Ryan Krull on the intersection between libraries and homelessness in St. Louis is also interesting, especially in the wake of the recent sharps waste kerfuffle at Seattle’s library system. There’s a NIMBY element hidden in both, if you look close enough. (Spoiler: you don’t have to look that hard.)
And here’s one last angle: award-winning comics author William Messner-Loebs, one of the artists credited in Wonder Woman, is homeless, thanks to a string of bad luck and the absence of any reasonably functioning safety net for writers and artists. Derek Kevra wrote about his love for Messner-Loebs’ work. I don’t have a neat takeaway for this one (though I bet co-founder Paul Constant does), except to say that all three of these pieces reflect a misplacement of values that might be worth taking a cold hard look at — before it’s too late for us to make a different choice.
I don’t remember 6-year-old me reading that story line, and I don’t remember how Dad handled it (Bill was curious about this) but I remember the cover. And I remember his name on it.
I sat there in silence for a few minutes.
I don’t know what I was hoping for but seeing his name hit me like a ton of bricks. Those comic books created some of my favorite memories as a kid and Bill wrote them. He created, fought for and worked on those stories and I read them with Dad while drinking a Cherry Pepsi.
Now the man who gave me those memories was living out of his car. I’d love to say at that moment I jumped up with a specific plan to help him get on his feet but in reality, I sat there and cried.
Abe Streep’s profile of the Arlee Warriors, the championship-winning high school basketball team from the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, has gone everywhere this week. It’s a pretty piece: inspirational, touches on some tough issues, lightly. It makes us sad in that way that we’re all okay with — the non-bleak, mostly hopeful, bearable kind of sad.
Which is a bit of a tipoff that the ways in which Alicia Elliott’s essay about Canada’s failure to convict the adult/male/white killers of two Indigenous teenagers makes you feel sad may not be bearable. Her central metaphor — racism as the unseeable thing that deforms the universe we live in — is apt and powerful, and her writing is personal and relentless. This deserves to be read just as widely, starting with you.
Then I remembered what Gerald Stanley’s lawyer said about Colten’s death in his closing argument: “It’s a tragedy, but it’s not criminal.” I remembered the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities trying to push for stronger self-protection laws while simultaneously denying the impact the Boushie killing had made on this decision. I remembered the white people on Twitter flooding Indigenous people’s accounts with racist slurs; claims that Stanley was acting in self-defence; claims that Colten was a criminal who had it coming; that Stanley’s white lawyer dismissing all visibly Indigenous people from the jury as soon as he saw them was not racist; that an all-white jury finding Stanley innocent of any wrong-doing when he shot Colten point-blank in the head was not racist; that none of this was racist. I remembered all the times I’ve pointed out racism in my life and the white people around me claimed I was imagining it. I remembered that, eventually, I started to wonder if I really was imagining it. I am always made to feel as if I am imagining it.
Finally, one from Roxane Gay’s new venture, the month-long pop-up magazine Unruly Bodies: Matthew Salesses on what happens when his Korean wife is diagnosed with stomach cancer after the birth of their second child. While the safety net of American health insurance shreds beneath her, the new and uncertain immigration laws tangle themselves around the family’s neck.
(Full disclosure: clicking this link will burn one of your three free reads on Medium this month. If you care about that sort of thing.)
I was among the largest wave of Korean adoption in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My adoptive parents are Catholic. (My father was on his way to becoming a priest when he married my mother.) They believed the best way to be good Christians was to erase my body from contention. According to my father, they still consider me not Asian at all, “only their son.” In order to follow the rules of family, my body had to be an exception to the rules.
It was in search of my body and its rules that I found Cathreen in 2005, when I went to Korea believing that I had no history at all. She introduced me to myself. Four years later, she immigrated to America, married me, and got her green card, putting her trust in rules that historically distrusted us.
What are you reading now?
I'm currently reading Memento Park, which is a supremely assured, elegantly crafted second novel from a former book blogger Mark Sarvas (The Elegant Variation). Mark was always a very tough critic, not unlike Peter Bogdanovich, and like Bogdanovich, Sarvas has put his money where his mouth is and delivered a fine piece of work about fathers and sons, art, and family revelations. It's totally unlike any book I would ever write, which is another reason I'm digging it.
What did you read last?
