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Female characters in The House of Binding Thorns April 23, 2017

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One of my favourite series of books, which I have been reading and rereading since childhood, is Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper duology.* This series of books is historical fantasy, set in early medieval Cornwall and Dál Riata, and the main reason why I keep coming back to it, like a well that never runs dry, is its emphasis on the day-to-day, ordinary work of women — spinning, weaving, harvesting and storing food for winter, gathering herbs and brewing beer — which it imbues with a kind of power and magic. Most of the important relationships in these books are between girls and/or women. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I feel that books like this did a lot to shape my narrative preferences, especially the idea that you can have a perfectly interesting story which involves few male characters, and focuses on stereotypically ‘female’ activies without a battlefield in sight. Consciously or unconsciously, I find myself searching for these kinds of stories — stories where the domestic sphere isn’t devalued, where a sense of community, communal activity and interdependence is prioritised, and where ‘women’s work’ drives the plot.

Cover-House of Binding Thorns

The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, perfectly encapsulates these qualities. I knew I was in for a treat when I read one of the posts de Bodard had written in the week following the book’s publication, ‘The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community and Erasure’, and found myself nodding in vigorous agreement:

The other thing about dismissing powerlessness is that it devalues and erases the oppressed. It’s saying, essentially, that the less power one has, the less worthy of a story one is. That if someone is truly oppressed, and the story isn’t about some brash rebellion, some gaining of that overt power, then it’s not worth telling. That being oppressed is some sort of grey, featureless state where nothing worth notice happens—that there are no sorrows, no joys, no everyday struggles, no little victories to be snatched. That, in short, the only story of oppression worth telling is the brazen breaking of it.

The other thing that overemphasising agency does is that it makes it sound like a bad thing to be dependent on others, and especially being part of a community you can rely on. This is problematic on several levels: the first and most important one is that we are not and were not meant to be self-reliant (raising a child, for instance, is seen today as the job of a nuclear family, but it’s frazzling and exhausting and really much easier if we come back to the way it was done: by the extended family/community). Admitting that one can’t do everything alone isn’t a moral failing or a weakness: it’s deeply and fundamentally human.

This latter point is crucial in appreciating just what de Bodard has achieved, particularly with her female characters in this book. Set in a ruined, post-apocalyptic Paris run by conflicting Houses led by fallen angels, along with a Vietnamese dragon kingdom under the Seine pursuing its own agenda, The House of Binding Thorns abounds with a multiplicity of female characters. And, unlike Furlong’s work, which achieves a sense of interdependence and community by limiting women’s stories to a single sphere, de Bodard’s book allows women to exist in multiple spaces and pursue different aims. She by no means devalues the domestic: a fair portion of the book takes place in kitchens, living rooms and marketplaces, and is concerned with pregnancy and childbirth, preparing food, sharing out precious resources within immigrant communities, tending to the sick and so on. But alongside these women who concern themselves with the work of nurturing, protecting and sustaining fragile communities, there are also women exercising power overtly, politicians and wielders of supernatural power.

She allows for women who are steely and ambitious, and sets them beside women who are self-sacrificing or powerless, and gives space to all their stories. There are white women and women of colour, queer women and straight women, cis women and trans women, mothers and grandmothers and women who would never dream of having children. In other words, The House of Binding Thorns gives voice to as full a range of women’s experiences as possible. The world of the Dominion of the Fallen books is in some ways incredibly bleak: it’s a ruined and blasted landscape, rife with inequality, filled with self-interested immortals locked in endless political battles over what remains, and humans whose only choices are servitude or precarious survival outside the House system. However, de Bodard shows the glimmers of light that persist: bottles of fish sauce, hoarded and passed around migrant communities, the hard-won joy of learning a new language, the birth of a child, or the unstinting love and support of a beloved partner. There is hope amid the ruins, even if it only exists in tiny spaces, carved out at great cost.

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*Years later she published a third book in the series, Colman, but I have not read it.

Our linkpost got fractured in the echo and the sway November 26, 2015

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This week’s post is a day early, as I’m going to be in London tomorrow and away from a computer. It’s also going to be fairly Jessica Jones heavy, but I will separate those links off from everything else.

Building on the ongoing conversation about conventions’ failure to provide a safe and accessible experience for disabled attendees, Mary Robinette Kowal has started a SFF convention accessibility pledge, which I encourage everyone who’s likely to attend a convention to sign.

These two posts by Rose Lemberg on the experiences of disabled fans, and the dismissal of their concerns and requests for accommodations and accessibility, are really important, and I encourage you to read them.

Michelle Vider writes: Station Eleven is a love letter to technology, one I never could have written myself.

Isabel Yap put together a fantastic collection of recommendations of Filipina poets, many of whom were new to me. I highly recommend reading their work.

Here’s Kate Elliott on ’10 Fantasy Novels Whose Depiction of Women Did Not Make Me Want to Smash Things’.

Kate Elliott also dropped by the Fangirl Happy Hour podcast.

This recent Galactic Suburbia podcast was also great.

More Isobelle Carmody:

Of the many readers Carmody has met, some have made lasting impressions. The young woman who established the fan site obernewtyn.net has become a close friend. Another has proved a sharp-eyed editor for Carmody’s unpublished books. Many have said they feel that the conclusion of The Obernewtyn Chronicles marks the end of their childhood.

Sophia McDougall’s post on trigger/content warnings said a lot of things that I’ve been trying to say on the matter for a while. Needless to say, content warning for discussion of abuse.

I loved this article about the depiction of early motherhood on Jane the Virgin

Phoebe Robinson talks about ‘How Daria Shaped A Generation of Women (Particularly This Black One)’.

I loved this photoshoot, in which five authors dressed up as their favourite fictional characters.

There are new reviews up on Those Who Run With Wolves. Aliette de Bodard reviewed Black Wolves by Kate Elliott. I reviewed Serpentine by Cindy Pon.

Jessica Jones links

I’m somewhat astonished by the intensity of my reaction to, and identification with, this show, but it’s clear that I’m not alone in this.

‘Marvel’s Newest Show Makes Surviving Trauma A Superpower’ goes a long way toward explaining the strength of my feelings about this show.

Jessica Jones is a primer on gaslighting, and how to protect yourself against it. Oh, my heart.

Renay of Ladybusiness and Ana of Booksmugglers discussed it on Twitter, and Charles Tan made a Storify of their conversation.

These are the things I would do for linkpost November 13, 2015

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This post is going to be a bit Isobelle Carmody-heavy. The final Obernewtyn book came out, and I am not okay.

Monica Tan interviews Carmody in The Guardian:

Elspeth’s question is how to exist in the world, to be what she is and to find people who would allow her to be what she is. I think it’s everybody’s question to find a place in the world and to find your tribe, but the world itself has to find a way to let groups of people exist with one another.

Fran Kelly interviewed Carmody on Radio National:

[Readers write to me saying] they feel they survived childhood because of those books.

I appreciated this post by Jill S, ‘Dragons and poison chalices’:

I’m gathering my community of support. We are small but mighty. And this community reminds me daily that there are people in the world who can support my dreams and don’t feel threatened by them. So when you find someone who cheers you on, wholeheartedly, without fear that you are going to diminish them, cling tight.

I highly recommend ‘A Cup of Salt Tears’, a new-to-me short story by Isabel Yap.

I appreciate the work that Natalie Luhrs does in keeping records, bearing witness, and holding people to account. This report on the recent World Fantasy Convention was excellent:

In my experience, when many con-runners talk about best practices, what they mean is the way it’s always been done–and the way they’re most comfortable doing it.

Mari Ness’ post about problems with accessibility at the con (namely, that it was abysmal) is also an important read:

Because, unfortunately, this is not the first disability/accessibility problem I have had with conventions, or the first time a convention has asked/agreed to have me on programming and then failed to have a ramp that allows me to access the stage. At least in this case it wasn’t a Disability in Science Fiction panel that, incredibly enough, lacked a ramp, but against that, in this case, the conrunners were aware I was coming, were aware that I use a wheelchair, had spoken to me prior to the convention and had assured me that the convention would be fully accessible, and put me on panels with stages but no ramp.