I just finished (for the second time!) a spectacular self- published novel called Jimmy James Blood by Missy Ann Peterson. Missy comes to the literary world out of nowhere. Last I checked she was working on a road crew in Montana. It's obvious the novel is born of hard-bitten experience. Reading Jimmy James Blood is a visceral and stirring experience from the very first sentence. Missy goes from lyrical to gritty in a single turn of phrase, and she does it over and over again. I am currently lobbying publishers to grant this book the release it deserves.
What are you reading next?
Sigh. So many choices, so little time. As you might imagine, my "blurb pile" is halfway to the ceiling. I'm not even sure what's next in the queue, but in the spirit of our forthcoming NHL franchise, I'm hoping to soon read an early draft of Jarret Middleton's Heart of Winter, which is destined to be the definitive hockey novel of the twenty-first century (not hyperbole!).
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
I had some friends recently talking about how great Columbo was, and that led to wondering if that character could be played by anybody but Peter Falk. Notably, if we rebooted Columbo, what woman could play the detective?
It led me to wonder what other books would be amazing with girls or women as the protagonist. Haden Caulfield, say. Call me Isabel. Phyllis Marlow. See where I'm going? What book would be just as impactful and great if we gender flipped the lead? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Your question was a great exercise in considering my personal favorite novels and why they stuck with me. Many of my favorite male protagonists could easily swap gender without significantly compromising the story – Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Pip in Great Expectations, Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all of the flies in Lord of the Flies. The same cannot be said of my favorite female-driven novels: Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Kindred, The Scarlet Letter — even short stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper" or "The Waltz."
The signifiant difference is that, at least with regards to the stories on my list, novels with male protagonists are concerned with finding themselves, coming of age, or embarking on grand adventures that pit themselves against Society or Mother Nature Herself, while books with female protagonists (or people of color) are fundamentally about navigating society in very mundane ways: by making an advantageous marriage, being taunted by home decor, or simply by surviving. These are books that could not be written if the protagonist were a white male, because white males aren't burdened with the same societal constraints that women and people of color are.
I don't often get into arguments about white privilege – or even more specifically, white male privilege – for the same reason I refuse to speculate on the shape of the earth: it is an exercise in stupidity for the very stupid. The earth is round and white privilege/white male privilege exists, period. Great works of literature, much like photos of our orb-shaped earth, have illustrated this over and over and over again.
Fortunately, some authors are already rewriting classic tales to reflect more points of view than just the dominant. For instance, Fifty Shades of Grey is really just Of Mice and Men with a smarter hot chick and spankings. Take comfort in this.
The West Seattle Food Bank is "in desperate need of children’s books and board books" right now, according to the West Seattle Blog. Donate if you can!
Susan Fried at the South Seattle Emerald reports that Real Change magazine is publishing a resource guide for Seattle's homeless population:
There are over 300 services listed in the guide. The print run of 40,000 copies will be available at over 75 locations around the city including through human service agencies, first responders, and the Seattle Public Library. Both the Seattle Police and King County Sheriff’s Departments will receive copies to assist people in finding needed services. Real Change vendors will also have access to a few copies per day to share with people in need.
CROWDFUNDING ALERT: City Arts magazine is shifting to a nonprofit, and they're running an Indiegogo campaign to make the leap. The monthly magazine is seeking members to help support a "more robust digital footprint" and "more events." This city is seriously lacking in multidisciplinary arts coverage, and losing City Arts would be a disaster. If you can, kick in.
CROWDFUNDING ALERT, PART DEUX: In more fun crowdfunding news, Emerald City Comicon founder Jim Demonakos is Kickstarting an updated version of those old-school spinner racks that drugstores used to sell comics from. "The Classic Comic Book Spinner Rack" will come in black and white, it will hold all types of comics, and it will be "whisper-quiet." This project has already been funded, but you can buy your rack over here.
El Diablo Coffee, the delightful coffee shop right next to Queen Anne Book Company, has to move. Read the whole frustrating tale at Seattle Eater. No trip to QABC is complete without a short, sweet Cuban coffee from El Diablo.
At Library Journal, Matt Enis offers a librarian's perspective on Amazon's creepy always-on Alexa devices.
Contois does acknowledge that these devices also present privacy and security concerns that new adopters may not fully understand. “We make them aware that they may want to become more knowledgeable about that,” he says. “We do ask patrons, before returning them to the library, to reset everything to the factory settings.”
Every retailer I chatted with knew of a shop that had closed, often down the road. The reasons aren’t always simple, though. This shop had its lease raised. This shop expanded too fast. That one’s owner just decided it was time to pack it in.