Aliette de Bodard offers her thoughts on the (long overdue) decision to replace the WFA trophies with something other than Lovecraft’s head:

It’s not that I think Lovecraft should be forever cast beyond the pale of acceptable. I mean, come on, genre has had plenty of people who were, er, not shining examples of mankind, and I personally feel like the binary of “this person was a genius and can do no wrong/this person is a racist and can therefore do nothing of worth” doesn’t really make for constructive discussion. (but see above for the “we should give everything a fair chance” fallacy. I’m personally not particularly inclined to give reading time or space to a man who thought I was an abomination, and I will side-eye you quite a bit if you insist I should). It’s more that… these are the World Fantasy Awards. They’re not the H.P. Lovecraft Awards, so there’s no particular reason for him to be associated with them: doing so just creates extra awkwardness.

And on a much lighter note, this story is just the most Australian thing ever: paramedics in Queensland have stopped asking patients the name of the prime minister, because nobody can keep track.

“We would ask patients that question because it gave us an idea of their conscious level and ability to recall events,” Mr Abood said. “But the country’s prime ministers are changing so often, it’s no longer a good indication of their mental status.”

Mr Abood once asked a patient to name the prime minister, only to be told: “I haven’t watched the news today.”

I had a good laugh at that.

Link, link is a verb, linkpost is a doing word November 6, 2015

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It’s been a while, but I’m back again with links: links that are important, links that made me think, links that made me smile.

Firstly, and most importantly, the fundraiser for Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is running until 9th November. Please support this if you can. Rochita is a wonderful person, and she and her family are going through a very difficult time.

The rest of my links are going to be grouped under headings, as it’s been some time since I made a post of this nature.

Reading, writing, history, community

Submissions are now open for the People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction anthology.

This is an unbelievably powerful essay on the Salem witch trials. The line that stood out to me was this one:

But what rings most dangerously prophetic about Salem is the ideology that suggests imagining the most helpless and vulnerable in our communities as the most powerful, in a kind of 1984-esque doublethink that provides a rationale for causing as much harm as one wishes to that group.

Aliette de Bodard on ‘History, Erasure and the Stories that Need to be Told’.

Annalee Flower Horne and Natalie Luhrs on the continued relevance of How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

Leila Rasheed on diversity in children’s publishing.

Fred Clark on ‘communities of misconception’, unchallenged default assumptions, and how to respond when your assumptions are challenged.

Isabel Yap on Filipino monsters.

Tolkien’s annotated map of Middle Earth has been found.

We have a title and a release date for Samantha Shannon’s new Bone Season book: The Song Rising will be published in November, 2016.

Books I want to read

Kate Elliott talks about her new epic fantasy novel, Black Wolves, as part of John Scalzi’s ‘The Big Idea’ series.

Poetry and Short Fiction

‘Reasons I checked out of the diversity discussion du jour’ by M Sereno (content note for colonialism, homophobia and racism).

‘Song of the Body Cartographer’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

‘Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’ by Alyssa Wong.

Academia

Rebecca Merkelbach on outlaws, trolls and berserkers.

Libraries

A bit US-centric, but I loved this article on the changing of librarian stereotypes throughout history.

Australiana

No Award on imaginary Australia YA adaptations. (Caveat: I do not share their dislike of the Tomorrow series, although I can understand their perspective, and I also feel ambivalent about adaptations of stories that were/are meaningful to me. I still enjoyed the post.)

Humorous

‘A Day In The Life of a Brooding Romantic Hero’ at The Toast.

I hope you all have fabulous weekends.

I link(post) you to the bones October 9, 2015

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This week has been absolutely excellent for people saying brilliant, eloquent, important things.

To journey is to be human. To migrate is to be human. Human migration forged the world. Human migration will forge the future, writes Ishtiyak Shukri in ‘Losing London’. This was the post of the week for me, and affected me deeply.