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
This month I intended to write something frothy about clothing in romance. About the linen and muslin and silk of historicals, the wool suits and high heels of contemporaries, the uniforms of sports romances, the dragon-scarred leathers of fantasy romance, or the nano-regulated synthetic fabrics of the future in SFR (sci-fi romance, for those in the know). But every time I reached into the froth I found a chunk of solid substance underneath that brought me up short.
Consider the dress code.
Fashion, we tell our youth, is a frivolous matter. It marks you as shallow and materialistic (if you’re read as female) and potentially queer (if you’re read as male). It is classed as neither a science nor an art; at best it’s a hobby, harmless but ultimately unimportant.
And we will ban you from school if you do it wrong.
Even the definition of “wrong” depends on so many different factors: geography, audience, time of day, social group, gender, race, religion, body shape, ability. Anyone who has ever overdressed for a party knows how nebulous the rules are, and yet how painful it is when you fail to follow them. Fashion in fiction is even more fraught, because it’s never an accident: it’s chosen (by the author, if not always by the characters), so it can only add meaning. The billionaire’s meticulously tailored suit advertises his power and wealth. The debutante’s pristine gloves are there to be slowly undone, one pearl button at a time.
But this meaning is as slippery as the rules: take, for instance, a red dress. The shy heroine could wear it to show her newly found confidence, which the best friend-turned-lover hero has been helping her build up — or a brash no-nonsense heroine could wear it because she knows she looks awesome and she wants to show the enemy-but-not-for-long hero what he’s missing, the jerk. If the Other Woman is wearing a red dress, it could show she’s sexually aggressive — or it could be because it’s an expensive couture number that flaunts her social status and how faux-perfect she is for our wealthy hero (unlike our poor but authentic heroine). There’s even a famous historical romance where it’s the hero wearing the red dress (Anna Cowan’s Untamed). Clothing motifs, it turns out, are endlessly fluid and adaptable, even when they’re using the same general pattern. I could probably write a fifty-page dissertation just on gloves in historical romance, without ever having to look beyond the books in my personal library. And that’s not even going into the fact that my library is very Western-centric (I’m working on it!) and there’s heaps more possible interpretations when setting romances in non-Western cultural traditions.
Because clothing is never just about fabric, or even just about fabric and bodies. The overall look of a garment depends on the shape and color of the body wearing it, yes — but it also depends on the eye of the beholder, to a degree we don’t always acknowledge openly (unless we’re yelling rebuttals at Project Runway judges because seriously, are we even looking at the same pieces sometimes???). Fashion is a bit like a book, in that sense: one person puts it together, and another person looks at it, and the artistry happens in the space where the building and the looking connect. Fashion is more than just a medium: it’s a language, capable of everything from bawdy limericks to epic tragedies to ephemeral, mutable slang.
This month’s books have a seamstress in Belle Époque Paris, a fat fashionista in modern-day Manila, a runaway Regency bride whose escape ruins more than her gown, a nonbinary Regency heroine who gives up gowns entirely, and a midcentury model for a haute couture house. For some characters, clothing is a business; for others, a vital medium for self-expression and identity. It may be fun (Lady Crystallia’s lavish frocks, Martha’s chic officewear, Robin Selby’s piratical lace cuffs), but it’s never, ever frivolous.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second Books: historical YA nonbinary/f graphic novel):
When my print copy of this lovely book arrived in the mail, it caught Mr. Waite’s eye. He picked it up, flipped to the back, gasped audibly, and slammed the book shut again. “You are going to love this,” he said fervently.
I told this story to a friend who’d given the book five stars. She said: “I know exactly what he was looking at. And yes, you’re going to love it.”
Reader, they were right. I knew the page as soon as I reached it. And heaven help me, but I clapped a hand over my mouth and sobbed aloud in such pure delight that I’m crying a bit right now even thinking about it.
When I reached the end, I went right back to the beginning and read it a second time straight through. It’s that good.
I am now ravenous for other people to read this book. Part of me wants to stand outside on the lawn a la Lloyd Dobbler, but instead of that boombox I’d be holding up a blown-up image of one early moment from page 50 to 51. Partly it’s because this story hits so many of my personal YES PLEASE buttons — seamstress heroine, arranged marriages, historical Paris, fashion as art, queer identity, characters in disguise — but also because it’s just such a beautiful, detailed, and kind piece of work that it feels like a gift Jen Wang has made for all of us. Keeping it to myself feels positively selfish.