We already have the table of contents, but now we have the cover of Athena Andreadis’s To Shape The Dark anthology, illustrated beautifully by Eleni Tsami.

I really loved this interview of Aliette de Bodard by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz: I’ve come to realize that “appealing to everybody” is a codeword for bland, unobjectionable stuff; or at the very least for something that doesn’t challenge the reader; and, just as I like to be challenged when I read, I would in turn like to do that to my readers!

Speaking of Aliette de Bodard’s writing, she’s put ‘In Morningstar’s Shadow’, the prequel short story to The House of Shattered Wings, up online for free. I read it last weekend and loved it.

I liked this essay by Marianne de Pierres on Australian myths in contemporary SF, but I’ve been worrying away at some of its conclusions for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Certainly I appreciate the recognition of Australian writing’s emphasis on the dystopian and post-apocalyptic, but I worry about her characterisation of the Australian landscape as universally barren, inhospitable and predatory. Let’s just say it is not so to all inhabitants of Australia, and is not represented as such in the stories of all Australians, although it is a really significant theme in Australian literature.

Sophie Masson wrote on authors in a changing publishing landscape. I smiled a little ruefully at this quote:

When my last adult novel, Forest of Dreams, came out in 2001, I was commissioned to write a piece for a newspaper on the historical background of the novel (a paid piece), and reviews of the book appeared in several print publications, despite its being genre fiction. When The Koldun Code, also genre fiction, came out in 2014, I had to write several guest posts for blogs, do interviews for online publications (all unpaid) and reviews only appeared online.

I did not review this book, but I did interview Masson and review several of her YA works for print publications, where I was paid for my work. Now I retweet links to her articles and review things exclusively online for free. Oh, how times have changed!

Authors who are parents have been posting about the experience. There are too many posts to include here, but you can find links to all of them at the #ParentingCreating hashtag.

The latest of Kari Sperring’s ‘Matrilines’ columns, on Evangeline Walton, is up. I’ve been finding these columns both illuminating – in terms of introducing me to many authors whose work sounds right up my alley – and disheartening, in that almost all of them were entirely new to me, instead of well-known figures in the SF canon.

I found this post by Samantha Shannon on judging a literary award to be a very interesting read.

In a departure from these posts’ usual content, I have a music recommendation: CHVRCHES’ new album Every Open Eye. It stops my heart, in the best possible way.

You can’t hurry linkpost September 18, 2015

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This week’s linkpost is early, and somewhat shorter than usual, as I was at a conference during the first half of the week. As I’ve said before, I build these posts out of interesting stuff that’s crossed my path on Twitter (because I follow awesome people who share wonderful things), and while I was at the conference, I wasn’t able to pay attention to my Twitter feed. Therefore, fewer links this week.

‘Help Ahmed Make’, a Google doc where you can sign up to support Ahmed Mohamed. (This was put together by Anil Dash, and was done with the agreement of Ahmed and his family.)

If you’re in the US and over 13 years old, you can enter this giveaway to win multicultural books for your school library.

The Book Smugglers have put out a call for submissions for novellas.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz interviews Tade Thompson about his new book, Making Wolf.

She also talks about experience, empathy, and her ongoing journey as a writer.

Kate Elliott talks about code switching in her YA novel Court of Fives.

I just missed this post by Dhampyresa about the Breton Arthurian tradition last week. Read it. It’s fantastic. There are great Arthurian recs in the comments, as well.

This is a brilliant post by Athena Andreadis on Ayn Rand.

Jenny Zhang: ‘They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist’, on Michael Derrick Hudson’s act of yellowface, and racism in publishing more generally.

Aliette de Bodard on colonialism and empire.

Meet her at the linkpost parade September 11, 2015

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The linkpost is early this week, as I’m going to be absolutely flat out all afternoon, and then away on various workshops and conferences. Oh, the glamorous librarian life!