Our heroine Frances is a gifted young seamstress working too hard for a thankless boss in Belle Époque Paris. One shocking dress for a prickly client gets her fired — but it also gets her noticed by Prince Sebastian of Brussels. Sebastian’s parents are seeking a princess to betroth him to, but Sebastian would much rather be putting on a red wig and a stunning gown and dazzling Paris as Lady Crystallia, everyone’s favorite fashion trendsetter. The two become partners in couture, best friends, and maybe something more — but political marriages, commercial opportunities, and the constricting nature of secret identities threaten the bond between them.
It may be the happiest happy ending I have read in some time. Plus a rich and sophisticated color palette, dazzling gowns, lovely organic inky brushstrokes, and a bonus feature at the end on the artist’s process that I found absolutely fascinating.
If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman (Midnight Books: contemporary m/f):
It’s a good thing I read this book in digital form, because if I’d been reading it in print there’d be drool stains on every page. Romance novels and food often go hand in hand (check out reviewer Elisabeth Lane’s marvelous Cooking Up Romance, for instance) but this book takes it to new heights.
And cheese hopia and tarragon tea aren’t the only things to yearn for in the pages of this Philippines-set romantic comedy. Our hero Max is a tall, shy, bookish veterinarian who’s so achingly in love with our narrator heroine from the beginning that at times I had to put the book down just to catch my breath. I love a good unrequited plotline, and this one is particularly stunning. Heroine Martha, meanwhile, is distracted from recognizing Max’s feelings (and her own, aaaaaa) by her demanding family and her self-consciousness about her size and her helpless crush on the gorgeous Enzo, her former theater friend — who just happens to be newly engaged to her perfect, petite cousin. And of course they want Martha to be the maid of honor! And do all the party planning!
This story really knows how to twist the drama knife without going over the line into excruciating, and if Martha is a little frustrating at times, well, so is Emma Woodhouse. This is also a book with a fat heroine that’s realistic about shame and microaggressions without making her weight into The Entire Issue of her life. Martha doesn’t have to learn to love herself — but she does have to learn to tell people that she loves her shape, and to imagine that other people might love it too. It’s the kind of book where everyone is perfectly imperfect, which I found delightful even though I wanted to shake every character at least once when they were being stubborn or scared or short-sighted.
Don’t read when hungry. You have been warned.
”Because I loved you,” I said to him. The words spilled out of my mouth before I could stop them, like the beads on a necklace that had snapped. They scattered everywhere, and it was impossible to catch them all now.
A Duke in Shining Armor by Loretta Chase (Avon: historical m/f):
The beginning of this book is a masterpiece in how to start at the latest possible point in a story and let the characters’ actions reveal who they are.
We begin at the wedding. The groom, the Duke of Ashmont, is drunk and growing belligerent. The bride, Lady Olympia Hightower, also drunk, was supposed to walk down the aisle half an hour ago. The groom sends his best friend, the Duke of Ripley, to investigate — he sees the bride slipping out the back window, and hies off in pursuit. But Ripley never did like to follow the rules, so before long instead of dragging the desperate woman back to the altar he’s aiding and abetting her escape. As the chase extends, that first question — just what is our bride running from? — becomes much less important than the second one: just what does our bride really want?
Like de Guzman’s book it’s all very High Comedy, a Regency It Happened One Night. There are falls into mud puddles, a rescued pup, accidentally seeing each other in the bath, sudden thunderstorms soaking people to the skin, and so on. This lightness masks a surprisingly powerful center, though: Ripley’s fall into love in particular is beautifully done, and the sex scenes verge on poetry (good poetry, I should clarify). Oh, and Ripley is a romance reader: he loves a good pulpy story full of feelings, whereas bespectacled, antiquarian Olympia devises her own library organization systems and cares more for original Gutenberg incunabulae than for novels. After a long stretch where I felt Chase’s books were phoning it in, this book shows up with all the chime and energy of a live brass band.
He was a man, and not a virtuous one.
And so, when he should have said, No, wait, and then added something sensible and correct...he didn’t.
Instead, he walked straight into trouble, the way he always did. He walked the few steps to Doing the Wrong Thing. Then she was in his arms, soft and willing and learning far too quickly how to make him delirious.
Yes, she said.
Yes, of course. What other choice was there?
Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian (Avon Books: historical m/nonbinary):
Three months ago I talked about cross-dressing heroines and Suzanne Enoch’s Lady Rogue. Kit Brantley had been raised as a boy but ends up living as a woman: in Cat Sebastian’s newest, heroine Robin Selby had adopted her late lover’s identity for practical reasons (to protect the man’s sister, who’d been left destitute by the will) but finds that dressing in breeches and waistcoats feels right in a way that gowns and chemises never have. What follows is a long exploration of the difference between what it means to do what’s proper and what it means to do what’s right. It’s a resounding step towards inclusivity for a much-loved but often-dicey romance trope.
Let’s follow Robin’s example and be practical to start: I’ve seen the heroine’s gender described elsewhere as nonbinary, and doing that in a Regency setting definitely presents some challenges. For instance: pronouns. Robin uses she/her for her internal monologue but definitely identifies with gentlemanly things when it comes to manners and mode of dress. One content note: hero Alistair does more than once refer to Robin as a ‘deceiver’ for wearing waistcoats, and pitches a truly epic fit when he first learns of the name-swap. He does not, importantly, have to ‘get over’ the essential fact of Robin’s gender; he’s into both men and women and reasonably comfortable with that. But it was a scene I worried might hit some people more sharply than others, so I wanted to note it here.
Now the subjective stuff: this book is a pleasure that cuts deep. It’s a slow-motion stained-glass heartbreak, all sparkling color and velvet shadow and sharp edges slicing you without mercy. Cat Sebastian definitely draws her couples as strong contrasts, and here Robin is sunshine and springtime, while Alistair is all brooding stodginess and stern propriety. Up to a point, of course. Robin’s charm masks a yawning fear that she has no real identity — no family, no status, and most painfully no name — and this makes her prone to extreme self-sacrifice. It’s easy to give up everything when you feel like none of it really belongs to you. And Alistair’s tendency to go full supervillain to protect his loved ones clearly brings him more devious pleasure than it should: he flings money at problems, wields his privileges like weapons, and at one point actually threatens an antagonist while sitting in a library chair and stroking a cat. He’s been working all his life to be the opposite of his spendthrift, drink-sodden, orgy-loving, bastard-fathering father. Watching him learn to let his human heart show is satisfying; watching Robin learn to really feel as carefree as she pretends is painfully sweet. I devoured the whole thing in a single afternoon and was then good and useless for the next three days. If you need something to give you a book hangover like you’re Bertie Wooster after a bender, this is the book for you.
Alistair walked directly to the stables and was in his traveling chaise within a quarter of an hour. By the time he realized he was still holding the kitten it was too late to turn back.
Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell (Harlequin Romance: contemporary m/f):
A good category romance has all the effortless, exquisite clarity of a fine diamond: everything that doesn’t sparkle is ruthlessly polished away until only the light is left. This is the oldest romance I have reviewed so far, but even though it was first published in 1954 it fizzes like the cork was just popped. Heroine Anthea is freshly heartbroken and semi-destitute in mid-century Paris; she stumbles into a hair salon to avoid an awkward encounter and lands herself a job as a mannequin (read: model) for the best couture house in France. She steps onto the runway in a dazzling wedding gown — only to see her caddish ex-fiancé there in the front row, with his new bride-to-be! The stakes are personal but they feel infinitely meaningful; this is the kind of book where a spill of Merlot is as good as a murder. Like most categories of the old school, it’s told entirely from the heroine’s point of view, so that we are not even certain of who the real hero is until very nearly the end of the book. (We can be reasonably sure it’s not the caddish ex-fiancé.) It’s all a delightful confection, full of lustrous fabrics, seething jealousies, and shimmering tears.
Also, this book helped fight Nazis.
Okay technically not this book — but its author Ida Cook (writing as Mary Burchell) used the funds from her romance career in the 1930s to fund trips to Germany for herself and her sister. They went ostensibly to see some of the great opera performances of the age. In reality, they were smuggling valuables out of the country to help Jewish refugees, in direct defiance of Nazi law. Britain only allowed immigration for those who had either employment or sufficient funds to support themselves, but Jewish emigrants weren’t permitted to take possessions or funds out of Germany. It was a terrible bind. The Cook sisters would arrive at the border in plain clothing, and leave bedecked in jewels and furs, which they’d return to the owners once reunited in Britain. If any border guards asked why they were so kitted out, they played the eccentric spinsters and said they had untrustworthy relatives at home, so they always traveled with all their jewelry. This worked at least a dozen times, and after the war the sisters were named Righteous Gentiles.
“You are what you do,” Ida is quoted as saying. We should all have such clarity of purpose.