I’ll start with a few reviews and posts about books I loved, or books I’m very much looking forward to reading:

A joint review of Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall, at Booksmugglers.

Amal El-Mohtar reviews Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho.

Zen Cho chats with Mahvesh Murad about the book.

She talks more about the book here.

Cindy Pon talks about her new book, Serpentine.

SFF in Conversation is one of my favourite columns at Booksmugglers. In it, various groups of writers sit down to discuss topics that are important to them. The most recent features Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Kate Elliott, Cindy Pon, and Tade Thompson, and I highly recommend it.

This is the first part of a BBC radio programme about British folklore, monsters, and the landscape.

The reviews continue to pour in a Those Who Run With Wolves. Recent reviewers have been Leticia Lara, Athena Andreadis, and Aliette de Bodard.

Ghostwords has returned with a vengeance! The latest post sports a cornucopia of links, leading the reader off on an internet treasure hunt.

I very much appreciated this post on No Award about Indigenous (and other) seasonal calendars.

In case you missed it, I reviewed Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, and The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. I loved them all.

Men Wearing A Military Helmet and Nothing Else in Western Art History: The Toast is a gift.

I hope your weekends are filled with as much fun stuff and opportunities for learning as mine will be.

Book reviews in brief September 10, 2015

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I read many fabulous books over the past (northern) summer. These three were probably my favourites.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

I feel like the word ‘romp’ is sometimes overused, but in this case, it’s entirely appropriate. Karen Memory is a standalone novel following the adventures of its titular heroine, who works in a brothel in a fictional, steampunk city in nineteenth-century America. It’s a cheerfully anarchic place, where people’s relationship with the law is complicated, and where compromise, barter, and exchange are necessary in order to survive. Karen, along with the other sex workers at her brothel and various friends, lovers and allies, become caught up in the political intrigue of their town, eventually uncovering a conspiracy of much wider implications. This book was an absolute joy to read. I loved everything about it, from its steampunk setting, to its cast of characters. Karen herself was an enthralling narrator, her perspective a mixture of shrewd cynicism and empathetic kindness. A word of warning: the descriptions of food in this book are many and detailed, so it’s probably wise to read on a full stomach, or with a plate of food to hand!

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

This was one of my most anticipated books of 2015. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I’m an absolute sucker for books about fallen angels, particularly if those books focus on the angels’ relationship with, and perception of, human beings, and vice versa. Set in a ruin-filled, post-apocalyptic Paris, House of Shattered Wings didn’t disappoint. De Bodard has created a world in which fallen angels band together in aristocratic Houses, battling for control over the city and its inhabitants, while humans attach themselves to the Houses, exchanging their freedom for patronage and a measure of safety. Conspiracies and intrigue ensue.

One potential weakness in stories that draw on Christian eschatological traditions is that they end up either ignoring or dismissing other religious beliefs altogether, or inadvertently implying that these are secondary to, or superseded by, Christian beliefs. De Bodard avoids falling into this trap, and other religious beliefs, and supernatural figures from non-Christian spiritual traditions site beside those of Christianity and interact with them in various ways. Likewise, France’s colonial legacy, and the dehumanising effect it has on colonised people plays a major role in the story.

Although I would’ve liked to have spent just a bit more time with some characters we only meet briefly (Ninon is a character whose story I would really like to know), The House of Shattered Wings definitely lived up to my expectations, and I’m looking forward to de Bodard’s next works set in this fictional world.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

This is a retelling of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, set in Prohibition-era New York. The original twelve princesses are reimagined as twelve spirited sisters, who are barred from leaving the house by their abusive, status-obsessed, miserly father, and sneak out to dance the night away in speakeasies. The network of underground clubs and secret bars – and the people who run it – become a refuge from the oppressive confines of the sisters’ miserable home life, a place where they can dance in joy and freedom.

Having a cast of twelve sisters to juggle could have been difficult to handle, but Valentine manages it deftly, with each sister’s personality sharply realised and vividly distinct. My favourite was Jo, the oldest, nicknamed ‘The General’ by her siblings for her tendency to run their illicit outings like military campaigns, always aware of her sisters’ locations and able to swoop in to protect them or hustle them out of dangerous situations at a minute’s notice.

Fairytale retellings are tricky to do well, but Valentine has created something rich and beautiful out of the bare bones of the original tale, a story that celebrates the strength of sisters and the power of the bonds between them.

I don’t care, I link it August 28, 2015

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Slightly flippant title, wildly inaccurate characterisation of my reasons for doing these linkposts. Over here I am gearing up for a much needed long weekend, after one of those weeks that just seem to go on and on and on.

Kate Elliott wrote a great post on ‘Diversity Panels: Where Next’. I would encourage you to read (most of) the links that follow, particularly the panel discussion at The Book Smugglers, which I included in a previous linkpost.

Some (unintentionally Australian-centric) Hugos follow-up posts:

Liz Barr of No Award livetweeted the Hugos.

Galactic Suburbia did a podcast discussing the results.

On a less awesome note (in the sense of this needing to be said at all), Sumana Harihareswara responded to the use of the Hare Krishna chant in the Hugos ceremony in an extraordinarily open-hearted and giving way.

A lot of people were sharing this (old) ‘How to (Effectively) Show Support’ by Dahlia Adler. This part particularly resonated with me:

There is a really big difference between being a person who only rages and a person who both rages and makes a real move for change. And maybe people don’t realize that. Maybe they don’t get how. But I’m tired of seeing raging with no support counterbalance, and I’m tired of people thinking raging is enough without backing it up in a meaningful way. I’m tired of people not realizing how limiting the effects are when all you do is talk about who and what is doing things wrong and not who and what is doing things right.

(Incidentally, I think the first person I saw sharing the post was Bogi Takács, who very effectively shows support with regular roundups of #diversepoems and #diversestories recommendations.)

Aliette de Bodard has set up a review website, designed to host reviews of ‘books we love, with a focus on things by women, people of colour, and other marginalised people’.

Here’s Sophia McDougall doing a podcast with Emma Newman. My poor, Romanitas-loving heart hurt when Sophia talked about one particular scene in Savage City involving the Pantheon. (I know at least one friend is currently reading the series for the first time, so it might be wise to avoid this podcast until you’ve finished – it’s mildly spoilery.)

More on the invisibility of older women authors, this time from Tricia Sullivan.

Ana has gathered some great, library-related links at Things Mean A Lot.

‘Breakthrough in the world’s oldest undeciphered writing’.

These photos of the world’s oldest trees are really amazing.

I hope you all have wonderful weekends.

(Linkpost is like a) heatwave July 17, 2015

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Well, it’s been a while.

Chinelo Onwualu talks race, speculative fiction, and Afro SF.

Sophia McDougall’s new book Space Hostages is out! I have my copy ready to read on my upcoming holiday! There is a book trailer, tumblr post and author interview!

Rather than linking to individual stories and essays, I’d like to simply direct you all to the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything in it so far, in particular E Lily Yu’s short story and Natalie Luhrs’ column.

Two tables of contents for what look to be excellent anthologies:

To Shape the Dark (ed. Athena Andreadis).

Apex Book of World SF 4 (ed. Mahvesh Murad)

Here are two great Storifies on dealing with rejection, from authors Nalo Hopkinson and Elizabeth Bear, Rachel Manija Brown, Aliette de Bodard, Tobias Buckell, John Chu, Shveta Thakrar, Beth Bernobich, Jeremiah Tolbert and others. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz made both Storifies.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz has revamped her books blog. The first post is a guest post by editor Didi Chanoch, talking about a new press he’s launching.

This is a great interview with Aliette de Bodard.

I really appreciated this column by Renay about gatekeeping, fannish history and the SF ‘canon’.

I also appreciated this interview with Kate Elliott.

I also loved Athena Andreadis’ thoughts on Mad Max: Fury Road.

More on Fury Road: No Award’s guide to Australian slang. That blog is a national treasure.

I hope you are all feeling wonderful.